Nintendo has some of the most iconic and beloved characters and properties in the history of the video games industry, and The Legend of Zelda is one that fans have cherished for more than 30 years. So, what happens when Nintendo decides to let an indie studio take a crack at a Zelda game? You get Cadence of Hyrule.
Brace Yourself Games, creators of the rhythm-based dungeon crawler Crypt of the NecroDancer, have been given the keys to the kingdom of Hyrule, imbuing the signature gameplay of the original while mixing in all the characters, locations and melodies you love from the Zelda universe. What results is a clever blend of action and music that might be the best Zelda spinoff in history.
Cadence of Hyrule begins by introducing a new villain named Octavo, who puts the king of Hyrule under a sleep spell by playing his lute. He then obtains the Triforce of Power, giving his lute extra power, and places Link and Princess Zelda under a sleep spell as well. Cadence, the protagonist from Crypt of the Necrodancer, finds herself transported to the kingdom of Hyrule and must wake either Link or Zelda before trying to head home. You’ll get the opportunity to play as Link or Zelda, which each have a different set of abilities. Link gains access to a shield, which can repel enemy attacks when timed with the beat, as well as his signature Spin Attack. Zelda, on the other hand, has Nayru’s Love which can reflect enemy attacks, and Din’s Fire, a ranged fire spell that can damage enemies from a distance.
Each character feels slightly different, and this is one of the first games that you get to actually play as Zelda, previously only being playable in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks on the GameBoy Advance. Whichever hero you begin your quest with, you’ll gain access to the other later in the game, and can swap between them very easily.
During your quest, you’ll need to take down Octavo’s four champions, who each wield their own magical instrument, before facing Octavo himself, who has sealed the entrance to Hyrule Castle with a magic spell. And, in typical Zelda fashion, there’s a big twist at the end involving time-travel and some familiar characters…
The heart of Cadence of Hyrule is the fantastic gameplay which blends rhythm and combat beautifully. The general gameplay involves moving Link or Zelda to the beat of the song, with a small indicator on the bottom helping you stay on beat. Enemies move to the beat as well, with each of them having different movement patterns that you must learn. What’s nice about the enemy patterns is that they are constant throughout the entire game, meaning once you understand their movement, it makes it much easier to take each one of them down. If you miss the beat, your hero stumbles for a moment leaving them temporarily vulnerable to attack.
Although the game is meant to be played on-beat with the music, there is a “fixed-beat mode” that players can enable, allowing you to move more freely. Enemies will only move when you move in this mode, allowing you to plan out your attack more effectively. This effectively turns the game into a turn-based strategy game, which is a pretty neat alternative. The game is very difficult at the beginning, as your health and weapon selection is limited, but gets easier the more you play. I found I was dying a lot in the beginning as I got used to the rhythm mechanic, but near the end of the game I was flying through dungeons with relative ease.
Cadence of Hyrule also adds some roguelike elements to the gameplay. Each time you begin a new game, the entire map of Hyrule is procedurally generated, including important locations, dungeons, enemies, and secrets. Another interesting aspect of the gameplay happens when you die, where you’ll lose all of the rupees you collected during that run, as well as some temporary items.
What does remain, however, are the weapons you’ve picked up, heart containers, as well as diamonds, a specific currency that drops from enemies and can be found in chests. Before jumping back into the game, you have a chance to spend any diamonds you’ve collected to purchase items that can aid you on your quest. Scattered across Hyrule are Sheikah Stones that can be activated at many locations. These allow you to warp to sections of the map once you’ve uncovered them. This allows for much easier exploration, and makes dying a bit less stressful.
There are a number of familiar locations you’ll come across during your quest including Hyrule Castle, Death Mountain, Lake Hylia, Gerudo Village, Lost Woods, and more. There are also a number of dungeons and crypts that you’ll uncover, with varied layouts. The crypts are all procedurally generated each time you enter, while the dungeons have more meaningful puzzles that you must solve, similar to the traditional Legend of Zelda games.
There are also a number of recognizable items from the Zelda series as well, including the Bow, Hookshot, Boomerang, and more that you can discover. Unfortunately, none of them are required to progress through any of the dungeons, which is a bit of a letdown, but they all have unique uses during combat. As with most Zelda games, Heart Containers are your primary health source, and pieces of Heart Containers can be found randomly throughout Hyrule, increasing your survivability.
There are a variety of different weapons you can find and equip including daggers, short swords, broadswords, flails, spears, and more, each offering distinctive attack styles that vary your combat. I did find during my initial playthrough that certain weapons fared much better than others, and ended up sticking to a specific one for the majority of the game.
The graphics in Cadence of Hyrule are most-similar to those of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It’s a top-down view, albeit much more vibrant and lively than its Super Nintendo counterpart. It’s a huge step up graphically from Crypt of the NecroDancer, which looks much more rudimentary in comparison. Link, Zelda, Cadence, and the other main characters all look fantastic in this art style, each with a distinct color palette. Enemy design is also fantastic, with many iconic Zelda enemies returning to the fray, including Bokoblins, Lizalfos, Octoroks, Guards, Like Likes, and many, many more, all with different variations. Overall, this is a game that looks fantastic both in Handheld mode and when docked on the TV.
The star of the show, though, is the music. The Legend of Zelda series has some of the most memorable and recognizable tunes in all of gaming, and Cadence of Hyrule remixes many of your favorite tracks in very special ways. Many of the songs originated in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but there are a number of other songs from the Zelda series. Much of the electronic and dance-heavy emphasis from Crypt of the NecroDancer is rooted in the game’s tracks, as well as some rock-infused ballads. The music begins very intensely on each screen, but after the enemies have been cleared out, the tempo slows, with songs becoming much calmer and more melodic. During this time, you also have free movement, which is a nice change of pace from the heart-pounding action that preceded it. With so many iconic tracks, there’s no doubt you’ll be humming these tunes long after you’ve finished the game.
Overall, Cadence of Hyrule is a unique experience that takes the familiar Zelda formula and turns up the tempo—literally. It’s undoubtedly a game that won’t click with everyone, but if you’re a fan of rhythm games, this one is definitely worth a look. For those looking for a traditional 2D Zelda experience, you may want to approach this game with tempered expectations. There’s plenty of traditional Zelda enemies and locations to explore, as well as a number of crypts and dungeons, but the puzzle elements are light, and combat is significantly different from previous games. The story is also relatively short, clocking in anywhere between four and five hours, but because of the game’s procedural nature, it’s got a ton of replayability. There are countless secrets and easter eggs that pay homage to the classic games that came before it, which will please even the most casual Zelda fans. Brace Yourself Games have definitely proven that indie studios can take on bigger projects, and here’s to hoping Nintendo gives some other studios a chance to iterate on their iconic franchises.