The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass review (DS)

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the newest game in the Zelda series and the first Zelda title for Nintendo’s extremely popular DS handheld. It is also a follow-up to the GameCube’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

The game brings many new mechanics to the series thanks to the unique features of the DS. All the features you’d expect are here in full force: Both screens are utilized, the game is entirely touch-screen controlled and you can even use the stylus to make notes, it takes advantage of online play with Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection and even the microphone comes into play at various times throughout the adventure.

The game also harkens back to the cell-shaded style from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker instead of the realistic style of Twilight Princess or the normal look of the past Zelda games. The game is effectively Wind Waker 2, but it does bring enough different things to the table to make it a unique game, thus the new subtitle, and you do not have to have played Wind Waker to enjoy Phantom Hourglass.

System: DS
Also On: None
Released: NA October 1, 2007 – AU October 11, 2007 – EU October 19, 2007
Genre: Action Adventure
Players: Single-Player with online item training and a 2-player online or offline Battle Mode
Save: 2 save files (you can save anywhere)
Developer: Nintendo EAD (Entertainment Analysis and Development)
Publisher: Nintendo
Origin: Japan

Zelda’s first foray onto the Nintendo DS is an excellent direction to take the series. Even though it is a sequel to Wind Waker, it uses the features of the Nintendo DS in unique ways that can only be done on the portable and serve as an example of how to do a DS version of a popular series right.

Storyline: The game opens up with a storybook-style recap of the events in Wind Waker. Now the mischievous group has a new mission, they are surfing the seas looking for a Ghost Ship (a familiar element from the last game).

Tetra artwork (Zelda Phantom Hourglass)Why are they doing that? Because Tetra does not believe that Ghost Ships exist, she believes it is just a group of your average pirates who have been kidnapping boaters the old-fashioned way, and she looks to put to rest these ghastly rumors. Link seems to be suffering from adventure-withdrawls however and is practically sleeping through the whole Ghost Ship and WW-recap conversation. As the discussion is just about to reach it’s end, behold! A Ghost Ship appears. Or is it? Tetra certainly doesn’t think so, and so she climbs aboard to prove it’s just a “normal ship” while everyone else stares, shaking in their boots. Link finally snaps out of it to see Tetra hopping on board, but it’s too late! Just then lightning strikes and the ship coasts off. Being the heroic boy hero, Link leaps to the ship, but barely being able to hang on he falls off into the ocean.

The action is viewed and controlled on the bottom screen (usually from a top-down perspective) with a map of the place you are in always displayed on the top. And as has been widely reported, Phantom Hourglass is entirely stylus controlled. While you can use the face buttons to bring up menus, you never actually use them for gameplay. To swing Link’s sword, navigate menus and save, talk to people, check the map or use any of Link’s weapons you use the stylus. And of course you use the touchscreen to actually move Link.

By dragging the stylus slowly in the direction you want Link to head he will go in that direction. By tapping an enemy or swinging the stylus in front of Link he will start swinging his sword and attacking. By tapping on enemies he’ll even leap from enemy to enemy with a jump attack, quickly taking them out. And by swinging the stylus back and forth in front of Link he’ll continue to swing very quickly. To do Link’s token Spin Attack, you draw a circle around Link. Finally, to perform a roll you draw a little circle at the edge of the screen in the direction you want Link to roll. For the most part, these stylus based attacks work well, although both the roll and the Spin Attack can be spotty, not always working when you want them too. Thankfully they aren’t really required so it doesn’t get in the way.

It’s not just the sword attacks either, but Link’s entire arsenal of weapons have gotten the stylus based treatment. Once a weapon is selected via the Item Menu (bottom right corner) you can arm it either by clicking it (upper right of the screen) or simply by holding the L or R buttons (for a quick-arm, which is really the only way to go).
Zelda Phantom Hourglass Pic 1
All the series standbys that you’d expect return here such as the boomerang, bombs and bow and arrow, and there are a few you won’t be expecting as well. Using the stylus to control these weapons makes them feel new and fresh even if there aren’t actually any new weapons that you haven’t seen before. The controls for these are all logical and they really feel neat and intuitive.

