The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass review
A Fantastic Legend


The Legend of Zelda. It all started way back on the age old NES where a then unknown elf boy picked up a wooden sword and began an adventure that would kick-start one of the most well known series to ever hit the video game market. Whereas Mario would be the king of the platformers and spin-offs, Link would be the hero in the adventure genre, slaying monsters, solving puzzles and generally setting standards for others to follow.

The series has come a long way since those early days, with different games presented different elements and traits that have been used and dropped as needed. The series has always tried new things to keep the gameplay fresh, so it should come as no surprise that the first DS Zelda title would work hard to make extensive use of the unique features on the console. This is Phantom Hourglass.

This game is set right after the events of Wind Waker, although you really don't need to know the details of WW to enjoy this title, especially since there is a rather lengthy (and unfortunately, unskippable) recap of WW's plot. Once you're past that the real story begins, as Link is aboard the pirate ship led by Tetra. The pirates come across a rather spooky looking ship within thick fog and decide to investigate. Tetra jumps aboard and promptly vanishes and when Link pursues he falls into the sea. When he wakes up he finds himself in a foreign land and soon finds himself dragged into a battle to save the Ocean King from an evil monster in order to rescue Tetra (and everyone else, while we're at it).

So yeah, we're still basically looking at a 'damsel in distress' plot here, and I can't really say there is anything amazing about the backstory. Even the supposed 'shock' moments can be seen coming a mile off, so there are no surprises to be had. Even the final enemy, Beldum, simply has no presence has a final enemy. Beldum fits the mold of the generic monster perfectly. There's no dialogue, no backstory and aside from some monsters appearing around the different islands (which is no different to any Zelda game) it seems that Beldum's effect on the lives of the common folk is severely limited. Nobody seems to care that much.

As a sequel to Wind Waker, this game also uses a cel-shaded style to convey the game's actions. Indeed the game's characters and world are bright and colourful, presenting the same level of charm found in WW. The different islands and locations are beautiful to look at, as each area has its own sense of charm that the visuals carries across superbly. Characters are very expressive, showing off some rather exaggerated actions and facial expressions that fits in with the whole visual theme. Watch in amusement when Link staggers around dizzy or Linebeck does a strange 'ready to go' pose. Even the generic monsters have great designs and move about in interesting ways.

The dual screen aspect is generally used in the same manner as many similar titles, although flipped. The action takes place on the bottom screen to accommodate the controls and the current map or chart sits on the top screen. A button press can exchange the screens for times where you need to interact with the map, and the transition for this is done smoothly. The maps themselves are wonderful designed, reflecting the appearance you might expect from maps or charts with the usual cel style applied.

It's not all plain sailing though. When characters get close to the screen there is some rather noticeable jagged edges on them and the shading on people and creatures isn't smooth but rather goes darker in steps. It's rare to even notice these things outside of cutscenes since the camera is usually far enough away to make things seem smooth, but it's an issue to see it even a few times.

Like the rest of the series, the music in the game is a major success. Each track has that unmistakable sense of the series, ranging from the epic feeling of a remixed version of the classic tune as you cross the ocean waves to the serene melodies when visiting peaceful villages and even the more deary tones of the dungeons. Everything sounds just so right for the environment they are matched to.

Sound effects are well done too. Things like explosions, shattering crates or the thwack of sword striking enemy all have a solid sense of substance to them. Although lacking true voice acting, the voice clips for the various things like shouts, cries and grunts for all the living beings in the game - and for Link especially - helps give them all a sense of life.

Past experiences have always been troublesome when it came to touch screen controls in 3D games. It was always inaccurate and poorly implemented, to the point where I would be forced to give up and resort to the more traditional controls to actually get anywhere. Phantom Hourglass doesn't even offer traditional controls, as almost all actions are done via the touch screen. Yet, it's a remarkable success.

One of the key aspects to how it works is the neutral point, which is always where Link is standing. Since Link is almost always in the middle of the screen it means that when you point him to move somewhere he'll move towards the stylus and the camera scrolls with him. Things get tricky near the edge of any given area where Link is no longer in the center of the screen, but it's a lot more accurate than I had expected. Executing actions is also a simple task for the touch screen. Want to grab a pot? Tap it. Pulling a block? Tap the block and then tap the arrow needed. It's all very simple and easily accessible.

Item usage is done expertly. PH has far fewer items than previous games, which is probably a good thing to avoid too much switching around. Like everything else, activating and using items is all done on the touch screen, and while some items are simple in design (like the bow and shovel) there are some items that are rather clever. Instead of just tossing the boomerang you can trace out a path for it to follow, which is handy for hitting enemies around corners or activating switches in a specific order. Bombchus can have their paths traced out to in order to blow up distant targets Link himself can't reach. The game seems set up so that item switching is kept to a minimum, but actually changing is easy and quick since the option exists right there on the screen.

