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If there was ever a constant in video games, then it would be the world of Zelda. You know exactly what to expect when you play as the boy in the green garb: towering dungeons, quaint little villages, a constant thirst for heart pieces, and the same reputable arsenal of bombs, boomerangs and bows. Its flawless execution in delivering that sense of adventure is what keeps everyone happy to swallow the same formula, and this familiarity has proved its greatest strength.
Phantom Hourglass, however, was an attempt to break away from tradition. While the time-travelling Majora's Mask can be considered the real black sheep of the family, the first DS offering not only made great use of the stylus-only control scheme, but retained the familiar overheard viewpoint, backed up by a dazzling three-dimensional engine. Even when you discarded the superfluous bells and whistles of bringing it to the DS, it presented the novel idea of a central dungeon that the player had to return to on a regular basis, which would change according to your growing arsenal. It was too tedious an idea, but still a brave one for an otherwise traditional series.
Spirit Tracks follows on from such ideas, and continues to use the successful superfluous ones too. It's still controlled by the stylus, has a singular dungeon to return to, and has a new method of transport. Much like the boat, here you have a train that can travel across enhanced tracks that serve as the bridges between the central dungeon and other locations. Each time you venture out you must draw a route along the branch of paths, while taking into account the path of enemy trains and other foils on the way.
While an interesting twist on the foundations set by Phantom Hourglass (and indeed Wind Waker before it) it's one that practically spoils the game. For one, the sense of adventure is entirely lost: while there are unmarked stations on the map, the linearity of progression loses all sense of exploration, which is the essence of the series. (You could argue the boat had this flaw to some degree, but at least there was the pretence of freedom.) Secondly, it's simply too boring and tedious to use. As tracks snake around the map, and not directly to your goal, it takes minutes to get anywhere, and the lack of sensible fast travel (there are occasional warp points) makes you dread having to go anywhere.
It does make an attempt to give you things to do: blasting enemies with your cannon, searching for hidden bunnies and obeying signposts can keep you distracted, but you'd rather wish it would all go away. It harms matters further when the game sticks to a convoluted pattern of progression that has you going backwards and forwards every time you set off to the next dungeon, having you run between towns and sanctuaries in order to unlock the path onward. These tasks would be straightforward and harmless otherwise, but they become murder when you have to use the slow coach to get there.
It's an absolute shame, because once you reach each dungeon, it's the best the series has ever been. The length of each one is perfect, and although it uses many of the familiar tools from previous titles, the ways in which you dispatch them is incredibly clever, and moreover very devious. It's ruthlessly difficult in places, and instead of teasing you with the tools you'll inevitably obtain to explore each dungeon, it happily presents you with your new toy within the first few rooms, and goes to town with refreshing ways in which to use them. It's the exact opposite of the train travel: it's snappy and always innovative.
Similarly, the central dungeon does away with the obnoxious time limit and having to retread every previous floor, and adds a co-operative element in taking control of a possessed phantom. While it uses many of the same obstacles and mechanics from Phantom Hourglass, the addition of another character with respective weaknesses adds an extra dimension to navigating through its trials, making it stand out and more importantly, a challenge to look forward to.
While the traditional dungeon crawling mechanics present themselves with real vigour, it's the novel ideas introduced in Phantom Hourglass that begin to look tiresome. As the difficulty ramps up, the imprecise nature of the stylus control scheme begins to rear its head, especially when controlling the Phantom. There is also a continued over-reliance on observation puzzles, with every dungeon or town asking you to scribble something on the map to remember for later - which involves no imagination each and every time.
Not all of the console-specific gimmicks have completely lost their charm, however. Using the microphone to play the flute is a fleeting joy, and the visuals are as gorgeous as ever, and really impress with some dynamic, grandiose cutscenes. The story of restoring holy tracks to trap an ancient evil is also an engaging one, bettered by the fact that a sassy Princess Zelda actually plays an active role in the adventure throughout, something entirely new for the series.
But every time you're asked to travel to the next town to run one more errand, or once again draw the gaze of a statue across a dungeon map, all the progress made seems for naught. It's a good game - at times a brilliant one - but one spoilt by stubborn, longwinded progression. Does the series need refreshing? Most definitely. But surprisingly, it's those old tried and tested ideas that give you the biggest smile, proving that in many ways the series has yet to lose its magic.
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