Review by clarkisdark

"Times have changed..."

The handheld Zelda titles have always felt like their own separate line of games. With Phantom Hourglass, however, the gap has been lessened. Not only does Phantom Hourglass borrow the graphics of Wind Waker, the game is also a direct sequel to the Gamecube Zelda. Link and Tetra have just embarked on an adventure together when things go terribly awry and Link finds himself in the position of needing to rescue the princess and save the world. Again. And yes, sailing is involved.

Like Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass takes place in a vast ocean populated by various islands. There are only four maps that, when found and pieced together, form the entire world, but each map has several charted and hidden islands in it. So despite that this is "just a handheld," the scope still remains rather large. Unfortunately, getting these sea maps is a pain in the neck. You're required to trek deeper into a recurring dungeon every time you need a new one, but this means redoing all of the puzzles up to where you last left off. On top of this, you're going against a time limit and have to deal with a lot of stealth and sneaking past giant phantom warriors. Time limits, stealth, and redundancy are never a good mix (and, hey, aren't even so hot by themselves).

Outside of the dreaded phantom dungeon, however, the game still retains the same charm and sense of exploration that made Wind Waker so special. Uncovering a secret island and solving its riddles is fun and satisfying. If you've ever played a Zelda game, though, you're not going to be surprised by any of the weapons and tools you come across. There's a bow. There's a hammer. There's a shovel. Just enough to fill a small, single-line menu on the bottom screen. What is refreshing, however, is the way some of these items are used. While I typically find Zelda dungeons nerve-racking and tedious, the seven dungeons here are quite creative in how they utilize the powers of whatever new tool you have. The boss battles in particular make interesting use of the two screens, sometimes splitting the action apart so you can keep tabs on two different areas.

What really adds to the exploration of dungeons, though, is the ability to draw on the map. I love this addition, because it fits the idea of being on an adventure so well. You can take note of special areas you can't access yet, mark traps, or write down secret combinations you'll be asked to remember later. When this happens, though, you are usually prodded, "Did you write that down? Well, did you? Because you should!" Phantom Hourglass, against all wishes, holds your hand a little too much. For instance, a few minutes after you've received the shovel and instructions on how to use it, your fairy friend points out suspicious-looking patches of dirt and says, "I wonder what those are for..." I'm supposed to dig them. I kind of figured that out already. Thanks.

On the flip side, the game seems to leave you hanging when you actually need blatant advice. When you play the game all the way through in one sitting, it's not such a big deal, but there are no quick hints to set you back on track if you've been away for a while. As such, I frequently found myself at a loss of what to do when I didn't realize that the answer was something I was told to write down on my map... five days ago. Even then, some puzzles are just vague. The solution to one puzzle even involved closing the DS. That's right. You close the DS. It's clever, but there's no indication that what you're supposed to do involves the hardware you're holding. When it comes to the microphone, though, you're usually given a hint that you're supposed to yell. Only... it's kind of embarrassing to do this, either to dispel an enemy or literally bargain for a cheaper price, when in a public setting.

So this is the DS. These things happen. And what's happened with Zelda is that it's gone completely touch control. I was turned off at first, but this new control scheme is very accessible and easy to get into. Right away, I could move (by dragging) and attack (with taps and swipes) like I had been using the stylus to do this all along. That isn't to say the stylus is perfect and should be in every handheld Zelda forever after, though. Commands often get mixed up when taps are too much like swipes. Switching items on the fly isn't as easy when you have to access a touch menu in real-time. More importantly, you lose a lot of the complexity and intricacy that made past Zeldas so intense. This is exactly what Nintendo wanted, of course. It's just that, as a hardcore gamer, I miss having a more concrete system that allows for fewer mistakes and more involvement.

The touch control leaks into sailing, too. In Phantom Hourglass, you don't have direct control over the boat. Instead, you draw a path on the map, and the boat follows it. But there are things for you to do while the boat is moving. Enemies and obstacles constantly pop out of the water for you to shoot and jump over respectively. These kind of things wear thin, however, when you just want to get to that new island and don't want to babysit the game lest you die. What really exasperates this is a girl pirate who wanders the seas and attacks you if you get too close. And by attack, I mean she boards your boat and fights you hand-to-hand. It gets ridiculous how many times you run into her and makes sailing somewhat stressful.

You want to scour the ocean, though, because of all the extra stuff you can collect. Pieces of hearts are out, but in their place you can collect gems to power up your sword or ship parts to customize your boat. The latter is a neat, little feature. You can swap out everything from the smoke stack to the anchor. There are quite a few different ship parts available, and using enough pieces from the same set will boost your boat's stamina. It's too bad there isn't a way to show off the boat you've made to other players.

While Phantom Hourglass doesn't include a version of Four Swords like some had hoped, it does feature a two-player online and single-card download battle mode. This multiplayer mode takes after the phantom dungeon in that one player plays Link, and the other player draws paths for the phantom warriors to catch him. Link's goal is to fetch force gems and bring them back to his rightly-colored base. If he gets caught by a phantom, the roles switch, and the other player becomes Link. It's not going to rival Mario Kart or Bomberman by any means, but it's still a fun diversion when there are only two of you.

The most impressive thing about Phantom Hourglass, however, is its graphics. The cel-shading is almost as good as it was on Gamecube and easily makes this the best-looking DS game to date. Suddenly, the technical limitations of the system don't seem to be such an issue. Link is, as he was in Wind Waker, very expressive, but he takes a back seat to some of the supporting characters. Linebeck, especially, is a great addition to the roster of Zelda faces. There are cut scenes where Link's fairy is talking to someone while Linebeck is in the background, fumbling around and causing mischief. It just shows that a lot of time was spent in making this game a big production.

Final Comments:
Phantom Hourglass, by any other name, would probably be a fantastic game. As a member of the Legend of Zelda family, however, and as a direct sequel to the most awesome Wind Waker, it's.... not so hot. It just does some things that are unforgivable for a franchise that has been around this long. Like forcing players through the phantom dungeon multiple times. That's not fun, period. And while the stylus control--which is what really defines this experience--is unique and interesting, it brings with it a lot of problems and forgoes some of the things that have made the Zelda games work so well before. This isn't Twilight Princess where, by the end, I liked the motion controls. Here, I'm just ready to hit the D-pad and buttons again.

Score: 7.0

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 11/29/07

Game Release: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (US, 10/01/07)

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