The bow and arrow and bomb for example are controlled as you’d expect . . . you place or throw a bomb where you point (placing it if you tap at Link’s feet) and for the Bow and Arrow you can aim in any direction by dragging the stylus before you let an arrow fly by lifting the stylus off where you pointed on the screen (note that if you let go of the L Button it will cancel the move for any weapon or item).

But for the Boomerang, you literally draw the path that you want it to fly in and it will follow the path drawn! This lets you do some cool things and is used to great effect in the puzzles throughout the game. Whether it’s using the boomerang to hit four switches that are scattered about you in a specific order (meaning you have to draw the line in a specific way) or drawing a line so that the boomerang fits in just right through a tight space.

To mention any more weapons would spoil the fun, but the selection is nice and diverse and you will find some very cool and unique puzzles to be had by using the new way to control you weapons.

Another huge part of Phantom Hourglass is using the stylus to draw on the various maps in the game. By pressing down on the D-Pad the screens will shift, so that the map is now displayed on the touch-screen and the gameplay is displayed on the top. You can’t move Link in this mode but what you can do is write on the map. You can write anything you want and whatever you write will stay on that specific map until you erase it.

There are different maps for each island in the game and for all the dungeons. You will often be required to write on the screen to figure out one of the game’s many riddles and to solve basic puzzles. The puzzles in this game I must say are quite difficult, I got stuck many times. The map-writing is a very cool and unique feature, although I still wish that there was a separate “notes” screen, and also it can be somewhat difficult to write letters in an eligible way, particularly if you make a downward slash for the letter “T” but lift the stylus, then retracing it can be difficult. In that way, it’s usually easier to write in cursive rather than print, but of course that only works if you have good cursive. But there’s not really a way around this and it’s still a great feature that really separates Phantom Hourglass from any other games you have played.

And because the game uses the stylus they are able to do unique puzzles that they never could’ve done before. As such, you will have to remember certain shapes and write them down or note the order you have to hit switches in and save the note for when you actually get to that part and have to use it.

And that’s really only the tip of the iceburg, the game will really, really challenge that muscle in your head in ways that you never imagined from a Zelda game. And not only does the game make extremely effective use of the stylus, but it also uses the other DS features, including blowing in the microphone, or shouting/snapping into the microphone (which can be very annoying if you are playing in a house with other people or late at night) and it will even use the DS’ sleep feature in a cool way. This is truly a game that would not be the same . . . or even possible, on any other game system!

Zelda Phantom Hourglass Pic 2

As in The Wind Waker, you will be required to surf the seas looking for islands while on your Quest. Unlike in that game, you now have a ship instead of a mere boat, and this ship (not a big one mind you) is piloted by an all-new character to the Zelda series named Linebeck. Unlike in Wind Waker, you don’t actually control the boat, all you do is draw it’s route and the ship will start going in that direction. You will encounter obstacles though such as barriers you have to jump, enemies that will attack, random ships you will come across, pirates and other things to shoot. How do you shoot? Well later on you will gain both a cannon, which you can shoot by tapping the screen, and a Salvage Arm for pulling up treasure, just as in The Wind Waker.

There really isn’t a whole lot to do while on the open sea, although you will come across islands that are not marked on your map. Treasure can only be deliberately found by finding a sea chart that marks it’s spot with an X, this is in contrast to The Wind Waker where treasure under the sea would be glowing at night, and you could pull it up by simply finding a glowing spot, hovering over it and pulling it up. But since you cannot control the ship directly there is no searching for random treasure in Phantom Hourglass, there also is no day and night cycle. Although you will occasionally find random treasure that will pop-up as an X on your map, these however will seemingly always give you something you already have. You will also eventually come across a means to teleport across the sea, and this incorporates the stylus by having you draw certain symbols on a slate once you have found a golden frog that tells you the various symbols. These are not recorded but you can mark them down on your map to remember them, and the places you can teleport too are marked by a frog head.