It's not perfect. A touch screen is still no substitute for an analogue stick, but at least the design of the different areas helps lessen the impact. For example, Link won't immediately slip off a ledge if you wander too close to it, so the action has to be purposely to jump off. Some moves can be frustrating to execute though, like the rolling attack that the DS seems to have trouble recognizing the input for. Thankfully those occurrences are pretty rare to be needed.

Putting aside the creativity of the interface for now, Phantom Hourglass follows a similar setup to other games in the series. Link starts off with nothing to his name and a grand adventure awaiting. After acquiring a sword and a fairy partner Link sets off to explore the world and clear the dungeons to earn the right to tackle the final boss and become a hero.

The overworld is generally split across a number of islands within four quadrants of the sea, with sailing used to travel between locations. Most islands have a lot packed into them for a lot of activity. There are the different villages and settlements where you can interact with the townsfolk, like the Gorons that you have to earn the trust of or the traditional islands of Mercay. Each has there own sense of community different from the rest, and chatting to the people is genuinely interesting. Not only can you find clues and hints about how to progress but you can even pick up random nonsense about their life.

In some places you have the option to purchase goods, either in shops on the islands or a sale boat out to sea. More recent Zelda titles have generally had a problem implementing a currency system that actually worked, but PH seems to have managed it. Typically there aren't any necessary items to buy from the vendors, but a lot of the optional stuff is handy to have but pricey, and the game doesn't spread rupees around excessively either. As for the goods, you can buy spirit gems, heart containers, capacity upgrades and even modify your ship with different ship parts. As well as making it look different you can affect the ship's endurance by matching parts up.

Reaching the next dungeon entrance isn't always a straightforward task. Often you'll have some sort of puzzle to solve or challenge to overcome, like fighting your way through an alternate path, completing a knowledge quiz or finding the suspicious character in a small settlement. Each obstacle is presented in a very natural way and helps to keep things engaging.

It's not just the main path though. Take the time to wander off and you can uncover all sorts of things. By taking advantage of Link's talents and items you can discover treasure chests, special items and even a few minigames to partake in. Reaching these elements is generally tougher as they aren't set along the main path, but wandering of and exploring your surroundings is often rewarded. If there's somewhere you can't reach yet, try coming back with new items to try again. This sense of opening up the islands as you progress is also a nice touch.

Puzzles come across fairly well if somewhat weaker than other Zelda games. Often you'll stumble across a locked door or a seemingly impassable obstacle, but cleverly hidden within there was some kind of solution, whether it was an item needed or a hint from elsewhere. There is perhaps too much of a reliance on practically stating the answer, especially when it comes to puzzles requiring map notes. However, there is still a good spread in there.

Even better is the application of these puzzles that take advantage of the DS, as well as injecting some creativity into the solutions. You can set up a rope across two poles and then use it to catapult across chasms, or you might have to draw lines between connecting points to find a spot to dig in. Sometimes you will even have to scribble on the map to jot down clues or as part of the solution to the puzzle. A lot of these puzzles have a sense of familiarity to them but the way they are executed make them seem like a whole new experience despite the obviousness of a lot of it.

Combat is a wonderful challenge too. Striking an enemy is as simple as tapping the enemy, which causes Link to crash forth with his blade. You can also swipe across the screen for a horizontal slash or perform a quick spin attack. The enemies themselves are your typical Zelda enemies ranging from bats and living jelly to the armed swordfighters and the swarming creatures with pointy sticks. There are times you will be surprised by monsters or have to take on numerous enemies, so combat works nicely.

Boss fights step things up a gear. Each boss fight is not only more challenging but very inventive in how they play out. One fight has you tossing bombs into updrafts to smash into the boss, whereas another involves an invisible boss but the boss's sight is displayed on the second screen. I've never played battles quite like them and they were very enjoyable to tackle.

If anything the problem here is that it feels a little disjointed. When you're not delving into a new dungeon then your land time is limited. Just as you're getting into exploring an island it becomes time to move on, which tends to interrupt the flow of adventuring as you have to keep returning to the boat and setting sail. Some islands don't even have that much to uncover, making the issue worse.

Speaking of which, sailing is an important aspect to PH. In WW it was a disaster due to how long and boring the whole process was. Apparently Nintendo listened, because the sailing experience in PH has been built from the ground up and the experience is far better than its predecessor managed.

When you leave port you must plot a course for your ship with the stylus on the chart. Once you're confirmed your route the ship sets sail and you are left with rather limited control of the ship. Actually turning the boat is out of your hands unless you plot a new course on the chart, which does admittedly feel a little awkward, but you can cause it to stop and start moving whenever you want and cause it to leap high into the air to bounce over obstacles (no, I've no idea how Link can make a steamboat jump). You can also rotate the camera round with the stylus, which is useful if an enemy disappears around behind you or you just want a look around.

