I am on the horns of a dilemma. One horn is familiarity, the other is execution. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Nintendo's latest DS Zelda game, is both instantly familiar and wonderfully executed. Do we, then, criticise it for a lack of innovation, or blindly lavish praise upon it because it's just so damn good?
There can be no doubt: Spirit Tracks is better than Phantom Hourglass, its 2007 predecessor. The controls have been refined and many of PH's annoyances have been eradicated. And yet there lingers a feeling of déjà vu. Adventurous Links have battled through these dungeons, travelled these lands and solved these puzzles many times before.
Spirit Tracks, which continues the "Wind Waker timeline", is set roughly a century after PH. This time Link's an engineer, and the game begins with the expressive elf boy becoming a fully fledged train driver. At the initiation ceremony, Princess Zelda slips him a note: the spirit tracks, which run across Hyrule, are disappearing. She wants Link to take her to the mysterious Tower of Spirits, from which all the tracks run, to investigate.
On the way, Link and Zelda are attacked by an agent of the Demon King, an evil being trapped in the Tower and shackled by the spirit tracks. Zelda's body is kidnapped for use as the Demon King's vessel, but her spirit remains with Link. Together, the two work to restore the tracks and prevent the Demon King from escaping his magical prison.
This somewhat well-worn set-up facilitates the classic Zelda adventure structure: Hyrule is divided up into four sections, each one with a Temple that must be defeated before triumphantly returning to the Tower. Each temple is home to a huge boss and a weapon, some new (blow into the mic to use the Whirlwind; the Snake Whip replaces Wind Waker's grappling hook), some old (the boomerang works as before, as does the bow and arrow) that allow further exploration of Hyrule's nooks and crannies. Beat boss with said new weapon, increase number of hearts with life container, and return to the Tower to learn where to go next. It's a tried and trusted mechanic, one that has served the Zelda series well for years and influenced countless adventure games, but it is nothing new.
The plot, however, does allow for some interesting new gameplay mechanics. With Zelda floating about like a ghost, she accompanies Link on his adventure for the first time. In the Tower levels she can possess heavily armoured Phantoms, which can then be controlled in tandem with Link to solve increasingly complex puzzles. This unique "single-player co-op dungeon controlling" is perhaps Spirit Tracks' greatest achievement: the Tower's floors are varied, interesting and packed with clever puzzles, and the co-op controls are intuitive and only occasionally frustrating. And the banter between the self-conscious Princess and determined Link is some of the best dialogue seen in a Zelda game.
Spirit Tracks' train-driving is the headline new feature, despite it being nowhere near as interesting as the Link and Zelda co-op puzzle-solving. It replaces PH's divisive sailing, which bored as many as it pleased. Here, Link drives a Spirit Train along tracks that allow travel from the Tower of Spirits to the four temples, via villages and other oddities. It's a rigid method of travel: you can't deviate from the tracks, but you can plot your route before you set off and manually turn left and right at junctions as you chug towards your destination.
Spirit Tracks' train driving is better than PH's sailing - that much is obvious. It's a mini-game in of itself, one that requires constant attention. Occasionally monsters stray onto the track ahead - a train whistle, activated with a downward stroke of the stylus, scares them off. The gear box lets you switch from high speed to drive to break to reverse, and must be used to stop at station platforms. When you get the cannon, there are monsters to shoot (by tapping on them), and, later, fussy passengers who have strict driving requirements, to transport. Patrolling enemy trains need to be avoided like Pac-Man avoiding monsters and you need to keep an eye out for rabbits that can be caught and brought back to a farm for a reward. But there lingers a desire for the days of old, when the plains of Hyrule could be explored on horseback with sword raised and bow drawn. Perhaps the DS isn't capable of such a thing. Perhaps it is. Whatever the truth, trains and boats don't cut it.