The overworld in Phantom Hourglass is no different than in any other Zelda, you will encounter various characters on the islands that you can talk to by tapping them and although most of them will tell you useless stuff, you will also be given items that you will need to take to another character to earn something or get a clue from a character you talk to. Like in an game of this type, it’s good to talk to everybody often. You will generally be given hints both by them as well as your partner fairy that also point you in the direction you need to go, and if you ever do get completely lost and aren’t sure of where you are supposed to go there is an island with a fortune teller who will tell you what you need to be doing next. Be sure to mark that island down on your map so you don’t forget it.

While in the overworld you can cut grass and throw rocks to find rupees and health and you will constantly come across puzzles that must be solved to progress. These are generally on the island with a particular dungeon you must get to, and you must first find out where the dungeon is or how to enter it. A lot of puzzles are quite simple, for example you may need to mark the location of specific objects on the island itself, and then cross them to point you to a particular direction where you need to perform an action. This is generally the way that the note-taking is used for puzzles.

Zelda Phantom Hourglass Pic 3

The dungeons in Zelda are classic Zelda dungeons and they work well enough. You will solve puzzles by finding clues and solving riddles, hit switches to open doors, pull levers, rocks and other objects and the type of thing you’d expect. And as in all Zelda’s each dungeon will contain an all-new weapon to add to your arsenal, a weapon you will need to use extensively in that particular dungeon after finding it. The bosses are also very fun to fight and while the game isn’t particularly difficult, you will come across head-scratching puzzles and I did actually die several times, but it’s never in a frustrating way, so the game is relatively easy overall unless you get stuck on a particular puzzle. In that case, it’s funner to play the game with a friend so you can help each other solve the riddles. A lot of the boss fights incorporate both screens for different views, which is a very cool thing that can only really be done on the DS.

So what exactly is the Phantom Hourglass? The name refers to an Hourglass that is used to collect the “Sand of Time” from bosses. This “time” is required to make it through the game’s main dungeon, which is always accessible and which you will need to conquer to find required sea charts that open up more of the overworld sea to explore. You will be limited at first, but eventually you will open up all parts of the sea and be able to sail to any location. In this main dungeon the Phantom Hourglass will tick down unless you are standing in special areas. And as you beat bosses in the game you will add more time to the overall counter (you can also gain more time by pulling up treasure).

Graphically Phantom Hourglass looks good. The game is surprisingly close to Zelda: The Wind Waker on the GameCube, you could almost mistake the two, but the game does not look quite as good as Wind Waker. It does however look as good, or better than, the N64 Zelda’s Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Screenshot of Gameplay

The animation is good although you probably won’t get too many “Wow” moments graphically, but hey it’s a DS game, that’s not really expected. The game won’t disappoint in the graphics area.

Musically, Phantom Hourglass has little to no new tunes, virtually all the music is recycled from either Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time. The Dungeon tune is similar, really just a slight remix of the Link to the Past tune; which means it’s repetitive, boring and uninspired. So in the music department, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass was a major disappointment, I was expecting at least some unique tunes, not Wind Waker 2 music. But it’s not that huge of a deal really, it’s definitely the gameplay that will keep you sticking around, and those that didn’t play each of the previously mentioned Zelda’s won’t even notice. But if you are a lover of Zelda music or a long-time fan like me, you might be a bit iffed about it. I was.

And if you start playing and think the game is slow, don’t worry, it gets much better once you reach mid-game. In true Zelda fashion, the story really doesn’t open up until then, when you learn some startling revelations. In this moment you will really get sucked into the game and what particularly impressed me was the dialogue . . . which although simple (this is not Final Fantasy, after all) is well-written and quite funny (and it is throughout, but particularly at this mid-game scene). Combine that with some funny banter between your fairy and the money-hungry wise-guy Lineback and some quite funny animations from said Lineback, and you get some classic moments.

