So, Zelda? 20 years and it is perhaps that series that's gone through the most changes, from the class top-down NES games through to the 3D Ocarina of Time, then moving onto the cel-shaded, Pixar-esque art style of Wind Waker. So how does the latest incarnation of gaming's oldest legend shape up against it's predecessors? Perhaps more importantly, does it recapture any of the charm that was (admittedly arguably) missing from Twilight Princess?
Graphically, the game has admittedly had little in the way of progression since the Wind Waker, and even then it isn't technically as good due the Nintendo DS's lack of power. This doesn't mean it doesn't still look great though, it is in fact one of the best looking Nintendo DS games out there right now, but it has to be said that if you're looking for jaw-dropping visuals, look elsewhere.
Even so, the visuals still have a hell of a lot of charm to them, thanks in no small part to cel-shaded art style that Nintendo seem to have found a home for on the DS. In short, if you thought Wind Waker looked good, you'll like the look of Spirit Tracks.
There is the odd occasion where the game's animation suffers a bit, which seems to be occur whenever both screens are being used for 3D graphics, rather than having one show the map. The only time this is really annoying though is during one particular boss fight, and it doesn't really interfere with gameplay.
Artistically, the character designs are great. Link and Zelda are just as they've always been; green duds and pink dresses, but there's a lot of inspiration in the rest of the cast. The Lokomo's in particular offer that weird and wonderful look, being basically very small people in contraptions that can only be described as one-man-trains. The villainous Chancellor Cole's personality shines through in his design, the two hats and odd costume highlighting his madcap insanity. Staven is also noteworthy, if only because I like the look of his claw-weapon-thing.
The music in the game is also classic Zelda fare, though that is never a bad thing! Although it does have enough differences to stand on it's own, and none of them ruin the game.
As always, the score will bring out the adventurer in you and you'll almost feel yourself being compelled to your next objective by it. Noteworthy pieces of music include the songs you play with the Lokomo's, which stir the same emotions as the music you'd play on your ocarina would. To be honest, if you've played a Zelda game before, you know what to expect.
Being a Zelda game, there's very little voice work in the game as it only requires the occasional yelp from Link as he rolls head first into a tree, and not a lot of that is even very memorable save for Chancellor Cole's cackle, which is admittedly quite amusing and further gets across his insanity.
If you've played Phantom Hourglass, you'll know how the game handles. Spirit Tracks does very little new in that regard, but it works well. It makes use of all of the DS's functions, and rarely feels tacked on apart from one occasion when you have to speak into the microphone for no real reason. It almost felt like Nintendo saying "Look what we can do!"
Combat works well enough, requiring simple touches on the screen to lunge at enemies, or the occasional sweep on the screen to use different sword-based attacks, but these aren't really necessary. The other items you'll get might require you to do more, such as blowing into the microphone to create gusts of wind or play this game's incarnation of the Zelda Instrument, but you'll generally be doing a whole lot of tapping and drawing paths. This isn't a bad thing however as all the controls feel very tight.
When not wondering around in towns or dungeons, you'll be at the helm of a train, and this is where the first real difference from Phantom Hourglass comes in. The expansive fields and oceans are gone, replaced by the very strict and linear paths set out by the train tracks of this new Hyrule. Controlling the train is fairly simple: you slide the controls up or down with the stylus to either reverse, stop, accelerate, or accelerate a bit faster. When you come to a junction you'll have another set of controls to slide either left or right, depending on which direction you'd like to go depending on your destination. If you're getting attacked by the nefarious wildlife, or you just take a particular dislike to a certain rock, tap it to blast it with your cannon. That's really all there is to it, which sounds very simple but works extremely well when not being chased by one of the un-killable enemy trains on the tracks. All you really have to do is set a course on the map, and you're off!
Another addition to the game are the Phantom Knights. Oh, and being able to play as Zelda. Yes, after twenty years of saving the dainty princess, you'll know be able to take control of her... ghost. While in the Tower of Spirits, which acts almost as a kind of hub for the game where you'll return after every dungeon, you'll be attacked by the Phantom Knights. After besting them in combat, you can then get Zelda to possess it, which is when you'll then be able to take control of her and the Knight she is possessing. This a great addition to the game as it creates some great puzzles which are incredibly satisfying to solve. Moving Zelda!Knight is quite different to Link, as you actually have to draw the path you want her to take, leading her to objects you want her to pick up and various other duties for her to carry out dictated by the type of Knight she is possessing. This can often create some real head-scratchers that'll have you considering teamwork, something Link has experienced all too infrequently.
The story elements of Spirit Tracks were surprisingly good, so I won't go into too much detail as a lot of it is better off experienced first hand. It's a tale of adventure, friendship, and redemption. All of the characters have very distinct personalities, and it was a great direction to take the series which, personally, has always been about the adventure rather than those taking part in it. This has probably been because Link's usually been on his own, and now has Zelda with him who became a surprisingly loveable and deep character after initially coming across as a whiny tagalong. You really feel a friendship develop between the two protagonists, resulting in a few scenes which really do tug on the old heart strings in a way I haven't seen since Okami.
The villains are also done really well, particularly Staven (whose name is different in each region, bizarrely) who begins the game as a mysterious, sinister character, but whose motives are easily relateable to and eventually becomes on of the most liked characters. The Big Bad of the game, Malladus, plays a very small role, but his part evokes memories of Ganon's appearance in Ocarina of Time which will put a smile on your face.
Also, Chancellor Cole is insane.
I really, really enjoyed this game in a way that I haven't enjoyed a Zelda, or any game for that matter, since Ocarina of Time. Sure, it's a lot shorter, but I get the feeling that the effect of it would have been diminished had it been much longer. The timeframe suits the story it tells, which probably the most important part of this particular game. It also suits the system it's on thanks to this timeframe, as the dungeons tend to be roughly an hour long, and I never saved and quit the game partway through any of these dungeons. Admittedly, the train bits get repetitive and the side quests are poor, but these parts are never long enough to matter.
9 / 10