The years leading up to the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker were filled with criticism from the gaming community over the new direction that the Zelda series was heading. With the game's cel-shaded graphics and presumably childish design, many turned their backs on the franchise. However, in early 2003 with the game finally released, history would go down showing that the naysayers were hushed as they bore witness to the grandeur and charm of The Wind Waker. Now, more than four years later, the saga that The Wind Waker started continues in this direct sequel and latest entry into the Zelda franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.
Although Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel, gamers will not have to play the first game to fully understand the current storyline. Phantom Hourglass is set several months after the events of The Wind Waker, and the game will get players up to speed by running down an informative, spoiler-filled narration of the previous events. The story follows Link and the pirate captain Tetra as they set sail for new lands, treasure, and adventure. The latter they certainly find as they come across an eerie fog and an ominous ghost ship in the middle of the ocean. Attempting to explore the ship alone, Tetra vanishes and is never seen again as the ship drifts away. Link tries to jump aboard but falls to the ocean below, separating him from Tetra, the crew, and everything that he possessed. Waking on the foreign beach of Mercay Island, Link finds himself befriending a fairy who, like himself, is completely lost. Link is determined to find Tetra and save her, but to do so, he must commandeer a new ship. Sooner or later, a new ship is found, a new ally is gained in the seafarer captain Lineback, and a mystery connecting the Phantom Hourglass to Tetra's disappearance will soon be revealed.
"The experience is said to be akin to A Link to the Past, but with a refreshing, updated feeling due to Link's flexible, 360 degrees movement."
As for the gameplay, it is probably the most contested, yet most interesting aspect of the game. There have been conflicting reports as to how "natural" the game feels as it is almost completely controlled by the DS stylus. From being intuitive with little learning curve to somewhat awkward and taking a little getting used to, it would seem that these polar opinions don't give a clear indication as to how difficult the controls are, nor do they define the difficulty level of the game overall. What is known, however, is what can be done in the game. Gamers will be using the stylus for almost everything: moving Link around, attacking, dodge-rolling, using specific items like the boomerang, and writing down notes. Tapping on the field will make Link move to that specific location; tapping on an enemy will make Link attack. Drawing a circle around Link will make him do his spin attack. Sword clashes and wriggling out of a giant hermit crab's deathly grip will require rigorous movement with the stylus. Gamers who are concerned with damaging their screens due to the rigorous actions might want to look further into this; though, at the moment, there haven't been any major complaints. Players should also expect to utilize the built-in DS microphone in order to solve some of the game's puzzles. Most of the items Link will collect on his journey will be used in a standard way; however, items like the boomerang will use the stylus to draw a flight plan, letting the player have full control of where they want the boomerang to go. This is useful to hit hard-to-reach switches, but it'll also leave Link vulnerable to attack while the boomerang is in flight.
Phantom Hourglass uses the classic top-down view design of older Zelda titles and utilizes classic-styled puzzles which are something that many gamers felt were missing from last year's Twilight Princess. The experience is said to be akin to A Link to the Past, but with a refreshing, updated feeling due to Link's flexible, 360 degrees movement. Phantom Hourglass spans over 16 islands, seven dungeons, and one colossal master dungeon known as the Temple of the Ocean King. In the Temple of the Ocean King, Link's adventure becomes time-limited, as the sand within the Phantom Hourglass begins to flow. Link has only ten minutes to explore an area and new areas are unlocked by finding crests that lay hidden in other dungeons. There is also another danger in the Temple of the Ocean King other than time; it is protected by seemingly indestructible phantom guards that will have to be avoided at all times and should never be confronted. Racing against the clock and sneaking past phantom guards will surely raise the difficulty level and will hopefully be pleasing to those who've complained about Zelda games being too easy.
One of the most innovative aspects of the game is the ability to write on the in-game maps. This feature is handy in the way that gamers can literally keep tabs on what to do without hopelessly trying to memorize it all, or having to grab a pad of paper and a pen. The game not only uses the second screen for maps, but, during boss fights, the second screen will be used to broaden the playing field or to view the battle at another angle. Sailing, like in The Wind Waker, is a big part of the game; however, unlike The Wind Waker, the game doesn't force you to glide with the wind. Instead, conquering the ocean is done automatically as Link's ship is steam-powered. Players control the desired course by drawing it on the map with the stylus. This allows gamers to focus less on trying to detect which way the wind is blowing and more on fending off enemies with the brand new cannon onboard. The ship itself is fully customizable.
Phantom Hourglass also has a special mini-game that takes advantage of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for global play and can also connect wirelessly to another nearby DS. The game is a one-on-one match up with one player as Link, and the other controlling three phantom guards. Link's objective is to carry Force Gems back to his base, while the player controlling the three phantom guards must stop him at all costs. After one round is finished, the players will then switch sides. For more details on this part of the game, check out our hands-on impression right here.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, unlike the other handheld Zelda games: Minish Cap, Four Swords, and the Oracle titles, will be the first since Link's Awakening to be developed by Nintendo's EAD division. EAD is the same team responsible for all the Zelda console games.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is also RPGamer's official #1 game for the Best of What's to Come 2007. This highly anticipated title will be out in timely fashion for North America this coming October 1, 2007. Europe will only be waiting less than three weeks for October 19 before donning the green tunic once again.