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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Game Review - The Legend of Zelda:Phantom Hourglass

DS Game of the Year contender.

For the past few years and beyond, the word Nintendo has been synonymous with the Zelda franchise among others. For sure, iteration upon iteration of Zelda games never cease to impress gamers, whether you are looking at the GameCube, the GBA or the N64. Unsurprisingly, it is only a matter of time before a Zelda game shows up on the 3 years old DS and that it happened. The game in question is The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which is easily one of the best DS games this year. To set the record straight, Phantom Hourglass is my first Zelda game since I do not own any Nintendo console, save for the DS, of course. What came next totally blew me off – the visuals, the musical score, the several perplexing puzzles, the vast dungeons – yeah, almost everything. In short, if you have money for only one DS game this year, get Phantom Hourglass.

Upon starting the single-player adventure, you will be thrusted into the world of Zelda with some fantastic cinematics. Link, together with Tetra and his pal are on their ship as they sail the seas in search of the Ghost Ship. Ironically, it seems that the Ghost Ship located them instead as it chooses to appear out of nowhere. Tetra climbs on-board and that is when things all go horribly wrong. Well, you guessed it – trouble catches up with Tetra and Link attempts to board the Ghost Ship too in a bid to rescue Tetra, but instead of boarding the ship, Link falls into the choppy waters below and is washed ashore on a near-by island.

That’s just the appetizer, isn’t it? The real adventure begins when you meet up with a strange old man and a fairy is tasked with accompanying you on your adventure. You will start learning the basics of combat soon enough and you will realize everything’s touch-based. Is that a bad thing? Well, certainly no. The controls are (really) intuitive, yet at the same time, they manage to be responsive. As you progress further into the game, you will gather more items and weapons like the boomerang, bombs, bow and arrows, hammer, to name a few. Changing weapons is a cinch, though the sword is the default weapon at all times and cannot be swapped. And thanks to the touch-based controls, usage of the weapons is easy as well and enjoyable. For example, to throw a bombchu, which is essentially a mobile bomb, just draw a path on the map and the bombchu will follow it obediently. The same thing applies to the boomerang, which makes for some precise aiming. I would prefer the touch-based controls over any other control scheme any day. Minor hiccups are inevitable – like when you slash your sword instead of the intended turn in direction or when you accidentally fall off a cliff when all you want is to execute a roll, but these problems are more or less harmless.

The touch-based controls aren’t purely restricted to combat and movement as you will learn in time. Bringing up a sea map and drawing a route for your ship to take, scribbling notes on the map, and shaking off enemies that stick on you are just further examples on how the touch-based controls are utilized. Alright, I will just say you don’t need buttons to play Phantom Hourglass. And Nintendo hasn’t forgotten that the DS has a microphone that begs to be used. Though limited in usage throughout the entire game, it is fun while it lasts. Blowing out a torch? Check. Shouting out to someone across the bridge? Check. In fact, Phantom Hourglass is so creative and innovative in so many ways that it has set a benchmark for future games.

On to the adventure itself, it is part exploring the sea for hidden islands and treasures, part exploring the surfaces of huge islands, and part dungeon crawling. My favorite part would have to be the dungeon crawling component, though all parts are equally thrilling. If Phantom Hourglass is to be totally focused on combat, it would get a tad boring since most of the enemies in the game do not pose much challenge. The game’s charisma lies in its endless convoluted puzzles that are concentrated on each and every island and in every dungeon. These puzzles are definitely not your run-of-the-mill variants, but instead, those which have been incredibly well thought-out and are of unrivaled intelligence. Moreover, they are consistently high in production values from start to end. These puzzles range from small and relatively simple ones like flicking a switch behind the flames to larger and more brain-teasing ones that span over several levels of a temple, and then there are those puzzles that require the use of different weapons and items to solve. Some will require you to jot down notes for later use – the list just goes on and on and it just shows how varied the puzzles can be and I have to say it’s down to smart level design on the part of the developers. For sure, it may take some time for you to figure out some of the puzzles, but after you figured it out, it’s pretty satisfying. Couple the puzzles with the not-very-challenging, but exciting combat, and what you have is a game that is a pleasure to play.

Boss fights are a commodity throughout the game and take place on almost every major island. While ordinary combat for most parts of the game is not very challenging, as mentioned previously, boss fights are a different matter altogether. I would not go as far as to say that they are hard, but they are entertaining. Why do I say so? Well, no two boss fights are ever the same which means that each requires the use of a different tactic and some even have more than a single phase and you will have to adapt quickly. There are moments when you will just go ‘wow!’ because a boss fight turns out to what isn’t anticipated by you. In one particular boss fight, the top screen switched to a first-person perspective of the boss that you are up against. The boss is invisible, so you can’t see it. Instead, you are forced to rely on the top screen to tell his position and attack it. Instances like this are brilliant and you never know what is in store you in every boss fight.

