Four months later, I’m only halfway through Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s not because I’ve stopped playing – far from it. 120 hours later, I’m still exploring. I can’t remember the last time I played a game and deliberately slowed my pace to ensure I see everything, to make every Sheikah tower-uncovered map piece last as long possible. Nintendo’s new DLC The Master Trials caters for players who, like me, are still pottering about Hyrule, hunting Koroks or pinning down the next shrine – as well as to those who have finished, by offering up a couple of much tougher challenges.
Master Trials’ main focus is its Trial of the Sword dungeon, a 54-floor challenge which strips Link of his regular equipment and forces you to fight through rooms of enemies, scrounging weapons along the way. It’s a format the Zelda series has employed plenty of times before, sometimes as part of the main game, but here the formula is at its absolute best. Much of this comes from Breath of the Wild’s excellent underlying systems. Here, stealth, weapon durability, Rune usage and combat moves have never been more important. The same goes for the game’s physics and chemistry engines, as you’re often required to employ tricksy techniques to take down foes while underpowered.
Set within an illusory mind palace, Trial of the Sword also features some of the game’s best puzzle map layouts. Where previous Zelda trial dungeons featured bland or repetitive designs, the geography of each level here is wrapped into the challenge. Do you swim over to that floating platform to go for the chest, but risk getting spotted and sniped by a Lizalfos on the way? Or do you hang back, hiding, picking off enemies from afar, but burn through your arrow stash? And how do you get up there?
Levels start off small in size and simple in enemy calibre, but often hide secret treasure chests or cooking ingredients. As you progress, the areas become bigger, and add water-filled arenas, weather or environmental effects, along with enemies with electricity, fire and ice attacks. Every so often these challenges are punctuated by a rest floor – a golden, sunlit area with a cooking pot and a few ingredients – a sight which becomes as welcome as any Resident Evil save room. With health items so rare and without your usual larder to dip into, Trial of the Sword even forces you to bring your best culinary knowledge to the table.
The 54 floors are divided into three sets of levels, the culmination of which upgrades the Master Sword a little more. Die within any part of the dungeon and there’s no second chance – you are kicked back to your last save point outside the challenge, all your progress erased. It’s a situation I saw increasingly often from the game’s mid-tier set of levels onwards, which feature bottomless pit floors, gusting winds and the first Guardians. The dungeon concludes with levels where you must battle the elements as well as enemies, above lava, deep in snow, Link’s teeth chattering and health faltering. I’ve not yet finished it myself – like so much in Zelda, it’s something I will get to in my own time – but the streams of players attempting and completing it on launch day were a joy to see, and the pay-off at the end is well worth the struggle.
Back out in Hyrule, Master Trials also adds a sprinkling of helpful and fan-favourite objects to find and make use of. Clues added to your quest log give you a rough idea of each item’s location, with some time and persistence then required to pin down their exact hiding spots. Items range from a medallion which lets you register a new fast-travel point (useful), a mask which alerts you to nearby hidden Korok puzzles (very handy), and costume items like Majora’s Mask, Midna’s helmet and the eye-openingly tight Tingle suit – which, while offering status effects, are more for show.
The other useful addition is Hero’s Path mode, a new function for your Sheikah slate which provides an interactive map of your progress through the game. You can rewatch your entire journey (up to the last 200 hours of it, anyway), as the game has tracked and saved your route around Hyrule, including every teleportation and death, right from the game’s start. It’s something which could have been useful in the game at launch but is a welcome addition now – it’s timely, as players look to discover where they haven’t been, which forests and hilltops might still hold secrets. After everyone’s exploratory first steps around the Great Plateau, it’s fascinating to see the path others have taken. Watching the animated Google Maps-like icon whizz around friends’ incarnations of Hyrule, it only becomes more apparent how personal each player’s playthrough is – from which Ancient Beasts were tackled in which order, what shrines and quests were uncovered and when, to how everyone tackled Hyrule Castle. It seems a strange thing to celebrate, but the feature will undoubtedly slow down my playthrough even further.
For those who are done with the main game and want a much, much harder challenge, Master Mode is Zelda: Breath of the Wild for those who really like dying a whole lot (or who are just better than me). Enemies regenerate health, come in harder versions from the start and detect Link a lot easier. Even after honing my skills in the Trial of the Sword without my usual armoury of weapons, being plunged back onto the Great Plateau with just a tree branch to attack with and with a White Lynel bearing down upon me was a wincingly harder challenge.
You can’t fairly review Master Trials now, as it is only available as part of the game’s Expansion Pass, which also boasts a more substantial expansion due at the end of the year. How do you improve on a game which already offers so much? Master Trials isn’t the final answer to that question – the meatier Champion’s Ballad DLC will launch in time for Christmas with a brand new story campaign. But, with people still playing Breath of the Wild and uncovering all its secrets, Master Trials is the best possible answer for this summer, for this particular moment.