Monday, October 8, 2007

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass review

Okay, folks, sorry for the unexpected hiatus there. Some things just can't be avoided, I suppose! Anyways, now I'm back, and with me return the articles. On with the show!

Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: October 1st, 2007 (North America)
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
ESRB Notes: Fantasy Violence

Back in March of 2003, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was released in North America. Since it's unveiling, many people balked at the games incredibly different animation style. Instead of the realistic, mature theme of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, Wind Waker sported a newer, more cartoony look. It also took place on the open seas instead of on Hyrule Field, perhaps making it the most unique of any Zelda released to date. Nonetheless, Wind Waker was an amazing game, and received incredibly high scores from many review outlets, including a 40/40 from the immensely popular Japanese magazine Famitsu. And now, four years later, this incredible game receives it's sequel in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.

Phantom Hourglass' story picks up right where Wind Waker left off. Link and Ze- er, Tetra, are sailing off to find new lands. Their boat soon pulls up alongside the infamous Ghost Ship. Tetra jumps aboard the spectral craft, ignoring the cautioning cries of shiphand Nico. Moments later, an ear-splitting cry fills the air as the lady pirate vanishes on board the Ghost Ship. Slowly, the ghastly schooner begins to pull away from the pirate's ship. Thinking fast, Link quickly sprints to the edge of the deck and leaps for the railing of the fleeing ship. But it's too late, and Link barely misses, plunging deep into the waters below.

"Hey! Hey! Hey, get up! Hey!" A bizarre voice beckons at Link to awaken, and he comes to on an unfamiliar beach. The voice belongs to a fairy named Ciela, who lives with her "grandfather" in the island's village. After many conversations, scuffles and briefings, Link leaves the island with the ship captain Linebeck, to search for his lost friend, Tetra.

Now on to what usually proves to be the longest section of any review, the gameplay. The variation of play in Phantom Hourglass is astounding to say the least. Of course, there's your basic running around and killing enemies gameplay. The controls are what sets this apart from any previous game in the series! Instead of using the D-pad and face buttons to control Link, every single control has been mapped to the DS' touchscreen. Running, slashing, talking and rolling can all now be accomplished by simply tapping or drawing on the touchscreen. The accuracy and responsiveness of it all is amazing! After about ten or fifteen minutes, you'll be adventuring like a pro.

Wondering how precision weapons such as the bow, boomerang and Bombchu function in Phantom Hourglass? It's all in the wrist! With the bow, merely ready your arrow and point where you want to fire. When it comes to the boomerang, you draw a path for it on the touchscreen. And with the Bombchu, you draw it's path on the map and let 'er rip! All very accurate and intuitive.

Touchscreen-aiming ensures you always hit
your mark.

Tired of losing track of treasure chests and such in dungeons? Have no fear, scribble technology is here! By simply pressing the B button or Down on the D-pad, the map is switched to the bottom screen. You can then jot down notes, treasure locations and puzzle solutions for future reference. Short term memory loss has been thwarted!

The ability to write on your map ensures you'll never forget anything important
ever again. Well, in the game, anyways.

Remember those long hours spent at sea in Wind Waker? They've been all but eliminated in Phantom Hourglass. Instead of 49 sections of ocean, there is now only four, with a total of 16 islands. This new version of the sea chart allows for a more realistic placing of islands, as well as significantly shorter travel times.

As with everything else, sailing is handled with touchscreen input. However, it's somewhat more indirect than when running or attacking. Before going anywhere, you must draw a path for your ship on the sea chart using the stylus. To do so, simply tap the "Sea Chart" button on the menu, and draw a line between your ship and your destination, whether you're headed to an island, another ship, or even a random spot in the middle of the ocean (Hey, why the heck not?). Your path can be as direct or sidetrack-filled as you wish, just make sure to avoid the rocks!

Rocky outcroppings aren't the only obstacle you'll be running into on the high seas. You'll also encounter various enemies and traps! As a tip, you'll want to avoid monsters until you can get a cannon for you ship. Once outfitted with your aquatic weaponry, you can simply tap any foe that comes your way to blast them out of the sky.

As for traps, you're bound to run into a few dozen hurdles along the way. Literally, spiky hurdles. They'll randomly pop out of the ocean, and you'll have to carefully time a jump to protect you ship from harm. How your ship jumps, however, is beyond me. Go ask Satoru Iwata.

Your ship can only sustain so much damage, so be sure to dock at a port every now and then so Linebeck can repair the little boat that could. There is one part of your ship Linebeck is not qualified to repair, and that's the Salvage Arm. This robotic claw is used to pull up treasure from the ocean's depths. Instead of merely letting 'er rip in the right location like in Wind Waker, the Salvage Arm in Phantom Hourglass requires some more precise controls. Link must maneuver the arm around rocky outcroppings and Octomines using a slider at the bottom of the touchscreen. The arm can be sped up or slowed down, but I suggest letting it go along at it's normal pace to avoid accidents. Once you reach the treasure, the claw grabs a hold of it and begins hoisting it up. Once again, it's your duty to keep the Salvage Arm from busting up on the Octomines and rocks. If successful, the loot is dropped on deck and becomes yours for good.

Central to Phantom Hourglass is the Temple of the Ocean King. You'll be returning there several times throughout the game in order to obtain new Sea Charts and eventually reach the final boss. However, merely entering the temple drains the life right out of you. The only way to combat this deadly condition is by using the game's namesake, the Phantom Hourglass. As long as sand remains in the top half of the hourglass, your are protected from the temple's detrimental effects. There is also one other way to avoid harm within the dungeon, and that's by entering one of the many "safe zones" scattered across each floor. While in a safe zone, your health will never decrease, and sand will cease to fall from the upper half of the hourglass. In other words, you could stick around in a safe zone for as long as you want, and you'd never run out of time. This is great for awaiting the passing of the dungeon's most notorious foes, the Phantoms.

