IGN Review of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Over the years the Zelda franchise has evolved quite differently depending on if you're looking at the console side of things, or just the portable world. While the "main" series - if you can call it that - has progressed from classic 2D top-down to 3D, continuing to deliver the same enchanting, epic feeling from iteration to iteration, Link's portable ventures have been a bit skewed. It began humbly with Game & Watch, moved then to Link's Awakening - a pure pocket Zelda - only to morph into the Capcom-created Oracle of Ages/Seasons world, evolving yet again into the Four Swords-like design of Minish Cap on GBA, and finally residing here on DS with The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass as a fully touch-based, 3D Zelda set in the world of Wind Waker. Is it the Zelda many of us expected? No. But the legend still lives on.
From the moment it was revealed it was quite obvious that Nintendo was sending a message to the world with The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. First and foremost, the game is a pure testament to both the power and innovative aspects of DS, delivering an overall product that will blow gamers away visually, stylistically, and cinematically. At the same time, Phantom Hourglass also delivers a message direct from Nintendo's "every-gamer" stance, as it's lighthearted, more casual in its overall manner, and touch-driven; attributes that are aimed to captivate any and every DS owner out there. The spirit of the Zelda franchise is still there of course, but it's as if Nintendo went back and morphed the core design into something that could appeal to a much wider audience.
In The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass players again assume the role of a green-clad hero who, for the sake of continuity, we'll refer to as Link. The story is taken directly from the Wind Waker world on GameCube, basically picking up where the last game left off, as Link and Tetra sail off into the sunset. The game opens with the two of them manning Tetra's ship as they search for the infamous Ghost Ship that is said to sail the seven seas. After a pretty engaging opening, Tetra of course fulfills her role as the damsel in distress, and it's up to Link to get her back. It's classic Zelda storytelling, and we wouldn't have it any other way. From there Link meets up with a loud-mouthed fairy named Ciela and a Jack Sparrow-like treasure hunter named Linebeck, and the story kicks off.
Right off the bat you'll notice that Phantom Hourglass brings an impressive amount of cinematic presentation to the table. The graphical style is of course a play off the cel-shaded Zelda, but what really gives the game the "pocket Cube" feel to it is that every scene is shot with theatrics in mind, as there's a ton of emotion and depth to the characters. You're also going to notice, however, that the game can be a bit long-winded for the Zelda purists out there, and that constant commentary by Linebeck, Ciela, or numerous other characters in the world will continue well into the back half of the game. This of course improves the relationship between the gamer and the cast, but we can also see hardcore Zelda fans wishing the game would just back off and let them be on their way.
And when moving into the core of the gameplay this "casual vs. hardcore" aspect that Zelda's new attitude will inevitably bring is even more apparent. The controls, as mentioned, are entirely touch-based, so players looking for the classic Zelda feel will need to adapt to using a stylus instead of a d-pad. There's no way around it, no alternate control scheme, and the game doesn't apologize for its drastic change, even poking fun at the hardcore in one of the final dungeons by having a ghost of a fallen warrior mention that his desire for d-pad controls was his "only regret" in life. It's pretty obvious Nintendo wanted to change things up a bit this time around, and love it or hate it, Phantom Hourglass is a touch-only game.
Does it work though? For the most part, yes, although there are some definite gripes to be had with the new direction. General movement is fine, having players move Link around by dragging the stylus which in turn positions Ciela. Link automatically runs towards the fairy, so players have direct control in the sense that he will always make a direct line from his current position to your stylus tip. Depending on how far away Ciela is from his body, Link will creep slowly, walk, jog, or sprint. For combat and additional maneuverability you swipe with the stylus to attack - or simply tap on enemies if they're within range - draw a circle around Link to do the spinning sword attack, or push against the edge of the screen to have him roll.
Where this becomes an issue, however, is that everything is assigned to touch. Attacking, rolling, and running is all left to the DS's interpretation, and while it works for the definite majority of the time it isn't nearly as precise as d-pad controls. Link will sometimes roll seemingly on his own, something that becomes an issue when working near the edge of a cliff, he'll swipe his sword when the player attempts to turn too fast - though as you get used to the controls this is more of a random occurrence - and at times players looking to execute a dodging roll may find that it's not always as receptive as you'd like. We don't want to paint the picture that Zelda is a "broken game", as that is most certainly not the case, but it will take some getting used to after 20 years of d-pad control. Team those little issues with the realization that your hand is going to be covering the bottom screen from time to time, or that the stylus width on DS is about the height of Link himself, and you can see where a more traditional gamer - or large-pawed one - would trade his gold Ocarina copy for a "classic" control scheme.
There's a flipside to this all, however, and it's a huge one. As one of Phantom Hourglass's most redeeming qualities - and one that makes it a must-have for DS owners - the innovation that comes with the touch screen is simply amazing, including everything from course-charting to note-taking, to more tactile aspects such as item usage and true weapon precision. Phantom Hourglass allows for a seemingly never-ending list of ways to use the DS in conjunction with items, and it feels great. Drawing the path of Link's boomerang reinvents the whole game alone, as you'll be able to - and need to - toss it down corridors, around barriers, and behind enemies for back-attacks.
