Cadence of Hyrule wastes very little time. Not only does it let you play as the Zelda — something the main Legend of Zelda series has been very wishy washy about — it almost immediately gives the princess a knife, and lets her get to work.
That being said, “work” looks a bit different from other Zelda games. The structure is awfully familiar, though. You go from dungeon to dungeon, beating bosses and unlocking items. There are fairies, and heart containers, and bombs. Zelda loves bombs, too. She loves dropping them like a hot track on Deku Scrubs and Bokoblins. That’s because the moment-to-moment gameplay of Cadence of Hyrule involves involves moving and acting to an ever-changing beat — slicing enemies and solving puzzles with the rhythm.
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This isn’t just a Legend of Zelda spinoff. It’s also a crossover with Crypt of the NecroDancer: a fascinating and beloved indie roguelike from 2015. That game’s protagonist, Cadence, finds herself transported to Hyrule in the midst of a musical invasion by the villainous Octavo. The fiend has put most of the kingdom (including its king, Zelda, and Link) to sleep with a magic lullaby. Cadence awakens one of the two heroes — or more if you play co-op — to travel the world and save it from melodic malice.
It’s a strange sort of crossover, if only because Nintendo seems so greedily protective of its brands. But perhaps Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle opened up the floodgates to more daring experiments. Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing Cadence of Hyrule was allowed to happen. Its two seemingly disparate formulas blend well for a match that’s absolutely made in heaven.
Dance Until You Die
As it turns out, one of the most iconic video game soundtracks in the world — chopped and screwed it into fast-paced remixes — makes for a wonderful backdrop to Crypt of the NecroDancer combat. Said combat involves moving over tiles to a beat: marked by a metronome, shifting colors on-screen, and the music itself. These subtle signs add up to make the game playable for even the most tone deaf user (i.e. me). Although, if you still have trouble, there’s “Free-Beat Mode” that turns off the mandatory musical aspect. I can’t imagine not dueling armies of darkness to the “Overworld” theme, though.
Speaking of accessibility, Cadence of Hyrule is far and away more forgiving than Crypt of the NecroDancer. The beat windows feel wider and the penalty for death is much reduced. You lose rupees and any temporary equipment you might have had, but otherwise just respawn at a location of your choosing. The game moves at such a clip that you can reacquire nearly everything in minutes, too. Even the load times are next to nothing.
Drips and drabs of more permanent progress also make the game more enjoyable. Since it was a roguelike, death on a particularly good run was a big deal in Crypt of the NecroDancer. You could lose oodles of progress and be forced to fight the same bosses over and over again.
By contrast, clearing a dungeon in Cadence of Hyrule only takes about half an hour — maybe less, if you’re good. And that progress is permanent; the most iconic Zelda items, like the Magic Boomerang or Hookshot, stick with you forever. They’re not necessary for story content, either. So you can tackle the dungeons in any order you like. New equipment only makes the dance around, between, and into baddies more elaborate and rewarding. You might use the boomerang to stun a ranged enemy, for instance, while bombing a group of Keese — only to juke right and stab a Moblin with a spear straight out of NecroDancer.
The Zelda items weave in so perfectly, in fact, it’s hard to believe this was made by anyone but Nintendo. Developer Brace Yourself Games clearly has a reverence for the source material. It seems like that let the company create new and interesting ways of playing with the classic formula. If anything, I only wish there was more Crypt of the NecroDancer DNA to counterbalance the Zelda. That original game never did grab me the way I wanted (it was just too punishing), but Cadence is a great character. Not to mention the creature design and original music by Danny Baranowsky are incredible.
The elements that did make the jump from one universe to the next are good, though. The singing shopkeepers are back, and they’re still amazing. Cadence, while not a huge part of the story when you play as Link or Zelda, is a perfect fit: visually and tonally.
The blend of formulas leads to one other major difference in Cadence of Hyrule; the game is on the short side. Personally, I loved jumping in and out of this adventure before it overstayed its welcome. And even though I’ve seen some folks beat it in around five hours, I spent closer to 15 or 20 exploring side regions of the map.
About half of the world — along with its micro-dungeons and mini-bosses — seems totally optional. Yet the equipment you earn as rewards are very meaningful. For that very reason, some kind of endless or challenge mode that let me use all the heavily upgraded weapons in my arsenal after the end credits wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Even without that capstone, though, Cadence of Hyrule is a complete package. The combat is fun and forgiving; the story and remixed nostalgia are charming; the music and subtle nods to NecroDancer are unassailable. If the worst thing I can say about a game is that I just want to keep on playing it — while feeling totally satisfied by a fun, creative final fight — I’d call that game a success. Cadence of Hyrule… well, rules.