Video Games Review: Hyrule Warriors Legends (3DS, 2016)

Hyrule Warriors Legends brings the brawling, button-mashing, horde-slaying action of its Wii U counter part into the realm of the handheld. It’s an impressive mixture of gameplay elements, modes and beloved characters with one glaring flaw — if you are playing it on anything other than a New 3DS console, you’re going to have a bad time.

Despite not being much of a Dynasty Warriors fan, 2014’s Hyrule Warriors on Wii U surprised me by being a lot more than the cynical cash-in that leveraged the Zelda brand I had expected. I have a number of friends who really love the Dynasty Warriors series and its attendant spin-offs (the criminally overlooked Gundam Warriors, for instance), some for cultural reasons, some because they like the absurd scale of it all, but they never quite clicked for me.

I’d expected to react to Hyrule Warriors with a resounding “meh,” but it seemed determined to prove me wrong with expanded Dynasty Warriors gameplay, a pile of game modes to choose from and a wealth of characters from throughout The Legend of Zelda‘s 30-year history. It made Nintendo’s decision to port  the game and all of its DLC, plus a wealth of new content, to the handheld a rather natural one. The truly surprising thing is that Nintendo have been able  to translate the experience almost perfectly from one system to another. Having said that, your experience will differ wildly depending on the hardware you’re running.

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Hyrule Warriors Legends runs on both the first generation Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL consoles, but it’s been built to run on the more powerful New Nintendo 3DS system. Ordinarily, this isn’t a problem and Nintendo have to date been very good at ensuring a comparable experience regardless of hardware. Here however, the difference in performance between the two is startling.

Due to being a starving freelancer, I haven’t been able to upgrade to a New 3DS console just yet and so I reviewed Hyrule Warriors Legends on an older 3DS XL a friend had kindly loaned me. Though slowdown and frame chugging on this older hardware has become more common as it begins to show its age, it’s so bad here that it makes the game feel like it’s running in slow motion. Worse, enemy models have been reduced to mere red blobs and even then the poor 3DS can’t seem to keep up with the sheer number of enemies, meaning pop-in is rife. This means the two things Dynasty Warriors fans expect from these games — huge enemy counts and rapid-fire combat — are nowhere to be found.

I completed my playthrough but was weary of it within a few hours. I returned the 3DS XL to my friend. Unsatisfied with how my review playthrough had gone and feeling like I was missing something, I then began wheedling at another  friend to let me borrow their New 3DS console. I’m happy to report that they agreed and woah what a difference the new hardware makes. Beyond simply looking much nicer, the game also runs with perfect smoothness regardless of how many hundreds of enemies are on-screen at the time. Clearly, Nintendo built Hyrule Warriors Legends specifically for this hardware.

The console allowed a better appreciation for this game as a handheld port. It’s actually such a snug fit that I can’t believe it’s taken this long to come about. Adventure mode presents you with a vast set of challenges to overcome and is perfect for the sort of in-transit, pick up, put down play the 3DS excels at. You’re also rewarded handsomely for your efforts in this mode which makes you feel like you’re actually getting something done even in that short amount of time. Free mode lets you romp around the map, slaughtering hordes of enemies as is your wont. There’s no time limit, you can just rack up the combo meter to your heart’s content. One change I feel is well worth noting is the new ability to switch up your hero by tapping their respective portraits along the bottom screen. Being able to jump between characters like that makes each battle feel like it has an ebb and flow to it. As the stakes change, so does the Hyrulian approach. This is especially handy when an attack has begun elsewhere on the map and you need to shut it down quickly.

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I didn’t invest in any of the DLC in the original Hyrule Warriors so being able to play with those characters here is pretty great. The game also includes a new character or two of its own, including the much-touted Linkle, a gender-bent version of series hero Link. Linkle gets her own side-quest to play through but there isn’t a ton of meat on those bones. That said, I really enjoyed the way she plays, her dual-crossbows forcibly reminding the player of characters like Bayonetta. If Nintendo are smart about what they’ve got here, this won’t be last we see of Linkle.

Visually, while the New 3DS can’t hold a candle to the Wii U, Hyrule Warriors Legends is nevertheless one of the prettiest handheld games I’ve encountered. The striking visual cues from the Wii U version are translated quite well and the game’s musical score remains a lot of high energy fun. You can switch the 3D on — again only if you have a New 3DS, it won’t work on your old one — but you probably won’t want to because it leads to a rather drastic and surprising drop in performance.

Once I managed to get my hands on hardware that could run it properly, I really quite enjoyed my time with Hyrule Warriors Legends. It’s a very easy game to recommend, especially to Dynasty Warriors fans and those who own a New 3DS, and to say that it is content- and feature-rich is to undersell just how much has been packed into this cart. Sadly, for those who own older 3DS hardware, you’d be best advised to give it a miss or spring for the newer hardware if you can afford to do so. If that doesn’t convince you, there’s a free demo available on the Nintendo e-Shop right now that will show you exactly what I’m talking about.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my friend needs her New 3DS back.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10 if you own a New 3DS; 5.0 if you don’t
Highlights: Tons of characters and modes to try out; Super stylish; Super fun
Lowlights: Not optimised for older 3DS hardware at all; Performance issues when 3D enabled on New 3DS
Developer: Omega Force, Team Ninja
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: March 24, 2016
Platform: New Nintendo 3DS

Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS XL and New Nintendo 3DS XL.