The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks Review
Of the two most recent Legend of Zelda titles, my favorite is not Twilight Princess on the Wii, but Phantom Hourglass on the DS. Despite its more compact adventure and less realistic Wind Waker-like visuals, I found its gameplay—buoyed by excellent stylus controls—as well as its story, puzzles, and dungeons more engrossing than its console cousin's. Still, my affection for the Hyrulian hero's last hand-held adventure was tempered by its insistence on forcing players to tread through the same temple, solve its same puzzles, and fight its same enemies over and over again. So, when Link's latest, Spirit Tracks, promised the same addictive formula that made its DS predecessor such a success, without the repetitive fun-halting grind, I couldn't wait to hop aboard this train-based trek through Hyrule.
The title's most obvious and advertised feature is Link's new locomotive transportation. It essentially replaces his boat from the last game, and because of this, it's all too easy to dismiss Spirit Tracks as a rehash repainted with a new vehicular hook. It's far from that, though, as the train nicely complements both the story and gameplay. It incorporates some of the same aspects as Link's sea craft, such as abilities to find treasure, battle baddies and, of course, move Link quickly from one side of the over-world to the other. But it also plays a much more active role in the adventure; where you spent lots of time just sailing around in Phantom Hourglass, not doing much more than getting from point A to point B, Spirit Tracks utilizes its vehicle more fully. You'll have to strategically swap out tracks to avoid danger, fight off hordes of baddies with its enormous cannon, and tug on its blaring whistle to scare off the occasional menace. Unlike the boat, Link's new ride feels more like an integral part of the action rather than a diversionary mode of transportation.
More important than the steam-powered new hook though, is a surprising feature starring the titular Princess herself. Longtime Link fans, expecting another solitary quest with their green tunic-sporting hero, are in for a real treat, as Zelda joins the sword-swinging tyke for much of his adventure. In one of the coolest new abilities to hit the series in years, players can now control the former damsel in distress via Phantom knights. Those hulking, armored baddies that usually give you such a hard time can now be possessed by Link's main squeeze and used to solve puzzles and thwart evil. Zelda's abilities are determined by the type of knight she overtakes; some will allow her to teleport, morph into a projectile, and light darkened paths. Even cooler, another allows Link to ride atop its shield so he may pass through otherwise inaccessible areas. This new feature brings the two characters closer than ever before, while providing fans with a cool cooperative play mechanic.
On top of this great addition to Link's already creative arsenal comes many of his old favorite toys, as well as a new musical Spirit Flute and wind-conjuring Whirlwind ability. As expected of the inspired series, it makes terrific use of these new tools in terms of combat and puzzle-solving. That said, Nintendo went a bit overboard in utilizing the DS's unconventional controls, as both these items require you do far too much blowing into the microphone—have fun playing this one in public. Still, the risk of looking like you belong on the short bus is a small price to pay to crack Spirit Tracks' ingenious challenges with these new gadgets.
Spirit Tracks also trumps its predecessor in its audio and visual presentation. Both, while still limited by the platform's tech specs, are noticeably better than the last game's. And they're further helped by the fact this title introduces us to a brand new world, full of fresh sights and sounds, where Phantom Hourglass was more of a re-imagining of what we'd already experienced in Wind Waker. Some of the more impressive moments come from the epic boss battles that often see you taking on beasts two screens tall. On more than one occasion I was amazed by what I was seeing unfold on Nintendo's modestly powered portable.
When it's not tweaking its classic formula, this Zelda will feel very familiar to anyone who's even played just a couple of previous games in the series. The core concept has enjoyed decades of success, so it's understandable to see it remain largely unchanged. That said, anyone who's been hoping the franchise would take a bold new turn or even make a leap as large as the one Metroid made when it went from 2D to 3D, may be disappointed in this tried-and-true entry. Like previous offerings in the revered franchise, it brings plenty of new bells and whistles, but is still a mostly recognizable Zelda game at its core.
For faithful fans though, Spirit Tracks will likely offer enough fresh tricks, while also retaining the qualities that have kept them loving the little green Gannon-besting elf for so long. Even when it's not doing anything new or innovative, there's no denying Nintendo's skill at crafting a great story, mind-bending puzzles, and solid action. It doesn't hurt that the stylus controls are some of the best the platform's ever seen, and the console-size adventure will keep you occupied for a whopping 20+ hours. Whether Nintendo puts Link on a plane or a parade float for his next quest, I'm guessing they'll find a way to make it work. All aboard!