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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) artwork

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) review

"Phantom Hourglass is a bore. It takes the same tired gameplay weíve been seeing for 20 years and throws some touch-screen functionality on it. Does the touch screen add much to the game? Not really. For every way in which it helps the gameplay, it also hinders it. Itís the definition of gimmick. For all but the most die-hard Zelda fans, Phantom Hourglass will be a long, boring trial to keep yourself awake. "

Phantom Hourglass is a bore. It takes the same tired gameplay weíve been seeing for 20 years and throws some touch-screen functionality on it. Does the touch screen add much to the game? Not really. For every way in which it helps the gameplay, it also hinders it. Itís the definition of gimmick. For all but the most die-hard Zelda fans, Phantom Hourglass will be a long, boring trial to keep yourself awake.

It all starts with the plot. There isnít one. Tetra gets kidnapped, and Link has to go on some vaguely-defined quest to collect magical doo-dads hidden away in contrived dungeons throughout the world. Thatís the whole game. Why does Nintendo insist on making Zelda plots so generic? Hereís an exercise: grab a piece of paper, grab a pencil, and write down the first ten words that come to mind. If you can do that, youíve made a more interesting plot than Phantom Hourglass. And whatís with those characters? Specifically, Link. This guy is as dull as a post. Why must he always be mute? Zelda fans say ďoh, itís because youíre supposed to think youíre him!Ē Newsflash: he doesnít look, sound, or act like me. Iím not thinking of Link as me. Iím thinking of him as a stale cookie-cutter hero with no personality.

To be fair, not many people are playing Zelda for the plot. So how about that gameplay? The biggest change this time around is the control scheme, and the best thing I can say about it is that it doesnít not work. I wonít say it works, because it doesnít. But itís functional. Instead of using the D-pad to move Link, you drag him around with the stylus as if he were on an invisible leash. Okay, that works. To attack bad guys, you just tap them. That works too. Slashing at anything but enemies is generally reliable, but on occasion Link will just shuffle back and forth instead. Tapping objects to pick them up can be a pain; sometimes Link will grab them, sometimes he will do nothing. Oh, and forget about rolling. Apparently youíre supposed to make little circles at the edge of the touch screen, but half the time Link just swings his sword around randomly.

Even with the sometimes-shoddy touch recognition, the control scheme is bearable. There are even a few strokes of brilliance: throwing the boomerang is easier than ever before. Just trace a line on the screen and thatís how itíll be thrown. Perhaps the niftiest feature in Phantom Hourglass is the map, on which you can trace little ďnotesĒ to remind yourself of puzzle solutions, etc. That is cool. And the few puzzles which use the DS microphone are awesome, too.

But even the best touch-screen control scheme in the world could not save Phantom Hourglass from its biggest flaw: hand cramps. This is the best carpal tunnel simulator ever made. Half an hour with Zelda DS is about all I can bear before I start feeling a horrible pain in my wrists. The DS was not made for this type of game. I cannot emphasize this enough. You have to hold the system with one hand, and then scrunch your hand around the piddly-diddly stylus and hold it right up to the screen the whole game. Your hand also obscures the action, which in a few select situations is extremely annoying. If Nintendo ever makes another Zelda game for DS, this control scheme is the first thing to go. My hands depend on it.

Maybe I could even forgive the hand torture if Phantom Hourglass was an interesting game to play. It isnít. Itís an absolute snore from start to finish. The game is essentially Wind Waker; same graphical style, several returning characters, and a whole lot of sailing. Sailing was boring in Wind Waker, and in Phantom Hourglass...itís still boring. The fact that you can tap the screen to shoot bad guys with your cannon does not make up for the tedium of this crap. Draw a line to an island on the touch screen, and then watch the worldís slowest ship lumber on and lumber on all the way there. Once again, there is a rigid dungeon-overworld-dungeon structure. Itís overkill on both counts; whenever I'm on the overworld, Iím sick of the overworld, and whenever Iím in a dungeon, Iím sick of dungeons. Why does there have to be this monotonous rut in each game? In each dungeon, itís the same old thing: solve abstract puzzles, get the dungeon item, use item for the rest of the puzzles, find the boss key, beat the boss, get the magical artifact, get the heart container, warp out.

The only real variation on the formula is the ďmaster dungeonĒ that you have to go through every time you beat one of the other dungeons. This is possibly the most boring thing Iíve ever done in a game. You canít just skip past the floors youíve already done; oh, no, that would be too convenient. You have to the whole dungeon over and over again, with increasing length each time. How many times do you have to do this? TOO DAMN MANY. Every time you solve a puzzle in Phantom Hourglass, you have to watch a little cutscene of a door being opened, as if the exclamation mark on your map isnít enough. On almost every puzzle, there is a blatantly obvious ďhintĒ that comes just short of smacking you over the head with the solution. And speaking of repetition, prepare to slide down the volume control on your DS, as Phantom Hourglass has the worst soundtrack in the series yet. For the first time since 1991, the music in every dungeon is the same. Hope you liked that LttP cave theme, because youíll be hearing a few hoursí worth of it.

Iím bored of this series. Iím bored of going through the same predictable dungeons, beating the same predictable bosses, and trudging through the same predictable storyline. I have three words for Nintendo: Mix. Things. Up. Make major changes for the next game. Ignore the fans who say ďbut then it wouldnít be Zelda!Ē This series needs to become as un-Zelda as possible if itís to remain relevant. Gimmicky touch controls arenít enough.

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Community review by phediuk (October 18, 2007)

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