Sunday, September 23, 2012

DS review: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Set one hundred years after the events of Phantom Hourglass, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks places a new Link and a new Princess Zelda in a new Hyrule, which has been founded somewhere beyond the Great Sea of Wind Waker. The country is large and prosperous, but harbors a dark secret - long ago, the demon king was sealed away by the Lokmos people. They used the Spirit Tracks as a series of locks, but the railways have since aged and faded. Not long after Link passes his train conductor's test, he goes to receive a formal title from Princess Zelda. But things go awry when Chancellor Cole reveals himself to be an agent of the demon king, and splits Zelda's soul from her body. Determined to stop Cole and his accomplice Byrne from using Zelda's body as a medium to revive the demon king, the ghostly soul of Zelda accompanies Link as they travel to the now-fragmented Tower of Spirits in order to seek guidance from the ancient Lokmos people.

Despite Link relying on a the relatively modern comforts of a train from travel around Hyrule's various regions, the game still feels very much the part of a Zelda title. There is a small element of freedom presented in travelling from one location to another, as different routes allow access to new areas on the overworld map or the chance to gamble fighting against enemies for better loot. The game relies on the stylus for nearly everything, from mapping a route for the train to simply making Link run about and slash enemies with his sword. Though not as important as past instruments like the Ocarina of Time or the Wind Waker, the Spirit Flute is required at a few key junctures and asks players to blow into the DS microphone.

The Hyrule of Spirit Tracks is divided into four distinct regions and one sub-region, each with a different elemental environment - forest, snow, ocean, fire, and sand respectively. As he visits each, Link will have to participate in at least one or two small quests prior to accessing the regional dungeon. While the first few quests are brief, they become longer as the game progresses. The dungeons, on the other hand, are all around the same size, though each requires a distinctly different approach. The first two require a more direct approach and are heavy on combat elements, whereas the Sand Temple requires Link to use a wand that manipulates the sand on the floor to raise him up to higher platforms or even roll pillars out of his path. The game does well to keep each new item interesting and practical.

The Sand Temple aside, the dungeons in Spirit Tracks feel severly lacking in inspiration. There are very few standout puzzles, and for the most part they simply feel boring to explore. Avoiding Wallmasters as you collect the boss key adds an extra bit of challenge. More time will be spent inside the Tower of Spirits, as each completed dungeon re-connects another portion of the fragmented tower. Link will have to climb higher and higher each time to collect a new tablet that will in turn unlock another region on the overworld map. In order to solve some of the tower's puzzles, Link will have to sneak up on Phantom knights and stun them in order to allow Princess Zelda's ghost to assume control of these suits of armor. This makes the experience dynamic and adding a bit more challenge as you manage two simultaneous approaches. Returning to the Tower of Spirits on such a regular basis proves a bit annoying after a while, but at the same time the puzzles therein are both more challenging and more carefully thought-out than what the dungeons provide.

The boss fights are among some of the best in any of the handheld Zelda releases. Gone is the "rule of three" approach for attacking, as some fights can last four or five rounds of slashing at a boss. Most boss fights require use of whichever item has recently been acquired within their respective dungeon, with some of the later encounters requiring used of multiple items in tandem with one another. Each boss design is wonderfully realized, carrying an imposing visage while also maintaining the cel-shaded graphical style of the Wind Waker trilogy.

The story of Spirit Tracks is both a return to the familiar as well as a welcome divergence from series traditions. The story at large follows a tried-and-true formula of a desperate race against time as Link tries his best to stop the demon king's resurrection. But the emtional range expressed by characters like Anjean and Byrne, as well as the backstory that unfolds regarding these characters, is fresh and welcome. Meanwhile, this incarnation of Princess Zelda proves one of the most energetic and entertaining in the series' history, as she begins her journey demanding that Link rescue her body but eventually building up bravery to fight alongside him, thus garnering a close friendship - something that is not so explicitly confirmed in other Legend of Zelda games.

The soundtrack is largely upbeat, though an atmosphere of mystery and fantastical adventure accompanies the tracks that play within the Tower of Spirits and the other dungeons. The cel-shaded graphics translate incredibly well to the DS, retaining the essence of both Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. Some textures are grainy and pixelated, however, which is likely due to the fact that Nintendo has crammed such a fully-realized overworld realm into a single cartridge. Still, it's a little rough on the eyes at times.

The main game aside, Spirit Tracks has only a handful of sidequests to offer. Link can track down wild rabbits and catch them for one of the game's more quirky individuals, or he can collect treasure items within dungeons to trade with a descendant of Phantom Hourglass' Captain Linebeck to upgrade the cars on his train. Compared to something as bold an undertaking as the Oracle games for the Gameboy Color, Spirit Tracks is much more straightforward. Though the handheld Zelda games are rarely as highly regarded as the series' console releases, Spirit Tracks is a decent entry. It may be lacking certain creativities from a design perspective, but it dares to take the character development someplace new.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

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