The first thing you should know about the Trial of the Sword, the core focus of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s first of two expansion packs, is that it is very, very difficult. The challenge strips you of all your hard-earned weapons and armor, and it takes away your vast collection of health-restoring meals and power-augmenting tonics. You’re a barefooted Link, wearing just a pair of shorts, who has to make his way through three separate 15-level endurance trials that demand you clear a room of enemies with only what you’ve collected along the way.
Even with the game’s maximum number of heart containers and three full stamina wheels, I found even just the first part of the Trial of the Sword to be punishing in some respects. It wasn’t that it ever felt oppressively hard or unfair throughout. Rather, the game very quickly ramps up difficulty from manageable situations to hectic free-for-alls, forcing players to think critically, manage their inventory, and get creative. For instance, there’s ample opportunity to make use of your environment. Try smacking Bokoblins off high circular towers into the water below — in which they can’t swim — to conserve weapon durability, or letting fire chuchus set the grass on fire to create a gust of wind and give you a quick aerial exit from a tight spot. Stockpiling special items for taking on special foes is also wise, when a choice ice arrow can instantly vanquish a dangerous fire-imbued Wizzrobe.
When you do die — and you will do so quite a few times unless you’re an especially careful and talented player — you have to start all over again. Although the second (or third or fourth) time around, you’ll be much better equipped to tackle the challenge with more precision and higher speed. And it’s precisely this combination of situational complexity, all-around versatility, and necessary replayability that makes the Trial of the Sword such a worthwhile investment. (Master Trials, the official name of the first expansion, is part of a $20 season pass you can purchase from Nintendo that comes with a second expansion later this year.) Because even once you complete it, and power up the Master Sword to its full potential, there’s still the joy of trying again under new constraints like fewer hearts, less stamina, or more daring ones like never once being hit.
I found that my third play through of the Beginner Trials, which comprises the first 15 levels of the challenge, I had mastered working through the first six rooms with ease. It was only after I began Googling more sophisticated speedrun tactics that I found that the Breath of the Wild community had already figured out the best secret of the Trial of the Sword: that it makes everyone into a speedrunner. Every time you try the challenge again, you’re better equipped, and feel incentivized, to do it faster and cleaner than before. It makes you, in a small way, part of the voracious community of gamers who compete on a global scale to outdo each other with record-setting completion times.
Because of the vast replayability and the game’s clever internal logic that allows you to approach situations in a number of different ways, there’s already scores of videos of speedrunners beating all 45 levels in record time, or doing so under ludicrous constraints like zero stamina upgrades. But even for those who don’t like to record themselves playing or competing with experienced speedrunners, the Trial of the Sword still inspires you to improve and continue trying to best your previous performance.
Of course, this idea is present in the main game as well. Producer Eiji Aonuma and the team at Nintendo wanted to make an open-world Zelda game that would emphasize total freedom. The end result was a structured story that could be completed in as little as 45 minutes or after 100 hours, depending on how you decided to spend your time.
Even standard playthroughs gave players the freedom to complete the game’s four main dungeons in any order. The game simply scaled its difficulty appropriately, all the way up to the final fight with Calamity Ganon, which became easier or harder depending on how much progress you make in the main quest. Very rarely does Breath of the Wild tell you, “No, you can’t do that,” which resulted in players finding ever-more-creative ways to accomplish a task or do something nobody thought even possible, like beating the game in under 40 minutes.
The Trial of the Sword replicates that idea on a smaller, more concentrated stage. Much like Eventide Island — the mysterious locale off the eastern shore of Hyrule that similarly stripped players of all weapons, armor, and items — the Trial of the Sword takes all of the game’s best ideas and gives you a tight, well-designed playground to run wild with them. Even if you’re not the kind of person who would ever dare try a full-blown speedrun, there is no better place to have fun with the concept and dip your feet into the speedrunning waters than with Breath of the Wild’s first expansion.