Disclaimer: This review is the opinion of the author, not ZeldaInformer as a whole.
Note: We are a Zelda fan-site, so of course I like this game. Although, I will say, I do have a particular distaste for Phantom Hourglass and Twilight Princess, so it’s not exactly like I’m without perspective. Either way, I attempt to show all sides of Spirit Tracks and tell you how I thought it was even for me, someone who is generally cynical.
As I said in my earlier impressions, I really did not like Phantom Hourglass, so you can imagine my hesitation when I heard Nintendo was making a sequel. I wasn’t particularly happy and when they unveiled the train; in fact, I guffawed in shock. Having finished the game, I can tell you right now, I was wrong. And, man, am I happy that I am. Spirit Tracks is the best Zelda since The Wind Waker—there is no doubt about that.
The trip begins simple, like all Zelda games do. Link, who again seems devoid of parental figures, is a humble train engineer, and today is his final day as an apprentice. First thing’s first, he needs to get to the castle first in order to get his certificate from Princess Zelda. And immediately, you are introduced to the train. This is my thought on the train: I still hate the idea behind it. To me, trains have an unmystical feel that doesn’t fit well with the series as a whole but, for whatever reason, it works in this game. It has its moments where it’s a bit boring, but for the most part it is an entertaining and efficient way to traverse Hyrule. There were some times, particularly a part at the end and a rather long and boring section before the Fire Temple, that it is both frustrating and boring. But it has its quirks and the multitude of enemies you battle while riding on it are diverse and entertaining, especially the evil snowmen.
Not too soon after that you are also introduced to controlling Zelda. Now this, at first, is amazingly frustrating. It’s something new to the series, so, of course, it’s going to feel clunky to the new user. Controlling two characters at once is, understandably, difficult. But once you get Zelda into a suit of armor and she’s rolling around squashing enemies under her girth, you can’t help but be entertained. Plus, the 4 different types of Phantoms makes for some amazingly fun, interesting, and tough puzzles.
There is also the topic of difficulty. This game can be very, very difficult. Personally, there were some puzzles (even one “simple” one at basically the very beginning) that had me stumped for hours. More often then not, the puzzles had some sort of hint with them either from a NPC or a tablet placed somewhere that gives a vague but generally useful tip. Still, there were times I would sit down and stare at this hint and just not get it. While I love a tough puzzle, it did become frustrating at times but, as much as I generally hate hard games, the feeling of success I felt when I finally did get the puzzle compares to basically nothing else. And really, these puzzles get harder and harder as the game goes on almost in a perfect y=x2 curve.
Another highly-welcome return to the series are the side quests. But not just one or two of them… more like ten to twenty of them, and they are all fun with unique awards as well. Most of the side-quests will nab you a “force gem” as a reward, which will restore a section of the Spirit Tracks to the map. More often then not, these extra sections make it easier to traverse Hyrule or give you another stop at which you can find some treasure or another side-quest. While the side-quests are fun, they don’t have any particular emotional attachment like, say, the ones in Majora’s Mask, but they are there, and they are fun. And really, what else should a game be other than fun?
There are also a bunch of collectibles including treasure, which are random drop items that you can trade for customizing the train, and stamps which are placed in a stamp book obtained from Niko towards the beginning of the game. A final note on side-quests: there is a mini-game with the snake whip is probably the most fun I’ve had playing a mini-game since the “Kabooooom!” battleship in The Wind Waker.
Speaking of items, Spirit Tracks has a bunch of new (and a couple returning) ones that are both original and fascinating. My personal favorite was the snake whip (Mother 3 anyone?), which is probably the most useful item since the Boomerang. It can steal shields, kill enemies in two hits, swing Link over dark chasms, and push back enemies away from Link. There’s also the “Sand Wand,” which can push patches of sand up to create a platform for a few seconds, which was often used in Phantom Zelda sections so that Link could hop onto her back. There’s also the Whirlwind, which was pretty nifty but also just about useless for the majority of the game.
