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Review: Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

In the midst of the holiday rush, Nintendo saw fit to launch a couple of its stellar AAA titles to early fall, sav Mario Galaxy for Winter, and delay Smash Bros. Brawl until early next year so they weren’t competing with themselves. With all of these great games coming out for consoles, the handheld market has been a bit thin on epic games lately — Phantom Hourglass has been the most anticipated DS title of the year, and it’s no wonder why after playing through it: this game showcases everything the DS can do and does it all extremely well, providing an epic adventure on a tiny gaming system with enough fun for veteran gamers and a learning curve that even more casual gamers can slip into. Nintendo set out to make a Zelda for their new generation of players while giving old fans some new tricks, and Phantom Hourglass is one of the best handheld games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.

 

Very much like Majora’s Mask back on the N64, Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to a previous Zelda (in this case, the sublime Wind Waker), but it carves its own path to distinguish itself. The analogy is about as accurate as you can get when comparing titles in the franchise to one another. Phantom Hourglass sets up a brilliant oceanic atmosphere and blends in lots of unique DS functionality into the puzzles Zelda fans know inside and out. The presentation at work here is easily some of the best on the platform — a full, 3D world with rich cel-shaded graphics, squeezing plenty of detail out of the DS. The soundtrack is usually fairly subtle, but it makes sure to pick up to epic brilliance at just the right moments. A couple of these times feature very stand-out tunes. Overall, it’s the most impressive DS game to date as far as overall presentation is concerned, though it certainly stands tall against anything the handheld has to offer to date.

 

The presentation is stupendous for a DS title.

After saving the land in the Wind Waker, Link joins Tetra (aka Zelda as a pirate) and her motley crew for seafaring antics. At some point in their journeys, a mysterious ghost ship shows up. Tetra, the explorer she is, eagerly bounds onto the ship, only to be kidnapped. In a nod to Link’s Awakening, our young hero falls into the sea and finds himself washed up on a distant shore. It should as no surprise that from here on out, the green-garbed hero must embark on an adventure that will take him across the wide sea, slaying beasts and solving puzzles. However, Link has a few companions to join him this time around: a trio of fairies (of course) and, more notably, a man of the sea in search of treasure by name of Linebeck. The writing is pretty good for the franchise, with a lot of great localization, as well as a good bunch of laugh-out-loud moments for Zelda fans which I won’t spoil here — Linebeck is hilarious, and by the end of your adventure, you’ll have learned to love him.

 

Linebeck is certainly one of the best characters in the series.

Link’s main objective is to delve deeper and deeper into the Temple of the Ocean King, a cursed place with drains the life of our hero while inside — the sands of the Phantom Hourglass protect him, and with every boss Link defeats, more sand is added. By that time, a new item has been uncovered, and thus, a new portion of the temple can be explored. This unique departure sounded promising at first, but ultimately fails in general execution, making it the one glaring flaw in the game’s design: revisiting the exact same same puzzles and annoyances time and time again grows tiring and even boring. A halfway shortcut in introduced, but even this isn’t enough. The portal should’ve been placed at every floor, perhaps, to reduce artificial buffing. While I commend them for trying something new, this idea didn’t turn out as well as the rest of the package, and it’s a grievance enough to prevent the game from being about as stellar as a portable adventure can get.

What of the gameplay, you ask? After all, that’s what Zelda’s really about. How much you like the gameplay all depends on which side of the Zelda fence you’re on: if you’ve been enjoying the series in recent years, overlooking the relative lack of innovation in raw game mechanics, you’ll probably love this one. If you’re one of those who grew tired of Zelda a while back because it’s essentially the same formula, the new mechanics brought by the DS will be intriguing at best but won’t blow you away. There’s still switches to flip, walls to bomb, and eyeballs to shoot with arrows. However, this time around, Nintendo made one of those dramatic decisions they sometimes make and completely changed the way the game is played. Much like Metroid Prime taking on a 1st person nature, Phantom Hourglass boldly ventures into a realm of unthinkable gameplay: exclusive stylus control. And, fancy that, they work like a charm. After playing through Phantom Hourglass, I must say that this is how stylus control should be handled on the DS for games of this nature. Link is usually very responsive, and with some time with pen in hand, you’ll come to realize that the control scheme alone opens up a whole new world of functionality. Tapping enemies is effortless and makes combat slick, guiding boomerangs is smooth, throwing bombs exactly where you want is a joy, and sending Bombchus along a winding path that you draw is refreshing. Granted, the controls are not perfect, and some may have issues with them (like the rolling ability, which is done by scribbling the side of the screen, though it’s a relatively useless move in this title, anyway), but nitpicks aside, it’s a brilliant control setup that actually makes the gameplay more fluid that seen in previous entries.

