Friday, February 10, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks

With the non-3D incarnation of the Nintendo DS in its twilight years and the all-important The Legend of Zelda franchise moving onto and towards a new generation of consoles both handheld and conventional, I thought I'd have a look at the two latest original handheld Zelda titles, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. The two games are heavily related in terms of gameplay, design and structure and have some continuity of characters, concepts and themes. They are both sequels to The Wind Waker for the Nintendo Gamecube and are functionally so identifiable with each other that it makes sense to review them together. First of all, though, I should probably talk about The Wind Waker itself.
The Wind Waker was a game I played late. Never owning it when the Gamecube was in its heyday it was only when the Wii had emerged and I'd heartily enjoyed Twilight Princess that my childish aversion to the prior game's cartoonish cel-shaded graphical style fell away and I borrowed it to play through properly. Needless to say my reluctance to play The Wind Waker earlier seemed very foolish in hindsight because it's a very good game. The Great Sea was a huge, incredibly diverse environment with an enormous sense of possibility and exploration, the graphics were actually extremely suitable, lending the game a compelling visual flair, and the storyline, a close tie-in to the events of Ocarina of Time, gave us some confronting insights into the folly of clinging to the past and some much-needed and well-crafted characterisation for the arch-villain Ganondorf, one of my favourite Nintendo characters.
Needless to say the game isn't without faults. A rather frustrating dearth of dungeons would be my main complaint. There are only seven in total including Ganon's Tower and the somewhat dungeon-lite Forsaken Fortress, which for a console instalment seems rather lacking compared to the nine of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. This isn't helped by the replacement of what you would normally expect to be dungeon sections with Overworld fetch quests, firstly and rather simply to recover Nayru's Pearl and then time-consumingly to recover the numerous pieces of the Triforce of Courage which have been scattered throughout the Great Sea. They make the dungeons which do occur seem like interruptions of heavily overworld-focused gameplay. I would have added one or two more dungeons to make them seem more regular and to simply have eliminated some not entirely fun overworld quests.
In the end though The Wind Waker is a good game and I'm not surprised that it spawned sequels, although admittedly I wouldn't have anticipated the DS as the place for these. In this regard I ought to begin with a mutual shortcoming of both of these games. Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks both emulate the top-down style of earlier handheld Zelda games and the original NES and SNES titles, albeit now in a three-dimensional environment. Unlike The Wind Waker, where you could jump off your ship anywhere and hop straight onto land, the overworld in the DS sequels is an entirely separate instance to the locations of the normal areas, with entirely different gameplay. You control vehicles in the openly 3D overworld, and when you arrive at a port or station you transfer to control of Link in an area which is essentially just layered levels. As such the environments, despite how interesting they appear from the overworld in the games, are reduced to somewhat compressed or flattened versions of their apparent selves, much unlike the many-proportioned, often spiralling environments to be found in The Wind Waker. This makes the islands, or stations, individually a good deal larger most of the time than the majority of the Wind Waker islands but also feels incongruous and is very obviously a technical step backward. Playing sequels on inferior technology is bound to give an awkward feeling and you shouldn't make my mistake of going into Phantom Hourglass expecting an identical gameplay experience to The Wind Waker but on a DS.
The other obvious difference is in the control scheme, which in these games is entirely touchscreen-and-stylus based. Some people have complained about this but I think by and large it's a good thing. As long as you remember than the shoulder buttons can be used to activate items quickly there's really no problem unless your arms get sore from carrying the console itself. Tapping enemies to attack them and tapping the ground to indicate the direction in which you want Link to move all works very smoothly and frankly I think it avoids the frustrations that uncoordinated people like me experience trying to play things like A Link to the Past where navigating entirely with a D pad to confront enemies especially can often end in disaster. One awkward element is the employment of the DS microphone in certain sections of the game. More than once I was on the bus when the game instructed that I yell loudly into the DS microphone. Of course you can actually just blow into the mic to get the same effect but even that can be weird. In Spirit Tracks you have to play an instrument Ocarina of Time style to open up new areas and this involves more blowing on your console. If you can do it discreetly, good for you, but it's not the most public-friendly feature.
