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Review: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
by Sean Engemann
Game Information

Basic information
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: December 2009

Nintendo DS


ESRB: E10+
While there are some game series that seem to fade into the bleak world of monotony after countless sequels are released, the Zelda chronicles have always presented a polished product which leaves us quite satisfied. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks for the Nintendo DS lives up to its pedigree, and will keep you engaged and enticed from start to finish.

The story opens simply enough in a small coastal village, where we find Link (or any name of your choosing) preparing for his final engineering test and ensuing graduation ceremony at Hyrule castle. At the ceremony, Princess Zelda bestows Link with the title of Royal Engineer, but also slips him a note requesting a secret meeting in her chambers. She proceeds to explain that her Chancellor, named Cole, has been acting suspicious, and wants Link to escort her to the Tower of Spirits to investigate the gradual disappearance of the Spirit Tracks. Zelda gives Link his standard green garb, which sadly in the this game is reduced to a mere recruit’s uniform, in order to pose as a guard and escape the castle that Zelda has been confined to for her protection. After a successful escape, Link, Zelda, and Link’s tutor Alfonzo, make their way to the Tower of Spirits via train, only to run off-course halfway due to a sudden disappearance of the tracks. The party is confronted by Cole, who reveals his true form and intent, and his second-in-command, Byrne. The diabolic duo defeats the party and, for all intents and purposes, kills Zelda and takes her body to be used as a vessel for the resurrection of the Demon Lord, Malladus. Zelda’s spirit remains and accompanies Link throughout his journey as he tries to restore the Spirit Tracks and find the powers needed to defeat Malladus so Zelda may reclaim her body.

While many may sneer at the notion of a train corrupting the classic fantasy world of Hyrule, the concept and gameplay actually work quite well with the story. The tracks themselves are actually chains, which have bound the Demon Lord to the Tower of Spirits, but as his powers have strengthened, the chains have disappeared. Movement on the track feels surprisingly more free than the open waterworld from Phantom Hourglass, and as more of the track is revealed, more options and obstacles present themselves. Since this game does not take place in an endless sea of blue, the world is much more vibrant and appealing to the eye. There are essentially four quadrants which make up the land of Hyrule: the Forest Realm, Snow Realm, Ocean Realm, and Fire Realm, each with at least one temple (dungeon) to explore, and all filled with interesting locales to visit. Since the train is bound to the speed of its engine, the time to travel between destinations can become tedious. However, portals become available on the tracks as you progress through the story, allowing you to quickly travel to distant locations with a blow of the train’s whistle. Of course, the train rides are never stagnant, as enemies and obstacles frequently appear, many of which can be handled with a well placed cannon shot. Though your cannon will only slow the possessed demon trains; and if your route is not planned properly, or you are not quick at timing your turns to avoid a collision, your game ends in flames and cries from Zelda.

The train also becomes a transport vehicle for both passengers and cargo, as some of the sidequests have you hauling such things as fish, cuccos, lumber, and ice to an alternative destination in a timely fashion; and residents who are eager to visit other parts of the world. Each successful transport will result in a new section of track being revealed, with new mysteries to be uncovered. Even with an empty train, you could lose plenty of hours tracking down all the rabbits hidden behind boulders, which you must catch in a netting minigame and bring them to the refuge called Rabbitland Rescue in order to claim rupees and other prizes. Along with other minigames such as stamp collecting, a target course, and a fighting challenge which pits you against progressively more difficult rounds of monsters and bosses, there are many ways to collect upgrades and artifacts. Yet, as clever and fun as these sidequests and minigames are, they are inconsequential to the main plot, and their rewards are merely for the “completist” gamer.

