Review: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)


The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Genre: Action-Adventure
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: 10/01/2007

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker effectively split the series’ fans in two factions. The first one thought that the new hand-drawn look was childish and that a joke was being made out of their favourite franchise. The other group simply embraced the new art direction and enjoyed an adventure that felt very different from every other Zelda game they had played before. I personally know many people that belong to the first group and never even tried The Wind Waker. Too bad for those people, because Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to the game they loathe so much.

However, if you happened to like Link’s adventure on the Great Sea, then you probably are already playing its DS sequel. This review is for everybody else: those who are still on the fence when it comes to a stylus-controlled action-adventure game, those who are wondering if they might have missed something by not playing its predecessor and those who will read any review they can find of Zelda game and then write hate mail to the author if they feel the score isn’t perfect enough. You just can’t forget about those people.


STORY
Following Ganondorf’s defeat in The Wind Waker, Link and Tetra, along with their pirate friends, set sail to the unknown with the hope of finding uncharted lands to start anew. Along the way, they encounter a ghost ship, which disappears with Tetra. Link ends up nearly drowning in the chase, and he ends up on a beach on Mercay Island. There, many people including a fairy, an old man and a greedy captain, will help him find clues on the ghost ship’s whereabouts, most of which are in the game’s central dungeon, the Temple of the Ocean King. The only way to go through the dungeon without dying is by using the Phantom Hourglass, which must be filled with Sands of Hour. The more sand is in the hourglass, the longer Link will be safe. Of course, that sand is kept in dungeons by bosses, so if you played a Zelda game before, you know what you have to do from that point.

As far as structure goes, the story is similar to what we have seen in every other Zelda game before. Something catastrophic happens; Link must stop it by clearing dungeons and collecting items. Fortunately, Nintendo usually manage to craft an interesting tale around the formula, which makes it more stimulating to accomplish the tasks at hand. As usual, the characters are fun and loveable, even making us care for a guy who at first seems annoying, like Captain Linebeck. The story has its share of touching and humorous moments and never fails to explain things in a logical way. While the entire series’ narrative structure means that connecting the games together can cause some serious headaches, the fact that Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel – a rare fact when it comes to The Legend of Zelda – helps tie everything together by the time you finish the game. I honestly haven’t cared that much for the story of a Zelda game since Ocarina of Time. The only thing to take away points from its score is its structure, which still follows the same as every other Zelda game before it, with the possible exceptions of Majora’s Mask and Adventure of Link.

Story Rating: 8/10


GRAPHICS
Wow. I sincerely think this could be the prettiest game released for the DS yet. It emulates the style first seen on the Gamecube in a nearly perfect manner. The cut scenes are perfectly rendered in beautiful 3-D. In action, everything is smooth and runs extremely well, without ever slowing down. Everything from the backgrounds to the characters to the little things like items and maps is lovingly drawn in a very stylized manner, which gives the whole game a unique charm. You also have to love the attention to detail. Whenever something strange happens, you can see Link’s tiny eyes move in whatever direction you should look. The fact that so much detail could be crammed on every character and enemy on such a small screen is a testament to the visual prowess that this game accomplishes. This is reminiscent of Animal Crossing: Wild World, but polished to perfection. I have never seen a game so vibrant, so beautifully designed on the DS. My only gripe is that there is some graininess during the cut scenes. It doesn’t take away from them, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Graphics Rating: 9/10


SOUND
One thing I have always loved about The Legend of Zelda is its music. This one is not different from its predecessors, and a lot of the game’s songs are going to spend a bit of time in your head. I have been humming the sailing theme non-stop for the past week – it sounds marvellous and it’s got a hold on me. It just seems to me like every piece of music hits the right feeling and fits what happens on your screen perfectly. The dungeons’ music sounds ominous but is not too loud, while the music on the different islands fit the theme of each one. The previously mentioned sailing theme conveys a great feeling of adventure, as if something epic was about to happen. The sound effects are as clear as ever, with metal hitting rocks sounding as it should, explosions sounding loud and satisfying and everything in between sounding just right. To the delight of nostalgic gamers, this game marks the return of the series’ trademark fairy yells, with your companion Ciela having the same signature voice as Navi from Ocarina of Time (although I know some people just couldn’t stand her call of “Hey! Listen!”). As usual, the characters do not have a voice outside of the occasional grunt or scream. Some would say it takes away from the series, I say it fits the mood. If Link was to have a voice, he would probably sound like sissy, and nobody wants that. Overall, the franchise has always been known for its iconic soundtrack, and this game is no exception.

Sound Rating: 10/10


CONTROL
If you had doubt about the functionality of an action/adventure game being controlled entirely via the stylus, you can stop worrying now because it is a complete success. Moving Link around is not the only thing that feels more precise. Shooting arrows is now easier than ever, controlling the boomerang is a charm and makes it one of the best item in the collection, and picking up bombs and throwing them has never been more spot-on. It’s all a simple matter of touching whatever you want to hit with the item you are holding at the moment. Link will automatically adjust the force/trajectory/course according to the place you tapped on your touch screen.