Another feature shared by Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks is the use of a recurring central dungeon, the Temple of the Ocean King in the former and the Tower of Spirits in the latter. In both instances you have to return regularly to this hub challenge which will permit you to progress further into the game. To dwell primarily on Phantom Hourglass for a moment it's worth mentioning that a lot of criticism was aimed at the Temple of the Ocean King, which not only operates on a timer which causes your health to drain if it runs out but is also full of invincible enemies you can't damage until your final visit. This in itself can be annoying but at the same time elements of the Temple of the Ocean King may give you the challenge which otherwise seems a little lacking in the fairly straightforward normal dungeons. There's an additional challenge in the shape of using newly-acquired items to progress through the opening floors of the temple faster. All in all I didn't actually find the Temple of the Ocean King to be particularly annoying at all on my most recent playthrough.
Nonetheless Spirit Tracks retains some elements while addressing the potentially more frustrating components. For a start there's no timer. Secondly, you don't revisit floors you've already cleared: instead you progress to a different set of floors between each normal dungeon. Thirdly, once you've powered up your sword in what's probably the most significant frustration of the Tower of Spirits you can attack a Phantom and possess it with Zelda, which gives you a powerful ally and is essential for clearing a number of puzzles. There's an obvious continuation here of ideas originating in Sakon's hideout from Majora's Mask as you control different characters in different areas of the level to progress further.
The gameplay elsewhere is pretty routine. You travel to different parts of the world, unlock dungeons and battle through them, culminating in a boss fight. Phantom Hourglass has six conventional dungeons, the Ghost Ship which may feel a bit like dungeon-lite to some people, and the Temple of the Ocean King, and Spirit Tracks has five along with the Tower of Spirits. Both the hub dungeons are as long as several dungeons put together so you get a lot of content. Although I've never been a huge sidequest player in Zelda games beyond Majora's Mask where they were pretty much essential to the experience there are a number of non-obligatory areas to be investigated as well. The dungeons, as I've said, are never hugely challenging beyond the hub dungeons. They tend to follow a traditional formula of finding an item and then using said item to complete the remaining puzzles and defeating the boss. The bosses are all fairly straightforward as well, although some Spirit Tracks nasties such as Fraaz and Skeldritch might give you a bit more trouble. The final boss fights are also similar in some respects, both having a vehicle element and two normal parts. These are somewhat more difficult in Spirit Tracks than in Phantom Hourglass, although both ultimate battles involve using both screens to view the enemy at two different angles at once. Phantom Hourglass uses a nice time-freezing mechanic whereas Spirit Tracks plumps for a more traditional "Get Zelda to shoot Light Arrows," formula, although in this instance you have the bonus of being able to control Zelda and both scenarios tend to lead on from the storylines.
Phantom Hourglass is a bit of a side-story, and feels in some ways to be the Majora's Mask to Wind Waker's Ocarina of Time. It's set in a world which isn't quite the normal one and rather than hunting down Ganondorf you're pitted against the nihilistic, all-consuming force of Bellum, a giant parasitic squid who has kidnapped Tetra, who in case you don't know or have forgotten is Zelda's pirate alter-ego from Wind Waker. First you have to scour the seven, or rather four, seas to awaken the Spirits, and then after nabbing Tetra from Bellum's spooky Ghost Ship you must seek out the three Pure Metals so that the blacksmith Zauz, who looks remarkably like a nice version of Ganondorf, can forge the Phantom Sword which will allow you to slay Bellum. It's pretty conventional Zelda storytelling; you're given two objectives, each of which requires the acquisition of three objects located in different dungeons in different parts of the world. You've got a couple of human-inhabited islands, you've got a Goron island, and you've got the introduction of the Anouki, an amusing race of snow people.
The lack of backstory is somewhat frustrating. We're somewhere which isn't quite the Great Sea from Wind Waker, evidently under the control of the Ocean King and his three Spirit servants, and long ago they fought Bellum, but beyond that we don't hear much about this new land. What always intrigued me was the Northeastern Sea, which is home to the ominously-named Isle of Ruins and Isle of the Dead where an ancient society called the Cobble Kingdom is now a necropolis of huge pyramids plagued by the undead. King Mutoh and his four Knights, Brant, Bremeur, Doylan and Max once fought for the Ocean King in war but we never hear much about them. Frankly I think the Cobble Kingdom should have been built up more as the foundation of all society in the game, and perhaps could have been discovered to be destroyed in the final section when you actually discover the Isle of Ruins, but sadly this most intriguing element of the game's backstory is sadly left to be a little too mysterious.
