It's time to face the facts: I'm a stubborn gamer, and I should be ashamed. My childhood is riddled with memories of passing on games like Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Looked dumb because you don't directly move each character) and Animal Crossing: Wild World (How could a game where you just live life be fun?) even though they had stellar reviews and regularly appeared at the top of "must-have" lists at the time. I eventually learned, of course, that my initial impressions were way off, but those experiences didn't stop me from immediately ignoring 2015's indie hit, Crypt of the Necrodancer, for being an "experimental gimmick" that was absolutely not my thing. I mean come on, a roguelike where the beat of the background music restricts your actions? Preposterous! After playing through what is essentially the game's sequel with a Legend of Zelda twist, Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer, I can safely confirm that it's true what they say about old habits.
I'm a sucker for Zelda, and although I was worried that the rhythmic gameplay and randomized structure of Crypt of the Necrodancer would taint the overall "Zeldaness" of the experience, there was nothing that could keep me from playing this game. It was an absolute treat to discover that Cadence of Hyrule is not only a wonderfully bite-sized addition to The Legend of Zelda franchise but living proof that the innovative musical mechanics of Crypt of the Necrodancer were no fluke. A near-perfect melding of two game worlds, even though the roguelike nature of the original is mostly ignored.
What turned me off from the Necrodancer series in the first place is the one thing that makes these titles stand out: rhythm-based action. I've played action games, and I've also played my fair share of Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands, but I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea of playing both at the same time. Cadence of Hyrule does precisely that. When enemies surround you, the tempo of the background music will increase until it hits a peak head bopping stage. Every movement and action your opponents make will be synced to this new beat. So as they waltz around the grid environment, trying to attack your character in 4/4 time, you'll use the same rules of engagement to outsmart the baddies with a dance of your own. Think of it like a Guitar Hero track where the decision on what note to play next is entirely up to you, as long it stays true to the beat. A beat misstep will cancel your current action, leaving you vulnerable to the encroaching hoard of Footloose impersonators.
On the surface, these rhythm mechanics confine the player into obeying the laws of music, but Cadence of Hyrule sidesteps the feeling of restriction by playing less like a slow action game and more like a fast-paced turn-based strategy title. Each enemy has a specific attack pattern. Blue Chuchu's hop between the same two tiles every other beat while a Lizalfos will sprint spear first in a specific direction. Like any great tactical game, there's a lot of fun to be had in strategizing ways to circumvent these patterns with moves and attacks of your own. What sets this apart from the Fire Emblems of the world, is that the Crypt of the Necrodancer games move forward with the beat, meaning there's only a one or two second wait period before moving onto the next turn. You'll have to respond quickly and time your attacks appropriately. It's a delicate and sometimes tricky dance to master, but doing so combines the intellectual highs of turn-based strategy with the mindless zen of a rhythm game to create an unusual yet exhilarating experience.
Where Cadence of Hyrule truly begins to separate from its predecessor is in the game's premise. Cadence, the protagonist of the original title, has been mysteriously transported to the kingdom of Hyrule where the evil sorcerer Octavo has played a magical lute and cursed the land's inhabitants. Almost immediately after arriving, Cadence groups up with a local hero (either Zelda or Link depending on who you choose) and sends whichever triforce user on a sprawling adventure to discover four dungeons and break Octavo's curse. Although the story leaves a lot to be desired, it's the world of Hyrule itself that takes center stage and sets the tone for what Cadence of Hyrule really is: A Zelda game. Yes, the combat mechanics have been replaced with the melodic action from Crypt of the Necrodancer, but Cadence of Hyrule is brimming with Zelda influences in every pixel, and there's no better proof than with the game's setting. All the locations you would expect to find are here including the Lost Woods, Gerudo Valley, Link's Home, Death Mountain, Hyrule Castle, the Windmill Hut, and Kakariko village. This latest iteration of Hyrule feels like the gaming equivalent of a "best hits" album.
Each of these all too familiar locals is swarmed with a lot more enemies this time around to compensate for the Necrodancer gameplay, but despite spending more time than I was used to engaging in dance-offs with the local Octoroks, all of this action did not get in the way of that vintage Zelda adventuring experience. I regularly checked my expanding map to try and pinpoint each nook where a dungeon may be hiding one screen transition at a time- similar to The Legend of Zelda. I picked up traditional weapons like the boomerang and fire rod while uncovering puzzle based items like a snorkel to help me breathe underwater- similar to A Link to the Past. I satisfied my every impulse by heading in whichever direction to pursue whatever personal or game based goal- similar to Breath of the Wild. I collected heart pieces, shopped with rupees, divined with fortune tellers, recited musical tunes, chased after fairies, and played multiple rounds of bombchu bowling. Cadence of Hyrule accurately captures that explorative, whimsical, and magic-like spirit that Zelda represents.
