Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hyrule Warriors (Wii U) Review

Hyrule Warriors can be a lot of fun. Playing as a diverse cast of characters from the Zelda series and mowing through hordes of monsters, pulling off a string of combos, executing a well-timed special attack and breaking through an enemy’s defenses to deliver a killing finishing blow, all while rocking out to a pumped-up, adrenaline-filled soundtrack; when all the right notes click, I had a blast. Hyrule Warriors can also be a draining chore; a repetitive, mindless, and oftentimes very irritating slash-fest, that at times can feel like a cash-in at best and a monotonous waste of time at worst. It is the confliction of these two ideas that drove the majority of my time with Hyrule Warriors, which was around fifty hours over the course of a month.

                If you haven’t heard by now, Hyrule Warriors is a mash-up of the Dynasty Warriors franchise with the Legend of Zelda series that was developed by Omega Force and Team Ninja and published by Koei Tecmo and Nintendo. The game is much more Dynasty Warriors than Zelda in terms of its core design, but overall the game exists as a tribute to the Zelda series and a prime example of fan service. I’ve never played a Dynasty Warriors games before (I’m here for the Zelda), but I’ve always heard two things about games in that the long-running series: they’re repetitive and they’re mindless. I whole-heartedly concede with the repetitive aspect, but I’d say, at least as a newbie to the DW experience, this game isn’t entirely mindless, although it certainly can be a lot of the time. There is some level of strategy involved in looking back and forth between the battlefield map, battle information such as how much health a player’s allies have, and the battle at hand to decide whether it’s presently in one’s best interest to conquer a certain keep, go help an ally, or take out a certain enemy captain. Most battles in the game place the player on a battlefield full of square encampments known as “keeps”, hordes and hordes of mooks to be slaughtered in droves, a selection of more powerful enemy captains, the main enemy commander, and the player’s own allies. In the game’s “Legend Mode” (a.k.a. the main story campaign), missions usually involve taking some of the keeps, taking out some of the captains, and ending with a fight with the enemy commander and occasionally a giant boss monster. In traditional Zelda fashion, a few of the missions also require players to locate a certain item that is needed to move forward and to defeat the boss monster at the end of the mission. 

Link tearing through some bokoblins
                I found Legend Mode to be enjoyable, even though I thought the missions did tend to drag on a little too long (with each one taking me about half an hour to finish) and with only one or two particularly annoying missions (cough Death Mountain), and overall found it to be a nice piece of fan-service with a few stand-out moments. Seeing the likes of Ocarina of Time’s Darunia and Ruto, Twilight Princess’s Midna and Agitha, and Skyward Sword’s Fi team up with Impa, Link, and Zelda to take down a group of dastardly villains spearheaded by Ganondorf and his two lackeys, Zant and Ghirahim, is a lot of fun to witness and I quite enjoyed the fancy CG cutscenes that featured all of these characters together. Spoiler alert for Legend Mode, but the highlights for me include the six missions that involve travelling to the Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword eras (these levels represent what the majority of the game should have been; that is, actual content and environments from Zelda games) as well as the explosive finale that involves a kickass fight against a massive Ganon. But the absolute stand-out moment of Legend Mode for me might actually be the three chapters that tell the story from Ganondorf’s perspective, putting players in the shoes of the newly resurrected Demon King as he gathers his allies and his power before launching an all-out assault on Hyrule Castle against Zelda, Link, Impa and the entire Hyrulean army. This battle against the forces of Hyrule in particular is a brilliant change of pace for a long-time Zelda fan like myself; for the first time, I got to play as Ganondorf and take out that goodie-goodie hero, Link, as well as Zelda and Impa, before claiming the whole Triforce and conquering Hyrule. It’s pretty awesome, and even though the player resumes control of the heroes afterwards and everything turns out as usual, it’s still really cool to get to lead Ganondorf’s charge to victory. Also, the surreal experience of getting to see Ganondorf use the hookshot (all the playable warriors use the same assortment of classic Zelda items: bombs, the bow, the boomerang and the hookshot) almost made the price of admission for the game worth it by itself for me.

