Review by horror_spooky
"Lots and lots of trains"
What is Zelda? It's the reason the DS was made, that's what it is. The reason I am quoting a tagline of my review for The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is to make a point. The main Zelda series has not once yielded a title that was even close to being average. When you buy a Zelda game, you expect an epic adventure that you won't be able to pull away from and that will wow and amaze you. You expect a gaming experience that will stay with you for years. However, Spirit Tracks, while a phenomenal video game, simply does not live up to the standards set by past titles in the series. Yeah, it's amazing for a video game, but for a Zelda game, it's a huge disappointment.
Spirit Tracks is very similar to the previous Zelda DS title Phantom Hourglass. The gameplay remains largely unchanged from the previous game, and you will have a lot of the same tools available to you. Thankfully though, this means that the mouthwateringly perfect puzzles and awesome adventure elements found in Phantom Hourglass make their way to Spirit Tracks, providing some thought-provoking and utterly jaw-dropping gameplay moments. The way Nintendo manages to find new ways to use Link's tools even though they've been recycled so many times is just astonishing, and I don't think any other developer could have done a job even close to as good.
The way the DS is utilized is also pretty damn cool. From near-perfect voice recognition to clever use of the dual-screens, Spirit Tracks still knows how to make the most out of the DS's unique features. It'll probably even plaster a smile on your face and give you a feeling almost like butterflies as the game wows you throughout the adventure.
Spirit Tracks also wins the award for Zelda game with the best enemies. The combat is basically the same as it was in Phantom Hourglass except way smoother and more polished, and the enemies you'll get to battle won't make you curse in annoyance for a change. There's a lot of enemy variety and the boss battles range from formulaic to jaw-dropping in scope. There are small bosses and huge bosses that require both of the DS's screens to fit on the little handheld.
So, what's the issue? Well, the things above this paragraph are what you've come to expect in your Zelda games. Epic boss battles, awesome puzzles, and mind-blowing gameplay. It's the new things that Spirit Tracks tries that bring down its value, and it's a real shame because if these new gameplay mechanics weren't so forcefully thrown into the formula, then Spirit Tracks would have been much better off.
For starters, I'm going to address the game's most publicized new feature: trains. Just like Phantom Hourglass and Wind Waker, you travel to the different areas and dungeons in the world via a vehicle of sorts as opposed to riding a horse or just walking around like in some of the other games. This gimmick has generally yielded negative feedback from the gaming community, so I can't figure out why Nintendo keeps trying it out, but Spirit Tracks's trains takes the cake for possibly being the worst vehicle in any Zelda game.
What makes it so annoying is that unlike the boats you sailed around in during your time with Phantom Hourglass and Wind Waker, you are stuck on tracks. You are limited to going forward and backward, making the traveling segments even more boring than they already have been proven to be. You can adjust the speed of the train and yank down on a little rope in the upper right-hand corner of the touch screen to blow a whistle and the game occasionally asks if you want to make a turn or not, but that's about as interactive as it gets. Yeah, there are occasionally some enemies that will try to destroy your train, but all they take is a couple of taps with the stylus to be defeated. There were literally times that I set my DS down while traveling to a far away location and went and did something else. That's how boring the train really is.
To make matters worse, you are often tasked with traveling to locations that are spread far apart. This makes traveling even more of a headache, and to top it all off, the game's version of fast-traveling is a virtually useless portal system placed around on the tracks with no idea really where they will lead you unless you take the time to memorize where they will zap you in Hyrule. You know those mouthwateringly perfect puzzles and the great gameplay I was talking about? Yeah, it's a bit stifled by the amount of unentertaining effort it takes to reach their locations.
The trains suck. Plain and simple. But there are a couple more new gameplay mechanics that make matters even worse. The Spirit Flute, for example, unlike the legendary Ocarina of Time, is practically a broken gameplay element. You are required to play this damn thing at key points in the game in order to unlock more of those delicious dungeons, but you will probably want to snap your DS in half by the time you're done with this crap. The Spirit Flute makes literally no sense. There were times that I played it damn near perfectly and didn't continue, and there were times that I played horribly and ended up progressing without a synch. It didn't make much sense, and I really hope this feature doesn't appear in any other game ever. The Spirit Flute is quite possibly the most annoying instrument I have ever come across in my life. It had good intentions, but the unintended consequences (like infinite rage and head-scratching inconsistency) will make everyone hate it.
And finally, the third nail in the coffin that holds Spirit Tracks from reaching its potential as another classic. You have to control Phantoms during some of the game's dungeons by trailing their paths using the stylus. There are a bunch of different kinds of Phantoms, and that's great and all and it'd be a cool idea, but unfortunately, you'll find yourself babysitting the Phantoms way too much. They slow down the game and can cause quite a bit of headaches. Once again, this feature could have been cool, but they screwed it up royally and in the end it turns out to just be another one of those irritating new gameplay mechanics that fail to work on much of any level.