You can even bring a friend along for the adventure as the entire game is playable via local co-op. Heading to the nearest Sheikah Stone (activatable warp points scattered across the world map) will let you drop in and out of multiplayer at anytime as well as give you (and your friend) the option to choose between three playable characters (Link, Zelda, and Cadence) depending on who you've unlocked up until that point. Each character is functionally the same but differs in some special abilities and upgrades. Link, for example, is the only one who can perform his iconic spin attack while Zelda can use Nayru's love to block incoming projectiles.
But Cadence of Hyrule doesn't just play like a Zelda, it looks and sounds like one as well. As you might hope for a game where music plays such a vital role in the second to second gameplay, the soundtrack in Cadence of Hyrule has clearly been treated with a lot of care and attention. Dozens of iconic Zelda themes have been remixed to better suit the Necrodancer play style with the introduction of more beat-driven instruments and an increase in tempo. Just like Hyrule itself, it was a true nostalgia trip to revisit classics like the Song of Storms with a modernized twist. When I wasn't humming along to some of my favorite Zelda tracks, I was soaking in the beautifully rendered and well-animated pixel art. The game is gorgeous. For the longest time, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap held the title of "prettiest top-down Zelda game" in my book, but Cadence of Hyrule's high-fidelity A Link to the Past aesthetic has made me reconsider. It may be a bit premature, with the stylized Link's Awakening remake arriving in just a few months, but I wouldn't mind if every top-down Zelda title looked just like Cadence of Hyrule from here on out.
At this point, it should be clear that I feel as if Cadence of Hyrule is an honorary installment within the Zelda franchise. Zelda has influenced so many different aspects of the game's design in one way or another that I don't have enough space to list them all. Cadence of Hyrule plays so much like a Zelda title that it leaves little to no room for the roguelike mechanics that were hallmarks of the original Crypt of the Necrodancer. The game tries to incorporate these roguelike tendencies by doing things like having a randomized world which changes for every new save file and making you lose some of your gathered items on death. In theory, this should evolve the Zelda experience by introducing chance and unlimited exploration opportunities, but in practice, the roguelike features in Cadence of Hyrule felt insignificant.
Take the randomized world, for example, throughout my initial 5+ hour play-through, my instance of Hyrule was only ever randomized once at the start. It made me wonder why the game even bothers to do this as opposed to giving me a specially curated layout which would have surely been better designed than what's possible with randomization. It's such an innocuous implementation that I'm sure many people won't even notice it was random in the first place. Even if the environment stays the same, you will still lose some items upon death, but it ultimately amounts to a benign and irrelevant setback. The most important items you own and all of the progress you've made so far in conquering dungeons and acquiring collectibles remain unaltered. It's only your rupee count and a set of degradable enhancements that you risk losing in these cases. Rupees are overly abundant throughout the game, and I never had the chance to get too attached to the degradable enhancements in the first place because they. Well. Degraded. If that weren't enough, Cadence of Hyrule has another currency (diamonds) that does not go away when you die. Instead, you can use your diamonds to buy back a plethora of these degradable enhancements once you die so that when you respawn, you will pretty much be at a near exact state to what you were before. These are the most forgiving and inconsequential Roguelike mechanics that I think I've ever played.
There are some custom options you can mess with when starting a new game that can have an impact on how some of these mechanics work. The most significant one being permadeath, which will completely wipe your save file upon death and give you a new one. This does present a different enough gameplay experience where I can't directly compare it to what a hand-crafted Hyrule could have been like but at the cost of entirely losing all of your progress. Like a pendulum of extremes. You either play the default mode where the Roguelike decisions are nearly undetectable or with permadeath where the roguelike experience is at its most hardcore.
There's a missed opportunity here. The infinite possibilities of roguelike design combined with the endless sense of exploration that sits at the core of the Zelda franchise have not quite been realized in Cadence of Hyrule, but that doesn't keep the game from being a once in a console generation kind of experience. There's so much love, and polish poured into each morsel of Cadence of Hyrule that it's easy for me to look back in hindsight and see why Nintendo felt comfortable lending one of their most treasured intellectual properties to Brace Yourself Games in the first place. It's a near perfect blending of two game worlds that I previously never believed could work. Cadence of Hyrule not only works, but both the Zelda action-adventure side of things and the Necrodancer rhythm side come together to produce a game that's better than the sum of its parts. If you've been waiting for Link and Zelda's next great adventure- look no further.