The game’s biggest flaw is the ease of difficulty. This fault translates to both the enemies and the dungeons, and while some may find it a refreshing change from the taxing and frustrating Ocean Temple in Phantom Hourglass, I believe it takes away an element that has always separated the Zelda franchise from other adventure games. The bulk of enemies are slow and easy to avoid, and while some carry their own defenses, most can be easily dazed with your boomerang, and quickly dispatched. Other obtainable weapons include the standard bombs and bow, a sand wand, a snake-like whip replacing the hookshot, and the whirlwind, which requires you to blow into the microphone to create the vortex. Another clever use of the microphone occurs when you obtain the pan flute. With it you must again blow into the microphone, but this time you create music depending on where you move the flute with the touch screen. It is an interesting addition with a realistic feel, as you must play in harmony with the spirit guardians in order to open paths to the temples. You will also learn tunes used to locate hidden objects, heal yourself, or call birds to help you reach inaccessible locations; yet most of these are only used sporadically and more could have been done to give the flute a better role. Despite needing many of these weapons and items to solve the temple riddles, in battles they are - for the most part - superfluous, as many will fall back to the boomerang’s “daze and destroy” tactic. The bosses, although well presented and intimidating, are easily predictable and defeated quite readily with the weapon obtained in that particular temple. So although you may feel compelled to dish out your rupees beforehand for a healing potion, it will probably go flat and get mouldy before you need to drink it. The temple puzzles themselves get progressively harder, yet with the exception of the final few floors of the Tower of Spirits, they remain easily solvable. Despite the lack of difficulty, the puzzles are still interesting, and while some seem to be recycled from previous Zelda games, there are definitely fresh ones to be had. One of the more interesting concepts is having Zelda use her spirit to control the Phantom Guardians in the Tower of Spirits. This allows a very unique cooperative experience between you and Zelda, as her Phantom embodiment can access areas Link cannot, forcing you to handle two characters alternatively to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. Apart from the standard Phantom, there are also some that brandish a fiery blade, some that teleport, and some that transform into a havoc-wreaking boulder, all which can be possessed to reach the next floor.

The cast of characters in Spirit Tracks is broad and colourful, with the reappearance of familiar faces (supposed grandchildren of those in Phantom Hourglass, since this story takes place a century later) and races, but also some fresh ones as well. Zelda plays very well as Link’s partner, and it is nice to see her donning the princess garb, rather than her oddly drawn, androgynous alter ego, Tetra. Even Byrne, a suspected enemy, evolves throughout the story and eventually must grapple with an internal conflict. You can spot a relative of Jolene (the female pirate from Phantom Hourglass) running the Take ‘Em All On challenge in Hyrule Castle, and of course the Anouki and Goron tribes fit nicely in their respective realms. Thankfully, the very annoying character Linebeck from Phantom Hourglass has been reduced to an artifacts trader. Linebeck III now runs the shop and will pay rupees for any items Link comes across, and also sells upgraded sections of your train in all different styles. This however needed further development, since apart from a one or two heart boost to your train, the changes are merely superficial. And since a lot of effort is required to obtain some of the rarer artifacts, it would be more satisfying to have the train upgraded in different ways, possibly with cranes to pull up treasure from the ground or ocean, or luxury or bar cars that provide a steady income of rupees when carrying guests.

The graphics are the same cel-shaded style seen in Phantom Hourglass and its forebearer Wind Waker, and while not as popular as the more realistic designs seen in Twilight Princess, they work very well with the DS platform. The gameplay is smooth, and the only lag comes when multiple enemies appear in the same screen, which happens infrequently. The colours are gorgeous, and each quadrant of the world begs to be discovered and admired. The music and sound are also solid, as expected. Many of the classic Zelda tunes are present, slightly modified to fit the colonial/western theme that seems to accompany the use of a train. Of course all the dialogue is silent and subtitled, but this is one of the few series that doesn’t require voice acting for the story and characters to be engaging.

The multiplayer aspect comes in the form of a battle mode, which will look familiar to those who have played the Four Swords game. You and up to three other players duke it out on a dungeon-like level trying to obtain as many force gems as possible. There are six different levels to chose from, all with different obstacles, and although you are left without a weapon, there are many ways to dispatch your friends and capture their gems before the timer expires. It is an interesting, fast paced experience, but more of a diversion than a full-fledged multiplayer inclusion.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks brings some fresh ideas to the series, adding an exciting mode of transportation and new ways to solve the clever, yet tame, puzzles. While the graphics have not changed much from those of Phantom Hourglass, they are definitely smoother and more vibrant. The story is gripping, and all the sidequests and minigames provide a nice diversion from the task of saving Zelda and Hyrule. Whether you’re a fan of the series, or just looking for a good action-adventure game, this one will definitely provide many hours of enticing gameplay.



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- Sean Engemann

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