Are game critics sick and tired of these Zelda-loving Links on this Zelda-loving train? Find out, in our Frankenreview for The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks.
Spirit Tracks takes place in the future of the Wind Waker timeline, utilizing the same sort of cel-shaded graphics that everyone complained about in the Gamecube title but have learned to love in the subsequent Nintendo DS outings. While Link is escorting the Princess Zelda aboard his train in order to investigate disturbances with the titular Spirit Tracks - chains that bind the evil Demon Lord in his earthly prison, the pair is attacked. Zelda's body is stolen, and so her spirit and our hero must team up to rescue her flesh and keep the evil overlord from escaping.
Yes, yes, we know all of this. How does it play? All aboard for game critics' junction!
The idea that an interest in trains is the most socially unacceptable hobby imaginable is a concept largely limited to the UK. However, being forced to tour Hyrule on a magic train is really only a surface issue in what is probably the most disappointing Zelda of modern times. Although as ever with Nintendo, disappointment doesn't mean the game itself isn't of the highest quality.
You can control only Link and Zelda in the Tower of Spirits, an area you'll have to visit several times to gain new maps that open up spirit tracks to different parts of the gameworld. Phantom Hourglass veterans who are worried that the Tower of Spirits is simply another name for the annoying Ocean Temple in that earlier game needn't fear; while you'll make multiple trips to the Tower of Spirits, the repetition and the time limits of the Ocean Temple have been done away with. You won't ever need to repeat the same levels. Outside of the Tower of Spirits and its dual Link-Zelda mechanic, Spirit Tracks plays similarly to most other adventures in the series. You'll venture into a multilevel dungeon, obtain a new weapon, and then use that new weapon to defeat a powerful boss creature at the end of that dungeon.
Our hero uses a train to get around the world, and the whole point of the game is to reinvigorate the Spirit Tracks, which are torn apart at the game's outset. The train traversal starts off slow, but as you progress more wrinkles are added. First you get a cannon to attack enemies, and then you learn that you can search for rabbits to return to an eccentric man in a rabbit suit (or an eccentric rabbit who looks like a man. I can't really tell), and about halfway through the game you learn that you can customize your train with different cars. The train controls are easy and intuitive. You control the speed with a switch, tap on the screen to fire your cannon, and drag the stylus around the screen to change your view. Like the regular controls, sometimes the on-screen icons get in the way, but it doesn't happen often enough in the train segments to become a large issue.
Combat in Spirit Tracks is identical to that of Phantom Hourglass in that everything is controlled using your stylus and the touch screen. For those who played through the first DS Zelda game, you will feel right at home. There are also a lot of interesting items you will obtain along the way, including a cool Whirlwind instrument and a whip shaped like a snake. The dungeons themselves have also improved greatly over the last game, offering a good mix of fun action and challenge.
Spirit Tracks is never dull, it's never boring, but it does border on monotonous at times, and while there's always strong writing, beautiful music, and new locales to experience, the designers seem to revel in sending you on ping pong quests, bouncing you from location to location to solve otherwise mudane tasks. Want to get to the fire temple? Tough break, kid: there's a lava river in the way. Don't worry, you're just a five minute drive to the ice village where ice can be made to cool the lava. That is, you can make ice after you take somebody from the ice village to the forest where fresh water can be found; don't want to be making dirty ice. Delivered him there? Nice! Come back later and you can get the ice. Go kill some time. Oh, you made it back to the fire world with the ice? Congrats, it's time to move on. Unless you want to do it all over again in a side quest, that is.
There is a way to play and not like The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. The train might be dull for people who don't wait for the designers to get warmed up and who ignore the side quests. The dungeons may well be too hard for some of the DS's newest consumers. This game may not have the broadest of appeals, but if you like Zelda, this is upper-echelon stuff.