Is it Rail-y good or will it drive you loco-motive?
Everybody, including us, praised The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for its original ideas and fresh, new take on the Zelda series; superbly designed dungeons, the best weapons and weapon-based puzzles in a Zelda game for a long time, and –Most of all- fantastic, streamlined controls. However, just boot up Spirit Tracks and you’ll see something new that you’d never expect, especially considering what makes a traditional Zelda game. For the first time since you put your Brio Thomas the Tank Engine back in its box, trains are fun. Link turns to all on his locomotive, and salutes, whilst grinning like a loon. He’s having the time of his life; just driving along the tracks all day, not a care in the world. Not even the sugar-driven people of Chuggington could bring up this level of service or dedication.
Of course, it isn’t all First Great Western, but the train aspects of this new Zelda did take up approximately 50% of the development time, according to the game’s director and Zelda supremeo Eiji Aonuma, after all. Step outside of your track-based vessel, and you’re still given plenty of possibilities. OK, you could argue that Spirit Tracks is Phantom Hourglass with some bell and whistles, but when blowing that said whistle is this much fun, who cares?
Board your train for the first time, and you will suddenly be hit by this feeling of absolute joy. It’s your train. All yours. And you can do what you like with it. Climb in, and Link stands at the controls, but it’s for some reason still outside, so you can see him. Everything that Link would be faced with whilst driving his steam train you get on the touch screen. There’s the whistle in the top-right hand corner, which –We’ll be honest- is absolutely glorious. Take your locomotive out for a spin and you’ll find yourself randomly tugging at it. Give it a long pull, and it gives you a deeper sounding whistle. Only pull for a second or two, and you get short, sharp blasts. This may sound simple, but we’ve got upwards of an hours’ fun out of just blowing the whistle for no apparent reason, and we’ll bet you will too. There are also new whistles for you to unlock as you go, but more on the numerous side-quests later in the review.
Your train also gets upgraded as you go. You can buy various new engines and carriages and so on in order to customise your locomotive. There are plenty of parts to buy, and the interface of customisation is identical to the boat one in Phantom Hourglass, so just as easy. But who cares about making your ride look like Ivor the Engine when you could be shooting anything and everything to kingdom come? You get the canon early on, and it’s then incorporated into the train mechanics seamlessly. As in Phantom Hourglass, you just tap something to blast it. You’ll soon find yourself shooting every rock and signpost you see in the vain hope of finding a rupee, heart or Rabbit (A collectable sub-quest item) hidden there.
Our initial fears with the train, though, would be that just cruising along straight tracks with no freedom would be dull. Oh how wrong we where. As you go in the game, you’ll unlock more and more of the Spirit Tracks, which magically place themselves down on the planes in front of you. You draw a path along them, and then set off. You actually get a fair bit of freedom, and there’s usually more than one way to get to any set place, but it’s when you actually start chugging along that it comes into its own.
Travelling by train is a lot more strategic than travelling by boat. Whereas Phantom Hourglass had you simply blasting your way through anything, in Spirit Tracks the rails are littered with evil trains. If you have a head-on collision with one of these, its goodnight, so you have to carefully plot your journey around these, but still to the same place, which is easier said than done. You will be on multiple occasions thrown into a mass panic when you see a possessed locomotive headed towards you, and –If you’re anything like us- will still want to catch that rabbit just behind it. Enemies are also all over, and taking five hits will result in a Game Over. Mix all these elements together and you’ve got possibly the most exciting of all overworlds in a Zelda game to date.
Outside of the train world, it’s business as usual for Link and co. This time round, our hero is a young train engineer, and is due to get his official certificate from her majesty, Princess Zelda. She’s egged on by a shady chancellor named Cole, who’s oddly dressed as a leprechaun, wears two hats on his head, and is obviously going to be evil. After some sneaking around the castle and a bit of Costume-changing for Link, (His conductors garb is replaced with the traditional robes and sock-hat within half an hour.) we’re suddenly hit by a bullet train ourselves as we watch Zelda die.
We won’t spoil anymore of the plot, but without informing you of this simple premise, we couldn’t explain the game’s best new addition- Co-Op play. It’s not LEGO Star Wars-esque drop in/drop out multi-player, but instead the game allows you to take control of both Link and Zelda’s ghost simultaneously. The first warm-up with Zelda trying to get out of the castle is fun enough, but before long you’ll find yourself plunging Zelda’s body in and out of various suits of armour left behind by a deceased Phantom.
The Temple of the Ocean King is now gone, which we think is a shame. Many complained about re-running through the central dungeon over and over again with a time limit that gets stricter and stricter each time, but we had to disagree. It added something fresh to the experience, and made the sections more challenging and the way the game could cause you to sweat when you saw a Phantom running at you as the timer ticked down through its last minute has not been replicated in this latest title. Instead, you get to take as much time as you like, and instead of dashing through old stages as fast as possible, you can merely walk past them when going up a huge staircase. Trust us, as you hold you stylus in the corner and watch Link just run and run and run up and up and up, you’ll be wishing that you were fighting time itself and doing something exciting instead.
Thankfully, the new puzzles more than make up for it. Firstly, you have to track down three Force Gems. Do this successfully and you’ll power up your sword, giving it the handy ability to dispatch Phantoms. Stab one in the back, and then all you’ve got to do is tap it to let Zelda’s spirit into it. This is where the fun begins. There are many variations on the Phantom, each with unique abilities, such as being able to warp, or see in the dark, or walk in lava. This means you’ll not only have to get the Phantom to the right place, but get the right Phantom to the right place. It gets even trickier later in the game when we begin having to run backwards and forwards, swapping Phantoms back and forth in order to clear certain areas. Our only real complaint with these puzzles is the fact that you’ll often left without any clues at all and have to fend for yourself when it comes to choosing your knight in shining armour. This is alright when you’re only offered two sorts of Phantom, but towards the end you’ll be confronted with 9 different sorts, and this becomes near-impossible. If you get through the entire game without using any help, or reading up on hints and walkthroughs, consider yourself a genius.
The dungeons are as well designed as before, and the controls are still flawless. There are far more sub-quests and collections to complete, such as the rabbit hunting as earlier mentioned, the stamp-finding (20 posts are hidden across the land, and Link is tasked with finding them all and when he does, he has to stamp them off in his logbook.) and transporting various goods from point A to B. You’ll regularly find yourself straying well off the beaten path to try and find that last Water Rabbit or wasting hours trying to figure out how to access the Sand Temples’ stamp post.
But where one door opens, another must close. Unfortunately, Spirit Tracks is far shorter than Phantom Hourglass, us clocking in at around 18 hours, including collecting over half the Rabbits and most of the stamps, as opposed to the 26 it took us to get through Phantom Hourglass with a similar level sub-quest completion. The few dungeons do provide more head-scratchers, and the puzzles are more complicated this time, but Spirit Tracks does feel like a gap-filler while we wait for Zelda Wii.
Overall, Spirit Tracks isn’t quite as good as Phantom Hourglass. There’s plenty more replay value, and it looks, controls and sounds just as good. Trains are arguably better than sailing, but there is just no substitute for originality...