The most surprising thing about Cadence of Hyrule, despite being so unusual, is how much it immediately feels like a Zelda game. Aesthetically, it sits somewhere between A Link to the Past and the cartoonier Four Swords games, but its Zelda roots run much deeper than that; This is not just Crypt of the NecroDancer reskinned. Much like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on 3DS, Cadence is a shorter, smaller riff on the classic 2D Zelda template with a unique twist, a game that will strike a chord with long-time fans but also feels fresh and exciting.
In the game's opening, Cadence (the protagonist of Crypt of the NecroDancer) is dropped into Hyrule by a mysterious vortex and must choose whether to awaken either Link or Zelda. From there, the game is pretty open–you explore a randomized overworld map in search of classic Zelda items and the four dungeons that need to be completed before you can storm Hyrule Castle, which has fallen to the game's big bad, the villainous musician Octavo. You'll eventually unlock both characters (and, potentially, two others), but being able to play as Zelda from the outset is wonderful and feels like a long-overdue correction of the series' namesake frequently being sidelined.
The game doesn't tell you exactly where to go at first, but thankfully the initial hour or two of simply moving between screens, uncovering your map and figuring out how your procedurally generated version of Hyrule fits together, is exhilarating. If there are monsters on the screen, you'll need to move in time with the beat of the game's music, indicated by marker at the bottom of your UI, timing your movements in four directions to avoid and attack enemies ripped from the Zelda universe. Each enemy has its own attack pattern and most have a clear "tell"–if a wolf looks like it's about to pounce, for instance, you'll want to make sure that you're not on the square in front of it on the next beat, whereas bigger enemies might have larger attack areas that will be marked on the ground one beat ahead of their assault. It's a system that the game frames as a "dance" between you and your enemies, and this is apt, as I would nearly always find myself bopping and tapping my foot alongside my movements.
Learning the rhythmic patterns of enemies, and reaching the point where you figure out how to best attack them so that you can properly counter-attack or defend yourself, is a consistent pleasure. When you slip into the zone and feel like your movements and steps are perfectly in sync with the rhythm and movements of your enemies, it's extremely satisfying, especially as you find new areas and monsters throughout the game and slowly conquer them. Coming back to an area you found intimidating early in the game and handily slaughtering all of the enemies, which causes the music to calm and loot to drop, feels fantastic.
Attacks and interactions are automatic depending on where you're standing, with each screen being divided into grid-based titles that you move between. There's an emphasis on being mindful of your movements and your surroundings on a beat-by-beat basis throughout the entire game, so it's handy that every song follows the same tempo–once you're tapped into it, your ability to move through the game is dependent on your ability to read the many different enemy animations and quickly plot out your movements on the fly. The only exceptions are certain hazards in the game world that slow or speed up the beat, and one inspired puzzle which asks you to step to the beat of a familiar piece of Zelda music.
The entire soundtrack is made up of beautifully reworked pieces from the Zelda series, with a number of tunes featuring as speedier, upbeat variations. They're all wonderful remixes of tracks that many players will already feel a strong attachment to, and the mostly consistent beat throughout the game keeps things manageable since you only really need to learn and become accustomed to one rhythm. There are plenty of fun aural Easter eggs for long-time Zelda fans, too. It's worth noting that there is also an accommodating accessibility option called "fixed beat" mode which stops enemies from moving unless you're moving, removing the need to follow the rhythm.
Cadence of Hyrule also has light roguelike elements, but it's a very generous system that encourages you to use your consumable items rather than stockpiling them. When you die, you lose any keys you've collected, all rupees, your shovel, your torch, and any stat-boosting items you've picked up. Your vital gear stays with you, though, as do all the weapons you've found. You won't need to do anything as drastic as finding your best sword or the hookshot again, which mitigates any frustration and keeps you focused on pushing forward.
Many of these classic Zelda items are hidden away in the overworld, but none of them are actually necessary to progress through the game. In fact, it's entirely possible to simply make a determined beeline towards each dungeon, and the game's timed leaderboards will likely entice many a speedrunner. For the rest of us, though, making the effort to find and use all the classic Zelda items will make the challenge easier, and going to the lengths to locate the items strewn throughout Hyrule is a hunt worth taking because simply playing the game is a joy in itself.