The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks – Staff Review

The Legend of Zelda franchise is one of the oldest action RPG series out there, and it is unique in that it has consistently offered a similar experience, whether it is played on a console or a handheld.  Zelda is and always will be all about exploring dungeons, finding hidden items, and then using them to solve the puzzles within.  It is this core experience that brings players back again and again, some in spite of the similarities from game to game and some because of them. When the franchise made the move to the DS, many questioned whether it could work with its all-stylus control scheme.  Phantom Hourglass silenced many a naysayer, but sadly, Spirit Tracks does not have the same punch that its predecessor had.

The game is actually set about a hundred years after the events of Phantom Hourglass, but the only way you’d really be able to tell is by the elderly Niko, the pirate from Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. As the game opens, Link has set off to Hyrule Castle to receive his engineering license. There he learns of the Spirit Tracks, a set of railroad tracks that keep the demon king imprisoned in the Tower of Spirits.  Eerily, these tracks are disappearing from the world, so the pair set off to the Tower of Spirits to restore them. Along the way, Princess Zelda is separated from her body. In this state she helps link as a Navi-like assistant, though she can also control various phantoms Link will encounter

Like Phantom Hourglass, the game’s biggest accomplishment is the stylus control, but that is also its single biggest flaw.  When the stylus inputs work, they are great, and this is true for about 90% of the gameplay.  Where things start to fall apart is boss battles.  The controls are imprecise to the point of being game breaking, as stylus commands can easily be mistaken for one another, and the addition of Phantom Zelda only adds to the confusion. The maneuver to pick up a bomb is pretty much the same one to stab it, making it explode right there.  This is annoying, and it will happen more times than you care for.  While this is manageable most of the time, boss fights often require exact and careful movements, which the controls make extremely difficult.  It simply is not acceptable that when you want to stab a boss, Link blunders into the intended target.  Controlling Phantom Zelda has similar problems, as sometimes instead of moving her, you’ll just walk to where she’s standing.  And then you get hurt.  And then you probably start swearing.  It’s so bad that the last boss battle is more about being lucky than any actual skill.  All of this could have been avoided by building the game around the directional pad with stylus input for items, a control scheme that would put less emphasis on stylus movements and more on overall gameplay.

There is one surprising aspect to Spirit Tracks that practically salvages the game.  Though Zelda games are known for their lore, individual games are usually somewhat weak on story.  Using the graphical style of Wind Waker, Spirit Tracks tells volumes of story without a single word by relying on facial expressions and body movements to great effect.  Princess Zelda is an early standout, conveying her thoughts easily even in Phantom form. You wouldn’t think that the gigantic lumbering Phantoms from Phantom Hourglass could be so feminine, but through their movements, every action flawlessly tells the story that the creators were going for.  Of course, there is plenty of plot in the form of text boxes, but it pales in comparison.

Graphically, Spirit Tracks gives players the experience they have come to expect.  The game is gorgeous.  Dungeons are detailed, and the overworld is pretty.  Everywhere you look, there are bright, colorful graphics, and the game pushes the limits of what the DS can do for sure.  This is, by far, one of the best looking games on the handheld to date.

Spirit Tracks also scores high marks for its music, but unfortunately, there are few new songs except for the overworld theme.  Since you’ll spend most of the game on your train, the bulk of what you’ll actually listen to still manages to be fresh and catchy.  It would have been nice for more new tunes, but it still does pretty well. The game also does moderately well with its sound effects, but it’s nothing new.  Fans of the series will recognize pretty much all of the sound effects from past games, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sadly, that’s where most of the praise for Spirit Tracks ends.  Many people lamented the boat of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, but the train of Spirit Tracks is far worse.  It has only two speeds going forward: slow and slower.  It is an absolute chore getting anywhere in the game because it takes so long to get anywhere.  Warp points are accessible later on that do cut down on travel time, but they don’t shorten things by enough and end up being too little too late.  And unlike a boat that can go pretty much anywhere, trains are limited to tracks.  You can only go where the tracks go, so there is no such thing as a shortcut.  To make matters worse, there are enemy trains on the same tracks, and if you hit them, you die.  Players must be careful to avoid them, sometimes changing course to avoid certain death.  This nearly always results in a longer path.

Another major flaw is that this game seems very much like Phantom Hourglass all over.  Once again, the world is broken into four quadrants that you gain access to in turn, and each has a dungeon.  After you finish each one, you’re off the Ocean King Temple…. err… Tower of Spirits.  Fortunately, each trip to the Tower of Spirits features new floors that can be accessed without going through the previous ones, but it’s still somewhat annoying.  The game feels like a second quest through the previous title, not a new game that stands on its own.  Everything feels reused, including some of the monsters.

Phantom Hourglass was a very short game, but Spirit Tracks is even shorter.  Not counting the Tower of Spirits, there are only five proper dungeons to explore, and a fan of the series could probably guess four of them.  There are also fewer items to use.  In all, Link gets six sub weapons to his disposal, and three of them are bombs, a boomerang, and the bow and arrow.  This does mean that there are three new items, and this is a welcome change.  Despite the new tools, two of them feel similar to previous items from other Zelda games, so only one is truly original.

