I had what I would call pretty reasonable expectations for Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity when the new Switch title was first announced a few months away from its release. When the original Hyrule Warriors was first released on Wii U in 2014, It basically seemed like the coolest thing ever. Unaware of the Dynasty Warriors series that this game spun off from, the sheer number of enemies on screen and the flashy attacks fan-favorite Legend of Zelda characters used to dispatch them was unbelievable to me. What really made Hyrule Warriors enticing well past its release, though, was just how much there was to do; the adventure map gave you a wealth of new missions to tackle after the main story was done, and the game’s enhanced re-releases on 3DS and Switch included even more adventure maps, features, and characters to dive into when you were done with that. I particularly remember using the 3DS version to pass the long hours in the car I spent during my family’s summer trip to the West Coast last year, hardly ever tiring of the wealth of content. Rough around the edges as the game may be, it was great for passing the time like that. Age of Calamity is a sequel that, besides focusing on characters from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild specifically, implements some new gameplay features and changes the way story and quest progression works. I knew, in some ways, that this sequel’s Breath of the Wild-centric scope meant it could never completely eclipse the original Hyrule Warriors’ broad appeal, but it makes a spirited effort to do so. Some of it is a big improvement, but other parts are an unfortunate step down from the original that makes this sequel a trade-off rather than a wholly better product.
To speak of improvements, the biggest ones all come in the form of gameplay changes. While the original’s gameplay and characters weren’t lacking, Age of Calamity uses new features to make things even better than they already were. Most notably, characters now have a unique action on top of the basic and strong attack combos that defined them before. Unique actions live up to their name, as no two are alike; Link’s arrow volley when using one-handed weapons can open up a large enemy’s weak point when aimed well and Revali can take flight to use different flying attacks, for instance. These unique actions distinguish each character from each other much more than the previous game already did.
Sheikah runes replace the items from the last game (just as they did in Breath of the Wild), being similarly useful for interrupting enemy attacks to expose their weak points. Aside from how much more convenient they are to use now, they also have added utility outside of their aforementioned purpose. Stasis can freeze an enemy while their weak point is exposed to let you keep breaking it, Cryonis can freeze nearby enemies when used in water, and Remote Bombs can deal damage to enemy weak points without exposing them first. This, along with every character having a unique version of the rune attacks, makes them significantly more interesting to use than the last game’s items, which were only really useful in very specific situations. Elemental rods also allow you to spend some limited energy to counter a fire enemy with a bombardment of ice magic or vice versa, also allowing you to deal massive damage to foes in standing water with the lightning rod, adding yet another method for dealing with tougher foes. Well-timed dodges are now rewarded with flurry rushes as well, encouraging players to time their dodges better for a chance at major weak point damage. These new gameplay features and the removal of air-juggling tough enemies make combat against tough enemies even more engaging while diversifying the methods at your disposal for cutting through the larger hordes.
Unfortunately, this gameplay is not always directed in the best way. While progressing through the story is fun, almost no missions require you to strategically defend your keeps by capturing other enemy keeps or defeating specific enemies. Instead, almost every mission has you progressing from objective to objective along the map; capture this keep, then defeat these tough enemies, then defeat this boss before time runs out, et cetera. This is expected from the linear main story, but even the numerous side missions available during and after the campaign rarely present a need for map awareness and control. While this can mean you never have to worry about doing something you already did again, it also removes the large strategic element of personally ensuring you don’t have to worry about doing something you already did again. This also makes taking keeps that aren’t specifically necessary to take pointless, as there’s no threat of enemies from that keep taking back one of yours that may have incentivized doing it before. Missions start to feel like requirement checklists and, while the combat still feels great, it can get to be a little mindless as you simply direct your characters towards the yellow dots on the map again and again.
The way extra content is handled is also quite different from the first game, and not for the better. Instead of having adventure maps to progress through, which let you make your own preferred path from mission to mission to get certain unlockables, everything is placed on a single, open map. This includes character progression which was previously accessed through its own menu and services such as the Blacksmith and Training Guild. What results, at least by the end of the game, is a confusing mess of quests which aren’t as satisfying to work through as the last game’s adventure maps. The lack of any need to choose your route to a certain quest makes it seem more like a checklist of content than a goal to work towards, and placing character quests which only require you to spend some randomly-dropped materials on the same map as missions makes the process of improving your characters needlessly cumbersome. Additionally, the game simply doesn’t have as much to do as the original did, but that’s understandable since Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition has the advantage of years of DLC content included with the game. Age of Calamity can’t be expected to have the same amount of content until it has as much time to get DLC, but I also dread an even more cluttered map.
To sum it up, Age of Calamity’s numerous gameplay improvements make for a more interesting main campaign, but its flawed changes to character progression, mission access, and mission focus partially undermine the new positives. Overall, I would say that this game works better as a focused story experience you can play through and put down when you finish it, while the original game’s definitive edition is a better game to sink lots of time into. The core of the Hyrule Warriors experience is present in both, though; mowing down hordes of enemies on huge maps and taking down even the biggest of threats in the meantime. Age of Calamity, even with its shortcomings, doesn’t lose what made the original fun and is a worthwhile purchase even for owners of Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition. While my nitpicks can affect the wider experience, it never stops the game from being exactly the dumb fun you expect once you’re in the thick of it; just don’t expect the game to be something groundbreaking and take it for what it is.