Going into The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, I had low expectations. Phantom Hourglass was fun, but far from amazing, and I expected a similar experience with its sequel. That said, I was still disappointed. Spirit Tracks is hardly a bad game, but it falls short of series’ standards, mostly due to the monstrous mechanic that the developers foolishly decided to build the game around: the train.
Spirit Tracks’ gimmick is train travel. Link has traveled by boat, raft, horse, and even cuckoo, and it’s about time he took up the engineer’s hat. All overworld travel is done by train. That means no real exploration outside the requisite dungeons and skimpy towns. Remember traversing a beautiful world to new frontiers of discovery? That’s no more. The franchise needs more open exploration if anything, and this linearity deals a critical hit to Spirit Tracks’ fun factor. The developers literally railroad the player into linear paths, and the agony only begins there.
The train gimmick would be forgivable if it was fun. It isn’t in the least. I love trains, but I never want to ride another while Link is driving. Train travel is a lengthy, boring affair each and every time Link hits the tracks. There just isn’t enough to do while gliding across the tracks. Before long, Link obtains a cannon, but blasting rocks and enemies hardly holds the player’s attention for long. Additionally, nasty “evil” trains patrol the tracks, and Link must plan his path carefully to avoid these game-ending traps. They only aggravate the problems already present in train travel, however. To avoid the evil trains, the player wastes more time on the tracks, backing up and switching paths. In the end, one of the trains is likely to surprise you anyway, and then it’s back to where you started, if your DS survives your onslaught of swears and punches. The train is ultimately an awful form of transportation for a video game and mars an otherwise fun, if derivative game.
Beyond train travel, Spirit Tracks closely resembles other titles in the series, especially Phantom Hourglass. Link travels around to elementally themed locales, enters dungeons, and retrieves items that allow him to continue his quest to conquer ultimate evil and save Hyrule. As in Phantom Hourglass, Link repeatedly visits a central dungeon, but unlike its predecessor, he doesn’t have to climb through the tower more than once. Whereas the train is the worst addition, this is the best. Beyond that, however, Spirit Tracks takes few liberties with the Phantom Hourglass formula.
Inside dungeons, Spirit Tracks entertains with frequently clever puzzles and decent combat. There are only a few new tools to play with, and the difficulty is clearly geared toward younger gamers (thanks, Nintendo!), but dungeons are by far the most enjoyable segments of the game. Gaining access to dungeons requires Link to solve a puzzle or two, visit a village, and play a song on his handy pan flute. The process is repetitive and insultingly predictable after a few hours. Thankfully, the pan flute is one of the most charming aspects of the game; the player can pull it out at any time and blow into the DS to play a tune. The central tower dungeon provides some spontaneity, however: Link controls Phantoms via Princess Zelda, or, rather Princess Zelda’s spirit.
Spirit Tracks offers one of the more developed stories in the series, even if it never lives up to its beginning. An evil threatens the land, and Link must save the day, but this time Zelda plays a central role. Early on, she is stripped of her body by the villain (not Ganon or Ganondorf, but some fat little cliché), who needs it to resurrect the ancient evil for some reason (probably power given the hackneyed nature of it all). Spirit Zelda then decides to accompany Link by providing a guiding voice since Link doesn’t have much of one and a helping hand. Or sword.
As a spirit, Zelda can possess a Phantom, those giant suits of armor from Phantom Hourglass. While in a Phantom’s body, the princess can walk through fire, break blocks, carry Link on her shield, and accomplish other tasks little Link is too puny to do. She even appears during a few boss fights to add additional challenge and strategy. These sorts of partnerships aren’t original, even in the series, but Zelda takes on a much more prominent role in gameplay than normally, and she allows for some great puzzles, even if she is a selfish brat at times. Of course, this also allows for the juvenile “we can do anything together!” theme, and Zelda doesn’t always control well. With weak pathfinding and entirely stylus-based controls for both Zelda and Link, managing everything can get frustrating, especially when hostile Phantoms are on the prowl looking for any hint of an innocuous boy in green.
In fact, control is weak overall in Spirit Tracks, even when Zelda is offscreen. Link occasionally somersaults off ledges and into pits, and the stylus-only controls can complicate even simple sword maneuvers. Train controls aren’t complex, however, and rarely lead to additional problems. Cannon balls fire surprisingly well and accurately; targets are never overly difficult to strike.
There are plenty of optional tasks in this edition of Hyrule: stamp collecting at oft-hidden stamping stations, freight delivery, passenger delivery, and irritating mini-games. Although most players expect this sort of content out of a Zelda title, the side quests are nice to see regardless. They’d be even nicer to see if they didn’t involve the train. Not only do most side quests require significant backtracking, but half of them revolve around train travel as well. Moving villagers and supplies from place to place simply isn’t worth whatever prize might await a diligent Link. This will be the first Zelda game I have played in which I did not obtain all the heart containers for lack of desire, and that is deeply disappointing.
Just like Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks retains the “cartoon” style of Wind Waker to great effect. The graphics are pleasant, and lighting effects and detail are on the rise. Cutscenes are also well directed, and characters feature substantial personality. Once again, however, the train ruins everything. The overworld is plagued by heavy pixelation, ugly pop up, and an overall flatness that creates a somewhat oppressive atmosphere. The graphics disappoint slightly more when too many enemies are onscreen and the frame rate drops. Music and sound effects follow the pattern of derivation, but the soundtrack is well conceived and fits the locomotive motif.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks brings little new to the franchise, and that would be fine if what it did introduce wasn’t tedious and clumsy. The train is an abomination. And, while there are good puzzles and fun dungeons, everything seems a little tired, brief, and empty. Hyrule has finally lost some of its charm and soul in what is most likely the series’ worst entry. I just hope Zelda isn’t truly dead.