The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks review
Pulling In At Platform DS - Another Magical Adventure


Let me tell you a story.

While Mario and Pokemon are the biggest money makers in the Nintendo stable right now there exists another franchise that commands a tremendous amount of respect. The Legend of Zelda series dates back to the NES days and is often cited for its excellent gameplay woven around tales of a young hero and a kingdom in peril. Spirit Tracks is the latest entry in the series and the second on the DS intending to further the groundwork laid down by Phantom Hourglass.

Spirit Tracks is set some time after the events of Phantom Hourglass, although playing other games is not a requirement to understand the story. It just means you'll "get" the various references made to both it and Wind Waker. All the various references are quite nice though and a good treat for fans of the previous games.

The setting is New Hyrule, founded by the Link of Wind Waker and the pirates he sailed with. However, a long time ago the land was ravaged by a demon king called Malladus, who was eventually sealed by the Spirits. Their energy expended they fortified the seal with shackles and departed for the heavens. Those shackles then became the spirit tracks upon which the trains of the current generation would use to travel across the land. Shortly after receiving his engineer's certificate Princess Zelda summons Link to her chambers and expresses concerns over the vanishing of the spirit tracks. Her fears are confirmed when Cole turns out to be something other than Hylian and her body is snatched to be used as a vessel for the demon king.

The backstory itself provides a nice enough setting even if it doesn't raise above the standard set by the series. The twist on the usual save the princess routine is most welcome, as instead of Zelda being imprisoned in some magic cage her spirit is forcibly removed from her body, making Link's quest not just to save Hyrule but to get Zelda her mortal body back. Also, unlike Beldum the events leading to this monster's revival has a more notable impact on the communities. People are actually concerned and facing troubles rather than taking a ho-hum attitude to things.

But really, it's the cast the makes the story. Zelda positively shines as Link's partner, providing us with some of the game's most humorous moments. Seeing her reaction when she finds out just what Cole plans to do with her body is priceless and there's clear chemistry between the duo. Players concerned over how irritating past partners could be (see: Navi) need not worry about Zelda, whose ability to blurt out the painfully obvious at the most ill-timed moments is kept to a forgivable minimum. Rather her moments give a bright tone to proceedings and offer some help where it is needed without being overbearing. It's not just Link and Zelda, of course. There's more to Staven (that's Byrne to you US players) than first appears and the reasons for his actions start unfolding during the latter part of the adventure. The descendant of a certain treasure loving sailor will bring about some smiles with his actions. It's not quite as impressive as others in the series though, which would have more memorable figures than what ST gives us. Even Malldus is pretty much another generic monster handed the role of main antagonist.

An ideal visualisation.

Listening to the music is simply a joy. When the main theme started on the title screen that gave us a wonderful remix of the classic Zelda tune I was certain that the soundtrack would not disappoint, and indeed I was correct. Joining with the epic opener is a vast collection of gentle fantasy tracks to accompany Link on his travels throughout Hyrule. The overworld and various villages are filled with upbeat tracks to the theme of the joyful nature of the game and the dungeons take on a more subdued tone for the music. The overworld when travelling by train does get somewhat repetitve though as in most places the same music track is used, so be prepared to hear it a lot. A nice melody but not when you've had to sit through it 50+ times.

While full voice acting is still a long distant dream of fans, it's nice to hear Link being so vocal with his battle cries, and the use of cries and gasps from major characters provides a nice boost as well.

The game continues the cel shaded style started in Wind Waker and shows improvement from Phantom Hourglass, providing us with a style that matches the bright and cheery nature of the game. Nintendo have made good use of the modest DS's capabilities to paint a picturesque vision of Hyrule. The four zones are perhaps a little cliche (forest, snow, ocean, fire) but each area offers its own view on the gaming world that allows for a greater variation than what various islands could offer. Villages and outposts have been crafted well to give the valid impression of small communities. The problem with the world design comes in the form of the overworld. It's designed nicely enough - perhaps a little bland compared to the other locations you visit but nice enough to work as the hub areas of the game. Rather there is some rather noticeable pop-up where things like trees and rocks just appear ahead of your train, and considering the other graphical successes this is something of a shame.

As for the character models, it's handled extremely well. Expressions continue to be the driving force of the visual impact that allow the emotion of the events to come forth and be noticed. The friendship likely would not have the same meaning without this. Other characters manage the range of things like happiness and anger just as well. As for the designs themselves it's typical Zelda, with the wonderfully designed classic villager outfits, to the monster and boss designs to really send out the inhuman vibe.