Time-based challenges are also part of Phantom Hourglass, and they occur mainly at the Temple of the Ocean King, which is where you will start and finish your game at. Confused? What this translates into is that after you beat each boss on other islands, you will gain new abilities. These abilities in turn allow you to delve deeper into the temple, so you will need to return to the temple repeatedly to progress your game every few hours or so. Each time you revisit the temple, the new abilities that you have just gained will give you the power to get through the first few levels of the temples more quickly, though only marginally faster, and you will get the opportunity to explore areas that were once out of reach and find new shortcuts with your new abilitites. The time limit isn’t your only enemy in this temple, as you will learn that there are several invincible villains called Phantoms dishing out one-hit kills patrolling the temple, which you will have to navigate around in order to avoid detection. All these make the Temple of the Ocean King the most challenging part of Phantom Hourglass, but it is also during this part where the game’s most obvious flaw is laid out. You see, having to go deeper into the temple means that you have to make your way to the last possible, deepest level first on your last trip before you can explore more of its deeper levels. In other words, you are forced to play through the levels over and over again that you have already experienced before during your last trip. The problem would have been forgivable had the solved puzzles stay solved and the killed enemies stay killed, but apparently, that isn’t the case because each time after you leave the temple, everything is transported back to its original form. There is an enormous amount of backtracking occurring at the Temple of the Ocean King and I find it most irksome. Fortunately, a portal will be spawned in the later half of the game, which provides transportation to the basement 6 level of the temple, so you won’t have to replay the first 5 levels, but does it rid the game of this backtracking problem? A pity the answer is not a nod of the head.

Gamers who have played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the GameCube before, on which the world of Zelda is based upon in Phantom Hourglass, will anticipate another sea sailing gameplay component in this game. And yes, it is indeed present. On paper, it looks like sea sailing is all going to be a piece of cake – how difficult can sailing from point A to B get, right? The game proves me wrong once again as sea sailing is far more than that. Along your way in the game, you will pick up or purchase multiple ship parts, which can be used to customize your ship. Putting appropriate parts together will give your ship more ‘health’. And Nintendo has put in some really admirable effort in making the sea as lively as possible. Frogs jump out of the water randomly, seagulls fly, enemies attack, and there are instances where some of these enemies are akin to even the bosses that you will fight on the many islands. Variety isn’t neglected as you will find pirates, among them a female one who wants nothing but to pick up a fight on every occasion that she spots you, sharks, octopus (well, at least the beast looks like one) and some kind of small flying animal. During your time on the sea, you could also attempt your luck on a mini-game that requires you to move a metallic arm, which is known as the Salvage Arm in the game, to the bottom of the sea to pick up a treasure on the seabed, all the while navigating around obstacles like mines and fishes. It is a refreshing distraction to your main quest – that, I must agree.

Overall, the main adventure will last you for a long long time, but I cannot put down a definite time for that since there are many side quests and mini-games available throughout and it all really depends on whether you want to try them or not and win yourself a nice reward. Multiplayer adds in more playing time. The musical score, as I mentioned earlier at the start of this review, is good. But merely saying it’s good would not be right – alright, make that excellent. It’s catchy and memorable too. Just remember to put on a pair or earphones or headphones while playing it because I feel that the audio’s a little soft and by doing that, you could hear all the details as well, so just do yourself this favor. The visuals are gorgeous and void of any noticeable drop in frame rate, though it is not so much of ‘the more realistic, the merrier’ type. Animations are great, not only in quality, but also in variety.

Final Comments
It is perfect – almost. I like just about every aspect of this game and it’s one of the best DS games produced this year besides Hotel Dusk: Room 215. The total touch-based controls are intuitive and more responsive that I’d thought. It’s not only more responsive, but 100% responsive, I should say. The microphone is also put to some good use and Phantom Hourglass is so creative and innovate that it has just reinvented how DS games should be made. The core gameplay mechanic revolves around the puzzles, and rightfully so – because they are simply amazing. Combat on most parts requires little skills, but experimenting with different weapons and items to kill enemies compensates for that. Boss fights further strengthen the quality that Phantom Hourglass is so brimming with. The sea sailing component is not an afterthought, but one that has been designed in a way such that it will engage you. Being engrossed in the game for a long time is a norm as the main adventure will keep you occupied. And that’s discounting the side quests and mini-games. Visuals and audio are all of tip-top production and certainly, no gripes can I have. The only thing that is hampering Phantom Hourglass from being a perfect game is the amount of backtracking involved in the Temple of Ocean King. But otherwise, this game has got what you hoped for, what you want and what your money’s worth. A DS game of the year contender, without any doubt.


The Good:
- Touch-based controls are intuitive and responsive
- Ingenious game design in the puzzles
- Boss fights that make you go ‘wow!’
- Sea sailing component is filled with activities, good ones, of course
- Playing time is long and game is engrossing
- Memorable musical score
- Stunning visuals

The Bad:
- Amount of backtracking involved is an issue begging to be corrected


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