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Out now on Nintendo Switch, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is a thrilling, all-action spin-off from the wide-ranging, wholly enveloping fantasy world first explored in 2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - GAMINGbible's recently-crowned greatest video game of all time.
A co-developed project from Omega Force/Koei Tecmo and Nintendo, and the follow-up to 2014's Hyrule Warriors on Wii U (and, later, Switch), Age of Calamity brings the epic battles, against thousands of enemies at a time, of Koei Tecmo's Dynasty Warriors series, and applies it to the aesthetics, atmosphere and iconic characters of the Zelda franchise.
In our review of Age of Calamity, we remarked that the game "walks the line between being a prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and being a user-friendly, hack and slash game". Story-wise, it tells the tale of events in Hyrule before the beginning of Breath of the Wild - the kingdom has been largely destroyed by the force of a great Calamity, namely regular Zelda series big-bad, Ganon.
Gameplay wise, it's a less menu-intensive affair than BOTW, with less of a focus on survival against the elements as well as enemies, and more emphasis on wiping out huge hordes of monsters with a few taps of the X and Y buttons. If BOTW is the best role-playing Zelda game of all time, Age of Calamity is easily the best action game in the series to date.
Before the game's release, we caught up with two of the key Koei Tecmo talents behind Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, producer Yosuke Hayashi and director Ryouta Matsushita, and Zelda series producer and project manager Eiji Aonuma - who's been a central figure and supervisor on the franchise since he was the game system director on 1998's Ocarina of Time. Thanks to them, and to Nintendo, for allocating us time to dig into Age of Calamity, and how the game fits into the wider Zelda picture.
Age of Calamity is a radically different looking game to the first Hyrule Warriors, and obviously very different from a narrative perspective, given it's a prequel to Breath of the Wild. So, which came first: the idea or ambition to do a Hyrule Warriors sequel, or to extend the world of Breath of the Wild into a different style of game? And just how natural was the marriage of these two Zelda directions?
Hayashi: We'd discussed what the next Hyrule Warriors might look like if we were going to make one, but never reached a conclusion. It was then that we were contacted by Mr Aonuma and the Zelda team, asking if we [at Koei Tecmo] wanted to tell the story of what happened 100 years before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, through Warriors[-style] gameplay. Thanks to this we could find a specific idea of what the next title should look like, and could imagine it much better.
So, you could say that the starting point came from the staff in the Zelda team. I don't remember struggling much with making the idea more concrete after that. It might have been because we already had the previous game, Hyrule Warriors, but our concept right from the early stages was very close to what we have now.
What level of narrative freedom did the Koei Tecmo team on Age of Calamity have? The very concept of a small, friendly Guardian already feels quite different to what we saw in BOTW.
Matsushita: Koei Tecmo Games would propose the various elements that made up the game, while the Zelda team closely reviewed what we were making from the initial stages through to the final submission. They checked all of the elements to make sure the world and tone of Breath of the Wild are preserved and carried over into this game, but they didn't do anything at all to restrict us, and were constantly giving us pointers to make the game fun and to give it the essence of The Legend of Zelda.
I think it was this ideal environment that allowed us to provide players with the story and gameplay in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity as a series of new experiences. And I hope players will deepen their relationships with the mysterious Guardian within the game.
Hyrule Warriors was a real smorgasbord of Zelda influences from right across the series' history, which sat outside of the main series' timeline. In contrast, Age of Calamity is a lot more streamlined and focused, very much a part of the same timeline as BOTW. Are you happy that a Warriors game is getting this degree of lore and narrative weight, and significance? Does that place any pressure on the game, and the Koei Tecmo team, to deliver more than the raw thrills of the musou-style hack and slash style gameplay?
Hayashi: The development staff working directly on the game might have felt some pressure, but personally I felt less pressure than with the previous game. With the original Hyrule Warriors, we couldn't really see our goal, so there was a lot of trial and error. This time, however, we had the experience of the previous game, and so we were able to strengthen some things that we wish we'd done better, like the story, and I felt joy being able to give shape to this new improved Hyrule Warriors.
The world of BOTW was originally designed for a very different style of game to Age of Calamity. But here's the same map, in a very different game, and it works. Are you at all surprised that such an exploration-rich, quietly meditative world has translated so well to this alternative, really action-focused genre?
