- Game: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
- Platform: DS
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- ESRB: E
- Genre: Train driving, world saving action adventure
- Players: 1-4
- What’s Hot: Cheery visuals, exemplary music, brain-wracking puzzles, challenging dungeons, everyone is just so blasted cute
- What’s Not: Traversing the rails is time consuming, no huge leaps forward from Phantom Hourglass, some camera issues
At first glance the train seems an odd transportation choice to base an entire Legend of Zelda game around. The train lacks the carefree spirit of the boat from Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass and lacks the character of Epona, everyone’s favorite pony from Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. However, the train is a perfect choice for the Zelda series. After all, the Zelda games have always been about carefully directed exploration where the game gently guides you on invisible tracks to your destination and other than some small bumps here and there, you never really worry about making it to your final stop. For laid back traveling, nothing beats the comforting back and forth motion of a train gently rocking you as the countryside unfolds before you. The same holds true for the the latest, and arguably the best Zelda outing on the DS to date as The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is a charismatic and engaging adventure filled with sights you won’t see elsewhere, just handled at a more casual pace.
The game takes place roughly 100 years after the events in Phantom Hourglass making it unique in that Zelda games rarely make direct ties to previous entries in the series. This time Link is a young boy getting ready to take his final exam and become a train engineer at a ceremony conducted by Princess Zelda. It isn’t too long before the evil Chancellor unmasks his true plan, Zelda’s spirit is forced out of her body and Link is tasked with restoring the Spirit Tracks, train tracks that criss-cross the land imprisoning an evil demon who, when resurrected, will take up root in Zelda’s body.
In yet another departure from the usual trappings of the series, Zelda decides to accompany Link on his adventures, placing her in a role previously reserved for Navi but existing as something far more than just a guide. Link has always been a loner, and while he’s always been friendly enough, it was always a somewhat melancholy experience to see him ride into a village, rescue it from whatever evil was plagueing it and then return back to where he came from. With the more childlike representation in play here, this notion of Link as the solo adventurer is even more saddening if not somewhat inappropriate. By adding Zelda as a constant companion the tale becomes less that of one man, or boy’s, fight against evil but a story of young friendship, or love, take your pick, as they travel alongside each other. Even the opening sequence with Link riding the train and Zelda cheerily flying along evoke a child like wonder and youthful exuberance at the power of young friendship.
Zelda acts as more than just a guide though as her spirit form allows her to inhabit the armor of the hulking phantoms who return from Phantom Hourglass. With the return of the phantoms also comes the return of a central collection of dungeons, this time the Spirit Tower. However, unlike the Temple of the Ocean King from the last outing with its need to constantly start from ground zero, the Spirit Tower is divided up into multiple sections that never need be traversed again once you’ve found the railway map that lies at the end of them. These levels represent some of the finest dungeon puzzles ever created in a Zelda game, requiring both quick reflexes and clever use of the various weapons at Link’s disposal, sometimes combining weapons in ways that aren’t readily apparent. At the beginning of each section Link will have to collect three tears after which he can defeat the Phantoms by striking them in the back with his sword. Once a Phantom has been defeated Zelda can inhabit them allowing for a multitude of actions from simple things like distracting other phantoms or serving as a fire block for Link to carrying Link around on the phantom’s shield or teleporting to various parts around the current floor.
The Spirit Tower dungeons provide a nice change of pace from the various elemental temples Link tackles to restore the Spirit Tracks across the land. Here the usual formula for Zelda dungeons is in full swing, that of explore, find a new weapon, use new weapon to defeat the boss, get your heart container and call it a day. These elemental dungeons are no slouch in the creativity department either, however they don’t carry the same sense of newness as the Spirit Tower levels. Weapons culled from the various elemental temples are a nice mix of old sawhorses and new armaments and all manage to be controlled well with nothing but the stylus and the shoulder buttons. Yes the stylus only control is back and it is more precise than in the previous outing. At times it can seem like a bit much to use the stylus to control Link, draw paths for Zelda and maybe throw a boomerang or two to set some torches alight, but it quickly becomes second nature.
The only real problem with the control scheme lies with the occasional camera issues. A late game weapon is made overly difficult to use due to some camera issues and when riding the rails you have to mind the camera constantly lest a trip around the bend cause the camera to be reset behind you, leaving you ill equipped to deal with the threat of cranium tossing snowmen or boar riding raiders. During the game’s earlier stages a whack from an enemy is easily remedied by blowing up some nearby rocks with your train’s cannon and regaining a heart or two but in the later stages where Link is criss-crossing the lands doing quests and ferrying both passengers and cargo alike, getting hit with enemy strikes means a loss of passenger happiness and cargo, neither one of which is good.
These mid-game quests may be looked down upon by players as they do tend to screw with the pacing a bit, a result of your somewhat slow overland travel, especially compared to the quicker pace of dungeon exploration, but as with riding any train, the slower pace allows for a greater appreciation of the land that you’re travelling across. Enemies change as the regions differ and as Link and his train speed across the rails the Spirit Tower is always visible in the distance, in various stages of disrepair based on how far you’ve progressed in the main story. As Link travels around performing deeds for villagers he’ll recover Force Gems as well as new tracks allowing for faster travel and easier ways of avoiding the various evil train cars that roam around. It also helps cement this world’s version of the train engineer as an everyday hero. Link is an engineer first, adventurer second and as an engineer he has a duty, or in this case, a calling to help others with nothing more than his train and a smile on his face.