Anyone who has been reading the posts on this site will know that I always look forward to new Zelda games - and the DS game, the Phantom Hourglass, has looked extra special to me for some time now.
Ever since I first realised the Phantom Hourglass could be entirely controlled by the stylus (touch screen) I have been hooked. I knew I would get the game regardless, but this extra change made a lot of difference to my anticipation. It added something new without stepping too far from the tried and true formula.
The story in the Phantom Hourglass is the usual Zelda fayre - the princess (aka Tetra the pirate) has gotten lost, and you have to rescue her. She has actually been kidnapped by a ghost ship, and it's your job to hunt down that ship and bring her back to safety.
The move to stylus based control is done wonderfully. To walk you simply tap where you want to move, attacking involves tapping the enemy you want to hit or drawing a swipe with the pen. My favourite commands are the weapons you pick up in the dungeons. If you're anything like me the first time you use the boomerang you'll have a massive stupid grin on your face (in case you haven't seen the various trailers, controlling the boomerang involves drawing it's path on the screen). Controlling the boat that moves you between the games islands is similarly simple, just draw where you want to travel and you will.
The other big new feature is the maps. The Nintendo DS has become quite well known for it's lazy developers who add a map to the second screen, and don't add anything new or worthwhile. In Phantom Hourglass things are slightly different. Yes, there is a map, but this time you can draw on it. It might not seem like a big thing to read but once you play you will realise that it's incredibly helpful, and there are some puzzles that are only (easily) solvable if you make notes.
The difficulty also deserves a mention. In some ways the game holds your hand a little too much, between your fairy companion and the other islanders you will rarely become stuck, but the change in controls has brought new puzzles and challenges. Also the dungeon bosses have changed in tempo slightly. The rigid, three hits and their down system has not been followed quite as closely as it once was, although there are still some left overs of the system.
Actually the dungeon bosses are one of the best parts of the game. They all play in very different ways, each making use of the second DS screen in different ways. My favorite boss is probably the Shadow of the Colossus style golem from one of the later dungeons - he's not the toughest but is very enjoyable to beat.
Something I do find quite interesting is that the dungeons in the game are generally a lot shorter than in previous outings. I'm not sure if this was a conscious decision based upon the target platform (shorter bursts of play) or if it was an attempt to reach out to a broader audience. Whatever the reasoning I liked the change, I rarely have time to sit down and play for hours on end, so being able to complete each dungeon in a single sitting was a welcome feature - admittedly I am quite well versed in Zelda games (having played and completed most of them) so I suspect my skills within the Zelda world are quite well honed.
The temple of the Ocean King is the biggest challenge of the game. You have to revisit it in between most of the dungeons, each time progressing a little further. It's in this temple that you get to make use of the Phantom Hourglass. Walking through the temple of the Ocean King will hurt you, unless you have sand in the hourglass - filling the hourglass is done through defeating dungeon bosses, and collecting sand within the temple. The temple is actually a masterclass in level design, making use of the different weapons you find to let you move further each time you visit. Occasionally it can be a bit of a pain but I really enjoyed my final visit when I new the routes and had all the weapons, letting me make my most efficient journey through.
I would argue that the Legend of Zelda, the Phantom Hourglass is one of the finest looking games on the DS. It has the same visual styling as the GameCube Zelda game, Windwaker and these fit the DS perfectly. The graphics have a very simple clean aesthetic, and the super stylised Link has been given some wonderfully animated moments that would not be possible with the more realistic Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess clothes.
Aurally the game is a wonder. It contains all of the classic Zelda tunes, tweaked and jiggled for a new adventure naturally, and then adds some more music on top. I've long been a fan of the Zelda Overworld theme though, so I guess I am a touch biased in this respect.
Unfortunately, whilst incredibly good, the game isn't perfect. Despite what I said about the Temple of the Ocean King being a wonderful example of level design, the repetitiveness of going back to the same place over and over is sometimes frustrating. The controls generally work incredibly well, but the rolling is very awkward to do, and is never really used anyway - so a touch pointless - and there were a few times when I found my hand covering the screen so I couldn't see where I was going. These negatives are all relatively minor and certianly not a reason to pass on one of the DS's finest games.
I would say that the unique control scheme on it's own is worth getting this game to try, but there is a wonderfully charming game underneath it all. Yes, it's another Zelda game, but it's been created with such care and attention that I find myself recommending it to everyone I meet. Play It!