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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) artwork

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) review


"At its best, Phantom Hourglass is pure fun. The innovative touch controls provide a fresh take on the standard Zelda fare, and that alone was enough to revitalise my dwindling interest in the series. "



The basic structure of Phantom Hourglass is nothing new. Link once again has to save the kidnapped Princess Zelda from a malevolent evil – this time, a Ghost Ship – and to do that, he goes through several thematic dungeons and collects an array of familiar items like bombs, a bow and arrow, and a grappling hook. He even acquaints himself with a sidekick, an amnesiac spirit named Ciela who reminds me a little of a certain Navi from Ocarina of Time.

What is new, though, is that Phantom Hourglass does away with conventional controls and boldly forces you to control Link almost exclusively with the touch screen. There is no alternative D-pad scheme, even in the menus.

The controls are integrated almost flawlessly, which is one heck of an achievement considering you can do so much with just one short stick: drag your stylus to move link; tap an item to pick it up; tap an enemy to perform a targeted attack; swipe in various directions to thrust and slash your sword; and draw a circle around Link to execute the familiar spin attack. From time to time, the game does mistake a small step for a quick thrust, but everything else works so well that the odd grievance is easy to ignore. Even the items you obtain make fantastic use of the touch controls. You can now draw paths for your boomerang and bombchus, as well as hurl bombs exactly where you want with remarkable accuracy. Shooting arrows has never been easier with the stylus – there’s no need to aim with a finicky control stick.

But it’s not the controls that make the game; it’s the fact that the game is designed around them. You end up using your items in creative ways to solve puzzles and explore dungeons. Not long after receiving the boomerang in an early dungeon will you be drawing paths for it to hit four switches in quick succession or collecting keys from around the corner. And the grappling hook, usually used to slingshot your way across gaps, can create tightropes and help you reach areas you wouldn’t normally get to. Bosses, too, wouldn’t have worked without the touch screen. With the speed and amount of precision needed to take some of the beasts down, such as shoving bombchus down a lizard’s throat from the other side of the room, it’s hard to imagine these fights working on anything other than the DS.

The touch screen is also used to draw on maps. What should have come across as gimmicky is actually an inspired addition that Phantom Hourglass truly takes advantage of. Many puzzles utilise it, making you not only mark down key locations to dig or bomb to smithereens, but also draw crests, invisible walkways, and other neat solutions that would otherwise require an excellent memory or a pen and paper. One particularly rewarding sidequest even has you chart a whole island to solve the devilish riddle. The only sour note regarding the controls is that Nintendo were perhaps too insistent in trying to get the most out of every bit of the DS. Sure, I don’t mind blowing into the microphone to put out fires or start a few windmills, but as a commuter, I really don’t feel like shouting at the top of my lungs on the train just to save a bunch of rupees on a ship part. I imagine I’d look incredibly silly.

Another thing that’s silly is the fact that you’re forced to revisit the same temple several times throughout the course of the game. Each time you return in the story, your aim is to go deeper down to unearth clues as to where to go next. It has its fair share of cool puzzles, and the stealth and the hiding from the invincible patrolling guards is surprisingly tolerable at first. But the biggest problem is that you have to go through the same rooms, avoid the same guards, solve the same puzzles, and put the same keys into the same holes over and over again, just to get to the next set of unexplored floors. The mini-shortcuts you gradually have access to, thanks to the items you collect over time, do not make this insane amount of backtracking excusable, and it really doesn’t help that you’re given an annoying time limit.

At least the sailing aspect is more fun than it was in Wind Waker. The sailing itself is as simple as drawing your route on the sea chart. There’s no Triforce shard hunting or managing the wind direction; all you need to do is take out the occasional feeble sea monster with your cannon and jump over the odd hazard on the way to your destination. It’s even easier once you gain the ability to use cyclones to teleport around the Great Sea. Travelling the seas is no longer a drag, and as a result, everything else about the sailing – exploring islands, using treasure maps, and salvaging customisable ship parts and treasure, all of which is completely optional – is much more appealing.

As innovative as the touch controls are, and as spectacular as the Wind Waker-esque cel-shaded visuals look on the DS, this is definitely one of the easiest Zelda games to date. Those who want a challenge might feel let down. Dungeons are noticeably smaller this time around, and I never had to consult a guide, not even once. On the other hand, this does make Phantom Hourglass an excellent introduction to a much-revered series, if you’ve still not experienced any of the games before. But even if you’re a Zelda fan, this is most definitely worth checking out. At its best, Phantom Hourglass is pure fun. The innovative touch controls provide a fresh take on the standard Zelda fare, and that alone was enough to revitalise my dwindling interest in the series.

Rating: 8/10

Ben's avatar
Freelance review by Ben Lee (November 15, 2007)

Ben used to freelance for HonestGamers. Now he spends his spare time dying repeatedly on Spelunky.

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