This post contains some spoilers about the structure and content of The Champions’ Ballad DLC for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Readers beware.
Earlier this month, Nintendo unveiled the surprise release of Breath of the Wild’s The Champions’ Ballad DLC. This was incredibly exciting news for fans of the game and for some, like myself, a reason to revisit the game. Well, earlier today I finished playing through the new DLC, and I have thoughts.
What’s in The Champions’ Ballad?
Breath of the Wild is an incredible game. It’s a masterwork in open world design and a testament to the value of true exploratory freedom in games. Many also have pointed out that it sets a new standard for open world games to come. Combing its overworld in search of new shrines, side quests, Korok seeds, and treasures never ceases to delight and surprise. The most memorable parts of the game are these delectable moments of discovery, of finding hidden shrines and treasures in vast deserts, snowy mountains, rolling hills. Almost anything that looks like a distinct “spot” will have something to discover, even if it’s just a Korok hiding under a rock or a metal chest buried in a riverbed.
The Champions’ Ballad DLC has three separate parts. The first segment is a reunion tour of The Great Plateau, the second is a number of minor challenges in the overworld that allow access to a handful of new shrines, and the finale is a new “Divine Beast”-style dungeon. But I have to admit that I wanted something more than what this expansion has to offer. In the end, The Champions’ Ballad does add a solid bit of content to the game… just not the kind of content that makes Breath of the Wild truly great.
The Good Parts
The meat of the DLC is the challenges and shrines added to the overworld, several for each of the four champions. These challenges are sort of like the shrine quests found throughout the game, but much less puzzle/riddle-oriented. Once completed, they activate shrines in a lot of the in-between spaces in Hyrule, some of the “spots” that seemed a little bit more empty. I like that the challenges bring shrines into some of the “shouldn’t-there-be-a-shrine-around-somewhere?” spaces in the world. It feels almost like finding things you missed.
The shrines themselves are fairly strong by comparison to the base game’s content (I’ve completed nearly all the shrines in the main game). They’re challenging and diverse, and only occasionally tedious. There are 16 of them, which is a comfortable amount given that they all feel pretty carefully crafted. Also, the DLC includes a pretty dang cool ancient Sheikah motorcycle, which is certainly hard to complain about.
As for the story beats in the DLC, there are certainly a few charming moments. In the context of Breath of the Wild’s existing flashback-based storytelling, the additions here are definitely heartfelt, despite being pretty sparse on detail or character development.
The Bad Parts
One of the most common criticisms of expansion content is that it often fails to ease players back into the game. How does The Champions’ Ballad address this? It starts you out right back at The Great Plateau, the base game’s starting area; only all of your health is drained away and you’re given an item that can one-shot enemies at close range, putting you in this weird insta-death version of The Great Plateau. So yeah, their approach is sort of “Don’t remember how to play? Tough shit, figure it out or watch a lot of ten-second loading screens between repeated deaths.” This was… not a great first impression. I wasn’t booting up the game to go do a bunch of other stuff before dipping into the DLC. I wanted to hop right in. The DLC didn’t have to be easy, I just wanted it to start a bit… gentler.
But I hung on and “got gud.” Breath of the Wild may have an odd button configuration, but it’s not too hard to pick back up, to remember old habits. I figured it out, got past the first part, and got back my generous health pool. Next was several new spots on the map where I would run into Kass (everyone’s favorite broad-shouldered accordion bird) and get a cute little song about the challenges that need to be completed. Upon completing the new challenges and shrines for each Divine Beast, there is a thrilling battle against an “illusory” version of that beast’s final boss. These encounters are rehashed boss fights in which Link’s resources are limited in order to make the fight more challenging. They’re boring. They’re the same fights as the main game, I was just forced to do them a little more efficiently. They didn’t wind up giving me all that much trouble, but they were still frustrating content barriers that I had to get past to see the expansion’s finale.
After repeating the Divine Beast boss battles, I reached the final dungeon, which functions like a miniature Divine Beast. It’s referred to as a Divine Beast with the in-game text, but appears to just be a mechanized dungeon in an underground cave; at no point is it addressed what this final trial dungeon actually is. That aside, it doesn’t provide a whole lot of interesting challenge, but it at least avoids overstaying its welcome.
