It's like Wind Waker without all the stuff that made Wind Waker so awesome.
There are two kinds of Zelda fans in the world. There are those who appreciate the series for the exploration aspect. These people enjoy overturning the overworld, searching for Heart Pieces, secret holes, mini-games, and interesting characters. I include myself in this category, and we tend to think that Wind Waker is the greatest Zelda story ever told. And then there are the dungeon-crawlers, who find overworld shenanigans a tireless chore to the real meat and potatoes of the game: dungeons. These people seem to like Twilight Princess the best (yeah, I’m using modern examples). Personally, I couldn’t stand Twilight Princess for reasons I won’t go into here. Wind Waker, however, is in my Top 3. It’s my favorite video game in recent years. I still tool around with my original save file to this day, searching for that ever-out-of-reach final Heart Piece. Anyway, when I heard that Nintendo was crafting a sequel to Wind Waker on the DS, I was overjoyed. I was bouncing off the walls when my NWR colleagues recruited me to review the game. I received the game two days ago, and have been furiously playing it ever since. And I’ve got something to tell both the explorers and dungeon-crawlers among you: this ain’t the Zelda you know and love.
The game opens with a brief (and very entertaining) storyboard explaining the events of Wind Waker and follows it up with a cinematic scene detailing Tetra’s kidnapping by an evil ghost pirate ship (I’m really not spoiling anything, folks). Link leaps overboard to save her, but he ends up in the briny depths, only to be rescued by a fairy named Navi… I mean, Ciela. Upon speaking with Ciela’s grandpa, Link learns that the ghost ship kidnaps people on a fairly usual basis, and if he wants to rescue his friend, Link must find the guardians of Power, Wisdom, and Courage. It's sort of like every Zelda game since Link to the Past. Our hero sets out with Ciela in tow and a questionable sea captain named Linebeck, who charters Link from island to island. Although a bit too talkative, Linebeck has his moments and eventually proves useful in your journey.
As you may have heard, Phantom Hourglass has a unique control scheme which depends entirely on your skills with the stylus. Hold the stylus on the screen in the direction you want Link to run. Tap enemies or make a horizontal line to make Link attack with his sword. Draw a circle around Link to do a spin attack. Trace the path of your boomerang, set a course for your boat, aim bombs, rocks, and arrows…it’s all done with the stylus. The only button you’ll ever press is B, and that’s to quickly bring the map screen down for you to write on. This is one of the best aspects of the game, in fact: writing on your map. You can take notes, point to important locations, and just plain scribble all over your maps. In one memorable instance, you’ll have to trace the outline of an unmapped island, then mark the locations of four Gossip Stones to solve a riddle.
Unfortunately, the stylus control takes some serious getting-used-to for Zelda veterans. Any kind of D-pad control scheme (even one for left handers using the ABXY buttons) is absent, and while Nintendo’s goal was to make the process more streamlined and intuitive, I never forgot that I was holding a stylus, dragging and tapping it on the screen like a monkey to make Link move. Using items is a chore, for example, because you must first tap "Items," then tap the item you want, then tap the item window, the use the item. God forbid you should have to switch items in the middle of a fight. Furthermore, because I can’t draw a straight line to save my life (with a tiny stylus, anyway), my ship and boomerang routes often look more like desperate squiggles than methodic attempts. I certainly appreciate what Nintendo is trying to do, but in practice the control scheme is a little awkward. I must praise the amount of experimentation in Phantom Hourglass, though. You’ll be "stamping" your map by closing your DS, yelling at a shopkeeper, blowing out candles, and using the top screen to see what your enemy sees. It’s a shame that none of these unique applications are used more than once or twice, but there’s always something new to try, and Phantom Hourglass goes out of its way to demonstrate the unique gameplay possibilities afforded by the DS.
The much-lauded (or laughed-at) Wind Waker aesthetic is in full effect for Phantom Hourglass, albeit in a low-res sort of way. The game really is in 3D, though, and it’s good-looking 3D. Characters are just as expressive as they are in Wind Waker, and the primary colors and simplistic texturing are still there. Looks aside, however, Phantom Hourglass is an entirely different game. This is both good and bad. I was worried, frankly, that Nintendo would somehow bring Ganon back into the game, even though he’d been stabbed in the head and turned to stone by Link just before the beginning of this game. And if not Ganon, we’d get Vaati, that awkward fill-in villain whose ties to the greater series continuity have always been in question. Instead, we get a brand new storyline featuring a brand new antagonist, which is a huge plus. Sadly, though, after the game’s opening sequence, there are no plotline or character ties to Wind Waker. Phantom Hourglass lacks the mythos of Wind Waker, and it can’t decide whether it wants to be an entirely separate game or not.