The dual screens are used quite effectively. All the action happens on the bottom screen, with onscreen icons at just the right size to avoid cluttering up the play field while still being clearly accessible. The top screen usually displays a map of the current area (although switches out for a larger view of the area during boss fights). Clear icons show Link and Zelda's current positions, enemies and general layout. So far so normal, but at a couple of taps the two screens switch places. Doing this basically lets you write on the map, which is handy for solving puzzles or keeping track of important spots and comes forward as not just a nice visual trick but useful as well. Item management is all handled on a small bar during play while the Collection screen keeps track of all goodies like treasure, equipment and letters.

Here's a sword - go save the world, kid.

Now let's tackle the real substance that is the gameplay. For starters are the controls, and if you're new to the whole DS Zelda scene then be prepared for a little shock. There is no button controls for actually moving Link about and executing actions. Instead the buttons are relegated to menu shortcuts and the action is entirely handled via the touch screen. While I'm sure some gamers will lament the absence of a button controls option the control scheme is excellent regardless. Link acts as the neutral point and he will move towards wherever you're pressing. The distance between them determines how fast Link moves, letting you walk or dash with relative ease and the level of accuracy is much higher than that of many other adventure titles that attempt to use the touch screen. Performing a roll is also better than the first DS game. Instead of trying to do a quick circle that the game often ignored you now do a double-tap. Much easier to use and target, although it has resulted in me performing some unintended rolls just trying to move about. Interacting with objects is simplified to the point of tapping the object, so talking to people, grabbing rocks or lifting objects is made easy.

Sword combat at its core is as basic as tapping an enemy for repeated strikes. You can use slash across the screen to get Link to perform simple sword swipes without a specific target, or do a quick circle for a spin attack. It's all the usual sword techniques executed in a different manner and it works well. Combat is made pretty straightforward by this setup, although the sword is not the only thing he has. Almost as a throwback to the NES/SNES era of the series, Link's shield is automatically used when an attack hits his front while he is not using anything else, removing the stress from having to juggle another command into the melee. Unfortunately, gamers hoping to see the return of optional upgrades to these items may be disappointed. There is a second shield but its only benefit appears to be that Link can't lose it and the upgraded sword is received in a scripted event.

Duel element bosses are nothing new,
but using the boomerang through special flames?

Using secondary items is also made easy. In the top-right corner of the screen is the item slot where you can assign an item (which in itself is easily done by tapping the menu icon and tapping an item). Tapping the item slot activates the item for use. The trio of classics in the form of the bow, bombs and boomerang return, and all unchanged from the last DS game. The boomerang is still a lot of fun to use where you can draw out a path for it to follow. There are some interesting new items as well, although the whirlwind fan isn't really as interesting. It's an attempt to bring the mic into play, but once you get the boomerang the fan seems to lose all use. Not to mention that constantly blowing into the mic is a little weird when out in public. You also get to play with things like a snake whip and a cool little staff from the last dungeon that lets you play around with sand, making it probably the most unique item in this game.

No item portion would be complete without mentioning the spirit pipes. A musical instrument owned by Zelda and given to Link. This item is meant to please fans of the earlier games where musical instruments were often a key item. Here the view changes when you tap the pipes item to show Link on the top screen and the pipes on the bottom screen. The idea is to drag the pipes to the relevant note and blow in the mic to play. It's a wonderful little addition that could have done with a little more work overall. Several events require you to play duets, but the game can be extremely picky on your timing, forcing me to redo the last two duets several times before it acknowledged it as a success. Also worth noting is that most of the songs Link can use anywhere are rarely actually used, which really seems like a missed opportunity.

Enemies provide a decent challenge, even though most of the generic ones probably won't make you reach for that potion anytime soon. You have some of the more basic ones like the keese bats flying around and the chuchus moving towards you. Then the game does throw some more at you like packs of wolves bursting out of the snow and stalfoes skeleton warriors that charge at you swords swinging. Sub bosses are in the mix too that can prove to be more worthy opponents. Then the bosses themselves charge in. In typical Zelda fashion each boss requires the use of the item you gained in the dungeon and the DS twists are in effect. The first boss, for example, involves blowing poison gas away from its weak spot and slashing it, before bomb enemies appear that must be stunned and blow into the boss as it swoops at Link. These battles are excellent and some can be quite difficult to overcome. The ways you defeat the bosses can be quite unique too, especially as you enter the latter part of the adventure.

Let me think on it.

