The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks spends too much of its time mining Link’s train in search of a gameplay twist of value, and it ends up wasting a good portion of its length in dull railroad segments when its prowess was clearly somewhere else
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is the second game of the franchise released for the Nintendo DS and, as a sequel that reached the market a meager two years after its predecessor, Phantom Hourglass, it is easy to see that memories of that title were still quite fresh in the minds of the developers who worked on both. And that is because although Spirit Tracks replaces the boat, which had been a key component of The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, with a charming steam-powered train, hence bringing forth significant changes in aesthetics and theme, it still plays a whole lot like its prequel. And that statement is valid not just when it comes to the controls, which still – for the good and for the bad – take full advantage of the system’s quirks; it also applies to the adventure’s general progression as well as to the nature of the puzzles it holds.
To some, it is understandable such characteristics will make Spirit Tracks come off as unappealing; after all, Phantom Hourglass was, for a The Legend of Zelda game, exceedingly problematic. However, for much of its length, Spirit Tracks is thoroughly dedicated to addressing the issues that plagued the title that came before it. It is quite unfortunate, however, that while it does a noticeable amount of fixing, it also finds the time to invent plenty of issues of its own, which almost completely dynamite its good intentions.
About one hundred years after the happenings of The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, players come to discover that the stars of those quests – Link, Tetra, and her pirate crew – ended up creating, in that interval, a new kingdom. The land on which it flourished had been, long ago, the stage of a fierce battle between Malladus, the Demon King, and the Spirits of Good, which watched over the place. Unable to defeat him completely, the spirits opted to – instead – seal Malladus in the depths of the earth. To do so, they raised the Tower of Spirits and from that central monument they spread railroad tracks across the realms of the land.
Serving as the chains and shackles that kept Malladus at bay, these structures eventually begin to weaken. And that is when the descendants of the kingdom’s founders – a boy named Link, who aspires to be a train engineer, and Princess Zelda herself – have, unbeknownst to them, their fates intimately tied to one another. The Spirit Tracks start disappearing and Princess Zelda, worried about the state of her kingdom, gives Link, who has come to Hyrule Castle to receive his engineer certificate, a letter warning him not to trust the chancellor and asking him to secretly meet her in her quarters.
The girl correctly suspects Chancellor Cole is somewhat connected to the troublesome events that have been taking place, and she asks for Link’s protection so that both can head to the Tower of Spirits in order to learn more about what is going on. Unfortunately, as they travel towards it, they are halted by Cole and his minion, Byrne, who overpower Link, separate Zelda’s spirit from her body, and take the latter to the Tower of Spirits, where they intend to offer it in sacrifice so that Malladus can be revived.
Vowing to find a way to stop the pair, Link and Zelda’s ghost head to the tower; sadly, Cole’s actions begin to have effects and not only do all of the kingdom’s tracks disappear, but the Tower of Spirits is split into five pieces. As they learn from the place’s guardian, the only way to restore the Spirit Tracks and to put the tower back together, so they can reach its top, where the villains lie, is to obtain Rail Maps from within the tower, go into each of the four realms by using the tracks these charts will create, and then activate the connection between each region’s temple and the Tower of Spirits, which will in turn, little by little, assemble the tower and allow the characters to go further up, where they will be able to find a new Rail Map.
Spirit Tracks is, therefore, centered around a cycle of walking into the tower, ascending it until its current top floor, picking up a map, traveling into a new region, finding its dungeon, clearing it, and returning to the tower to climb it a little further. To those who played Phantom Hourglass, it is a recipe destined to awaken deep nightmares, because it means that – like that game – Spirit Tracks implements the idea of a central dungeon – in this case, the Tower of Spirits – that must be visited multiple times.
However, it should come as a relief to gamers to learn that, as proof their feedback was heard, Nintendo completely did away with what had plagued the Temple of the Ocean King, Phantom Hourglass’ central maze. Because while in its case revisiting it often meant having to go through many of its floors and puzzles again, the Tower of Spirits overcomes that primary mistake via the simplest solution of all: a very large stairway that Link can climb to enter the first floor of all pieces of the tower, including of the one he has just put back into place.
