Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass review

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass may be one of the most hyped up Nintendo DS games of this year. And with good reasons. It is the first portable Zelda in a very long time to be developed by Nintendo EAD instead of the usual custodians, Capcom's Flagship. And many were waiting to see what Nintendo will bring to the now stale Zelda formula. On surface it is yet another typical Zelda game with rehash plot. Princess gets captured. Link finds sword. Link saves Princess. There are some core changes made to the way the game is played, but the gameplay remains exactly the same as it was twenty years ago.

Now then, let's talk about the most controversial aspect of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass - the control system. Plenty of people have voiced their opinions on the touchscreen controls. Some has praised it as being better than the traditional controls (d-pad to control Link's movement, face buttons to control each weapons), while others hated it. I voiced neither, but let's reminisce first. When Burly first got Animal Crossing: Wild World, he was given two choices. Play with touchscreen or face buttons. He chose the latter, but not after experimenting with the touchscreen controls and finding it more of a hassle than godsend. Nintendo did not provide such a choice here. This isn't like Kirby Canvas Curse where the gameplay was overhauled to fit in with the touchscreen controls, but rather a new control system retrofitted to an existing gameplay idea.

It isn't a total disaster because the touchscreen controls works very well especially when you are in a position to take advantage of it. But I personally and strongly believed that I would have enjoyed the game more if I was given the choice to play with face buttons whenever I felt like it. One of the opponents of face buttons I spoke to on an online forum remarked that it just would not work because there are gameplay elements that requires a stylus. To me these are none-issues as the majority of the game involves running, hiding and jabbing at enemies. So face buttons would work well in these situations, as it has work before in countless of overhead Zelda games.

But just how can you play a portable Zelda on the train or bus when touchscreen controls are impossible to play on the train or bus? This is a portable video game after all and not being able to play on a train ride defeats the purpose for a portable video game. Despite that, when you are at home lying on the bed next to your partner, the stylus controls works remarkable well with only the odd inconsistent gestures (rolling into trees is a chore). Still it doesn't provide the variety of sword movements that were available in previous Zelda iterations. Chalk that up to Nintendo's desire to create an "accessible" Zelda title.

Besides Aonuma decision that A Link to the Past controls are awful, my biggest gripe with Phantom Hourglass is how they integrate some of the DS features into the puzzles. The puzzles. Oh lord, the puzzles. How uniquely cliché and obvious were they. Go count how many palm trees they are on the beach and write the number down, which is sort of like a reassuring welcome mat to our touch generation friends from casual gaming land.

Puzzles are very much Zelda-like but you will be hard pressed to find anything that remotely challenging. At times the fairy that follows Link will insist on sprouting annoying hints making an easy game easier. It is like playing ICO again, but as Yorda. Compared to other Zelda games the generic dungeons here are a piece of cake. Most of the enemies can be easily defeated with two hits or less. Then we have the microphone... Just how do you justify a tacked-on feature when you find yourself in public playing the game (e.g. the tube, or the bus), but you are unable to progress because some silly oaf wanted you to scream at the DS? Do this in public and it is likely you will be beaten up by ASBO yobs. With all due respect, 'features' like this is why there are times when I felt the game I was playing was a tech demo.

Enough of my complains about the tacked-on features, let us move on to rosier things (there are some). I really enjoyed the pseudo cel-shaded visual style. Not as lovely as sprite based Zelda games like the adorable and colourful The Minish Cap, but beautiful none-the-less. The DS isn't capable of pumping out huge amounts of polygons so the odd artefacts are noticeable. It isn't even the most beautiful DS game out there though but at least it isn't ugly. Facial expressions are merely textures swapping around to give an illusion of animation, but it works surprisingly well. Perhaps the only downside is the lack of inspirational design to take advantage of the game engine. The design of the villagers home are very nice, if a tad too inexplorable but town designs are uninspiring and dull.

Then there is the Phantom Hourglass challenge at the Ocean King dungeon, which brings some sort of stealth gameplay into the series. It works like this: Link has certain amount of time to travel around the dungeon. There are 'safe points' that he can stick to where the timer pauses. Making things difficult are 'Phantoms' roaming around that can not be defeated. Unfortunately while enjoyable at first it also happens to be the game's most tedious and annoying dungeon, because multiple revisits to the dungeon is a requisite to the main quest. Did Aonuma design the dungeon to artificially inflate the game's length? Who knows, but personally I believe so.

Boss battles are completely different from the dungeons though and is one of the redeeming factors in Phantom Hourglass. They are fun. For example the third boss happens to be invisible. But the top screen does show its field vision. The player has to use that to his or her advantage to beat the boss. It isn't difficult, but at least it is fun. Same goes to most of the other bosses.

The multiplayer aspect of Phantom Hourglass is plain ridiculous. If anyone is expecting some sort of co-op Four Swords style you will be extremely disappointed. This abomination involves the player running around a map collecting stuff until Link gets touched by an opposing player (Phantoms), in a sort of Ms. Pac-Man meet a poor man's Metal Gear with unintuitive controls. It is the sort of thing that a cynical guy (like me) would assume that Nintendo probably did this just so they can print blue Wi-Fi logos on their box and to boost their online stats.

I must have sounded so negative. Do not get me wrong, despite the many obvious shortcomings it is still an engaging game - like most Zelda games tend to be. However I found myself to be very disappointed by the forced controls, the lack of proper multiplayer (which may as well be removed), supremely easy puzzles and uninspired dungeons. At least it was a fun game (for like 3 hours) while it lasted but I can't help feeling that Nintendo just created a The Legend of Zelda: Brain Traning. It is an average game, one that is maybe worth the purchase or rent depending on your fanboyism, but sadly isn't the video gaming genius we were led to believe by the press. Now where is that Orange Box?

Okay graphics
Okay sound quality
Controls are okay (when it works)

Forced controls
Tacked on functions
No puzzles, at all
Super easy difficulty
Generic dungeon design
Same old story


You can buy the cheaper US version from Play-Asia or Amazon UK


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to get this. Shame about the lack of difficulty. I am a Zelda fangirl so I will still be getting this. :P

RichardAM said...

I'm getting it Saturday (as well as Orange Box and other game goodness!) and I am looking forward to it.

Rather controversially- at least in the game world- i'm not much of a fan of Zelda at all, but this really appeals to me and looks a whole lot of fun.

Nice review!

Anonymous said...

I think this game is fantastic and the touch screen controls are great. Maybe occasionaly it can get frustrating when you use say the boomerang and you aim for a target but hit the button to put the item away. I have played the game on the train before and the bus and it is not at all difficult. The game its self does follow the same basic Zelda outline but I don't think it is too easy or even too hard. If I get stuck on a part I just have to stop and think for a bit and then I figure it out. I like the grafics too, I don't like it when they try to make it too life like then it just looks cheap.

Jon Choo said...

@Richard, thanks. I am not a huge fan of console Zeldas as well, with the exception of Wind Waker.

@anon, I am crap then... :( Still think it is easy.

Anonymous said...

Good review. I like the game but found it very underwhelming. It is a good casual game, but it is hardly a Zelda game.

Alessandro Bacchetta said...

Sorry, this is the videogame genius the press says. You haven't understood the game, try to think about what have you played (if you have, I'm not sure) instead of judging it.

Jon Choo said...

I don't kowtow to whatever the gaming press says. I only understand if a game is fun or not. And in MY opinion, this is anything but. Sorry if you think I didn't actually play it, but whatever.

Anonymous said...

I love Zelda! but The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the best Zelda video game I have ever played!
Thanks a lot for the review, now I have no doubt about any detail.