Aonuma: One of the challenges we had in making this game was how to apply the "open-air" setting of Breath of the Wild to the level-based Warriors system. The "open-air" setting is conceptual in some ways, but it's also the very structure of [Breath of the Wild], so it's difficult to apply that directly onto the Warriors system.
So, instead, we decided to keep the level-based system as it is while adding in a sense of three-dimensionality - by having terrain at different heights and having variation in how parts connect - and giving a sense of scale to the world. Also, by placing each level on a certain spot on the Breath of the Wild map, the level selection itself gives users the feeling of exploring a huge world.
Matsushita: This game tells the story of the battle with the Calamity (Ganon). We've taken this not as a single campaign, but as multiple battles of various scales, both big and small, that took place across the whole of Hyrule. We applied this thinking to the level selection on the map, and to the gameplay where users work to complete these levels.
Each level recreates the world 100 years before Breath of the Wild, and has been created as a battlefield. The world of Breath of the Wild has a surprising amount of depth to it, and from this depth we were able to give shape to the world of 100 years earlier.
Age of Calamity expands what we know of some of BOTW's supporting characters. People like Impa, and the Champions, of course; but also Robbie and Purah, in younger guises. Can fans of BOTW expect to see many more characters - or perhaps relatives of them - show up in Age of Calamity. Or maybe even characters from other Zelda games? Tingel/Tingle Island is right there, after all.
Aonuma: Many of the characters from Breath of the Wild who had a connection to the battle with the Calamity 100 years earlier are appearing in this game. Some characters only appeared briefly in Breath of the Wild, while others are new characters that are related to this yet-untold story. So I hope you will play and see them for yourself.
Matsushita-san, on a personal level, how does it feel to direct the new Zelda game? Whichever way you look at Age of Calamity, that's what it is: the new Zelda game. And that's always a big deal! Is this a series that has meant something to you as a player, and as a designer... and as a fan of games, basically? And what inspiration does the love that other gamers have for this series, and for BOTW, give you, in the production of Age of Calamity?
Matsushita: Thank you very much. Just like for lots of people, for me the Zelda series is legendary. I feel really honoured to have been given this rare opportunity, and being able to work together with the Zelda team who developed Breath of the Wild was the greatest experience for me as a game designer - although I did my best not to act much like that during development in order to achieve a good partnership.
Breath of the Wild is a game that many people around the world really loved. When we announced Age of Calamity, and when we released the demo, lots of gamers noticed features that appeared only for a single frame, or things related to the gameplay that we hadn't announced, which made me very happy. I'd love to be able to tell all of this to myself, back when I was playing Link's Awakening on the Game Boy Pocket in elementary school.
How easy was it to break the combat elements of BOTW down into what we see and play in Age of Calamity? Based on the demo, it's obviously engineered for more rapid access to abilities like stasis and bombs, and the way the elemental rods work is really interesting. Did the combat go through many iterations before you landed on the finalised version?
Matsushita: Breath of the Wild is an adventure for Link alone - but this game is a war across all of Hyrule. The difference between these two situations was the key to our approach on thinking through the various elements of the game system. This can be seen also in the weapons system.
However, although this is an action game where you fight enemies, we designed multiple strategic approaches to battles, using items or the environment, in addition to just doing attacks, so that players could also get a sense through the gameplay that this is The Legend of Zelda. We didn't have all the pieces from the beginning, but we went through trial and error, made decisions on what to include or not, and gradually it took on the form it has now.
With Omega Force's background really focusing on action games, how important was 'game feel' to Age of Calamity? In the demo, it took me a couple of minutes with each character to find a rhythm - but once I did, there's a definite, I guess, flow state that a player can get into with this new game. Is that something that comes at a different time in development, for each game; or can you, before the visuals are fleshed out and the story confirmed, really lock-in the 'game feel' for a new project, very early on?
Hayashi: The feel of the action parts can't really be adjusted until you can actually play around with them, so you can't really lock it down in the initial stages. The action gameplay staff would repeatedly make adjustments while playing until they were satisfied.
This game was developed with the concept of expressing the individuality of characters as much as possible, so, as you mentioned, each character has a different play feel from their different rhythms.
Matsushita: Mr Hayashi checked very carefully things like the dodges and transitions between key movements of the playable characters. Looking back now, the moves needed to be timed very carefully, but through the checks it became more comfortable and you had more freedom with transitions, so I feel like this was beneficial to players.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is out now on Nintendo Switch. Read our review of the game here.
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