At the time of writing, the Wii U may be yet to play host to a brand-new, original mainline Zelda title — Breath of the Wild will be one of the last retail titles for the system — but it’s home to one of the best spin-offs the series has seen.
Unlike its stablemate Super Mario, Zelda actually hasn’t seen all that many spin-offs over the years, with only Link’s Crossbow Training on Wii and the two atrocious CD-i titles springing immediately to mind. This is perhaps because Zelda is an inherently more “serious” affair than Super Mario — sure, it has its moments of levity, but it’s always been less focused on cartoon silliness and as such it would be rather strange to see perpetual protagonist Link doing things outside his normal remit such as playing tennis or golf. (That, of course, didn’t stop him making an appearance in Mario Kart 8, but that was something of an outlier.)
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t scope for the series to explore gameplay styles outside the mainline titles’ “explore, dungeon, puzzle, boss” formula, and Hyrule Warriors is a potent proof of concept that demonstrates the ensemble cast the series has built up over the years is more than strong enough to carry a game that doesn’t focus exclusively on Link.
Hyrule Warriors’ narrative is regarded as non-canonical in the overall rather convoluted Zelda timeline, but roughly speaking, it initially unfolds in a parallel timeline to Ocarina of Time before finding a convenient excuse to incorporate elements of Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword as well as, through DLC downloads, characters from all across the entire Zelda universe and chronology. In other words, more than anything, it’s designed to be a Zelda’s Greatest Hits anthology.
There are a number of different ways to play. The first port of call for most players will be Legend Mode, which features a linear ongoing storyline with set missions, each introducing different playable characters and villains to fight against. Once a level has been completed in Legend Mode, it can be replayed either in Legend Mode (which restricts the available characters) or Free Mode (which allows complete freedom to use any unlocked character, even those that make no narrative sense). These levels are designed to be replayed, too; each one houses a number of secrets, including Heart Containers and Pieces of Heart for specific characters as well as two Gold Skulltulas, one of which can be unlocked by anyone and the other of which requires you to play a specific character and weapon combination on Hard mode.
Collecting all the hidden secrets in Legend Mode, along with beating it on Hard and Hero difficulty, is a substantial enough package of content in its own right, but it’s merely an introduction to the world of Hyrule Warriors. Once you’ve exhausted what Legend Mode has to offer, most players will turn their attention to Adventure Mode, which forms the real meat of the overall metagame, allowing you to unlock new weapons, characters and other elements while testing your skills and knowledge in a variety of different ways.
We’ll come back to Adventure Mode shortly; let’s back up for now and discuss the moment-to-moment gameplay for those who have never played one of Omega Force’s Warriors games before. Essentially what you’re looking at is a curious blend between a brawler and a real-time strategy game. To put it another way, imagine that you’re playing a game like Command & Conquer, Warcraft or StarCraft, and that the character you control is one of the most powerful “hero” units in the game — someone along the lines of, say, the Commando or Tanya in the Command & Conquer series, or one of the leader characters in Warcraft.
You don’t have direct control over the flow of battle as in a real-time strategy game, but the decisions you make and the things you do certainly have an impact on how things unfold. Basic gameplay involves capturing Keeps by defeating sufficient enemies inside them and then defeating the slightly stronger Keep Boss enemy, but in most missions you’ll find yourself constantly distracted by myriad other events unfolding across the battlefield, which you’ll have to prioritise dealing with appropriately.
For example, a mission based in Ocarina of Time-era Death Mountain sees you having to strike a careful balance between cutting a path for your forces to advance and keeping an eye on what your opponents are up to, because if they capture the two central keeps on the map, they will roll boulders down that deal heavy damage to your headquarters at the foot of the mountain, and if this falls, the mission is immediately over. While this is going on, the leader of the enemy forces is repeatedly showing up to harass you and distract you from more important things; it’s not until the end of the mission that you can defeat him completely without him regenerating.
What’s surprising about Hyrule Warriors is that despite the fact it’s a considerably more chaotic affair than the rather more sedate mainline Zelda adventures, it still feels authentically Zelda. This is due to a number of factors: a number of authentic Zelda items such as bombs, the boomerang, the hookshot and the bow and arrows make an appearance, for one thing, and these are required to take down the “Giant Bosses” that sometimes put in an appearance in the levels. These bosses are drawn from past Zelda games and include favourites such as King Dodongo (who requires you to throw bombs into his mouth, as in Ocarina of Time) and Gohma (who requires you to avoid his attacks then shoot an arrow into his eye when vulnerable).
The game also pokes fun at established Zelda conventions throughout; the habitually silent Link, for example, doesn’t speak in this game, either, instead involuntarily employing the services of a fairy named “Proxi” to speak for him as, well, a proxy. Many of the other characters get to let their hair down more than in their respective mainline adventures, too; Goron leader Darunia, for example, has a fine line in rock-related puns, while Twilight Princess’ Midna is a veritable mistress of hilariously withering putdowns.
