Phantom Hourglass: Uncharted Waters

Score: 8.0

Personal Score: 8.5

Phantom Hourglass holds the distinct honor of being the first original Zelda title released on the venerable DS handheld system.  Legend of Zelda fans had a long wait for an entry into the series, and expectations had built up in the three-four year waiting period (depending on where you lived).  Following Twilight Princess, Nintendo’s decision to return to the ‘toon link’ art style was welcomed by some and scorned by others.  Upon release, the game was praised for it’s innovative control scheme and use of the DS’s unique mechanics to create something entirely new in the Zelda universe.  Players controlled Link and Linebeck’s ship using the touchpad almost exclusively.  Critics generally welcomed the fresh control layout, and Phantom Hourglass was given high scores and numerous accolades in handheld gaming.

In the community, the control scheme didn’t seem to polarize fan’s opinions as much as one would think; the control scheme does little to detract from a traditional Zelda experience.  Of course, not everyone loves the unique controls, and many fans were disappointed in not being able to move Link with the D-Pad.  Additionally, the controls seem to determine the way dungeons and boss encounters are designed, which can feel constricting and telegraphed.  Phantom Hourglass is also criticized for much of what it’s spiritual predecessor (The Wind Waker) was criticized for; boring sailing mechanics.  Phantom Hourglass even removes the freedom to steer your ship on a whim, forcing you instead to follow set paths drawn onto the touchpad.  On an aesthetic front,  Phantom Hourglass seems a bit drab in comparison to other Zelda titles, normally bursting with color and vibrance.  As a handheld Zelda title, Phantom Hourglass excels at offering a fresh, new experience for the Zelda faithful.  However, the very same design choices that make PH unique can also serve to hold it back from the immersive, inclusive adventure we normally associate with Zelda titles.

THE PROS:

Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to The Wind Waker.  The story begins where WW left off, with the returning cast of characters exploring a vast sea in search of a new land to call home.  Link, Tetra and the Pirates make their return in fine fashion, interacting with each other in the same quirky manner we saw in The Wind Waker.   Having fond memories of the characters and storylines introduced in The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass had a hook in me before I even started playing.  I was eager to continue the adventure I loved so much on the Gamecube, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with what Phantom Hourglass offered.Tetra again plays the role of scolding care-taker to Link and the Pirates, who are all rambunctious bumblers.  For Zelda fans that like the more innocent, playful atmosphere of The Wind Waker and The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass delivers more of the same charm.  I personally welcomed the familiar atmosphere, and it maintains itself well throughout the remainder of the game following Link and Tetra’s accidental journey into the realm of the Ocean King.

The characters that follow Link throughout the bulk of the game are endearing and memorable as well.  Captain Linebeck and the fairy/spirit Ciela accompany Link on his adventure in the Ocean King’s domain.  Ciela fills the shoes that Navi and Tatl wore in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.  All in all, she retains the same charm and chattiness fans expect from a fairy companion.  This is either a blessing or a curse for some players.  While not quite as intrusive as Fi in Skyward Sword, Ciela is guilty of screaming at Link during inopportune moments of gameplay a la Navi.  This time around, however, she actually HELPS players by drawing attention to what’s going on during sequences that require them to divide their attention between two screens.  In that sense, Ciela is a much more welcome assistant than Navi or Tatl were.  I myself loved having Ciela travel with Link, and found her banter a welcome break from the silence of our historically mute Hero.

Linebeck has become a fan favorite in the community.  He is an unwilling participant in Link’s quest in the beginning, only accompanying Link under the pretense that his assistance will garner him some treasure.  In typical pirate/treasure hunter fashion, Linebeck is obsessed with riches and constantly reminds Link of that fact.  Linebeck frequently voices his dissatisfaction with his situation and has every bit of the entertainment value found in other comic relief characters we’ve seen in other Zelda games.  Between Link and Linebeck, there’s enough slapstick humor to make a Three Stooges episode.  Linebeck also displays some depth in character, showing genuine love for his beloved boat the S.S. Linebeck and a humbled attitude towards the plight of Link, Tetra and the Ocean King during the game’s final segments.  I truly enjoyed having Linebeck around during my time with Phantom Hourglass, as he often lightens the mood in otherwise drab and dreary situations.  Linebeck’s character was revisited in the form of his ancestor (Linebeck III) in Spirit Tracks, albeit in much smaller and more conservative role.  I don’t know if Nintendo will decide to revisit the character in future Zelda titles, but I certainly wouldn’t mind another dose of Linebeck down the road.

In the same vein as The Wind Waker, Four Swords Adventures and The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass adopts cartoon-style visuals/designs instead of the more photo-realistic design choices found in Twilight Princess.  This design choice lends itself very well to the graphical capabilities of the DS, and the character models translate well.  The cast of characters are all expressive and endearing.  While not as involved or fleshed-out as the core cast of characters, NPCs and enemies/bosses are expressive and unique in their own right.  The Ocean King’s domain is not as varied as other overworlds we’ve seen in Zelda titles, but it succeeds at providing interesting locales and memorable character designs.  The Gorons make a return, along with two new races (the Anouki and the Yook).  Boss designs themselves are not particularly groundbreaking, but each encounter is transcendent of mere aesthetic quality thanks to the novel quality of their encounters with Link (which I’ll touch on in the next paragraph).  The exceptions to this are the designs of the Cubus Sisters and Bellum, both of which are shiver-inducing.  Bellum is a welcome change from the scheming sorcerer-types most notably associated with Zelda games.  Bellum is more of a malevolent force of nature, seeking out life-forces to drain in order to prolong it’s own.  The intimidating single-mindedness of Bellum gives players a different sense of evil, almost like a virus that consumes and destroys everything around it before moving on.

