I went on a long tirade yesterday regarding God of War III. I don’t want people thinking I’m just against Sony, so today I’m reviewing the other game I recently played: Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. This is the new Zelda game for the DS, and while it came out last year, I just now got around to playing and beating it. I fancy myself a Zelda fanboy, so let that be the basis for where most of these comments are about to come from. Without further ado, let’s hop on the Spirit Tracks and go for a ride.
Not the Best, But Not the Worst
Spirit Tracks is not my least favorite Zelda game. That honor goes to its predecessor, Phantom Hourglass. Because it’s slightly better than Phourglass, Spirit Tracks is only my second least favorite Zelda game. In the spirit of putting the good before the bad, I’ll talk about what Spirit Tracks does well before going off on why I disliked it so much.
My favorite aspect of Spirit Tracks is its reference to the world that came before it. Spirit Tracks is set roughly 100 years after Wind Waker with characters even mentioning Tetra, the Princess Zelda of that game, specifically, as well as other little references here and there to Link and characters/events that have already come and gone. I really like this and it’s what kept me going until the end because I was certain there would be further progress made for the series by the resolution of the plot.
Now I Get Mean
And here’s where the bad starts: There’s no further progress made to the world by the end of the game. I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything when I say that good vanquishes evil and the land is at peace once again before the credits roll. I expected a bigger, better payoff, but there wasn’t one. Even worse for me, the land this takes place in, which isn’t named, definitely isn’t Hyrule. This is a new land that I don’t particularly care about or have any interest in since it really doesn’t have a history. The world has a history, but this land I’m supposed to save doesn’t. It’s hardly 100 years old, so already I’m wondering why an ancient evil is attacking it again.
I don’t remember who the final boss of Phourglass was. I remember the plot, but I can’t for the life of me recall whom I was supposed to defeat in order to save Tetra. I think it was a pirate ghost or something. All I know is it wasn’t Ganon, and that always sort of makes me disinterested in a Zelda game. I know, it’s strange to complain that the series isn’t just using the same formula, but I’ve come to like parts of that formula for whatever reason, and one of those reasons is I know who Ganon is and why he’s a good villain. Malladus, the Big Bad from Spirit Tracks, is another one of those villains that I’ll completely forget once a year or two go by.
The other big convention that’s broken is Zelda’s inclusion along with your journey, though she’s only in a spirit form since her body’s been stolen. This was supposed to be the big awesome new gameplay mechanic to hinge the game on since she can enter Phantom Armor and assist you in some dungeons. Sadly, she usually functions as an even more annoying Navi when she’s out of the armor by constantly bugging you with information and nagging at you, and as a complete moron when she’s in the armor. Telling her to do something as simple as “Follow me” makes her brain explode, causing you to manually trace her steps across a bridge or around corners so she can navigate the dungeons for you.
Simplicity Done Wrong
I did actually enjoy the dungeons, just like most Zelda games, since Zelda games have good dungeon designs. Also, Zelda doesn’t do anything within these dungeons, so it’s just me, Link, and a bunch of relatively simple but interesting puzzles. The bosses though, those were just plain frustrating or dull save for the boss of the Fire Temple. All of this is a result of the controls. Spirit Tracks, like Phourglass, forces you to use the stylus for everything. Movement, item usage, sword fighting, everything. And in attempting to simplify everything the game only gets more complicated.
For example, there is a puzzle at one point where I need to hit a blue-fire torch with my boomerang so that it will freeze the water wherever the boomerang’s path is drawn. I draw a squiggly path so that I’ll have the most coverage possible and then run out into the middle of this pond so that I can attack some water enemies that shoot things I have to blow back using the pinwheel item (that causes me to blow into the mic, something that’s equally as frustrating). I have to wait on the ice while they shoot at me, but if they don’t shoot right away, the ice will start to melt, meaning I have to go back into my menu, bring up my boomerang as my primary item again, redraw a path for the boomerang to freeze, run to the newly frozen spaces, pull out my pinwheel item, tap it to have it equipped, and wait to blow into the mic at the right time. That single puzzle nearly caused me to snap my DS in half from frustration.
I just wanted the game to allow for more control schemes. I have no problem with the stylus-only option if I have the option to customize it for my needs, specifically to incorporate other buttons. Just being able to use the D-pad for movement would have been enough for me. It’s already difficult enough to hold the DS with one hand, and I have the original DS Phat, so my left hand is going to have to become stronger by the end of the game, otherwise I simply can’t hold it without dropping the game. I’d frequently take damage in the game because I’d be trying to slash my sword but the game thought I was just pointing in a direction I wanted to run. A fireball is headed towards me, why would I just want to run into it?!
Because Everyone Loves Trains
Besides the controls grating on my last nerve (seriously, I can’t repeat the words I said last night while fighting the final boss since this is a family website), the other huge flaw with Spirit Tracks is the train mechanic. Simply, the train elements are boring. I don’t care about trains. I’ve never cared about trains. You have to use the train to travel everywhere, back and forth, very slowly traversing the game’s map to go from one point to another. All the side quests involve elaborate fetch quests where I’m asked to go to some town in order to get some material, like wood, and bring it back to some person so they can build a fence. While transporting the wood I need to make sure not to take damage from enemies since that will cause me to lose materials. Other times I’m just asked to transport passengers from one place to another since they have nothing better to do. Once more, I’m not supposed to take damage from enemies because my passengers will get angry. Even worse, they critique my driving, complaining if I don’t blow my whistle at certain signs or slow my train down between speed zones, placed for no other reason in the world save for to provide these passengers with something to test me with. Why does every single random person in this land suddenly feel qualified to critique my train driving? The game goes out of its way to point out how “awesome” it is for Link to have become an engineer since it takes years of hard work to master, so what’s the point of having everyone complain at me when I don’t blow my whistle at a sign placed in the middle of NOWHERE when the world’s obviously in danger?
The train driving slowly (emphasis on SLOWLY there) drags the game down from being a great game to just something that’s somewhat average. To say this is a Zelda game is like saying that a glass of milk with one drop of chocolate syrup in it makes it chocolate milk. The train driving is probably close to 90% of the time spent playing the game. This is a train simulator with some Zelda elements mixed in, not the other way around.
So once again I’m forced to say that a game isn’t bad but it isn’t good. Spirit Tracks has a lot of good in it, but it’s not a good Zelda game by any means. Zelda fans will probably not enjoy this one as much as they’d like. At least we have the promise of a new console Zelda coming within a year or so.