One final problem is the overuse of the Spirit flute. Zelda games apparently simply must have a musical instrument of some sort, so this game is no exception.  The problem is that you play the flute by actually blowing into the microphone on the DS.  That wouldn’t really cause too much trouble, except with harder songs, the DS tends to not recognize that you’ve stopped blowing to skip to a different note.  Shorter songs are almost as bad since they are a measly two consecutive notes long.  Much like the game as a whole, it feels like a good idea that was very badly implemented.  Worse, the microphone can pick up background noise when played on the go, such as on an airplane, and the DS will interpret this as constant input whether you are actually blowing into it or not, rendering any of the flute segments that do not have consecutive notes unplayable. One wrong note, like the one in between the ones you’re going for, and the song is ruined.  At least there is no penalty for retrying missed songs.

As mentioned before, Spirit Tracks is pretty short.  The game lacks a timer, but you could probably finish it in no more than 10-20 hours.  There are some mini-games that could lengthen your playtime, but they primarily involve the train, so some will probably not take the time to do them. Aside from a few tricky puzzles, the game is pretty easy on the whole.  The only difficulty comes from using the stylus to attack.  Figuring out how to deal with bosses isn’t challenging by itself, though getting Link to do what you need via the stylus is another story.

In the end, Spirit Tracks feels nearly exactly like its predecessor.  If you really liked Phantom Hourglass, you will like its landlocked clone.  If you were not a fan of Link’s last DS excursion, just save yourself the trouble and skip this one.  This one is only for the more diehard fans.


  1. Der Jermeister:

    I didn’t really care much for Phantom Hourglass, given the sailing and the dungeon you have to constantly redo, so I’ll probably skip this one as well.

    I actually preferred James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game on the DS, which sort of rips off Phantom Hourglass but doesn’t have the aforementioned negative elements.

  2. Jordan "J_Sensei" Jackson:

    Honestly, the game feels like a rehashed Phantom Hourglass. They did fix ONE part of the battle system (it’s easier to roll now) but the game still has most of the problems from the first one, and they added a host of new ones. They need to STOP using the stylus. Waggle does not make every Wii game better, and using the stylus for everything is equally bad on the DS.

  3. Mechanios:

    The new weapons part isn’t true. Link also gains a Whip, which is new as it’s not in any previous Zelda (that I can think of off the top of my head)

  4. Jordan "J_Sensei" Jackson:

    From the review:

    “This does mean that there are three new items, and this is a welcome change. Despite the new tools, two of them feel similar to previous items from other Zelda games, so only one is truly original.”

    I mention that there are three new items. The whip, as you mention is one of them. As an attack item, it is very much new. But its main focus is for swinging across gaps. That makes it very similar to the grappling hook from Wind Waker. Furthermore, its attack capability is similar to the hammer from Phantom Hourglass in that it can attack from nearly any distance by touching. It does have one new purpose for solving puzzles, but that is only found in the dungeon that you find it in and nowhere else that I found.

    And while I’m at it, there is the wind making item, which is also new. But really, its main functionality was replicated in the Gust Boomerang from Twilight Princess. So even though these items ARE new, they aren’t really serving new purposes, they are just ‘new’ items that feel like reskinned items from previous games. Link could, for instance, get a ‘come back stick.’ A long stick that is not curved. If you throw this come back stick, it magically returns to the user. This would be a ‘new’ item in that you’ve never had one before, but no matter how you look at it, it’s a replacement for the boomerang even if you could also swing it like a sword of some sort.

    That brings us to the final new item, which I purposefully did not name because it is the only truly original item in the game. I’d rather not spoil the most interesting part of a wholly uninteresting game for anyone that might have picked up this game by some sad chance.

  5. Mechanios:

    Fair enough.

  6. Jordan "J_Sensei" Jackson:

    Whew. I”m actually kind of glad you can see what I meant. After I read my comment again, I thought that perhaps I was being harsh. Especially since we don’t get many comments around here.

    In the end, I just felt that the game just felt so very unoriginal in every way. It’s sad. I’m a huge fan of the series, and this was, by far, the biggest letdown yet.

  7. Mechanios:

    I enjoyed Phantom Hourglass, but I can’t bring myself to beat Spirit Tracks. I’ve beat the 4 lands, but I just don’t find incentive to finish it. I just hope Nintendo isn’t gonna continue releasing half-assed DS games.

    And I’m pretty understanding person. :p Your comment wasn’t harsh.

  8. Jordan "J_Sensei" Jackson:

    Honestly, if I weren’t planning on reviewing it, I might have given up. I had this glimmer of hope that it would get better, but it never did. I also enjoyed Phantom Hourglass. Back when I used to work for a different site, three of us reviewed it simultaneously. My score was the highest of the three. I thought it was really innovative, and it was. But simply repackaging the same game again cheapens the effect. I went on record saying that I liked Twilight Princess better when it was called Ocarina of Time, but really, that comparison is unfair when you consider PH and ST. Yes, TP plays a LOT like a pretty OoT with some new (and admittedly very cool items) but at least it was different. ST feels like some sort of awkward port of PH.

    If Nintendo keeps doing this, I think they may really disenfranchise a lot of fans. Or least least one of them. 🙁

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