 

The stylus-only controls work almost perfectly.

While navigating Link is fine and good, the DS functions as an interesting puzzle device, as many problems must be overcome through unconventional means. There are certainly a few “a-ha!” moments that force players to think outside the box, using functions like the built-in microphone — a welcome treat — while many others rely on drawing on your map and following the lines, which is a simple function that makes a lot of sense. Mapping out an entire island, drawing path to buried treasure, or guiding your ship across the sea — the stylus makes you feel more like a real explorer with its tactile abilities.

And speaking of sailing, it is certainly different this time around: the sea is much smaller and compact, with less to go out searching for, but this means it’s also more interesting and action-packed. The game automatically throws various encounters at you, be it a well-timed jump, enemies, exploding barrels, or even a Rupee-collecting microgame. While the sea lacks the grand scale and epic exploration factor that Wind Waker presented, it is properly slimmed down to fit its portable platform, and it’s not the only thing that has been trimmed. Bottles are done away with — you can carry up to two potions instead. Rupee wallets are gone, so collect as many up to 9999 as you wish, right from the start. There are no Heart Pieces, only Heart Containers (old school). While purists will cry foul, these previous hindrances would’ve artificially bogged the game’s pacing down — as it is, they perfectly suit a portable adventure game. Granted, their inclusion could’ve beefed the game up a bit, but there’s enough treasure to find that doesn’t need to be found which doesn’t punish players for not seeking.

 

Sailing is much more action-packed than it was last time.

As far as extra content, there is obviously a lot to do, even without things such as Heart Pieces. There are certainly Heart Containers to be found that bosses don’t provide, there’s tons of Rupees to dig up (and expensive items to buy with them), a few minigames on the side, and special jewels which power up your fairies (which you can equip) with various abilities. Lastly, the ship parts add a great deal of bonus depth, not only as cosmetics, but by increasing your ship’s life meter by having matching parts. To top it all off is a surprisingly difficult multiplayer mode that, due to its online function and “achievements,” can add a good few hours to your play time, depending on how much you decide to get into it.

Awards:

Outstanding Visuals

Intuitive Controls

Deep Gameplay/Value

Excellent Writing (Localization)

Sharp Gameplay

Editor’s Choice

Score: 4.5/5

Despite the sacrifices it may make for ease of use, the things Phantom Hourglass does away with are usually for the better. The challenging but far too repetitive Temple of the Ocean King slightly weighs down an otherwise excellent adventure that fans will surely enjoy and newcomers will be able to jump right into. My girlfriend, a very casual gamer, was thoroughly engaged and was able to overcome most everything this game threw at her, the Ocean King’s tedious Temple aside. Considering the game still captivated a core gamer like me on top of that, I must commend Nintendo on a job well done. The puzzles may not bust the brain too severely, but with such spot-on pacing overall, newfound uses of old toys through the DS’s functionality, and a graphical presentation unmatched on the platform, Phantom Hourglass is easily the “must-own” DS title this year, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Chances are that this latest Zelda entry won’t excite those who want a brand new animal out of the series, but it is still an excellent title that sets a new standard for DS games, accomplishing every goal Nintendo set out to reach with it. If Nintendo can repeat this level of quality and success with the next Wii Zelda title, we’re going to be in for a very good time. In the meanwhile, soak up this delicious DS masterpiece.

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2 Responses to “Review: Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass”

  1. I really dislike the use of the touch styles ONLY controls for this game. I would much rather use the button commands to move link around.

  2. I just started this game and it’s very hard to put down. But some of the levels are to repetitive, which can irritate me. But I agree with this review! Spot on!


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