The legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

   07/11/2007 at 19:01       Kay       9 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
I always approach each new Zelda title with a certain degree of cautious excitement.

I'm a massive fan of the series but, contrary to what some may think, this doesn't mean that I immediately heap praise and adulation upon anything even remotely to do with the adventures of Link, Zelda, and co. Quite the opposite, in fact - it only means that I criticise louder than most, and I'm sure other fans would feel the same. Some may call it nitpicking and unnecessary fussing over small details, but the truth is in a series where the bar has been raised more than enough times over the last twenty or so years, it wouldn't be unfair to expect a new iteration to at least meet, if not exceed, the lofty standards often displayed by its much-celebrated predecessors.

With that in mind, after a few hours of play I was all ready to put the boot into Phantom Hourglass - the latest in this legendary series, the first on the DS and a direct sequel to 2003's The Wind Waker, itself a flawed but nonetheless worthy addition to the franchise.

The fact that things did (fortunately) pick up later on was more to do with me getting used to the game, rather than the game itself improving in any significant way. Because this, you see, is a Zelda game that tries a lot of new things, one that is ultimately successful in most aspects but also slightly disappointing in others. From a visual perspective it certainly belongs in the 'success' bracket; The Wind Waker's much lauded cel-shaded graphical style and graceful animation has been retained , albeit at a much lower resolution, and the 3D polygons/2D viewpoint look works spectacularly well. Graphically it's sumptuous, easily surpassing anything I've seen running on the DS.

In control?

The controls, however, take a bit more getting used to. Much has been made of the fact that the game is controlled entirely by the stylus; surprising when first announced, as most would argue that the conventional Zelda controls have never been broken, so they didn't need fixing. Somewhere along the development process, though - possibly as a response to the lukewarm reception given to the half-hearted Wii controller implementation in last year's Twilight Princess - Nintendo decided to go the whole hog and show the world that it still knows how to properly pioneer radical new control schemes.

There are a few teething problems at first - I for one longed to go back to the traditional d-pad controls in the first few minutes of the game, and the old DS problem of your hand covering the screen whilst playing rears its ugly head and frustrates on a few occasions - but on the whole, the controls are a success. Moving Link is as simple as placing the stylus tip in the direction you want him to go (you can make him run or walk, just like with an analogue stick), whilst attacking with your sword requires nothing more than a quick slash on the touch screen, or, as is the case with most enemies, a quick jab on the foe in question with the stylus to make Link automatically attack him.

It all seems a bit too simple at first, and indeed the hack 'n' slash combat side of things has suffered slightly in the transition to touch-screen controls - battles are nowhere near as engaging or satisfying here as in previous games - but then again, there is much less emphasis on that aspect of the game anyway, with encounters being a lot easier. Everything else is as you'd expect it to be; the spinning sword attack can be done by (what else?) quickly drawing a large circle around Link, interacting with people is as simple as jabbing them with the stylus, and the same goes for objects that can be picked up and thrown - pots, crates, bomb flower, rocks, and so on. Oddly enough, it's one of the series' simplest signature moves that proves hardest to pull off using the touch screen - forwards rolls are done by drawing small circles at the edge of the screen whilst Link is running, and although that may seem a little unwieldy at first, it too can easily be mastered once you've worked out the right technique. So, to summarise - the controls really are as simple as they sound.

But this is all basic, fundamental stuff. Sure, the game gets it all right, but was it necessary in the first place? Couldn't the game have been just as playable with the traditional d-pad controls? Well, not quite, because what makes Phantom Hourglass the game it ultimately is - rather than just another title with tacked-on throwaway novelty controls - is the fact that not only is the entire game built around this method of control, it also acknowledges and positively encourages the use of the DS' more unique features as much (and as often) as possible. Being able to bring your map down from the top screen and annotate it is an excellent touch, made even more excellent by the fact that many of the puzzles actually require you to use this feature in order to take notes, draw maps and paths, write down the correct orders for switches, and so on. The traditional Zelda items are transformed by the touch-screen - boomerangs travel along the path that you set for them, bombs are placed exactly where you want them, and shooting with arrows is more accurate and satisfying than it's ever been in previous 2D Zeldas.

