Release Date: 11 December 2009
Platform: Nintendo DS
Never one to leave a stone unturned, a game unfinished or a Zelda timeline unexplored, I decided to finish off this particular branch of the franchise with Spirit Tracks, the sequel to the rather charming Phantom Hourglass. One would think that a game that largely builds on its predecessor in terms of story, gameplay and visuals could only be as delightful as said predecessor, yet Spirit Tracks set out to prove that one could be wrong.
Welcome to New Hyrule, a massive land discovered and settled by Tetra following her and Link’s adventures in Phantom Hourglass. Set 100 years after Phantom Hourglass, we open with the latest version of Link, an engineering apprentice, who is on his way to Hyrule Castle to receive his engineer’s certificate from Princess Zelda. Things take a turn for the worse when it turns out that Chancellor Cole, Princess Zelda’s advisor, is trying to resurrect Malladus, an ancient evil locked away long ago by the guardian spirits and held in captivity by the Spirit Tracks.
Cole, with the help of his evil apprentice Staven, manage to steal Zelda’s body and, with the help of the Demon Train, severely disrupt the powers that hold the Tower of Spirits together. The Tower of Spirits is the nexus from which power flows along the Spirit Tracks, and without it functioning properly evil begins to spread across the land and to the temples of the various realms in New Hyrule, themselves also sources of power for the Spirit Tracks. Zelda’s body, imbued with the power of her ancestors, is the perfect vessel through which Malladus can be reborn.
It will be up to Link and a disembodied spirit Zelda, with the help of the Lokomo (the guardians of the Tower of Spirits and the Spirit Tracks), to restore the Tower and the Tracks and prevent Malladus from escaping his prison and plunging New Hyrule into a world of darkness.
Broadly speaking the gameplay in Spirit Tracks, as well as the graphics and various other little pieces that make up a game, has been lifted wholesale from Phantom Hourglass. Like its predecessor Spirit Tracks is controlled solely using the DS’ (or, in my case, 3DS’) touch screen with one or two actions mapped to the shoulder buttons, although a few tweaks here and there have made the control scheme a lot smoother than the one found in Phantom Hourglass. A big shout out to the Tower of Spirits, which was much improved compared to the Temple of the Ocean King, and the ability to have Zelda control phantoms gave you the sidekick that Link has always deserved.
That being said, however, it was the retention of this control scheme, coupled with the new ideas that the game was trying to introduce, which led to what at times was an incredibly frustrating experience. Let’s start with getting around New Hyrule: where Phantom Hourglass had a boat, Spirit Tracks has a train. At first riding the train is quite fun since you need to plot your course, learn how to break properly, when to go at different speeds and the like. Unlike the boat, however, the train’s movement is limited to where Spirit Tracks have been laid down, and the further into the game you get, despite there being more Tracks to follow, it became extremely tedious to ride from one area to the next. New Hyrule being enormous was a great idea, but in practice the DS wasn’t powerful enough to take advantage of all this space, so it’s really just a train going through a field while you blow up boulders over and over and over and over again until you eventually reach your destination.
One thing in this game which nearly made me rip my hair out was the Spirit Flute. A key item in the game, you use it by blowing into the DS’ mic while controlling the notes on the touch screen. Playing the songs correctly is integral to the game’s progression, as different songs unlock the Tracks to the various temples. This would have been fine if the game was able to properly pick up what you were doing all the time, and on occasion it took me hours to get a song right just because it happened to not pick up that I was using the mic or because the stylus slipped off a note by mistake.
This isn’t to say that the whole game is bad, and in fact it had some truly charming moments. It did try to increase the challenge from that found in Phantom Hourglass, the success of which is a bit mixed – where it got it right it was absolutely brilliant, but at times it felt like the puzzles were a little too complex or required slightly faster timing that the touch controls really afford you.
Very mixed feelings.
At the end of the day I did mostly enjoy Spirit Tracks. Hands down it has one of the best story lines of the Zelda games that I’ve played, particularly in the way that it portrays Zelda and her interactions with Link that’s both touching and completely hilarious. In fact, I would say that 75% of the game is highly enjoyable.
But it’s that other 25% that was just so intensely frustrating that at times I needed to take a few days’ break from the game for fear that I would otherwise set the cartridge on fire. This is actually a game I would love to see re-imagined with a more traditional control scheme, because what it got right was just so right that it deserves to shine a bit brighter than what Spirit Tracks‘ current setup will allow for.
My Final Rating: 6 / 10
Buy The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks at Amazon.com