If you’re looking to form an argument that Hyrule Warriors is “just fan service” as a negative criticism, you’re wasting your breath. However novel this Dynasty Warriors-meets-Legend of Zelda game is conceptually, once you open that first chest and Link thrusts that treasure toward the camera, you realize that this is a Legend of Zelda spin-off worth taking seriously. Sometimes it’s these left-field concepts that make the most sense. There’s a reason why Link was the most well-received character out of the three console-exclusive fighters in Soul Calibur II. And if you know your Legend of Zelda history, seeing the title character herself hold her own in a crowd-based beat-em-up isn’t at all unusual. Hyrule Warriors isn’t “just” fan service: it’s pure fan service.
If linear first-person shooters are fundamentally digital remakes of Whac-a-Mole, then the Warriors games and its spin-offs are the slow-burn iterations. The majority of the games are exercises in tactical map management that also let you become the main contributor to the action at ground level, slicing through crowds of simple foes with an ease that is simultaneously empowering and pedestrian. As you liberate one fortification, another keep is being invaded. The key to winning a typical Dynasty Warriors mission often comes down to simply being faster than your enemy in covering the map with your blue color-coded forces.
Like the One Piece: Pirate Warriors crossover series, however, Hyrule Warriors is more focused on objectives than it is on removing the red-coded opposition forces from the map. This keeps in line with the goal-oriented design of most Legend of Zelda games, and thus, makes the game all the more welcoming for Zelda fans new to Warriors. If you wish, you can make the game feel more like a traditional Warriors game by taking over each fort one at a time. Such an approach creates its own challenges, since many of the objectives in Hyrule Warriors have timed deadlines. Like any Dynasty Warriors game, Hyrule Warriors is at its most stimulating when it tests your management of priorities. As a Zelda fan, of course you want to save the Deku tree when it’s being invaded on all sides! But you’re also close to liberating a keep at one of the far corners of the map! And since you’ve just reached 1000 kills, a collectable skulltula has temporarily appeared on the map! Choices!
If you're new to Warriors games, setting priorities isn’t as easy as it might initially appear. The biggest rush comes when you’ve completed all the mid-mission objectives and you’re left racing against the enemy toward the current victory condition. Even if you confront the boss with a full bar of health, the same can’t be said about the health of your home base at the other end of the map. Should you return to your base, or stay and try to defeat the boss to end the mission, thereby saving the base in the process? Choosing wisely in such tight and time-sensitive situations makes victory all the more satisfying.
For all the Legend of Zelda-related items, jingles, and familiar faces that are thrown at you every other second, Hyrule Warriors still manages to be a fine Dynasty Warriors spin-off in its own right. If you have muscle memory devoted to the series, then you know that the first priority when beginning a mission is to leap into the fray, get to work in liberating the nearest fort, and set yourself on a path to at least 1000 kills. Hyrule Warriors is not a shallow reskin, but to Warriors faithful, it does look like a new pair of shoes that has been aptly broken in.
As a Warriors game in 2014, Hyrule Warriors reaps the benefits of the many criticisms leveled at prior games, with the boss lock-on option that was introduced a few years ago standing out as the most vital lesson. Can you remember Dynasty Warriors’ dark ages when all you could do was manually point the camera at a boss? The game-changing boss lock-on not only allows you to wade through the crowds of foot soldiers clogging the path, but also helps maintain your forward momentum as you rack up a body count. The meaty sound of slicing through a dozen foes in a single sword stroke never gets old. It’s a multilayered cycle of bloodless, PG-13-level mass killings: on one layer, you’re constantly motivated to reach 100-kill milestones, while on another layer, you’re always on the lookout for the nearest spot of enemy movement on the map, especially when you’re killing time before the next objective appears. Even after the mission ticker is updated with your next goal, there’s the strong likelihood that you’ll record another 500 or so bodies in your diary of death as you work on that active objective. The drawback is that it’s hard to care when you’re left with only one or two pitiful enemies; killing them feels like a waste of time and a waste of a blade swing.
However novel this Dynasty Warriors-meets-Legend of Zelda game is conceptually, once you open that first chest and Link thrusts that treasure toward the camera, you realize that this is a Legend of Zelda spin-off worth taking seriously.
The greatest trick Hyrule Warriors pulls off is in making a convincing argument that the game might just belong in the much-debated Legend of Zelda timeline. When you prescribe to an “official” timeline that accepts the notion of multiple Links, it’s not that unreasonable to argue Hyrule Warriors as canon. Although series producer Eiji Aonuma has gone on record stating the contrary, that won’t stop fans from disputing this game’s place in Zelda lore. The impressive cutscenes alone have enough expository weight to make Hyrule Warriors timeline-worthy. Further validating the argument is how the story mode features inter-dimensional journeys to various Legend of Zelda worlds, including lands from Skyward Sword, locales from Twilight Princess, and even the dubiously memorable Water Temple. As an argument for and against the notion of canon-eligibility, Hyrule Warriors even manages to rehash plot key points from the franchise (eg. Sheik’s backstory) that are also significant spoilers to the very, very few who will play this game but have never beaten a Legend of Zelda adventure.
Some of the best moments in Warriors games are those in which agile combos lead to brief, character-specific cutscenes, so I’m not surprised that the studios involved in developing Hyrule Warriors devoted time to giving everyone in the playable roster unique attacks and animations. Watching Link perform spectacular melee attacks only makes one wish such potent moves were available in mainline Legend of Zelda games. It’s never jarring to watch him and his supporting cast let loose against the game’s countless hordes, especially when a single special attack breaks the 50-kill mark.
It’s a multilayered cycle of bloodless, PG-13-level mass killings.
It’s not hard to spot the Dynasty Warriors DNA in Hyrule Warriors. You can see Omega Force’s signature familiarity with Wushu martial arts in some of Impa’s attacks. Newcomer Lana, with her adorned sleeves, exposed midriff, and giant ponytail would not look out of place in a Dynasty Warriors game. And if you’re wondering where you can find the contributions of co-developer Team Ninja, you need only look for the brutal and often juggle-intensive combos, moves that look like they were ripped right out of Ryu Hayabusa’s playbook. Executing the most eye-catching moves takes a little time to memorize, but Hyrule Warriors is also very forgiving should you just prefer to mash buttons and watch the hordes dissipate.
The flow of time is bittersweet. You wake up one day and you realize that there are more Dynasty Warriors spin-offs and crossovers than there are mainline Dynasty Warriors games. Aside from introducing many Legend of Zelda fans to the Warriors franchise, Hyrule Warriors adds little innovation to Koei’s megaseries as a whole, but nevertheless brings an undeniable spark ignited by the crossover cast itself. As one of the more well-produced Warriors games in recent memory, it is easy to see Hyrule Warriors paving the way for more Warriors spin-offs--other properties that have a substantial amount of melee combat. Street Fighter? Dragon Ball? The idea of a Gundam Warriors game, let alone a series, was once an absurd concept, just as Hyrule Warriors was when it was first announced. If the Warriors franchise has proven anything, it’s that most every entertainment property is fair game. And that prospect is both exciting and a bit scary.