I love playing as Ganondorf

                In fact, one thing Hyrule Warriors really nails is the characters. They all look great in HD and I love how the developers took the time to give the series’ four classic main-stays—Link, Zelda, Ganondorf and Impa—original designs instead of just using already existing designs of the characters. Link looks fine and all, but I absolutely love Zelda, Impa, and Ganondorf’s designs, as well as Ganon’s (Ganondorf’s beast form) design. Zelda’s design pays tribute to previous games, but she’s dressed for battle, coming across as some sort of awesome Hyrulean Valkyrie warrior. Impa’s design, meanwhile, is based heavily on her appearance in Skyward Sword, but with elements from Ocarina of Time’s Impa as well; overall she just looks badass (she's also my favorite character to play as). Ganondorf has one of my favorite designs of his in the series: his long, shaggy hair and thick battle armor gives him the look of a feral warlord, and his flowing red locks also brings to mind the Demon King, Demise’s design from Skyward Sword, which of course makes sense. But it’s also great seeing all of these characters’ personalities come across in battle. Link, humorously, seems to be legitimately mute in this game and has a fairy named Proxi (get it?) do all the talking for him, but constantly hearing the other characters bantering back and forth lets us see more of the personalities of characters like Zant, who didn’t really get enough screen time in his own game. In fact, this game made me appreciate quirky characters like Zant and Ghirahim a lot more. Zant acts arrogant and feigns confidence one minute and becomes unhinged and starts shrieking loudly the next, which reflects his appearance in Twilight Princess, but seeing his constant switching between these two personas coupled with his frantic, hilarious actions on the battlefield (not to mention his brilliantly multi-layered character design) seems to give a fuller look at the character, as opposed to his insane antics only being a last-minute twist. I enjoyed seeing how Zant and Ghirahim contrasted with each other and also enjoyed seeing and hearing a lot from Ganondorf, actually getting to experience his conquering of Hyrule for myself. Unlike partner characters like Midna and Fi, we don’t usually get to see a whole lot of the villains in Zelda games outside of a few key story moments; perhaps it’s seeing the moment to moment actions of these characters that makes me feel closer to them in a way than I did in their native Zelda games, and the same can be said about characters such as Zelda and Impa. Like I mentioned previously with Zant, the characters’ personalities all come across in their fighting styles as well; Agitha the bug princess cheerfully skips around the battlefield and rides on top of a giant butterfly, Darunia the goron attacks with a fiery ferocity and has a move (as well as a victory animation) that pays homage to his memorable “hot beat” dance from Ocarina of Time, Ghirahim executes every move with a showy flourish and reminds us how highly he thinks of himself after each attack and so on. It's clear that a lot of effort was put into these characters and if nothing else, Hyrule Warriors does its cast of varied personalities justice.

Indeed, the game’s biggest strength is being able to play as all of these characters that aren’t Link (even though I find him to be the most powerful and easy to use in the game). It’s also really cool to see all these characters team up and fight together against evil in an all-out war, as opposed to one kid rummaging through a bunch of dungeons before fighting a climactic one-on-one final battle (not that I don’t love that jam). We often hear about wars like this in the backstory for Zelda games, but Link’s quest usually always takes place after such a war and he’s the only one left to stop the evil yadda yadda. This time though, everyone teams up Avengers-style: Zelda doesn’t get damseled in the eleventh hour here, she’s always right there on the front lines commanding the Hyrulean army; Impa doesn’t sit on the sidelines as a sage or an advisor, she takes her gigantic sword straight to Ganon’s face. Speaking of Zelda and Impa, it’s also awesome that over half of the game’s playable cast is made up of female characters. Might I also add that there’s nothing more gratifying than playing as Zelda and digging into Ganon’s piggy snout with a rapier before leaping into the sky as lightning crackles in the distance and filling the Demon King’s face with light arrows for a finishing blow.

I also love playing as Zelda

                Unfortunately, despite several notable strengths, Hyrule Warriors ultimately feels mainly like a novelty, and for me, its fan-servicey charms began to quickly wear off after finishing the main story mode. The game has plenty to do and to collect beyond Legend Mode, an overwhelming amount in fact, with numerous heart pieces to acquire for each character, one-hundred gold skulltulas to weed out, numerous secret weapons, and special achievement medals to collect. However, the process of going after these collectables involves the same repetitious gameplay on the same maps with the same enemies ad nauseam. It got old for me really fast. I tried going after some of the heart pieces and skulltulas in the Legend Mode levels that I’d missed on my first run-through, but stopped bothering after only acquiring a few. It was just way too time-consuming and just wasn’t worth it. Oftentimes, only a certain character can acquire a certain collectable on a particular level, meaning in order to get everything, these same monotonous missions must be played in full multiple times. Spending a half hour mashing the X and Y buttons on a mission that I’ve already finished twice just to get a piece of heart just isn’t fun, rewarding, or worth my time. For the most part, the optional collectibles in the game just feel like an easy way to pad out the game’s play-time on the developers’ part instead of actual side-content with any depth.