Phantom Hourglass’s gameplay flow also mimics that of Twilight Princess more so than Wind Waker. This DS game is basically a dungeon crawler, and trips to other islands exist only so you can learn about where the next dungeon is. Sure, there are some token "new islands" to discover, but their contents are rarely very exciting. I greatly enjoyed the freedom offered by Wind Waker. If I wanted to, I could forego the main quest for days and explore instead, completing my map of the Great Sea, finding neat stuff on interesting islands…you get the idea. Phantom Hourglass, however, does not meet that need. Instead, island-hopping is a practical matter. The weather conditions never change, the sea never swells, and you’ll rarely see another ship anywhere. I’m sure this is due to hardware limitations, but I really miss that aspect of Wind Waker.
Even Twilight Princess fans, though, will be groaning in agony about the Temple of the Sea King, a horrendous chore of a dungeon which I’ll have to use some apt comparisons to illustrate. Remember how, in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, you were often asked to travel to Dark Aether? It had an acidic atmosphere that constantly drained your health, and to survive, you had to travel between safe zones, where your health would slowly go back up. But Dark Aether was never fun (until much later in the game). Well, imagine a Zelda dungeon like that, with typical dungeon puzzles. Now add invincible guards who wander the halls and have a Metal Gear Solid-like vision cone. If you’re seen by a guard, you usually die (unless you can get to a safe zone). Also, and this is the kicker, there’s a timer. Yes, a timer. When that timer runs out, your health begins to plummet. Oh, and I forgot to mention that you’ll have to traverse this dungeon several different times. In fact, each time you complete an overworld dungeon, you will have to go back to the Temple of the Ocean King and start from the very beginning, with all the puzzles reset, and a little bit more time in the hourglass (this gets a tad less severe later in the game), and go farther into the dungeon. After every overworld boss, you gain access to a new basement level, the theory being that you’ll eventually confront the game’s final boss.
The fact that you don’t get to start from where you left off is mind-boggling. Why Nintendo would make the horrifying decision to make players dredge through the whole freaking dungeon multiple times is beyond me. Is artificially lengthening the game their goal? Why not just put more islands on the map, or resort to that tired old light/dark world mechanic? I should mention here that Nintendo stripped a lot of Zelda mainstays from the game, including Heart Pieces, the dungeon compass, and wallet upgrades. These are all welcome changes (except the Heart Pieces), but the Temple of the Ocean King is beyond ridiculous.
I guess I should mention the two-player Wi-Fi game. No, it’s not Four Swords. Instead, it’s a mini-game that mimics the Temple of the Ocean King! Need I go on? One player is Link, who tries to collect Force Gems and sneak past the other player, who is a Phantom (one of the giant invincible guards). The multiplayer does have the advantage of being single-card downloadable, but other DS games have much stronger Wi-Fi outings, chief among them Metroid Prime: Hunters and Mario Kart DS. By comparison to those meaty offerings, the multiplayer component of Phantom Hourglass seems like a tagged-on feature.
It’s obvious that Nintendo has tailored Phantom Hourglass to a more casual, less Zelda-familiar audience. From the touch screen controls to the lack of connection with Wind Waker and the strip-mining of traditional Zelda items, you need not be a Zelda vet to enjoy Phantom Hourglass. At the same time, though, it becomes difficult to fully enjoy Phantom Hourglass if you are a Zelda vet. The lack of even an option for D-pad control tells me that Nintendo did not have their Zelda fan base in mind when they were creating Phantom Hourglass. And that’s okay, I guess. It’s still a decent game, but it’s also a game apart from the rest of the series. It just feels different, and I think it demonstrates that Nintendo is reluctant to sail into the murky waters beyond Wind Waker. The end of that game left a lot of possibilities open, but the path taken by Phantom Hourglass is, in all honesty, lame. Try not to think of Phantom Hourglass as a direct sequel to Wind Waker, and perhaps instead as a sort of pseudo-sequel, like Majora’s Mask was to Ocarina of Time. Then you might enjoy it more. Me? I am just sad to see so many great characters and gameplay mechanics left at the docks while Nintendo sailed into more casual waters.