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I have to admit, an hour or so into Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, it wasn’t doing it for me. I wasn’t feeling the stylus-only controls, the obvious storyline set-up or the hammy Jack Sparrow rip-off companion. Strange then, that now I’ve finished the game and had time to reflect on my experience, these problems still bother me, but it’s still the best game I’ve played on the DS.
Let’s start at the beginning. Some gamers have complained that they’re getting bored of the classic, tried and tested Legend of Zelda format that we’ve adored over the years. You know the one – a young, green clad hero and a chirpy fairy leave their comfy little village to embark on a dangerous quest to save the kidnapped Princess Zelda. He picks up a sword and shield straight off the bat, works his way through numerous puzzle-filled dungeons, fights spectacular bosses, gets an extra heart each time, picks up new weapons, usually a boomerang first, then a shovel, then a bow, then a grapple-hook, indulges in the odd side-quest along his way to the ultimate showdown with an evil bad guy, who is trying to destroy the world with the Triforce or similar artefact. This is exactly what you’ll be doing with Phantom Hourglass, except with a new control system and some interesting dual screen interaction.
PH picks up where Wind Waker on the GameCube left off. Link is sailing the seas with Tetra (Princess Zelda) and her pirate crew on the hunt for a mysterious Ghost Ship that has been kidnapping people from nearby islands. The Ghost Ship turns up after the crew run into a heavy fog and snatches Tetra from the deck. Link desperately tries to follow, but ends up adrift, and washed up on a nearby island.
It’s here that you’ll start with the stylus-only controls. You move Link by touching where you want him to go. This is graphically represented by the friendly faery Ciela, who wakes you from your slumber. Ciela appears where you touch the screen, and Link moves to that location. If you touch far away from him he will run, if you touch close by he will walk. You’ll soon be directed towards the old wizard type Oshus, who helps you get started on your quest to save Tetra, and pick up a sword and shield. You can attack in three ways with the sword. You can either touch the enemy and Link with do a lunge attack, swipe quickly to do close range attacks, or draw circles around Link to do a multi-hit sweeping attack. At first I struggled with the control scheme. I found myself falling off cliffs and ledges, missing with my attacks and taking an age to get from one place to the other. You do get used to it though, after a while, and for one thing attacking with the lunge can be a very effective and precise way of dispatching enemies. I still haven’t totally got to grips with the roll though, which involves drawing little circles on the edge of the screen, and have had a lot of trouble accurately crashing into trees to make items fall from their branches.
Again, I didn’t like the boomerang at first. You need to equip it, then select it with the left shoulder button or by touching its icon in the top right hand corner of the screen, then draw the patch you want it to take. At first, I really struggled with this and felt quite frustrated at my inability to quickly and accurately hit enemies with it. But you’ll soon be drawing boomerang attack plans on the fly, stunning strong enemies from behind and flipping hard to reach switches as easily as saving your game. I’ll also mention the cramp I regularly got in my right hand (the one I use for the stylus) when playing the game lying belly down at home. I’ve spoken to another PH fan friend of mine who said they also got cramp, but in their non stylus-wielding hand, funnily enough, but I’ve no idea if this will be the same for you.
You soon meet up with the only boat-owning bloke on the island, Captain Linebeck, who, on account of his goatee and eye-liner, is clearly inspired by Johnny Depp. He’s only interested in treasure and as a result won’t put his life in danger, instead sending Link into the line of fire. You learn that you need the Spirits of Courage, Wisdom and Power to discover the ghost ship’s position. But to find them, you need to delve further and further into the Temple of the Ocean King, which you have to keep returning to after defeating every boss. The problem with the temple is that it drains your life, so you need to use the Phantom Hourglass, which gives you a certain amount of time free from the life-draining effects of the temple, to make your way deeper and deeper and ultimately to discover the secret locations of the spirits.
