Review: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS)
by Aaron Sirois on January 6, 2010

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Genre: Action Adventure
Release Date: 12/07/2009

I didn’t grow up with The Legend of Zelda like many other lucky gamers. In fact, the only game I played before Ocarina of Time was Link’s Adventure, and that hardly counts because it is so different from the rest of the series. Still, if a Zelda game comes out for a system I own, I’m all over it. When I got my DS, I made sure to grab Phantom Hourglass and loved the game, even if the Temple of the Ocean King was one of the most annoying dungeons in video game history.

So naturally, there was a lot of excitement when Spirit Tracks was announced as another DS exclusive game in the series. It was a must buy even before I saw a single screen shot. It was going to be the icing on an already spectacular year for DS games. I was ready to sink hours into one of the most playable experiences in all of gaming.

So, does Spirit Tracks live up to its prestigious pedigree, or will it fold under the pressure?

Story

The Zelda games aren’t exactly known for their immersive stories. Sure, they transport you to an interesting world full of interesting people to meet, but the core cast isn’t usually fleshed out enough to get you to care that much about them. There are powerful moments and triumphant victories to be had, but it isn’t quite the same as finally killing Ares in God of War or shutting Kefka up in Final Fantasy VI.

This game, above all else, changes this fact for the better.

As the game starts out, Link is an apprentice engineer about to get his license. He makes the traditional journey to the castle to be appointed as a Royal Engineer by the princess herself, only to for her to secretly ask for his help. The pair strike off together only to find that the Spirit Tracks, chains that hold the Demon King Malladus at bay, are starting to disappear. A plot is soon revealed to use Zelda’s royal bloodline to resurrect the dark lord by separating her spirit from her body. Left in an incorporeal from, Zelda is all prepared to send Link off to restore the spirit tracks and reclaim her body. Then it happens. Someone suggests that she breaks the long held tradition of the princess staying behind. The look of pure shock on her face tells the whole story in perhaps one of the best moments in the entire franchise.

From there, you explore the lands with both Link and Zelda by way of train. The two meet all kinds of nutty characters along the way and have plenty of chances for witty banter. We’ve had this kind of thing before with characters like Navi, but here there is actual depth. It’s no secret that there has always been a bit of a romance thing going on between the two, but this is the first game where it seems more than a passing infatuation. There are a few key scenes which I won’t give away that do well at advancing the plot without a single spoken word. When two characters can say more with a wink or a smile than other games can do with pages of dialogue and decent voice actors, you know you’re in for something special. The ending has a small but significant payoff that makes the whole trip worth the effort.

As someone who has always enjoyed the Zelda series, the story here was a treat from start to finish. It might not be an epic on the level of Shakespeare or anything, but it more than gets the job done.

Graphics

Like before, Spirit Tracks offer a rather unique visual experience on the DS. It utilizes a top down perspective of a three dimensional world, yet you can only move in two dimensions. It also uses a cell shaded look that hearkens back to Windwaker. The look is perhaps getting a bit long in the tooth, but it works for the game overall.

The most impressive visuals are the facial animations, which are simply fantastic for this type of game. In any given cut scene, you’ll be treated to anything from horror to shock and amusement. This isn’t just different mouths and raised eyebrows either. The animation in the faces sell what’s going on perfectly. I mentioned how the game could tell more with a look than with pages of dialogue. The strong animation is the reason for that.

The world itself doesn’t always look that great, especially when you compare it to recent graphical juggernauts like Kingdom Hearts, but it is still far above the norm for a DS game. Vibrant colors and detailed environments do their part to keep you immersed in the world. On the whole, the game just wouldn’t have the same kind of charm without the visual aesthetics that are present.

The game does manage to disassociate itself from Phantom Hourglass by theme if not by visual style. Since railways and engineers are a bit part of the experience, you’ll notice a bit more of a rustic feel in any given location you’re in. There’s also a lot less blue, since there is a significantly smaller presence of water in the game.

