"...not just a fantastic spin-off with innovative and fun mechanics, but also a wonderful Zelda game in its own right."
Editor's note - 12/28/19: This review has been updated following the release of the free DLC, Octavo's Ode, which was released on 12/19/19.
Trying to create a spin-off game can be risky enough without also entrusting your IP to a third-party developer. But it looks like someone with a sense of rhythm at the big N decided to take a chance, giving their best-selling action-adventure franchise The Legend of Zelda to Brace Yourself Games, the creators of the hit rhythm-roguelike game, Crypt of the Necrodancer. The result is Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring the Legend of Zelda. (That's a mouthful, so we'll just call it Cadence of Hyrule from this point out). It's not just a fantastic spin-off with innovative and fun mechanics, but also a wonderful Zelda game in its own right.
Zelda games have been getting deeper and more involved narratives over the years, but Cadence of Hyrule skips that for a light and fun story that perfectly justifies its rhythm-based mechanics. Cadence, the hero of Crypt of the NecroDancer, is mysteriously transported through a portal to the land of Hyrule. (Where are we in the Zelda timeline? Who knows!) Discovering that the magical, musical maestro Octavo has put the legendary heroes of Hyrule to sleep with his golden lute, Cadence wakes up either Link or Zelda (yes, you can play as Zelda!) to set things right. Thus, you set out on an epic musical quest across Hyrule to defeat Octavo's champions and bring peace (and quiet) back to Hyrule.
Does Cadence of Hyrule "feel" like a Zelda game? Absolutely. Does it feel like a sequel to Crypt of the NecroDancer? Absolutely. With its rhythm-based combat mechanics, procedurally generated map, and randomly distributed items (A Zelda randomizer? What a novel idea!), the game radiates the spirit of both its parent series. The graphics, enemies, sound effects, power-ups, and especially the music reinforce that. With every hop, you're on a quest that many a green tunic-clad boy has been on before. It's a streamlined Zelda experience made with replayability in mind, having only four dungeons and a final castle. That isn't a bad thing, as you will want to restart the game immediately after finishing it to see if you can improve your final step count, trim your playthrough time, or try out another character.
The original Crypt of the NecroDancer's pixel art was effective, if slightly primitive, and it gets a big step up with Cadence of Hyrule. A 2D Zelda hasn't looked this good since 2004's The Minish Cap for the GBA. Character sprites are large and expressive, tapping their toes to the music when they aren't hopping along with it. The familiar areas of Hyrule (Gerudo Valley, Lost Woods, Death Mountain, etc.) are recognizable at a glance. Special effects, like the checkerboard dance floor that appears beneath you as you dance, create a subtle visual spectacle that draws in your eyes as the music simultaneously delights your ears.
The combat and gameplay are a perfect mix of Zelda and NecroDancer. Rather than swinging your sword at enemies, you ram into them on the beat. While this seems simple at first, it soon becomes much more complicated as you get new weapons with different attack ranges. Enemies dance to predictable patterns, so to defeat them without taking any damage, you must learn how each monster moves. As more monsters appear in later areas, you have to dance like a maniac to keep your hearts from reaching zero. I will admit that, at first, I found Cadence of Hyrule to be very easy, as the bosses all went down with little difficulty. But as I played more, I realized that you could customize your playthrough to be as tough or as easy as you want it.
Despite a full run of Cadence of Hyrule only taking around five to six hours, Brace Yourself Games has packed a truly remarkable amount of extras into the game. You can play not only as Link and Zelda, but also as Cadence and a secret character. You can customize your runs to enable permadeath, double speed, or even turn off the rhythm mechanics for those who have trouble moving to the beat. There's even a two-player co-op mode, giving Link and Zelda the chance to finally team up and defeat evil together!
Taking a page from Breath of the Wild, there are multiple versions of each weapon type, the most powerful of which can break if you get hit by a single enemy. Traditional Zelda power-ups (including the shield, boomerang, hook shot, fire and ice rods, and titan's mitts) are all here and work almost exactly as you would expect. The only difference is that, as with everything else in the game, you have to use them on the beat. The signature tool from NecroDancer, a shovel, also appears as you must dig your way through certain dungeons to find secrets and advance to the boss. Alongside familiar power-ups are temporary items you can use to augment your abilities, including rings and boots. As you use these items, they wear down and eventually break. Thankfully, there are tons of them throughout the world that you can buy with rupees or the new currency, diamonds.
Diamonds are earned by defeating all enemies on the screen. If you avoid damage or don't miss a single beat, you get extra diamonds! These can be used at the game over screen to purchase new temporary upgrades or even some permanent ones. It's an excellent idea to collect a ton of diamonds in the early parts of the game to make your characters powerful enough to advance through the world.
No matter how well designed the gameplay is, Cadence of Hyrule would have fallen flat if it wasn't for the absolutely incredible music. Crypt of the NercoDancer's soundtrack has become iconic, and I have little doubt the same will happen with Cadence of Hyrule. Pulse-pounding remixes of traditional Zelda tracks will have your feet tapping in time with your controller every second you play. Just as an example, the overworld theme of Cadence of Hyrule contains no fewer than five remixed overworld themes, including Tal Tal Heights from Link's Awakening, Hyrule Field from Ocarina of Time, and of course, the classic Legend of Zelda theme. Composer Danny Baranowsky deserves massive credit for his incredible chiptune soundtrack that drives every aspect of this game.
If you can't get enough of dancing your way through Hyrule, you can dig even deeper into Crypt of the NecroDancer lore with Octavo's Ode, a free piece of story DLC. Here, you play through the game from villain Octavio's surprisingly-sympathetic point-of-view. While this DLC unfortunately doesn't offer any new remixes of Zelda music, you do get an entirely different storyline with unique combat mechanics, along with a return to traditional NercoDancer-style gameplay and a dedicated Dungeon Mode. Octavo's Ode adds even more replay value to a game already packed with it, and it's well worth a playthrough after you've completed the main quest.
For Zelda fans who have been desperate for a fix since they finished their seventh run of Breath of the Wild, Cadence of Hyrule is like having a refreshing drink at the bar after hours of dancing. Its engaging mechanics, beautiful pixel art, and stunning soundtrack make it a joy to play. Cadence of Hyrule is an immensely successful spin on Zelda, and I hope that Nintendo takes more chances like this with other franchises. And as for the future of the Crypt of the NecroDancer games? Hmm... I wonder if Samus has a sense of rhythm?
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.