Review by UltimaterializerX
"Everything wrong with the Zelda series and Nintendo, all rolled into one package."
What Zelda started out as is long, long gone, and it's probably never coming back. It used to be you'd get a great plot, some of the best gameplay ever and a ton of intangibles adding up to a timeless masterpiece. Even today, many people think the original Legend of Zelda for the NES is the best game ever made. Others will argue Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time or maybe even Link's Awakening. Zelda used to churn out games that could stand up to anything else, from any genre.
Then you'll boot up Phantom Hourglass and immediately wonder what in the hell happened. In a nutshell, Phantom Hourglass is modeled after Wind Waker and is given the DS treatment. Some of the Wind Waker characters return for this game, which of course leads to Tetra's inevitable kidnapping from her boat and Link's inevitable adventure to save her while traversing the high seas. Waterworld aside, this is the exact same plot we've seen from Zelda for three decades now, and since Nintendo is allergic to new ideas don't expect this to change any time soon.
See if any of the following sounds familiar. Link wakes up in a haze, then gets discovered by an unnamed fairy who is told to help the boy by a vague old man who clearly knows more than he lets on. The fairy joins Link because she senses he's something special. Link dabbles around for a little while, finds a dinky sword and a small shield (an ironic testament to how the game controls, but more on this in a second), and sets off on his way to save Zelda (oh sorry, "Tetra") and ultimately the world. And because we're in Waterworld, Link will also attain a boat to sail the world with. It's like Nintendo went to the George Lucas school of self-absorption and rehashing old ideas.
But fine, most people don't play Zelda for the plot. The gameplay has always been the selling point, right?
Not in Phantom Hourglass. Virtually the entire game is played using touch controls. Rather than move Link around with the d-pad and have touch controls optional, like any good DS game does, you're forced to use touch controls. Period. Hopefully you enjoy holding a DS for hours on end with one hand, and using a tiny DS stylus with the other. Thankfully you never, ever, ever need to use anything other than the touch screen to play this, so at least you can set the DS down on a table or something and spare your off hand from carpal tunnel syndrome. And yes, this completely defeats the purpose of the game being on a portable system.
Other than the obvious wrist problem that will stem from all-touch controls for an action RPG, your hand will cover the action for many of the most important parts as you go all the way across the screen. The main control issue here is controlling Link himself. You touch the screen, and his fairy pops up at the spot you touch. Link goes to that spot, almost like the fairy is master and Link is some puppy on a leash being prevented from going to the bathroom on the neighbor's yard. Movement is terrible for the entire game and never improves, and combat is passable at best. You tap an enemy to have Link attack it, but the problem comes with enemies requiring more than tap-and-slash. You can only have one item queued up at a time, and you have to tap a logo on the top-right of the screen to pull it out. To use a different item, you'll have to open a separate menu, queue up the new item, then tap the top of the screen again to pull it out for use. This all happens live, too. If the Zelda series actually had enemies that caused damage, this live item switching would royally suck. As-is, it's just tedious.
Item and sword use is annoying enough when you can simply tap on an enemy, but there's other things the game expects you to do here. To swing a sword freely, you have to draw a line in front of Link. Depending on the line, he'll either poke or slash. There's some rolling move where you draw some circle on the edge of the screen real fast, and then Link is supposed to roll. This almost never happens, and he'll usually just decapitate a blade of grass instead. One of the only reliable attacks in the entire game is drawing a huge circle around Link to make him do a spin move. But make sure not to abuse this move, or Link will get dizzy. If Nintendo actually bothered making Zelda games difficult, or even bothered giving bosses some health, this would royally suck. As-is, it's just a dumb attempt at trying to make Link look cute. Poor Link must feel like one of those bored married guys whose had his spine emotionally removed for years, and gets forced to hang out with other wives' husbands. It's how Nintendo has treated Link for some time now.
To be fair, some of the items are pretty cool in this. You draw trace circles for the boomerang and bombchus, and the hammer might be the best in the series. You're also given -- surprise, surprise! -- a hookshot, shovel, normal bombs and a host of side items. But we've seen all these items before. Nintendo is completely allergic to new ideas. These items will feel new, but they're all the same old hat with a DS makeover. The entire game feels like DS shovelware, painted over with a Zelda look to sell more copies. There's a few things the game does with the DS itself, like making you put it in sleep mode for a puzzle or having enemies react to you talking into the microphone, but it only enhances what a bad gimmick this entire game is. Nintendo seems extraordinarily out-of-touch with how the real world works. This game is on a portable system, yet they take every measure to make you feel embarrassed playing it in public. I dare you to fight one of the sound-reactive enemies in a room full of normal people, and see if anyone around you doesn't shy away like you belong in a mental institution. It should go over well with the cute local girls. This game is supposed to be portable, yet every precaution is taken to ensure you're embarrassed to play it around other people. Good job, Nintendo.
