Zelda: The champions ballad
The fat lady sings for 2017’s best game – and she carries a decent tune
The latest DLC for Breath Of The Wild is here, and Link’s got a motorbike.
Forget any notion of this being the ‘story DLC’. The Champions’ Ballad is, in fact, a set of trials tied together by a wisp of narrative thread. That and the absence of new regions to explore might come as a disappointment, but by the time this add-on is over, you’ll have a Goron-sized grin plastered across your face all the same. As far as the story goes, don’t expect to learn much beyond what you already knew. Instead, we get a bit of extra background colour about the Champions themselves, detailed in flashbacks to when Zelda met each of them. There are some delightful moments, notably, a showcase of absolute badassery from Urbosa (easily our pick of the four Champions), and a tender scene involving Mipha and a young Sidon. Daruk, meanwhile, displays an unlikely but endearing vulnerability, and while Revali’s still annoyingly smug, we do get a glimpse of another side to him.
Though they’re fairly short, these are among the best-directed cutscenes in the game, and amplify the sadness of the story. It’s another reminder of the Ghibli influence: behind the sweetness and humour, there’s a lingering undercurrent of melancholy, and the bittersweet grace note at its conclusion earns the tears it’ll draw from those most invested in the tale. It’s a ballad for a reason, you know.
As for Link, this means a return to where it all began, as you’re summoned to the Shrine Of Resurrection to pick up a brand new weapon and start the kind of test that would make Hidetaka Miyazaki nod appreciatively. The One-Hit Obliterator (and what a brilliantly no-nonsense name that is) is deadly in more than one respect: it’s true to its name, but holding it reduces Link’s health to a quarter of a heart. In other words, every enemy is a potential one-hit obliterator, too. Oh, and you can’t put it down until you’ve finished the first part of the trial, which asks you to clear out four groups of enemies and complete the shrines that emerge once you’ve slain the last of them.
The upshot is that the biggest enemies pose less of a challenge than before; the leaping Lizalfos are a pain, yes, but since you’re quicker and nimbler than the hulking Moblins you’re likely to down them before the message to take a swing
at you has travelled from pea-brain to limb. By contrast, their smaller cohorts become more fearsome threats: it’s a chastening moment when you find yourself frantically sprinting from a pair of electric Keese, only to inadvertently collide with the edge of a spiked barrier.
It’s tense stuff, and some will hate the lack of a safety net as they fall to the very last enemy in a group. Yet it serves a dual purpose. For one, it’s a timely reminder of how dangerous the plateau felt at the very start of the game. And for those who’ve accrued the hearts, weapons, and armour to all but transform themselves into an unstoppable force by the endgame, it represents a trial worthy of the name. Since you need to have tamed all four Divine Beasts to play The Champions’ Ballad, it’s obviously designed for players who know what they’re doing. We’ve all grown complacent by this stage, and so it’s fitting that we’re made to feel vulnerable once more.
And that’s just the appetiser. The Obliterator is put away for good (pity; it would have been a nice option for proficient combatants) and four new waypoints appear on the map. Here you’ll meet avian beefcake Kass, who’s working on an accordion tribute to the four champions. Nearby, you’ll find structures that reveal the approximate locations of three challenges for each, while Kass’s words give you a clue about your objective. The rest you have to figure out for yourself.
There are no new regions to explore – though much of what you’ll find here is tucked away in places there’s a good chance you haven’t yet visited – but this part of the adventure captures one of the most satisfying things about Breath Of The Wild. It isn’t simply about dumbly following a map marker, but using the information you have to pinpoint where you’ve got to go (and, in a couple of cases, what to do when you get there) which makes the sense of accomplishment all the greater. For one, you’ll have to wait for the dawn to show you the way; another depends on the nightly arrival of a majestic creature. Ringed gates provide courses for shield surfers, and sand-seal riders, while a third offers a Pilotwings-esque gliding challenge. Each of these unlocks another shrine, making up a dozen in all, in addition to the ones on the Great Plateau.
In fact, the shrines here are among the best in the whole game, the hallmark of a team that has naturally grown confident at building these elaborate puzzle challenges. Many require careful timing as well as thought, while one thrilling standout is a true test of your nerve: a gauntlet of spikes where just one hit is fatal, with a final, devious flourish putting you on a long, narrow platform with hazards thudding in from either side as the back wall slowly, menacingly, grinds toward you.
Awaiting you at the end of all this is another dungeon, styled like the Divine Beasts. Compact and intricate, it’s essentially a piece of machinery operated from within, with Link cast as a tiny cog placed into various slots to make it function in different ways. Then follows a climactic encounter which, unlike the disappointingly recycled battles that round off each Champion’s story, is completely new – and it’s a match for the fight against Calamity Ganon at the very least.
At first, the ludicrous reward it yields (see Bike Drop) feels like it’s come too late. Most will have seen just about every corner of Hyrule before even starting this DLC, after all. Yet it also sums up the best reason to play The Champions’ Ballad: it’s basically an excuse to spend another eight hours or so immersed in one of the most rich and bountiful game worlds ever made. And that’s an invitation only a fool would pass up.
“FOR THOSE WHO’VE TRANSFORMED INTO AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE, IT’S A TRIAL WORTHY OF THE NAME”
It’s disappointing that the battles against Ganon’s various forms are simply revisited, but being forced to fight them with limited kit freshens things up a touch.
Format Switch (reviewed), Wii U Publisher Nintendo Developer Nintendo ETA Out now Players 1