As you progress you can get upgrades for the ship that offer new abilities. With a cannon mounted on the front you can blast away at obstacles simply by tapping the screen to fire. With unlimited cannonballs to unleash it allows for some solid sea based combat, and the cannon normally reacts instantly providing you're not tapping too close to the ship itself.

The crane and fishing rod are quite different, and in a sense play out like mini-games. By finding treasure charts on the islands or in dungeons you get red X marks on your sea chart. Sailing up to one of these and then drop the crane. The view switches to side-on under the water, where you must guide the crane head down past explosive mines to the treasure chest at the bottom and then guide it back up, picking up rupees along the way. Controls here can get a little fiddly but it's certainly a more entertaining take on deep sea treasure hauling. The crane has a health gauge though that drops as you hit into the mines, and take too much damage and the crane gets busted, requiring a quick trip back to Mercay Island to get it fixed.

For fishing you have to guide the ship to where a shadow of a fish can be seen on the chart and then pick the fishing option. Once the fish snags the line you have to drag down quickly to set it. At this point the gauge on the left side comes into play. If the marker drops down to the bottom of the gauge the fish will escape so you have to keep dragging away to keep the gauge marker high, but you have to drag the stylus around in circles to reel the fish in. It's a fierce battle that forces switching between reeling in and dragging, and is easily one of the best fishing minigames I've ever played.

The reason sailing here is so much better than in WW is down to what happens en route. Firstly, the sea area of Phantom Hourglass is smaller than Wind Waker and the different islands are close together, so travelling time is severely reduced. This is helped by the warping system too. Once you've found the relevant island and received the slate you can warp around, although first you need to activate the warp points by bombing the golden frogs at each area and receiving the special symbol needed. That alone is a good thing, but travels are no longer boring. Along the way you will face various enemies ranging from the usual monster squids to enemy ships that will bombard you with cannonfire, as well as a few obstacles like spike traps and explosive barrels. You can't just go sailing on autopilot here, as travelling now requires a lot more focus.

Aside from the main quest there are a bunch of sidequests and minigames to work on but a lot of them are not that interesting. Of the good ones include a task that has you finding spirit gems scattered through the game world that can upgrade the fairies that accompany Link. By upgrading and then assigning a fairy you can benefit from their effects, like boost in offence, defence or some special talents like sword beams. You can also play a little sailing target practice and the previously mentioned deep sea treasure and fishing. Zelda games are always more than just a straightforward adventure, and PH continues this trend by allowing you to just wander off and do your own thing, but having some more interesting distractions would have been nice.

The game does not escape without any major problems though. There is one dungeon in the game that will become an irritating element to progression. The Temple of the Ocean King is an ill conceived idea that just doesn't work out right. This is where the object of the game - the Phantom Hourglass - comes into play. Much of the temple is poisonous (well, it drains life energy). Although there are safe zones that don't deplete health and allow you to escape the enemies the hourglass will protect you from the ill effects for as long as it has sands left in the upper half. The time you have increases as you defeat bosses in other dungeons and some sands can be found as treasure.

The problem lies in two things. First is that the temple is a forced stealth level. Now, I'm not particularly fond of forced stealth. I like having the option but I don't like failure for being spotted. Although you don't instantly fail when spotted you do have to literally drop everything and run to the nearest safe zone and then wait for the enemy to forget about you. Since you can't even defeat these enemies until right at the end of the game it turns the temple trekking into a seriously long-winded and dragged out affair as you creep around. Tackling the puzzles in the temple is admittedly fun but this is marred by slow trekking through each floor.

Even worse is that the game requires you to revisit the temple many times during your quest. Although items help to open up a few shortcuts on some floors these are often not all that good, and some floors don't have shortcuts. Going through the floors once is bad enough, but here you're forced to go through them repeatedly.

The lifespan of the game is a bit shorter than expected too. Compared to other Zelda titles the main quest won't last as long and the number of sidequests seems lower. By its own merits though it will last a good while for a DS game so I'm not as overly concerned about that.

There's also a multiplayer component that can be played locally or over WiFi, but anyone expecting a Four Swords style game (which would have made a lot of sense) are going to be disappointed. Once player takes Link and the other controls three phantoms. Link's goal is to grab force gems and the other player plots routes for the phantoms to try and catch Link. It's not the great level of intense competition it could have been but it is a nice diversion from the main game.

I was worried that the DS functions would hinder the game, but it's quite the opposite. These functions are exactly the reason the game feels so exciting and fresh. Sure, it's not perfect, but it is definitely an excellent adventure worthy of the name Legend of Zelda. If this is not in your DS collection right now then put it on your list, because it is a game you should not be without.

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