My personal favourite is another Zelda staple that you acquire later on, one which I always felt was clumsy and awkward to use in its 3D incarnation - here, though, it becomes a completely different type of item and is far better (and more useful) for it. Nearly all the items have multiple and often brilliantly inventive uses, resulting in some fresh ideas for puzzles (and boss battles) that wouldn't have been possible - or at least nowhere near as fun - with traditional controls.
It's not just the touch screen that's used, either - the microphone also comes in handy on a few occasions, although its use is, unsurprisingly, more gimmicky (and rather annoying, I should imagine, for people who plan on playing this whilst travelling on public transport). And closing the DS isn't just useful for putting the console in sleep mode, as players will find out during the course of the adventure. Truly, this is a game that is intent on taking maximum advantage of the capabilities of its host console, possible more so than any other game before it. And it all feels wonderfully natural once you become acclimatised to this new way of controlling Link. Sceptics need not have worried; as with all the previous Zelda games, control is not an issue here. Of more importance, to me at least, was whether or not the actual adventure could compare to the best the series had offered in the past. Unfortunately this is where the disappointments I was talking about start to come into effect.

Dark water

This being set in the same universe as The Wind Waker, it's not at all surprising to see the return of a sea-based over world, complete with lots of sailing and island-hopping, which is either a good thing or bad thing depending on how you felt about Link's nautical excursions in the aforementioned GameCube title.

The ocean is a lot smaller this time - roughly a quarter of the size of the one found in The Wind Waker - and the controls for the boat/ship have changed drastically, no doubt Nintendo's way of trying to reduce the tedium that was associated with the sailing last time around. Except this time it's probably even more tedious; you now have no direct control over the boat, instead using the stylus to draw out a set path around the sea for your boat to follow, while you sit back, watch... and wait. Early on in the game you acquire a cannon attachment for the boat, which is necessary to defeat the enemies that often appear during your journeys at a frequent rate - just jab on the touch screen to lob a bomb in their direction - but they are so easy to defeat that they end up being more of a minor irritation rather than a threat, especially when you are forced to rotate the fully 3D camera in order to view and therefore aim at them. Barrels, seagulls and frogs can also be shot at in order to pass the time, and obstacles avoided using the available real-time jump command. As far as boat controls go, being able to move and shoot at the same time is the only real improvement over The Wind Waker, and what's more, the lack of a day and night cycle and proper free-roaming aspect means that sailing here is actually less enjoyable than it was in that game. Especially when you consider that, aside from a handful of secret islands, boats and shops, there isn't much else of interest to be found on the ocean - overall there's very little of the sense of wonder, mystery and discovery that The Wind Waker had with its more organic approach to life on the open sea.

But maybe I'm being a little bit too harsh. It is just a handheld game after all, and it's not as if there's absolutely nothing to do whilst sailing - treasure maps make a welcome return (hauling treasure out of the seabed is made that little bit more interesting thanks to a nifty little mini-game), and so does fishing, both entertaining little diversions. The smaller size of the map means there's nowhere near as much sailing as there was in The Wind Waker anyway, and there is a wonderfully elegant warping system in place that you can learn later on... with a bit of time and effort. Besides, it's not that the sailing aspect is terrible per se - it's just disappointing to find that, fours years after all the fierce criticism that was levelled at The Wind Waker, Nintendo still haven't found a way to make travelling across the sea as enjoyable and satisfying as horse-riding is in land-based games such as Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time.

Dungeons and dragons

Away from the main overworld, the famous 'dungeons' are arguably the most important component of any Zelda game, and it's here that Phantom Hourglass takes another slight step backwards. The removal of the 'compass' item - previously used to show the locations of boss rooms and treasure chests - makes little difference (especially since you are encouraged to mark these by hand anyway), but the fact that the full dungeon map is now presented to you right from the off (unlike previous games, where you could only see the rooms you've accessed until you found the map in a treasure chest) has resulted in all of the regular dungeons being more linear and therefore much quicker affairs. In addition to that the new angled perspective has necessitated a slight design quirk - dungeons are now presented as entire floors instead of being separated into individual rooms. These are small but significant changes to the standard dungeon formula, and they lessen the challenge tremendously, but they're not the main reason for the disappointment - in fact, they work extremely well within the context of the game.

