Jeremy Jastrzab
04 Feb, 2010

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks Review

DS Review | All aboard the Spirit Train!
The Legend of Zelda needs no introduction. It’s a series that you either spent some of your best gaming years playing, or loathing the fact that it wasn’t on your console. Over 23 years, it has provided the template for just about every console adventure game created since. Heck, Darksiders from Vigil Games is essentially a glorified tribute to the eternal battle over the Triforce. Following on from Phantom Hourglass, the DS sees its second Zelda release with The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks.

Both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are set in the same cel-shaded backdrop first introduced in the much maligned and under appreciated The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Unlike like Phantom Hourglass, which is essentially a direct sequel to Wind Waker, Spirit Tracks is set several hundred years (for those keeping count) after the first two ‘Cel-da’ games. And there are a few things that are fairly different this time around. That being said though, familiarities are inevitable.

Aww, he's not THAT bad.

Aww, he's not THAT bad.
Our typically mute hero wakes up to the ramblings of his housemate, telling a tale of the protection of the spirits and the sealing of nasty demons. Fairly stock standard stuff in the Zelda spin-offs. The hook this time is that your little (not yet) green hero is off to visit the castle today to get his train engineering certificate. After all, the flooded landscape has receded and now the best way to get around is by train. Unfortunately, while you’ve picked up this vocation, train tracks have been mysteriously disappearing and monsters disturbingly appearing. Upon receiving your certificate from Princess Zelda herself, she sneaks a note to you to meet her later. Sure enough, you two discover that the disappearing tracks and appearing monsters are the work of Zelda’s dastardly advisor, Cole, who is attempting to revive the Demon King Maladus. Unfortunately, this requires Princess Zelda’s body, which leaves her to wander the world as a spirit.

Some will argue that the additions to the game aren’t enough to make up for the recycled structure of the game. However, before adding our two cents worth, there is an aspect of the game that really needs to be emphasised and appreciated. Apart from possibly Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass before it, there aren’t any games out there that display such palpable emotion and characterisation. Princess Zelda breaks the mould of brave and wise beyond her years, with something more of a spoiled little girl. This game’s ‘Link’ is lazy and unwilling, but has a hero lurking beneath. However, as you play, you’ll see them grow, you’ll talk to NPCs full of life and emotion and get a lot more out of it than any console game described as ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. It’s something that will only be appreciated once you realise the comparative sterility in the majority of other games out there.

As a DS game, a lot of the tricks from Phantom Hourglass are on show here again. The game is purely controlled with the stylus, which doesn’t turn out to be as much of an ergonomic problem as it could, thankfully. You control all your action on the bottom screen, while the top screen is your map. Apart from movement and combat, the touch screen can be used for a variety of actions, such as tracing lines with your boomerang, to making notes and markings on your map. Given that Zelda titles are more about the exploration and discovery over the combat and levelling up, the touch-only controls are not only perfectly adequate, but actually open up a whole bunch of lovely puzzle possibilities.

By rail or by sea?

By rail or by sea?
Your mode of overworld transport replaces the paddle steamer with a train. Initially, it may seem that your scope for travelling is very limited, but as you continue unlocking more regions and tracks, you’ll soon realise that the world is much bigger and has a lot more for you to explore. Mind you, travelling by train is much more hazardous than by boat, so getting to destinations won’t always be smooth. Despite this though, train travel is no more endearing than boat travel, as it feels like it takes too long and you can never quite get over the feeling of confinement.

Apart from a mixture of new and old items that help you advance through the game’s various dungeons, one of the biggest gameplay additions is… Zelda herself. As a spirit, she’s now able to inhabit a variety of ‘phantoms’, or the large walking suits of armour. This opens up a whole lot of tag-team and puzzle solving scenarios and the game is better for it. So much so that it’s probably a step up from the relationship with Midna in Twilight Princess, and is, incidentally, the first Zelda game to let you directly control Zelda.

Of the major gameplay additions, the other one worth mentioning is the flute. Sure, Zelda games have had their fair share of musical instruments, including ocarinas, wands and wolf howls, but none have had you almost actually playing them. As such, your flute is controlled by blowing into the microphone, making it a quaint and amusing addition. At various points in the game, you’ll actually be required to ‘play’ music with the correct timing. This can be a little frustrating if you have no musical talent, timing or are in a loud area at the time. Not to mention, you’re not really told why you got something wrong. You also learn some preset songs that will be used to solve puzzles and help you as you play, such as being able to heal once in a dungeon. Unfortunately, these are often underutilised throughout the game.

New puzzle and item possibilities are always fun to explore.

