I have a theory about escapist storytelling; trains make everything better. The evidence is present in everything from Paper Mario – The Thousand-Year Door to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There’s just a romance about old locomotives chuffing their way through breath-taking landscape that elevates the sense of adventure and transports the reader/viewer/player just as effectively as the passengers. Nintendo evidently feels the same as evidenced by The Legend of Zelda – Spirit Tracks, a DS follow-up to Phantom Hourglass built around the romance of trains.
A hundred years have passed since the time of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass and the new Hyrule is facing a crisis. The Spirit Tracks, the shackles on the land that have kept the Demon King Malladus incarcerated for generations, are gradually disappearing. A young engineer called Link sets out to Hyrule Castle to pick up his engineer’s certificate from Princess Zelda who secretly invites him to accompany her to the Tower of Spirits to investigate why the Spirit Tracks have been vanishing. On their way to the tower they are intercepted by Zelda’s own adviser Chancellor Cole and a dangerous mercenary called Staven who sever the Princess’ spirit from her body and break apart the Tower. Link and the ghostly Zelda later carry on for the tower where they meet a Lokomo called Anjean who reveals that Cole and Staven intend to use Zelda’s body as a vessel for the resurrection of Malladus and that the only way to thwart them is to restore the Spirit Tracks by retrieving the pieces of a stone rail map hidden away in the Tower. However in order to do this they must first restore the Tower itself, a quest that will take them to the four Temples around the land.
The plot doesn’t deviate very far from the traditional go-to-dungeons-and-gather-McGuffins formula the series has rigidly stuck to for decades but what makes it stand out is the involvement of the perennial title character. Princess Zelda tags along for the entire duration of the game but her purpose is more than merely that of the Navi role, which brings us to one of the most important improvements this game makes over its prequel. Like the Temple of the Ocean King in Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks features a hub dungeon, the Tower of Spirits to which you must return after every main dungeon. The critical difference this time is that you are not forced to re-tread floors you have already conquered, which as anyone who has played the earlier game will attest, is a big relief. The imposing Phantoms make a return only this time you have a way of combating them. By collecting three Tears of Light you can power up your sword and strike one from behind. While it is stunned you can have the ghostly Zelda possess and take control of it. From there you can have the Zelda Phantom follow you and fight for you by guiding her around using the touch screen. This leads to some truly inspired co-op based puzzle design especially later in the game when Phantoms with special abilities including warping and turning into giant wrecking balls become available.
The impressive touch screen based gameplay of Phantom Hourglass returns in full, as does the cel-shaded style, which looks a little better this time round mainly because the environments and dungeons seem to feature rather more detail this time than the somewhat bland locations of Phantom Hourglass. Meanwhile the soundtrack boasts a marked improvement with the stirring title and overworld themes and their many variations proving a genuine series high point. Otherwise the original template laid down by the first DS game forms the foundation of the way this game plays and while the intuitive strengths return so do the flaws. Fiddling around with touch menus and weapon selections can be a little awkward especially in more intense boss encounters and while performing a forward roll by double tapping the screen is easier than drawing a small circle you’ll often find you roll accidentally and usually at the most inconvenient times. A smarter move would have been to remove the technique entirely as its usefulness is quite limited. Likewise your arsenal of weapons remains rather small however the two new additions, the Snake Whip and the Sand Wand both succeed. The former allows you to swing across chasms while the ingenious latter can be used to raise pillars of sand to move objects including yourself to higher levels. Another new addition the Whirlwind required you to blow into the microphone to create a gust of wind to daze enemies and move objects but using it in the heat of battle is a bit awkward, as is playing the Spirit Flute, a set of pan pipes that also use the microphone but its integration isn’t too frequent for this to be a major problem.
Outside of dungeons you will be spending a lot of time in your train which you can drive around the picturesque Hyrule wherever there are tracks either by plotting your route on your map or by simply changing the points at each junction as you approach to suit your whim. It can take some time to get around but the chuffing locomotive remains more appealing a companion on your travels than the boats of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass and blowing the steam whistle never gets old. Many of the overworld side-quests revolve around ferrying people or cargo from place to place which might test the patience of some completionists but the colourful scenery of the four zones this Hyrule is split into (forest, snow, ocean, mountain) is pleasant to spend time in.
As usual the most important parts of the game are the dungeons and although this game only features five they are five top notch examples, each clearly more difficult and more ingenious than the last striking a fine balance between action and puzzling that makes good use of the DS hardware. The bosses too are enjoyable to tackle, many offering a relatively demanding challenge spreads out across both screens.
Although it does little that is significantly different from Phantom Hourglass other than the inclusion of Zelda as a sidekick, the small improvements Spirit Tracks makes over its predecessor add up to a better experience, still not one to match the benchmark set by other handheld games in the series but an undeniable highlight of the DS software back-catalogue. As far as the two games’ place in the Zelda canon goes the innovation they presented goes down as a successful experiment but not one that should mark a permanent change. The touch controls work well but not as well as the traditional and perfectly balanced button interface. Ultimately more is loss than is gained and for that reason Eiji Auonuma has stated that future handheld entries will not use the same play style and without wanting to undervalue the achievements and quality of the two titles it has to be said it’s a good decision.
Design – 8
Gameplay – 8
Graphics – 9
Sound – 8
Longevity – 7
Further proving my theory that trains improve any adventure The Legend of Zelda – Spirit Tracks is another swashbuckling delight from Nintendo. Using the strengths of its gameplay style and combining them with an engaging story and world to explore the game is among the best on the handheld.