Cadence of Hyrule reaches for greatness by smoothing out a lot of the roguelike grind of Crypt of the NecroDancer while boosting it with the visual and musical proficiency of The Legend of Zelda as well as with the franchise’s knack for birthing well-designed adventures
It is no secret to anyone who keeps an eye on the happenings of the gaming industry that Nintendo is extremely protective when it comes to their main franchises. And that reality should not be too hard to understand if one is aware of moments, which are quite numerous, in the company’s past that saw some of their biggest properties – such as Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda – be employed, by third-parties, in the making of playable experiences that fell not just far from the quality standards set by those series themselves, but also considerably below the acceptable threshold of value a game has to clear in order to be deemed as decent.
Yet, although horrors like Mario Is Missing and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon still certainly loom in the back of the minds of Nintendo’s executives as examples of how terribly wrong lending popular faces to other development studios can be, recent years have seen the gaming giant take major steps towards – slowly but surely – freeing their characters from the shackles that were binding them. The levee seems to have been broken with Hyrule Warriors, as Link and the universe in which he inhabits were lent to Koei so that their popular hack and slash series, Dynasty Warriors, could take a violent stroll through the scenarios of Princess Zelda’s kingdom. Not too long afterwards, the world’s most popular plumber entered the Ubisoft headquarters to form an unlikely and initially despised partnership with the Raving Rabbids, an uncanny move that birthed the stellar turn-based detour of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.
Despite a trend that shows Nintendo is – undoubtedly with very tight supervision – beginning to let their children roam further away from Kyoto, the appearance of a game like Cadence of Hyrule is undeniably shocking. After all, instead of being a case of one major gaming company partaking in a creative joint venture with another giant, the game is the result of one of the world’s biggest entertainment empires coming to an agreement with an indie studio that has a whopping one title under its belt on the basis of thinking the greatest adventure franchise of all time – The Legend of Zelda – would be an oddly great match for the quirky effort that independent developer had put in the market.
It is somewhat crazier than sending the hero in green against armies of Bokoblins and forcing Mario to ally with demented rabbits from outer space, but Cadence of Hyrule works just as well. The weirdest of Link’s quests up to this day, the title was developed by Brace Yourself Games, which, in 2015, made a splash in the indie scene with Crypt of the NecroDancer, a work that dared to fuse two popular branches of modern gaming into one, as it carried the randomly generated and infinitely replayable enemy-ridden rooms of roguelike dungeon crawlers, and the dancing beats of rhythm-based games. Cadence of Hyrule, as if to amplify the oddity, throws a The Legend of Zelda coat of paint into the cauldron, and what comes out of it is irresistibly fun.
Truthfully, though, looking at Cadence of Hyrule as a reskinned version of Crypt of the NecroDancer would be quite unfair to the feat Brace Yourself Games and Nintendo pull off through the game. For starters, there is the fact that the effort’s presentation stands on a whole new level, not only because the 2-D visual assets of The Legend of Zelda are inherently charming, but also due to how great they look. It is obvious to absolutely anyone who goes through the two adventures that Cadence of Hyrule had a much bigger influx of money at its disposal.
Visually, the title firmly stands its ground against any other previous game of the series that took place in a top-down perspective, and propelled by very vibrant colors, smooth animations, impeccable sprites, and beautiful set pieces, it actually surpasses some of them. Furthermore, given it features mechanics that heavily rely on music, Cadence of Hyrule ends up being a match made in heaven as far as sound is concerned, as the rhythmic battles introduced in Crypt of the NecroDancer gain an extra edge of excitement when they are powered by the classic, and tastefully remixed, tunes of The Legend of Zelda, which – here – gain shiny production contours that would make them not seem out of place if played on a dance floor. The game’s greatest achievement, though, is found on another front: its gameplay.
The adventure is kicked off by a story that may rank as too bare-bones to those that like their The Legend of Zelda experiences to be accompanied by the usual epic tales filled with excellent characters the series is known for. However, in the context of a title that has foes dancing to the beat around the screen, the script does its job of getting it all underway with efficiency.