Finally, I challenged the last boss (a fight with some nice variety, but I don’t really have much to say about it) and got my sweet new motorcycle. Naturally, the DLC’s cool gadget is gated behind the entire rest of its content, so I didn’t really have much to do with the neat bike. Since Breath of the Wild is so centered on exploring I can probably forgive this, but I do wish I’d gotten the motorcycle before I’d exhausted all the new content. That said, I could still use it to hunt down outfits if I so desire.
I also want to point out that the story components in the DLC lack any sort of stakes. They lean heavily on the gravity of the main game’s plot, telling you more about the game’s long-deceased champions, but… not much. I found myself underwhelmed by most of the new memories (except for Urbosa’s, because it’s fun to watch her being an unrelenting badass). The DLC is not very ambitious in its storytelling, and instead settles for pointing out “another side” of each of the champions.
What’s Missing from The Champions’ Ballad?
The Champions’ Ballad has some good moments, but unfortunately ends up miring itself in repetition of the weaker parts of the base game. There’s a portion of the DLC focusing on each champion, and they don’t differ all that much from each other in format. The final dungeon component is nice, but it’s essentially another collection of discrete small challenges rather than a big, unfolding spacial puzzle like some of the main game’s Divine Beasts. It’s got a fair amount of content (probably a good 5-7 hours, depending on how you play). The rehashed boss battles occasionally feel clever but mostly just feel like things you’ve done before, but meaner. None of this content is much of a departure in quality from the base game, but it’s not playing to the core strength of the game. Here’s what I would have wanted from an expansion:
A New Space to Explore
Give me a new area! All of the shrine and dungeon content in this expansion could have been introduced in a whole new space to explore. Hell, I don’t even need half the shrines. All I want is a new place to stomp around that I haven’t seen yet. Introduce a portal to a mysterious island (like The Shivering Isles does for The Elder Scrolls IV). Graft a new chunk onto the map (like The Frozen Wilds does for Horizon: Zero Dawn). It doesn’t really matter how its accessed; the best way to expand an open world game is to give the player more world to explore!
I understand that Hyrule as it is was very lovingly crafted over a long period of time. It’s huge and dense, and I sure as hell haven’t found everything there is to find in it. But I have seen most of it. There are no corners I can turn where I’ll see a whole new stable or forest or stretch of desert. I know I’ve missed plenty of details, sure, but I’ve seen all the places.
More importantly, Nintendo knows I’ve seen most of it. This DLC is only accessible after regaining control of all four divine beasts. The assumption is that unless the player rushed the main quest, they’re at or near the endgame when they get to this content. As much as I like to have a scattering of new shrines to find, it ultimately feels like nothing more than scraps. I can go find the things they added, but there’s no real sense of discovery.
A New Mystery to Solve
The Champions’ Ballad begins with Zelda’s disembodied voice telling Link to return to the Shrine of Awakening and find a new secret. The central conceit of the story is the unveiling of new memories surrounding Hyrule’s four champions, each of which is a minor, if charming, interaction with Princess Zelda. As I played through the DLC, the driving motivation to progress through it was “let’s see what else is in this DLC” (also “let me get that sweet bike”). The story told by The Champions’ Ballad does a nice job capturing the melancholy of this game’s iteration of Hyrule, but the story it tells has no hook and no stakes.
So what did I want instead? I wanted the DLC to set up something new to discover. I wanted to hear a rumor about a hidden weapon that would help defeat Ganon, or learn some insight into the ancient Sheikah civilization whose relics and technology are found across the world. It’s not so hard to imagine some kind of new story component to uncover, especially if it was contained in a new areas.
I know my take on the quality of shrines and boss fights in Breath of the Wild doesn’t align with everyone else’s. And I also realize that the DLC I wanted would be bigger in scope than what they supplied. But I think many would agree that the best part of the game is exploring and discovering. I’d gladly wait longer, and pay more, for DLC that extends the exploration aspect that the base game nailed so well. Is it too much to ask for a Breath of the Wild expansion that gives us more of that?