Link's last outing, 2007's Phantom Hourglass, was a piece of portable paradise, showcasing all the DS's features with some wildly imaginative puzzles and unforgettable moments, and still remains one of the console's best titles. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks takes all that was good about Phantom Hourglass and mixes it up with some key new gameplay elements, but is it original enough to better its predecessor?
Set around 100 years after Phantom Hourglass, you play a rookie train engineer summoned to Hyrule Castle to receive the royal blessing required to be a fully qualified engineer. Within minutes of your arrival everything goes awry, though without the usual kidnapping or locking away of Princess Zelda, as she accompanies you for the vast majority of the game in a rather less corporeal form than you might expect. The rest of the plot revolves around you and Zelda restoring power to the Spirit Tracks, a series of railway lines that connect various parts of the world, providing enough power for you to enter the Demon's Tower and recover Zelda's body.
What this story translates to in gameplay terms is the usual mixture of travelling to towers, towns and dungeons to recover glyphs, items and unlock new areas. Using your rather cool Spirit Train you trace a route along the tracks to your destination, with your journeys typically a little more interesting than those in Phantom Hourglass. You'll still have Beedle floating about selling his wares and boulders and enemies to destroy, but there are now hidden rabbits to find and catch, netting you extra goods, and the ability to carry items and even passengers between destinations. Being able to trade items across the map is nothing new to the series of course, but the medium of transporting them by train breathes life into the staple trade quest. Carrying passengers is also refreshingly different – you must obey the speed and whistle signs, stop correctly at the platform and even keep your passenger safe from pirates, with the rewards for completing these quests well worth the effort.
Aside from these additions, driving your train is much like skippering the boat in Phantom Hourglass – you draw a course, you follow the course, you get out and continue. The big difference really lies in the relative lack of freedom when compared to the boat: understandably you can only drive your train over existing tracks, a double-edged sword in many ways. Whilst it removes much of the oceanic meandering that dragged down PH from time to time, it also fails to recapture the sense of adventure and discovery that was so exhilarating: although there are new tracks laid at certain points, providing plenty of new areas to go to, the game has already mapped out your route for you.
The other big addition outside the train is the ability to control Zelda whenever she inhabits a Phantom. This is only possible in the Tower of Spirits, a recurring level much like the Temple of the Ocean King, although thankfully there's no need to repeat previous levels to progress. Being able to team up Zelda and Link makes for some fresh new gameplay, combining their abilities to solve puzzles and defeat enemies, and being able to adopt full manual control of the Phantom at any time is a Godsend, although you can have it follow you automatically if you so wish with a tap of the “Call" button. Sadly, the Phantom's path-finding isn't as smart as you'd hope, causing it to regularly blunder into quicksand when there's a perfectly good bridge, stumble into walls and generally act with very little intelligence. You can switch to manual control and direct it yourself, but when you're in a bind and need back-up quickly it's not always an option.
That said, controlling two characters in some of the game's puzzle sections results in some of the most devious mind-benders seen in a Zelda game yet. For example, Link is too weak to pass through spikes but light enough to run over quicksand, whereas the Phantom walks through spikes easily but sinks into quicksand instantly. Learning their unique abilities and putting them into practice is the key to progression as always, and the combination of careful lateral thinking and split-second timing is more potent than ever with a second character to accompany you. Perhaps the real beauty of this cooperative play is how sparingly it's used – it could easily have overtaken every dungeon, causing you to curse at the Phantom's clumsy blunders, but by sending Link into every temple solo it maintains that deep concentration and connection with your hero that characterises every Zelda dungeon.
The items and puzzles are a mix of traditional and original – your bow and arrows, bombs and boomerangs all appear, but there's also a new whirlwind item, a whip and other items fresh to the series. Although the whip works almost identically to the grappling hook of past games, the whirlwind is more like the Deku leaf, allowing you to blow gusts of air to power propellers, move keys from faraway platforms and more. Using the whirlwind is a simple matter of aiming and blowing into the microphone, meaning some whirlwind-heavy sections require a little more fitness than you'd expect from a handheld game, though it's not quite as demanding as the Spirit Pipes, Link's new favourite musical instrument.
Used in much the same way as the Ocarina and Wind Waker, the Spirit Pipes let you play different tunes using a combination of the touchscreen and blowing into the microphone. Coloured pipes sit along the bottom screen, each producing a different note, and you select one to blow by sliding it to the centre of the screen and sound a note by blowing into the mic. Different combinations of notes create different tunes, much like in previous titles, and the actual mechanic of playing it is entertaining enough, particularly with extra notes accessed using the D-Pad. The item rarely feels overused and only ever takes seconds to play, keeping it as more of an occasional feature and ensuring it doesn't outstay its welcome.
Sadly, the rather addictive online multiplayer mode of the first game has been removed, replaced by a local multiplayer only affair that's similar though not quite as good. Thankfully you can play it in single-card download play, although it's still not quite a match for anyone-anywhere WiFi Connection gaming. There's also a Contact Mode, something we haven't seen in a DS game for a while, that lets you seek out other DS users and exchange treasure with them through the air. It's disappointing to see online play taken out all together as it was a nice little bonus in the first title, although there's more than enough single-player content to ease the pain.
Whether in battle or on the map, the controls are exactly the same as those in Phantom Hourglass, being controlled entirely from the touchscreen with occasional buttons for calling up the map or using items. The swordfighting is still a little unreliable when taking on large groups of enemies, as sliding and tapping to strike sometimes results in Link merely moving to the point tapped rather than bringing down his sword with the mighty thunderous strike you imagined. There are a few tweaks here and there – tapping an item to interact with brings up a highlight around it, for instance – but there are no huge differences and Phantom Hourglass veterans will pick it up right away. Writing on the map is as intuitive as ever, and there are a few new puzzle solution inputs instead of simply answering questions, but on the whole it's the control scheme that Nintendo more or less nailed the first time around.
In fact, you could say that about almost the whole game – it's almost the same game that they got so right last time. You may be on a train instead of a boat, and get a whip instead of a grappling hook, but they're really just different ways to join the same old dots. Zelda games have always been very good at teaching you to recognise patterns and puzzles without making them seem obvious and that certainly applies here. Sliding blocks, unlit torches, using the boomerang to hit switches in order – they're all here, but some fans may feel that they're a little too familiar this time around.
That's the main problem with Spirit Tracks – the quality is undoubtedly there, from the enjoyable side-quests to the devious dungeon puzzles, but whereas the Zelda series used to be synonymous with ingenuity and originality, Spirit Tracks arguably innovates much less than Phantom Hourglass did.
But that alone doesn't mean it's not a classic game. Indeed, there's an awful lot to recommend in Spirit Tracks – it's a much longer quest than Phantom Hourglass, with plenty of optional extensions if you want to catch all the rabbits, acquire all the train parts and so on. The controls are smooth and there's a good mix of touchscreen, button and microphone inputs, though when things get hairy it does become a bit fiddly to switch between Link and the Phantom. Graphically it's still got a nice style to it, with good animation and nice facial expressions, although a few blocky textures and some occasional slowdown let it down. Musically it remixes the traditional series themes with new instruments; a nice metaphor for the game as a whole, really.
If you can't get enough of Link's adventures, you'll find plenty in Spirit Tracks to satiate your appetite for sliding block puzzles, treasure chests, trade quests and the like. Don't expect huge surprises or stacks of completely new and innovative content, but do expect some new tricks from old items. It's a quality game as was Phantom Hourglass before it, and even though at times it feels too much like a retread of past games, it remains a thoroughly enjoyable jaunt through Hyrule and puts most other DS titles to shame with its overall quality.