I have played every Legend of Zelda game I've ever had the opportunity of getting my hands on (even some of the rarer ones). Since The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES), the series has maintained something of a familiar formula: The world is fundamentally the same (in that it's always Hyrule), many of the characters are the same (Princess Zelda, Gorons, Zorbas, Stalfos etc), exploration is the same, dungeons are very much the same, and boss battles are also very much the same. So what keeps this series so fresh if it maintains so much old-school consistency? Well, for one, almost all of the elements this series marries together are leagues ahead of any of the competition, and two, despite maintaining so much familiarity, almost every iteration introduces an exciting, mechanic-shifting new element; a gameplay device by which all of the aforementioned "sames" can be broached in new and exciting ways. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks continues this tradition, and with gusto.
As seems to be the case now, The Legend of Zelda series - for the handheld market
- has kept the Wind Waker (GameCube) art-style, which looks absolutely fantastic on the DS and oozes style. It's cartoony, to be sure, but given the wacky nature of the game's narrative and its myriad crazy denizens, it certainly suits. Once again the game is presented in a pseudo 3D/isometric plane with movement of young Link handled comfortable by dragging the stylus across the touch screen. It's utterly precise and very rewarding when you can master all of its intricacies. The game's set-up is also very much the same - we meet Link while being chatted to by some older person, and typically, our young protagonist has just woken up. It's familiarity in spades, but welcome given the franchise.
The difference this time around, however, seems to be that Link is about to become a train engineer. Today is the big day of his graduation where he'll finally receive his train license and be able to ride the "spirit tracks" throughout Hyrule. But, before that, he must make his way to Hyrule castle for the ceremony, which predictably serves as the game's slight introduction to the new train element, as well as touching on older aspects of play potentially gone rusty, or just never before engaged (for the newcomers).
So there are jars full of rupees and hearts, boulders that seem to pack the same and cuckoos everywhere. The land is littered with train tracks, and driving is as simple as moving forward or in reverse. There's a slow speed and a fast speed, and a whistle for alarming animals who wander onto tracks. You can change your course at various intersections by flicking the signal switch. There are also other trains moving about the tracks also, which are displayed on your mini-map on the bottom DS screen (so you need to be careful when switch tracks because you might end up in a head-on collision). It's a beautifully simple affair, replacing boats or horses, and allows for something of a panoramic viewing of the game's world at large, without having to do more than pull whistle cord.
In equal predictability, the game's story sees our young Princess Zelda eventually kidnapped, and our new train engineer as her only hope of rescue. It's the same founded story retold in a new light, and for the first time in the series' history, she'll actually accompany you on your quest (in spirit form, but I won't spoil how or why, because it's pretty cool). So again, Spirit Tracks maintains a sense of the same, with an equal sense of progression and evolution - it's the beauty of the Zelda design team and the series' underlying design philosophy, reiterating its position as one of gaming's greatest franchises.
Apart from filling in the floating boots or dog-riding hats of the likes of Navi or Midna, Princess Zelda can also be used to posses certain objects in the game. It's a sort of solo co-op experience that employs an emphasis on solving puzzles with more than one body. You're often given dual paths with which to send Zelda and Link down separate ways, whether it's to sneak her past guards (by standing in front of them and grabbing their attention) or to outmanoeuvre the enemy. As you'd expect you'll also use her to trigger switches and the like, and most of her movements can be made simply by drawing lines with the stylus. It can get annoying when you've train a half-assed line - it would have been nice to have the AI predict certain paths you're trying to draw, gbut ultimately it comes down to the player (ie me
) not being lazy.
Beyond the puzzle stuff, Zelda's presence throughout serves another purpose. For so long in the series Link has been a lone traveller; an avatar of extension for the single-player experience, exemplified by his lack of voice or words. Here, however, he's fleshed out so much more through his relationship with the Princess, and her relationship with him. It's that Nintendo charm of childlike love and romance, bordering on pure innocence, if not for the magnitude of the ultimate task at-hand.
And this is where the game equally offers up more robust gameplay mechanics; the overall structure of play is less overworld-dungeon-overworld-dungeon and you'll find yourself partaking in odd side-quests, fetch quests and main quests that negate the formulaic state-of-Zelda-play we're used to. If you played Twilight Princess, think along those lines and you'll understand what I mean. Player interaction has been upped this time, too. Whether it's literally talking
into the DS's mic at characters (though you only need to make some form of vocal noise as the game didn't care if I swore or said the right thing), while a new instrument to play in the form of a panflute actually has you blowing on the touch-screen while moving the flute left to right to play the notes - very, very cool.
As you would expect, progressing the game progresses Link's strength, and you'll be lucky enough to find old favourites such as bombs and bows to play with. Though in saying that the game does go a step further, producing new tools to throw into the mix, and these are perfectly suited to the game and Zelda formula while staying invitingly fresh and completely innovative (in the sense of stylus and touch screen interaction). There's no point giving these away in the context of this review as my revelation is no match for the 'finders, keepers' sensation every new toy discovered in a Zelda adventure offers the player. And fittingly, each and every one serves an ongoing and satisfying task throughout the adventure.
In comparison to the likes of Phantom Hourglass, which was critiqued as being a little too easy, Spirit Tracks is incredibly well-paced with an emphasis on emergent challenge and lustfully engrossing gameplay. It's an inviting ebb and flow that never once allows frustration or ease-of-play to outgrind each other, keeping you in a constant state of blissful flux. There are some annoyances here and there, such as bosses not going down on the third main strike, as we're used to, but a second, but these are hardly major faults, and mainly rest with veteran players like myself.
While we called GTA: Chinatwon Wars the best DS game ever made, it now has some serious competition in Spirit Tracks, which in turn leaves it down to a point of taste. If you can see yourself leading a childhood romance on an adventure of epic magnitude, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is the new dominant force, but if cutesy characters wearing green socks for headgear just aren't your thing, we'll let Rockstar maintain number one spot. For me personally though, this is the best the DS has to offer, and clearly one of the best entries in the Legend of Zelda series - about the only thing that could top it would be a DS-ified Ocarina of Time, until then bring on the next Wii Zelda!