The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass
Posted by D on July 23, 2008
I have a lukewarm relationship with the Zelda franchise. I quite enjoyed A Link to the Past but Ocarina of Time was rather wearing and Majora’s Mask hardly held my attention. And with that background I came to The Phantom Hourglass in a fairly neutral state of mind with little bias either way. Personally I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the game will go down in history as a deinfining moment of “the art” but it is certainly worth some time and money.
As always, you play Link and you are charged with the task of completing some quest and once more resucing Princess Zelda. Like the earlier SNES and gameboy outings the game plays from a topdown viewpoint, the initial and main portion of the game plays out in an overworld that links together a series of temples or dungeons. So it’s the usual zelda affair. The overworld consists of a series of islands that later in the game are linked together by a sailing mini-game as you island hop following the fairly linear two dimensional plot.
The game’s design displays a somewhat direct and simple philosophy, if things ever appear inaccessible you can rest assured that you’ll shortly learn the appropriate skill that allows you to reach them. Often it’s easy to find and recall where these slightly hidden bonus bits are and one results of this is that The Phantom Hourglass lacks the rambling treasure hunt feeling of many of the earlier episodes. The endless traipsing back and forth in the Ocarina of Time, just in case something was newly accessible, was nothing short of mind bendingly boring. And as far as I’m concerned it’s a good thing that it’s kept to a minimum here..
The game is spent shuttling between islands, to follow what little plot there is, and incrementally exploring more and more of the central dungeon as new abilities are granted to you. This nominally sisyphisian task is enabled by one of the single greatest inventions that the world of computer gaming has ever brought to you: ‘writing’. Yes! The near limitless opportunities afforded by ‘writing things down’ has finally been opened up to to the world of computer games. What this means in reality is that, as this is a stylus only DS title, they’ve included the ability to stop the game and scribble notes or make marks on any of the maps in the game. Strangely enough this proves to be one of the most welcome additions to any adventure/RPG game that I’ve ever seen. It means that the game and everything you need are completely self contained, no need to keep a pad of paper beside you to take notes. Especially useful given that the game is on a portable platform. The only real issue is the disturbingly low resolution that you can make notes in, the ability to zoom much further into the maps to leave slightly more detailed notes would have been nice. Instead, coupled with the somewhat low resolution of the touch screen, you usually end up scrawling what looks like the hamfisted doodlings of a neanderthal. Zog have writey stick, Zog mark here.
The core of the game itself involves exploring The Temple of The Ocean King at ever deeper levels with ever increasing complexity. This portion plays out much like a little top-down, timed, puzzly stealth game and it’s pretty great. As you explore you occassionally get to an impasse, some plot point is handed out and off you’re sent to a different temple (read: dungeon) on another island to gain which ever ability you need to progress further through the Temple of the Ocean King. Link is pilotted through these dungeons using the touch screen and almost all of his abilities use the touch screen in some manner and it works excellently. From drawing the path of the boomerang to using the grappling hook, there are plenty of neat imaginative touches when it comes to Link’s abilities. I especially appreached the way you can use the grappling hook to tether two posts together and then the rope can be used as either a tightrope or from the ground as a cartoon style catapault to send Link across gaps.
I enjoyed the main portion of the game a lot so it was quite disappointing that the game is so short and the story so brief. The dungeons/temples could have been longer and the puzzles could have got a bit harder. But perhaps the Zelda games have never been about providing hard challenges.
Beyond the game’s core dungeons there are plenty of mini-games to keep you occupied most of which are pretty good. Sailing between the islands represents the main minigame where you have to fend off pirates and jump(!?) over barriers. It’s a little work-a-day and it’s nice that teleport points are eventually introduced so that you don’t have to sail across the whole map to get places. Within this sailing section there are further mini-games where you can fight pirates and fish for items and again these aren’t really up to much once you’ve got the hang of them. More interesting are some of the other mini-games. The timed maze and the archery, shooting gallery are really rather excellent. Overall the mini-games bring some much appreciated diversity to the main dungeon crawl in the game.
As I finished the game I was rather dissappointed to find that it was quite so short. Most of what’s there is fun and engaging and I was sad that there wasn’t any more to come. The level design and progression is excellent and the bosses are large, engaging and imaginative. The graphics and sound are great. And additionally I especially appreciated the general lack of incidental NPCs as it cuts down the immense amount of interminable, unreadable incidental dialogue that the Japanese feel has to be included in any RPG type game. All in I’m eager to see a sequel with a larger more developed story.