It's been about a year since the highly successful The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess made its debut, and once again young Link is back to save the high seas in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, the Nintendo DS's direct sequel to the critically acclaimed GameCube title, Wind Waker. Donning his famous pastel green clothing, Link once again sets out to save the ocean from doom, peril, and all sorts of bad things (except global warming, which is clearly a lost cause).
In his latest adventure, Link begins aboard a pirate ship belonging to Wind Waker heroine Tetra. After a rather shallow retelling of the events of Wind Waker via cardboard cutouts, the crew comes across a mysterious ghost ship, which Tetra boards in a hunt for treasure. A girlish scream later, and Link has fallen overboard in an attempt to rescue her, and soon finds himself washed ashore on an unknown island. He is quickly joined by Ciela, a fairy who's lost her memories, and a crude, cowardly seaman by the name of Linebeck. In a typical Zelda fashion, the trio set out on a grand adventure.
As per the series' usual standard, the story is decent, but hardly the focus of the game. While the plot may be relatively shallow, the characters are as deep as the ocean they sail upon. Packed with humorous dialogue, a fair bit of slapstick, and even a few heartwarming scenes, the story still manages to be quite enjoyable, despite its simplicity.
The focus of the game, as with any Zelda title, is the gameplay, and Phantom Hourglass gives the series a complete overhaul for its first foray on the popular handheld. The result is a game that, while very good, still has several kinks that prevent it from being as enjoyable as its predecessors. Phantom Hourglass does several things very well, and innovates into new territory that casts a whole new light on the series. The price is that several aspects of the series that have long been tradition have lost some of their charm, while others have been done away with entirely.
Don't forget to take notes! There'll be a quiz on Friday.
First off, the dungeons are excellent. Although relatively short when compared to some of the labyrinthine monstrosities of past games, Phantom Hourglass makes excellent use of the DS's touch screen by allowing the player to draw notes on the map. This allows for much more creative puzzle designs, with some stretching across an entire floor of a dungeon, or even several floors. The tools used to solve the puzzles have also undergone some very positive changes, particularly the boomerang and the bombchu. The path these items travel along is set by drawing it on the touch screen, allowing for unprecedented precision. At the same time, the game introduces a few new items as well as adding new functions for old favorites.
Sadly, the changes to combat are pretty much the opposite. Rather than the engaging swordplay of Wind Waker or Twilight Princess, combat is instead much more akin to hack 'n' slash PC roleplaying titles such as Diablo—point at an enemy and they die. When it isn't a simple point-and-click kill, it's almost always a frustrating ordeal. There is no target lock in Phantom Hourglass, and so enemies that block attacks must simply be avoided by running around in a circle until they try to attack and open themselves up for a counterattack. Some enemies need to be struck by one of Link's several tools before they can be assaulted, but unfortunately switching between these tools requires several precise taps of the touch screen—a task that wastes precious seconds during combat. On top of that, the new controls that were a positive step for puzzle-solving are often slow and cumbersome during combat.
Another issue with combat is that the shield—long a staple of the series—is all but useless in Phantom Hourglass. It cannot be raised to block incoming blows, and simply seems to block certain attacks randomly, making it pretty much unnecessary.
The final issue with the control scheme stems from the fact that Link walks slower if the stylus is close to him. During combat, this can often lead to him walking when he should be running or even dodging (another classic Zelda mechanic that is frustrating to perform with any regularity). Thankfully, while combat fails miserably against standard opponents, it succeeds where it counts—during boss fights. Phantom Hourglass's boss fights are excellent, save for a few duds in the early stages of the game. As is tradition in the Zelda series, the boss battles tend to play out more like puzzles than actual fights, and although generally they are fairly easy to figure out and complete, some of them can be surprisingly challenging.
The boomerang can go pretty much anywhere.
When not delving into dungeons and slaying monsters, Link will spend his time sailing the ocean and venturing further into the Ocean King's temple to search for clues as to his next destination. The former activity is similar to what was seen in Wind Waker, although much improved. The ship's path is now drawn on a map by the player, which the ship follows automatically. While en route, tapping the screen can fire the cannon while dragging the stylus can adjust the camera angle. Coupled with a sea only a quarter the size of Wind Waker's, sailing is no longer the chore it used to be. The cannon is surprisingly accurate, and since the ship is controlled automatically, the player is able to focus on eliminating obstacles and enemies that may lie in his path. There are also several boss battles that occur on the high seas, and these are always quite enjoyable.
The latter activity, venturing into the Ocean King's temple, is where the game derives its name. In the early stages of Phantom Hourglass, the player obtains an item of the same name that prevents the accursed temple from draining Link's life force, but only until the sand runs its course. Over the course of the game, Link will enter and reenter the temple, delving further inside each time. This temple is, by far, the most infuriating aspect of the game. The entire dungeon is based around stealth. While this has always often played a minor role in the series, the time spent inside this temple can easily run as much as a third of the total playtime. On top of that, each floor of the temple must be cleared and then cleared again each time the player reenters the temple. Although a warp function becomes available once the player reaches the seventh floor, each floor must be visited at least two to four times during the course of the game. While each floor has an interesting puzzle to solve and can be enjoyable the first time through, after going through it several times it quickly becomes a nuisance, serving only to pad the playtime of an already short game.
Visually, the game is amazing. On a technical level, Phantom Hourglass really seems to push the envelope of what the DS can do. The models are simply fantastic. The cel-shading style from Wind Waker also transferred beautifully, although there are a few pixelization issues in some of the more close-up cutscenes. The character designs are impeccable, and the game has the same bright and charming style its predecessor oozed from every orifice.
The sound quality is not quite as impressive, however. Although the music is decent in its composition, it is painfully low quality. The game is packed with midi tracks that are rather reminiscent of the 16-bit SNES days. Sound effects are a little better, though still fairly lacking. There is no voice acting, save for the occasional grunt, battle cry, scream, or "Hey! Listen!" For the most part, aside from the helpful ticking clock that accompanies timed switches, the sound can be ignored or even turned off with little to no loss to the overall game.
Phantom Hourglass is a good game, and a worthy addition to the series, but it simply falls short when compared to its console brethren. While a good first step towards a new generation of handheld Zelda titles, there are still several kinks that need to be worked out. For everything that it does well, there's something it does poorly, and that leaves it feeling very wishy-washy overall. Some fans of the series are certain to love it, while others will probably be put off. Clocking in at around 15 to 20 hours, the game is rather short, and is also fairly easy for a Zelda title, which makes it a great jumping-in point for those who have never tried a Zelda game before. If you have played a Zelda game before, then be warned: this is not the Zelda you know. It is a brand new experience, and while change is often good, innovation takes time, and Phantom Hourglass just doesn't have it quite right yet.