The Phantoms are large, powerful and nearly invincible creatures which patrol the corridors of the temple. One taste of their blade and even the best of warriors is immediately vanquished. There are a few ways to distract, dispose of and temporarily incapacitate these hulking beings. One of the most basic methods is to trigger a trap that opens up the floor beneath them, plunging them into a never ending pit from which nothing can ever return. One arrow to the back will stun any phantom for a short time, allowing you to easily sneak past them without worry. A loud explosion or clashing of a sword will draw their attention, allowing you to go beyond their post while they're inspecting the disturbance. Whatever you do, do not underestimate a Phantom.

And as always, there's sidequests, secrets and mini-games galore! When it comes to variety, Phantom Hourglass does not disappoint.

As is evident from the screenshots and character art above, Phantom Hourglass' graphics carry the same cartoony style pioneered in The Wind Waker. The cel-shaded design carries over very well onto the comparatively weak Nintendo DS. If it weren't for the higher level of pixelation, the difference between the two games would be nearly unnoticeable!

Phantom Hourglass' graphics are really quite impressive.

Also, as you surely already know, the game mostly takes place in a birds-eye view perspective. However, in certain events and while talking to other characters, the camera will pan-down to a more third-person perspective, usually right down at eye-level with the boy in green. This creates a very nice effect during dramatic scenes and tense situations.

As with the graphics, the audio in Phantom Hourglass does not disappoint. Link screams, yells and grunts with all the liveliness of his big-screen cousins. The swords clanging and bombs exploding all sound just as good as they did back in The Wind Waker! Well, that's probably because they're the same recycled sound bytes, but hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

The musical score is completely new, and it all sounds great played through the DS' speakers. From dramatic battle music to calming island melodies, it's all masterfully done and applied.

Surprised to see a multiplayer section in a Zelda review? Phantom Hourglass is the fourth Zelda game to ever incorporate a multiplayer mode. It's the first, however, to take the festivities online.

Multiplayer in Phantom Hourglass is played like a cat-and-mouse game between Link and the Phantoms of the Temple of the Ocean King. Each player gets three turns each as both Link and the Phantoms. When playing as Link, it's your goal to get as many Force Gems into your base as possible without being caught by a Phantom. You can utilize various power-ups and shortcuts to outwit the Phantoms, and you can even duck into a safe zone when things get a little too hectic for your liking.

When playing as the Phantoms, you draw paths for the knights on the touch screen. You command three Phantoms at once in this mode, so make sure to use them all to their fullest extent. Your goal, of course, is to capture Link as soon as possible. You can use some of the same power-ups as the elven hero, as well as walk through fierce gusts which are impassable to anybody else. Either turn ends whenever time runs out or Link is defeated. The player who finishes with the most Force Gems in their possession wins.

Playing online is generally fairly lag-free, but you're bound to run into your share of disconnectors. If random strangers always leaving mid-game starts to get on to your nerves, you can always just play against your pals using Friend Codes.

This game boasts some fairly decent longevity, especially for a DS game. My first run through it took me roughly 25-30 hours, with a few sidequests completed. Beyond that, there's still many minigames for me to master and tonnes of treasure for me to find.


Story: 9.0/10
Phantom Hourglass carries on The Wind Waker's storyline very well. The writing is clever, and the random humour is tasteful and well placed. It sure could have used a few more twists, though.

Gameplay: 9.5/10
The touch controls work amazingly well for such an action-packed title. Sailing no longer feels like such a chore, and even the mundane tasks such as trawling for treasure have renewed excitement. Having to constantly return to the Temple of the Ocean King can be a bit of a pain, though.

Graphics: 9.5/10
Phantom Hourglass is a beauty of a DS game. The cell-shaded graphics of The Wind Waker carried over so well onto the DS, it's as if they planned it as a portable title before a Gamecube game. The dramatic camera angles during many scenes adds a great touch, and it all moves smoother than silk.

Audio: 8.0/10
Link's grunts, yells and screams all sound great when played through the DS' little speakers, although they are all plainly recycled from The Wind Waker. The music is all new, and it always fits the occasion perfectly. No really memorable tunes, though.

Multiplayer: 9.5/10
Playing cat and mouse with Link and the Phantoms is surprisingly fun. It can get incredibly tense, and plotting your moves ahead of time is really engrossing. All the while you must observe your opponents every move, waiting for your chance to strike. The addition of online is very welcome indeed. Some rule customization would have been nice, though.

Longevity: 9.0/10
Phantom Hourglass is decently long as a Zelda title, and incredibly lengthy for a DS game. The adventure will last you about 20 or so hours, with sidequests and collecting possibly adding another 10 hours to that. It's very impressive what they managed to cram onto that little card!

OVERALL: 9.5/10
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is one heck of an adventure. It's more than a worthy successor to Wind Waker, and it's probably even better than the critically acclaimed Twilight Princess. The multiplayer is a total blast, and the storyline really ties into the prequel beautifully. Everything about this game is great, and this is a real candidate for Game of the Year in my books.

The Duck Has Spoken.


WJUK said...

Will be picking this up as soon as it hits the shelves.

Damn localisation. Maybe I should just import.

alexanderpas said...

Welcome back duck... and another great review...