The rest of the unlockables can be acquired in Adventure Mode, the game’s other main course. While Adventure Mode is an interesting idea and can be enjoyable at times, it just recycles the same content from Legend Mode: the same environments, enemies, bosses, and oftentimes the same mission structures. The difference is that this mode is set up more like an exploratory adventure, instead of a straightforward story. Adventure Mode tasks the player with exploring the grid-like map from the first Legend of Zelda game, completing missions on each square of the map, unlocking weapons, characters, and other bonuses and forging a way across Hyrule with the ultimate goal being to defeat the “dark ruler” hiding on one of the 128 squares of the map. Missions here fall into one of two categories, either a short challenge mission (defeat a few rooms full of enemies, defeat the “right” enemies based on a prompt, defeat some enemies in a time limit, etc.) or a more compact version of the missions seen in Legend Mode, where there is usually one main task (either capture some keeps or defeat a couple of enemy captains) that needs to be completed before defeating the enemy commander to win (occasionally a curveball might be thrown where one of the giant monsters must be defeated after the commander). There aren’t that many variations here, and once you’ve done a handful of the missions in Adventure Mode, you’ve essentially done them all. Some of these missions can be immensely frustrating, especially the ones where the player is tasked with defeating several hundred enemies in a short time limit. This sounds easy enough in a game that usually throws wave after wave of sword fodder at players, but these missions are purposely stingy with baddies and spread small groups of them thin across the map and even better, these missions love to throw giant bosses at you that only serve to pester you and waste your time if you try to fight them. The more standard missions come with their own brand of frustration as sometimes they can stretch to almost as long as the missions in Legend Mode, especially if you choose to explore the whole map and look for every collectable like I usually did. But unlike in Legend Mode, which has checkpoints, if a player fails in one of these missions, say after twenty minutes of play and right before they were about to take down the enemy commander (which can be frightfully easy to do when failing is usually merely the result of either one AI character who can’t defend themselves fleeing or your allied base on the other end of the map rapidly falling as you struggle to make your way to save it), you have to restart the whole mission over. At least experience points are kept if you fail, but special collectables such as heart pieces and gold skulltulas are not. The only thing that drove me to keep going in Adventure Mode was the fact that four playable warriors can only be unlocked in this mode, and that the mode does have an end state and a credits screen that can be reached by completing a certain mission. So I at least unlocked all the characters and saw the credits roll, which in itself was a time-consuming feat; if I’d attempted to complete and A-rank all 128 missions, I fear what my mental state would look like at the end of it all.

Taking on a challenge in Adventure Mode
I simply found Hyrule Warriors to be an exhausting exercise and I could often only play a few missions before getting tired of the game. I found myself having difficulty really “getting into” the game a result. In Legend Mode, I could only do about two missions before getting burnt out and in Adventure Mode, only a few more than that, depending on how long they took. There were only a few times when I had the stamina to keep going and clear a lot of missions at once. This all can be attributed to the repetitive, monotonous nature of the game, which failed to stimulate me on a consistent basis. I also found myself losing motivation to play after a while and began to feel like I was just wasting my time playing the game.

                As it is, Hyrule Warriors is a neat fan-service game, but even in that department, I feel it falls short. After initially seeing footage of characters like Zelda, Impa, and Midna in action before the game’s release and after witnessing a scene where the Great Fairy from Ocarina of Time yanks the Majora’s Mask moon down from the sky in order to clobber Argorok, the dragon boss from Twilight Princess, I was sold. As more information about the game began to trickle out, I couldn’t wait to see what bosses and characters from across the vast Zelda universe would make an appearance. There was so much potential. Would Skull Kid from Majora’s Mask be playable? If Sheik could fight with a harp, so could Marin from Link’s Awakening! Maybe we’d see Malon join the fray with an army of cuccos, or how about other villains like Vaati, Veran and Onox joining the fight? I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in a celebration of the series’ rich history.

                Unfortunately, Hyrule Warriors falls quite short of my admittedly lofty fan expectations, however I don’t think it’s too unfair of me to say that I would have appreciated the game paying homage to maybe a few more Zelda titles than just Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword. You see, while there are certainly nods to many elements in the series, the game heavily focuses on those three titles in particular, with all the playable warriors stemming from those three as well as the different eras visited in Legend Mode being those of OoT, TP, and SS. While getting to play as characters like Midna, Zant, Darunia, and Agitha is great fun, it’s a bit disappointing that in a legacy series spanning twenty-eight years and seventeen main titles, only three titles were chosen as the focus.

