Release Date: October 1, 2007
I often find myself exceedingly wary of "never-ending fantasy." Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time? No thanks, there's something off-putting about a series of books that takes 12 huge novels to complete. Final Fantasy? Talk about false advertising; there's nothing final about it. Yet somehow, the Legend of Zelda has managed to occasionally grab my attention from time to time, despite it being 14 titles long. Am I a hypocrite? Oh, definitely. It's my right as a crotchety old guy. Get off my lawn. What was I talking about? Oh yes, The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, the latest Zelda for the Nintendo DS and the scourge of my gaming habits for the past three weeks. If you haven't already purchased this title, I'm here to attempt to explain why you need to go out and buy it right now.
Phantom Hourglass is a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, so it sits somewhat outside the canon of previous Zelda titles like Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess. It is a 3D, cel-shaded action-adventure role-playing game with a heavy accent on puzzle-solving. The events of the game take place after the ending of Wind Waker. Link has rescued Princess Tetra, and all seems to be going swimmingly as the two sail the seas basking in a Ganondorf-free world. However, a chance encounter with a hulking ghost ship sees the princess being spirited away and Link forced to go on another globe-spanning adventure trying to hunt down the ghost ship before Tetra's life spirit is completely drained by the evil Bellum, the new bad boy on the block.
Through a series of misadventures, Link finds himself adrift in the open sea and blacks out while being tossed about like driftwood. Upon waking on a strange beach, he meets a fairy with partial amnesia named Ciela; she leads him to a kindly old man named Oshus, who sets Link on his path to greatness (again). Without giving away all of the plot, allow me to say that you'll find yourself rescuing three other fairy spirits, each of which, along with Ciela, will help you unlock the deepest secrets in the Temple of the Ocean King. Your efforts will see you cross the ocean and back many times, as well as explore many uncharted islands. Phantom Hourglass often feels freeform in its structure, even though there is a clear A-to-Z plot.
Like Wind Waker, much of the play takes place on the open sea as you travel from island to island. To keep monotony down, there are many obstacles one must pay attention to while sailing; there are creatures to shoot (cannons are fun), barriers to jump (I didn't think ships could ever be so nimble), trade vessels to board and buy from (frequent buyer cards and all) and killer fogs. The sea is a dangerous place to be. Luckily, as you progress, there are other options for travel that become open to you, thanks to the benevolence of a giant frog with a crown. I won't even try to explain what I mean by that, so you'll just have to play the game to find out.
Phantom Hourglass excels at game design. I really, truly mean that. There are groundbreaking "think outside the box" concepts around every corner, and every possible aspect of the DS is used to great effect. To begin with, there is the control input that uses the stylus to control Link. Most of the in-game action takes place on the lower DS screen because you use the stylus to move your avatar. This is just shy of point-and-click with a mouse, and it's instantly intuitive and comfortable. The only drawback is that, at any given moment, half of what's going on will be covered by your hand. Ladies and gentleman, this is in fact the only aspect of Phantom Hourglass with which I could personally find fault.
There are other clever uses of the touch-sensitive screen as well, including the ability to make notes on your world map so that you can keep track of places to revisit when you've obtained the right equipment (such as the deep-sea salvage arm — mark on your ocean map where treasure may lie, and then once you've got the arm, go back and grab the loot). The way you use the boomerang is almost ridiculously fun: Draw out the path you want the wooden missile to fly, let go and watch it sail around. When I first got my hands on this, I spent a good 10 minutes just drawing out convoluted loops to see how complex a path I could make.
However, before you go thinking that Phantom Hourglass is just an interesting usage of pressure-sensitive input, allow me to illustrate other points in order to educate you. At one point, I was faced with a gate that wouldn't open "until the candles were out." On either side of this gate were torches, and I must have spent 15 minutes trying to figure out what I had to do to put these things out. I swung my sword, I threw my boomerang at them, I ran to other places on the map looking for a water supply, but nothing worked because I was still thinking in terms of what I was capable of within the confines of the digital world. The solution was real-world — I had to physically blow out the candles! The DS' built-in microphone picks up the hiss and extinguishes the torches. Other examples of using the mic include blowing dust off of a dirty map and yelling at an NPC to let him know exactly how badly you want to buy his products.
Then there is the map press puzzle. In one of the temples, you're presented with a stone sigil against which you need to press your map. After flipping back and forth through my world and ocean maps, I finally had a thought: "What if I just close the DS?" Sure enough, that is exactly what the situation called for. The sigil was on the top screen, and the map on the bottom so close the DS, and you've pressed your map against the sigil. Clever. As I said, there is an almost constant supply of brain teasers that defy standard design conventions.
Graphically, Phantom Hourglass pulls no punches. It utilizes the same cel-shaded design approach that Wind Waker used, and this quite elegantly shows off what the DS' capabilities. Colors are bold and bright, shapes are basic, and the entire world feels like an interactive cartoon. I'm sure there are some purists out there who still churlishly cling to the idea that is "Celda" more than Zelda, but to these few, I say "feh" as I dismissively wave my foppish hand. This game looks better than any other DS title I've ever played, cartoon mood or not.
Like all previous Zelda titles, Phantom Hourglass is predicated heavily on puzzle solving. At its core it's an action game, but the real meat of play is figuring out how to get to the next group of creatures to slay. Personally, I have a low threshold of tolerance for puzzles. I enjoy them, but I get frustrated easily. To this end, I found Phantom Hourglass almost perfectly balanced. With the exception of the "real world" solutions, there were no Gordian Knots that I couldn't unravel. The challenges are just clever enough to keep me thinking, without becoming so oblique that there is no real way forward without a walkthrough.
Additionally, I feel it prudent to discuss the feeling of depth Phantom Hourglass can boast. The world feels open and inviting, even the areas that clearly pose a danger. There is absolutely no feeling of railroaded "go and do this, and nothing else except this" design; you can do whatever you want, whenever you want to. The mail system that feeds you messages from characters you've encountered provides a sense of life to the world, as opposed to the isolation that can often plague open-ended RPGs. The swappable ship parts you can collect provides you with that all-important "look how cool I look" factor, and I really do love crafting my boat to look like a meaty demon.
After all is said and done, I love Phantom Hourglass. It's not just the best DS game I've ever played, but it's also one of the best games I've ever played, period. It's engaging, it looks excellent, it is not too short by any means (There is no way you'll finish this game in 11 hours or less. I'm giving a dirty look to Halo 3 here.), it has plenty of different options to keep you going and its writing is top-notch. That there is also multiplayer included for use with the Nintendo Wi-Fi functionality is just icing on the cake. Simply put, if you don't have a DS, then you must go out and buy one just to play Phantom Hourglass! It's as must-have as you can get.
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