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.