For what seems like eons, a brave young man named Link has been traveling through hell and high water to save a land called Hyrule and a princess known only as Zelda. The formula has changed very little over the last twenty-plus years, with Zelda being a constantly unattainable character, and Link a lone adventurer (give or take a fairy or two). In The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, however, that all changes. For the first time ever, Zelda accompanies Link on his journey, and the result is a game that feels familiar, but not stale. Also new to the series are the titular spirit tracks, along with the train that takes Link and Zelda across Hyrule. Unfortunately, Link’s new vehicle moves a bit too slowly at times, and can limit the sense of exploration that most Zelda games have.
Spirit Tracks is a spiritual successor to Phantom Hourglass, the last game in the series, and has the same cel-shaded visuals. The presentation in Spirit Tracks isn’t a notable improvement, but looks just as charming as it did in Phantom Hourglass, with outside environments appearing like a storybook come to life. The art style is more cutesy and less serious than some other installments in the franchise, like Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time, but it also suits the tone of the game nicely. There’s a lot more humor in this game, like when Zelda objects to traveling with Link, stating that it’s a family tradition for princesses to stay home and do nothing. For longtime Zelda fans, though, the real presentation highlight of any game in the series is the music, and Spirit Tracks does not disappoint. There are sounds both new and familiar, and there are few things as comforting in life as the notes that play when Link solves a puzzle.
As the game begins, Link is about to get his engineer’s license that will allow him to drive a train, which seems horribly out of place for the series at first. A trip to the Hyrule castle for his graduation ceremony soon reveals that the Spirit Tracks are both ancient and magical, having been placed by spirits long ago. They’re also mysteriously disappearing, which is a serious concern to Princess Zelda. Before long, the two youngsters have been swept up in a quest to restore the Spirit Tracks and put a stop to the evil force trying to resurrect a hellish demon. This will, of course, take them across various terrains and through multiple puzzle-filled temples.
One of the things that makes Spirit Tracks unique is that it doesn’t have eight distinct, different-themed dungeons, like most Zelda games. Yes, there’s a forest temple and a water temple, but you’ll also spend a good portion of the game exploring the Tower of Spirits, a structure that is blown apart early in the game that you will slowly work to restore. As you make your way through more temples in the overworld, parts of the Temple will come back together, allowing you to climb higher and higher in order to get more parts of the rail map. These are what brings back Spirit Tracks, which is how you’ll gain access to new areas.
All of the temple areas contain a satisfying mix of puzzle-solving and combat. Link gradually receives some new tools, some of which, like the boomerang or bow and arrow, make a return from previous games. There are some new items as well, like a whip that can be used to fight enemies or swing from high places, and a wand that creates walls of sand. Additionally, within the Tower of Spirits, Zelda can assist you by possessing Phantoms. If you played Phantom Hourglass, you may remember Phantoms as the unbeatable, mystical suits of armor that guard certain areas. This time around, you can use them, with the player able to control both Zelda and Link at the same time. These sections feel different from standard Zelda temple gameplay, and help make the game feel fresh. However, there are some issues that Zelda has while wearing a Phantom suit. The biggest problem is that when Link calls her, she’ll sometimes run in the complete opposite direction or get stuck behind a wall, which is frustrating if you’re in a situation that requires stealth and precision. You can take control of her by tracing a path with the stylus, but this leaves Link vulnerable, which is not always ideal. Zelda also moves so slowly that waiting for her to catch up with you can be somewhat annoying, especially since you can’t move on to another floor without her standing next to you.
Controls for exploring and combat are done with the DS’s touch screen, but are surprisingly intuitive (well, surprising if you haven’t played Phantom Hourglass, which has essentially the same control scheme). Link will follow the stylus and move where you hold it on the screen. Tapping an enemy will cause Link to stab it with his sword, a quick slash of the stylus will have him imitating the same movement, and drawing a circle around him unleashes a spin move, which he can only do a few times before getting dizzy. All of his weapons also use touch screen controls. The boomerang will follow the path you draw for it, bombs can be thrown where you tap, and the sand wand will raise platforms out of the ground wherever the stylus goes. There are a few issues where Link won’t follow your commands quickly enough, resulting in an attack, and when things get a little hectic, it’s easily accidentally lead him off a cliff when you meant to have him jump to safety. Still, the issues are minimal, and barely worth complaining about. The controls work very well, and it only takes a few minutes for them to become second nature.
In between dungeons, Link and Zelda travel through the land by train, replacing the boat from Phantom Hourglass. Controlling the train is simple; a bar on the left side of the screen has two speeds (fast and faster), stop, and reverse, and pulling a cord blows the horn. A path can be traced on the map for the train to follow, but you can change your mind during the journey by flipping a switch at intersections. Of course, just because Link’s not traveling alone and on foot doesn’t mean he’s safe; he’ll have to fight off pirates, animals, and evil snowmen with the train’s cannon. All parts of the train are upgradable, with rare collectables being traded for better cannons, passenger cars, freight cars, or engines; this will make you want to re-explore completed temples and finish side quests just to get more loot and a better train.
Throughout the game, I was constantly annoyed by how slowly the train moved, and how long it took to get from Point A to Point B. Shortcuts and warp spots pop up later in the game, allowing the train to move more quickly from one realm to another, but even getting to these can take more time than it should. I hoped that upgrading my engine would make the train faster, but it only heightened my defense, giving the vehicle more hearts. This made me less willing to fully explore the map and complete side quests, something that has always been a highlight of Zelda games to me. There were times when a new objective would pop up across the map, and I wanted to turn off the game rather than drive all the way over there. This frustration was heightened by the presence of evil trains that circle certain parts of the Spirit Tracks, sometime causing you to have to go back or wait for them to pass. Colliding with these trains will bring you back to where you started, meaning that you’ll sometimes lose minutes of travel time. This may not seem like a lot, but honestly, it should not take five minutes in real time to traverse a small section of the map.
In addition to a fifteen-hour campaign and several additional hours of side quests, Spirit Tracks has a multiplayer mode that allows you to play with up to three friends, even if you only have one game cartridge. In this mode, different-colored Links will compete to collect the most force gems while avoiding the pitfalls of the level, including Phantoms. Players can also screw over each other, and you can collect a fallen player’s gems. It’s chaotic fun, and while not a selling point for the game, it’s absolutely a nice bonus.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is another great entry in one of gaming’s most prolific series. It’s not without flaws, but it also offers some of the most fun handheld gameplay this year. There are very few things to complain about, though the game can get slowed down by the leisurely pace of the train, as well as Zelda’s tendency to dawdle in temples. Overall, though, Spirit Tracks is an enjoyable experience that shouldn’t be overlooked just because it snuck out so late in the year. This would be a good addition to the DS library of any gamer.