I knew in my heart of hearts Nintendo planned to release The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's Champions' Ballad DLC on us with no warning. That didn't stop me from expelling a string of swear words when the news went live at the 2017 Video Game Awards, though.
Best-laid plans, right? This is a tricky time of year; there's a lot to do before Picks of the Year and Holiday Guides are finalized, and Nintendo just plonked a significant load of Zelda content on our heads. Sleepless nights incoming.
Oh well. Life is rough.
I downloaded Champions' Ballad and played through its opening bit. Surprisingly, even though Champions' Ballad is supposed to be a story-based DLC pack, its first couple of hours resemble the previously-released DLC pack, the Master Trials. Link is expected to overcome big challenges while suffering significant handicaps. Needless to say, it's a bit of a let-down if you just want to get your hands on that sweet motorcycle reward.
But I started to appreciate (most of) the opening act for Champions' Ballad as I got warmed up. In time, I understood the purpose of the new challenge: Nintendo uses it to take you back to those very first hours of trial, error, and caution you experienced when you started Breath of the Wild.
Remember how you wandered around the Great Plateau and ran across a low-ranking Bokoblin that used Link's head for tee-ball practise? Yeah, that's going to happen to you again in Champions' Ballad.
Many of us are returning to Breath of the Wild for the first time in months, and while our muscle memory is still intact, it's in need of a good rub-down. The first part of the Champions' Ballad is like a warm-up by fire: You're only allowed to wield one weapon, and even though it murders your foes in one hit, it drains Link's health to a quarter-heart. In other words, you die in one hit, too.
The Great Plateau is swarming with four nests of powerful enemies that need to be dispatched before you can move on. You can't spam your new uber-weapon, either; it takes a few seconds to charge. It's exactly what you want by your side when you're sneaking up on a silver Moblin, but it won't do you a lot of good against a lowly pack of Lizalfols wielding Deku leaves (this is indeed a scenario I came up against. I died ignobly).
Maybe you stopped fighting stealthily and cleverly by the time you got 20, 30, 40 hours into Breath of the Wild. Well, the first bit of Champions' Ballad forces you to slow down and start looking again. Look at your terrain for hiding spots. Look for rocks and exploding barrels. Parasail in from above and find advantageous high ground. Look for enemy scouts who can be taken down before they alert their comrades to your presence (thankfully, you're allowed to keep your bows and arrows).
I appreciate what Nintendo was going for here, and I enjoyed getting back to the core of what made Breath of the Wild such a unique Zelda experience for us. It'd be a good way to start this much-anticipated DLC, if not for one thing: The Shrines.
It's not enough to beat all the monsters in marked enemy encampments. You have to beat them and complete the new Shrines that rise out of the ground. The first Shrine I came across, Collected Soul, is fine. It's not too short, not too long, it's interesting to solve, and it's named after a '90s alternative band. High marks across the board.
The next Shrine tasks you with navigating a darkened labyrinth, and it's not so bad either. But playing the next one—Stop to Start—is like careening down a spike-lined slide and plunging directly into a vat of salt. You need to make a lot of tricky maneuvers and jumps past spike traps. One hit means death and when you die (not "if"), you start all over again. It's just monumentally unfun.
The final Shrine is a Major Test of Strength that's likewise long, but at least appears to have some checkpoints in it. The area you work through is lousy with Guardian robots, and again, one hit kills you—but it feels a little fairer than Stop to Start because you're not expected to make shaky jumps across moving platforms suspended above pits and spikes. If you fail to notice an enemy before charging in, or if you fail to lock down its pattern before attacking, that's on you.
I persevered and finished the four Shrines, but I don't have my motorcycle yet (boo!). I intend to keep playing, though I admit I thought of giving up a couple of times during my Stop to Start ordeal. It's weird to see Nintendo get most of this DLC right, then get one small but vital part so wrong.
Hopefully the worst of the pain is over, because otherwise I'm happy to be back in Hyrule with my fine stable of horses.