After dozens of wonderful hours playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I finally came across a bad mission. It's bad enough to serve as a point of reference for just how good the rest of the game is. It sticks out like a sore thumb on an otherwise beautifully manicured hand.
I'm talking about a mission called "The Lost Pilgrimage," which takes place in the Lost Woods outside of the Great Hyrule Forest. I will say up front that I have not played every mission in Breath of the Wild, so it is possible there's something worse buried somewhere in the game. But this mission is bad enough that I'm just gonna call it the worst.
"That mission is a dumpster fire," said Kotaku's new features editor Chris Kohler upon hearing that I was writing this article. "That mission is the Final Fantasy XV Chapter 13 of Breath of the Wild," he elaborated, "except Chapter 13 doesn't last as long."
Hyrule Forest is a sun-dappled enclave surrounded by a chilly, foggy maze that swallows any who lose their way. Once you've successfully made your way through the Lost Woods for the first time, you can easily travel to and from the forest center, where you can speak with the Deku Tree, trade in Korok seeds, and kill yourself attempting to get the Master Sword.
You can also set back out into the Lost Woods to take on one of four Korok Trials, each of which will lead you to a new shrine. The Lost Pilgrimage was the second of these trials that I attempted.
Head northwest of the Deku Tree and you'll find a Korok named Tasho standing on a rock in the fog. He tells you that his friend Oaki has set off to find the shrine alone. Oaki really wants to make it all the way to the shrine by himself, but Tasho is nervous about him. Would Link, whom most of the Korok affectionately call "Mr. Hero," please follow along and make sure Oaki gets to the shrine in one piece?
When Tasho mentioned that I shouldn't let Oaki see me, that probably should have set off some alarms. What would happen if he saw me? Would I... instantly fail the mission?
Insta-fail stealth missions, a term for any mission during which you must restart from the beginning if you trip up and get spotted, are among the most outdated and frustrating design tropes in gaming. Even Ubisoft, loath though they may seem to retire a formula, have begun to reduce these sorts of missions in their recent stealth games. Surely Breath of the Wild, a game that embraces player choice and creativity at every turn, wouldn't stoop to including an insta-fail stealth mission, right?
...Wrong. The Lost Pilgrimage is indeed an insta-fail stealth mission, and a particularly thankless one at that. At the outset I took a potion to raise my stealth rating, thinking I could easily keep my distance and follow Okai to his destination without being seen. My plan was immediately complicated by the fact that Oaki is a bland grey colour that almost completely blends in with the fog and grass around him.
Can you spot Oaki? Because he's standing right in front of me.
You're probably not supposed to be able to easily see Okai, but he's carrying some gear that loudly rattles around and regularly talks to himself. As long as you pay attention, you can keep track of him.
Even with Oaki's camouflage, I thought this challenge wouldn't be too bad. I kept some distance and kept moving, pausing when he paused, and keeping him within my sight. I took a detour around some trees and…
Oh, hell. We're still in the Lost Woods, which means that if you go too far off the beaten path you get swallowed up by the fog. Surely that just puts you back on the path and lets you proceed, right? Nope.
OK, so we can't go too far off the path in any direction. That means we're funneled onto a straight path behind Oaki, and if we deviate too far in any direction we'll have to start over. Let's try again, staying right behind the little guy. He follows a scripted path each time, so this shouldn't be too tough.
On the second or third time through, the beats have already become familiar: Follow Oaki as he spots a tree he remembers, pause as he thinks he hears something and stops walking, wait for him to dodge the branches that fall. When he gets to the hollowed-out log, carefully move alongside it and wait for him to come out the other end.
Follow him across the field after the log, and he'll stop and say "is someone there?" Your heart catches in your chest, but you stay still. He then starts walking forward again. All clear! You start to follow him and and…
...without warning, he turns around and runs straight into you.
The game has already established that you shouldn't move very far off of the linear path behind Oaki, lest you be forced to start over. Given that the player will almost certainly be carefully following near to Oaki, having him turn around and run backward is a pretty low trick for the designers to pull. Few players would have been prepared for their target to unexpectedly run backward toward them, and Link is too slow while sneaking for any but the luckiest players to react in time to get out of sight.