Overall, the game looks great thanks to superb animations, a full realized style, and a technical achievement that most DS games would kill to have. While not quite as impactful as the graphics in PH, the look here is still impressive.

Audio

Anytime you pop in a Zelda game, you know you’re in for some of the best music in all of video games. That hasn’t changed here, but rather than simply rest on its laurels, Spirit Tracks offers a host of new songs to go along with the classics. In particular, the train riding theme is one of the most memorable tunes in the series. It captures the sense of adventure the series is known for better than any other track except perhaps for the main theme itself! The music is just flat out awesome.

The voice samples are great as well, though there isn’t any speech to be found. You get plenty of gasps, chuckles, and shrieks for your money. There are plenty of games available for the DS that do the same thing, but to a lesser effect. For instance, in Kingdom Hearts, Axel’s laugh got annoying rather quickly. Here, there isn’t any feeling even remotely akin to that. Instead, it all fits and helps each scene better itself.

The sound effects are another hit. One of the first things you’ll do, and something you’ll find yourself doing constantly for the fun of it, is blowing the train whistle as you travel from one destination to the next. Depending on what engine part you’re using, the whistle will be different. Hearing your cute little whistle evolve into the bellow from a steel train is something that makes hunting down all of those treasures needed to purchase it worthwhile. Other sounds, either from enemies, items you use, or even the classic jingle that plays whenever you’ve solved a puzzle, all sound great.

Basically, there is never a point where you’ll need to turn the music down, let alone off. Headphones are almost required so you don’t spoil the experience with ambient noise.

Gameplay

If you’ve played Phantom Hourglass or even Dragon Ball Origins, than you’ll know pretty much what to expect from the controls in Spirit Tracks. You use the stylus for everything in this game, including movement. You merely hold the stylus where you want to go and Link will either walk or run there depending on how far the stylus if from him. You can tap an enemy to attack them, drawn a circle around Link to perform his trademark spin attack, and even double tap the screen to perform a dodge roll. The latter is handled much better this time. You won’t be accidentally rolling nearly as much as you did before. In fact, I’d say it only happened to me a couple of times throughout the whole game.

The best part of the controls is how they’re integrated with using Link’s tools. You can trace out the path of the boomerang, precisely throw bombs, and aim with precision when using a bow. More interesting are the new weapons you get for this adventure. The fan is used by blowing into the mic and causes a whirlwind to fly out and knock back enemies. The whip can be used to disarm opponents as well as fling objects around, and the wand can be used to create solid masses of ground out of sand. The latter lets you reach new areas, move objects around for puzzles, and allows Zelda to cross over areas she normally couldn’t.

That’s right. Zelda is coming along for the ride. Whenever you’re in the Spirit Tower, this game’s dungeon that you return to repeatedly, Zelda can possess one of the burly Phantoms from the first game. You’ll need to grab a few items to power up your sword, but after that a stab in the back makes a Phantom easy pickings. There are several types of Phantoms in the game, each with special abilities that you can utilize. Warp Phantoms can teleport across the dungeon provided there is a beacon for them to attach to. (These come in the way of annoying enemies that normally summon an enemy phantom to your location.) Flame Phantoms carry fire swords that can help you light passages and torches that you couldn’t otherwise reach. There are even Phantoms that roll into a ball and knock out anything in their path. You can tap Zelda to trace a path for her to follow, ride on her shield to get past pools of lava or spike pits, and there are plenty of puzzles that require you to maneuver both Link and Zelda in order to open a door, find a key, or anything else you can imagine. These sections make the Spirit Tower the best dungeon in the game. The best part is that you won’t have to replay sections like you did with the Temple of the Ocean King, nor is there a time limit to worry about. Instead, it’s all action and puzzles. That’s the way it should be.

