Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer Featuring the Legend of Zelda is a more cohesive experience than its clumsy name suggests. Announced than less than three months ago in a Nintendo Direct, Cadence marks the first follow-up to 2017’s watershed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which reinvented the Zelda franchise by emphasizing freedom and flexibility above all else. Developed by Brace Yourself Games of Crypt of the Necromancer fame, Cadence of Hyule proves nearly as daring an experiment as Breath of the Wild in its birth-by-partnership between Nintendo and an indie dev, as well as its unerring focus on rhythmic gameplay.
Cadence of Hyrule kicks off with the player controlling Crypt of the Necromancer’s protagonist, Cadence, who has somehow found herself lost in the foreign kingdom. After the brief tutorial she disappears, and the player must choose between playing as Link or Zelda on a quest to find four musical instruments scattered across the land. Typical of Nintendo games, the narrative serves as a thin veneer that justifies the existence of some bizarre gamic happenstance — in this case, the merging of two game universes, and the newfound musical sensibilities of every organism in Hyrule.
Though the story plays it safe and simple, the world is a joy to inhabit due to its charming art style and mesmerizing beats. Indeed, the overworld and all the Zelda-famous creatures within overflow with vitality, and are drawn with intricacy and intimacy reminiscent of A Link to the Past. Much like scanning an Amiibo into Super Mario Maker to see pixelated versions of favorite characters, it is a minor delight to run into a classic baddie for the first time and see how they’ve seamlessly transitioned from their world into this one. But Cadence of Hyrule’s inventive remixes of vintage Zelda tunes may be even more remarkable than the game’s visuals, as the soundtrack boasts a whopping twenty-five songs, with nary a dull note to be heard. This is that rare sequel soundtrack that succeeds in reinventing some of the most inimitable tracks in video game history by infusing each classic with jaunty pulses and throbs of new life.
In terms of gameplay, Cadence of Hyrule essentially asks the player to play an old-school, top-down Zelda game to the rhythm of whatever song is playing at the time. Attacking, defending, moving — all are predicated on the player’s ability make spur-of-the-moment decisions in sync with the beat. While this core gameplay is taken from Crypt of the Necromancer, all the trappings are quintessential Legend of Zelda, from items like a bow, boomerang, and fire rod, to abilities like Din’s Fire and Nayru’s Love. But while these trappings are there in name, many of them do feel useless. In fact, I made it through my first playthrough never using most of the items for any purpose other than to try them out. Given that one of Breath of the Wild’s defining features is giving players the ability to create their own unique solution to a puzzle or combat situation, it feels like a notable step back that so many of the items here are so useless in both puzzle-solving and combat.
Moreover, most of the game’s puzzles are lacking in depth, focus, and variety, and combat scenarios rarely ever call for the use of anything other than the player’s main weapon. This lack of meaningful choice hampers the overall experience, and makes the game feel decidedly non-Zelda at times — a reminder that the game is a Crypt of the Necromancer sequel featuring Zelda. This is especially true in the game’s randomly generated ‘dungeons,’ which effectively amount to navigating dark rooms while fighting waves of enemies. Compared to actual Zelda dungeons, these are intensely lacking in theme, puzzles, meaningful item usage, and deliberate design.
However, there are plenty of ways in which the Crypt and Zelda elements meld more seamlessly. Outside of the aforementioned aesthetics, Hyrule’s layout is rejiggered each playthrough, but never ceases to feel like Hyrule in theme and structure (though this also means that the overworld design is never quite as tight as a Zelda game on the whole, or on a screen-by-screen basis). And little touches like Gomha turning into Gohmarracas, or fighting against a Lynel as Cadence, give the game a unique flair that works as well as one could expect.
One other point of note is the game’s difficulty curve, which starts out fairly steep but just as quickly levels off, and then steeply declines. While not nearly as brutal as the original Crypt, newcomers will no doubt find themselves flailing for the first half hour. But by the time they reach the halfway point, those same players might wish for more of the challenge that was there at the beginning, as the latter half of the game becomes a cinch once the player has enough offensive and defensive upgrades. Some fine-tuning of this difficulty curve, perhaps by subtle changes to tempo or AI aggression (or a less subtle change to heart container capacity, or a “blood moon” raised difficulty scenario, etc.), could have lent the game a more consistent sense of the risk-reward it has in its best moments. Instead, most of the game’s enemies — including the bosses — can be easily spammed once the player has found a few key upgrades; that’s a shame given the passion and dedication that clearly went into crafting the design of each enemy. And even though there is a wonderful plethora of options that allow players to tailor their experience to their own needs, a couple of different difficulty levels would have also been a nice addition.
Nevertheless, Cadence of Hyrule is such a great Nintendo game that it can be easy to forget it’s actually an indie game. At its best, it takes strengths from both influences and succeeds according to both measuring sticks. It has the polish of an indie-fied Nintendo game, but also the smart randomization of a Nintendo-fied indie roguelike. It has the classic beloved Zelda world, but also the snappy rhythm gameplay of Crypt. And when Cadence strikes these balances, it strikes them wholeheartedly. But it also falters a bit where Zelda and Crypt especially diverge — arenas like difficulty, dungeon design, and item usage. On the whole, both Zelda and Crypt fans are bound to nitpick some of these inconsistencies, but it’s hard to argue that Cadence of Hyrule isn’t a fantastic entry to both franchises, and a high-water mark for AAA-indie collaboration.