So, it's all the way back to the beginning to replay the entire sequence from the start. What initially seemed like a straightforward creep through the woods starts to feel like it might never end.
Yes, Oaki, I fucking remember this tree too.
Once more Oaki follows his little script; he remembers the tree, he thinks he hears someone, he sees the branches fall, he heads through the hollowed-out tree, he crosses the field. Now you're faced with a conundrum. What are you going to do when he turns around and runs backward?
It's hard to know when he'll stop running or how far he can see if he turns around, so you'll probably just have to wing it. Even after I knew his about-face was coming, I failed a couple more times after Oaki ran toward me. Each failure meant starting the whole thing over yet again, and yet again.
By that point I had entered a state of mind familiar to most who play video games. I'd sunk too much time into this stupid mission to give up now, but I was definitely not having fun. Once more into the breach, dear friends, let's follow Oaki and see how it goes.
By the third or fourth time he turned around, I had worked out that I could go off to the right and hide behind a large tree root. I'd have to move myself around the tree, perfectly timing it with Oaki as he ran backward. I had to stay pretty close to the clearing or the fog would eat me and force a restart, but I couldn't get too close or Oaki would spot me, which would also force a restart. Figuring out just where to stand took some trial and error.
After the turnaround sequence, Oaki declares that he's "not scared one bit" and begins to move quickly forward. You'll have to run along behind him or risk losing sight of him in the fog. He reaches a small clearing and… a wolf howls. Calamity! Little Oaki is under attack! Time for some snap decision making.
"Help me, Mr. Hero!" Oaki cries out, spurring you to action. He needs help! He's under attack! Surely this is what Tasho was talking about when he asked you to keep an eye on him, right? Time to make your presence known and save the day!
…actually, no. You weren't supposed to do that. If you respond to Oaki's EXPLICIT CALL FOR HELP, he'll get mad and you'll fail the mission. Back to the very start, my friend. Time to do it all over again.
Once more through the woods, to the tree Oaki recognises. Once more through his hesitations and forward jogs, the tree branches that fall, the hollowed out tunnel, the clearing. Once more past the point where he panics and runs backward, once more to the wolf. Now what?
I'm not sure if there's one set way you're supposed to deal with the wolf, but I shot it with an arrow and it died. I also lost track of Oaki and, while looking for him, accidentally stumbled right on top of him and failed the mission once again. Back to the start.
At this point it had been more than a half an hour. My patience had long since evaporated, but I was going to finish this mission if it killed me. The only thing bringing me solace was knowing that I could eventually write a Kotaku article about how bad it was.
Through the woods I followed Oaki, and when we arrived at the wolf clearing, the beast was nowhere to be seen. Praise be! The wolf doesn't respawn! I stayed behind Oaki and, at long last, I reached the ending. The little guy stood triumphantly in front of the shrine, then turned around to face me.
My heart sank. I still didn't quite believe I'd really made it. Part of me was sure I was about to be thrown all the way back to the beginning. Maybe this time there'd be two wolves waiting in the woods.
But no, it really was over.
Yeah, Oaki. You're a real frickin Lancelot.
The shrine ahead was mine to enter, and that's just what I did.
I dislike The Lost Pilgrimage not just because it's cheap and frustrating, but because it's antithetical to what I love so much about Breath of the Wild. This is a game that inspires so much joy from letting you solve its puzzles in a variety of ways. The people who made it want you to break the rules and bend their game to your will. By contrast, The Lost Pilgrimage felt so rigid and punishing that I quickly stopped wanting to experiment. I just wanted it to be over.
It is, of course, possible that there are indeed creative ways around parts of the mission that I didn't think of. I've seen some players talking about using Link's Stasis module to make it easier to see Oaki, for example. My boss Stephen Totilo tells me that he beat it on his first try by skirting the trees and being careful, which, wow, ok. But the mission's overall inflexibility and immediate, time-wasting punishment for failure still set it apart from the rest of the game.
Upon entering the shrine that served as my reward for finishing, I was greeted with the following message:
"By entering this place," the spirit of the shrine told me, "you've already proven your worth." I don't know about my worth, but I sure proved my patience.