The problem is that Nintendo haven't compensated for these changes by increasing the size and complexity of the dungeons - even with the touch-screen controls and a few new (admittedly superbly implemented) new puzzles, there are very few genuine head-scratching moments; anyone who's completed a Zelda game before will likely breeze through what's probably the shallowest and least challenging set of dungeons ever. Though what is there is still atmospheric and intricately designed, with combat kept to a minimum and a heavy focus on puzzles, only the final two dungeons come remotely close to matching some of the glorious 2D offerings of past titles, and even then they fall well short of fulfilling their potential. Much more impressive are the end-of-dungeon boss battles, some of which are spectacular in terms of design and a real achievement on the DS in terms of technical and visual sophistication, even though they also remain a touch on the easy side.

Temple of Doom

Thank goodness, then, for the Temple of the Ocean King, probably the most divisive of Phantom Hourglass' major new ideas. The repeat visits, timed sections and slower, stealth-based gameplay of this huge master dungeon may irritate and frustrate many players, but the truth is it also results in some of the best moments of the game, providing a genuine and often stern challenge that is seldom found elsewhere during the course of the adventure. The constantly ticking timer of the titular Phantom Hourglass - needed to preserve your life force in the dungeon - can be briefly paused when you stand on a 'safe zone', a few of which are strategically placed in each area. It's also one of the few places where you can shield yourself from the fearsome Phantom guards that patrol each floor. A simple radar system shows their line of vision, and naturally Link must avoid being seen - a simple sword swipe from one of these indestructible foes depletes your timer as well as your health.

The timer on the hourglass can be increased by collecting sand - usually by defeating the bosses at the end of the regular dungeons - whereupon you are required to return to the Temple of the Ocean King, using the extra time gained to delve deeper and locate and collect the sea charts needed to open up other areas of the world map. And every time you start right from the beginning again, using your newfound skills and prior knowledge - this is where the ability to take notes on the map comes in very handy - to go past each floor in as quick a time as possible.

It's an interesting idea that's nicely implemented; the temple itself is beautifully designed for repeat play, each new floor a separate and intricate mini-puzzle requiring much thought and planning in order to safely and quickly navigate towards the exit. And the fact that items can be used to take clever shortcuts, often drastically reducing the amount of time it takes to get through certain areas of the dungeon, means that the repetition does not annoy as much as it perhaps could have done. The entire idea is a brave and brilliant new addition to the Zelda formula, the only major fault being the fact that you cannot save your position mid-dungeon when switching off - an oddly overlooked aspect considering this is on a portable console.

Sea of disappointment?

It's these dungeons that take up a large part of the tightly designed and extremely focused main quest. Character interaction and side-questing is kept to a minimum, the story - Link goes on a quest to save his friend, the pirate Tetra, after she is abducted by a mysterious ghost ship - is largely inconsequential (save for the odd beautifully cinematic plot advancing cut-scene), and the adventure moves along at a brisk pace, taking in new locations, characters and set-pieces with very little backtracking (with the exception of the aforementioned master dungeon) or other major lulls in gameplay. There are a few major islands dotted around the map, and although the towns are small, the characters you meet throughout the game feature the same cute charm and simple but wonderfully expressive dialogue that made The Wind Waker such a joy to play.

And that's the key thing about Phantom Hourglass - even when it frustrates and disappoints it never fails to make you smile, not when you come across characters like the leader of a tribe who asks you questions in the style of a certain famous game show host, the shop owner who determines the price of his goods by how loudly you can yell into the microphone, or the members of a seemingly vicious monster tribe who actually apologise for previously being nasty to you. Even during serious moments the story is peppered with bizarre self-referential humour and visual gags, and Captain Linebeck - the cowardly boat owner who accompanies you throughout the whole adventure - continues the Zelda tradition of fine sidekicks. Mini-games - an often neglected aspect in recent Zelda games - are superb here, making great use of the touch screen as well as being challenging and addictive. And boat customisation, the biggest of the game's few major diversions, is as curiously compelling as it is pointless; various parts can be bought randomly in shops and found in certain treasure chests, and can even be traded with other players using the Wi-Fi connection.