Each character Link encounters during his journey seem to have their own personality, which speaks volumes about Nintendo’s commitment to provide an immersive experience.  This trend of unique and endearing characters continued in Spirit Tracks, and I hope Nintendo continues to adhere to the standards present in Phantom Hourglass.

Please instruct small children to seek counseling following their encounter with The Cubus Sisters…

The last positive element I’d like to touch on are the combat aspect of Phantom Hourglass.  Standard enemy encounters are largely forgettable and the same as we’ve seen before, but Boss encounters really take handheld Zelda gaming into new and exciting territory.  For those who read my review of Spirit Tracks, you’ll remember that Boss encounters were one of my favorite aspects of ST, and they all built off of the groundwork laid down in Phantom Hourglass.  Nintendo utilizes the dual screen capability of the DS remarkably well in Phantom Hourglass, and the unique mechanics make for some of the best and most memorable experiences in the Zelda universe.  Crayk and Bellum stand out in particular by using the top screen to display another character’s perspective on the fight taking place.  Crayk’s encounter in particular sticks out, as the top screen is used to display what Crayk is seeing while it approaches Link.  This was a brilliant and unique design decision, and I was happy to see Spirit Tracks continue with those innovations.  I hope that Nintendo revisits the unique capability of dual-screen gameplay in future handheld Zelda titles.

THE CONS:

As I mentioned before, not everyone loves the control scheme of Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.  While I don’t think PH is quite as infuriating as ST was in the control department, I never found myself 100% comfortable with the stylus.  Using swipes and pokes to move Link and control his items is indeed innovative and (for the most part) quite intuitive, it isn’t as easy as using a D -Pad or joystick.  I wouldn’t say I’m altogether against the control scheme of PH and ST, but I definitely prefer the more traditional control schemes of older handheld entries in the franchise.  This is a small caveat that certainly didn’t massively detract from my enjoyment of Phantom Hourglass (in the way it did with Spirit Tracks), but it exists none-the-less.  I won’t complain if Nintendo decides to revisit this control scheme, but I will undoubtedly grimace to myself.

Despite strong characters and solid controls, Phantom Hourglass is not without it’s shortcomings in the design department.  As many critics have pointed out, sailing in Phantom Hourglass is a tedious necessity that occasionally stalls the pacing of the game.  When players have drawn a route for the S.S. Linebeck to take, there’s little to do besides wait for your ship to arrive at it’s destination.  Occasionally players will have to defend the tiny boat from aquatic enemies, but they pose little threat and are dispatched with relative ease.  There’s also no real sense of freedom or anticipation that accompanied the sailing in The Wind Waker.

Good thing the boat has a second gear…otherwise, this might take forever! …ugh.

Pacing is indeed the weakest aspect of Phantom Hourglass.  While the story itself is well done (spoiler alert, the Ocean King’s domain is an alternate reality that Link and Tetra stumble into before returning to their world only to find that a mere ten minutes had passed), the presentation is stuck in a very, very familiar Zelda formula.  Link is essentially sent on a game-long fetch quest for this and that in order to rescue Tetra from her unfortunate episode of Medusa worship…er, being turned into a statue.  Link hops from island to island, retrieving one after another essential item that will inevitably result in the return of the Ocean King, the resurrection of Tetra, and the downfall of Bellum.

“Great job, Link! You found the invaluable thing! Now, go fetcheth ANOTHER ONE and bring it back here!”

After a few dungeons, this pattern becomes tiresome.

Speaking of dungeons, Phantom Hourglass has no shortage of unique puzzles for Link to solve.  However, the puzzles are all very constricted in nature and tend to present themselves in very telegraphed manners.  Once you’ve defeated a few enemies and found a few keys, you’re given the item that will determine how you approach the rest of the dungeon.  While the use of the touch pad and PH’s control scheme are certainly innovative, they shouldn’t be the singular basis for how a dungeon is designed.  This makes completing dungeons a somewhat boring and uninspired affair, as a savvy player will have predicted exactly what they need to do in order to progress as soon as they’ve acquired the essential item.

The last aspect of Phantom Hourglass that deserves some criticism is the color department.  Aesthetically, Phantom Hourglass appears a bit drab in comparison to previous Zelda titles.  Sailing the Ocean King’s domain and traversing dungeons becomes a somewhat melancholy affair thanks to some washed-out and dull color schemes.  While the characters do a fine job of brightening up the mood throughout the game, it would have been nice to see some more vibrant colors in the world of Phantom Hourglass, especially when you consider that PH is the sequel to The Wind Waker.

As far as being an innovator in the realm of control schemes and gameplay mechanics, Phantom Hourglass stands on almost as high a podium as Skyward Sword.  It’s fresh, new, and feels genuinely different than other Zelda games.  That, combined with the same spirit that made me love The Wind Waker, makes for what I would call one of the best handheld Zelda experiences.  It’s certainly the best Zelda game on the DS, in my opinion.  Phantom Hourglass is definitely a stand-out entry in the series, and should be experienced by anyone that claims to be a fan of The Legend of Zelda.

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