Why Zelda's Champions' Ballad add-on doesn't really work
Another song to sing.
It seems a shame to end Nintendo's extraordinary 2017 on a bum note, but here we are. The Champion's Ballad, the second expansion pack for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, is a workmanlike add-on that gives you a little bit more of one of the best games in years, without giving you more of what you really want.
Is that because Breath of the Wild's magic is alchemical, unquantifiable - a volatile cocktail of systems and geography, happenstance and craft, that can't be lengthened by the yard? Well, no, actually. It's true that much of the game's immense strength lies in the way it meshes robust simulation systems with an approach to design that is open-ended and playful, if typically precise. Although you're motivated by progress, you play with this game rather than through it, and that's a hard thing to expand upon.
But The Master Trials - the first and, we all assumed, lesser of the two packs included in the game's expansion pass - actually did this pretty well. Both the high-difficulty Master Mode and the Trial of the Sword, a sequence of tough challenge rooms, were all about pushing the player deeper into that systemic web. Their stern difficulty and meagre resources encouraged players to improvise even further, to make more creative use of an even broader selection of the game's formidable toolset. (For example, I never was that fussed about cooking beyond ensuring I had a good supply of 'hearty' meals for topping up health - I tended to rely on armour pieces for resistances and stat boosts. But there's no getting away with that in either of these modes.)
At the time, we felt mildly underwhelmed by The Master Trials and looked forward to The Champion's Ballad, which would surely be the true expansion to Breath of the Wild; it promised a major new quest that would extend the storyline. But perhaps we were looking at it the wrong way, and it was The Master Trials that showed us what a meaningful expansion for The Breath of the Wild really looked like. At any rate, The Champions' Ballad is not it.
Given that this would be a story expansion and storyline is by far Breath of the Wild's weakest element, we should probably have seen this coming. Nevertheless, the pitch was enticing. The Champions' Ballad would tell of the four historical heroes whose spirits guide Link in Breath of the Wild, and how Princess Zelda came to recruit them all 100 years before the events of the game. How this would be handled was a mystery, but it was hard to resist speculating about a reworked map showing a pre-catastrophe Hyrule. Rumours spread of a huge, complex dungeon to rival the temples and labyrinths of classic Zelda - rumours that wished away what was the most disappointing of Breath of the Wild's many deviations from series formula.
(Mild spoilers for the structure and content of the expansion pack follow.)
None of this has come to pass. The Champions' Ballad doesn't rework the map and doesn't extend it either. The Champions and the events of 100 years ago only appear in some typically cheesy cutscenes. The main quest, which can only be started after you have tamed all four Divine Beasts, takes you through a series of gameplay challenges out in the world - riddles, combat, races that have you literally jumping through hoops - which in turn unlock 16 new shrines (Breath of the Wild's micro-dungeon challenge rooms) and remixed versions of the four Divine Beast boss fights. At the end there is a new dungeon, and it is excellent - but it isn't some new Water Temple. It is to all intents and purposes a fifth Divine Beast, compact and ingenious, with puzzles that reorder the geometry of the rooms themselves.
None of this new content is bad. The worst you can say of the composition of the expansion is that it's roughly balanced; the opening challenge, which asks you to clear four enemy encampments on the Great Plateau using a special weapon that grants one-hit kills, but reduces your health to half a heart, is the hardest part of the whole thing. Some of the challenges are a bit cheap, some are fun; the remixed boss fights, which restrict your equipment, should be tougher than they are, but mostly just require patience. The shrines, with a couple of irritating exceptions, are among the cleverest and most satisfying in the game, and the concluding dungeon is excellent. The final boss fight is a truly wonderful surprise, dramatically staged - it's the most original and exciting component of the pack.
The issues are, first, that none of this does anything the game didn't already do. Second, and much more seriously: running through this quest, especially if you are already deep into the game or done with it, which you are almost bound to be, doesn't successfully plug you back into this matchless open-world. It becomes the one thing that Breath of the Wild had so remarkably managed to avoid, the classic curse of the open-world game: a checklist of coordinates to visit as you ping around the map with fast travel. The designers work to disguise this a little. The locations of the challenges aren't marked directly on your map but revealed in murals, which you then have to cross-reference with the map and mark yourself. But that's just transcription, not discovery.
The Champions' Ballad fares better when it comes to booty. The final reward, a mystic motorbike called the Master Cycle Zero, is a cool toy, although it's not necessarily more fun than riding around on horseback; the controls aren't as physically convincing, and it's certainly less romantic. A side quest for ancient horse armour that lets you summon your horse anywhere is just as useful. There are some interesting armour pieces, including a stealth/disguise set that is relatively easy to get and could be game-changing for Master Mode runs.
It's telling that I felt much more reconnected with the Breath of the Wild that I loved and played to death this year when hunting down these treasure items in side quests - following clues, exploring the nooks and crannies of a world I know very well but still not completely - than I did when completing the main quest. It's also telling that, since finishing it, I've been more inclined to go back to my Master Mode run than to play with all these new toys in my main game save. The Champions' Ballad sounds like it adds a lot more to the game than The Master Trials did. In actual fact, it has added a good deal less.