Worst thing of all is the god-awful overworld, paired with the god-awful soundtrack. For the first time since 1991 (the Japanese release year for Link to the Past), dungeons use recycled music. The overworld theme is worse, complete with the most boring traversing mechanism ever. In Wind Waker, people universally agree the sailing was the worst part of the game. It was boring, stupid, overdone, and then overdone some more. Does Nintendo learn from this? Of course not. Phantom Hourglass gives you an even more boring Waterworld, not even fixable by warp points. Random enemies and traps pop up now and then as you sail, but they are monotonous to the nth degree. By game's end, you'll just want to get from point A to point B without all the extraneous BS getting in the way. This goes for entire game, too, not just the overworld. The entire game is boring, which is the worst thing any game can be. You'll just want it to be over so you can move on to something better.
For the rare occasions you're allowed access to a dungeon (and you will traverse through inordinate amounts of nonsense to get to them, even by Zelda standards), you'll probably expect good things. Every Zelda game at least does dungeons well, right?
Nope. See if this formula sounds familiar: Enter dungeon -> find a couple keys -> fight a mini boss or get stuck in a room full of enemies where you can't leave the room until you kill them all -> find the dungeon's item -> use item to clear the rest of dungeon -> use item to kill the dungeon's boss -> warp out -> feel lucky if the dungeon's item is used outside where you found it. This formula can be done well, as evidenced by older Zelda games. Phantom Hourglass fails at it, pure and simple. The dungeons have no atmosphere to them at all. Worst of all is every. single. time you solve a puzzle or open a door in a dungeon, you have to sit through a cut scene. It gets old and annoying pretty damn fast.
There's also this one dungeon you have to go back to a bunch of times called the Temple of the Ocean King. You visit this place over and over again to progress the game, and you'll have to clear the same floors with the same puzzles, using the same tactics and mostly avoiding the same enemies. It's bad enough Nintendo rehashes stuff from games past, but they've gone the extra mile here. Now they rehash the same dungeon. It's bad enough going through a Phantom Hourglass dungeon one time, but you have to go through the Temple of the Ocean King on multiple occasions. The thing is massive, too. This would be a terrible idea even if this were the best dungeon in history of video games, but it's as boring as the rest of the game. And then they force the player to go through parts of the same dungeon two, three, maybe even four or five times before game's end? Maybe more, if the player isn't keen on using walkthroughs? This temple has something like 15 floors, and you're given one midpoint. One. The gimmick here is the dungeon sucks your life away unless you have remaining sand in the Phantom Hourglass, and if you get hit by a phantom enemy inside you lose a bunch of time and have to start a floor over. Think about how dumb this all this, then chew on the fact people actually made money coming up with this stuff. No wonder so many gamers think they'd be good at designing. Look at all the garbage they're exposed to.
Other people will turn to sidequests for their traditional Zelda-does-this-well fix. Don't even bother. Only one of the side quests is lucky enough to not be a chore -- a cannon minigame where the boat moves on its own and you fire at targets in the water, which is a clear ripoff of horseback archery from Ocarina of Time -- but it gets old pretty fast. None of the others are even worth mentioning, because they are objectively awful. Or maybe racking up VIP points at a store and selling pawn-quality items is something you find fun, I dunno. If this is the case, I would direct you to your local gentlemen's club or used auto dealership. The people there will love how gullible you are.
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact spot where the Zelda series or Nintendo's designing acumen reached its nadir, but it's clearly happened. Until Nintendo decides to do something new with this series, it's no longer worth playing. And yes, I'm aware of the irony behind asking Nintendo to try new things and making them successful. Almost every time they attempt progression, they prove their impotence in game design. Just look at Smash Bros. Brawl. It's difficult to compare the current state of Zelda or Mario to something like God of War -- a series that actually learned from mistakes and fixed them all -- and wonder how or where Nintendo went so wrong. And when all else fails for Nintendo (and it usually does), they resort to rehashing and reusing old ideas that were once successful. There's a major difference between paying something homage and outright ripping it off, and Nintendo has long since lost sight of this difference.
The only thing Phantom Hourglass does well are boss fights. And since you spend less than 10% of the same doing the one fun thing the game has to offer, this game gets a score of less 10%. It's only fair. It's a shame GameFAQs doesn't allow scores below 1/10, because this deserves a 0.5 at best. Objectively awful in almost every single way.
Reviewer's Score: 1/10 | Originally Posted: 05/17/10
Game Release: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (US, 10/01/07)
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