I did really question the design of Linebeck though. But even though he has a very dull and boring look and design (I hated him more than Tingle before I even played the game, at least Tingle you could laugh at), amazingly he is full of personality! And although his dialogue is quite simple, you will want to hate him but learn to love him. His comedy really does make the game feel fresh. I laughed out loud at several points. And although I don’t think he can ever be an all-star Nintendo character (just look at him!) he did finally win me over completely by the half-way point, and I’m glad they included him in the game. Still, his actual physical design is very suspect. The cover looks ugly with him on it, and I think that there will be shallow people that won’t be able to look past the stupid design. Oh well, their loss.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass really improved on a lot of my sticking points with Wind Waker and previous Zelda games. You can hold a ton of money but more importantly, stuff you collect actually has a point! You aren’t simply collecting stuff to get more rupees. One of the biggest downfalls of Wind Waker in my opinion was all the useless collectibles. And not only that, but all the COMPLETELY useless treasure! I remember loathing the treasure collecting for fear that I would drudge up yet more useless rupees, which actually became wasteful if you were already holding the max amount.

Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Link & Linebeck Artwork 1But in Phantom Hourglass, you can actually customize the look of your ship with parts that you find by pulling up treasure or buy in shops. And by swapping parts in and out you can increase the stamina, or health, of your ship. This is actually useful because it can be relatively easy to die while on the ship. And there are tons of parts to find in multiple categories, and even if you don’t care about stamina, it is fun to just mix and match parts to create a unique looking ship. Earning and finding new parts is actually one of the funnest aspects of Phantom Hourglass in my opinion.

You will also find similar items (often given to you by various non-player characters) to those in Wind Waker, like feathers or crowns, that you can sell for money or trade with other friends via local or Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. And in addition to this, you will collect certain gems that you can use to power up your sword and give you new abilities. These gems are scattered throughout the game world and while they are easy to earn, it is difficult to find them all.

You can also sell the parts you find for your ship for money. And you can use this cash to buy either regular items, new ship parts, other upgradeable items (like the ability to carry more bombs or arrows), or charts that could lead to more parts to help fill out your collection. I think all of the above is a major improvement over previous games. Because it’s actually cool to find new ship parts and fun to build up your collection, and it serves a purpose. So instead of treasure chests you find at sea simply giving you more rupees, you generally will find something more useful than that, either ship parts or Time bonuses for your Phantom Hourglass, etc. So the collection aspect is much improved in my opinion.

You will find some side-games and mini-games to play in Phantom Hourglass as well, although not necessarily as many as in past Zelda’s. And like in previous games, some of these side-games can be missed entirely if you don’t fulfill certain conditions.

Probably the biggest side-quest in the game is Fishing. Once you have found your fishing rod (after doing something specific to earn it from one of the characters on an island), you will see shadows of fish moving on the map. You must plan your route so that you will hover over the fish, this usually means (depending on how far you are away from it) moving ahead of the fish so that you will cross paths with it when you reach it. When you are over the fish you will see a new “Fish” option under your menu.

Selecting this will take you to a new mini-game. It shows Link out on the ocean, and he casts his fishing rod into the water. A fish will bite and you will have to take the steps to reel that fish in. On the left is a bar, as the fish pulls on the string the notch on the bar will start falling, if the notch reaches the bottom of the bar then the fish will get away. To catch the fish, you must touch the screen and then drag down to the bottom, holding it there to keep the bar from falling to low, this will make the notch rise. To start reeling the fish in you have to draw little circles, and the distance of the fish from you will drop lower and lower, once it reaches zero you will have caught the fish. The fish will also jump and if you are pulling the fish (holding down on the screen) while it jumps. If this happens you might have to move the stylus up on the screen to pull then down to catch the fish again before it breaks the line and escapes. So when when the fish jumps you must briefly lift the stylus off the screen if you don’t want any problems.

