The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
There are great games, and then there are legendary games. The Legend of Zelda is one of the most revered and respected franchises ever. The tiniest inkling of yet another upcoming sequel featuring the taciturn Hero of Time – Link of Hyrule – and the decorous Princess of Destiny – the titular Zelda herself – is enough to stir up a mass media frenzy, and with good reason: Zelda games have consistently delivered some of the finest action-adventure experiences ever, harmonising creative gameplay together with inspirational designs and a rousing soundtrack. And they are nearly always met with massive critical acclaim across the board.
Ever the Nintendo stalwart, Link was bound to make an appearance on the DS. But, oh how he has changed! The DS mantra “Touching is Good” was held in high regard by many proven developers who sought to re-energise their IPs by taking advantage of the unique functionality the DS had to offer. However, what makes the Zelda games such stellar role-models is how they always stick to their roots; behind all the glossiness afforded by audio-visual upgrades, an epic quest spanning a massive overworld and countless devious dungeons awaits: full of frantic sword-swinging action, tricky environmental puzzle-solving, and various enjoyable sidequests and minigames that help to make the long, yet rewarding adventure even more enchanting. Many were overjoyed to see the cel-shaded appearance of Wind Waker return, but even more were sceptical as to how a completely touch-based Zelda would work. Well, it’s finally here. Shigeru Miyamoto’s influential baby has been reborn and by the looks of it, he/she’s looking as healthy any parent could want.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass continues on from where the Gamecube’s Wind Waker left us. A recap of the events that transpired is stylishly illustrated in canvas art so newcomers needn’t be concerned not knowing how the story goes (although a huge spoiler is revealed; caution to those contemplating playing its predecessor in the future). We are then dropped right into the middle of the high seas where our quest to save a kidnapped friend (guess who?) begins. Remember how good Wind Waker looked with its cel-shaded, cartoon-like appearance? Well, the same animated vibe as been masterfully recreated over here in Phantom Hourglass. As you steam across the ocean (no more ‘sailing’ here) or take on one of several humongous monstrosities within the decrepit dungeons, you’ll question: “was Wind Waker really that much of a graphical achievement?”. Why? Beyond anyone’s disbelief, Phantom Hourglass looks just like its prequel did. Sure, it’s a bit fuzzy at times and the perspective usually fixed at an angled top-down view, but the characteristic style is a perfect fit for the DS and this is easily the best looking 3D game on the console.
“The same animated vibe [from Wind Waker] has been masterfully recreated here”After picking yourself up from the initial visual gobsmack, it’s also time to pick up Link after he is unceremoniously dumped on the coast of some unknown island, yet again. No hero is worthy of such status if he doesn’t have a sword and shield in hand, and so, the first order of business is to locate this basic combo, yet again. It’s all very familiar. The set-up follows the traditional Zelda formula that we’ve come to love. After having obtained the gear you need to smack stuff around, you’ll have to ride a custom-built steamboat across the large expanse of water over to other miniature islands of interest. There you will engage in some delightful chatter with the quirky locals, find out where the next spirit or crystal that’s relevant to plot progression is located, maybe dig up a few holes in search of buried treasure, and if you fancy such a thing, slash up some cuccos so as to have a whole flock of them go berserk and rush you down from all sides – yep, typical Zelda.
However, you will not be hammering on the B button to unleash hell, nor will you be guiding our hero by way of the conventional d-pad. Instead, everything is done with the stylus on the touch-screen. Link has a fairy companion (yet again) who you are in control of. By holding the stylus against the screen you can direct where she flits to. Have her hover a few steps in front of Link and he’ll walk over in that direction; bring her far out of reach near the perimeter of the screen and Link will start running; leave her directly over Link himself and the Hero of Time will adopt a stationary guarded stance. Attacking is also a simple affair: a few swipes in front of Link will have him slice on that side, a full circle quickly drawn around him will yield his trademark spin-slash attack, and tapping enemies directly in sight will make him wail out with some heavy hitting strings. Put simply, the controls work – very well. More complex manoeuvres like rolling are not quite as intuitive and if you are looking to play for extended periods of time (like if you’re as crazy as I was and finish it on day one!) you will get a very sore finger! And if being entirely touch-based wasn’t enough (although you may use the d-pad/face-buttons along with a shoulder button for item shortcuts), there’s also some very good use of the microphone made too; one monster with abnormally large ears requires you to shout at it to stun it! In fact, virtually every single aspect of DS functionality is explored in Phantom Hourglass which makes for a highly refreshing, often-times surprising experience that hasn’t been seen in a Zelda game since the N64’s Majora’s Mask tore the critics into two camps.
The staple of Zelda still remains with the dungeons: labyrinthine designs full of mind-bending puzzle-solving scenarios and replete with dangerous monsters at every turn, from quivering blobs of jelly that can electrify you to large armoured warriors known as Phantom Guardians that are quick to deal out an instant death chop should they spot you treading on their turf. There are seven main dungeons here, one central recurring one, and a host of little caves that prove to be more than just a passing passage. Each of the seven key dungeons follows the usual Zelda guide to excellence. You’ll need to don the thinking caps when figuring out how to open up the next way. Most of the time, this involves simple switch-hitting, but the difficult thing is getting to them in the first place. You’ll need to employ the use of many popular Zelda tools for the right job: bombs to blow apart weakened walls; a grappling hook to swing you across the many pitfalls; a boomerang to hit switch orbs from afar, or else, to stun enemies and buy you some time; and a few others that won’t surprise anyone who has played their fair share of Zelda.