In Windwaker and Phantom Hourglass, you had a boat of some sort that you used to sail your way to all of the different locations. Here, you’ll travel on land most of time, so instead you’ll drive a train. Obviously, this means you’ll be spending your time riding on rails. While this does cut down on exploration a bit, let me assure you that there are plenty of locations, secret areas to unlock, and warp points to keep driving from point A to point B interesting. It can seem boring at first, but once you start opening up all of the side quests, it gets a lot less tedious. Like before, you’re equipped with a cannon to blast away at enemies, but you’re also given a whistle you can blow by tugging on a rope. More than jut amusing, the whistle can blow animals off the tracks as well as stun some enemies, giving you an open shot. You can also trace out routes with the stylus, switch tracks manually, and slam the train into reverse should the situation call for it. Every town is connected to the rails, so you’ll need to learn how to stop the train on a dime in order to pull in. You get the hang of it pretty fast. There are a few side quests involving the train that also keep it interesting. You can transport people and materials to towns, though there are rules such as you can’t take damage or drive fast in certain spots. Also, you can find rabbits hidden throughout the world that you can capture in order to put them in a rescue shelter. It keeps you busy any time you want a break from the main story.

The dungeons this time around are definitely better. For one, they’re longer on average than the dungeons in PH. An increase in floors and more satisfying puzzles make each dungeon engaging. More to the point, once you start one, you won’t want to stop until you’re finished. Like always, there’s a boss fight at the end of each dungeon that requires a special trick to beat. Usually, this requires some use of whatever new weapon or item you’ve picked up. The bosses themselves aren’t all that challenging, but the fights are fun and well thought out. They also offer some of the most intense action sequences I’ve played in all of 2009 on the DS.

The last thing worth mentioning is the spirit flute. The spirit flute is this year’s musical instrument with strange powers. It has a fairly big role in the story, but its role outside of that context is surprisingly small. There are a handful of songs and only one or two of them really ever get used more than a few times. What is interesting is how the flute is controlled. You hold the flute up with the stylus and then blow into different pipes for different notes. It’s nifty to say the least, though if you want to goof off and play for fun, you’re very likely to play a random song by mistake. At least the tunes are catchy.

Though it’s not perfect, Spirit Tracks is a prime example of what happens when you make the most out of the DS’s capabilities. You won’t ever feel a need for d-pad controls, though you may long for the open world feel of the sailing in PH. On the whole, games just don’t play much better than this.

Replayability

Simply playing through the main story is satisfying enough, and it will last you around fifteen hours or more, depending on how often you get stuck in a dungeon. It is a decent length for a portable adventure, but not necessarily up to the normal Zelda standard.

If you participate in the side quests, you’ll get a ton of extra mileage out of the game, and not just due to how long it takes to travel from one place to another. The quests are often worth it, giving you a chance to converse with a few oddball characters, get more hearts, and open up new areas to explore. Basically, they help keep you invested in the world you’re trying to save.

There’s also a trading aspect that you can utilize between other players in the game. Throughout your journey, you’ll collect bits and pieces that you can turn in to get new parts for your train. With another player, you can trade these items in order to get what you need. For someone who only needs one more skull before they can trade it for the skeleton engine, this is no doubt useful.

With a single DS or with multiple, there’s also a four player competitive mode to keep you company. You race around a dungeon collecting gems while your opponents try to beat them out of you. It’s a goofy distraction that probably won’t soak up too much of your time, but it is nice that there is a multiplayer option. Oddly enough though, this mode isn’t available online, which it was in PH.

There’s enough to do on the cart to keep it in your DS even long after you’ve beaten the last boss.

Balance

A good complaint about PH was that it was too easy. The dungeons were short, enemies were cannon fodder, and the bosses were a joke once you figured out a trick.

Sadly, this is one aspect of Spirit Tracks that hasn’t been improved as much as I’d like. True, the dungeons are longer and trickier, but they’re still pretty easy to trek through as long as you have patience. There are only a couple of enemies that will annoy you, and that’s mostly because you need some special item to deal with them or they eat your shield.

