The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
- December 07, 2009 13:55 PM PST
The Hero of Hyrule strikes back with all new puzzles to solve and dungeons to explore with the highly anticipated continuation of Nintendo's timeless franchise, but does his latest adventure meet the high expectations set from 2007's Phantom Hourglass?
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The Legend of Zelda franchise has been a gaming staple for decades, starting with Link's glorious debut on the NES, and though the culture of gaming has undergone dramatic changes over the years, it has managed to remain relevant by staying true to its core values of epic storytelling, interesting characters and vibrant worlds. But the true secret of Nintendo's success has been in its ability to fully leverage the power of its consoles in order to move the franchise forward: A Link to the Past used the SNES's 16-bit capabilities to create a large vibrant world full of colorful sprites while The Ocarina of Time brought Zelda into the 3D realm using the N64's more powerful hardware. More recently, Twilight Princess, originally a Gamecube title, used the motion controls to good effect and helped prove that they could work for things more complex than virtual bowling.
Spirit Tracks, the latest portable Zelda title, continues the tradition of taking full advantage of its respective platform: You'll find yourself scribbling on the DS' touchscreen with the stylus, playing a flute by blowing into the mic, and attacking enemies by smacking them on the touch screen. The game also offers up a deep experience, and while the sense of overall challenge is minimal, there are a number of engaging and fun tasks such as rabbit collection and train improvements waiting to be unearthed. Traveling around the world in the locomotive is also a unique and novel solution to the problem of long-distance movement, and it's particularly well handled, a good thing considering it's the major distinguishing "feature" that helps separate Spirit Tracks from the other titles.
It's a quirky, eccentric, yet utterly enjoyable game but it also suffers from a few issues that keep it from reaching the high bar set by other Zelda titles. For one, the initial pacing is rather poor. The first two hours are dedicated to introducing the world's backstory -- the game's world is inhabited by people who have been fending off a demon using railroad tracks -- and this requires a ton of reading, a problem which is exacerbated by the DS' relatively small screens. To add to those early pacing problems, players are handcuffed by the limited set of actions at their disposal, specifically during the train-driving portions. While this is all in line with the genre convention of gradually rewarding progress, Spirit Tracks would have benefited from a much more compelling intro to counteract the slow narrative.
When the game does start to pickup, it plays very similarly to The Phantom Hourglass and while this isn't necessarily a problem -- Phantom Hourglass was a great title, after all -- it would have been nice to see more innovation applied to the overall gameplay; aside from the unique modes of transportation, there really isn't much to differentiate the two. I also noticed a very kid-friendly vibe to the title -- an idea that solidified when I dispatched a smilely flower monster with a leaf pinwhee -- and while it fits the overall spirit of the game (excuse the pun), it might also alienate older gamers who may have grown up with Zelda but whose tastes have matured past the cute and the cuddly.
And yet, while it isn't perfect, Spirit Tracks does enough things right that you won't regret persevering through the initial sluggishness. Once the game picks up momentum and speed, it packs a locomotive sized punch, one that doesn't reinvent the wheel but still manages to do the storied franchise proud.
PROS: Makes good use of the DS' capabilities; offers a deep experience with plenty to do
CONS: Game drags in the early going; doesn't innovate much beyond Phantom Hourglass