Hyrule Warriors treasure chest
Tomorrow, Nintendo’s first big title since Mario Kart 8 hits the Wii U, and this one’s a little different. For the first time in four years, Nintendo has given an outside studio the keys to one of its biggest franchises, and the result is a curious mash-up of two separate worlds.

When Hyrule Warriors was first revealed, I thought it looked pretty bad. I had no interest in it at all, despite (or perhaps because of) my deep love for the Zelda series. However, as more of the game has been shown in the months since its unveiling, the more interested I’ve become. I’ve noted this before, but Hyrule Warriors strikes me as a massive Zelda fanservice project in the guise of a Musou game, and it’s certainly a great way to draw those unfamiliar with the Dynasty Warriors series, like me, into the franchise.

Taking characters and settings from the much-revered The Legend of Zelda series and matching it to the tactical action of the Dynasty Warriors franchise might seem like an odd fit, but it works quite well in practice. As a total Musou noob, I’m enjoying Hyrule Warriors a great deal – it’s huge fun to storm through the massed ranks of bokoblins and stalchilds (stalchildren?), sending dozens of them flying into the air with a single sweep of Link’s spin attack or Impa’s enormous Giant’s Knife.

Of course, these are just the foot soldiers of the enemy forces, and there are hardier foes to tackle on the battlefield. The tactical side of the game comes in the form of a number of keeps on the map, which can be both captured for and lost by you and your allies. To take a fort, you’ll have to lay the smackdown on a large number of foot soldiers before the keep boss, a larger, sturdier variant, comes out to see what’s going on. Defeating these foes wins the keep. And then there are special enemies out there to grapple with, foes like the nimble, fire-breathing Lizalfos or the shrieking Gibdo.

Hyrule Warriors Dodongo

But it wouldn’t be a Zelda title without some memorable bosses, and so there are of course some huge screen-filling monsters to contend with. When King Dodongo gets dropped into the middle of Hyrule Field surrounded by hundreds of Bokoblins, it seems like utter chaos. By this point though, you’ve unlocked bombs, and we all know what happens when you combine bombs with King Dodongo’s gaping maw. Later on, you’ll fend off Gohma as it launches a massive assault on the Great Deku Tree, and by then you’ve found a bow and arrows (in a chest, of course). And again, you know how you need to take the boss down.

This might sound like a negative, but it’s really not. Here you are battling through familiar places, against familiar foes in familiar ways, and it’s this huge dose of nostalgia that makes the game feel that it’s as much a Zelda game as it is a Warriors one. These battles are freshened up by a heightened sense of urgency that’s never really seen in the Zelda series; during that battle with Gohma, the armoured arachnid was occupying my home base, and if I hadn’t taken him down in time, it would have been an instant game over. It was a close run thing, and defeating it in time to save the Great Deku Tree was an early highpoint.

If it’s not clear yet, the game is utterly drenched in a deep love for the Zelda series. It’s not just seen in the locations, characters, bosses and iconic items like Link’s bombs and bow. It’s seen in the mix of musical themes from across the series that plays over the title screen. It’s seen in the mix of art-styles throughout, with storyboard sequences taking on a Wind Waker aesthetic, while the in-game graphics are reminiscent of both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. It’s even seen in the loading screens, with an 8-bit Link running around avoiding NES octoroks. The development team’s love for the source material is visible everywhere throughout the production, and it makes it a real treat for fans of the venerable series.

Hyrule Warrios Impa special attack

There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t had a chance to look too deeply into just yet, like the crafting mechanics that allow you to create buff-conferring badges, or the Smithy, who can transfer skills from one weapon to another. Then there are multiple characters and weapons to unlock, and other modes to play through, like the bite-sized missions of Adventure Mode – this genuinely feels like a game that could last me for a good few months. I have, however, had a chance to play as Impa, and I think she’s set to become a fan favourite here. Her play style is massively satisfying, with every swing of her massive Giant’s Knife conveying the weapon’s full heft. She starts off with a great, heavy-hitting combo that ends with her summoning a massive ball of water to take out foes at a distance, and not only is it useful against enemies in the lava-drenched Eldin Caves, but it looks absolutely spectacular.

And the game does occasionally look a bit special. It’s not a graphical showcase by any means, but when there’s a sea of enemies on-screen and various graphical effects going off as your character spins, pirouettes and poses, it often manages to look rather beautiful. If I have one complaint though, it’s the map. It can often be rather difficult to read in the heat of the moment, making it quite easy to lose your way as you rush off on another time-sensitive errand, but I’m hopeful that it’s something I’ll adjust to after a while of play. Surprisingly, you can’t use the GamePad screen to display a larger, more detailed map – as it stands, it just lists your objectives and there seems to be no way to change that. Given that the map is an essential part of your strategy, this is quite the oversight. At least in the opening stages, you’ll likely find yourself pausing the game to properly scrutinise the map and see where you need to go.

It remains to be seen whether the constant combat of Hyrule Warriors will prove wearying in the long run, though it’s certainly far less one-note than I had expected. There also seems to be plenty to unlock, including a large number of Zelda universe characters to get to grips with, each of which seems to handle very differently. At the very least, I’ll be playing through the entirety of the story before jumping into Adventure Mode to see how that helps to extend the experience.