This fishing side-game (a staple of Zelda titles) is quite robust and definitely unique. There are a five varieties of fish you can catch in different sizes, and to view them you will get a new section of your Collection screen, which you can get to buy tapping the Menu, then tapping the left arrow to see your Fish Journal. You can also view how many fish you have caught total, how many number of each type of fish, and the size of your largest fish caught.

There’s also a mini-game that starts when you use your ship’s Salvage Arm to pull up treasure. In this you have to navigate the arm itself as it sinks to the bottom of the sea. At the bottom of the screen is a bar and you move this bar along a track to the left or right to move the Salvage Arm in that direction and avoid spiky fish enemies (both moving and still) and the sides of cliff which will damage the Savage Arm. You can also move the controller for the Savage Arm at the bottom up to slow down the speed of the arm’s drop, or down to make it fall faster. This is useful to help you avoid the obstacles in your way. You will also come across rupees floating in bubbles that you can collect while on your way down to the bottom of the sea. If you pulled out your Savage Arm on the X spot of a treasure chest then you will find said chest at the bottom of the sea and must maneuver the Savage Arm over it to grab the chest (if you aren’t directly above it the arm may miss and you’ll have to do the game over again), you will then have to bring it back up, which can be just as hard as bringing it down.

You can also use your Savage Arm when you aren’t above a treasure chest . . . which will simply result in a miss as there is no treasure at the bottom. Your Savage Arm has a health bar on the upper left that corresponds to how much stamina your ship has, if you completely damage your arm and lose all your health while in the treasure chest grabbing mini-game, either while pulling it up or going down, you’ll not only lose the chest but you will have to go to Mercay Island and pay to have it fixed before you can use it again and try once more for the chest. This mini-game requires a steady hand and is a fun way to dive for treasure.

You will also find a Treasure digging mini-game, where you get to dig up ten “good or bad” treasure’s, which include both rupees as well as Treasure Chart’s that point you to buried treasure at sea. You will come across a racing mini-game, where you can have fun trying to best your time and get rewarded if you beat the set time. There’s a shooting game where you use the Cannon on your ship to shoot targets for points and finally there’s a complex Maze game, where you must find and attack a certain number of statues before time runs out. And this can be played in easy, normal and hard difficulties.

There’s definitely a good amount of mini-games and side-quests in Phantom Hourglass, enough to keep you busy even after you beat the game.

Oshus Character art (Zelda: Phantom Hourglass)However there are other aspects of Phantom Hourglass that make it more simplified than previous full-on Zelda games (of which is it one). There is nothing like the Ocarina or The Wind Waker wand from past Zeldas in Phantom Hourglass. There is the Hourglass itself, but it’s not an item that you can use or play around with, and as such it serves only one function, to keep you alive in dungeons. Combine this with the simplification of sailing, the fact that there are no pieces of heart to collect (you can get full Heart Pieces though that increase you health though) or additional bottles to earn, the fact that you have less weapons in this game than in previous Zelda’s and the fact that the Phantom Hourglass itself serves no other functions, and the game feels, in ways, less full-fledged than previous Zelda titles.

But there are a few other definite pluses to this Zelda game outside it’s excellent gameplay, and that’s the multiplayer features. In addition to being able to trade items and ship parts with other players online or locally via a special character you can find in the game, there is also a full-fledged battle mode!

In this “hide-and-go-seek” type game one player plays as Link and the other as one of the three Phantom Guardians from the main dungeon in the single-player portion. And in this arena it is Link’s job to grab the Force Gems (which you will also encounter in the main dungeon in the single player game) and carry them to your base to score points. The other player has to try and stop Link before he can score. To aid either player are various power-up items, including Pegasus Shoes, Power Gloves, a Decoy, Time increases and a Whirlwind maker.

If Link is caught or if time runs out, then the players switch sides. A game consists of three rounds, and in each round both players take a turn at playing both Link and the Phantoms. The max length of one multiplayer game is twelve minutes, assuming Link doesn’t get caught and no time bonuses are acquired. This multiplayer mode can only be played by two players but you can play either locally if each person has a copy of the game or online via Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.

