The Legend of Zelda franchise has had it a bit rough these past few years. There's no need to go down memory lane with a long, detailed history of these past few years, but suffice to say a visual style, a multiplayer element and an outsourcing have all played a major hand in this. It didn't help that the series' much heralded successor, Twilight Princess, failed to live up to lofty expectations (despite praise from critics and strong sales in the West, Nintendo would have you believe the game was an utter failure from how the creators have spoken about it over the past year). If the most hyped Zelda game in history couldn't deliver the series from a rapidly stagnating state, what could? Phantom Hourglass was carrying all of this weight and more on its shoulders, and for the most part, it has given the franchise a ray of hope.
Phantom Hourglass takes everything commonplace about Zelda and allows players to enjoy it in a brand new way. That's not to say the installment is revolutionary in terms of gameplay, but rather the way you play Zelda has been revolutionized. At heart the game is strictly 2D Zelda mechanics: players see the world through a traditional overhead viewpoint and move Link around like a classic Zelda title. What makes this game so unique is how you play it. Everything, from the smallest menu navigation to the movement of Link can be controlled through the stylus. In some cases, it is required. For the most part, controlling Link and his arsenal via the stylus is the most refined, most precise experience in a Zelda game ever.
That's not to say the controls are flawless. While players can simply tap an enemy on screen to slash, manual slashing by swiping at the screen with the stylus is not nearly as precise, though it really only poses an issue in two spots in the game. Pointing and tapping at a spot on screen will move Link precisely to that point, but players also have the option to hold the stylus away from Link on the screen and he will run continuously. Turning sharp corners at some points can be an issue, but in particular in cramped areas, it sometimes feels like it is hard to get Link to move precisely because there is so little navigable space to touch to move to. Rolling is an option in the game, but performing it is much more difficult than in previous titles, and honestly it's not as natural or useful.
Besides basic combat and movement, Link's arsenal is completely redefined to work with the stylus. Players can draw paths with their boomerang to send it flying with deadly precision. Tossing bombs is more accurate than ever; simply pull one out, point anywhere on screen and watch it fly precisely where the stylus touched. Some may worry the cost of this precision is the natural feel or speed of using the items. Drawing boomerang paths works well to hit stationary targets, but what about enemies in motion? Holding down L or R and then tapping on them will unleash the boomerang quickly at them, replicating the more natural use of items in traditional Zelda games but still incorporating the amazing level of accuracy the stylus allows. This quick type of control is also made available on the other items as well.
There is one other major gameplay element changed up a bit by the new controls, and that is the sailing. For those worried that sailing is as boring in Phantom Hourglass as it was in The Wind Waker, some refinements were made to ensure there's never a dull moment. For starters, sailing is done by plotting in a course on the sea chart. Once a destination is selected, the ship will move automatically. The only elements the player can then control are the camera angles and whether or not to completely stop. Course corrections can be made by stopping and recharting a course, but these can't be done on the fly manually without interrupting the natural flow. Pirates and enemies lurk in the open seas, so Link has to man the cannon in order to defend the ship. Tap an enemy on screen to fire at them, much like tapping enemies on land.
Players can also customize their ship with parts they find over the course of the adventure. Having all eight pieces from a certain set will enable the ship to increase in both speed and strength, and not to mention make Linebeck's ship look much more fashionable. Finally, finding treasure chests in the ocean is no longer a simple process of finding the "Red X" on the map and pressing a button. Instead, players will have to manually navigate the crane down the depths, dodging rocks and land mines.
