Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date: December 7, 2009 (NA), December 11, 2009 (EU), December 23, 2009 (JP)
Since 1986, the land of Hyrule has mystified us with its varied locales, multiple towns, and many secrets. While some games in the series don’t take place in Hyrule, they still manage to capture that same feeling we’ve grown to love. With the Zelda series’ latest entry, we’re taken to an entirely new Hyrule we’ve never seen before. Does this Hyrule earn a place in our hearts like the previous iterations of Hyrule have, or does this game lack the sense of exploration that the series has become known for?
At first glance, Spirit Tracks may appear to be a carbon copy of Phantom Hourglass, just instead of a boat, you have a train. It does share its graphical style, control method, and the idea of a central dungeon with its DS brother, but that’s where the similarities end. The Tower of Spirits, Spirit Tracks’ central dungeon, fixes all the problems Phantom Hourglass’ central dungeon had. There isn’t a time limit, and you don’t have to go through the same floors over and over again. Instead, you’re able to skip to the next section of the tower if you don’t feel like going through the previous section again. Another difference is that while Phantom Hourglass was basically a walk in the park difficulty-wise, Spirit Tracks offers much more of a challenge, both in puzzles and in combat. Also, while Phantom Hourglass basically had a barebones story, Spirit Tracks’ story is much more robust.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks takes place approximately 100 years after the events of Phantom Hourglass and The Wind Waker. Link and Tetra have discovered a new land, and turned it into the kingdom of Hyrule. However, this new kingdom of Hyrule has a dark secret. Locked away under the ground is an ancient demon named Malladus, and the only thing between him and the world above are the Spirit Tracks, magical chains that span across the entire land, which were set down by the Spirits of Good after a long, tiring battle against Malladus. Overtime, the chains started to be used as a mode of transportation for the citizens of Hyrule, and thus, trains are the common way to get around.
Our hero, Link, is an engineer in training. When he goes to Hyrule Castle to pass his exam and become a full fledged royal engineer, Zelda slips him a note saying she wants to talk to him. She’s suspicious of her chancellor; a man named Cole, and is worried about the safety of the Spirit Tracks. She asks Link to take her to the Tower of Spirits, which is the lock that keeps the Spirit Tracks intact. On their way to the tower, the Spirit Tracks under Link’s train disappear, and the duo, along with Link’s teacher Alfonso, who decided to join them on their trip to the Tower of Spirit, crash. Chancellor Cole shows up with his apprentice, a mysterious man named Byrne, and reveals he’s a demon who wants to break the seal on Malladus. He breaks the Tower of Spirits up into five parts, kills Princess Zelda, and steals her lifeless body. Fret not though, the Princess’ spirit survives the attack, and she must now work with Link to get her body back and prevent Cole from breaking the seal on Malladus.
It’s an interesting twist on the traditional damsel in distress story that we’ve come to expect from Zelda games, and it’s definitely a breath of fresh air. This also causes Zelda, who normally doesn’t have a large role in the series, to finally show why the series is named after her, as you can finally play as her. While in the Tower of Spirits, Zelda is able to possess a Phantom, large armored guards who protect the Tower of Spirits from invaders. This causes you to control two people at once, both Link and Zelda, and it’s a nice way to introduce new gameplay elements, due it opening up new puzzle possibilities. And trust me; some of the puzzles later on in the Tower of Spirits are the hardest puzzles the series has seen in awhile.
Controlling two people at once, especially in the heat of combat, may sound complicated at first, but thanks to Spirit Tracks’ controls, it’s incredibly simple. Just like Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks is controlled almost entirely with the touch screen. The buttons do offer short cuts for quicker access to your map, items, and anything else you’d want to get to quickly, but majority of the action uses the touch screen. The controls are basically Phantom Hourglass’ controls, but more refined. To walk, you touch where you want to go. To attack, you touch the enemy you want to attack. To slash, you swipe the stylus across the touch screen in the direction you want to slash. To do a spin attack, you draw a circle around Link. The controls are extremely simple and easy to pick up, and there’s hardly any learning curve to it.
Along with the ability to control both Link and Zelda, Spirit Tracks adds another new feature, the Spirit Flute. It’s a magical instrument used to help restore the Spirit Tracks and solve puzzles. To play it, you blow into the microphone of your DS while also sliding the flute around on the touch screen to get the note you want. The flute does have a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it’s incredibly easy to play.
The Spirit Flute isn’t the only new item addition to Zelda you can look forward to, as Spirit Tracks introduces a number of new items. Another new addition, and probably the biggest, is Link’s train. If you want to travel on the overworld in Spirit Tracks, you have to ride on the train and follow the Spirit Tracks. While linear and boring at first, the train starts to pick up later on in the game, when sidequests start to become available. The second half of the game is the part that you’ll really enjoy riding around on the train, as you’ll get to transport goods, people, and just explore newly opened areas of the overworld.
Speaking of sidequests, Spirit Tracks is full of them. While a good majority of them are either a) transport these goods to a certain area or location, or b) transport this person to a certain area, they offer you something to do outside of the main storyline. Another downside to the sidequests is that a good majority of them aren’t available until the second half of the game, so you have to spend the first half of the game doing what it tells you. On the other hand, saving them for the second half of the game ensures that you’ll have something to do once the game is over. Even if you do manage to complete all the sidequests in the game before the final battle, Spirit Tracks has a fun multiplayer mode.
In multiplayer, you and up to three other friends can basically play a Zelda version of capture the flag. The goal is to collect as many Force Gems as possible, while attacking other players, avoiding other players’ attacks, and avoiding Phantoms. There are many traps that you or your friends could fall into and lose Force Gems you’ve collected. At the end of the round, the person with the most Force Gems wins. It can be some stupid fun to have with friends when you’re bored, or just not wanting to continue on with Spirit Tracks’ main quest at the time. However, there is a lack of Wi-fi, so you have to play locally. But then again, Zelda isn’t a series known for its multiplayer, so any multiplayer is a good thing.
Overall, Spirit Tracks is definitely a fun game. It isn’t the usual damsel in distress story that you expect from Zelda, and the new gameplay elements make it a unique addition to the series. While sidequests could be available sooner, and the story does lull in some sections, it’s nothing game breaking that makes you want to stop playing for awhile. Although the train is on tracks, the second half of the game offers you the same exploration feeling that the Zelda series has made you come to expect. Multiplayer is a fun addition, but the fact that it’s local only really hurts it overall, as adding Wi-fi could have made it even more appealing.