To measure the quality of a video game series you shouldn’t examine the quality of its best titles but its worst. This, the first of two games in The Legend of Zelda series to be released on Nintendo’s stratospherically succesful DS, is one of the weaker games in the series but it’s far from a bad game.
The Legend of Zelda – Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to the Gamecube’s The Wind Waker and picks up shortly after that game’s final scene. Link is sailing with Tetra and her crew in search of the new Hyrule when they encounter the Ghost Ship. Tetra boldly boards the ship in search of treasure and adventure and promptly runs into trouble. Link attempts to mount a rescue but ends up in the drink later waking on a beach where he meets Ciela, a fairy with a memory problem. The pair team up and set off in search of a way to track down the ghost ship and save Tetra. Before long they enlist the services of seafaring rogue Linebeck who lends them his ship. The trio must sail a new area of ocean in search of the clues that will lead them to the Ghost Ship. It’s not the most riveting story in the Zelda canon but it sets up the necessary backdrop for the swashbuckling.
The story isn’t what makes Phantom Hourglass stand out. This is the first handheld game in the series to feature 3D graphics while retaining the familiar top down perspective of the 2D entries. More significant than this however is the interface which abandons button inputs for complete touch screen control. It was a bold move for a series, one of the greatest strenghts of which was its reliably constant excellent controls. You really have to tip you hat to Nintendo for pulling it off. Absolutely everything from menu selections to movement to combat is handled on the touch screen. Moving Link is a matter of touching the screen in the direction you want to move in which allows full 360 degree movement rather than the eight directions of the 2D games. Swinging your sword requires you to tap the screen or perform a quick stroke, tapping enemies initiates a targeted attack. It’s all very intuitive and works fluidly, the only drawback is that your hand can get in the way of the screen a bit sometimes but that’s normal for the DS. Talking to NPCs and reading signs is also accomplished with a simple tap, as is selceting items to use. The weapons themselves have all been chosen and designed to make use of the touch screen’s strangths. Bombs are thrown and arrows aimed with a regular tap but the boomerang really benefits. The game invites you to draw a line, which can be as complicated as you want, and trace the route the boomerang will take. It allows you to perform quite complicated actions and is used brilliantly in puzzles. I won’t spoil what other items are included and how they’re used but suffice to say each one is cleverly implemented. The only failure in the touch screen controls is the rolling attack which is activated by drawing a little circle at the edge of the screen. It’s fiddly and getting it to work is hit and miss but at least it’s not an important manouvre.
Fans of The Wind Waker will be infamiliar territory with this title. Not only does the game borrow the same colourful cel-shaded art style but the overworld design is pretty similar. Link must explore a number of islands on a wode expanse of ocean which is crossed in Linebeck’s ship. Again the touch screen is your only tool for exploration as you have to chart the course the ship takes by drawing on your map. The ship then sails automatically leaving you free to look around and fire your canon, if you have one, at any enemies. The sailing in The Wind Waker drew criticism for being time-consuming and boring and the same could be said here. The game tries to introduce a little variety by having more to do than just cross from island to island with traveller’s ships to explore and various hazards and antagonists to avoid as well as a well balanced if somewhat repetitve and long-winded mini-game for salvaging treasure but there’s no denying that sailing isn’t as fun as controlling Link on land or perhaps more specifically in the game’s excellent dungeons.
The dungeons feature the same high quality of brain-bending puzzles the series is famous for, here designed to make the best use of the touch contolled items but the masterstroke lies in what you can do with the map. A fully detailed map of whatever area you are currently exploring is dispalyed on the top screen and is available immediately. You can pull the map down to the touch screen at any time to draw on it or make notes. The game frequently encourages you to do this in a number of imaginitive ways. For example you might have to activate a number of switches in the right order which is made easier by numbering them on the map or you might find a map showing the only safe route through an area up ahead which you can copy on your own map. You can also record the locations of important things like treasure chests in this way. It’s superlative use of the DS hardware and the good news is it’s not limited to dungeons, you can doodle on any of your sea or island maps to your heart’s content. Of course no Zelda game would be complete without a few memorable bosses and Phantom Hourglass doesn’t disappoint offering a series of challenging encounters that make excellent use of both screens. One fight features a giant crab-like monster that can turn invisible. The boss’ point of view is displayed on the top screen allowing you to work out where it is to attack. This is just one of many clever applications of the upper screen.