The characters are also worth mentioning. Ciela is a typical fiesty fairy companion in the style of Navi, even sharing certain vocal cues. Oshus is the standard mentor figure. The main character of significance we're introduced to is that of Captain Linebeck, your buddy who sails you around the four Seas for the game and who undergoes quite a good amount of character development from being a cowardly treasure hunter to being a valuable friend by the end of the game. He's a very unique-looking, funny and well-crafted character and I think his implementation was one of the strongest elements of Phantom Hourglass. He also has a great theme tune.
Spirit Tracks is something of a twist on a traditional Zelda story. We do have a major evil force as our opponent, but it's Malladus, not Ganon, and rather than being held back by Sages he's been sealed away by Spirits whose earthly servants are the Lokomos, people who drive around in little steam-powered cars. The whole thing's very train oriented. What's more, Malladus isn't after Zelda herself but only her body. Nonetheless he feels a bit like Ganon's stand-in and the dearth of backstory for him makes him feel like a bit of an arbitrary villain. To be honest I feel like the first adventure in the New Hyrule which was promised at the conclusion of The Wind Waker could possibly have occurred with a little more grandeur and significance than this handheld stylus-based game.
One of the best elements of Spirit Tracks is the depth of characterisation for Zelda who, disembodied, accompanies you as a sort of living ghost for almost all of the game. Her growing friendship with Link and her desire to succeed combined with her energetic and occasionally haughty character make for a lot of touching and funny moments. An element of Spirit Tracks I would criticise is the train travel. One of the things which made The Wind Waker great was the sense of a huge open world which always had another interesting island to be discovered and explored. Phantom Hourglass, presumably due to hardware limitations again, has far less islands but compensates for this by having them all reasonably close together. Despite some annoying barriers between, for instance, the Northeastern Sea and the Northwestern Sea, it never takes too long to get anywhere. Unfortunately in Spirit Tracks there just aren't enough stations or variety in the landscape to make up for the size. Travel often feels unimaginably slow and at times you'll be begging for your train to go faster because despite occasional enemies to shoot and rogue trains to avoid it simply takes forever, especially when you're trying to figure out a sidequest. There's no way to make the train go faster than your 'second gear' and while warp gates around the kingdom do help the unbroken terrain of the Forest and Snow Realms in particular can become rather bland fairly quickly. Opening up new dungeons also often involves a great deal of back-tracking. Too much of the Fire Realm is devoted to a network of tracks around the dungeon as part of a key hunt to open said dungeon, and the very existence of the Ocean Realm seems absurd - you're driving a train around on tracks supported above the sea floor which really link to pretty much nothing. Eventually you also drive the train underwater. Why not just make another land-based Realm rather than squeezing the Sand Realm between Fire and Ocean? The train doesn't have to go underwater for there to be a water dungeon.
There definitely is a somewhat casual feel to both of these games. Their reliance on the stylus for virtually all of their controls as well as the obvious hardware limitation issues may make them feel a bit like Zelda-lite to some people. I played a fair bit of both of them in my most recent playthroughs on the bus and this hardly impinged on my progress. Despite the fact that I enjoyed both of them they feel a bit like fill-in; relatively unambitious titles to sell a few more DSes to Zelda fans between Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. Nonetheless they're simple, compelling fun. As I've stated the major weaknesses for me lie chiefly with the fairly shallow storylines and thin-to-nonexistent background or fleshing-out-material, which is especially noticeable in Phantom Hourglass where we just don't get enough real narrative exploration of the exotic and mysterious locations and societies Link and Linebeck visit on their journey. I know world-building's never been a huge element of the Zelda franchise but it was noticeably slight here.
A few unintuitive puzzles here and there which act sometimes as a bizarre counterpoint to the often rather easy and somewhat linear dungeons may put people off, but I feel that anyone who feels they're not getting enough punishment in the normal dungeons will find plenty in the Temple of the Ocean King and Tower of Spirits. Ultimately I'd have to recommend both of them. Really, if you like Zelda and you want something a bit light and fluffy that you can play on the go then they're not a bad choice at all. They have a rather charming personality to them which endears them to me somewhat. My only advice would be to not play one right after the other and, as I've said, to not really expect them to live up to the experience of The Wind Waker. They're still fun though, and they do have the Zelda magic, which really is about all you can ask for, especially on DS.

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