Say hello to Phantom Hourglass 2.0.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is the follow-up to 2007's Phantom Hourglass, a title that introduced a new control scheme that took full advantage of the features of the Nintendo DS. You used the stylus to control Link as he solved puzzles and fought enemies. The game had a bit of a mixed reception, as both of our reviews of the first game pegged it as one of the weakest titles in the classic series. Spirit Tracks appears to benefit from those growing pains, and is a great follow-up to the first DS Zelda game; it fixes a lot of the nagging issues of its predecessor, while carving out its own unique path in the series lineage.
Story-wise, Spirit Tracks takes place about 100 years after Phantom Hourglass. A long time ago, there was an issue with an evil demon king (not Ganon) and the forces of good sealed him away using the titular tracks. Naturally, there's a villain trying to release the demon and destroy the world, and it's up to a young engineer - who eventually dons a familiar green tunic - to stop him. This time around, Link is accompanied by an ethereal version of Princess Zelda, who plays the role of snarky sidekick as popularized by Midna and Celia in previous games.
Link controls similarly to how he did in Phantom Hourglass, with one notable difference: he now rolls when you double-tap the touch screen. Other than that, you can tap or swipe at enemies to attack them, moving Link around by dragging the stylus around the screen. It's not without fault, as it gets a little cumbersome when you're in tense situations, but it's a good control scheme overall.
Our hero uses a train to get around the world, and the whole point of the game is to reinvigorate the Spirit Tracks, which are torn apart at the game's outset. The train traversal starts off slow, but as you progress more wrinkles are added. First you get a cannon to attack enemies, and then you learn that you can search for rabbits to return to an eccentric man in a rabbit suit (or an eccentric rabbit who looks like a man. I can't really tell), and about halfway through the game you learn that you can customize your train with different cars.
The train controls are easy and intuitive. You control the speed with a switch, tap on the screen to fire your cannon, and drag the stylus around the screen to change your view. Like the regular controls, sometimes the on-screen icons get in the way, but it doesn't happen often enough in the train segments to become a large issue.
The biggest downside with the train itself is that it restricts your exploration to certain areas. There are places to explore, but there isn't much to find and the rewards aren't too great. Still, the train is a nice way to navigate between areas, especially because of the fantastic mood-setting music that plays as you make your way through the overworld.
One of the biggest problems people had with Phantom Hourglass was the Temple of the Ocean King, a dungeon that players would have to repeat over and over again as they worked their way into its depths. The Tower of Spirits fills that role in Spirit Tracks, but there's a giant difference between the two: The Temple of the Ocean King was a source of frustration, while The Tower of Spirits is full of excellent brain-bending puzzles. You revisit the tower after every dungeon you complete, and each batch of floors is like a brand new dungeon.
There are effectively two parts to every trip to The Tower of Spirits. The first is when you initially enter a section, dodging powerful Phantoms as you collect three items to charge your sword. Then, you plunge your sword into the back of a Phantom and the ghostly Zelda takes control of it. That's when you get to experience the puzzles that make use of both characters, which are some of the best puzzles in the game and quite possibly the entire series. The only time when controlling Link and the Phantom simultaneously is difficult is when you're in tight quarters or fast-paced sections.
As for the dungeons outside of the temple, there are four main ones. This number might not seem like a lot, but combine them with the Tower of Spirits and the total of dungeons in the game increases considerably. Naturally, each dungeon gets more in-depth as you go along, and every dungeon is unique and challenging.
There is also a multiplayer mode for up to four players. Each player takes control of a swordless Link as they try to collect the most gems in a limited amount of time. While you aren't equipped with any weapons, you pick up bombs, set off traps that will open up holes in the floor, and corner your rivals in with the Phantoms, which patrol each of the six maps. It's a fun diversion, and a ranking system adds to it. The entire experience can be played using single-card multiplayer, with no apparent limitations other than guests not having a rank. Still, this mode would get more play if it were online.
Spirit Tracks is a superb game and one of the best DS games this year. The dungeons are top-tier, entertaining affairs, and the train is fun to ride around in as you journey through the interesting game world. Unfortunately, if you didn't care for Phantom Hourglass, then this game won't bring you back into the portable Zelda fold. If you had some issues with Phantom Hourglass but nonetheless enjoyed it, then this is game is meant for you, as it is a finely-tuned new adventure in the cel-shaded Zelda universe.