Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is less of a musou and more of a Zelda, and in that, it turns out to be a much better game, especially compared to 2014's original Hyrule Warriors. The older Wii U (and then 3DS, and then Nintendo Switch) game was both a crossover experiment and an otherworldly "greatest hits" compilation of familiar Zelda concepts and characters, whereas this year's release has been conceived as a focused, collaborative effort between Tecmo Koei and the Zelda Team for a fully dedicated adventure, including its own narrative and mechanics. And just when I thought the former, the story content, would end up being the main selling point here, it's the latter, the surprisingly good integration of those mechanics, what has truly transformed an otherwise overused formula into a very compelling action experience in its own right.
Of course, living the events 100 years before Breath of the Wild that led to the arrival of the scourge of Hyrule and Link's century-long siesta is a prominent curiosity in itself, while the Warriors "hero vs crowds" approach seems like the most fitting when you want to tell a story involving not only Link and Zelda, but also the already-beloved Champions Mipha, Urbosa, Daruk, and Revali, to mention just a portion of the full cast.
The narrative side of the game has been treated with the highest production values we've ever seen on a musou and even on Zelda games, including a ton of story cutscenes and extensive high-quality voice acting. The plot itself hides more than meets the eye (and more than you might expect considering you all know the fallout), and even if it feels a bit on the silly/childish side at times with some characters and situations (especially compared to BotW's minimalistic, environmental approach to the narrative), it finds some drama amidst the lightheartedness. I can't tell you much, but suffice to say that I'm more in love with most of the featuring characters and with a world, I thought I had absorbed already.
That being said, as usual with time-based storylines, this also has its share of inconsistencies, which together with a few off-putting moments might see the purest fans raising an eyebrow. However, the way it play outs kind of clicks with a musou's game pace, and, again, as the gameplay itself is so impressively satisfying, it completes a pretty balanced experience.
So, what is it about that tweaked formula that I dig? Well, I had played a bunch of Samurai and Dynasty Warriors before, and yet this feels fresh and engaging in a different way. It's way more agile with actions such as wall jumping to dodge an incoming attack, paragliding to higher ground, or soaring through the environment with Revali (yes, you can fly). It is also pretty unique in how it adopts BotW Sheikah Slate's Runes as additional actions for every single character. Effectively, it means that, other than wielding their weapon of choice (which in Link's case includes a few options already), the different heroes can use Stasis (freeze enemies in time), Magnesis (attract weapons and metallic objects), Cryonis (create ice pillars) or Remote Bombs (ehm, throwing bombs remotely) as they see fit. And what is interesting about this is that these actions are meant to break bigger rivals' special attacks to unveil their weak point faster. It's a great system that is prompted with on-screen icons, and it elevates the combat system beyond what already was a pretty varied offering. You better upgrade your runes as you'll need them ready to fight the higher-level, tougher opponents, and you'll also use them to solve light environmental puzzles.
More than enough you say? Well, hold your Eponas, as I haven't talked about the elements yet. Crucial to BotW's physics-based systems, fire, ice, and lightning/electricity have also been fully considered and implemented here. This includes elementary-powered enemies (such as Moblins and more we won't spoil here... but yeah those ones too), surrounding resources to keep in mind (use puddles and iron boxes to maximise lightning impact, burn grassy areas...), and of course an army of annoying Wizzrobes. And if Runes are assigned to the R button, Elementary Rods are mapped to L, and you have to refill their elements by taking down those enemies.
Remember we're talking about a musou, so to the specific combat features I've just described we have to add all the staples of the hero vs crowds genre. Simple, but expandable and combinable combos, special attacks, character-specific actions, and an RPG-ish progression system full of resources to collect, weapons to upgrade (or fuse), and places to visit, including stores and, of course, a massive list of side missions and challenges for you to level up. This is all presented on the Hyrule Map you all know and love because you've walked through its 70 square kilometers in BotW, and it acts as a pretty comprehensive and visual menu in this game.
Although I cannot talk about all the characters, I can say they really add to the gameplay as well as to the story and lore. I was in love with Revali's flying attacks for some hours, then had water-flowing Mipha as my main, or Link whenever I got a new weapon type or clothes. Urbosa and Daruk are extremely powerful as expected, Impa is a unique ninja-type and Zelda is an amazing techie. Then there are some really weird choices for characters, but this was expected to some degree.
In terms of characters' usage, it's a huge leap for Age of Calamity to allow for "general switch" (on the fly character switch), something that was lacking in the first HW and that makes battles way more dynamic and just fun here. A pity though, that co-op play is limited to local, performance-hitting sessions, as we'd love to share some of the better missions online.
And believe it or not, outside of the struggling multiplayer mode, the game performs decently most of the time. It occasionally drops when there's the coincidence of special powers, tons of enemies, and perhaps an added elementary effect, but it hasn't been as bad as I feared. Besides, this is a beautiful looking game, so much so that you'll enjoy revisiting (not-yet-war-torn) places and characters just because they look truly fantastic, and if you go back to Breath of the Wild (which of course is a streamed open world), you'll miss all the detail you'll find here. It's one of the best-looking Zelda games so far, and that says a lot.
In its core, it's still a musou, though, and as such it inherits some moments of confusion among the crowds, some boring treks (but way fewer than on the original, single-character HW), and some forced camera placement. I would've loved to see and play more of the Divine Beasts, although they're the focus of some spectacular, arcadey missions.
But all in all, this is what we could define as a "spin-on," a heavily adapted genre that actually embraces Breath of the Wild's lore and systems to provide fans with a meaty, eye-catching, unique experience. I've never been this addicted to a musou game, so beyond the narrative aspects, and despite a few inherited shortcomings, Age of Calamity finds a sweet gameplay loop that will keep you playing for more than 50 hours, and as such, it becomes the best possible pastime until Breath of the Wild 2.