Think of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass as Wind Waker: Episode 2 for your DS, right down to the sailing through cell-shaded prettiness. Don’t be hasty and write off Phantom Hourglass because of its accessibility. Where hardcore gameplay is shaved off, pleasing diversity replaces it. A pocket-sized adventure it lives up to the captivating quality of its predecessors. There’s remarkable scope for a handheld in this game, and the fifteen or so hours of gameplay are layered with fun. A completely touch-based, 3-D world, this portable addition to the saga is a success in spite of some quirks.
You will once again don the green garb of your favorite questionably pubescent hero as the game opens on you and Tetra, sailing in search of the mysteriously threatening Ghost Ship. Tetra, an otherwise admirably hardy heroine type promptly lands herself in the middle of some damsel distress, and the young gent we’ll call Link must retrieve her. Classic. Next on the traditional Zelda plot arc is the obligatory helper meet-up, this time with a sassy fairy creature called Ciela, and useless future-role-for-Hugh-Grant Linnebeck, a lazy treasure hunter in dapper garb.
There’s a lot of graphical punch packed into this pocket-sized game, and very little cinematic neglect. Shots are framed nicely, and you get just as much attention to character as in prior console versions. If you don’t like all the chatter of Link’s expanding social circle, you may find your life as Link cluttered up by all the companions. They stick with you through the game, which adds to the game’s depth while taxing the patience of Zelda traditionalists who just want to get on with their quest. You might start to wish they would just get left behind on one of the islands.
The stylus-based controls made me grumpy for the first ten minutes, and then I got over it. When you drag the stylus across the screen you move Ciela, and Link then obediently follows the fairy. Don’t question it. Link will always run from his current position to the tip of the stylus. How far you pull Ciela from Link determines how quickly Link moves. A good swipe of the stylus or a direct tap on an enemy will do the trick, or you can draw a circle around Link to cue the spinning attack. The least successful maneuver is the roll with about a 50/50 success rate. Righty or lefty, there is just no avoiding that your hand will cover the screen at some point, leaving me grateful for my dainty lady hands. The system isn’t broken, just not quite so gamer-intuitive as the d-pad. Once my d-pad grumblings were over I found myself on the receiving end of a pot shot from the ghost of a fallen warrior who declared his longing for d-pad controls was his “only regret” in life. Otherwise, those ghosts are pretty un-helpful for folks with unfinished business.
The use of the stylus-based control is a good innovation, though it’s no Wii-Stick. The course-charting feature and handy item usage are big pluses, and once you get adept at it there is a definite precision advantage. Things like drawing the path of the boomerang are really fantastic little tricks, and you’ll be solving puzzles by chucking your boomerang around items, across chasms, and down hallways.
The adventure packed into this relatively short game in is great; though, call me greedy, I still found myself wishing for the depth of exploration found in console versions. Each labyrinth focuses on a single item and then tests your skills against one boss. The items acquired in tandem with the stylus controls mean that no two labyrinths or bosses are dealt with quite the same way, and they all make good use of the dual screens. The boss battles are a bit short-lived, and if any give you any trouble it will only take you one try to figure them out. It isn’t until late in the game when there are any boss battle casualties and the fights start to last longer than a minute.
Labyrinths are more linear and a bit abbreviated. The puzzles are pretty contained and you will typically only find yourself retracing one section instead of the labyrinth in its entirety. You will, however, be replaying a certain temple over and over. I find time-based challenges irritating in general, so when I was forced to replay the Temple of the Ocean King ten times, grumpiness set in. Fortunately, if you take good notes the time trials aren’t overly taxing. This temple runs throughout the game and keeps everything contiguous; at the time, I as bugged by the repetition but in retrospect it was a good convention. You will be replaying the same sections (with only one halfway point) pretty regularly, so just resign yourself to perfecting your technique.
One of my favorite stylus-driven additions was the ability to take notes, which you’ll do anytime you come across maps, levers, tablets, or other significant features that not so crypitcally point you in the right direction for puzzle solving. Additionally, the stylus resolves the sailing monotony of Wind Waker by using a point A to point B course plot method. Your map also tracks other seaborne vessels from pirate ships to Beedle and his shop of wares to a hot headed pirate chick that really likes to duel. Treasure hunting returns with a stylus-centered spin, a handful of mini-games for rupees and prizes, and there are plenty of uncharted islands to sate that hunger for exploration. An interesting change to the treasure scheme is the ability to sell goodies you uncover as well as unlock pieces for ship customization. In addition to acquiring the latest in nautical trends, ship customization improves your ship’s strength.
The music is memorable and worthy of the Zelda ouevre, and if you play while wearing headphones you will notice some location-specific adjustments to the sound. There is a multiplayer mode with a one-on-one battle aspect through which users can connect in a Link vs. Phantoms mini games that are basically tri-force stealing capture the flags. It’s no four-swords. You can keep track of your win/loss record, though, and choose between battling friends or someone random. The online mode is also used for the trading of treasure and ship parts: neat, but a bit superfluous.
Phantom Hourglass not only capitalizes on the potential of a Zelda game, it taps into the oft neglected talents of the DS, from great graphics, to touch controls, to the casual appeal of the handheld. The game is satisfying to both longtime Zelda fans and casual gamers alike.