Link and Ghirahim battle it out in Skyloft

                This complaint is highlighted by the fact that the game, despite being filled with plenty of things to do, is actually fairly light on actual content. What I mean is that there are only six maps in the game actually taken from Zelda titles, while the rest are either original locales or locales that, while based on series stales like Faron Woods and Hyrule Field, are still original is aesthetic design. All of these “other areas” feel generic and un-Zelda-like, and unfortunately these areas make up the bulk of the terrain that players will be battling in. I think part of these locations’ blandness comes from their visual design lacking the color and personality characteristic of the Zelda series: take the first stage of Legend Mode (and one you see a lot of in the game), Hyrule Field, for example: it’s a generic green field with some trees, several nondescript castle structures and a constant dreary gray sky overhead. It just doesn’t look anything like the magical land of Hyrule. The game’s four original characters—one warrior of light and three villains—also feel a bit generic and out of place. While their designs are inspired by classic Zelda enemies, antagonists Cia, Volga, and Wizzro just look uncomfortably out of place next to the vibrant and beloved cast of Zelda friends and foes. The lone new heroine, Lana, is just a typical, innocent-seeming, magic-wielding female anime stereotype. Countering her is the villainous sorceress, Cia, who is a sexualized seductress who brings Hyrule to ruin in an attempt to make Link hers. The modest, innocent young girl against the flirtatious, big-chested dark witch. Outdated, boring stereotypes like these don’t really compare to the shrieking, leaping antics of the chameleon-headed Zant or the pure badassery of the giant sword-wielding Impa (although I will admit that Lana’s over-the-top animations and stereotypical anime poses are quite amusing).

                Other disappointments include a tiny selection of classic Zelda bosses that get recycled over and over again throughout both Legend and Adventure Mode and a soundtrack decidedly lacking in many remixes of classic Zelda tunes. King Dodongo, Gohma and Manhandla’s classic-inspired designs are all awesome but with only five boss monsters in the game (barring the final one), of all the creatures in the series, they pick The Imprisoned from Skyward Sword as one of them. Sure, his appearance makes sense within the context of the game, but didn't we fight that thing enough already? And the fight here operates nearly identically to the ones in SS. The soundtrack, like the selection of maps in the game, is mostly made up of original tracks. While several of these original tunes I actually enjoy quite a bit, in a Zelda fan-service/tribute game, I would have liked to have seen more remixes from the Zelda series. While I’m not the biggest fan of the rock and electric guitar remixes that are here, they do fit the style of the game. I just wish there were more.

Have you ever done this in a Zelda game before?
                This might all sound like I’m a kid on Christmas morning who wants more toys, but this a fan-service game, and I want Zelda fan-service damnit! It wouldn’t annoy me as much if the game didn’t feature so many bland original elements in place of Zelda elements that would have fit right in. The game’s set-up—portals to different eras across the Zelda series open up and characters and villains from each team up to fight in a cosmic war—is such a great idea for a fan-servicey Zelda spin-off, but Hyrule Warriors just doesn’t quite live up to the pure amazingness of that concept. How awesome would a battle in Clock Town against the Skull Kid and a falling moon be? Or how about a journey to the Great Sea? Or Koholint Island? What about even A Link to the Past’s era? It looks like this is where the game’s DLC comes into play, at least partially. This review has already gone on long enough, so perhaps I’ll save my thoughts on this game’s DLC issue for a follow-up post. For now, I’ll just say that, after already spending $60 on this game on its release day, I’m not too happy about a giant advertisement for DLC staring me in the face as soon I reach the game’s main menu.

Despite getting frustrated with some of the more infuriating missions in Adventure Mode and getting bored with the game fairly quickly after completing Legend Mode, I had some fun with Hyrule Warriors and when the game clicked, it certainly had some fantastic moments for me. As I already stated, I love the finale in Legend Mode and the ending scene that follows it (more spoilers ahead) also highlights how Zelda and Link always save Hyrule together. The moment in the ending when Link and Zelda secure the Master Sword in place and reseal Ganon’s evil spirit together made me think about how much I love the Zelda series. It just brought to mind the beautiful kinship between these two characters and made me think about their timeless bond, wonderfully realized in titles such as Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. I guess if this game reminded me about how much I love Zelda, and really made me want to go and play some Zelda games, than I suppose it’s a big success in one important regard (then again, I didn’t really need reminding…). However, this observation also highlights that fact there were several times while playing Hyrule Warriors when I simply thought about how I’d much rather be playing a real Zelda game instead.

Impa is just the coolest
My final consensus on Hyrule Warriors is this: after playing the game almost every day for a month straight, I can safely say that the game is...”Ok”. It gets my thumbs up as a fan-service game generally, but it’s one of those wobbling thumbs that is kind of flipping between being partially upright and sideways. If you’re a Zelda fan, I’d recommend getting the game used for cheap or borrowing it from a friend to play through Legend Mode; maybe check out Adventure Mode and try to unlock the remaining four characters there just to try them, but I wouldn’t bother with much else as it’s not really worth it. If you’re a fan of Dynasty Warriors, well I hear this game is just like those games, so go nuts. And if you happen to be a fan of both The Legend of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors, you obviously already have the game and I’m sure your opinion is a favorable one. If nothing else, as an advertisement for the Zelda series, the game succeeds; if I’d never touched a Zelda game before, I’d imagine that I’d want to know more about all of these strange and wonderful characters.

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