For the sake of necessity and fairness, I must note some negatives in gameplay, because there certainly were some. First off, the Whirlwind was very awkward to use for me. While I know Nintendo is in love with their mic for some reason, I thanked them for barely using the Whirlwind, because if it had been novelty abused throughout the game, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to finish. It just seems to me they threw it in because it seemed cool. Then there’s the unbelievably boring sections of driving the train, featuring too much back tracking and a slow-as-molasses train when going backwards (which I was under the impression that trains can move backwards and forwards at the same speed, but I guess Nintendo wasn’t exactly going for realism.)
There were also a few parts, mostly pertaining to side-quests, where Link gives people rides in his passenger car. While the concept is cool, the passengers had to follow these signs by the rail tracks that tell you to slow down or blow your horn at certain times. I never sucked so much at it that I found out what happens when you fail, but I’m guessing you have to start over. It was a bit annoying having to slow down for certain sections and stop exactly at the train stops so that your passenger, who apparently has nothing better to do then make sure you don’t miss a traffic sign, doesn’t get mad at you.
Finally, another thing with the train: it has very little health and it never increases. It always has four hearts and there’s no way around it. And while most of the enemies are easy to kill, there are some times particularly towards the end where four is frustratingly not enough. Also, if you run into other trains, you are immediately dead. No matter how many hearts you have, you can literally tap into an enemy train going half a foot per hour and, oops, game over. And since the train takes minutes to go from full-speed to moving backwards, this happens sometimes and especially a lot when a new type of train shows up that can turn around and chase after you even if it is facing the other way.
Now, before I finish, I just want to mention two other very important and amazing things. First, the music is incredible. And, just like the game itself, it is the best music I’ve heard since The Wind Waker. It has its cheesy parts, which for some reason I get this distinct feeling that they were written by another composer who didn’t compose the majority of the game, but for the most part, the music is entertaining and fitting. There are some familiar themes, such as the Zelda Theme and Zelda’s Lullaby, but we’ve got a ton of fresh music to listen to for most of the game, including the Lokomo Duets, which are some of my favorite pieces of music in Zelda I’ve ever heard.
Second are the graphics, which are just beautiful and fantastically stylized and perfect for the DS’s small screen. There are some times where I would be looking at my screen and almost not believe that this small portable can do graphics like this. Granted, there are some times while riding the train where things like the ground and the trees are obviously pixelated and very, very flat but the art design more than makes up for it. It seems to me that they did a very good job mixing the fantastical with the natural. There’s also neat little touches to past games, like designs that look awfully similar to some of Twilight Princess’ complicated Twilight designs, to the Royal crest throwback to The Wind Waker. It’s a fantastic blend of new and old.
As it was said in Iwata Asks, Spirit Tracks was created out of a challenge to create a brand new Zelda as fast as they could. The same concept created Majora’s Mask, which honestly makes me wonder why the hell they don’t do this more. The great thing is that it feels finished; it’s a beautiful and fresh game that is a ton of fun and a nice challenge. And playing it, I really do get the same sort of feeling I felt playing Majora’s Mask for the first time. The world is fascinating and full of characters and the dungeons are very well designed and difficult. Not only that, the game is huge. There is so much stuff to do it’s almost staggering to think about. Seriously, I could not recommend this game more. If you have a DS, buy it. If you don’t have a DS, buy a DS and buy it. If you don’t want to, you’re lame. Get over the train, I did.
For you tl;dr types:
- Beautiful, well designed graphics.
- Fun and challenging gameplay.
- New, unique, and fun items along with some returning classics
- Train isn’t nearly as bad as expected.
- A ton of side-quests
- A great story with a satisfying end
- Beautiful and unique music
- Some train sections are very boring; the train is frustratingly slow
- Controlling Zelda in the Tower of Spirit sections can be clunky
- Some of the graphics, mostly while riding the train, are pixelated and flat.
- Music can occasionally be cheesy and a bit repetitive