Phantom Hourglass also features a hub dungeon, a first for the series. You must visit the Temple of the Ocean King, located on Mercay Island, the first you explore, many times during the course of the game. This dungeon differs in many ways from the regular ones. For a start it contains a dark energy that saps Link’s health over time an effect he is protected against by the Phantom Hourglass. Its protective power runs out when the Sand of Hours finishes draining essentially giving you a time limit. There are certain safe areas where your remaining time will not deplete and where you’ll also be protected from the Phantoms, imposing armoured sentinels immune to all attacks who will rob you of a lot of time if you suffer a blow from them. This encourages you to explore stealthily. The temple’s design is perhaps not as strong as the stand alone dungeons but more importantly each time you revisit it you are forced to retread the same areas you have already beaten before you can delve deeper into it. The Zelda series is no stranger to back-tracking but having to repeat whole time-consuming areas of dungeon is a pain. True, you can make use of newly acquired items to make the transition quicker and leave yourself notes as to what to do each time if you want but it’s still a somewhat lazy way of extending the game’s length.
So what about the 3D graphics? There’s no denying the technical achievement here, the colours are clear and pretty and the character models detailed. Everything looks great while you’re playing, it’s in cut scenes when the camera zooms in that the textures look blurry and objects polygonal. The environments can look a bit bland at times and the dungeons don’t feature anywhere near as much detail or feel as authentically real as those in the GBA’s Minish Cap. The music features a number of familiar classics and new arrangements but isn’t as strong on the whole as most other games in the series.
At around fifteen to twenty hours its a good length but doesn’t offer the most robust challenge for veterans although newbies should find things tougher. As for side quests there isn’t a huge amount to keep you playing. Nintendo have done away with the usual routine of gathering four pieces of heart to extend yout life meter in favour of a handful of complete hearts available as reward for completing challenges. Otherwise you can locate Power, Wisdom and Courage Gems which can be used to gain new abilities. These and a few other diversions lend the game some extra depth but there’s very little real incentive to pursue them.
For me though the biggest complaint regarding The Legend of Zelda – Phantom Hourglass is that it seems to have spelled the end of traditional 2D Zelda adventures. Prior to this title the 2D series flourished on handhelds and this is the weakest handheld game in the series to date. A second similar game Spirit Tracks was released in 2009 which was better but still not as good as any of the 2D games. Although Nintendo’s innovative approach to gameplay with Phantom Hourglass is a success I still wouldn’t consider it an improvement. The 2D games have more to offer and for all the DS game’s success its interface can be restrictive which is reflected in the rather scant extent of weapons available to you.
For a ll its faults The Legend of Zelda – Phantom Hourglass is still a fine game with many original ideas and deeply engaging gameplay and there is certainly no reason at all fans of the series should ignore it. It really is a testament to the quality of this magnificent franchise that a game this good can be considered one of the lesser titles in the series.
Presentation – 8
The usual Zelda quality shines through but there are a few rough edges.
Gameplay – 9
The classic formula is transferred in impressive style to the DS touch screen. A real triumph.
Graphics – 9
Some of the best 3D graphics on the system.
Sound – 8
Another strong audio package but not a high for the series nonetheless.
Difficulty – 7
A fair challenge but the series has seen much tougher entries.
Longevity – 7
About the length you’d expect but the tiresome Temple of the Ocean King limits replay value.
Another success that makes some of the best and most varied use of the DS’ unique features and as such takes its place as one of the best titles available for the system.
out of 10