As an action-adventure title, Phantom Hourglass does more than the average effort in the genre, for it has some clever mechanics and puzzles; sadly, as part of The Legend of Zelda saga, it frustrates and does not succeed in impressing
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the fifth handheld installment of the franchise, and although it naturally differs from all its predecessors in numerous areas, there is one particular distinction that stands out. Namely, while all portable entries that preceded it chose to build experiences that were very detached from their console contemporaries, Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to one such game; more specifically, it tracks the journey of both Link, the hero in green, and Tetra, the strong-willed pirate, following their GameCube adventure that served as the guiding thread of the masterful The Wind Waker. More importantly than extending the story of two utterly remarkable characters, though, the connection between Phantom Hourglass and The Wind Waker is worthy of mention because of how the former blatantly emulates the latter. It is not that Phantom Hourglass is devoid of defining traits and ideas; it actually has plenty of those. However, in a rather unusual turn of events for the saga, and true to its standing as a blatant continuation, Phantom Hourglass not only borrows the general framework of The Wind Waker, but also tries to act upon some of its perceived issues.
Inherently, both actions are commendable. The Wind Waker had a marvelous art style that allowed characters to express their feelings very clearly through their large eyes and cartoonish quirks, and its return – albeit in the much less powerful Nintendo DS – is a welcome sight to anyone who went through that quest. Furthermore, Link’s exploration of the vast ocean while aboard a boat that could go pretty much anywhere generated unparalleled feelings of adventure, discovery, and freedom; so having the chance to do it again alongside familiar and likable faces is certainly a delight. And yet, as riveting as traveling freely through the sea was, The Wind Waker’s vastness and the need to constantly change the direction of the wind led to complaints regarding the overall emptiness of its map and the chore that moving between islands could be; as such, Phantom Hourglass’ decision to tackle those two features with twists of its own, which seek to streamline the process, is unquestionably appealing to those who reacted negatively towards those two points. However, even if the intended copying and improving are well-intentioned, they sadly stumble along the way, as Phantom Hourglass ultimately does not amount to a spectacular The Legend of Zelda outing.
It all begins when Tetra, beside her likable pirate crew and Link, is traveling through a new portion of the sea in search of a mysterious Ghost Ship that reportedly roams those waters. The perspective of the infinite riches that could lie inside it has drawn multiple adventurers over the years, but none have survived to tell the tales of their exploits. Despite that, when the pirates do find the haunted vessel, Tetra fearlessly and nonchalantly jumps aboard it, much to the horror of her friends. Their fears materialize when, not too long after seeing their leader go inside it, they hear a horrifying scream. Link quickly reacts and tries to board the ship to chase after the girl, but falls into the ocean instead. Later, he wakes up on the shores of Mercay Island, where he meets the fairy Ciela, who goes on to become his companion during the quest and that takes him to meet an old man called Oshus. Upon hearing of the hero’s desire to track down the Ghost Ship, Oshus is reluctant to help due to the dangers the task entails, but with the help of Ciela, Link soon proves he can accomplish the mission.
As Oshus eventually reveals, locating the Ghost Ship requires the freeing of three powerful beings: the Spirits of Courage, Wisdom, and Power. And slaying the creature that lurks inside it can only be done by forging a sacred sword with three special metals guarded by different races that live around the sea. As any fan of the saga would expect, each of those assets is located inside a dungeon, and so it is up to Link and Ciela to locate those buildings, overcome the challenges inside them, kill a big bad boss, and acquire the items they seek. However, given Link does not own a boat, he is directed to look for the greedy Captain Linebeck, a sea scoundrel that – alongside Ciela – works as Link’s main sidekick during his journey. Like Ciela and Oshus, Linebeck guides much of the pleasant story and character development that can be found in Phantom Hourglass; unlike them, who are lovable from the get go, Linebeck spends nearly all of the game’s length harassing the other heroes and not being embarrassed by how he is only helping so that he can put his hands on the treasure. Although the tone employed whenever he acts like so makes it clear he was built as a comic relief that is not to be taken seriously, it is easy to see how some may be put off by his behavior.
