The franchise’s dumb, bland protagonist may be a familiar staple, but it’s also a link to the past Zelda ought to have left behind by now. If that were not the case, this would be a nearly perfect game full of engaging 1 versus 1000 epic battles and a huge cast of varied playable characters.
Link’s only “dumb” in the most literal sense of the word. When a charming, fish-like Zora princess tries to flirt with the blonde-haired elf boy, he remains expressionless. Later, when a blue bird man insults his honor, he doesn’t say a word. His stoicism borders on the absurd, and unless he’s swinging his sword, Link’s presence actually ruins more scenes than it strengthens.
Despite this gripe that might provoke outrage in Zelda purists, Age of Calamity manages to be a thoroughly satisfying spinoff that anyone can enjoy, even if you’re not a fan of the franchise. There are some mechanical stumbles, but both the gameplay and story build to breathless highs.
Set a century before the events of 2017's beloved Breath of the Wild, the new Hyrule Warriors takes place at the dawn of the apocalypse known as the Age of Calamity. A cute little Guardian robot is shot back through time to warn Princess Zelda of the upcoming disaster as war engulfs the land. It’s up to her and a band of colorful warriors to harness ancient technology that can help them defeat Ganon for good. Link is some generic footsoldier miraculously revealed to be an absolute beast of a warrior, because why the heck not?
While most of the experience involves large-scale battles between a handful of heroes and thousands of enemies, the rich story puts character development at the forefront. That’s uncommon for a Zelda game, but it’s a welcome trend that began with Breath of the Wild’s excellent voice acting. What if it went even further?
Let the elf boy speak!
Link’s creator, the legendary video game developer Shigeru Miyamoto, has said time and again that the character’s nonexistent personality aims to preserve the illusion that Link is the player. But here’s the thing: He’s not.
Back when voice acting and dialogue were less common in games, this creative decision felt far less distracting, but when every other character oozes personality, a dud like Link destroys any sense of immersion. Nintendo Switch Zelda games like Breath of the Wild and Age of Calamity prove that it’s time for Link to evolve along with the series.
Breath of the Wild does offer a canonical reason within Zelda’s diary for why this version of Link doesn’t speak: “With so much at stake, and so many eyes upon him, he feels it necessary to stay strong and to silently bear any burden,” she writes. Link speaks off-camera, but we never experience it. It’s a logical explanation, but not a satisfying one.
Without giving away any outright spoilers for the game’s shocking twists and turns — especially for diehard Breath of the Wild fans who think they know how things will go — Age of Calamity’s narrative high points are grand enough to send shivers down your spine. With dramatic crescendos reminiscent of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Age of Calamity’s ensemble cast delivers genuine, weighty emotion. And just like most Marvel movies, you don’t really need to know these characters to have a good time.
The moment-to-moment experience is an engaging, if somewhat shallow spectacle; a theme park video game experience that anyone can enjoy.
A different kind of Zelda
Most Zelda games, Breath of the Wild included, focus on exploration and puzzle-solving with dynamic options for combat. Individual enemies often pose a legitimate threat (though it comes nowhere near Dark Souls in terms of difficulty). Developed by Omega Force and published by Nintendo, Age of Calamity flips the script by recycling many of the same environments and characters, repurposing them all into a musou-style game established by the Dynasty Warriors franchise.
Rather than square off against a handful of combatants, Age of Calamity plops you on a massive battlefield chock full of enemies numbering well over a thousand — hordes of brainless weaklings waiting to be slaughtered. At any given moment, you’re controlling one of up to 18 heroes each with their own abilities simplistically mapped to a straightforward selection of buttons. You select up to four characters per battle and can instantly shuffle between them by pressing up or down on the D-pad.
The whole thing is ludicrous and dull at first. The button-mashing simplicity of it all can occasionally be tiresome. But as the story ramps up and you encounter new allies, you find yourself in new environments, juggling heroes and a myriad of threats across the battlefield. The subtle real-time strategy elements elevate the core gameplay loop just enough to make Age of Calamity consistently dynamic and engaging.
One of the game’s few glaring faults are the Divine Beasts, massive mecha you pilot using clunky controls that feel like botched AR. While the thrill of blasting hundreds of Bokoblins at once with a giant laser beam is potent, the awkward struggle of aiming it correctly takes away from the experience. Whether you’re behind the wheel of a Divine Beast or ripping through enemies as Urbosa, however, the entire game is still an unparalleled power fantasy.
A story like no other
Princess Zelda is often a distant character in this series, a far-off goal for Link to pursue and protect, but she’s the true protagonist of Age of Calamity. She possesses the blood of the Goddess, and therefore she alone has the power to seal the evil Calamity Ganon. But her powers are dormant. Her quest alongside Link, the Champions, and all their allies is fated to end in disaster — or at least it should based on Breath of the Wild and Age of Calamity’s prologue.
All of the characters know this, so there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on Zelda to be the savior the world needs. It’s a shockingly human, tender tale for a series that so often leans heavily on lore and environmental designs rather than character development.
Age of Calamity explores this rich fantasy universe from a refreshing new perspective, and it’s only glaring flaw is Nintendo’s bizarre commitment to making its protagonist as boring as humanly possible. Despite that, the grand scope of the plot and its charming cast feels on par with The Lord of the Rings.
It might even be perfect if Link were more than just a generic vessel of badassery. He could be the strong and silent type like Master Chief from Halo, communicating with the same ruthless efficiency he uses to slaughter countless Covenant and Flood. He could even be strange and quirky, but brave and strong like Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII Remake. Literally anything would be more interesting — at least to me — than this lazy blank slate.
35 years after Link debuted in video games, it’s finally time for him to become something more. 8/10
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is now available for Nintendo Switch.
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