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New 'Zelda' game lacks real spirit

Mar 5, 2010

By Daniel Barron - G4 Canada

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It's not easy being a game in the 'Zelda' canon. Gamers quite simply expect nothing more than utter excellence while playing as that sword-wielding boy in the green outfit.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit TracksSadly, 'The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks' just does not hold up the epic feel of just about every past game in the series. These games are supposed to stick in the mind of the player well after finishing the final battle, as he or she reflects on all the memorable moments during the past adventure. Spirit Tracks is a solid enough title, but those moments are few and far between.

'Spirit Tracks' follows in the same vein as its Nintendo DS predecessor, 'The Phantom Hourglass'. It features a cel-shaded graphic style that began in 'The Wind Waker' on the GameCube. But while 'The Phantom Hourglass' felt fresh despite incorporating a familiar look, 'Spirit Tracks' feels almost like a hasty expansion pack of sorts.

The new game takes place about a century after the events of 'Phantom Hourglass'. Our hero (who is anything but at first) is about to become a bonafide train engineer. Only moments after his graduating ceremony, he ends up on a secret mission escorting the princess out of her own castle. She knows something isn't right with the new Chancellor and she needs to escape without him knowing.

After finishing a few tutorials and managing to get out of the castle unseen, the Chancellor - who reveals himself as an evil being intent on taking the princess - appears in the middle of the field through which the two are escaping. In an unexpected turn of events, he ends up killing the princess, with Link unable to do anything to help.

After waking up, Link ends up meeting with the spirit of Princess Zelda. He is the only one in the castle who can see her and communicate with her. They set off for the legendary Tower of Spirits to meet with a Sage who explains that the train tracks that are placed all over the land of Hyrulehelp keep evil spirits away. The tracks are disappearing though, so it's up to Link and Zelda to bring them back.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit TracksHere, the true adventure begins. Anyone who has played any previous 'Legend of Zelda' game should be instantly familiar with the setup - go to temple, earn new item, defeat enemy, repeat. Of course there is certainly more to do in this game, but none of it is as addictingly fun as the side missions found in other Zelda games.

The main means of travel for Link and the Princess travel is via the Spirit Train. As you finish more temples, you'll open up more tracks, making more places accessible. Unfortunately, travelling on the train itself becomes far too monotonous. And no, it's not nearly as fun as travelling by boat in either 'The Wind Waker' or 'The Phantom Hourglass'.

There are things to do while travelling - find hidden items to earn rewards, escape 'evil' trains, kill enemies that are chasing you - but none of it adds much to the adventure. It all seems to exist to just distract the gamer from what he or she is really doing - repeatedly riding on train tracks to reach faraway lands and villages as you attempt to finish your quest. Over, and over, and over again.

The quests themselves are also nothing to write home about. Many involve using the tricks that the DS's dual screens allow, but they're not as good as those in 'The Phantom Hourglass'. One mission, for instance is a glorified brain-teaser, having you pair up several characters in one town to one another, with each person having a set of rules that Link must adhere to. As they speak, the player can write notes until he has the pairings ready. More than anything, this feels like something we'd do in school, not a mission worthy of a Zelda game.

For many people, the highlight of any Zelda title is going through the dungeons and temples and defeating the bosses found at the end of each. The temples in the Spirit Tower are very interesting (and quite tricky!) thanks to the use of Zelda, who can enter guards' bodies, allowing Link to control her to solve two-person puzzles.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit TracksThe temples are just as tricky and for the most part are just as fun, despite Zelda typically not being used here. It can get a little frustrating, as there is absolutely no 'help' system when you get stuck, but that's to be expected from this series.

The bosses, though, are a letdown. Finding their weakness rarely takes more than a few moments, and it was rare for us to take more than one attempt to finish them off.

There is more backtracking in 'Spirit Tracks', it seems, than any other Zelda game before it. Granted, simple memory constraints of being put on a cartridge stop this from being the massive size of a typical Zelda console entry, but even so, the amount of times you'll have to go to one of the few sections of the map are far too many.

The controls are for the most part solid, with everything being mapped smartly to the teach screen. Moving Link, engaging in combat, and using items by going through a few menu screens is all fairly solid, though the pinpoint jumps that have to be made in some temples can be quite frustrating. Sometimes you may want to simply turn Link around to face an enemy, but when you tap the screen, Link will actually roll or jump away instead of just turning around. This can result in many unplanned falls into a dark abyss below.

Many items that Link uses are similar to 'The Phantom Hourglass'. The Spirit Flute is a neat idea, with the player moving through notes and blowing into the DS's mic to unlock secrets using different songs. Even that though, feels like a rehash of the wand from 'The Wind Waker'.

With several developers doing some neat things with graphics on the Nintendo DS, it's a shame that 'Spirit Tracks' is such a letdown in this department. The cel-shaded thing has been done with two previous Zelda games now. It was an awesome idea in the first game, and it made a lot of sense for the initial DS game, but now, it feels more like 'been there, done that'. There is a lot of blockiness that is easily apparent as Link travels by train (we didn't realize Hyrule is home to an endless expanse of square, flat trees?!).

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit TracksEven in terms of fan service, Zelda won't fit the bill. Several big names that are found in most of the series' games are missing, though we do meet with the Gorons, and one particularly shady character from 'The Phantom Hourglass' makes his return. 'Spirit Tracks' is admittedly funnier than most.

Like the first Zelda DS game, there is a local multiplayer component, with up to four Links running around different rooms collecting as many Force Gems as possible before time runs out.

It can be used by four DS owners using only one 'Spirit Tracks' cartridge, which is always a good thing, but the gameplay itself isn't exactly addictive. There are a lot of dungeons to choose from, and the basic rules are straightforward, but one powerup in particular can completely change a game in a matter of moments - unfairly so. Again - this simply isn't as good as the multi found in 'Phantom Hourglass'.

It's funny - if you put any generic characters in the place of the ones we know and love in 'Spirit Tracks', this would probably fare better. But the fact that it's a Zelda game, expectations are (and should be!) much higher.

Zelda fanatics will probably find enough in this game to enjoy themselves for the several hours it takes to play through. Things are growing stale in Hyrule though. Here's hoping Link's next adventure adds some truly new and memorable features to the mix.


The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Format: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone 10+
Official Site:

Rating: 6.5 / 10

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