It must be tough being Link. It seems that no matter how many great evils and destroyer of worlds he vanquishes, there's always one more to step up to play the part of tyrant oppressor. Link's new adventure, Phantom Hourglass, proves to be a classic title that merges classic top-down Zelda gameplay with a new style of controls that function exceptionally well.
The game begins soon after the events of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Link and Tetra have gone off on an adventure together with her trusty crew, but it isn't long before they run into trouble, Tetra is lost, and Link finds himself washed up on an unfamiliar shore. With the help of an old man and a young fairy, Link's next adventure begins, and it's quite the journey.
No one explains why Link, the Hero of Winds, saviour of Hyrule, wielder of the Master Sword, must be taught the simpler points of swordplay by an old man, but I suppose that's beside the point.
Almost immediately, the first thing anyone will notice will be the controls. Except for a few short-cut buttons, the top-down game is controlled entirely with the stylus. Moving Link involves holding down in the direction you want him to move, attacking is either done by tapping the enemy to attack or by performing a couple stylus-based attacks, like thrusting towards the enemy for a stab or spinning it around Link quickly for a spinning attack.
At first, the controls take a little while to get used to, as this is the first Legend of Zelda game to differ from the standard control-pad-n-buttons combination. As the game progresses, you'll quickly you find that it's really the best way to play a game like this,. The possibilities of the stylus's control add much to the experience. Much of this is in the way items are used, such as the ability to draw the path your boomerang will follow, or being able to aim the bow using the stylus.
This control is not limited to how you use items and weapons, however. One of the most important tools in the game is your map. It's no longer merely something to indicate where Link is topographically located, the map has become important to keeping notes and markers of interest. At (almost) any time, the map can be pulled down and simply drawn upon, maybe to mark a treasure chest that's unreachable at the moment, to list a combination given to you by a weathered stone, or noting areas you have yet to visit. It's a very intuitive device to use, and I can only hope that it is present in later titles on the system.
The gameplay of Wind Waker returns, most notably the sea travel. This time, however, you're no slave to the winds, instead taking control of a steam-powered boat to travel the four corners of the ocean. The mechanic is different as well: instead of dynamically controlling the boat, players use the stylus to draw out a route on the sea map, and the boat follows. This means less managing of direction and making sure you're pointed the right way, as well as freeing up your controls to fight off various water-bound enemies. And, while the main islands are already revealed on your maps when you receive them, you'll also need to keep an eye out for uncharted lands.
Dungeons in Phantom Hourglass are really unlike any other Zelda game, though it's not really easy to explain why. Movement and puzzles feel more fluid, as floors are no longer a series of rooms connected by doors, but instead large, singular areas, with puzzles and mechanisms that often span the entire area. Many puzzles are unique to the game as well, some using the map for solutions. There are times when puzzles feel a little repetitive in nature, notably ones that involved taking a particular path in certain areas (like following an invisible path, lest you fall into a pit). These are important to showcase drawing on the map, since you can mark the correct path, but it was used often enough to feel like a trope. Additionally, the bosses tended to feel a little too easy, often offering minimal challenge and being a simple matter of deducing their one weakness and exploiting it three-to-five times. Since the puzzles are the focus of the game, however, this can be overlooked to an extent.
Incidentally, when it comes to repetition, the main dungeon of the game is at fault. It's a unique area in that it's corrupt, sucking away at your health lest Link is in a special glowing area, safe from the evil of the place. The titular Phantom Hourglass comes in handy here, and instead of drawing health from Link, it draws time from the hourglass, meaning that when you walk into the dungeon, if the hourglass has ten minutes in it, you've got ten minutes (plus time spent in the safe zones) to get to the goal, or perish.
Now, this isn't a problem, it's just challenging at times, especially due to the guards that patrol the halls, and whose very attack drains precious seconds from the hourglass. The repetitive nature of the dungeon comes from the fact that it must be visited multiple times throughout the game, as more tools and items allow you to pass puzzles and progress further down. Unfortunately, every time Link enters the dungeon, he enters from the top, meaning that all the puzzles must be solved again, all the indestructible guards must be avoided again, and so forth. It makes entering the dungeon each time a chore.
There are issues with the length of the title, and anyone that tries to breeze through the entire game is likely to do it quickly. Thankfully, however, there are a variety of activities and side quests to embark on to lengthen the gameplay. Treasure maps are scattered throughout the land that allow you to scavenge loot from the bottom of the ocean, and uncharted islands are just waiting to be found. A variety of minigames are also present around the ocean to play, rewarding you with treasures and more rupees than you can shake a master sword at. Additionally, your ship can be customized with a variety of parts that you can find, though except for improving its health (if it coordinates), this doesn't do too much.
And for people who don't want to play alone, a multiplayer game is available as well. In it, one player takes control of Link while up to three others take control of the guards that patrol the main dungeon of the game in a capture-the-flag-esque game that, while enjoyable, doesn't really hold enough depth to be played for too long. This is supported on single-card, multi-card, and online play, though except on single-card play, stats are saved like wins, losses, and disconnects. Additionally, you can trade treasures and ship customization parts with others, but this isn't particularly useful.
The style of the game is straight from its bright and stylized GameCube prequel. It's impressive to see on the DS's screen, and remarkable how much emotion and animation is shown in each of the characters. This is especially true in the case of captain Linebeck, who is probably one of the most memorable characters is Legend of Zelda's history. The sound is often just as good, but there are times when it falters, especially with certain musical numbers that feel repetitive and maddeningly dull (unfortunately, they tend to happen the most often).
Another satisfying title, The Phantom Hourglass is sure to please anyone who enjoys a Zelda adventure. The difficulty does seem to fall in the area of 'not terribly difficult', but it's still fun to play, and the access to a touch screen and map add a new functionality to puzzles that hasn't been seen before. The stylus control, despite being different and weird at first, feel natural very quickly and make the game better to play and control with, and in general contribute to the gameplay. It's clear that the Phantom Hourglass is quite worthy of the Zelda brand, and a near must-have for DS owners.