The story in Phantom Hourglass revolves around Link and Tetra shortly after their adventures in The Wind Waker. After Tetra boards a mysterious ship, she is captured and Link tries to save her. He falls short and nearly drowns, only to wash up ashore on Mercay Island, where a fairy namedCiela wakes him. After speaking with the nearby elder Oshus, Link sets off to the Temple of the Ocean King, where he saves a captain named Linebeck. Linebeck has a ship and agrees (after some dissent) to help Link track down the mysterious pirate ship that has Tetra. The only problem is you need sea charts to explore more regions of the ocean, and they're all hidden deeper within the Temple of the Ocean King. But to explore deeper in that temple, one needs to earn more time as a curse prevents one from staying there too long. Link will need to earn more Sand of Time to fill up the Phantom Hourglass in order to explore the massive dungeon longer, obtain new sea charts, and track down the dungeons to earn more time in hopes that eventually somewhere in the seas Link will track down the mysterious pirate ship.
As for the dungeons, there are a decent amount of them in the game - more than The Minish Cap offerred gamers. Dungeon design is in the upper echelon of the Zelda franchise, especially when compared to other 2D Zelda installments. Puzzles aren't necessarily complex, but set up to complement the stylus control very well. In one part of the game, players will have to use the microphone to call a lingering Goron's attention, dust off an old map, and in total homage to the original, Japanese version of the first Zelda, defeat the dreaded Pols Voice. Boss battles that await Link at the end aren't the most difficult, but become increasingly more original and entertaining. One boss battle in particular felt like the encounter with Sheegoth from Metroid Prime, and players had to use a tag-team strategy to take the foe down.
Fans of the cel-shaded look will be happy with Phantom Hourglass, and those who are fans of the realistic look shouldn't put up as much of a fight this time around because the visuals suit the game's atmosphere perfectly. Also carrying over from The Wind Waker are the unique facial expressions that bring the characters to life. Link's classic expressions from The Wind Waker return, but Linebeck is the one who really steals the show with his over-the-top personality and theatrics. The charm and wonder that many allowed themselves to experience with The Wind Waker is recaptured in Phantom Hourglass, and in some cases, done even better. Link will also "track" stuff on-screen with his head (since eyes are too hard to really see at points): when running by an enemy, Link will turn his head to focus on them. Little touches like this make a big difference. The only knock on the otherwise superb visuals oddly comes in the dungeon and island design, as a lack of textures on surfaces makes some areas seem very dull and repeitive. Otherwise, character models, buildings and many of the environments stay unique enough to keep the game's look fresh.
While the rest of the game is in tip-top shape, the audio department is perhaps the low mark. The soundtrack boasts mainly re-arranged versions of classic Zelda franchise staples, as well as rehashed The Wind Waker themes. Some original pieces make it in, but the music is honestly some of the most bland and uninspired in the series. Sound effects are decent enough, and some characters have small voice work in the form of various, unintelligible sounds. Except for the introduction and the ending sequence, the classic main Zelda theme is pretty much absent. There are howeversome cool liberties taken with some of the tunes such as when Link opens an empty chest - it plays a slight deviation of the classic "Item Found" jingle - that really pay off nicely.
But what is the bottom line? In the end, it's just nearly-perfected Zelda gameplay. If you're looking for something more than just a new way to play Zelda, as in, something different in terms of how Zelda plays, then you're barking up the wrong tree. The story is fresh, albeit very conceited and more character driven like Majora's Mask, and the premise of having to keep going back to one huge temple after clearing smaller temples is a step in the right direction. But ultimately, it's still Zelda, but it manages to not feel stale like Twilight Princess did. Phantom Hourglass may not be up to every fan's standards, but it certainly is more refreshing of an experience than Twilight Princess.
Final Verdict - 9/10
Definitive controls for classic Zelda gameplay. Excellent visuals and atmopshere, with steller presentation. Soundtrack is a bit lackluster, but still not that bad. Fresh change of pace and look, with a more character-driven story that feels a bit shallow like the older Zelda titles. Minor issues arise from stylus gameplay, and there is a short learning curve to get used to an predominantly stylus-controlled experience. Not very challenging, but a very rewarding experience. A solid 10-15 hour title for veterans, and around 20 or more hours for average gamers.