Yes, it’s the same old Zelda again. You play the young hero link as he battles his way through dungeons and monsters in a quest to rescue the Princess Zelda; Gorons, grappling hooks, and all that jazz. Phantom Hourglass is a delightful adventure with a sense of humour, but it’s also a frustrating joy.
The entire game can be controlled using the stylus, but it goes further than that. Unlike Twilight princess, which was essentially a gamecube port, this is a game that is utterly dedicated to its console, making use of all of the features at its disposal, from the touch screen to the microphone.
Controlling Link is simplicity itself, just drag the stylus in the direction you want to go. Quick slashes for swinging his sword, while a tap on an enemy will perform a jump attack; it doesn’t get more complicated than that. Tapping on objects, or people, will have Link run over and interact with the target, so you don’t have to spend the entire game with the stylus pressed down. All of the items you acquire during the game also use the stylus in some way, from accurately placing bombs, to drawing the flight path of the boomerang.
For such a simple addition, I still can’t quite get over how useful the ability to write on the map is; but the designers didn’t just add it in as a nice extra feature, it’s integral to the game. As well as being a convenient place to write down notes, some of the puzzles require you to use the map to solve puzzles; such as working out the positions of buried items. It took a long time for it to sink in that I shouldn’t just be making notes when prompted, it makes the game a lot more enjoyable when you don’t have to remember switch combinations, or treasure chest locations. It’s easily the best feature of the game, and an example to other developers.
As much as I want to praise them for trying something a bit different with the Temple of the Ocean King, it’s also my least favourite dungeon. The titular Phantom Hourglass gives you a limited amount of time to explore the dungeon, with safe spots scattered about the levels that freeze the countdown and provide respite from the dreaded Phantoms.
I didn’t really take the Phantoms all that seriously, to start with at least. They’re slow, at first, and can generally be outrun or outmanoeuvred, and there are plenty of safe spots to hide in. So, initially, it didn’t feel like the game had suddenly moved into a stealth section and I spent the first couple of levels gallivanting about the place with the Phantoms in tow and generally not caring. Then one of them hit me. Bam, instant time deduction and I’m whisked back to the start of the level. Suddenly they’re a serious danger, especially as you get deeper into the temple and time becomes more scarce, and they get faster and more numerous.
They’ve tried to mix it up by having you uncover a major dungeon over the course of the game, but there are some irritating problems. All of the puzzles are reset every time you enter the dungeon and having to remember and redo all them again, especially with the time limit, is frustrating and this is compounded with by having to revisit the temple a dozen bloody times during the course of the game. Despite allowing you to open up quicker paths as you get new items, it’s still taking the piss that they are expecting you to do them every single time.
Phantom Hourglass also continues on the story from Wind Waker and puts you in command of a ship with which to travel from island to island. You plot a path out with the stylus and the ship follows it, while you are free to look around and defend the ship from enemies with the cannon. Longer journeys can get rather dull though, even after you get the cannon and get to shoot monsters, and random seagulls. Exploration of the seas is rewarded though, with more islands, and, thankfully, shortcuts between the different sea areas. There’s also a salvaging mini game to find the treasures scattered across the bottom of the sea.
The cell shaded style also returns from Wind Waker, the cause of much jeering on the cube, has found its rightful home on the DS. Yes, it’s cutesy, but then this is a game about a young boy and his fairy saving the world. The visuals are big, bold, and charming; perfect for the DS.
There’s a light scattering of story to hold it all together, but it’s missing a central evil presence until you actually fight the final boss. Linebeck is an awesome supporting character, and he’s a damn sight better than fairy clone 256 that’s your constant sidekick throughout the game.
So, aside from tedious sailing sections and repetitive leviathan of a centrepiece dungeon, it’s still a great game. For every misstep there was something wonderful to counter my disappointment. It’s not new, it’s not refreshing, it’s the same old Zelda, but it screams “this is how you make a game for the DS!” and it’s one of the best games of 2007.