There are a few other smaller changes to the formula, some for the better - wallets do not need to be upgraded, for example, and full heart containers replace the individual pieces you had collect to increase your life meter in previous games. But there are also other niggles - music is a major disappointment in this Zelda, with repeated dungeon and village themes sitting alongside tracks rehashed from past titles - all of which indicate a game that has been scaled back and stripped down slightly for a new audience. It's hard to criticise Phantom Hourglass for its brevity - unlike recent overblown epics like The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, it's a game that doesn't overstay its welcome. But the fact remains that the quest here is actually one of the weakest of the series, even though the focus on the wonderfully implemented touch-screen controls means that it's almost always a pleasure to play. It's easily a standout title on the DS, then, but I can't help but think that, with a little bit of extra work and polish here and there, it could have been something truly spectacular.
User Comments:

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disusedgenius - on 08/11/2007 at 00:29 wrote:
Probably a 9 for me, literally completed it about an hour ago and really loved it. I was actually surprised how many mini-games and things there were in there, it may not have been up there with the major epics but there was certainly plenty to do and a fair amount I left unfinished.

Incidentally I actually found the dungeons a bit harder than the ones in TP with a few points where I actually got stuck! /gasps

Of course the main thing with Zelda is the whole feel of the place, which is probably the only area I found to be a little lacking. There were plenty of little character moments, but the land(/sea) felt a little constrained and the usual sense of history and myth wasn't quite there for me. A shame about the music too as you pointed out.

Still; I'm a complete and utter sucker for a Zelda game (considering that, for all it's faults, TP is still my GOTY) despite any flaws they just make me a happy gamer. With any luck the next Zelda will do with the Wii what this did with the DS.

peej - on 08/11/2007 at 09:49 wrote:
I have to say, even though I had initial reservations about this (more sailing for the ULTIMATE lose! I hated those bits in Wind Wanker), this link appeals to me over the Twilight Princess one.

And the graphical look and feel of this actually suits the DS so superbly.

I might pick it up on a whim as I will be needing my DS and PSP this chrimbo (lots of staying at boring rellies ahead).


Espad - on 08/11/2007 at 10:54 wrote:
great review, thinking of getting this and a ds for my missus.
oh, love the banner too!

Kay - on 08/11/2007 at 13:43 wrote:
Cheers Peej - only one tiny thing though, there's no 'The' in front of Phantom Hourglass. :)

Review was a little extensive, but I managed to cover all my thoughts on the game without including any massive spoilers.

Anyway, I did love the game, but it's definitely one of the weakest of the series for me - it would have been embarrasingly short and easy if it wasn't for the Ocean King Temple. It's probably slightly better than the Minish Cap was on GBA, but Link's Awakening on the Game Boy is far superior in terms of story, dungeon design and challenge.


peej - on 08/11/2007 at 15:13 wrote:
Corrected, cheers.


TheBoy - on 09/11/2007 at 12:32 wrote:
Really great review there, Kay.

At least with the Zelda series, even a comparatively weak one is still well worth playing.

Alastair - on 16/11/2007 at 14:42 wrote:
I quite enjoyed Minish Cap, up until I reached the rather large difficulty spike at the final boss. :o(

Enjoying PH so far - completed the first two dungeons.

d0ugi3 - on 02/12/2007 at 14:30 wrote:
I have completed the game and it really is a better game for the younger kids' who wouldn't be able to complete TP or WW. Fun to play and made me take the DS back out of the cupboard after the release of Pokémon Diamond.

JohnnyM60 - on 09/12/2007 at 12:36 wrote:
8 is a good call I think.

Haven't played it for a while yet.

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