Blurring the Line: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

After the many adventures that took place during The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Link is finally getting a chance to relax a little bit. Of course, this peace does not last long, and Zelda quickly finds trouble again. It’s up to Link to investigate the mysteries of the ghost ship and the ocean king in order to set things right. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is indeed a direct sequel to Wind Waker, though aside from one major spoiler, the story doesn’t carry over all that strongly, allowing newcomers to pick it up just fine. That said, there are some similarities in mechanics and world, many of which have been improved upon since the original, though this isn’t always the case.

Perhaps the largest example of this comes in the sailing portions. For starters, there’s no need to worry about wind direction, manual steering, bomb ammo, or sailing for several minutes in order to get from one major island the the next. Instead, a course can be charted by drawing the desired path on the screen. Link’s new ship-management tasks include firing at enemies, jumping over obstacles, or interacting with various other things that might appear along the way. Ship to ship combat is also much better since the player need only worry about the camera and cannon rather than attempting to juggle steering, cannon, wind direction, and sail all at once. Given the importance of sailing and number of seafaring bosses, this is certainly a good thing. The only real downside to this is that the player isn’t free to just take their boats and go zooming off to wherever the wind takes them, but this system is an improvement for normal gameplay.

As its title would suggest, another big part of the game is the Phantom Hourglass. Much of Link’s quest this time around involves him exploring dungeons and fighting enemies in order to find clues, get new seacharts, and increase the Phantom Hourglass’s power, not always in that order of importance. The hourglass allows Link to spend more time inside of the game’s largest, most involved, and indeed most impressive dungeon the game has to offer, the Temple of the Ocean King, without taking damage when walking through certain portions. This is all well and good, except perhaps for players who don’t like being timed or dealing with the mostly invincible enemies that roam the corridors, but the Temple of the Ocean King suffers from a very serious problem. Everything in the dungeon resets when Link leaves, and there is only a single checkpoint despite needing to visit the temple very frequently as the game progresses. As mentioned earlier, it really is one of the better designed dungeons in the game and indeed in any Zelda title. There’s a large variety of puzzles and traps that will put all of Link’s new and returning tools to the test, and most floors can be solved in multiple ways. Even so, completing the same floors, even taking advantage of the ability to solve them in different ways, begins to become repetitive from the second visit onward. To make things worse, some trips allow minimal actual progress. Needless to say, most portions can really begin to grate by the end of the game, making a chore out of what could have easily been the highlight of the game.

The game’s other dungeons, on the other hand, are typically not nearly as good. Many of them feel like they’re not quite up to par with the rest of the Zelda series, especially when compared to the Temple of the Ocean King’s design, poor checkpoint decision aside, or even the excellent dungeon design present in Minish Cap. On the plus side, these dungeons do offer an additional chance to hunt for treasure, boat upgrades, and powerups, alongside a number of tools that will allow Link more options when it comes to exploring, solving puzzles, and fighting.

Indeed, Link will find himself fighting a large variety of enemies while solving puzzles, and his sword alone isn’t going to do the job. Aside from using tools to assist him in targeting or at least uncovering enemy weakpoints, it’s also possible to use special gems that are found scattered about to customize Link’s blade. These customizations include bonuses such as increased attack or defense, and they can be swapped on the fly in order to adjust to the situation, provided the desired upgrades have been unlocked of course. As with many recent Zelda titles, Phantom Hourglass is on the easy side, with some puzzles likely giving players a bit of a harder time than enemies will, especially if a number of optional powerups are found.

Whether it’s combat or puzzles, one solid point Phantom Hourglass has is its tight control scheme. Naturally, the DS and GameCube are different systems with two rather different control setups, but rather than opting for the most similar method the DS offers, it is controlled almost entirely with the stylus. Amazingly enough, it controls extremely well except for three minor issues. First, it can be a bit difficult to pull off a roll sometimes. Second, it’s easy to accidentally throw the item Link’s carrying when attempting to walk slowly. Finally, some tools remain active or deactivate depending on the situation, and this can be a tad frustrating in a few places. Aside from those problems, the controls are very well done. The second screen is put to good use, typically as a map that can be brought into the lower screen and written on, allowing for more involved puzzles to be included without forcing the player to grab a sheet of paper and a pencil. The menus are also very nicely laid out, though another tool shortcut or two wouldn’t have hurt.

Phantom Hourglass may be a direct sequel to The Wind Waker, but it doesn’t make especially good use of this fact when it comes to storytelling. Even so, it manages to do pretty well for itself by bringing together a pretty decent cast for a Zelda title and throwing in a few twists as Link attempts to uncover the secret behind the ghost ship’s mysteries. It’s certainly not the best story seen in a Zelda game, but it isn’t bad either. It shouldn’t take too long to complete: even with repeated trips through the Temple of the Ocean King dragging things out, it’s still only likely to take between twenty and thirty hours.

Visually speaking, Phantom Hourglass is obviously not as good looking as The Wind Waker, but it looks quite good for DS and manages to mimic its predecessor’s style pretty effectively. It may not have the lovely cel-shaded tones, but the characters look more or less like their GameCube versions and many of the game’s characters, enemies, and areas look nice too. There are even a few neat visuals thrown in on occasion, such as the cute picturebook that appears in the game’s opening.

The visuals may be good, but the sound isn’t anywhere near that level. The music is surprisingly limited, with the same tracks being used in many different places with surprising frequency. Needless to say, the Temple of the Ocean King’s music gets old as quickly as having to play through the same floors several times does. The sound effects are actually pretty good for the most part, but they suffer from the occasional odd sound glitch, some of which are bad enough that the game must be reset, though those are very rare.

Excellent stylus controls, a direct sequel, and one of the best dungeons in the Zelda series line up all in one game. Unfortunately, this is marred somewhat by the game’s other mostly unspectacular dungeons and below average sound. Those issues aside, the biggest problem was a poor decision regarding the Temple of the Ocean King, mandating multiple playthroughs of the same areas instead of simply offering some sort of optional incentive for doing so. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass manages to improve over several aspects of The Wind Waker, but as with The Wind Waker, it makes a few bad design choices that set it at the low end of the Zelda series. It is by no means a bad game, but it could have been significantly more enjoyable if its potential had been fully tapped.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.