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Why Zelda's Champions' Ballad add-on doesn't really work

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.