Those of us who fell deeply in love with Breath of the Wild have been stricken with a kind of gaming wanderlust, searching for experiences that can compare to the first time you stumbled unwittingly upon a lynel and promptly got your ass kicked.
The biggest mistake you could make going into Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is expecting a full-fledged Zelda game. This is not Breath of the Wild 2; it’s a musou game, where your objective is solely to attack monsters. But despite a premise so simple and repetitive, Age of Calamity does what it sets out to do so well that it doesn’t tire out. More importantly, it’s an immersive return to Hyrule that can offset your wanderlust – at least temporarily.
I give Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity 4 out of 5 stars.
1 - Visuals
Breath of the Wild is famously stunning. On the other hand, musou games are somewhat famous for not prioritizing visuals.
However, Age of Calamity does a surprisingly good job of adapting its predecessor’s art style. It does not feel – visually speaking – like you’re playing a different game, and that’s a huge key to Age of Calamity’s success.
Obviously, the stage design of Age of Calamity doesn’t allow for the same kind of breathtaking moments that made Breath of the Wild stand out. While there may not be plateaus overlooking all of Hyrule, BotW players will be continually rewarded with deja vu. I found this particularly rewarding in the stages that took place at Akkala Citadel: “Ah, yes, I remember this area when it becomes a hot mess!”
Age of Calamity is significantly less visually clunky than other musou games, precisely because the developers opted to shrink the possible playable cast to offer better visuals. Pirate Warriors 4, for example, has 30 unlockable characters and is nowhere near as visually satisfying. However, there are a few camera glitches during AoC gameplay, especially as the game has to compensate for your growing cast of fighters, and those are often frustrating.
The only new character designs needed for Age of Calamity were Impa, Purah, and Robbie – and, interestingly, these were all designed by the folks at Koei Tecmo. Impa has received a particular amount of attention for being so dramatically different from past incarnations of the character – personally speaking, I could do without the blushing cheeks. But otherwise, all three seem exceedingly natural.
The design of the attacks in Age of Calamity deserves a special note here. There are so many loving visual cues and flourishes baked into every character’s move set that Koei Tecmo’s adoration for the source material is obvious. Urbosa’s feisty thunder-snap, or having Koroks chuck metal treasure chests at a moblin, never gets old.
I give AoC 3.5 out of 5 stars for visuals – mostly docked for those pesky camera glitches.
2 - Audio
Most of the music in Age of Calamity is borrowed and slightly readapted from the indisputably excellent Breath of the Wild score. It’s just one more way the game consistently rewards BotW players: seeing a cinematic with Robbie and hearing the Akkala Tech Lab music, or running around Zora’s Domain and suddenly realizing that you’ve fought monsters to this same music before, feels immensely warm and nostalgic.
The music is overall adapted well. However, many big baddies will have musical variants depending on whether you’re on the offensive or defensive. Depending on the fight, this constant switch can become rather annoying – particularly with the Molduga sidequests.
The game deserves a particular shout-out for knowing when to pull out the big numbers – i.e., the Zelda and BotW themes. You’ll actually hear traces of the Zelda theme more often than in BotW itself, but it’s still satisfyingly sparing. The team saved both themes for the big battles, and when you hear either, you instantly feel epic as hell.
I played AoC with the Japanese voice cast, because that’s how I experienced Breath of the Wild. Full disclosure: I’m a total sub snob and typically cannot stand English voice casts. Either way, Age of Calamity has the same voice cast as its predecessor, so if you enjoyed your cast-of-voice during Breath of the Wild, you’ll be thrilled with Age of Calamity.
I adored my experience with the Japanese voice cast. The little vocal flourishes a character will make as they hurl a flame, finish off a huge monster, or eat a pre-battle meal are either appropriately badass or delightfully goofy. Down to the slightest reaction, all these little nods seem incredibly in character, and are particularly amusing for the sillier subsect of unlockable special characters.
I give the audio 4.5 out of 5 stars.
3 - Story/Progression
Age of Calamity has way more to it than I expected. It continually blossomed bigger and bigger. I’m not even done with the game, but I’ve still played it for 40 hours because of the wealth of subquests. It’s longer and more involved than I imagined a musou game could be.
I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that you can unlock characters beyond Link, Zelda, Impa, and the Champions. (Two of them you’ll have to seek out via side-quests and side-battles, but the others you’ll receive in the progression of the story.) Sending in unexpected characters in particular main-story battles offers players the opportunity to create absurdist versions of Breath of the Wild’s events. For example, (SPOILER) I sent Hestu along to help Revali – the snobbiest Champion – fight Windblight Ganon. And I enjoyed that awkward irony very, very much.
Gameplay itself progresses in a shockingly satisfactory way. You begin the game fighting hordes of Bokoblins. Slowly, those hordes are switched out for one tough monster, like a Hinox or a Lynel, and then maybe two Lynels. Plus, the time you have allotted to beat these monsters gets smaller and smaller. Age of Calamity continues to challenge and push the player, and with the ever-increasing cast, the game’s possibilities become nearly overwhelming. In a good way.