New puzzle and item possibilities are always fun to explore.
Given the pedigree, you’ve probably figured by now that the game’s structure is fairly similar to previous titles. However, there are a few considerations to take into account. The dungeons take the stock standard approach: find new item, find boss key and defeat boss. Mind you, the game has some challenging and fun bosses. However, once you get over the slow start, you’ll find that the dastardly puzzles will be enough to nullify this, while the fact that they literally open up the world also helps. Thankfully, the stupid Temple of the Ocean King from Phantom Hourglass has been eradicated and replaced by the Spirit Tower, and this one doesn’t require you to hack through the entire thing each time. However, the clincher is the little things, such as the fact that the game is genuinely more challenging than Phantom Hourglass, both in terms of the puzzles and heart hazards. Also, collecting rupees has meaning, as you will need to spend them and not horde senselessly. And of course there are a whole bunch of shortcuts, item upgrades and treasures (which can be traded for train upgrades) to be found over the course of around fifteen to twenty hours worth of adventuring.

Apart from the occasional trial-and-error puzzle, all the minor flaws in the game, such as the length of train rides, seemingly arbitrary backtracking and inflexible saves, point to one major flaw. The game is no good for portability. If you’re sitting at home and playing the game at your own pace, as you would with a console title, a lot of these issues (apart from the lengthy train travel) are fairly negligible. However, it’s not a good game to play on anything shorter than an intercontinental flight, as you will rarely get enough done without being required to redo a lot. So while Spirit Tracks is an excellent game in its own right, it isn’t very good for portability.

While the multiplayer Battle mode returns, it's not even as endearing as it was on Phantom Hourglass, let alone the riotous Four Swords. Sure, the online mode has been ditched in favour of the single-cart local, but it's a basic set of arena-based gem collecting modes. It's more of a 'fun house' where you use bombs, phantoms and traps to knock around the other players, but it's quite shallow and something of a throw away. Still, you do have an option that allows you to trade treasures, which can help with the train upgrades.

Play nice now children.

Play nice now children.
Graphically and sonically, Spirit Tracks is fairly similar to its predecessor, though with a lot less slowdown, a lot less water and a stronger focus on the music. As such, you have what is easily among the finest looking and sounding portable games available. Period. Very few games even come close to pulling off the 3D, let alone with the colour, the life and the vibrancy of the world through sight and sound. And as we mentioned above, it’s got more emotion than most full-blown console titles as well. In short, Spirit Tracks looks and sounds awesome, while being just about the best that the DS can offer.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks may not fall too far from the parent tree, it may still hold tight to some of the established series conventions, it may be a little too childish for some and it’s not that good on the run. However, no other series can still excite, amaze and provide brain teasing surprises like a Zelda game can. While Spirit Tracks makes genuine improvements over its direct predecessor, there aren't many console games that are put together as well as this let alone DS games. So while we’ll probably have to wait for the next Wii incarnation for a potential formula revolution, the fact remains that there are few finer games on the DS and few finer adventure puzzlers that you’ll get your hands on.
The Score
Despite not straying far from the proven template, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks has genuine improvements over its predecessor and shows that the series is still the king of adventure puzzlers, console or handheld. 9
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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4 years ago

I hate, i hate, i HATE WINDWAKER LINK!
4 years ago
Teacher RXWAG says:

"It’s a series that you either spent some of your best gaming years playing, or loathing the fact that it wasn’t on your console."
4 years ago
It's Zelda... need anyone say more.

I have really been enjoying this game. Apart from the Professor Layton series it's the only thing I play on the DS.

Great review and I agree with everything it says, especially the point about not portable. You really do need to sit on a couch and play for 3 hours before feeling you made progress.
4 years ago
Nice review, Jeremy. This game is indeed awesome. Still no where near my favorite portable Zelda game though, Link's awakening. That game just had something special.

PALGN wrote
Spirit Tracks is set several hundred years (for those keeping count)
I'm no Zelda Nazi, but I'm pretty sure its set 100 years after the 'first two Cel-da games'. Niko is still alive.
4 years ago
Infested Jibbs wrote
I hate, i hate, i HATE WINDWAKER LINK!
Really? I actually love wind waker link.

I would at a guess say you havent clocked wind waker, because im yet to meet someone who has who hasnt eventually been swayed by its charm.
4 years ago
It's the reason i haven't clocked windwaker.

Sort of a chicken and the egg thing i guess if i were to follow your rationale.

Anyways, no point in complaining, he's the new link through and through, this would have to be about the 4th game with his likeness in it.
4 years ago
I like Wind Waker Link, but I think that this game was undercooked and a bit too gimicky. The whole train thing was unnecessary and just an excuse to scrap a proper overworld IMO. Didn't improve or evolve enough from Phantom Hourglass for mine. Seemed an unnecessary sequil.
4 years ago
Still undecided about buying this. I never really liked the whole travelling via boat in the first so I don't think it'll be any better via train. I usually lost interest 1/2 through my boat trip and turned it off xD
Plus it's way too hard to play on the train, where I spend 80% of my gaming life these days travelling to and from Uni...
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  Pre-order or buy:
    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  10/12/2009 (Confirmed)
Standard Retail Price:
  $69.95 AU
  Action Adventure
Year Made:

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