Every once in a while you come across a new entry in a franchised series that catches you off-guard with the fact that the people who created it were utter and complete dorks for the original work on which it's based.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night comes to mind. Every inch of that game was steeped in love for the 8- and 16-bit Castlevania games, and Symphony shed references to those classics like a dog in the summertime. The original NES crew had long since moved on, but Symphony's designers paid affectionate tribute to the work of their forebears.
And now there's Hyrule Warriors. Now, I'm not saying Hyrule Warriors is in any sense the masterpiece that Symphony was; quite the contrary. While Castlevania broke new ground in game design on PlayStation, Hyrule Warriors more or less rehashes the Dynasty Warriors series with no apologies offered. What it lacks in invention, however, it more than makes up for with barely contained glee at the fact that it's a Zelda game.
In other words, it's unabashed fan service — but in this case, the fans were the ones making the game. As such, every inch of Hyrule Warriors comes wrapped in an enthusiastic sheen of zeal for the series. It takes the standard Dynasty Warriors template and finds roles for any Zelda reference or character you can imagine, from mummified Gibdos who occasionally stop your heroes dead in their tracks with a Redead-like scream to the scowling moon from Majora's Mask. About the only thing missing is a playable role for Tingle (maybe in the DLC?).
Of course, fan service is worth nothing if the underlying game doesn't work; incredibly enough, Hyrule Warriors mostly pulls it off. Sure, it's a bunch of mindless button-mashing most of the time, but even at its most mundane the game has a sort of soothing rhythm to it. And then suddenly you're facing a familiar Zelda series boss, trying to figure out how to exploit its traditional weaknesses and patterns within the concept of a musou game. Obviously you're going to have to defeat Dodongo by feeding it bombs or Gohma by firing an arrow into its eye, but that may be more easily said than done when you're also contending with a few dozen other enemies of varying threat level. Even if the mobs are simply getting underfoot, that still means they're preventing you from exploiting your momentary advantages against the bosses in a timely and efficient fashion.
And Hyrule Warriors, in keeping with its non-Zelda roots, definitely demands players make effective use of their time. Each stage consists of a massive battlefield filled with teeming mobs of allies and enemies, with numerous strategic points scattered throughout. As you run around carving your way through the bad guys, various other crises pop up around the battlefield. Do you continue your current thrust through this line of foes and hope Fi can beat down the enemies surrounding her on her own, or do you cede control of the waypoint you wanted to liberate and make a dash across the battlefield to give her a hand? Or do you just ignore both and go hunt for that Gold Skulltula that just spawned before it disappears forever?
This is by no means rocket science, or even Sun Tzu, but Hyrule Warriors demands a commitment of energy and effort. Multiple encounters happen simultaneously across a stage, and the tides of the battle constantly shift based on your choices and the enemy's tactics. On the other hand, it's all fairly dumb — your choices amount to a kew key decisions while mowing down thousands of mindless goblins who basically amount to time-wasting filler. Literally, quite often; to conquer key fortresses you have to kill enough mooks to cause their boss to appear and allow you to conquer the area.
Ultimately, the main game amounts to a formula; each mission adheres to roughly the same outline, each growing progressively more difficult than the last. You face more bosses and high-level mobs more often as the story advances, but you never really break from the general Dynasty Warriors template. The campaign clocks in briefly enough that it doesn't quite have time to wear out its welcome, but on the other hand the game clearly comes with some expectation of replay. Each character needs to be built up independently; even if you take a shortcut and buy level-ups for your less-used cast members, special items like Heart Containers are character-specific and only appear in fixed locations in each mission when uncovered by that character. Once through the game is fine; a dozen times through, though? Seems a tall order.
Thankfully, the alternate modes provide a welcome change of pace from the main story. Yes, you're still running around slashing your way through vast mobs of critters regardless of the current mode, but there's some great window dressing to spice it up. Particularly brilliant is the Adventure mode, wherein you advance square-by-square through a tiny replica of the world map from the original Legend of Zelda, completing bite-sized tasks and gaining access to new regions based on your battle performance. It's another one of those features that — like the bestiary and audio design — simply screams of deep-seated affection for the original Zelda games.
And ultimately, I think your enjoyment of Hyrule Warriors boils down to whether or not you love the Zelda as much as the folks at Koei Tecmo do. If you get a nerdy thrill every time you hear the item fanfare, think it's cool to play as nagging sword spirit Fi, and would cackle with glee at the prospect of using the Majora's Mask moon as a weapon, Hyrule Warriors is for you. Otherwise, you may have a hard time getting past the slight and repetitive action. Unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool Dynasty Warriors who's never played a Zelda game — there has to be a few of you guys, right? Man, are you in for a treat.
Graphical fidelity is understandably compromised in favor of moving around masses of characters.
Familiar audio cues have a pavlovian effect, and the butt-rock renditions of classic Zelda tunes are hilariously appropriate.
Pretty good once you get a feel for the rhythms of combat, though the camera is absolutely awful.
A quick run through the game shouldn't take you too long. But if you want to build up all the different characters, find the Skulltulas, and complete the adventure... expect a hefty investment of time.
Hyrule Warriors is basically a one-note experience, but it hits that note with perfect pitch. The Zelda universe works better as a musou button-masher than you might expect, and much of that success is down to Tecmo's obvious love for the subject matter. This isn't a patch on what we've seen of the next "true" Zelda, but it should tide fans over quite nicely until that one arrives.