As you find more and more items throughout the game you'll realize just how innovative the DS can be, as Phantom Hourglass truly stretches what can be done on the system. In some cases this can actually hurt Zelda a bit, as our minds instantly ran wild with ideas once we saw some of the item uses, and there just isn't enough space or time to push each item's potential to its fullest. At times the game even introduces one aspect of an item, uses it only once or twice after, and moves on. It's too bad, but it does keep the adventure feeling fresh throughout. Phantom Hourglass could have been a 100 hour game and we'd still be raving about its innovative item usage; they're just that much fun to use.
And of course when you think of entertaining items you instantly focus on the weapon-specific bosses that Zelda is so famous for. Phantom Hourglass is no different, having each labyrinth focus on one item as a theme, and then bringing it all together for epic one-on-one battles as a finale, and it's one of the best cumulative boss packages we've seen across any Zelda game over the last 20 years, period. Nintendo made a point to not only create innovative and entertaining boss bouts, but to actually change the style of each as the game went on. You'll seldom experience the same type of fight, as some require you to work specifically on the bottom screen while others have you shooting from bottom to top, or instead seeing the battle from dual perspectives that are each essential to defeating the foe. It's truly amazing.
One fight will have you attacking a two-screen tall enemy, while the next all of a sudden changes the entire concept of a boss battle, requiring your eyes to not only float from screen to screen, but use a combination of viewpoints to solve the enemy's riddle. Our only gripe in the fights was that they were over too quickly, each taking a few seconds to figure out, and then three or four relays of the attack pattern to dispatch. Only near the end of the game did we actually die during boss fights, a few of which lasted a few minutes in length; longer than their predecessors.
That same feeling carries over from item usage and boss battles into the overall labyrinth play this time around. It's fun, we love every second of it, and then it ends abruptly. Dungeons feel shorter and more linear in this Zelda than any before it, all the while having Ciela or ghosts of old adventurers pipe up and rattle off information on something any gamer would instantly know already. Each time you drop to another floor in a dungeon, the majority of that floor is a self-contained puzzle, as well over 90% of the game's labyrinth work doesn't require you to trek across a dungeon entirely to solve major brain-teasing puzzles, instead moving you one room at a time.
If you walk over to a group of four levers, make a note of it and continue on; you'll soon find a tablet or ghost that has only one message for you: 4,2,1,3. If you break open a suspiciously located pot only to find five arrows, pull out your bow, as there's a target somewhere to hit, and the game is just making sure you have what you need to complete the task without backtracking. This formula continues as the game goes on, though it does get a bit harder once you reach the back half of the adventure. If you're expecting anything akin to A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, or even Minish Cap, however, you'll find you're over-thinking it.
Those moments are in there, they just occur at a much smaller rate. The time-based challenges in the Temple of the Ocean King, for example, can be tough as nails, requiring you to not only beat it in a certain amount of time, but also navigate the dungeons around invincible guardians called Phantoms. This final labyrinth is actually an aspect of the game that runs parallel to the rest of the story, so every time you defeat a boss or complete a leg of your journey you'll be called to again traverse a section of the time-based challenge. As our only gripe with this design, there are over ten levels to complete, and only one halfway point throughout the game, which means you'll be replaying sections of the temple every few hours. Each time you enter you'll have new items to use that speed up the previous levels and gain you more time to dive deeper though, so while it can feel like artificially extended gameplay at times, it still serves a purpose. It can become redundant opening the same chests, moving the same force gems, and unlocking the same doors over and over again, however.
But for every gripe we have about Phantom Hourglass, there seems to be numerous praises as well. For starters, the game is truly epic in scope, opening up the world more than we ever anticipated on DS. Sailing is of course back, but without the reliance on wind you can now draw your path and cruise from point A to point B. All the while it feels as though the world is alive, as other boats inhabit the same waters, pirates patrol and attack, enemies pop up and try to sink your ship, merchants cruise the waters acting as mobile item-shops, and a rival pirate lass tracks your ship down for impromptu duels. The main quest comes in shorter than our liking, sitting at 15 hours over four sittings for our play-through, but the amount of side quests raises that amount substantially, as there are tons of uncharted islands, treasure maps that lead to ocean-floor loot, and the occasional mini-games such as archery or cannon-firing that let you cash in rupees for a chance at prizes. To tie it all together there's also a treasure aspect to the game, which allows you to discover and sell off valuables, or unlock 81 different ship pieces to essentially build your own vessel and power it up with like-themed items. There's an immense amount of adventure to be had here.
And as for the overall package you're getting with Phantom Hourglass, it's easy to put aside the gripes of touch-only control or a shorter, easier quest when you take a second to truly appreciate the total package. The visuals are stunning, the music is extremely epic, making great use of DS's sound card to deliver some decent area-specific sound for players using headphones, and a musical score that - while not dethroning the best of the Zelda series - is captivating and memorable. Also included is the multiplayer mode, which delivers a one-on-one battle in single card, multi-card, or Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection mode.
Users can connect with other Phantom Hourglass owners and battle in a Link vs. Phantoms mini-game that works like a game of triforce-stealing capture the flag, and while it's a fun diversion from the main game it doesn't have the standing power or pure addictive nature as Four Swords did. The online portion has a decent amount of depth though, as players keep an overall standing including their wins, losses, and disconnections, and you can battle friends, or go nation/worldwide in two different random battle modes as well. Single card download play offers the same game, but battle stats aren't saved when finished. If battle isn't your thing, you can always stock away treasure or ship parts to trade as well, which is a decent - but somewhat needless - addition.
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