A man named Octavio arrives in Hyrule and uses an enchanted lute to put the kingdom’s monarch to sleep; aware that Link and Zelda, the holders of two of the three pieces of the Triforce, are probably the biggest roadblocks to the materialization of his evil plan, he also does the same to them. Realizing that there is something fishy going on, the sacred golden artifact uses its power to transport Cadence – the starting character of Crypt of the NecroDancer – to Hyrule and guide her towards the slumbering heroes. After waking one of them up, a choice that is made by players, the selected hero learns that the only way to break the spell on the king and gain entrance to the castle, where Octavio is hiding, is by defeating a quartet of guardians the villain has spread around Hyrule. And so, to the surprise of absolutely no gamers whatsoever, Link or Zelda walks onto the kingdom’s fields looking for the four dungeons where those beasts lurk.
It is a structure that is pretty much what one would expect out of a The Legend of Zelda quest, but, in the case of Cadence of Hyrule, it is – obviously – constituted of parts that play like Crypt of the NecroDancer. And it is in the fine balance the adventure finds between those two elements that its greatness lies. The overworld is, in a fashion that is similar to that of A Link to the Past, divided into various screens that, together, form one massive fully-connected environment with numerous scenarios, including the traditional mountains, forests, rivers, volcanoes, and swamps.
And the one hundred scenes that constitute it are filled with secret caves and visible – yet somewhat hard to reach – treasure chests that contain valuable assets such as heart pieces, rupees, and other items. Meanwhile, the dungeons, which are only found via some exploration, very light puzzle solving, and brief interactions with the characters that populate Hyrule, have rooms that will challenge players’ wits and some locked doors that block the way of those who do not have a key in their pockets. The difference is that, to overcome those hurdles, Link and Zelda will have to move to the rhythm of the music.
As it happens in Crypt of the NecroDancer, the focus of Cadence of Hyrule is firmly set on combat. While catchy The Legend of Zelda tracks play on the background, gamers will have to act according to the tunes: a display on the bottom of the screen shows sliding bars that represent the beats of the song, and whenever those markers reach the middle of the gauge, both the heroes and enemies are allowed act, whether it is by moving one square on the grid, by attacking with their main weapon, or by using one of the many items and extra abilities they carry. It is, effectively, a turn-based battle where the intervals between turns are so short that the combat is almost in real time, and that speed makes Cadence of Hyrule very exciting.
The cast of foes the game presents, whose faces ought to be very familiar to most The Legend of Zelda fans, is quite well-utilized in regard to the variety they bring to the table, and that is because each enemy type has a dancing pattern of its own. Like chess pieces, there are those that move horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Moreover, while some can be attacked from any angle, others – thanks to protection such as shields – can only be hit from the side. Finally, as it is to be expected, their forms of attack are equally flexible: Deku Scrubs and archers, for example, are able to hit the heroes from far away; certain types of mightily armored Darknuts deliver blows that affect wide areas; the jelly-like Chuchus only deal damage if they directly touch the playable characters; and there are even some bad guys that act in regular intervals, like a special kind of Bokoblin that just attacks at every second beat.
And given Cadence of Hyrule has the habit of filling the screen with massive armies of distinct enemies, players are – then – challenged to dance through the carnage, being pushed to recalculate their strategy at every beat so they find a way to take down foes while receiving minimal damage. Since it is inspired by a roguelike title, almost all of the scenarios of the game are randomly generated. The overworld – which has a few fixed set pieces, including Link’s house, Hyrule Castle, Kakariko Village, and the entrances to the dungeons – is built only once: when a new adventure is started.
The dungeons, on the other hand, have their rooms recreated either when the heroes die inside of them or when gamers exit and re-enter the building. It is a configuration that, to a certain point, limits the complexity usually found in The Legend of Zelda efforts, especially inside the mazes, whose basic structure is pretty much the same: one massive cave filled with enemies that culminates on a mini-boss and a small key, and a second large den that leads to another strong bad guy that is protecting the key to the boss room. Yet, rather than being a dent on the armor of Cadence of Hyrule, that straightforward nature actually makes it unique, for it is the result of sewing together staples from The Legend of Zelda and Crypt of the NecroDancer to create a product that – in spite of its blatant connection to the two properties – is neither.
