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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Forget Genres, Cadence of Hyrule Seamlessly Mashes-Up Entire Series

I’ve been slowly working my way through some of the indie game backlog on my Switch, and wanted to do a few shorter reviews of games that especially jumped out at me, starting with something I hinted was coming in my last piece on video games: Brace Yourself Games’ Legend of Zelda spin-off, Cadence of Hyrule.

(The music is of course great, as both series are known for their soundtracks. So why not check out a sample as backing music while reading this review?)

One of my earlier favorite pickups for the Switch was BYG’s original Crypt of the Necrodancer, a game I had heard a lot of good things about but never gotten around to trying. It went on sale on the Switch, so I decided to finally try it out on a whim. And I wound up getting a lot playtime out of it! I had always been sort of iffy on dungeon crawler and roguelike/roguelite games for various reasons, but Crypt took the best parts of those two genres and used them to balance each other out, all set to a banging soundtrack that made it an even more interesting rhythm game.

Giving each move in the dungeon crawler the strict time limit of a beat in a song kept you from overthinking and over-optimizing every move, and tying the dungeon sizes to the length of songs kept them from becoming too sprawling or overwhelming and made the threat of having to start over not feel completely dispiriting. Conversely, the rogue-lite elements mean you get to try different styles of play rather than just following your optimized plan, and there’s only minimal planning you even could do before tackling each level, plus the music helped to telegraph enemy attack patterns so that you learn how to navigate each world quicker. On the whole, it was a really neat little system.

Meanwhile, I’ve written before about my love for The Legend of Zelda series, especially the 2D entries. I’m always excited for more entries into whatever-that-genre-is-called (maybe I’ll tackle that issue another day), but tying it to Crypt of the Necrodancer’s systems posed some interesting clashes. Legend of Zelda isn’t really known for small procedurally-generated worlds, or for losing all your gear regularly and starting over, or for randomization, or for strict rules on movement, or any number of other things that could have tripped up the developers. When the game was first announced, all of those questions and more made it seem interesting, but like something that would be more of a novelty, something like a new Crypt of the Necrodancer but with Link plopped in as in Soul Calibur II, or a Zelda spin-off with added focus on music instead of, say, multiplayer.

Instead, though, Brace Yourself Games hit the perfect balance of the two; Cadence of Hyrule feels like both a Zelda game and a Crypt sequel, with enough new ideas brought to the table to make it not feel like it solely belongs to one series or the other. Areas were the two might have clashed have been reconciled in ways that keep them feeling true to both games. It really is a hybrid of the two series, which on the whole makes it feel like a new and exciting experience.

For instance, BYG recognized that a Zelda game with perma-death, forcing you to recollect all key items every time you died, would be weird and frustrating, but a Necrodancer sequel where death was meaningless would also feel cheap. So instead, there are certain items that can go away when you die or wear out over time (like currency or magic rings), but weapons and items that you use to solve puzzles generally stay with you.

And while having to move across all of Hyrule in time with music might seem overwhelming, the game strikes a compromise: each individual screen you find is treated like a mini-dungeon from the original the first time you see it, with thumping basslines and a number of enemies in your way. But clear the screen of monsters and the music suddenly drops to a background noise, allowing you to explore every nook and cranny for secrets in your own time and tempo (and staying alive keeps enemies from reappearing on the screen, another benefit to avoiding death).

Or there’s the randomness of the map: instead of totally procedurally-generated levels like in the first Necrodancer, the game’s overworld has a variety of pre-built single screens that are shuffled together in each new file you start. The individual screens can do clever things to hide treasure, and the world still makes sense fitting together in spite of the randomization. You can basically tackle anything in it in any order that you want as long as you can handle the enemies in a given area and collect the four magical instruments before tackling the final boss, which is freedom that hasn’t really happened in a 2D Zelda before.

And the randomness gives a large degree of freshness over the traditional approach of adapting an older 2D Zelda overworld in a fairly preset order, which is much appreciated, makes each playthrough feel like a new adventure you can’t totally predict, and generally encourages replayability. And speaking of that, at four main dungeons before the final one, they’ve even struck a good number to make the game feel long enough to feel complete, but also short enough that starting a totally new file doesn’t seem daunting.

The truest parts to the original Crypt come in the form of those dungeons, which makes sense and feels like a nice way to recreate that experience without spreading it out across the entire world and risk wearing players down, while also giving them the feel of being more dangerous than random fields in Hyrule. It’s a good compromise, on the whole.

There are still distinctly Zelda elements to the dungeons, like the mid-dungeon gear you acquire in each one, but even that feels like a Necrodancer adaptation of the element, as that gear is never used for specific problem solving in the dungeon (as a result of the exact gear you get in each level being up to the player rather than pre-coded), and is generally just upgraded or special versions of things you find elsewhere rather than things that allow you to explore more of the map.

It’s an interesting compromise to make, since that opening up of new pathways in the larger world and the exploration that ensues is something I especially love about the Zelda series, but I think it fits here given the constraints of the two series in question. Maybe there would be a way that it could be implemented in a sequel, but in a game where you can reach any part of the main map from the word “go”, locking large swaths of the world off behind hookshot gaps or bombable walls just doesn’t fly. And it’s not that there aren’t those things still in the game, just that you find all of the major items by roaming around on the overworld, giving the “I can do these things” now feeling less of an impact, and that the secrets have to be more along the lines of “fun new gear” rather than “entire new subarea of the game.

It’s things like that that makes me call Cadence of Hyrule such an interesting of the two series; any attempt to pull apart elements of the game to determine their origin finds them taking integral aspects from each, such that if it had just borrowed from one, the game would feel inexorably different and worse off overall. Props to Brace Yourself Games for pulling that off, as it really is an incredible feat of balance to master when designing something as complicated as a video game. And given that both series are already very unique blends of multiple genres and styles and mechanics, that’s a lot of plates to keep in the air. That Cadence feels just as engaging as its predecessors while going off on it’s own unique riff is a true testament to its quality.

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