REVIEWS -- Legend Of Zelda Spirit Tracks (The) -- DS
Zelda at its finest
by Jacob Crites
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
The hugely anticipated new Zelda game is finally here. Does it live up to the hype, or has the series finally run out of steam?
Iíve got a feeling about Spirit Tracks. And itís not a good one. Donít get me wrong, the game itself is incredible. But I think this game is destined to join the likes of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, Majoraís Mask, and Wind Waker -- the ďblack sheepĒ of the series. The games that some absolutely love, and some hate with a burning passion. I just get the feeling that itís not going to get the respect it deserves. So Iím going to warn you right off the bat: thereís a good chance you wonít like Spirit Tracks. But thereís also a chance youíll fall in love with it. Iím one of the people who fell in love with it.
Itís a story of boy meets girl... meets weird little dude with two hats
If Phantom Hourglass was Ocarina of Time (a stretch, I know) then Spirit Tracks is Majoraís Mask. It keeps the same art style, control scheme, and a lot of the same characters as its predecessor but itís much darker, more challenging, and has a much deeper story. Speaking of which, the story is nothing short of fantastic. So fantastic in fact, that Iíll just give you the bare-bones details of it, so as not to spoil anything.
The events of Spirit Tracks take place about 100 years after Phantom Hourglass on ďNew HyruleĒ, the land Link and Tetra were searching for at the end of the last game. You take control of Link (not the same one, obviously), a young boy aspiring to be a professional train conductor. In fact, his dream is about to come true; today is his graduation ceremony at Hyrule Castle, where he will be given the honor of being Hyruleís Royal Conductor. But during the ceremony something strange happens: Princess Zelda slips you a note, and secretly tells you to meet her in her quarters after the ceremony.
Much to Linkís disappointment, itís not exactly a love note. It turns out the Princess is concerned about a conspiracy taking place in Hyrule. You see, the train tracks around the land are mysteriously disappearing, and it all leads back to the suspicious chancellor -- Chancellor Cole (a weird little fellow who wears two hats). You help the Princess escape from the confines of the castle, and this is where your adventure begins. I wouldnít dare spoil anything, but just know that the Princess, somehow, actually joins you in your adventure for the first time ever in the series. The story is told through some beautifully rendered and impressively directed cutscenes, and a surprisingly smart script. So basically, the story? Outstanding.
The perfect blend of old and new
Also outstanding is the gameplay, which is a perfect blend of old and new. If you werenít a fan of Phantom Hourglassí touchscreen control scheme, this isnít going to sway you. The controls are pretty much exactly the same (though they have been refined in a few areas). However, the second biggest complaint about Phantom Hourglass has been addressed: the difficulty. Phantom Hourglass was an insultingly easy game. By contrast, Spirit Tracks is the most challenging Zelda game since the N64 days. Sure, the game holds your hand for the first hour or so, but the second dungeon in the game had me seriously scratching my head, and it only gets harder from there.
Obviously, how difficult this game is for you depends a lot on how good your puzzle-solving skills are (mine are pretty poor, Iíll admit), but there are some pretty tough battles as well. Most enemies in Phantom Hourglass simply required rapid tapping to beat, but some of them in Spirit Tracks actually require quite a bit of strategy to defeat. I didnít see a single Game Over screen in Wind Waker, Twilight Princess or Phantom Hourglass. I saw about 5 in Spirit Tracks. The game is no joke in the difficulty department, and thatís definitely a good thing
Nintendo really brought their A game for the dungeons -- their brilliant design rivals, and in many ways surpasses, even those of the best of the console Zelda adventures. Though many Zelda games have played with the tag-team dungeon idea, Spirit Tracks is the first one to really nail it. In Ocarina of Time you had to physically carry the other person around. In Wind Waker you had to, quite obnoxiously, play a song every time you wanted to control the other person. In Spirit Tracks you simply tap the icon at Zeldaís feet and draw a path for her to take. Some truly genius puzzles (and even a few epic boss fights) revolve around controlling both characters at once. If nothing else, Spirit Tracks is a landmark in the series for finally executing perfectly an idea that Nintendo has been toying with (with mixed results) since the Ď90ís.
Trains, flutes and boomerangs (hey, it kind of rhymed... sorta)
But the mind-bending puzzles and intense difficulty wouldnít matter in the slightest if the game wasnít any fun. Thankfully, fun is Spirit Tracksí most endearing quality. Surprisingly, a lot of the fun comes from the gameís most controversial addition: the train. While the train will no doubt be the source of many heated debates among fans, I personally think itís a wonderful addition to the franchise, and second only to Epona when it comes to forms of transportation in a Zelda game. Admittedly, itís a tad more restrictive than the boat, but what it lacks in freedom, it makes up with strategy, fun, and excitement.
Sailing in Phantom Hourglass was a step up from Wind Waker, but it was still painfully boring at times. Staring at nothing but blue for minutes on end with few enemy encounters along the way didnít exactly make for a compelling ride to your next destination. The train, on the other hand, is a wholly engrossing experience. Although you still draw your destination route, thereís a lot more strategy than just drawing a line from point A to point B. There are actually enemy trains that ride the rails, and running into them means having to go all the way back to your starting point. So careful planning, logical thinking, and a bit of improvisation comes into the equation. Thankfully you donít have to follow your preset path if things take an ugly turn. You can always switch tracks when you come to an intersection or simply redraw your route if you need to.
Instead of entering a cutscene when you arrive at your destination, you actually have to time your stop correctly by pulling the brakes at the proper time. This was a really smart addition that adds yet another layer of fun to train travel. Another reason that riding the rails is a step up from sailing is the lush landscapes that youíll encounter. Hyrule is really a beautifully designed place, and sometimes you canít believe youíre playing a DS game; not just because of the amazing art direction and graphics, but the sheer size of the overworld. The train isnít terribly fast, but the laid-back pace makes it easier to sit back and enjoy the ride.