The general point of the game is to clear out the various dungeons in order to restore the Tower of Spirits and the Spirit Tracks that cover the land. There are six dungeons in all, with one of them being a place to visit multiple times to complete in sections, which seems a bit short compared to past games, but you need not let that number concern you as a lot happens outside of these areas as well. The dungeon design is mostly excellent though. The dungeon in Forest Land did disappoint me with its bland and uninspired design, but the rest sparkle with some very clever setups.

Puzzles will give the most challenge in the game. A lot of them are what you might expect from the series given a DS twist. Hitting switches, lighting torches, figuring out riddles are amongst the returning tasks but ST also brings in a few new tricks for Link to solve. Using the whip to throw objects into new slots, blowing items off platforms and using the boomerang and ice flames to create pathways are amongst those new to the game and help to build a fresh experience. The ability to take notes on the map also factors in heavily as hints are found in one place that hold relevance elsewhere, or you might find yourself drawing lines or shapes to solve riddles. Sometimes this mechanic does result in a little hand-holding where the hints are probably too blatant but this does not happen too much so it is forgivable.

This puzzle element is taken to a completely new level when exploring the Tower of Spirits. At first this dungeon bears a resemblance to the Temple of the Ocean King, but stifle those groans as this dungeon is probably the highlight of the game. Despite multiple journeys to the temple you do not have to complete earlier sections again and there's no time limit either so that is great. Other things are similar where you have Phantoms that you have to avoid while tackling challenges. There are two things that makes this stand out. Firstly is the fact that the level design is just excellent. The layout of obstacles, puzzles and objects will really make you work and will potentially stump you into the later stages. The second thing is Zelda.

This dungeon differs in the fact that Zelda can possess a Phantom once you have stunned one by striking its back after collecting three Tears of Light. This opens up the field entirely by throwing us a multitude of puzzles and challenges that are only possible when the two work together. One key element to remember is that Zelda is invincible as a Phantom, which goes some way to tackling the tasks ahead. Need to get Link across that lava? Use the Phantom's shield as a platform and get Zelda to carry him across. Use the both to hold own switches at the same time. Distract a Phantom with Zelda while Link sneaks past. Zelda also has some weaknesses, like sinking into sand, which requires Link to cover for her. Just wait until you find the warping pads that switch the places of the two.

Come on girl, we haven't got all day.

As you move further into the tower you will find more types of Phantoms to possess. As well as your standard Phantom you have one using a flame sword, one that can warp to where small alarm phantom creatures are and one that has lots of strength and can bulldoze through certain obstacles. The partnership mechanic only benefits from this as you find yourself forcing Zelda to switch Phantoms to tackle the problems you face. Directing Zelda is simple as well. You don't get direct control over her but rather can draw out a path for her that she will follow. If you draw the path onto anything she can interact with then she will perform an action automatically. This system allows Link to act independently while Zelda is on the move, although you can choose to have the camera follow Zelda if you need to know where she ends up, which can be quite handy. The only issue I could mention is that Zelda tends to move slowly which can leave you waiting to exit a room while she catches up, but this is hardly much of a problem. If anything, perhaps the real problem is that this system isn't used enough. The duo setup really does make the Tower of Spirits the most interesting place in the game and so I would have liked to have seen the pair co-operate on a more regular basis instead of Zelda being relegated to spiritual guide elsewhere.

Of course, reaching the dungeons is very much a part of the game as completing the dungeons themselves. Whenever you complete a part of the Tower of Spirits you only get a portion of the tracks leading into a specific land, which is not enough to reach the dungeon. In order to get the required tracks to appear you need to travel into the land and find one of the lokomo to perform a duet with, which usually involves figuring out some kind of puzzles to do, which can be just as challenging as the dungeon puzzles themselves.

Next destination still a mile away.

Well, I guess I've danced around the subject long enough, so it's time to discuss the train aspect of the game. Controlling the train is simple enough. When you set out you get to trace a route along the tracks that the train will follow automatically, and by tapping the route icon while on your way you can change and trace a new route if you need to alter your direction. If you happen to want to change direction at junctions without tracing a route then a level appears onscreen at this time to change tracks, causing the train to find the nearest route to the original destination. Speed is handled by moving the lever on the right side of the screen, letting you switch between 2 forward speeds, stop and reverse (which couples as an emergency brake). The viewing area looks a little more cramped than the normal game screen but not too bad.

Sometimes there are hazards on the tracks to concern yourself with. Harmless animals can be scared off by blowing the train whistle. More hostile creatures and those ever threatening rocks can be blasted with the cannon that you gain a little later on simply by tapping the target. Generally these hazards don't pop up often but they are around enough to prevent you from setting a route and letting it take you there. Then there are the bomb trains that are sometimes ontrack. These pests deliver an instant kill if Link's train runs into them, and later on you'll find armored variants that can change direction on the tracks quite easily. While this may have been an attempt to add some strategy to proceedings I found their inclusion to be irritating, as it meant that for those that were along your intended route then travelling times are made longer when you have to stall or take detours to avoid them.