“Virtually every single aspect of DS functionality is explored… which makes for a highly refreshing, often-times surprising experienceWhat will surprise everyone, though, is how these legendary sub-weapons are now used. The touch-screen has opened up several new possibilities, effectively changing the ways we would usually use these items. The boomerang is the first one you obtain and now instead of just letting it fly in a straight direction, you can draw a path for it to follow. Yeah, I’ve never seen a boomerang that can zip across tracing the shape of the Greek letter, Omega, but this fancy mechanic brings in a whole new realm of puzzle-solving. For example, you may need to hit faraway switches consecutively in a particular order, or carry the fire burning over one torch over to one whose flame has been doused by darkness. A lot of creativity is shown with the other special weapons you’ll find, and as per usual, the boss battles require some unique strategies and skilful handling of all the items at your disposal in order to emerge victorious. Alas, these epic encounters are arguably the easiest in the entire series; it’s disappointing that with all the effort put into making them look awesome and fun to figure out their weaknesses, they are all just pushovers.
Phantom Hourglass isn’t a hard game; it’s definitely one of the breeziest Zelda’s in recent times, meaning that some will inevitably moan on about the difficulty. But, because it’s such an easy game to get into, it’s immediately accessible to the less hardcore gamers. Nintendo’s whole “Touching is Good” slogan goes hand-in-hand with “Anyone Can Play”. Maybe not so much your Brain Age’d elders, but gamers who thought previous Zelda’s were too daunting of an action-adventure may very well see this as a possible first. Phantom Hourglass does offer up a few sidequests like searching out mystical drops to power-up your sword with elemental magic or souping up your boat with an assortment of gathered ship parts, but don’t expect anything near what we’ve seen in all past Zelda’s, Twilight Princess inclusive. This is quite a linear journey, perfect for those that are new to Zelda and those that aren’t as pedantic when it comes to freedom of exploration; Phantom Hourglass’s sea is as small as Wind Waker’s one is ridiculously large. At least there are more minigames to indulge in: light ‘shmup’ action while riding the rough waters inhabited by rock-spitting octopi, man-eating sharks and with hijacking pirates to boot; salvaging for lost treasures hidden many leagues under the sea; a hedge-maze race that’s as tough as they come; and the highlight of WiFi connectivity – multiplayer enactments of Link versus the Phantom Guardians.
So much talk about Zelda, but what of the subtitled ‘Phantom Hourglass’? The Temple of the Ocean King is a dungeon which you’ll have to re-enter again and again throughout the entire stretch of your roughly 15-hour ride. Each time, you’ll enter with more ancient sands to enhance the hourglass’ power, hence giving you more time to dive deeper into its depths and find the chart which will lead you to the next set of dungeons. It’s a change of pace from your average Zelda dungeon. Time is of the essence – you lose if you don’t get out before the hourglass stops. The Phantom Guardians are (for most of the game) impervious to all of your weapons and if they spot you, they won’t hesitate to give chase and plonk you down at the floor’s entrance with a few precious seconds knocked off the timer. Stealth plays a big part here – you can attract or distract the hulking soldiers by hitting things with your sword or running across water-laden floors, much like in a Metal Gear Solid game. But, tread too carefully and you’ll find yourself without much thinking time later on. It is slightly repetitive having to repeat sections of the dungeon constantly, but newly obtained items can be used to find shortcuts through the earlier floors and soon you’ll be able to warp straight through to the area of interest. It’s very different to what we’d usually expect and just like everything else the game has to offer, it’s a refreshing concept pulled off rather well.
“Shigeru Miyamoto’s influential baby has been reborn “Is it a perfect action-adventure? Not quite. The amount of innovation crammed into Phantom Hourglass is staggering – on the portable side of things. But, there just isn’t enough utilisation of all the bright ideas it introduces. The boomerang is used plenty, but the grappling hook, for example, is gotten quite late in the game meaning that it is used in just a few instances and then made nearly redundant. We are taught how to attach it across two poles and to have Link push himself against it, eventually transferring the stored elastic potential energy into a kinetic release that will fling him across the room. This is only used a handful of times. Much of ‘Hi and Bye’ nature is attributable to the self-contained dungeons which tend to focus on using just the one particular sub-weapon each. Having each main dungeon last only 20-40 minutes each doesn’t help. Short dungeons are great if you have the casual portable gamer in mind, but later ones (or even optional ones) should at least be more substantial.
Phantom Hourglass, with all its differences to the tried-and-true Zelda formula, could be considered as a cousin to main lineage; at times, only the memorable characters, the beautiful music (a tinge tinny here, though), and the same old thinly-veiled story reminded me that I was playing the latest iteration of Nintendo’s masterpiece. But, even if it didn’t have the whole Zelda charm, it would still be an engrossing adventure in its own right. Phantom Hourglass is an invigorating blend of old and new, classic puzzle-based adventuring spliced with a user-friendly, touch-screen interface, and finally, a sparkling re-invention to a formula that has been mostly untouched ever since Shigeru Miyamoto’s original recipe came to light twenty long years ago.