Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // All images courtesy of Nintendo
Well, the Game Awards might have been held in the Microsoft Theater but I think it’s fair to say Nintendo was best in show. Not only did Breath of the Wild win the much deserved Game of the Year award, Nintendo released the much anticipated second and final expansion for the newly christened GotY that night.
So is The Champions’ Ballad Breath of the Wild’s swan song?
The short answer is not quite, but close. The long answer is below.
Starting The Champions’ Ballad requires clearing out four difficult camps of enemies with the “help” of a new weapon called the One-Hit Obliterator. The reason the Obliterator “helps” instead of helps is because Link is not exempt from the one-hit thing. As long as you’re holding it, Ganon’s minions can and will kill you if they so much as poke you. And they have numbers and archers on their side, which makes the obliteration of the camps on the Great Plateau a tense undertaking. When the cutscene triggers and the new shrine rises from the ground, you’ll feel equal parts accomplished and relieved.
This theme of unlocking shrines carries through the entirety of the DLC, as once you clear the four new shrines of the Great Plateau, the true Champions’ Ballad begins. Four mysterious monuments appear, one by each divine beast, each inscribed with three pictures of where the corresponding Champions’ trials took place. Luckily, Kass somehow beats you to every monument and knows pieces of the titular song that will point you in the right direction. With only your wits and everyone’s favorite bird bard’s clues, you must find and recreate the trial to raise shrines.
These shrine scavenger hunts encourage the sense of discovery that makes Breath of the Wild so incredible. You’re not just checking off glowing dots on a map, you’re having to Sherlock your way around Hyrule to find the sites. Even though every copy of The Champions’ Ballad has the same shrines in the same places, finding each one feels special because you had to put the clues together yourself. Nothing holds your hand through the DLC, and thus you don’t share ownership of your accomplishments with a way-finding algorithm.
The scavenger hunts also demonstrate why Nintendo deserves the best game direction award, as The Champions’ Ballad is a virtuoso demonstration of non-combat difficulty. The game rewards exploration and knowledge of the map without relying on hiding things in frustratingly obtuse places.
The new shrines highlight the strengths of the game’s puzzle design while keeping the endgame difficulty. All of the sixteen new shrines contain two or three puzzles that require clever combinations of Link’s various powers to complete. A few highlights include a puzzle that made me feel like the first man in Hyrule to figure out that water conducts electricity, a surprising subversion of the standard “combat trial” shrine, and a build-your-own-staircase challenge. While several shrines feature the Switch’s frustrating gyroscope, none of them run on the dreaded brand of video game logic that leaves you wondering if the puzzle designers were getting kickbacks from people who make online walkthroughs.
In a move that caught me by surprise, The Champions’ Ballad culminates with an entirely new dungeon. While it’s certainly no Water Temple, it’s no Stone Tower or Snowpeak Ruins either. The dungeon is good without being great, which is slightly disappointing considering how much fun the shrines leading up to it are.
On the less positive side of things, the DLC forces you to fight all four of the bosses again, which feels like a missed opportunity. It is slightly more complicated because they limit you to the corresponding Champion’s equipment for each of the four aspects of Ganon, but the bosses weren’t the strongest part of Breath of the Wild and they’re not the strongest part of The Champions’ Ballad either. A surprise and surprisingly excellent fifth boss at the end of the new dungeon exacerbates these boss fight blues because it demonstrates how cool more new bosses could’ve been.
And your reward for all of this is your very own divine beast, in the form of a unicorn motorcycle. It’s absolutely ridiculous in the best possible way, letting you pop wheelies as you seek shrines, korok seeds, the expansion treasure chests, or whatever else you might have left to find. Considering how focused on the endgame the DLC is, you’ll probably not have much use for the motorcycle, but c’mon. You’re tearing through Hyrule on a motorcycle. It’s worth it for the novelty alone.
Despite being billed as a story-based expansion, The Champions’ Ballad is comparatively light on lore next to the ten or so hours of additional gameplay. The five additional cutscenes expand the story from the base game and flesh out the personalities of the champions, but it’s all backstory. It’s not much of a surprise considering the drive of Breath of the Wild’s narrative is your personal story of exploration and discovery, but it is worth mentioning.
All things considered, The Champions’ Ballad is a reason to jump back into Hyrule, which is all it needs to be for me to wholeheartedly recommend it. There are a ton of reasons why Breath of the Wild deserves to be 2017’s Game of the Year, and The Champions’ Ballad injects even more wonder and discovery into a game overflowing with both. Take the plunge back into the wild— you won’t regret it.