IGN Review of The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
It isn't often we'll see two Zelda efforts on a single platform. NES had it, Game Boy Color had it, GameCube sort of had it, but unless you count ports, remakes, or the trilogy of face-palm proportions on CD-i, there really haven't been many times in history when Zelda fans could expect multiple iterations of the green-clad hero on one platform. So when Nintendo announced The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks on DS, most of us were pretty surprised. Yeah yeah, Link is riding a train and if you hate it you'll eventually come around. The real question though? Is this double-dip of Nintendo's legendary franchise really worth the price of admission, or is it merely a shelf-filling cash-in aimed at the masses?
It's worth the price of admission. That didn't take long to get to, huh?
In the two years we've waited between Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, over a century has passed in this sort-of-linked-together-but-don't-take-it-too-literally world. That little rugrat of a pirate from the first game is now an old man, living with Link in a tiny town on the outskirts of Hyrule Castle. Princess Zelda is alive and well, Linebeck – ok, a relative of Linebeck, since he wears a new hat – has ditched the treasure hunting world of piracy and now runs a humble antique store, and yes, Link has ditched the boat for a choo-choo train.
On the surface Spirit Tracks seems like it's a bit too similar to its Phantom Hourglass roots, bringing back a few tools, many of the same concepts, and all the same gameplay conventions. Starting with control, Link's mobility is virtually unchanged, still offering no option for digital pad and button maneuverability despite nearly every critic in the world begging for it last time around. There's an overworld that's broken up into four main map pieces and a new Spirit Tower that replaces the time-based Temple of the Ocean King in Phantom Hourglass. Drawing your route via train is nearly identical to your boat controls – though now you'll have to watch out for splits in the track, and routes aren't quite as direct –. A few tunes return, and it's impossible to run through grassy fields, scour labyrinths, or explore dungeons and caves without feeling an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
That, teamed with the fact that Nintendo insists on treating every player as a complete newcomer to the series, is bound to frustrate seasoned players. Of course, there's also the simple fact that keeps so many hardcore Nintendo fans coming back year after year, console after console, and decade after decade; Nintendo knows how to make amazing games and when it wants to, it dominates this industry. That's exactly what Spirit Tracks is. It has the disadvantage of being a sequel, but the deeper you dig, the more you realize it's not only better than its DS predecessor, but can also stand up to the impressive pedigree the Zelda series is known for.
At the center of it all is the Spirit Tower, which acts as the new labyrinth hub of the game. Keeping the same core concepts as the Temple of the Ocean King in Phantom Hourglass, Link and his new ghostly friend Zelda will get into a rhythm of traveling the lands, returning the power of the legendary spirit tracks using a handy-dandy Spirit Flute, and make their way to a labyrinth, beat it, and then return back to the tower to find another piece of the world map. For newcomers to DS Zelda, this sounds like a fun little back-and-forth. For those who played Phantom Hourglass, it sounds like a repeat design. Where Sprit Tracks gains its edge, however, is in the actual spirit tower itself, as the dungeon is difficult, far more diverse than its predecessor, and is no longer time-based in design. Once an area is beaten, you're finished with it entirely, moving up the tower via a huge spiral staircase rather than going through every finished labyrinth over and over again.
The Spirit Tower is also where the game puts Zelda's ghost state to use, having her take over the Phantom Knights that lurk within the halls of the tower. After a little Metal Gear-inspired stealth sequences, Link gains the power to defeat the Phantom Knights and send Zelda flying into their steel shell. Based on what Phantom she possesses, her skill set changes, allowing her to carry Link on her shield, carry a flame sword to light darkened halls, teleport freely throughout dungeons, or even morph into a ball and destroy barriers and enemies. As the duo climbs each floor the puzzles become more complex, bordering on some of the most unique and mind-bending dungeon play this side of Ocarina of Time.
When it comes to general travel and "out of tower" gameplay, Spirit Tracks is a mix of both amazingly inspired, classic Zelda action, and some segments that should have simply been left on the cutting room floor. True statement: The game runs over 25 hours from front to end. Unfortunate reality: A good fifth of that could have been cut out to better pace the experience. Spirit Tracks is never dull, it's never boring, but it does border on monotonous at times, and while there's always strong writing, beautiful music, and new locales to experience, the designers seem to revel in sending you on ping pong quests, bouncing you from location to location to solve otherwise mudane tasks. Want to get to the fire temple? Tough break, kid: there's a lava river in the way. Don't worry, you're just a five minute drive to the ice village where ice can be made to cool the lava. That is, you can make ice after you take somebody from the ice village to the forest where fresh water can be found; don't want to be making dirty ice. Delivered him there? Nice! Come back later and you can get the ice. Go kill some time. Oh, you made it back to the fire world with the ice? Congrats, it's time to move on. Unless you want to do it all over again in a side quest, that is.
Thankfully, while those moments are truly frustrating for seasoned Zelda fans who just want to get from epic dungeon to epic dungeon, those roadblock moments are also few and far between, and the bulk of the experience – especially the back half of the game – is packed full of amazing content. Link's tools themselves are largely responsible for making the experience so fresh and innovative despite all its formulaic inklings, with even returning elements like the boomerang and bow and arrow getting all new gameplay mechanics built around them. There's a bit too much emphasis put on using the microphone – the Spirit Flute uses it very well, while the whirlwind has you constantly blowing at your screens for the first few hours of the game – but even despite that the uses for puzzles and combat alike are great. The new whip is an awesome addition for stealing items from baddies, moving about the world, and executing short-ranged attacks, and the final sand-based tool in the game is simply awesome; we'll keep that spoiler free though.
Also returning this time around is Zelda's multiplayer battle mode, now supporting four players while sacrificing online play via Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Unfortunately Four Swords this is not, with gameplay limited to arena-based gem collecting with each player attempting to knock out their opponents with bombs, trap doors, and Phantoms. The game's design is less strategic or in-depth as even Phantom Hourglass's multiplayer though, with no direct control over Phantoms, and no swords for direct combat between players. It's literally a funhouse of traps and power-ups, with no real direct combat or strategy overall. As a nice addition though, it's single card multiplayer, so at least you won't need to track down other players with their Spirit Tracks cart handy. A tag mode is also included, used for trading treasures from player to player, and while it's helpful, it's also an extremely basic addition; simply pick three treasures you want to trade, and swap them with another DS Zelda owner. It's great for getting the treasures you need for upgrading your train, though good luck getting rare items from buddies that are also out to acquire the top upgrades in the game.
And finally, something needs to be said once again for Nintendo's overall presentation, which is simply outstanding. Some tunes are back from Phantom Hourglass, but for the most part you'll find original compositions and some truly inspired tunes, especially when dealing with the Spirit Flute sections of the game. Visuals are again extremely impressive, even pushing the DS a bit further than the previous game with a few new tricks. The storytelling is right on point, the game's final hour or so is a finale of truly epic proportions, and the bond between Link and Zelda has never been stronger; even if the princess does start sounding like a broken record of overly enthusiastic anime girl dialogue. The game has its slow moments, but the total package is hands-down one of the best on the system, and it fires from every aspect of its design.
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