New items are always something to get excited about when the latest Zelda game rolls in, and Spirit Tracks has some particularly noteworthy ones. The most exciting being, without question, the Spirit Pipes (essentially a pan flute with a fancy name), the seriesí new musical instrument. Being a wind instrument, itís not surprising that it uses the microphone to play, and unlike most DS games that try to use the mic, it actually does so quite successfully. You slide the differently colored pipes around using the stylus, while blowing into the microphone to play. Itís a system that feels very natural, and youíll likely spend more than a few minutes just messing around with it, trying to figure out how to play classic Zelda tunes. Nintendo has really balanced the use of this thing -- in Ocarina of Time and especially Wind Waker you sometimes had to use your musical instrument so much that it stopped being fun; but in Spirit Tracks itís used sparingly, meaning itís always pretty exciting when you get to use it.
The whip is another riotously fun item used for combat, puzzle solving, and getting to hard-to-reach places. When youíre not whipping enemies into a pulp with it, youíre swinging across bottomless chasms, Indy style. However, what amazes me the most is how Nintendo is still finding new, interesting ways to use Boomerangs, Arrows, and Bombs -- items that have been around since the series began in the Ď80ís.
The hiiillls are aliiiiiiveeee with the sound of MIDI...
If thereís one thing Zelda games are known for (aside from the gameplay, of course) itís their soundtracks. The Legend of Zelda franchise has given us some of the most epic and well known songs in gaming, so naturally Spirit Tracks has a lot to live up to. So what does Spirit Tracks sound like? Honestly, itís a bit Banjo-Kazooie-ish. Now, Banjo-Tooie has one of the best soundtracks in video game history so Iím not sure if thatís a bad thing, but a few of the tunes feel a bit out of place in the Zelda universe. Thatís not to say any of the songs are bad -- in fact I think theyíre all quite good -- but some of them could have used a little more work (or maybe a little less banjos).
The overworld theme, however, is epic in ways you only get from a Zelda game, and is one of my favorite tracks in the entire series. The real disappointment for me are the songs you learn for your Spirit Pipes, which are pretty forgettable; a real shame considering how awesome the Spirit Pipes are.
Clocking in at least 15 hours to complete the main story, Spirit Tracks clearly has a lot to offer. But the game is hardly over when you beat the final boss. This is a Zelda game, people. Half the fun comes after youíve completed your quest. As weíve already established, Hyrule is nothing short of enormous, and youíll certainly want to explore every corner of it. Each quadrant is packed with little towns, villages, shooting ranges, and other nooks and crannies to explore.
Thereís a huge amount of side-quests in this game -- you can work on buying new parts to customize your train, hunt for valuable treasure, collect stamps in a stamp book, transport villagers to their desired locations, and capture wild rabbits. Thereís even a full-blown multiplayer mode that, sadly, lacks the online compatibility that Phantom Hourglass had. Locally, however, it supports up to four players with only one cartridge. Not too shabby. Spirit Tracks has more than enough reasons to keep you coming back for more, and the quest is so epic youíll likely want to play through it again.
There are a couple problems with Spirit Tracks that hold it back from that perfect 10. Though the script is much sharper, and funnier this time around, it can still be a bit long-winded at times. Zeldaís dialogue is sometimes pretty superfluous, and makes you wish sheíd just shut her fat mouth every now and again. And while the game is certainly pushing the DS to its limits graphically and technically, thereís an awful lot of pop-in, and be prepared to encounter some pretty ugly textures when riding the train. On the rare occasion youíll also get some frame rate issues when youíre surrounded by enemy trains -- like I said, though, these instances are exceptionally rare, and when they do come up they really donít detract from the general enjoyment of the game.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks has a strong argument for being the best game on the DS. It makes full, perfect use of its unique hardware (nailing everything from touchscreen controls and microphone implementation), has the best graphics on the console, and one of the most lengthy and rewarding single player experiences in handheld gaming. But what really makes the game shine is how it feels almost totally different than any other Zelda game before it, while still managing to stay true to the classic gameplay that made the series so popular in the first place. Some may find the train to be too slow-paced, and some may not like the touchscreen control system, but thereís no denying that Spirit Tracks raises the bar in terms of what we expect out of handheld games, and indeed videogames in general. Donít dismiss Linkís latest adventure because itís on a handheld; Spirit Tracks is a serious contender for Game of the Year.
Release Date: December 7, 2009
Review Date: 15-12-2009
Numbers of Players: 1-4
Players Online: No
Notes: Download Play Support
This is the best-looking game on the DS thanks to some gorgeous art direction and surprising attention to detail. Some ugly textures while riding the train bring the score down a notch.
Zelda at its absolute best. Some brain-wrinkling puzzles and ingeniously designed dungeons combined with classic Zelda exploration and a ton of new twists make this an essential entry in the series.
Nearly every square inch of Hyrule is dripping with polish and detail. The cutscenes rival what you see on home consoles in terms of sheer epicness, and every bit of the DSí unique hardware is put to good use. The lack of online play is a baffling decision, but the multiplayer is still fun locally.
Thereís plenty of great tunes here, especially the overworld theme, but some of them are oddly Banjo-Kazooie-ish in nature. The songs you learn for the Spirit Pipes, however, are forgettable.
Spirit Tracks in no slouch in the content department. A plethora of side-quests, mini-games, and collectables means youíll be playing the game long after youíve completed the main quest; and the quest is so great youíll no doubt want to play it again. Multiplayer adds even more to the replayability.