I missed out on the Wii U era. When the Wii U was first released, I was a college student. I couldn’t afford to purchase the console for myself, and I’d gotten old enough that I would feel self-conscious or greedy to put a game console on a holiday list. This was particularly because I didn’t feel that the Wii U had enough strong titles in the early days to justify the purchase of an entire console. It took ages for me to have even a handful of games I was truly interested in, and by that time rumors of the NX were beginning to surface. By the time the Switch actually came out, I’d missed the Wii U era entirely. I didn’t feel too sore about the matter but there were a few games that I felt like I missed out on, and one of those titles was Hyrule Warriors.
I thought I might get a second chance at the game when Hyrule Warriors Legends was announced for the 3DS. It sounded like a great package with the original campaign along with some unique content, but when reviews started coming out the consensus was that the game was nearly unplayable on the regular 3DS. Only New 3DS owners could get the full experience from the game, and even that seemed inferior to the Wii U version of the game. So my brief hopes were dashed and I resigned myself to never getting to play Hyrule Warriors at all.
Then it happened. In their ongoing mission to port everything moderately enjoyable from the Wii U to the Nintendo Switch, Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition was announced, and I knew I would finally get the opportunity to experience one of my favorite series in a whole new way. I was excited to play as so many Zelda characters who are unplayable in other entries in the series, and to wipe out hordes of familiar enemies while listening to rock re-imaginings of some of my favorite music in the gaming world. I had a positive experience with Dragon Quest Heroes, and I expected my time with Hyrule Warriors to be similarly enjoyable.
As it turns out, I was only half right.
When I first picked up Hyrule Warriors, I focused exclusively on Legends Mode, the main story campaign of the game. In this mode, you participate in battles that are typically 20-40 minutes in length in order to unlock cut scenes and progress through a story arc. You can play as multiple characters, but your selection depends on the direction of the story at any given time. You play through Link’s journey to save Hyrule from the alluring but wicked Cia, then change to Ganondorf after his resurrection, take a side trip through Cia’s off-screen actions before major chapters of Link’s original journey, and then after defeating Ganondorf you experience an epilogue in which Wind Waker’s Tetra gets caught up by the forces of darkness.
Legends Mode had a lot to like, in my view. The length of each chapter was perfect for bite-sized chunks of play. I’d generally play one or two a night on work days, making a meaningful amount of progress each play session and getting a little more story to encourage me to keep playing the next night. Additionally, no chapter is so straightforward as just bashing enemies until they’re all dead. There are a number of hidden collectibles in the world of Hyrule Warriors for those who wish to seek them out. Every level in the main campaign has a heart piece and a heart container to find, as well as a golden skulltula. The skulltulas hide panels from large pieces of art which unlock more bonuses when completed.
The interesting thing about unlockables is that they are often locked to a specific character. A map may have a full heart container for Link and a heart piece for Zelda. If the map doesn’t allow you to switch freely between both of them during a match, then you’ll have to replay that level at least once to get all the goodies hidden within it. These level replays rarely frustrated me because, for the most part, the levels are actually pretty simple to beat once you know what you’re looking for. The most time consuming part of winning a battle is the time taken to hunt for skulltulas and heart pieces – once you’ve found all the treasure, it isn’t much effort to take keeps and defeat bosses in order to wrap things up quickly.
Legends Mode also features a solid balance of characters, and rarely puts you in a situation where you are locked to a specific one in order to progress the story. This happens most often with Link, a character who is simple to use and is granted an overpowered weapon pretty early on in the game in the form of the Master Sword. On most stages, you have two characters to choose from, which means you can at least select the lesser of two evils when deciding who you want to play as. Do you stink as Sheik? Choose Impa instead. Hate playing as Wizzro? Volga might work better for you. I enjoyed this as it meant that if I ever got tired of hunting heart pieces or skulltulas for characters that I hated playing as, I could just skip over that and progress using someone that I found more fun to use.
The story in Legend Mode also helped me to stay focused on playing through the game. Hyrule Warriors doesn’t exactly have the most gripping campaign in the world. It ultimately boils down to Cia, the protector of the balance of the Triforce, giving in to the temptation to seize power at the cost of her soul. Ganondorf takes advantage of the situation in order to break free of the ancient seal which keeps him from wreaking havoc on the world. Link must defeat him with the Master Sword, yada yada – even if you’ve never played Hyrule Warriors, you’ve heard it all before. Still, though the storytelling is utterly predictable, the cut scenes featuring such a wide cast of Zelda characters are suitable fanservice to keep the action moving along.
The combination of ideal level length, simple and fun collectibles, and the ability to experiment with characters while still progressing through the game using ones you truly prefer made Legends Mode a fun experience for me. When I reached the end of the main campaign and unlocked the ability to play through the whole thing again in hard mode – well, I decided that I wanted to move on and experience some different aspects of the game. So with Ganondorf slain and the world of Wind Waker saved from darkness, I turned my attention to the second main mode of Hyrule Warriors – Adventure Mode.