This sense of having fun with the franchise carries across into the characters’ actions and abilities, too, particularly when the optional DLC characters are thrown into the mix. One of the more recent DLC packs includes Marin from Link’s Awakening, for example, who attacks people with a bell, while her special attacks involve her summoning the Wind Fish to flatten her enemies; Toon Zelda, meanwhile, is seen in her “phantom” form from the DS adventures, possessing an adorably squat suit of pink armour and getting frightened by mice as part of her special move animation.
The over-the-top ridiculousness of the presentation and the sense of good humour with which the whole experience is carried off shouldn’t be mistaken for Hyrule Warriors being a piece of lightweight, throwaway fluff, however. What we have here is a deep, surprisingly complex action RPG experience with an absolutely sprawling metagame that will take you hundreds and hundreds of hours to see everything in.
Each of the playable characters has an experience level that increases gradually as they defeat enemies, but you can also pay Rupees acquired during missions to level up other characters without having to grind. This isn’t a way of cheating your way to the top, however; the cap for levelling characters through Rupees is equal to your highest level character, so you’ll have to grind at least one of them in the usual way. And with a level cap of 255, it’ll take you quite a while to get them up to full power.
Aside from their experience level, each character can be equipped with a number of different weapons, each of which handle markedly differently. Link, for example, can make use of his iconic sword and shield combo, later upgraded to the Master Sword, which, as in A Link to the Past, is able to shoot energy bolts when Link is at full life. But he can also make use of a Fire Rod, which allows him to hurl magical attacks from a distance, or even engage in combat from horseback. Each weapon has its own combos and special moves — these are all triggered in the same way by performing varying numbers of weak attacks followed by a strong attack, but their area of effect and animations are very different from one another, requiring a bit of experimentation to find out what works best.
Weapons are collected as loot following each mission, and they can be customised by fusing them together (which allows you to take passive skills from one weapon and add them to another), removing skills altogether to make room for new ones, or in some cases, defeating a particular number of enemies in order to unlock a new skill. Weapons come in three tiers and varying rarity levels, marked by a number of stars after their name, so there’s a wide variety of loot to acquire and customise in order to make each character as strong as they possibly can be.
On top of that, each character has a skill tree that you unlock by crafting badges using materials gathered from defeated enemies. These badges perform a variety of functions including extending the variety of combos available, allowing the character to drink a potion once or more during battle or increasing their resistance to particular elemental effects.
Then there’s the Apothecary feature, which allows you to craft mixtures that have a semi-permanent passive effect on a character for a whole mission; these effects range from a simple increase in experience points gained to making enemies more likely to drop weapons with more available skill slots. The later stages of the overall metagame, which involves crafting each character’s “ultimate” weapons, requires carefully strategic use of that feature to maximise your potential rewards with each mission you undertake.
Which brings us to Adventure Mode, the true meat of the game. Unlike Legend Mode, which is linear and narrative-based, Adventure Mode is non-linear and mechanics-focused. Unfolding across a grid-based map based on the original Legend of Zelda (and, with DLC, alternatives based on Master Quest, Twilight Princess and Majora’s Mask), Adventure Mode tasks you with a variety of different challenges ranging from fairly conventional “defeat the enemy commander” affairs to more unusual “quiz” missions that task you with defeating a particular enemy that meets a condition provided to you beforehand. You’re graded on your performance in Adventure Mode missions based on how long you take, how many enemies you defeat and how much damage you take, with certain grid squares (and the missions and rewards therein) only unlocking with higher overall ranks.
Some rewards are hidden on the Adventure Mode map and require you to “search” a square before you can unlock the reward for a particular mission. This is achieved by using item cards acquired through missions, each of which is based on a Legend of Zelda item. By bombing the right section of wall or burning down the right bush you’ll have the ability to unlock new tiers of weapons for characters, new costumes and even new characters altogether; thankfully this isn’t left entirely to guesswork, as the Compass item card allows you to see where a particular reward is hidden. You may find yourself having to replay Adventure Mode battles in order to acquire suitable item cards, though thankfully these are typically rather shorter affairs than the lengthy, narrative-based Legend Mode conflicts.
It will take you one hell of a long time to see everything Hyrule Warriors has to offer, but it’s an incredibly enjoyable ride while you work your way towards that eventual goal. Just Legend Mode by itself provides a substantial, entertaining adventure with a dramatic, authentic-feeling (albeit non-canonical) Zelda story, but when you add Adventure Mode, the various Challenge Modes (typically time or score attack-based) and the substantial DLC offerings to the mix, you have one of the meatiest games on the Wii U — not to mention a wonderful bit of fanservice for Zelda fans, and a super-fun tactical brawler, to boot.
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
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