Last time it was boats, this time it's trains. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks has snuck in right before Christmas to deliver Nintendo fans some of that ever-so-familiar joy this holiday season. But is ever-so-familiar suddenly too much? You know, it seems we're getting to the point where reviewers could slap a score on a Zelda game and say, quite simply, "It's a Zelda game." That ought to tell all seasoned temple prancers WTF is up: the franchise remains rock solid, the masterminds behind it aren't going anywhere, and we can probably expect many more where this came from.
So why bother? Um. Um. Cos it's Zelda dude! Link is embarking on a career as a train engineer, but there's a problem with the tracks that used to run the length and breadth of the kingdom - they're vanishing. Princess Zelda, however, won't let the tradition of swearing in new drivers die. So, with his mentor Alfonzo to guide him, Link gets on board a choo-choo to puff on over to Castle Town. When he gets there, he runs into the snippy Chancellor Cole, who thinks the whole thing is a big waste of time, and Link has his ceremony interrupted. He still gets his certificate, but the Princess asks him to come back to her quarters later on. There, she tells Link of her concerns about Cole, and her sense that danger looms - stock standard stuff from a princess who has led us on more rescue missions than we care to count. Zelda asks Link to accompany her to the Spirit Tower, where she hopes to get some guidance and find some info about what's going on.
This is where you learn to drive your train: the primary mode of transport between hotspots in Spirit Tracks. It's a basic system, just as the boat was in Phantom Hourglass - and here might also be a good place to point out that the nuts and bolts of Spirit Tracks move and shake in almost identical patterns to its predecessor. It looks the same, the controls are the same-ish (as always there's a few quirks) and the battle system, map, enemies and environments all dance to Zelda's traditional beat. Anyway, a lever on the side of the touch screen controls your speed and a lever like a hippy's belt works the horn. As you bowl along the tracks, you'll also need to watch out for forks, and pull a lever to decide which way you want to go. The worst thing about the train system is that even at top speed it feels like an age before you get anywhere. All there is to do is scare animals off the tracks or away from the train (pigs, birds, Skulltulas) as you head for your destination. Later in the game you'll have a cannon to use, but apart from some pretty scenery, at first the action is very dull.
Before making it as far as the Spirit Tower, the group is stopped by Chancellor Cole, who has with him a mean-looking character called Staven. They confess evil plans of wishing to release the Demon King, who is imprisoned underground by the Spirit Tracks. Alfonzo tries to leap to the Princess's defence, but Staven reminds him that Link's burly mentor is only human before delivering a mechanical-handed KO. Link, too, gets smashed out of the way and the pair are free to slap Zelda's spirit right out of her flesh and bones and nick off with her limp form, body-snatcher style. Awakening back in Castle Town, Link ventures outside to see a disembodied princess floating around trying to talk to the guards and getting nowhere. Luckily, Link can see and hear her, and they hatch a plan to get back to the Spirit Tower. Once there, they speak to Anjean, a wise old woman who tells them that if the Spirit Tracks are successfully destroyed, the Demon King will be released upon the land. Plucky Link, predictably, thinks "Not on my watch, bee-otch," and sets about ensuring the world is kept safe.
So far, so blah, but just remember that the storyline in The Legend of Zelda games is always a little silly. Always. That hasn't ever detracted from the game, though, has it? We see a very common set up here with the evil spirits and the malevolent Chancellor Cole, and an angry, yellow-haired boy with a sword, shield and kingdom to save. If you couple this with the earlier point about Spirit Tracks being a veritable clone of Phantom Hourglass in terms of its look and feel, then it could be very easy to get turned off. Consider this a caution to persevere. This really goes out to those that Zelda-sometimes, rather than those that Zelda-allthetime; the Zelda-allthetimers probably wouldn't stop playing to extinguish their burning mothers.
The main shiny bit of newness in these early stages is that once Princess Zelda gets Casperized, she follows you round to aid your progress. In temples and in the Spirit Tower, one of her handiest moves is a gangsta piece of hauntage, where she gets inside the bodies of phantoms (you'll remember these sharp-eyed behemoths from Hourglass) allowing you to control them. They can be used to walk through fire, lava, etc or to distract other phantoms on the level, allowing Link to slip by. A handy one touch system allows you to switch between the two.
Before each temple opens, you need to find your way there. Each level of the Spirit Tower houses a rail map, which you need to obtain in order to lay out the track to your next destination. The Tower levels are like little pre-temple whetstones, that help you get your eye in. The first part of the Tower will be a great spot for first-time players (if there is such a thing) to learn the ropes. As well as that, the Tower itself houses some rewarding and challenging gameplay of its own; Spirit Tracks isn't just about the temples. While the temples are the ribcage of any Zelda title, the Spirit Tower here acts like a backbone. Once you find each rail map, new tracks will appear on your world map, allowing you to plot courses and explore new parts of the kingdom.
Much excitement was attached to the puzzles in Phantom Hourglass. Some of the solutions caused open-mouthed double takes, and getting to them was often incredibly (enjoyably) frustrating. Finally getting the thing right and hearing that wonderful upward-lilting music made it all worthwhile, and Spirit Tracks delivers plenty more on this front. The puzzles are one example of how the developers take the well constructed, precedent-set shell of the Zelda franchise and fill it with fresh new goodies. So much in the world of Zelda ain't broke, so there's no cause to fix it, but this is a blessing and a curse. However, even with a common goal from one game to the next, the way we get there is constantly changed up. Be prepared for some seriously ingenious work.
The temples themselves are filled with enemies, treasures, pitfalls, items and traps. Navigating them is always logical, but that doesn't always help when they layouts are initially so varied. There really is nothing overly-exciting to say about the temple system in Spirit Tracks - you enter a door at the beginning, traverse the floors, find the treasures and the boss key, kill the boss then teleport back to the beginning again. But so what? The designs are all new, there are fresh items to obtain - whirlwind, for example, allows you to clear gasses, activate switches and move objects across gaps - and the bosses are all brand spankin'. This is starting to get a little repetitive, but Spirit Tracks isn't a new game; it's a sequel.
Let's not call it Phantom Hourglass 2, but remember how you were able to customize your boat? Yeah, you can customize your train. It's not exactly Ocarina Again, but this time you've got a mic-activated set of pan-pipes. For some of you, all the same-same will be a little tiresome, but please don't mistake this for a rant about lack of value. There's a fantastic treasure system, a deep and rich gameworld to explore, with myriad side quests and a beleaguered populace all vying for your help. The environments are expansive (even if you can't get to it all - much of it just slides by as you ride your train) and although the visual style is pure symmetry when set alongside Hourglass, it looked pretty good then and is perfectly passable now.
Yo Zelda fans: buy this game. The warning above has been laid on thick enough, but you're up to the challenge and more than capable of making your own decisions about whether another crack at Zelda on the DS is your thing. If it is, it shouldn't matter at all that so much of Hourglass returns for Spirit Tracks. A list of each small nuance would make for a pretty boring review, so as superficial as it is we've given away as little of the story and the temple-to-temple action as possible. Much of the joy is discovering it all for yourself.
Why? Because it's Zelda dude!