Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity occasionally lets you take control of a Divine Beast. It's a moment that should carry some weight for Zelda fans. The Beasts are colossal machines crucial to the events of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and while they're cumbersome to control, the levels in which you play as them effectively communicate their destructive power. If you've played Breath of the Wild, these moments take on a portentous air; the power fantasy of using lasers, bursts of lightning, and volleys of magma to level mountains and rack up thousands of Bokoblin, Moblin, and Lizalfos kills is undercut when you remember how the people who're using them can't fully control them, and that these tools of destruction will turn on their masters when they're needed most and destroy them.
That sense of impending doom is what I came to Age of Calamity for, but that's where it blunders hardest. It constantly encourages you to set aside that feeling of dread, avoid coming to terms with the consequences of its apocalyptic premise, and instead just kill a bunch of baddies and think the Divine Beasts are cool. Doing that is fun for a while, but it couldn't stop me from being enormously let down by that choice.
Age of Calamity's narrative failure is especially frustrating because the disappointing turns it takes to get there seem so clear, and because it does so much right until then. The campaign begins with a small, white Guardian-like robot seeing the Calamity caused by Ganon in Breath of the Wild and traveling back in time to before it ever happened, when Link is still a royal knight and Zelda is working to unlock her potential and stop the Calamity from happening.
Things start well enough, mostly thanks to how Age of Calamity infuses the long-running Musou formula with Breath of the Wild's look and feel. Mowing down crowds of Bokoblins and Lizalfos is simple enough, but larger enemies like Moblins and Hinoxes require real effort to take down. Dodging their attacks at the right time lets you fire off a Flurry Rush attack, one of the cooler maneuvers in Breath of the Wild. The original Hyrule Warriors' subweapons are replaced by four Runes (remote bombs, magnesis, stasis, and cryonis), and they're integrated into combat well; stasis freezes enemies in place and launches them based on how hard you hit them while they're frozen, while magnesis absorbs nearby metal weapons and throws them back at their owners. Some attacks from larger enemies prompt you to counter them with Runes, staggering them and leaving them open to attack. That, along with magic rods that rely on an elemental counter system, give you plenty of options in combat.
Every member of the playable cast has a distinct mechanic or trick at their disposal, too, and they help keep things interesting. Link has you holding down the attack button to charge up his spin attack, Impa can mark enemies with magic symbols then collect them to produce copies of herself, and Urbosa can power up her attacks by discharging stored-up lightning, which you can then recharge with a button press. Later characters have even wilder concepts, and while a few didn't jive with me, they're all creative enough that I wanted to explore them.
Maybe the biggest game-changer, though, is how all the fighting is structured. As someone who adores Breath of the Wild, I got a huge kick out of Age of Calamity's interface, and that aesthetic actually adds a meaningful layer to the experience. You spend a lot of time looking at a map of Hyrule, with mainline missions, side quests, upgrades, and shops dotted all around it. And while the main story missions tell a cinematic story of Link and Zelda recruiting the Champions to control the Divine Beasts and stop Calamity Ganon, the map tells a more sprawling tale. Getting access to a new shop may be as simple as gathering supplies in missions and checking off an icon on the map, but it's contextualized as securing a trade route so the shop owners can properly do business with other towns, with short descriptions of what happens after you complete the task. It's a small but fantastic touch that gets across the scope of the war you're fighting, and how Hyrule cared for its people as it faced its end.
As the map gets cluttered with icons and the story starts approaching the major story beats from Breath of the Wild, Age of Calamity explores some of its history's more poignant threads. Zelda's journey to uncovering her potential, how that purpose drives her father to push her toward her destiny at the cost of everything else, and how much of a burden that kind of responsibility puts on someone is told well. Seeing the Champions in their heyday is fun, too, even if we know where their stories are headed.
All of these threads converge when things start to turn dire. Hyrule's hubris in thinking it could repurpose technology it didn't understand begins to destroy it. That sense of doom approaches. But in its most critical moment, Age of Calamity refuses to look its expectations in the eye and blinks. Without treading into spoilers, I found the last act profoundly disappointing. The way it explores the most impactful moments in Breath of the Wild's story subverts and repudiates much of what made Breath of the Wild so resonant. For a game meant to give that story context, it's a fatal misstep.
It doesn't help that by this point, the other parts of the game start to wear out their welcome. The new layers of combat are nice, but you end up seeing most of the enemies you're going to fight throughout your entire playtime early on, with later bosses being buffed-up versions of earlier ones. After playing the game for so long, their tells become simple prompts, missions get so easy they're tedious, and side missions are a grind. It's also harder to forgive the camera and frame rate issues, which become more pronounced as you head into more interior areas and produce more on-screen effects that slow things down.
I had started out completely on board with seeing Age of Calamity's story through. By the end, I was doing these tasks more out of obligation than anything else.
Despite how much I'd invested in this version of Hyrule and the nagging feeling of leaving things unchecked on a map left me with, I stopped taking on side missions, stopped helping people build up Hyrule and prepare for the Calamity. I had started out completely on board with seeing Age of Calamity's story through, being with the citizens of Hyrule until the bitter end, and just killing some baddies. By the end, I was doing these tasks more out of obligation than anything else.
It's strange to think of a bungled story leaving me so lukewarm on a Zelda game, even if it is a spin-off. But paying off its premise is the burden a prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is tasked with. The main reason I dove into Age of Calamity is because I love its world and the history it tries to remember. So for a game to retread them and proclaim to have something new to say when its inspiration's most striking moments come from what it leaves unsaid is a big ask. But my problem with Age of Calamity isn't that it fails to live up to that responsibility. It's that it doesn't even try. It doesn't have the courage to see things through.