A follow-up to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks takes place about 100 years later, when Link and Zelda once again get themselves into a bit of a mess, and the poor boy with the funny green cap has to risk his neck to save the princess--again. Not that Link minds, though; one glance at the princess and he's ready to follow her to the ends of the earth. Nintendo invited us down to its office in Redwood City to give us a demo of the first hour of the game, and we got to see some of the new features and concepts that have been included in this sequel on the DS. The first part of this preview will cover the storyline and the first hour of what unfolds. So if you're not interested in any spoilers or story, please skip ahead.
The way the story is set up is that after the events of the Phantom Hourglass, Tetra and Link eventually find land--that's already inhabited--and establish a new kingdom known as Hyrule. The natives have a legend that tells the tale of an epic battle that occurred many ages ago, where a demon king arrived to wreak havoc. Luckily, the spirits of good dropped down from the heavens to fend him off and eventually managed to subdue him and stuff him in the tower of spirits, which is shackled by a long chain that extends across the land--also known as spirit tracks. Likely oblivious to the meaning behind the tracks, the residents of the new kingdom have been using these magical tracks to haul cargo back and forth. The game begins as we are introduced to Link, who instead of wearing the traditional green garb is dressed in a blue engineer's uniform as he's about to go to his graduation ceremony to become an official royal engineer.
We watched as young Link made his way to the castle and bumped into Chancellor Cole, a bizarre-looking fellow with two hats that look like they were stolen off a box of Lucky Charms. Cole mumbles something about vanishing spirit tracks and doesn't seem too pleased that the princess wants to be handing out diplomas instead. It is love at first sight when Link meets Zelda, and before the ceremony is interrupted and cut short, the princess slips Link a note and whispers a warning regarding the chancellor. Her note requests that Link meet her in her chambers, but Link will run into the chancellor one more time as he snickers about trains becoming useless before long.
In Zelda's quarters, she explains that the spirit tracks and the tower of spirits are connected and that the disappearing tracks must mean that something is happening at the tower. A wise sage resides there, but Zelda is unable to leave her castle because the chancellor won't let her. Her gut feeling says that he's hiding something, and she fears that something bad will happen, so she asks Link to take her via the train. Link obediently agrees and changes into his traditional gear, which also happens to be the uniform for the castle guards, and helps the princess sneak out of the palace.
The next section serves as a short tutorial, teaching you how to direct Zelda via the touch screen. As you tiptoe past castle guards, you can talk to some of them to distract them--or throw rocks--while the princess sneaks past. Using the stylus, you plot out where you want her to go, and she'll head in that direction until she gets called back by you or she reaches the end of the line that you've drawn. After escorting her out of the mazelike castle grounds, we bump into Alfonzo on our way to the train. Alfonzo was once a former master swordsman in charge of the palace guards but is now a simple engineer who is also Link's teacher. Zelda invites him to come along, and the three of them set off into the countryside, only to crash shortly after when the tracks disappear from under them.
The trio eventually make their way to the tower, only to see a dark, mysterious cloud form around it before the tower explode neatly into several segments and get sucked back into the sky. Chancellor Cole appears with a somewhat imposing companion, and we learn that the chancellor has plans to resurrect the demon king and needs Zelda's body to do it. Alfonzo and Link attempt to protect the precious commodity, but they are no match for Cole's mysterious sidekick. The evil pair march off with Zelda, leaving her glowing spirit behind. When Link and Alfonzo awaken back in Hyrule, only Link seems to be able to see the ghost of Zelda flitting about frantically. To get her body back, they'll have to go after Cole, so after a brief rendezvous in Zelda's chamber, they go through a secret tunnel to get back to the tower.
After we made it to the tower and spoke with the sage Anjean, we were able to play through a couple of dungeons in the game to get a feel for how they play. What's new to the series is that Zelda will accompany you on this adventure--if only in spirit--but this does mark the first time that the two will be together on their quest, instead of Link doing all the work. Like Navi from Ocarina of Time, Zelda will tag along, providing some comic relief whenever you come across rodents. She's deathly afraid of mice and will wail and freeze in terror every time you encounter them. Because she's a ghost, she can also inhabit the bodies of phantoms, making it so that you have control of a hulking well-armed tin man that can walk over spiked floors, hit switches, and clear a path for you to follow. Even when she's in the body of such a formidable walking statue, Zelda will still squeal like a little girl and be paralyzed if she comes across a mouse. There's also a bit of a role reversal, because while she's in the body of a phantom, she can chat it up with the other phantoms while you sneak past undetected.
In the next dungeon, we didn't need to rely on Zelda as much as we relied on the DS microphone. We picked up an item that looked like a fan, also known as a whirlwind. The whirlwind lets you blow a gust of wind in any direction by aiming across the screen with the bright yellow line that appears when you use the item. This is useful in clearing out toxic purple smoke and stunning creatures that you can't hit otherwise. To solve most of the puzzles in this dungeon, the whirlwind was our ticket to hitting switches with conveniently placed items as well as explosive enemies. We came across several spiked beetles that curl up into a ball if you hit them once and then explode if you can launch them toward a wall or switch. The boss at the end of the dungeon was a giant beetle known as Stagnox, with purple gas emitting from its behind. Using the whirlwind and the volatile spiked beetles, we defeated the giant critter in no time and were able to reenergize the tower and restore some of the spirit tracks.
Like in Phantom Hourglass, everything is controlled by the stylus, and if you liked those controls, know that the combat will feel very familiar and the controls are just as tight. One of the big changes is that rolling is as easy as tapping the screen now, instead of requiring you to draw tiny circles on the edge of the screen. The visuals for Spirit Tracks also look great; the colors are vibrant and the characters look sharper, a noticeable improvement over the last game. There's still no voice acting, but between the animated facial expressions and funny sounds that the characters make, there's enough to convey the mood in any given scene.
It looks like The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is well on its way to being a worthy sequel to the previous DS game. Zelda and Link make a charming couple, and this is the first time that Zelda plays a larger role than just being a helpless princess. She's still helpless, but at least she comes in handy every now and then. We look forward to bringing you more impressions and our full review when the game is released on December 7.