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Note: As this game is a direct sequel to Wind Waker, it may contain story spoilers.
I'll start off by admitting that I'm not the biggest Zelda fan. I liked the original, Link to the Past, the handheld games, and Wind Waker, but didn't much care for the N64 or Wii games. However, one thing that Zelda has always had going for it is innovative game design, and nowhere is that more evident than in the latest installment of the series, Phantom Hourglass.
Phantom Hourglass picks up where Wind Waker left off. After Link and Tetra - as princess Zelda - defeated Gannon, they and their pirate friends went off in search of adventure on the high seas. While exploring new waters, they come upon the Ghost Ship, said to steal the life of anything that goes onboard. Tetra, being the spunky gal she is, hops onboard the ship and starts exploring, undaunted by the haunting tales. Soon after boarding, however, she screams and Link, trying to save her, falls into the ocean. When Link wakes up, he finds himself on Mercay Island and quickly befriends the fairy, Ciela, and her grandfatherly caretaker, Oshus. Link tells the man of his lost friend and is directed to the Temple of the Ocean King, where he encounters a man named Linebeck, who is currently trapped in the temple. Link quickly frees the man, gets the sea chart for the region, and joins Linebeck to chase after the Ghost Ship. Adventure ensues.
Now, anyone can tell that this is not a particularly original story. Link is once again saving the princess from the forces of evil. Yet the telling of this tale is done very well. From the paper cutouts of the introduction to the funny faces and illustrative gestures made by Link and Linebeck, Phantom Hourglass delivers the same old same old with a fresh face, great humor, and excellent characterization. And say what you will of the cartoony style, it lends itself very well to storytelling through pantomime.
By far, this is Phantom Hourglass's greatest feature. It has been a while since I've played anything as creatively designed as Phantom Hourglass. From the start, you get the feeling that this is something different. I mean, you're so used to controlling Link with a d-pad, and now you're forced to rely completely on the stylus for almost everything. And yet, I found that the little snippets of stylus-dependent interactions in previous DS games had adequately prepared me for the maneuvers I had to perform to get Link to walk, run, toss items, roll, attack and fish. Control isn't perfect, but we'll get to that later. For those of you who haven't played Wind Waker, you take Link from island to island via a ship and fight enemies, open chests, and solve puzzles in real time.
There's not much new here, except for the Temple of the Ocean King, a multi-level dungeon with some interesting challenges. The first major challenge is the time limit. The Temple constantly drains your health unless you have the Phantom Hourglass, which you acquire early in the game. This bauble allows you to negate the effects of the temple for as long as the sand remains. Killing bosses and finding sunken chests nets you more sand, extending your time. Managing your time as you go down is important, and since you will be revisiting the labyrinth multiple times, you may find shortcuts as you gain new items.
The other challenge is the Phantoms, huge spectral warriors that roam the halls of the Temple. Phantoms cannot be killed until the end of the game, so you must avoid them at all costs. If spotted, you must flee to a safe zone which hides you from them and stops the timer. Both challenges combine to make the Temple a unique experience, and while it was at times aggrivating, overall it was tolerable.
As far as the rest of the game's play goes, much like the story, Phantom Hourglass takes the old and makes it fresh with innovative design. The two best examples would have to be the puzzles and the boss fights.
The puzzles in Phantom Hourglass aren't particularly hard, but they are creative, requiring you to use the DS in ways that you naturally wouldn't think of. Everything from the microphone to the suspend feature are required as solutions to the puzzles in this game. Being able to write on the map is a godsend, as well as an innovative way to keep track of clues and find the location of hidden treasure. And while the solutions the puzzles were usually apparent after a bit of thinking, they still remained challenging enough to keep me interested.
The other aspect of gameplay that really stood out was the boss fights. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Zelda series bosses would have different and creative weaknesses, but Phantom Hourglass' excellent use of the DS hardware added a whole new dimension. Frequent use of the dual screens and imaginative use of items is key to defeating bosses, some of which present a real conundrum until you finally reach an epiphany and then proceed to whoop arse.
There is also multi-player included via wi-fi, but I didn't get into it, so I cannot comment. Aside from that, though, Ninendo has done a great job in making a truly novel playing experience.
The DS is no slouch at pushing polygons, and Phantom Hourglass proves it. With graphics that approach what you'd expect from a late-era N64 or early-era PS2 game, you won't want for quality. All of the characters are rendered with enough polygons to move fluidly and not look blocky. A great attempt is made at shading too; both cel shading for the characters and lighting are done well, lending a cartoony feel that still manages to be high-quality. The only place that the visuals get dicey is during the cutscenes; whenever there is a close-up on an island or model, the detail on the textures breaks down and the presentation degrades a bit, but it's a minor point.
The best part about the graphics, though, are the character designs. For those of you who can recall the release of Wind Waker, it got harshly criticized for the characters' cartoony looks. I loved them, however, and after the ugliness that was Ocarina of Time's characters, it was nice to have a new, less hideously repulsive style. Phantom Hourglass delivers more of the same, and the result is characters who are expressive and funny. Kudos!
I don't care what people say, I've never been a big fan of Zelda music, and after Twilight Princess' awful midi score, I didn't exactly want to hear more. Fortunately, Phantom Hourglass has a decent soundtrack, and any sound quality issues can be blamed on the DS's tiny speakers rather than a lack of quality sequencing. From epic sailing themes to the ominous dungeon tunes, Phantom Hourglass's soundtrack will not offend, and may even delight, but at the very least you can expect to get fitting music all around.
That being said, sound effects in Phantom Hourglass are pretty well done. The echoes in caves and cavernous dungeons are a nice touch, as are Link's shouts and grunts, as they really give the lad personality despite him not actually delivering any lines.
With a game like Phantom Hourglass you'd think accurate, dead-on control is a MUST. Strangely, you'd be wrong. Phantom Hourglass, despite requiring all movement and all action be controlled by the stylus, does not do a perfect or even near-perfect job making the stylus respond the way you want it to. Rolling, in particular - but also sword swings and aiming - are more difficult than I had expected them to be and are definitely not precise. The good thing is that Nintendo likely realized this and made the game a lot more forgiving than it would be otherwise. While it is somewhat of a cop-out, toning down the difficulty level to accommodate less-than-perfect control was still acceptable, considering how fun the rest of the game was.
Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass was a fun game. On top of that, it was creative and used the DS in ways that really showed off the potential of the system. While it may not be the best game you'll play this year, it certainly will make you appreciate the creativity that went into its design and the solid product that was the result. I wholeheartedly advise you to play this game, if for no other reason than see that a game can be fun while still managing to use a system hardware in creative ways.