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Article by Matthew Braga (Globetechnology.com)
For years, Link has played the stereotypical Nintendo hero, rescuing the princess from peril and restoring order to the kingdom of Hyrule. But with the Nintendo DS exclusive The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Princess Zelda is finally coming along for the ride, and doing some rescuing of her own.
Spirit Tracks is the sequel to 2007’s Phantom Hourglass , and is the second Zelda title to be released for the Nintendo DS platform. The story takes place 100 years after the previous game, in an early Hyrule covered in tracks and traversed by train.
The tracks serve double duty as ancient shackles, said to keep the demon king Malladus at bay. What follows is your standard Zelda story, with Link responsible for restoring these shackles/tracks as they begin to mysteriously disappear. There are four realms to be restored, and as you might guess, there’s a dungeon in each.
The Nintendo DS stylus is used to trace the train’s path along a rail map, while the train controls on the side of the screen choose the speed. And while players of Phantom Hourglass will groan at the return of real-time travel, it’s a mode of transport that no longer feels gimmicky, but actually enjoyable, with more control and speed than roaming the seas.
But unlike its predecessor, exploration is limited to the game’s predefined tracks, which may draw the ire of those expecting more open-world travel. However, there is still a great deal to be found along each route, much of which is unlabeled on Link’s map.
While train travel is Spirit Tracks’ big focus, it is Princess Zelda herself that steals the show. Early in the game, Zelda’s body is taken by the demon king, leaving only her spirit behind. While the princess plays the part of ethereal guide for much of the story, it is soon revealed she has another power – the ability for her ghost-like form to possess the hulking, metal, sword-wielding phantoms that stalk the game’s dungeons.
While inhabiting the form of the Phantom, Link and Zelda must work together to overcome the usual array of challenges and puzzles found in the game’s dungeons. Players are given the ability to control Zelda independently, using the stylus to draw routes on-screen, and interact with objects to assist Link.
What may sound gimmicky at first immediately becomes one of the game’s most intriguing new additions, as Zelda is used to distract, protect, and conquer potential dangers throughout. It’s a feature that isn’t overused either, making phantom segments not something to dread, but anticipate.
Additional help comes from the myriad weapons and tools available to Link. Items like the boomerang and bomb bags make a welcome return, while the whip and whirlwind are new additions. However, many of these new items rely on the unique hardware of the DS – namely, the handheld’s built in microphone – which isn’t always a good thing.
The spirit flute, an ocarina-like device, is probably the most maddening to use. By blowing into the microphone, and moving the flute with the stylus, players can produce different notes to make songs. Yet, the whole affair seems largely unnecessary, useful in few relevant situations, and prone to error in noisier environments.
In some cases, the background noise of the bus I was riding played the flute for me. While the sensitivity of the microphone’s volume can be changed, there’s no way to do this on the fly. This can be frustrating later in the game, when, through some rudimentary voice recognition, players are required to answer specific questions aloud to the handheld’s mic.
However, these situations are far from frequent, and numerous other side-quests exist for players should they choose to continue the main story at a later time. Your train can take on passengers at times, who will require you operate the train in a very specific manner to reach their destination successfully. Rabbits also inhabit the land surrounding Hyrule, and can be caught with a net, earning you rewards from the nearby rabbit reservation.
It’s worth mentioning that Spirit Tracks also has a brief multiplayer component in addition to the main story. While there is no online play, up to four other DS handhelds can use a single game card to play in a local free-for-all, the goal being to collect as many gems as possible within a set time limit.
It’s not a bad addition, and suitable for a few occasional rounds, though the repetitive play can grow tiring.
Overall, Spirit Tracks is a game that very much plays like its predecessor – which, in this case, may not be a bad thing. The graphics, the gameplay, friends and foes are all familiar, but there’s a layer of polish to be had that largely improves the experience.
In a series that many feel has run out of new ideas, this is a game continues to take chances with the DS hardware, even if such features don’t always function as planned. When items like the spirit flute work, they work well, and add a different dimension of adventure to the Zelda franchise.
But by bringing Princess Zelda into the action, it’s a sign that Nintendo isn’t afraid to mess with the series’ tried and true formula either. If Spirit Tracks is anything to go by, one can only wonder what Link’s portable future holds.
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