It’s in the Temple of the Ocean King that I had the least amount of fun in PH. Inside, the clock is always ticking before the sand runs out and your life starts to drain away. There are special areas where you can stand that stop the clock, meaning that you’ll have to quickly flip a switch then move back to the safe area to stop you losing too much time. There are also invincible phantoms, which patrol a certain area and kill you in one hit if they spot you. You can escape their deathly touch by moving into a safe area, or open a trap door to send them plummeting to their doom, but you’ll on the whole have to manoeuvre in the various levels of the temple with an eye on their patrol in the map on the top dual screen. My problem with the temple is that every time you defeat a boss on one of the world’s islands, you need to return to it and work your way through the levels you’ve already completed. The new items you pick up do make it a lot easier, but it just feels tiresome. The first time through it’s great, of course. It’s just by the second and third time you start to feel a bit bored.
PH’s graphics are the best I’ve seen on the DS. It’s fully cel-shaded, like Wind Waker, and full of gorgeous little touches and charm. Link once again puts other voice acted video game characters to shame with plenty of emotion conveyed by his eyes. You’ll have a bog-standard slightly-off top-down view to contend with most of the time, but when you talk to other characters you’ll zoom in and really get a feel for the attention to detail and graphical prowess of the game. Even simple rooms in huts and houses on the various islands are beautifully realised. The bosses too are hugely detailed and spectacular, albeit over too quickly. One thing’s for sure, PH really is a showcase for what the DS can do.
The music too is classic Zelda, and reprises much of what we heard in Wind Waker. Sound effects are impressive, with your sword swipes echoing deep into the various dungeons, and the splash of the waves impacting on your ship help to add authenticity to the experience. In everything PH does there’s a base level of polish and production value that we’ve come to expect from Nintendo’s classic series.
There’s been a lot of talk about PH being Zelda redesigned for a less hardcore audience. In many ways it is, with the stylus-only control system helping to bypass complex button presses. The game will also be pretty easy to complete for Zelda veterans, who will be instantly familiar with the game’s puzzles, characters, enemies and mechanics. Some have said it’s too short, and I’d have to agree it probably won’t take you as long to finish the main story of the game compared with home console Zelda games, but for me it’s perfectly balanced for a handheld adventure game. I don’t want a 100-hour epic from a DS game. I want a brilliantly condensed, engaging adventure that’s not in any way frustrating. In this respect PH doesn’t disappoint.
Travelling across the sea on Linebeck’s boat, for example, is much better than Wind Waker’s more complex effort. You draw your route with the stylus and away you go. When sailing, you have a view of the ship with Link and Linebeck on board, but you can move the camera around it with the stylus. You can jump over sea fences, fire the cannon by touching an enemy or a destructible rock and eventually search for treasure beneath the ocean surface. For me, sailing in PH is a much more pleasurable experience than in Wind Waker, which I just found over long and repetitive. And even if you do feel short-changed by the length of the main story portion of the game, there’s the customary secrets to discover, and a fully fleshed out and online enabled battle mode to contend with once you’ve finished everything else. In short, PH is about as epic as DS games get.
Whatever your opinion on the dumbing down of the Zelda series debate, Nintendo has to be praised for the way it has used the DS’s unique features to make the game more interesting. The maps of the islands are like your personal note pad. You can bring them down to the bottom screen and draw on them, noting traps, points of interest and treasure chest locations. For some puzzles you’ll need to note down the solution, told to you by an NPC, or even draw lines to find out where to dig for secret maps. We don’t want to spoil the surprises, but rest assured that some of the ways in which you’ll interact with your maps is pure gaming genius. Then there’s the DS mic, which you’ll need to blow into to blow out candles and shout into to speak to NPCs hidden behind doors. Boss battles are played out on both screens, and sometimes involve more than simply hitting its weak points until it dies. We think the way you tackle the boss battles should be a complete surprise, and believe us, they will be a surprise. But suffice it to say, some of them will require more thought than you expect. It’s not revolutionary stuff, just simple, engaging fun. Speaking into a game console is still an embarrassing act, whatever game you’re playing, especially during rush hour on the train.
I can’t see how you won’t be wholly satisfied by PH, whether you’re a hardened Zelda fan or a newcomer to the series, or even games in general. Yes it’s a tad short, and yes it’s full of recognisable Zelda moments, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fun, refined gem of an adventure game. Phantom Hourglass jumps straight to the top of my favourite DS games list.