Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
4th Jul 2007 | 11:01
Import Review: Most of you reading this live on an island - one of the persistently rainy British Isles, probably. And your correspondent lives on the Japanese island of Honshu. So we at least have that much in common with Link in Phantom Hourglass. Of course, part of the fun of living on an island is the opportunity to leave and visit another one. On a boat. And that's something else Link gets his kicks from in this magical DS debut, which has just been released here in Japan. All aboard, then, for another classic Zelda adventure!
Don't worry people, we're not giving away any major plot spoilers in this review.
Controlling Link with the stylus is like riding a bike without holding the handlebars: you know it can be done, but at first you might worry that it's just a stupid thing to do. It's not. Stylus control of Link is a very cool thing. Say sayonara to the d-pad, then, and embrace the technology that makes Phantom Hourglass the most enjoyable Zelda game since Ocarina of Time.
As in that '98 classic, Link is accompanied by a fairy (and later on in Phantom Hourglass, fairies) on his quest. There's no better cursor than a cute little ball of spirit dust, so quite understandably Nintendo has opted to appoint Sierra, Link's whiter-than-white fairy companion, as the conduit through which you control Link's basic actions: drag Sierra around the screen and Link will follow, walking/running/rolling in sync with the accentuations of your stylus movements. Trust us - within 30 minutes it becomes so natural that you'll wonder how you ever completed Link's Awakening and Link to the Past, with their quaint d-pad control systems.
All the traditional Zelda elements are here - from Link's trusty sword and shield to his boomerang, cartoon bombs and bow-and-arrow - but thanks to the DS' touch screen interface, everything feels fresh and new again. The boomerang, in particular, is more useful than ever. Switches are often out of sight but, thanks to the boomerang, not out of reach: just draw a line from Link to your desired boomerang target (even if that means sending it down the corridor and round the corner) and it'll come zipping back, having flicked a switch or collected a key. Think laterally and Phantom Hourglass will pat you on the back, say "Well done!" and let you through to the next area. Perfect satisfaction: a job well done.
Sword control is also perfectly engineered. Tap enemies on their bonces and Link will rush towards them, landing a sword strike if at all possible. Surrounded by a gang of baddies? Just swirl the stylus around Link and he'll instantly unleash a 360-degree sword swipe. Nifty. Or, should multiple enemies charge at you from the same direction, scratch the stylus like fury and Link will perform a quick burst of hack-slash wizardry. Easier done than said.
Other aspects of the game use the DS technology in interesting ways, as well. Link receives sea charts, piecing together an atlas of possible destinations. One such map is caked in dust, because it's been stowed away for such a long time. Link's comical sidekick, Captain Lineback, says it's no good. It's not legible. What to do? Blow the dust away, of course - by blowing into the DS' microphone - and keep on blowing until you can see the chart beneath the dirt. Elsewhere the mic is used to signal your presence to a fortune-teller (by shouting "Oi!", no less) whose appointment you're late for, and who is waiting for Link in a secret room, so that she doesn't leave without seeing you. And, in a practical puzzle setting, you'll also need to exhale in order to extinguish flames inside dungeons and reveal entrances.
The stylus, too, has manifold uses. You'll need to make notes on the various maps that Link receives - jotting down useful information on the whereabouts of hidden treasures, penning special routes on the advice of talking statues and, when at sea, planning a course across the ocean. Although Link travels from island to island on a steamboat, you don't have direct control of the vessel; instead, after drawing a line from where you are to where you want to be, the main objective is to get there safely.
Whenever the boat comes under attack from them thar pirates and other enemies, it pays to launch bombs in their direction. In line with Phantom Hourglass' determination to keep everything smooth, you can just tap on enemies as they appear on the waves; that'll be enough to lob something explosive yonder.
The game is constantly moving, regardless of where you are. Link always has something to do - whether it's an errand to run, a boss fight to win, a treasure hunt, a dungeon to explore, or a journey to the next island. And there is no downtime between objectives in Phantom Hourglass. You can sense at all times, and in everything you see and do, that Nintendo has rigorously tested the game to ensure that the high just keeps on rolling.
The only comedown is when, to attend to silly real world matters, you reluctantly turn off the DS. But even then, this is the kind of joyous gaming experience that you'll think about while you're away from it.
Not only is Phantom Hourglass testament to the d-pad/analogue-trumping capacity of touch screen control - it's also proof that Nintendo still has what it takes to create real gamers' games.
The success of Phantom Hourglass is attributable to the hundreds of little things here that make you think, "Ha, nice!" It's in the dungeons, which are multi-leveled and labyrinthine, carefully leading you ever deeper into their web through puzzles (both of the stated variety, where clues are provided, and of the DIY type where only your own musing and experimentation can succeed). It's in the option to upgrade your boat with new parts, enabling you to create a mean sailing machine. It's in the two-player Wi-Fi mode, which offers competitive dungeon challenges for Zelda players the world over. It's in the facial expressions of the bit-part characters, which are based on the soulful Wind Waker style. It's in the music, which we would happily listen to for ever. It is everywhere, because Phantom Hourglass is complete.
There are many excellent games on the DS but few masterpieces. This one, though, is a masterpiece. And worth every penny you'll pay for it. Hopefully it'll be released in Europe before Christmas.