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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity review - a hugely enjoyable, impressively authentic Zelda spin-off

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Zelda gets the Dynasty Warriors treatment once more, folding in inspiration from Breath of the Wild for the best musou spin-off yet.

Of all the musou spin-offs - Persona! Gundam! Fire Emblem! Was there a Birdo one or was that just another of my mundane dreams? - the most warmly received was surely 2014's Hyrule Warriors, a fulsome blend of Omega Force's overblown hack and slash adorned with all the baubles and trinkets of the Zelda universe. Its big trick was leaning into the authenticity, cramming as much fan service as possible into the Dynasty Warriors formula - so it makes sense that the follow-up doubles down on all that, to the point that Age of Calamity often feels nore like a legit new Zelda game than just another musou.

The set-up helps - taking place a century before Breath of the Wild, this is a prequel of sorts that gets to play with all the tools and toys introduced in Nintendo's 2017 masterpiece, and a bit more besides. Age of Calamity is a thing of some ingenious thrift - the kind of thinking essential in the global environment it was made in, no doubt - with assets lifted wholesale from Breath of the Wild, from character models to outfits to models to boss battles.

Locations are repurposed for Age of Calamity's sizable maps, delivering on the appetising premise of seeing the world of Hyrule before it was seized by disaster - a world more alive, and more populous, with thousands of invading enemies for you to mow down. You'll tear through minions that line the aquamarine walkways of Zora's Domain, scythe through armies lined up in formation outside the gates of Hyrule Castle, fight a Molduga and whole mobs of Gerudo out in the wastelands.

There's plenty of narrative between the action, fully voiced by Breath of the Wild's returning cast. Thankfully the option to switch to the original Japanese dub is there from the off this time.

So complete is the transformation of Omega Force's series here that for the first few hours playing Age of Calamity I was convinced the developer had simply been let loose on the Breath of the Wild engine itself - the HUD is entirely the same, and even if it's not an open world that's on offer the original map has been brilliantly repurposed with countless diversions and side-quests as you go about picking your mission. Enemies are there just as you remember them, from lynels and hinoxs to chuchus and everything in between, all with the same move sets and the same weak spots as your old familiars from Breath of the Wild. In that way, Age of Calamity is like a remix - a noisy, frenetic and slightly scratchy one too.

That's not a complaint at all, by the way - it's fascinating to see how old elements have been repurposed, and how Breath of the Wild's many systems have been folded neatly in. There's some imaginative use of the champions that now serve as playable characters alongside the likes of Link and Zelda - the roster here isn't as wide as you might see in other musous, but the diversity is a delight. There's living boulder Daruk, the Goron bowling through stacks of Moblins before pausing to deal some overstated damage with a colossal stone sword and bursting columns of magma; Impa, with her adorable Naruto run and a devastating dervish of illusions as she conjures up a phalanx of phantoms to fight alongside her; Urbosa, the Gerudo who can charge a scimitar with a lightning attack perfect for clearing some space on the battlefield, each and every one of them with a moveset so supple it's a joy to explore.

The sheikah slate, combined with each of the 18 playable characters' suite of abilities, makes for musou combet that offers a fair amount of meat to get into.

And then there's good old dependable Link. His moveset is familiar from Breath of the Wild - as are his animations, his aesthetic and, well, just about everything. After some 200 hours spent exploring Breath of the Wild's Hyrule - I'm sure many of you have clocked plenty more time than that - he's a cosy pair of slippers to slide into, just being put to different use. The familiarity helps, but it's more than skin-deep - the sheikah slate that underpinned Breath of the Wild's science set experimentation is here, and it serves very much the same purpose, injecting Age of Calamity's combat with a spark that sets it apart from its predecessor. You can freeze enemies in place and let rip with a flurry of attacks, summon bombs to hurl, use magnesis to pick up iron blocks and swing them through crowds or command a pillar of ice you can leap upon for an aerial attack. It all comes together brilliantly well.

Beneath all that, though, this is still a musou game - something that will either make you run a mile or hungrily contemplate hundreds of hours spent in its company. I lean more towards the latter camp, and the soothing nature of a good musou feels like the perfect salve right now. It's nothing more complex than managing a small mob of characters you've levelled and tooled up yourself across packed, self-contained and in this instance expansive battlefields, sending thousands of enemies skywards. It's about as therapeutic as it gets, the video game equivalent of popping bubble wrap and a power fantasy delivered in a laid-back fashion - complemented here by outrageously entertaining interludes where you control the divine beasts and wreck an even more overstated brand of havoc on entire armies. If it's simple satisfaction you're after, wrapped up in the warm blanket of a much-loved game, Age of Calamity delivers and then some.

Pleasing fan service or just recycling assets? I lean towards the former camp, and throughout Age of Calamity feels like a thing of smart economy.

Of course, if it's a technically impressive game you're after then Age of Calamity does come up a little short. The performance here isn't as bad as the demo that released recently suggested - I'll leave it to Digital Foundry to crunch the numbers - but it's certainly still going to prove jarring if you're not familiar with the typical shortcomings of the genre. It's enough to make me pine for a Switch Pro, where the action might be able to stick to a steady 30fps, and where enemies wouldn't just suddenly spring instantaneously into view when you're a couple of metres away from them, but for now all that is just wishful thinking

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If you're looking for an entertaining and cohesive addition to the Zelda canon then I'm not sure Age of Calamity will entirely satisfy either, with some hijinks in place that see it eventually move away somewhat from its initial premise - though if you're coming to a Zelda game for its story you're coming to it for entirely different reasons to myself, and I can't say I was ever particularly fussed by its wayward final act. What Age of Calamity does offer is a decent enough heroic arc across its various chapters, grounded in a world I already know and love. On that front, it most definitely delivers.

It delivers something else too, a sort of high spirits celebration of what's widely recognised as one of the greatest games of the past decade. Age of Calamity ultimately puts me to mind of the scene at the end of Takeshi Kitano's take on Zatoichi, another fresh spin on a beloved classic, where the entire cast - whether dead or alive - gets together for one big musical number on the same old set. Only this time it's the stars of Breath of the Wild getting together for a good old-fashioned musou knees-up in what's a bawdy and frequently brilliant brawler. Of all the many musou spin-offs, Age of Calamity can well lay claim to being the best yet.