Adventure Mode takes a unique approach to the musuo formula by placing you on a massive world map based on that from the original Legend of Zelda (though there are plenty of others available too). The map consists of a number of squares, each of which represent a battle to participate in. So in the map above, for example, there are 128 small battle scenarios to overcome in order to clear the map. But just as the battles in Legends Mode are not so straightforward as just beating some bad guys, there’s a lot more going on in Adventure Mode than you can see at first glance.
Each square on the map has three levels of reward: one for completion of the battle, one for completing it on A rank, and one for treasures that are hidden somewhere in the battle arena and must be found. Some of these rewards may be for different characters – perhaps there’s a treasure chest on the battlefield for Darunia while the A-rank award is for Ruto. This requires you to play the scenario as different characters in order to get all of the rewards on a single square, a feature consistent with the need to replay certain levels in Legends Mode. However, we’re not done yet – there are more complications to deal with here.
A good portion of the game’s unlockable characters are actually unlocked in this mode of the game rather than Legends Mode. I’d say something like half of the game’s cast is locked behind map squares in Adventure Mode. Until you discover a character, you can’t get treasures or heart containers associated with them, which means you might encounter map squares which require a character you don’t have long before you ever get a chance to recruit that Warrior into your party. This means that unlike in Legends Mode where backtracking never became an issue, you’ll have to return to a previously-defeated battle significantly later in order to get all of the treasure it offers. You often cannot settle for waiting until you get the unlockable character, because you can’t progress into a new map square without finishing one of the ones adjacent to it (and sometimes it has to be specific battles, not just any adjacent battle).
Taken by itself, having to return to old battles when a new character is finally available in order to get all the unlockables isn’t that much of a hurdle. However, there’s an infinitely more frustrating feature that comes along with the map system: secrets. You see, on many of the squares on the map you cannot even achieve one or more of the awards until you successfully “search” the area and activate a secret by bombing, burning, or pushing exactly the right spot in the area. Doing this requires expendable item cards that spawn on specific squares of the map or can be purchased with rupees. The rupee price is rather steep, though, so the most reliable way to collect these cards is to repeat the battles which yield them over and over again.
Once you have an item card, the next challenge is blasting the right square on the map space. In many cases, there are no visual cues on the map telling you where your items need to be used. This isn’t like finding a cracked wall in a Zelda game – rather, it’s like being told that somewhere in the room is an invisible cracked wall, and being asked to find it without any other form of guidance. Using an item card on the right spot “reveals a secret,” which mechanically means that you can now unlock the previously sealed reward levels. Using an item card on the wrong spot expends that item – nothing happens, and you don’t get your card back.
So if there are no visual cues of where to use the item cards and the items aren’t an unlimited resource, how do you find the secrets without just grinding forever to get an obscene number of bombs and then praying for good luck? Well, there’s an item called the compass that reveals the secret spots on any given map square – but again, that’s another item card and they only spawn on certain squares of the map. So this means that to unlock all of the secrets on a single map square, you likely will have to beat a battle to earn a compass card, beat another battle to earn the appropriate item card for that area, have all the characters unlocked who get rewards from the battle, and then repeat the battle one to three times depending on how many characters have unique rewards or how many times it takes you to complete the battle successfully. And that’s all for one square on a grid with 128 of them.
Adventure Mode is everything I don’t want to experience in a video game. Jumping through so many complicated hurdles in order to unlock a single heart piece or weapon upgrade is agonizing, and unlike in Legends Mode you’re not getting any kind of story content for working your way through these battles. The fights are shorter but you repeat them many more times, so they become dull and frustrating a lot faster. And the choice between doing extra grinding for compasses versus trying your luck at finding obtuse secrets using no hints or visual cues whatsoever…I just don’t imagine how anyone ever thought this could be a positive experience.
The thing that kills me about all of it is that half of the cast is locked behind this mode. There are so many characters who I will never meet in Hyrule Warriors because the only method to unlock them is to suffer through the disaster that is Adventure Mode. In a game which claims playing as previously unplayable characters in a longstanding franchise as its major selling point, this seems like a poor decision. I took a break after trying Adventure Mode for the first time and recently gave it a second try in hopes of forming a new opinion when experienced with fresh eyes, but all that original frustration came flooding back and distance did not make the heart grow fonder.
I enjoyed Hyrule Warriors the first time I played the game. Legends Mode offered exactly the experience I wanted from a spin-off title of this style, and though it certainly wasn’t perfect, it was plenty of fun and felt like it was worth the time and money I invested. Conversely, Adventure Mode is every game design philosophy I hate all wrapped into one package. While forsaking this mode of the game means saying good bye to many of the unlockable characters in Hyrule Warriors, I made the call to set the game aside rather than force myself to play through an experience that simply isn’t aimed at me. Knowing when to let go can make a big difference in your final impressions of a game, and so I choose to remember Hyrule Warriors for its fulfilling campaign experience. As for the characters I chose to leave behind…well, Lana says it best.