Genre: Role Playing Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Classification: PG Release Date: 10th Dec 2009 Platforms:DS
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The Good bits
Train operation is incredibly fun.
If you liked every other Legend of Zelda game you will like this one too.
The Bad stuff
Zelda's pathing is frustrating at times.
Exactly the same as every other Legend of Zelda game.
As any Legend of Zelda fan would know, a new LoZ means more attacking, more puzzles, more side quests and one more gimmick to differentiate this game from all of the others. Spirit Tracks, the second LoZ game available for the DS, is built on the same engine and features the same stylus-only controls as Phantom Hourglass before it, and uses the same cel-shaded art style first featured in Wind Waker. The gimmick this time around is the train used to travel across the world, similar to the boat in Phantom Hourglass complete with cannon - although naturally it can only travel on train tracks.
The rest of the game is similar to other LoZ games. You play Link, a young boy who becomes a train engineer, only to find out the train tracks covering the land have disappeared as a result of an attempt to revive an ancient evil. To mix it up a little this time he is accompanied by Zelda's disembodied spirit, ejected from her body when she was captured
by the enemy. Together Link and Zelda travel across the land restoring the spirit tracks and gaining strength to stop the resurrection of the demon king.
The game is divided into two parts - operating the train, and the standard action-rpg faire familiar to anyone who has played a LoZ game previously. As Link you run around dungeons and towns, solving puzzles, killing monsters and helping people out. There is more of a focus on helping people than in the last couple of games, giving the game a Majora's Mask feel as you run errands and solve puzzles not directly about progressing further in the dungeon.
In certain dungeons you will be accompanied by Zelda - after defeating a Phantom she can inhabit it's body, allowing you to control her as well as Link - although only indirectly. By tapping the circle underneath her character you can draw a path for her to follow - when she isn't getting stuck on walls or stairs at least. Apart from the pathing issues it is a great concept, and it adds a good deal of variety to what would be fairly generic dungeons otherwise. Zelda can walk through substances damaging to Link, distract other Phantoms with idle chit-chat, and Link can climb on her shield for added height, just to name some of the options she adds.
Her presence also justifies the solitary use of the stylus... sort of. It would be difficult to switch from standard controls to touch every time you directed Zelda, but it wouldn't be impossible, and it's been done plenty of times before. Considering the biggest complaint about Phantom Hourglass was the lack of standard controls, leaving them out of Spirit Tracks seems like yet another slap in the face to hardcore fans from Nintendo. Of course, when you design a dungeon crawler with half the dungeons practically identical to the ones in the previous game, slapping your fans might be your M.O.
Of course, similarity is to be expected when you're remaking a game for the fifteenth time. Link has ventured through the Fire, Wind, Water and Earth temples so many times it would be statistically very improbable for every game to be completely different. This doesn't exactly explain how some of the dungeons bear so much in common with Phantom Hourglass, but maybe the stylus needed certain elements to stay the same. If only there was some way they could have escaped the constraints of the stylus...
As if to compensate for the frustration caused by the stylus, and possibly to attract more of the casual market Nintendo loves so very much, Spirit Tracks is incredibly easy. This is made most obvious in the Take 'em all out minigame - a monster gauntlet link can run to win prizes. Link has to fight his way through a series of rooms - with no way to replenish his health. He fights dozens of monsters, at the end fighting bosses you've fought previously. As uncoordinated as I am with the stylus, I still managed to clear the first gauntlet with full health, and the second without losing half of my health. The gauntlet itself - walking from room to room killing monsters until you get to the boss, seemed like an apt metaphor for the game too.
Yes Spirit Tracks, like all LoZ games, is a fairly linear game, but I'm going to resist the temptation to make an on rails joke. Partly because I think I can do better (I've had training!! HA!) but mostly because operating the train is the single greatest part of the game. I've never really seen the draw of train simulators, and Spirit Tracks is clearly very simplified compared to a proper train sim, but I can see it now. If a train sim built with stylus operation was released for the DS, I now know it would sell at least one copy.
Unlike dungeon crawling, stylus operation is essential for operating the train. It's a very simple set up all over - you have your throttle on the side of the screen and a whistle just above that. When track changes approach, two directions appear on the bottom of the screen, allowing you to choose which path you will take to your destination. Touching the screen where there aren't any controls moves the camera around, giving you a better look at your surrounding environment.
Checking out the area isn't particularly important until you complete your first dungeon. When you've completed your first dungeon you gain access to the cannon, used by tapping on the screen where you want to hit - as with the boat in Phantom Hourglass. The cannon is used mostly to destroy the various enemies that appear around you, but it can also be used to destroy boulders for coins, begin the capture of bunny rabbits, and start the teleportation devices littered about the environment.
Monsters, boulders and rabbits aren't the only things to watch out for - in some places other trains also occupy the tracks. The Spirit Tracks are magical, created by unknown forces long before anyone in existence can remember, and unfortunately this means the citizens of Hyrule are not capable of upgrading them. The people also live in one room huts and consider cuccos (think chicken) and ice the epitome of trading goods - so maybe they have an excuse - but the lack of man-made tracks makes them seem very lazy and stupid. Unlike whatever train magician created train tracks for hu
mans, these people don't even have to design the tracks, they just have to look at all of the already built tracks covering the world and replicate them. It does sound like a lot of hard work, but a second track means no more train-train collisions. Surely that's worth it right?
You gain the ability to draw out a route for your train to follow, leaving you to keep an eye on the speed and your surroundings. You can still manually control the train at any time - very important with other trains bearing down on you. The existence of the other trains is fun at first, providing a challenge in an otherwise preposterously easy game. They quickly move from fun to frustrating as you miscalculate the distance between the two of you and are forced to start again, and once you've got the hang of it they keep going from frustrating to annoying and tedious. In the end all they mean is an extra 5 minutes tacked onto your 15th trip through the barren Hyrule countryside.
Your 15th trip through the barren Hyrule countryside sums up not just dodging trains in Spirit Tracks, but basically the entirety of Spirit Tracks. This time you have a train, the world looks completely different, and there are slightly different dungeons, but those features aside, very little has changed from its predecessors. Of course, if you're a fan of the Legend of Zelda series you'll play it anyway, and while it might be despairingly easy, it might be an enjoyable game for a casual gamer new to the series. I would prefer it if it was just train operating, but then I guess it would be difficult to call it a Legend of Zelda game. Although if Spirit Tracks is the best they can do, maybe they should retire the Zelda games anyway.