In addition to playing the multiplayer for fun, you can earn items in the single-player mode by doing certain things in battle mode called “Big Plays”. For every four big plays you get you can unlock a gift in the single-player mode! To get your gift in the single player you will receive a letter that you can pick up from Cannon Island. This is cool cause it gives you an incentive to play multiplayer. Multiplayer is fun and can be intense, but it’s also not very deep and there are no other modes. But hey at least it’s there.

Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Cover ArtWhen you add it it all up, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a fine Zelda game. It has all the tight gameplay that you come to expect from the series while tossing in new mechanics to liven things up and innovate once again with the very cool note-taking feature, which works really well here and is used to great effect throughout the game. If you enjoy puzzles, then this game definitely won’t disappoint. And neither will it disappoint in the gameplay department, where the dungeons, bosses and collection aspect are as good as they have ever been. The stylus controls work pretty good and they really do change the feel of the game, if not necessarily the mold, it’s still Zelda. And unfortunately, the game is not the best Zelda game . . . in fact, if you took out all the DS-specific features in Phantom Hourglass it would only be an average Zelda game. But the fact of the matter is that the DS-specific features are what make Phantom Hourglass special, and when you combine that with the excellent collection aspect, the nice gameplay, the good (not great) storyline and all the rest, then you still have a great and most importantly FUN action adventure game. If you have a Nintendo DS, and are looking for some fun adventuring or are a fan of Zelda then I definitely recommend you give Phantom Hourglass a shot.

Phantom Hourglass is a Zelda game with stylus controls. It has everything you expect with a few things you don’t, but what’s undeniable is that the classic action adventure gameplay you know and love is still here in full force and will satisfy. And the additions made by the features of the DS and the improvement in the collection aspect raise the fun factor a notch to equal a great and fun experience, and one of the best action adventures to be had on the DS.

Graphics – 8.0
Not bad, but nothing too special. It’s what you’d expect from a 3D Zelda game modeled after Wind Waker but put on a handheld and it looks surprisingly close to a console game. Some people may think the game looks beautiful, and the cell-shaded style looks great and fits well, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t look as good as Wind Waker, but it’s still impressive considering it’s running on the less-powerful DS. But either way you slice it the graphics did not really impress me.

Music and Sound – 7.0
There’s isn’t really anything wrong with the music in Phantom Hourglass . . . but there’s nothing to get excited about. At all. It has a lack of original tunes. Sound effects are classic Zelda, with nothing new.

Ingenuity – 9.0
Controlling Link with the stylus, drawing the path for weapons, and writing notes on the map literally change the way you play Zelda, which is the same outside of the new controls and stylus features. And while a few of the things done with the stylus have been seen in other DS games, it’s never been done for Zelda or done this well for an action adventure game of this type, and it elevates the whole game because it’s implemented as well as could be hoped for, while pumping some freshness into the classic Zelda mold with stuff you haven’t seen before. Definitely raises the bar for how to implement the stylus into an action adventure on the DS. Phantom Hourglass also uses the microphone, sleep mode and duel-screens in clever ways.

Presentation – 7.5
Nothing special outside of the way the stylus has been incorporated into all aspects of the game. The menus are done nicely and rarely get in the way, although I wish there was a notes screen (separate from the maps) and they should have let you read information about the items on the collection screen.

Replay Value – 8.5
From the two-player online and offline battle mode to trading items with friends to the ability to customize your ship with parts you have to find, there is quite a lot of stuff to do in Phantom Hourglass, and if you want to find all the parts then it will definitely keep you playing for 15 to 20 hours at least. And much longer if you want to find everything. But compared to other Zelda’s it is shorter.

Eiji Aonuma (Phantom Hourglass director) Interview Part 1

Eiji Aonuma (Phantom Hourglass director) Interview Part 2