Which leads onto the biggest problem of the train system and the reason that it is the worst travel method ever used in the series to date. It just takes so bloody long to get anywhere. The train moves at about the same rate of speed as the boat in past games but because of the bomb trains and the fact that you're locked to tracks (thus preventing you from simply going directly to the destination) causes travelling times to be so much longer. This problem is further compounded by the poor warping system. Previous games offering a method of warping from almost any outside location to several preset spots once you had unlocked the warp method(s). Spirit Tracks, on the other hand, has fixed warp gates only that are connected in pairs. This means that in order to warp to one spot you have to find its connected gate first and travel through that, which really does not help much at all. All this isn't so bad the first few times you travel by train since it's relatively new, but when you're hitting 20+ journeys then it has become tiresome as it's pretty much the same thing. A few hazards and many rocks to blast is a bit boring with all things considered.

Are we there yet?

Exploration by train also feels a little more limited than previous games. Since you are on tracks then there really isn't much of an option to simply wander off and discover new locations. Instead what hidden places exist are either found simply by going all round the available tracks or you complete specific tasks to open new routes. It's all still possible especially with the spider web like nature of some areas but the nature of the train just makes it harder to do.

Distraction tactics in effect.

Those of you who would like to customize the train may be pleased to learn of the Trading Post. By bringing treasure items here you can exchange them for train parts. Different parts require different treasure items so you need to hunt all over the place. It can be somewhat awkward though as many treasure items are randomized so when you're missing certain ones then getting what you need isn't particularly straightforward. Still, being able to replace your train with something resembling a dragon or a dessert is pretty nice. In terms of practical use all you get is a bigger health gauge, but the change in looks is always welcome. There's also a Contact Mode in the game where you can offer up some treasures for trade with other local gamers in the hope of getting treasures you need, but honestly it's not a feature I can see getting much use.

When you're not busy with the main quest then perhaps the sidequest and sidegames will interest you. Sidequests are the less desirable of the two options though since many of the quests involve train travel with an unwanted twist. Often there will be people wanting to travel to places or you will need to transport cargo to locations. Cargo transport is alright since the requirement is mostly to not go crazy on the corners and some offer a generous time limit so it does no worse than normal train travel. Passenger transport is not as much fun as it should be as they require you to pay attention to the signs by the trackside. The whistle sign is fine but some signs ask you to slow down, which makes travelling times even longer than they already are. Still, some of the passenger requests require a little thinking on your part to figure them out so they're not bad when done in moderation. There are also other sidequests that differ from these two, like catching bunnies at the trackside, finding stamp pedastals for Niko and the aforementioned treasure collecting for train parts.

Sidegames offer some fun diversions, like the whip swinging game where you swing across branches to reach a platform high up on a cliff or the goron trackside target game that involves blasting targets with your cannon while the train moves itself. The addictive factor isn't as high as the minigames in something like New Super Mario Bros but they serve as good ways to take your mind off the main quest and often give up treasures as rewards.

In terms of multiplayer we have something that at first resembled Four Swords but soon becomes apparent that it is not. Up to 4 Links battle it out to collect the most force gems in specially designed areas, while taking care to avoid getting hurt by the various traps and hazards. The movement controls are the same as the main game and a handy minimap sits on the top screen that shows player positions, force gems, phantoms and items. Unfortunately there's no sword or standard items in use here, leaving it up to the stage hazards and the odd alternative item to relieve players of some of the force gems they had collected. Bomb flowers tend to be placed in key areas for blasting other players and a random item can be picked up for powerups ranging from lightning bolts to invincibility (giving it something of a Mario Kart feel). It makes it less frantic than the battles in the Four Sword games and less interesting as a result. In all fairness though the arenas are pretty well designed and facing hazards like a Phantom that chases you down when it sees you but can be distracted by another player does offer a fair amount. It just could have been better and there are better multiplayer titles on the DS. Also worthy of note is that the game is local play only, so you don't have the option of going online to face players across the globe, but at least it offers download play so you don't need to know people with copies of the game.

In terms of its single player quest though Spirit Tracks is indeed a worthwhile adventure that really does go to show just what the DS can bring to the table. The train is something of a pain to deal with but it's the kind of game that is simply worth the investment, combining excellent gameplay with wonderful presentation, a nice story and a fantastic likable cast of characters.

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