The effect of the total elimination of backtracking, as well as of the absence of a timer, is that the Tower of Spirits is able to shine. Like the Temple of the Ocean King, its floors are filled with Phantoms – heavily armored knights that will run towards Link whenever they spot the character – and the only way to escape the fierce sword thrusts of the creatures is usually by finding a safe zone, within which the hero becomes invisible to his foes. As such, the place pairs up the series’ traditional puzzle-solving with a heavy dash of stealth, creating an interesting symbiosis that, other than in the frustrating Temple of the Ocean King, cannot be found anywhere else in the saga.
The Tower of Spirits, nevertheless, is not successful solely due to how it copies what was done in Phantom Hourglass while getting rid of its mistakes. It also achieves success because it is inside it that gameplay is affected by what is surely, alongside the train, the core trait of Spirit Tracks: the fact that, this time around, Princess Zelda herself is Link’s traveling companion.
When her soul is separated from her body, a humorously desperate Zelda goes over a list of people who could potentially aid Link in his journey, only to discover there are none. As she is just about conformed with the notion that he will have to do it alone, the tower’s guardian steps in and claims she will have to be the one who will help him, because the building cannot be climbed by just one adventurer. Throughout the game, her presence adds a light lovable tone to Link’s quest, and the growth of their friendship is the main story-related attraction of an effort that has a nice plot and good character development.
Furthermore, it is simply quite appealing to see the princess step out of her usually passive mode and get involved in the action, and she does so by playing a very prominent role inside the Tower of Spirits. During each trip, Link will gather three Tears of Light, which will power up his sword and allow him to stun the Phantoms. And by doing that, Zelda is able to posses their bodies for an indefinite amount of time. Armed with that quirk, Spirit Tracks uncovers a stunning amount of cooperative puzzles, since Zelda – as a Phantom – can carry Link on top of her shield, protect him against boulders, cross metal spikes, and far more. The major highlight comes in the fact that the Tower of Spirits is packed with different kinds of Phantoms – some can teleport, some carry fiery swords, and more – and Spirits Tracks makes use of that variety quite well, both in setting up traps and challenges against the heroes; and in their favor as well, when Zelda takes over one of the bad guys.
Like Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks assigns all of its commands to the touch screen, a choice that has good and bad ramifications. The positive side comes in how all actions are intuitive and quick, and in how using Link’s arsenal is fun. Tapping to interact with objects and characters, or to attack enemies; drawing a circle around Link to unleash a spin attack; managing the hero’s inventory and equipping a different tool; drawing a path for the boomerang to follow; and touching the intended target to let an arrow fly all feel incredibly natural.
Additionally, the handling of the two characters inside the Tower of Spirits, which could have been cumbersome, ends up being a breeze. Aside from the fact she very rarely gets stuck, commanding Zelda is pleasant due to how switching between heroes is simply done by touching an icon on the screen and telling the princess where to go is achieved by just drawing a path. The negative, meanwhile, is found in how players’ hands will at times block the screen and in how combat, which degenerates into tapping and running, becomes dull.
In fact, much of Spirit Tracks is built around the key features of the Nintendo DS, perhaps to an even greater extent than Phantom Hourglass was. Case in point, similarly to its prequel, the game has the annoying habit of occasionally forcing players to use the microphone; here, though, that characteristic becomes even more present, because Spirit Tracks makes one of the pieces of Link’s arsenal (the gust-generating Whirlwind) and the adventure’s musical instrument (the Spirit Flute) work by having gamers blow into the microphone.
The former is, truthfully, despite the annoyance of what triggers it, responsive; the latter, sadly, is not. It is undoubtedly nice to see music once more be used as a key aspect of a The Legend of Zelda quest: there are songs that perform various actions, and learning tunes with each realm’s guardian is necessary to make one’s way to the local temple. However, it is frustrating how the system will sometimes fail to register gamers’ actions, which causes the execution of some tunes to go sour and the playing of the flute to be a mixed task. The overall result of using the instrument, then, ends up being a disappointment, especially considering how nicely interactive it is to play it, for the flute also utilizes the touch screen as a way to align the correct pipe with the microphone in order to produce the desired note.