Plus, leveling up all your characters and their weapons and gathering enough resources to complete the character-building side “quests” begins to become quite the challenge. I – someone who got all 120 shrines in BotW – found myself determined to complete every side-quest, which sometimes necessitates playing stages over again.
From the get-go, the story of Age of Calamity was not what many were expecting, because many were expecting a straight-up tragic re-telling of how the Calamity descended upon Hyrule. Few were expecting to be immediately greeted with a time traveling mini-Guardian who doubles as a reincarnation of BB8. (Don’t get me wrong: he’s adorable, but it was a surprise.)
Time travel is central to Age of Calamity’s plot. Of course, time travel isn’t new to the Zelda franchise: anyone who has ever tried to explain why Ocarina of Time splits the series’ timeline into three branches is well aware of time travel’s centrality to previous games. Still, many of us weren’t expecting it here, and fans have had a varied reaction as to how it affects the story.
Regardless, Age of Calamity’s bounteous cutscenes are a nice opportunity to spend some more time with characters we got to know in a different game, sometimes fleetingly. Seeing Mipha and Daruk have an aside, or watching Revali endlessly chide Link, is fun by any metric.
I give story and progression a 4.5 out of 5 stars, purely for how it exceeded my expectations.
4 - Gameplay
Age of Calamity starts you off on Normal difficulty, but anyone who has dug into Master Mode on BotW should immediately switch it to Hard. Normal is completely unchallenging, but the Hard mode has a satisfying and significant spike in difficulty. If you’ve finished the Korok Trials, you might even consider starting on Extra Hard – although Extra Hard is ridiculous.
Perhaps one of the most delightful surprises about the game is that battle strategy is not only possible, but (if you’re playing on Hard or above) necessary. Because AoC excels at continuously challenging the player, it forces you to continuously figure out new fighting strategies, dig around for extra rupees for pre-battle meal buffs, and perform trial-and-error on which characters are suited for which battles. This not only keeps the game from feeling repetitive, but makes it straight-up addictive.
The different fighters have a surprising depth to them. Each character moves incredibly differently, and so different fighters work better with different strategies or playing styles. Urbosa is medium-fast with a thunder sword; Revali shoots arrows and excels at a distance; Daruk is slow but strong; Mipha has a long reach with her trident and self-heals; Zelda requires you to know your Sheikah Slate combos. Link has three battle options – one-handed sword, two-handed sword, and spear – each of which change his gameplay significantly. Impa is in a league of her own – if you nail her self-replicating ninja seal technique, she can devastate enemies quickly.
With the combination of the surprisingly varied cast and the significant gameplay changes offered by toggling the difficulty, it’s incredibly easy to imagine myself revisiting Age of Calamity and punishing myself with an Extra Hard run.
The only complaint with the gameplay comes in the idiosyncrasies in the game’s controls. There will absolutely be times when you swear you use Stasis on that Guardian, but it hits some random Bokoblin instead and the Guardian pummels you anyway. The most annoying issue comes with Mipha’s special ability: she can create fountains, and you’re supposed to press R and travel to one. Instead, Mipha will often just create another fountain, and you’ll miss your opening.
I give AoC 4 stars for gameplay. Stupid glitches.
5 - Context
As a woman going into what’s essentially a brawler game, I’ve learned to expect a very small handful of female fighters who will be often treated differently than the male fighters. I was utterly delighted to find this was not the case in Age of Calamity. You spend most of the game with female-to-male playable characters at a 1:1 ratio. (This gets spoiled at near-the-end of the game, but I find it impossible to be upset with the particular character responsible for tilting the ratio towards guys.)
Furthermore, the women in this game are all badasses. Based on how she was described near-exclusively as a healer in BotW, I was wondering how Mipha would function in Age of Calamity – but she turned out to be my favorite fighter, except maybe for Impa. That spear is handy, and she can do some sweet tricks with it. Do not underestimate Mipha.
Plus. Urbosa has emerged as the fan-favorite fighter, because she’s badass as hell and slice-dances monsters with her lightning-infused scimitar, so why wouldn’t she be?
But the biggest story is Zelda, who cunningly figures out a way to use the Sheikah Slate she’s been studying to kick Moblin butt. Many fans were frustrated when Nintendo opined near BotW’s release that Zelda simply wasn’t a fighter, and that – conversely – Link simply couldn’t be female. Age of Calamity has made Nintendo – canonically – eat their own words, and I am here for it.
I give AoC five out of five stars for context. Girl power.
Age of Calamity is not Breath of the Wild 2, nor is it trying to be. But the callbacks from Breath of the Wild – from the music to the visuals to the characters themselves – do more than enough justice to the source material to make Age of Calamity a seamless, fitting prequel. If 2020 has made you want to beat up hordes of monsters, or if you want to revisit the world of BotW, Age of Calamity is a surprisingly in-depth game that’s worth a play-through. Or two.