In fact, that balance is present in pretty much any direction players look into. The roguelike rule of losing acquired items upon death exists, but only partially. Amassed rupees, for instance, will evaporate as soon as the character falls lifeless on the ground, whereas diamonds, which also work as currency that is accepted at certain shops, are maintained. The same rule applies to the equipment the heroes carry: a few tools that can be easily recovered, like torches that light up the way inside caves and shovels that are used to break through specific walls, are taken away; while key items such as the hookshot, the boomerang, the bow, and bombs – all of which can be deployed, according to the beat, inside combats – as well as assets that add details to the very helpful overworld map will never be gone after they have been collected.
Simultaneously, Cadence of Hyrule considerably tones down the difficulty that usually comes attached to the roguelike genre. Save points, which come in the form of Sheikah Stones, are very abundant out in the fields of the kingdom, and – if a certain instrument is found – they can even serve as fast-travel locations. Additionally, although there is good challenge to be had at a few points of the quest, those that have gone through Crypt of the NecroDancer are bound to notice how more frequent the drop-rate of health-regenerating hearts is in Cadence of Hyrule. And as a final touch of accessibility, the title features a fixed-beat mode to welcome those that have problems with rhythm games, as – in that configuration – the influence of the music is eliminated, for enemies can only move when players do so.
Considering the simplicity of the gameplay upon which it is based, Cadence of Hyrule is not a quest that lasts for too long. Even though it has many optional collectibles, such as heart pieces to increase health and seeds to augment the magic meter, one can watch the credits roll with a relatively big completion rate within about six hours. There are, however, a couple of interesting features that are likely to draw some towards putting extra time into the game. Firstly, completely clearing Cadence of Hyrule is only achieved by beating all of its caves (a task that will uncover some tough battles and even a few puzzles) and opening all of its chests.
And in the case of these, it is important to consider some of them can only be unlocked if players either defeat all foes on the screen or perform that same feat while avoiding taking damage and missing a beat, which are alluring challenges, especially the latter. Secondly, although both Link, Zelda, and Cadence become playable at a certain point in the story, upon which the Sheikah Stones can be used to switch between them, it is possible to squeeze more replay value out of the experience by either tackling the quest alongside a friend in a cooperative mode or finishing the game by starting it all out with each of the first two protagonists, as the differences in their skills and in the weapons they can hold do create slightly distinct combat situations. Finally, the adventure offers a permadeath mode which pushes one to beat the whole adventure in one go and without dying, an option that will undoubtedly please hardcore fans of the roguelike genre.
Cadence of Hyrule is, therefore, as great as it is unlikely. And although much of its excellence can be certainly attributed to the inherent high quality found in the pieces that constitute it, the addictive gameplay of Crypt of the NecroDancer and the prowess in adventure exhibited by The Legend of Zelda franchise, the biggest reason for the experiment’s success lies in how it fuses those parts to form a quest that is similar yet different from the products that inspired it, forging – as such – a game that would have not existed otherwise.
It is true that its focus on quirky rhythm-based combats and its heavy reliance on randomly generated environments hold it back from being universally recommendable, not just because of its very peculiar mechanics, but also due to how some may end up perceiving it as repetitive. However, it is undeniable that Nintendo and Brace Yourself Games found an incredible middle ground between the global appeal of the properties of the former and the indie straightforwardness of the output of the latter. And Cadence of Hyrule reaches for greatness from that territory, smoothing out a lot of the roguelike grind of Crypt of the NecroDancer while boosting it with the visual and musical proficiency of The Legend of Zelda as well as with the franchise’s knack for birthing well-designed adventures based on overworld exploration and dungeons, making it hard to even conceive the improbable partnership between a giant of the industry and an independent studio could have yielded something better.