In the heart of Phantom Hourglass, though, is Link’s desperate quest to rescue his beloved friend, Tetra. And to help him do so, players will have to control the entirety of his moves via the system’s touch screen. It is undoubtedly unusual to have a game with such a large array of possible actions limit all of its commands to the contact between a pen and a screen, but – even if it occasionally causes some problems – Nintendo makes it work. By pointing the stylus in a certain direction, the character will run towards it. By drawing small circles while he runs, he will perform a roll. Tapping characters, signs, and other objects will make Link interact with them; whereas doing the same with enemies, will lead him to attack with his sword. Moreover, outlining a half-circle and a full-circle around the hero will respectively activate a horizontal slash and his traditional spin attack. Without exception, all of those moves are responsive, and it is rare to come across an occasion when Link does not perform the intended action.
Nevertheless, a couple of issues do arise. Firstly, whenever it is necessary to move Link in the direction opposite to the hand which players use to hold the stylus, the screen will be blocked. Secondly, the controls make minor combats become rather lackluster, for enemies that lack defensive capabilities can be defeated via tapping mindlessly and duels against foes that have shields involve, due to the fact Phantom Hourglass is a 3-D The Legend of Zelda game with no lock system, a whole lot of running around waiting for them to attack, miss, and become vulnerable. Still, even if a couple of forced moments that demand gamers to blow or shout into the system’s microphone can cause awkward situations in the public space to which handheld titles are so suitable, the overall result of the game’s heavy reliance on the capabilities of the Nintendo DS is positive. And that is because there are multiple ways in which the double screens and the touch controls benefit the adventure.
Phantom Hourglass is, disappointingly so, not a The Legend of Zelda installment with a very creative set of tools. Whether one has gone through just one or various quests of the saga, they are unlikely to find an item that surprises and paves the way to unforeseen puzzles; only the grappling hook, borrowed from The Wind Waker and that now can connect poles, therefore creating tightropes and human slingshots, feels truly new. Yet, the fact all of them are employed through touching does lend them some refreshing value: both the boomerang and the bombchu, a moving bomb that is shaped like a mouse, can have the entirety of the paths they will follow traced on the screen; and nowhere else in the series is aiming with the bow so delightfully precise, as a tap will cause the arrow to go exactly towards where players want. Furthermore, in spite of how there is just one slot available for the selected tool, which is displayed on the top-right corner of the screen, switching between them is seamless, as two taps, and no pausing, are all that it takes to do so: one to open the character’s pouch and another to choose the item. The biggest benefit the Nintendo DS brings to the table is, however, somewhere else.
If Phantom Hourglass does not succeed in building its own character via its tools (which are commonplace) or through its exploration and visuals (which are copies of those of The Wind Waker), it does find its personality in how many of its puzzles, both inside and outside the dungeons, involve scribbling. At any time, the map of the location Link is in, which is always visible on the top screen, can be brought down to the bottom so players can write on it. And Phantom Hourglass takes advantage of that by constructing riddles that force players to do exactly that. Lines need to be drawn between points of interest so secrets found where they intersect can be located; invisible paths or the order in which Link must interact with objects have to be written down; notable places that will come into play in the future must be highlighted; information used in logical conundrums or quizzes has to be noted; and more. These punctual moments tend to produce very pleasant, creative, and surprising segments, some of which are bound to stick to players’ minds long after they finish the fifteen-hour quest. Nonetheless, they are not enough to stop Phantom Hourglass from being just decent. And there are many reasons why the title fails to climb above that status.
First of all, its exploration is lackluster. Traveling between the sea’s many islands on an engine-powered boat, which can be customized with collectible parts that unfortunately do not have any considerable effects other than aesthetic ones, eliminates the need to alter the direction of the wind, which is certainly a welcome improvement. However, given moving Linebeck’s ship is done by drawing a path on the sea chart, Link is unable to freely steer it. As such, if one suddenly feels like changing its direction in order to visit a different island, avoid enemies, go after a treasure that is marked on a chart, or board one of the friendly ships that sail the sea and that can either serve as shops or be involved in sidequests, it is necessary to stop, bring up the map once more, and redrawn the desired route. More harmful still is how the sea is divided into only four relatively small quadrants that are not all available from the get go, since they are unlocked as the quest progresses. It is an implementation that limits exploration and acts severely against the sense of freedom that made The Wind Waker’s sea so alluring. Additionally, although all quadrants do have one or two optional islands (some of which do not appear on the map right away, having therefore to be discovered by acquiring intel from inhabitants of nearby islands), most of them are fully drawn on the charts as soon as they are obtained, partially destroying the constant feeling of discovery that was so present in The Wind Waker.