My favourite part of the game is taking notes on the map. While many puzzles now rely on your new ability to write clues on your screen, the feature is available at anytime during the game. My maps are now all full of notes of what items are on sale at what shop, suspicious spots that held some hidden items which I have only been able to go back to later during the game and other useful info. The system might not look like a huge innovation, but it is brilliantly implemented. Once you start using it, other games that do not have this note-taking feature will feel crippled. On a less important scale, the use of the microphone is also implemented, but its few uses all work fine.

As a whole, the Nintendo DS revitalizes the Zelda franchise on handhelds in the same way the Wii did it for its console versions. There’s no way they can go back to the old controls from now on.

Control Rating: 10/10


REPLAYABILITY
Once again, Nintendo has filled this game with countless side quests to make sure that you always have something to do during your adventure, and even once you finish it. Compulsive collectors will spend quite a few hours looking for stones, gems, ambers, scales, treasures, charts and other collectable items. You can also lose yourself sailing the sea and searching for uncharted islands, which is much less tedious than it was in The Wind Waker, thanks to your new steam boat. Once you are done with everything though, just like with every other Zelda game, you will probably wait a year or more before playing the main adventure again.

Something is different this time around: Phantom Hourglass features a multiplayer battle mode, playable via the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. Its premise is simple but oh so fun; two players take turn controlling Link and three Phantoms. Link has to capture force gems and bring them back to his base, while the other player draws paths for the Phantoms to follow in order to stop Link and smash him down with their huge sword. The pace is frantic – escaping these Phantoms is way harder than it looks – and it feels like a twisted version of “Capture the Flag”. While it may not have many different modes, the items that can be acquired during the battles manage to make each one different and keep things interesting. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good first try at a multiplayer Zelda game.

Replayability Rating: 7/10


BALANCE
When compared to other games in the series, Phantom Hourglass is a bit on the easy side. Being able to write down clues on the maps makes most puzzles less challenging than what we are used to see. Still, there are some times in the game where it took me some serious thinking before finding the answer to some of the riddles. A certain one about drawing the shape of an island to understand the sense of the clues given particularly kicked my ass (although it might have been the francophone in me wondering what the hell a rudder is). The game never goes into frustrating territories, but it doesn’t make a habit out of messing with your brain either. I must also mention the enemies, which are easily slayable at the start, until you encounter your first lizard knight or your first phantom. Great variety in that department.

Balance Rating: 8/10


ORIGINALITY
The basic structure of the game remains the same, with the adventure being essentially separated in two different quests with a big revelation in the middle. On the other hand, the way that the whole thing is presented makes everything feel fresh again thanks to the new stylus controls. Of course, with this being a Zelda game, a series that started in 1987 and never really diverted from its original premise, the only way it can be original is by messing around with the gameplay. Thankfully, the Nintendo DS is the perfect platform to accomplish that goal. It’s just about as original as The Legend of Zelda can be.

Originality Rating: 7/10


ADDICTIVENESS
Ever since I’ve had this game, it has been following me everywhere: on the toilet, on my lunch breaks and it has also made me lose many hours of sleep. You can save at anytime, no matter what you are doing, which is something that some handheld games often forget to include. The upside is that this game is truly portable and can be played in short spurts. On the other hand, it means that even when you turn it off, you still think about what you were about to do and you are having ideas about the correct way to finish what you started. It’s a game that starts camping in your brain the first time you turn it on and that will only leave once you kill the final boss. I must mention the mini-games, which are particularly addictive this time around. While Twilight Princess mostly relied on fishing as a diversion, Phantom Hourglass offers a lot of options if you want to kill some time between each dungeon, such as shooting challenges or treasure hunts.

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10


APPEAL FACTOR
Just by being a Zelda game, it is sure to catch the attention of long-time fans and Nintendo purists. However, this game has been getting some good press as of late and will probably find some new fans in the sea of casual gamers who got caught in the DS fever. It’s perfect for the hardcore gamer who wants his fix of fantasy exploration and dungeon solving, but it’s also right for newcomers who want an adventure that will not be overflowing with the conventions of the genres, which would make it less than friendly to first-time players. The stylus and the note-taking feature is very attractive as a help for whoever wants a first go at a game that doesn’t involve making sudokus or training dogs, but isn’t too sure about what he should try.

Appeal Factor Rating: 8/10


MISCELLANEOUS
One thing this game does great is the little details. It can go from subtle things like the complete absence of music when you first reach an uncharted island to the “item-get” music being all messed up when Link gets thrown around a bit during a cutscene. The opening is one of the most charming and beautifully executed I have seen in a long time, with the characters being represented by paper cut-outs as shown by Tetra’s nerdy crew member Niko. Finally, there’s also a cool little “Pimp My Boat” kind of feature where you can collect ship parts around the sea and bring them back to Mercay Island to change your boat’s appearance. My current combo of iron frame and palm tree prow is totally awesome in that regard.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10


THE RATINGS
Story: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 10/10
Control: 10/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal: 8/10
Miscellaneous: 10/10

Average Rating: 8.5
Final Score: 8.5 (Great!)

Short Attention Span Summary
There no question, this is the best game to come out for the Nintendo DS this year. It’s the best game the series has seen in a long time. It does everything right, and its only negative is that it still relies a bit on old concepts established in 1987. Otherwise, the use of the stylus provides a refreshing experience that surpasses every expectations you might have had toward this game.