While playing through Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, I kept thinking to myself, “How would I sell this game to someone who, like me, cherishes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild?” Calamity is a prequel set a hundred years before the events of Breath of the Wild. The latter, of course, was a sad, somber story about a failed kingdom and the fractured remains of a hero who no longer remembers how to save the world. This new game promises to unfold the events leading up to Hyrule’s demise, including the rise—and fall—of the Champions, the legendary protectors from the four corners of the kingdom who aided you in Breath of the Wild from beyond the grave. Pretty good sell, right? I wish it was that simple.
Five minutes into Calamity, you’ll find that this prequel is almost nothing like the quiet, meditative open world game from 2017. Sure, since Calamity is technically a spinoff of Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series, you might expect it to be big, splashy, and bombastic. But I don’t think fans of Breath of the Wild are prepared for just how disorienting it is to drop back into the leafy, watercolor-textured world of an abandoned Hyrule, only to find it resembling something close to a 1990s Major League baseball game, back when all the players were hulked out on performance enhancing drugs.
You’ll pick up the controller and find that Calamity functions a lot like Breath of the Wild, except everything is, well, pushed to the max. Like, if Link pulls out a remote bomb, he doesn’t pull out just one, he hurls five or six of them, blowing up the entire battlefield and painting the screen with dismembered Moblin parts. The models of these once humble characters are precisely the same as before, but this time, their powers are god-like. The cut scenes are in the old art style, but instead of brimming with mystery, they rattle around like slapstick gags from a Spy Kids movie.
Despite how jarring it may initially feel, one of the biggest draws of Calamity, though, is that it’s a different kind of game than Breath of the Wild. Chief among these differences is the ability to play as more characters than just Link. You have at your disposal quite quickly Impa and the Champions—Daruk, Mipha, Revali, and Urbosa. Each of them plays a bit differently, with unique combos, special moves, and dialogue lines, and they even collect their own weapon upgrades at the end of each battle. Gaining a character onto your squad is a thrill, making the game’s opening feel like a rollercoaster that starts mid-drop.
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There’s so much promise here. Age of Calamity had the chance to show the kingdom of Hyrule in all its glory—thriving, living, alive. It had the opportunity to show us Link and Zelda’s first meeting, to show us how their fateful bond was made. It could have explained where these four Champions came from and what their homes looked like before Ganon’s forces blew their doors down. It could have shown us Hyrule’s last stand against the end of the world—and, yes, it could have shown us the end of the world, too.
Age of Calamity hardly delivers. I don’t think it’s a bad game; I found a lot of joy in wiping hundreds, sometimes thousands of opponents off the screen. But as a prequel to Breath of the Wild, it’s a monumental disappointment. It puts such an irritating lump in your throat that I had flashbacks to when I attended a midnight screening in 2002 of Attack of the Clones.
The campaign, which initially shows promise, oscillates between explosive action scenes and some of the dumbest—and I mean dumbest—narratives moments in recent memory. Characters come racing into the story in grand fashion, only to disappear from the plot and never be heard from again. You’ll spend hours beating up a mid boss, and then find yourself fighting him again five minutes later because of some flimsy logic like, “He escaped for now! We’ll get him later! Sorry!”
The scattered worlds of Hyrule, colorful as they may be, feel even emptier than they did in Breath of the Wild. Unlike the 2017 title, though, I don’t think this was an artistic choice. In the timeline of Calamity, these diverse little alcoves should be bursting with life and prosperity. But for some reason, all that appears in the recycled Breath of the Wild settings are foot soldiers, monsters, and more monsters. It’s sometimes hard to watch the cutscenes and stomach what feels like the great and inevitable dumbing down of Breath of the Wild’s magnificent legacy. In place of the tender, quiet moments of mourning is now a tonal mishmash of kid’s movie comedy, Avengers-style team up moments, and incoherent plot twists that may have you screaming at the television.
What becomes apparent in the first Chapter of Calamity is that this game, really, is not a story about Champions or Link at all. It’s a story about Zelda. This would be a huge selling point for my fellow Breath of the Wild heads. In that game, Zelda is imprisoned in the castle, using what remains of her magic power to encase Ganon in the castle walls, waiting for Link to resurrect himself and join her in rooting out the demonic scourge once and for all. How did she find herself in this horrific 100-year standoff with malice incarnate? Calamity, giving you control of the young princess shortly after the game begins, promises to answer that question.
Instead, Zelda, who easily has the most important character arc in the game, spends most of the campaign whimpering in the corner, crying because her power still has not awakened, or quite literally hiding behind Link. And when you do get to control her, she’s clunky and slow. I think many players will, like me, do everything they can to avoid having to use her on the battlefield. What a goddamn shame that is. Breath of the Wild did wonders for Zelda, awakening the agency—and heroism!—in a character that had been weighed down by the same tired “rescue the princess” narrative for decades. In Calamity, they knock that progress back a few years.
I suppose my disillusionment, really, is my own fault. As I tore through Calamity, I was surprised at how protective I began to feel of Breath of the Wild‘s legacy. I don’t often find myself treating video games as sacred texts or claiming ownership of stories that are, objectively, not mine to claim. Again, I’ll admit, this is an entry in the Dynasty Warriors series and an adequately fun one at that, but since it tries to walk in the shadows of the landmark 2017 game, it’s almost impossible not to regard it as anything other than a massive misstep. And once this storyline began to sour my memory of Breath of the Wild, I started to feel like Marlon Brando in The Godfather: “Look how they massacred my boy!”
And I can’t even tell you about the part of Calamity that really caused me to jump ship; under a reviewer embargo, I’m not permitted to talk about redacted redacted redacted and the redacted redacted’s redacted. You see, the first hours of Age of Calamity, silly as it may be, are actually pretty thrilling, as the story begins to draw together the Champions, the villainous Yiga Clan, the brewing onslaught of evil forces that is threatening King Rhoam and his far-stretching lands of Hyrule, Link’s journey to realizing his destiny as the Hero of Time, and Zelda’s surprisingly emotional turn as she tries in vain to wake the ancient power that lays dormant inside her. For a second there, a Seven Samurai setup seems to be coming together, and it actually rocks.
But then, right when you get to that point in the prequel where Anakin starts to murder the Tusken Raiders, right as the Emperor kills Mace Windu and takes over the Senate, right when it all seems to (rightfully!) be turning dark, something, well, occurs, and Calamity goes from enjoyable to downright maddening. I’ll just say this: By the time I finished the game, I felt so cheated that I thought I might have been better off never playing this prequel at all. Maybe I’m still recovering from the whole Ninja Yoda scene in Attack of the Clones. I don’t think so, though.
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