The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Review - 04/11/2007

As the first Zelda game on the DS, Phantom Hourglass has a lot to live up to. But is the journey Link's best yet?

To put it simply, Phantom hourglass is not the best Zelda game ever made, in contrast to many opinions floating around the Internet. If you go in expecting that it will be, you will only come out cold, with a strong taste of seawater in your mouth.

As a sequel to Wind Waker, the game begins with a complete recap of that journey’s events. This is told through a series of ‘Fuzzy Felt’ pictures, which the rest of the game sorely lacks. This comical introduction not only explains where Link and Tetra are now, it leaves the player knowing that this journey will be a light-hearted one. When compared to its predecessor, PH’s story is definitely for all ages, achieving what WW tried back in 2003. This is apparent throughout the game, but doesn’t hinder the player’s enjoyment. Those wishing to discover what happened to our heroes after Wind Waker will enjoy the story, even if the main plot barely follows on from the Gamecube title.

Link’s latest adventure occurs outside of Hyrule, which may come as a surprise to many people. It seems as if the entire world, rather than just Hyrule, had become flooded before Wind Waker. This means that the only returning characters in Phantom Hourglass are Link and Tetra. This is not a problem when the rest of the cast are as excellent as they are. The main addition to the cast is Captain Linebeck, who allows Link to travel on his steamboat. He is a cowardly pirate, who will never put his life on the line. His character is portrayed brilliantly throughout the game, with some witty lines that penetrate the journey. Various other supporting characters join him, that all have their story to tell.

In a departure from usual Zelda quests, you do not directly control Link. By moving the stylus across the touchscreen, you control a small fairy named Ceila. Link follows what this fairy does, and so if you touch an enemy, he will attack them. You can perform various attacks by doing this, such as the patented spin attack that Link has perfected over the years. He will also follow the stylus, wherever it may go. This method of control is also used to plot a course for you ship, which now has a much-needed motor. These controls can only be described as some of the best on any platform. They are hugely responsive, easy to pick up, and allow for accuracy that has never before been possible. They prove that the DS is revolutionary, and that Nintendo can still pull off innovation today.

The touchscreen isn’t the only DS capability used here, Nintendo have pulled out all the stops and made sure that they have included everything imaginable. Prepare yourself for moments of shouting at your DS, and blowing into the microphone, (all that practice on Nintendogs has finally paid off). This is welcome to the game, and makes sure that you’re never bored of the puzzles that Link encounters. Speaking of which….

Zelda is renowned for its clever puzzles that keep the player guessing, and PH tries to be the same. The trials on offer here are standard series fare, but lack one necessary thing…challenge. The puzzles are just too easy, most of them taking less than a minute to work out. Thanks to the ability to write down helpful hints on the map, most of the puzzles follow a set pattern. Come across an obstacle in your path; find something with the solution on it; write it on the map, and then perform it. Not many puzzles in the game go against this formula, and so the player can become bored. The idea of writing on the map was a great one at first, but seems silly when the developers make the puzzles focus on this feature.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the dungeons are too short. An average Zelda dungeon will take about 30-45 minutes to complete, but few of the ones here take more than 10 minutes, which in turn makes the game feel as a whole, too short. This isn’t to say that the areas are short. The reason they finish quickly is how simple they are. There is never a time where you don’t know what to do, the path is always obvious. If you find a locked door, chances are that you will find a key in the nearest chest to it. This will help people who have never played the series, but for gamers looking for a challenge, this isn’t the place.

The game tries to make up for this by featuring one large dungeon that you keep returning to, but this effort ends up to be the most painful part of the whole experience. The Temple of the Ocean King is possibly the most frustrating dungeon in the entire Zelda franchise. This isn’t helped by the way the game makes you play it over and over and over again. It’s ironic that this dungeon is in the easiest Zelda game on the market, as it is rock solid. Link must avoid Phantoms, huge enemies that cannot be harmed, while proceeding through a series of puzzles. This, coupled with the addition of a timer, makes for a horrible trek, and can halt your journey for some time. The game seems to hate you while you play this section, and it's only more apparent on the second, third, fourth, and fifth times through. If your time runs out, your health will steadily decrease, and you will find that this happens a lot during the adventure. Halfway through the game you will have the option to ‘save’ your progress in the Temple, but you will probably find yourself attempting it from the start to recover some precious time.

The sailing in Wind Waker was a chore, but this can’t be said for PH. By plotting a course onto your map prior to setting off, the game lets you focus more on shooting enemies in the water, and jumping over obstacles. The journey time between places is also greatly reduced, meaning that the trip from one side to the other can take as little as 5 minutes to do. Once again the water effects are great, although they obviously don’t match what the Gamecube pulled of in WW.

Screenshots of this game cannot do it justice. In motion it is a breathtaking sight. When compared to the darkness of Metroid Prime Hunters, and the slowness of Pokemon, Zelda can only be classed as gorgeous. The cel-shaded graphics from Wind Waker come to life on the DS, and show that the system can pull off great visuals. But even so, the best feature of the game, the sound, outshines the graphics. The Zelda theme blasts out of your DS’s speakers like a small orchestra is playing inside of it. The themes are truly epic, and put other handheld games to shame. The original music in the game is fantastic too, and so this helps to bring the quality to a new level. The sound effects are brilliant, with sounds echoing from the system, which have been taken straight from the Gamecube version. These are also well suited to the light-hearted nature of the game. For a DS title, Phantom Hourglass has the best sound available, and puts even the PSP to shame.

Before Phantom Hourglass was announced, there were rumours of a new Four Swords game for DS. As a sort of consolation for not going ahead with this, you can play a multiplayer mode both locally and over Wi-Fi. This has one player controlling Link, while the other controls a set of three Phantoms (yes, we’re back at that temple again!). For an addition to the game it is completely harmless, and makes these parts in the actual game feel like a joke. It’s fun to play, and can create loads of tension as you battle each other for victory. It isn’t Four Swords by a long shot, but makes the game have a bit more longevity.

When playing Phantom Hourglass you feel great as you saunter through yet another Zelda game. But on reflection, the game falls in areas that are a given throughout the series. The lack of challenging puzzles, the short dungeons, and a temple that must not be named all make the game seem out of reach of the high quality that the other titles in the series hold. On the other hand the game features a brilliant control scheme, interesting characters, and aesthetics to make you stop playing and just admire the magic the DS is pulling off. For a single player game on the DS, there is not much more that can top this. But when compared to rest of the Zelda franchise, this hourglass’ time runs out faster than it should do. A disappointment for Zelda, but a great game nonetheless.

- Sam Atkins



Nintendo EAD