Consequently, the limited scope of the sea and its restrictive nature make Phantom Hourglass’ exploration come off as a very inferior version of the one found in its prequel. Moreover, the dungeons themselves and the segments that precede them are not bursting with creativity. Despite occasional moments of brightness, which tend to show up when Link has to draw on the map, none of those sequences, even if generally pleasant, leave a strong mark one would expect from a The Legend of Zelda game. The islands’ scenarios, both in visual and structural terms, are not very notable. The cel-shaded look that gave The Wind Waker loads of charm may work very well for the characters themselves, but, when it comes to the scenery, the same success is not achieved, as the islands look barren; in addition, in a few points it is quite clear Phantom Hourglass has run out of ideas and is either filling its pre-dungeon portions with uninspired exploration or padding. Finally, the mazes themselves, although filled with puzzles that are interesting and some of the franchise’s best boss battles, which make wonderful use of the console’s two screens, suffer due to their extreme linearity, failing to conjure the remarkable dungeon structures of the portable entries that came before it. And it is disappointing that the fact the boss key, given its enormous size, now needs to be carried by Link all the way to the door it opens is just used smartly once.
To be fair, one of the game’s dungeons does stand out quite obviously, but it does so for very negative reasons, coming off – by far – as Phantom Hourglass’ biggest flaw. The Temple of the Ocean King plays a central role in the game’s gameplay and story. Inside it, Link will find not only the charts that unlock new pieces of the ocean and that will reveal the location of the dungeons he needs to visit, but also the final boss itself. Due to that, the maze, which has more than one dozen floors, is not explored in one go, but in multiple visits, as each time around Link is able to dive further into its depths, coming out of it as soon as he gets to the room that holds the item he currently needs. And it is in that quirk that lies the issue, because during Phantom Hourglass, Link will enter the Temple of the Ocean King a whopping six times, and since all of the rooms reset whenever he walks back out, the puzzles need to be redone over and over again. Such shortcoming could have been easily avoided if for every chart acquired a checkpoint were created leading back to the room where it was found, but for some reason that implementation was totally overlooked, and the dungeon only features one such teleport.
The Legend of Zelda dungeons were not meant to be replayed repeatedly during the course of the same adventure, as their individual rooms require a whole lot of work. And what is really sad about how the Temple of the Ocean King completely forgets that fact is that, when that gigantic blunder is put aside, the maze it houses is actually unique and well-designed. Its floors are inhabited by Phantoms, armored unbeatable enemies that violently go after Link whenever they lay eyes on him. His only relief comes in the form of safe zones, where foes are unable to see him and the dungeon’s timer, which is the sand inside the titular Phantom Hourglass, stops going down. Due to that, the Temple of the Ocean King has a nice blend between stealth, time-management, and puzzle-solving, which come together to form an experience unlike anything else the franchise had offered until that point. It is, however, all burned down to the ground because of its maddening and unnecessary backtracking, which makes all of the six trips into its bowels turn into an anguishing nightmare.
Aside from the disastrous Temple of the Ocean King, nothing about The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is purely bad. Its controls work very well and bring a few benefits to the gameplay; and its usage of the Nintendo DS’ unique capabilities unearths distinguishing traits that appear in the form of puzzles that require players to scribble on the maps. Nevertheless, simultaneously, nothing about it is truly remarkable either. Its decision to emulate The Wind Waker, albeit in a smaller and more streamlined scale, may have the positive effect of putting gamers back in touch with a lovely art style and popular familiar characters. Yet, at the same time, it causes direct comparisons between the two games to be inevitable, and given Phantom Hourglass makes some decisions that generate average dungeons and also harm the overwhelmingly delightful feelings of freedom, discovery, and exploration that drove The Wind Waker towards all-time greatness, the outcome is a merely decent game. It is undeniable that, as an action-adventure title, Phantom Hourglass does more than the average effort in the genre, for it has some clever mechanics and puzzles; sadly, as a part of The Legend of Zelda saga, it does not succeed in impressing.