Spirit Tracks does try some foreign concepts in the Zelda series and actually manages to do it right. While the Zelda series is no stranger to side-quests, Spirit Tracks has the most side-quests in a Zelda title since the legendary Majora's Mask. The side-quests would have provided a juicy layer of gameplay to a game that desperately needs a positive identity besides Phantom Hourglass with trains if it wasn't for the mind-numbing train traveling that make trying to complete the side-quests, no matter how involving or rewarding they are, a pain in the neck.
Multiplayer also hasn't been around Zelda all that much. There have only been a few Zelda titles to dip their toe in the realm of multiplayer gaming, but Spirit Tracks happens to be one of them. I was a fan of the multiplayer found in Phantom Hourglass as it was accessible with lots of gameplay options (single-card and multi-card play), achievements, a ranking system, and online multiplayer to boot. Spirit Tracks gives the multiplayer in Phantom Hourglass a facelift though, changing from two vs. two collection skirmishes to crazy bouts with players running around trying to collect as many Force Gems as humanly possible before being attacked by a Phantom or falling in the trap of another player. It's a fun concept, but it has problems holding onto your attention and isn't as expansive as the multiplayer in Phantom Hourglass. The achievements that gave you ship parts in the original are gone and the online multiplayer has also seen the axe. Why these terrible design choices were made is beyond me, but it's nice that the game now allows four-players as opposed to the two-player limit seen in PH.
Despite having a protagonist that can only sigh and grunt, the Zelda games have been known to provide heart-warming, emotion-triggering, tear-jerking, laugh-goading stories that stick with you just as long as the brilliant gameplay memories do. Spirit Tracks has a good storyline, but just like with the gameplay, it simply doesn't live up to the standards set by games in the past. Spirit Tracks is about, of course, Link, who is working as an engineer, and the game is set 100 years after the events of Phantom Hourglass. Hyrule has been settled and the land generally uses trains to get around using tracks feeding off energy from a mysterious tower. However, things go awry quickly and Link is thrust on an adventure to save Princess Zelda yet again, albeit under strange circumstances. Spirit Tracks introduces some new cool characters to the Zelda universe and does have a couple of surprises mixed in there, but it fails at triggering emotions the way past games have done, most notably Twilight Princess. The cameos from certain characters from Phantom Hourglass helps the games plot and the cut-scenes are pretty cool for the most part, with some nice writing and they definitely aren't light on the action.
Unfortunately, Spirit Tracks has graphics that are widely unchanged from Phantom Hourglass. While this was expected, it was disappointing, and I feel that if Nintendo ditched the stupid train concept, they'd probably have more time to squeeze a bit more juice out of their little handheld. The pop-up during train traveling is annoying and the game's graphical and technical presentations feel significantly less polished than older games. Like previously stated though, the enemy design is top-notch, as are the characters. The Demon Train (this is introduced very early into the game, so I'm not spoiling anything) looks especially good on the DS, and is the most detailed enemy. It honestly looks like it could pass for something we'd see in the next-generation Nintendo handheld, so seeing graphics that good on the DS is extraordinary.
Spirit Tracks has a soundtrack that works and is rather pleasant. The music is actually phenomenal and the sound effects all work well. There needed to be more sound effects though during dialogue sections so you knew which character was talking (this can cause some confusing cut-scenes), but otherwise, Nintendo did a perfect job yet again with the game's soundtrack, featuring old Zelda tunes and some brand new ones that fans of the series and those new to the games will surely enjoy.
Spirit Tracks is about a 20 hour game if you just go through the main storyline, but if you take the time to complete all the side-quests, tack on roughly 30 more hours to that time. This is part of the reason why Spirit Tracks wasn't lambasted completely by me, and that's the replayability (assuming you can get past the stupid, stupid train). The multiplayer is sure to provide at least a distraction, so you're definitely getting a lot of bang for your buck. Once again though, I'm annoyed that the game doesn't allow you to keep playing after the main antagonists have been conquered, and unlike Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks doesn't even have a storyline reason not to include the ability to continue playing the game. And with a game that's packed to the brink with a ridiculous amount of side-quests, this is a necessary feature.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is a great game; it just isn't a great Zelda game. Spirit Tracks won't demand your attention like its predecessors and you won't become hopelessly addicted to its charm and awesome dungeons like you would when you were traveling through Hyrule in Ocarina of Time or sailing the high seas in Wind Waker. Spirit Tracks tries too many new ideas that fall flat on their face and the train mechanic is a very, very bad idea. The graphics could be pushed a bit more and the storyline could have been better. Fans of the series will still fall in love with the brilliant puzzles and sweet dungeons though, so it's still worth a look, despite its shortcomings. Hopefully Nintendo learns from its mistakes with Spirit Tracks and the next Zelda brings us back to the glory days of Twilight Princess.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/09/10
Game Release: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (US, 12/07/09)
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