Regardless of those issues, the general outcome of how much of Spirit Tracks relies on the quirks of the Nintendo DS certainly leans more towards the good than the bad. The dungeon bosses, which easily rank among the saga’s best, reach spectacular levels of quality thanks to how they go all out in using the two screens and the touch commands. In a more omnipresent benefit of that approach, the game is permeated with puzzles – whether it is inside or outside the mazes – that have gamers constantly scribbling information, marking specific locations, or just monitoring the map, which is always shown on the top screen.
Therefore, even if it also dabbles into traditional The Legend of Zelda riddles that involve pushing blocks or hitting switches, Spirit Tracks is able to carve a good deal of originality, because other than in Phantom Hourglass, nowhere else in the franchise is Link required to write down the direction towards which statues are looking, keep track of the position of the Phantoms found on the floor where he currently is, note the order in which he has to light torches, trace invisible paths, and more.
In addition, as if taking another shot at developing a The Legend of Zelda game for the Nintendo DS allowed the team of developers to mature their ideas in between tries, Spirit Tracks shows a clear evolution in dungeon design when compared to its predecessor. Although all five of them, excluding the Tower of Spirits, are too linear, the puzzles they contain feel sharper.
Part of it can be attributed to how three of the temples are focused on great entirely original items that, naturally, open the way to new riddles. Yet, part of it is unquestionably a product of pure augmented resourcefulness, because even the two mazes where relatively mundane tools are employed – namely, the bow and the boomerang – will be able to conjure some awe, because they are able to use those assets in refreshing ways. As a final touch, if during Phantom Hourglass the new style of boss key, which is huge and must therefore be physically carried by Link, was mostly wasted, here the fact it slows the character down is used in the construction of very smart sequences that stand out quite positively.
Those and other steps that Spirit Tracks takes with the goal of providing gamers with an experience that is superior to that of Phantom Hourglass are commendable. They are, however, held back by the gravest of the game’s problems and one that appears, sadly, quite frequently: the train. The vehicle, though undeniably charming, becomes a source of sheer boredom because of how it is employed. Rather than seeing it as a means of transportation for Link to roll through Hyrule’s hills and travel between the land’s numerous stations, which work like the islands of Phantom Hourglass and The Wind Waker, Nintendo transforms it into a more active gameplay element.
In other words, in spite of how the sequences that take place between the quest’s dungeons do include some exploration (which is rather light considering how small most of the locations are) and some delightful puzzle-solving, what they do contain the most is traveling by train. And that is because, on what comes off as padding or lack of ideas, Link is constantly being sent from one place to another. At one point, for example, when he is about to enter a new realm, he comes across a broken bridge and quickly discovers a bridge builder lives by a not-so-close station; as such, he is tasked with traveling there, picking the man up, and bringing him over.
The game, both in its main quest and in an impressive amount of its sidequests, is full of such chores, where Link needs to take passengers or goods around Hyrule. To be fair, Spirit Tracks does attempt to spice it all up, because in doing so, Link – to avoid damaging his cargo or infuriating his passengers – is forced to avoid being hit by enemies and other trains as well as respect the railroad’s traffic rules, which include zones that can only be traversed at certain speeds and signs that indicate the whistle has to be blown at certain points.
Yet, that process is as bureaucratic as it sounds, because ultimately what gamers are doing is traveling down a predetermined path for five minutes or so while occasionally tapping the screen to perform some action. It hardly counts as actual playing, and – to make matters worse – all dungeons, without exception, can only be accessed after additional train-related tasks, such as navigating through a blizzard, avoiding traps, or blasting the canons that protect the temple, leading to outdoors gameplay that has more chugging along than action.
As a consequence, an asset that could have been used to give the game a punctual charm of its own is excessively explored. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is just way too enamored with Link’s lovely train and, throughout the quest, the game is incessantly mining it trying to find something of value, only to come up with very little, because somehow developers overlooked the fact the vehicle is nothing but an alluring means of transportation. That issue, and the fact it emerges so frequently, taking up a significant amount of the adventure’s time, ends up being the element that stops Spirit Tracks from being truly great, and that fact is especially frustrating because of how, when it is not focused on railroads, the game is usually encountering clever new items and mechanics to call its own. As it stands, however, these great moments, its good art style, its marvelous soundtrack, and the delightfully prominent presence of a very active Princess Zelda are diluted amidst the steam.