If nothing else, it speaks to how well done the control scheme is. Most baddies only take a hit or two to kill, and thanks to the sublime accuracy of the stylus, it is very hard to miss. While it makes the game a dream to play, it also takes away some of the challenge of dodging enemy attacks in order to parry when you get the chance.

Overall, this is a straight forward game that might be too easy for a lot of people, but that doesn’t keep it from being satisfying.

Originality

This is a game that sticks to series conventions for the most part. You travel around the world collecting gems from dungeons so that new areas will open up. You get a new weapon in each dungeon, and you’ll need that tool in order to solve puzzles as well as fight new enemies and even the boss. You even have the almost now standard practice of having a vehicle to travel along in.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some new. The boomerang might be an old weapon, but you can use it in new ways, such as using it to create ice bridges that you can cross. The new tools are also great uses of the touch screen that make using them a joy. Also, controlling Zelda in her Phantom body opens up a ton of great and new puzzles to solve.

The setup is all too familiar, but the execution never drags on thanks to great pacing and some fun new ideas. It is amazing how much you can do with an established formula.

Addictiveness

I’ve stated before that you can’t put the game down once you’ve started a dungeon. Nor can you quit during the middle of a transcontinental journey in the train. In fact, the game is simply hard to put down period. The only reason I didn’t play through the whole thing in a couple of days is because I had other games I had to review and the holidays didn’t given me many chances for time to myself.

Even still, it can be easy to take extended breaks between dungeons, or quit once you realize how much work actually goes into opening up the road to that dungeon. The great story, sublime gameplay, and fantastic presentation go a long way to preventing this however.

The people who are going to have the easiest time taking breaks from the game are those who’ve invested a lot of time in the series. While it doesn’t every feel like a cheap knock off or a money grabbing ploy, the setup just might be too familiar to keep series veterans enthralled like the older games did.

Appeal Factor

There’s a reason why Link is one of the most recognizable faces in the video game industry. When you see that Legend of Zelda logo, you know you’re in for a quality ride from start to finish. It means a game that is polished, lengthy, fun, and worth every penny you spend on it. This has not changed for this game, and unless Nintendo slips up, I don’t see it ever changing.

It has been two years since the last Zelda game, so no doubt there are a ton of would be adventurers chomping at the bit to get at this game. As a fan of the previous game, I knew I was getting this the second I could get my butt over to the store.

The biggest setback for this game doing well is the sheer number of quality games that came out for the DS in 2009. It just doesn’t stand out quite the same way that Phantom Hourglass did. When you’re staring at a store rack and there are over a dozen games to consider, you might just want to grab something new rather than revisit an old friend like Link.

I’ve also seen an alarming number of people who seem to be turned off by the train aspect of the game. Hopefully, they get over it and play the game, because it just seems silly to deny yourself the pleasure of a great gaming experience because you think that Zelda and trains don’t mix.

Still, this is a game that anyone can enjoy and everyone should experience. Not only does it show off how good a game can be on the DS, it is simply a great time.

Miscellaneous

I’ve been working hard to mention the game’s failing, few and insignificant though they be. That is only because I’m writing a review for the game and I need to be fair and balanced. Still, the gamer in me wants to give this game a perfect score so badly simply because of how fun it is. Even if every other game in the series that has yet to come out ends up being nothing more than a cheap imitation of this, those games would still be well above the average for any game on any system.

What did you expect? It’s a Zelda game. It was bred for awesomeness.

The Scores
Story: Incredible
Graphics: Great
Audio: Classic
Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Decent
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Incredible
Miscellaneous: Classic
Final Score: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is yet another fantastic entry in what is perhaps the greatest video game series of all time. It plays like pure gold, looks and sounds better than other games on the system, and is completely satisfying in just about every way. It isn’t perfect. It’s a bit easy and the spirit flute is underutilized. Still, as far as I’m concerned, it is better than Phantom Hourglass in every way. If you’re looking for a great new DS game, this one should be at the top of your list. Portable gaming just doesn’t get much better than this. Again, what else would you expect from Link and company?



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