The Legend of Zelda – The Spirit Tracks is the latest in the Zelda series, released on December 7, 2009. Tracks is actually the 15th game in the highly disjointed Zelda series, and while I’m always glad for a new entry, should they really even be counting at this point?
This game finds Link in the role of a train engineer at its advent (why not?) on the way to the graduation ceremony at Hyrule Castle, which is to be administered by none other than Princess Zelda. The quickest locomotion in this world is by train tracks, so you get a quick tutorial on the travel system that is the basis of the game. You meet Zelda, agree to help her with her problems, get your oddly colored soldier’s uniform and then the game begins.
The graphics in this game are identical to the previous DS game, The Phantom Hourglass, with perhaps some changes to accommodate the more land-based gameplay. These graphics being based on 2003’s Gamecube entry, the Wind Waker, are highly colorful in their watercolor beauty. Luckily the unnecessary outrage of recent adult Link fanboys has been muted due to Twilight Princess, so these graphics can be viewed objectively. I’ve always enjoyed this more animated Link, naturally fitting in with his origin on the NES, and Spirit Tracks is no different.
The new system of train travel paints Hyrule in a seemingly new light, but the player will quickly come to recognize the familiar forest, water, and snow type locations. The environments may change, but there is still the pleasant sense of familiarity in this latest DS offering.
Music has been steadily going downhill in Zelda since Ocarina of Time, and this is a bewildering truth when you consider how new instruments are often integrated into the gameplay. Wind Waker promised LTTP’s remixes and they weren’t that great. The downfall continues in Spirit Tracks. While the main overworld theme around Hyrule Castle Town is the best main theme since Link to the Past with its American West overtones, almost every other piece is lacking. The other areas of the main map are muted and dull, the dungeons seem to be on an endless loop, and the boss battles lack the dramatic feel necessary for any epic confrontation. At least the classic Zelda sound effects of solving a puzzle or opening a treasure chest are still present. I hope the day that these classic jingles are done away with never comes.
Gameplay is standard Zelda fare. Find new dungeons, solve puzzles, look for keys, defeat enemies to open doors, find a boss; rinse and repeat. The new traveling method might seem very different at first, but it plays out pretty much just like sailing in Phantom Hourglass. You draw where you want to go, and the train will automatically steam its way there. Add some required player dexterity for environmental hazards and the occasional enemy and you have Spirit Tracks’ travel system.
The 2nd DS Zelda continues the stylus only controls introduced in Phantom Hourglass, and they work about as well as before. I would have liked an option to use traditional controls, as actions can get a little too busy with the stylus, especially in combat. Oftentimes, Link will roll instead of targeting an enemy or he will stab with his sword rather than dodge that enemy’s easily telegraphed attack. The stylus controls are functional, but hardly as precise as the traditional Zelda controls in the days of the SNES and NES.
The biggest gameplay change is Zelda’s accompaniment on your journey. She’s a lot like Navi in Ocarina of Time, but far less annoying, as she only pops out when Link encounters a puzzle or something unfamiliar; a sort of hint. While the player is in the Spirit Temple, Zelda can use her unique abilities to control these giant suits of armor, which she can use to aid you in puzzles and occasional combat.
All of her actions whilest in the suit are mapped to the stylus, as you have to draw a path for her to move along in order for her to do anything. It is cumbersome at its best and downright annoying at its worst, seeing as how Zelda will often walk into walls, requiring quick redirection to solve this locomotion handicap. Not since the A.I in Secret of Mana have I seen such an obvious blunder in control potential. Again, it could have been easily addressed by having Zelda use the face buttons, especially seeing as how Link DOESN’T use them…
Challenge has always been a mixed bag in the Legend of Zelda, depending on the skill of the player. Most acknowledge that the series’ difficulty has been steadily declining, as Spirit Tracks definitely confirms this. Enemies’ AI is simplistic, following preset patterns of attack and movement, rarely reacting to your own strategy. This makes most combat a matter of trial and error. Fail on a boss once, it is pretty easy to figure out how you messed up. Frustration can occur due to puzzles or the control limitations mentioned above, but they are hardly game breaking. The Adventure of Link this ain’t.
Replay value is as limited as all Zelda games. There are a lot of side quests that can net you money, heart containers and other rewards. These quests do give eager players more to do, but given how easy the game is, max hearts aren’t necessary to beat the game. Wind Waker was similar in this regard. Ultimately, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is a game you pick up and enjoy and don’t touch for quite a while afterwards. Not a bad thing, but certainly not evidence of high replayability.
Spirit Tracks is a fine game in and of itself, but it is still feels like the continued decline of the Legend of Zelda series. I try not to compare games directly to others as a basis for a lower score (if this was valid, every game that isn’t Final Fantasy VI would be a disappointment…) but I sometimes pine for the Zeldas of old. These were the days when the exploration was pure and simple, puzzles were intuitive and FUN, and the series just had a je ne sais quoi that made it so enjoyable to play. Spirit Tracks is still a very good game, but I weep for the future of Zelda if the musical based theme is to persist…