The opening hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are a revelation. You emerge into the world, a weakened pup. Your only weapon is a stick, and your only clothing is a pair of shrunken pants. As you timidly creep into your first combat encounter, you are quickly crushed by a single blow. It is communicated that the world is full of danger. You must be clever and resourceful to survive, utilizing bombs, environmental advantages, and health management if you want any hope of overcoming the odds.
Once you finally escape the constraints of the initial area, the wide expanse of Hyrule stretching before you, there is a perfect balance between the punishing combat, and the exploratory elements. But as you grow stronger from conquering shrines and Divine Beasts, the fear of the world begins to dissipate. One of the game’s biggest flaws is armor damage is calculated by simple subtraction. If your armor rating is 10 and an enemy with 15 damage attacks you, you will take 5 damage. This is why the early game is so punishing, you have a small health pool, and limited armor. The alternative to this is to make armor protect against a percentage of damage, which scales much better at later armor levels (ala Dark Souls). While on the one hand it is important to reward player progress, the armor system completely undermines the late-game difficulty, making combat more of a chore than an exercise in tension.
The Master Trials DLC undoes this problem by offering three levels of combat gauntlets which completely strip Link of of all of his weapons, armor, and food items. The reward is great, a permanent upgrades to the Master Sword which increase its attack power by 10 for each beaten arena. In the Master Trials the player is set back to square one, and the only hope of survival is to rely on ingenuity, clever tactics, and runes that have likely been tossed to the wayside in favor of powerful end game weapons.
By performing this reset, and by forcing the player to restart the entire trial level if they die, the tension of the game’s early hours returns with a honed precision. Each floor of the trials isn’t merely a combat arena in which enemies are thrown at the Hylian meat grinder that is the player character. These levels instead employ novel concepts, such as being sniped at by elemental archers as your raft drifts closer to the enemy homebase, or an area where cold resistance items must be maintained to avoid freezing to death. I felt myself returning to long abandoned tactics, such as attempting to draw out enemies one-by-one, and setting up bomb traps to knock enemies into precipices. I utilized bow headshots to split up enemies and knock them into magma. I used my weapons and health items with great care. And I’ll admit it, I cheesed from time to time. I hid in trees, lobbing bombs at the defenseless Mokoblins, their noodley bodies flying through the air from force of my pyrotechnics (The rag doll in this game really never gets old).
While the combat in BOTW is still one of its weaker links, I felt the inclination to once again experiment with the different weapon types. I had previously resigned myself to mostly using small swords, simply because the defensive capabilities of a shield are always useful. However, here I found myself using spears for larger groups, big weapons for fighting single enemies, and small swords for everything else. I carefully parried the deadly Guardian lasers, taking care to not waste a perfectly good shield. I made these adjustments because of the stakes, and suddenly the game’s relatively simplistic combat became rewarding again.
The difficulty presented by these trials feels measured and fair. This is largely because BOTW has already educated the player on the varying enemy types, and because it is likely that the player has already sunk a great deal of time into the game’s systems. Each trial takes about an hour or so to complete, but in my case, I died once in the first and third trial, increasing the play time.
With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo had once again struck gold in the game design department. They had married light survival game elements, with a vast open world that could be explored through the masterful climbing and gliding mechanics. They had made a Zelda game that was once again difficult. Although this difficulty eventually dissipated, the Master Trials revitalizes the strain of early game combat. The level design is tight, health items are distributed at a reasonable pace, and the combat encounters never feel completely overwhelming. While the Master Trials originally felt like a side dish to placate season pass holders until the Champions DLC comes out at the end of the year, it proves to be a worthy piece of content in its own right. By once again returning to vulnerable beginnings, we once again get to partake in the desperate fight for survival.
Rating: 8.7 / 10
Note: For the purpose of being thorough, the DLC also comes with armor, which can be discovered fairly easily. Although the Korok mask offers the useful trait of being able to find the little golden turds more easily (it starts making weird noises once you approach a hiding Korok), the rest of the armor sets offer little more than cool homages to previous Zelda games. Since its likely that much time has been dedicated to upgrading other armor sets, there is little purpose in dumping time into these. That said, I will now forever wear Tinkles armor because every time you approach a NPC they recoil in terror, which is endlessly hilarious.