Great graphics, great controls....shame about the rest, then.
GameBlender wrote this review on .
Firstly, the story. It's not bad, certainly not by Zelda standards. Sure, it follows the "go rescue the princess" cliche, but that's pretty much a standard in every Zelda game. It does break from tradition a bit because the game isn't set in Hyrule, but rather a unnamed bunch of islands. The dialogue can be seen as a bit too "childish" for some people's tastes, but it suits the characters. The characters themselves are likable, and while there isn't a whole lot of character development they don't annoy you with shouts of "Hey!" or "Listen!" every couple of seconds. The ending is just plain bad though. I won't spoil it, but chances are you will have seen this ending before anyway. Another break from tradition is the fact that Ganon isn't in this game at all. While again, I won't spoil the (bad) ending by revealing who the main villain is this time around, it seems incredibly lame and not particularly menacing in comparison to the pig-like king of evil. At least Tingle isn't in this game, so that's a positive.
All of the action in the game takes place on the bottom screen of the DS. Link and all of his actions are completely stylus controlled, but I'm not going to complain about this because they work surprisingly well. It does take a bit of getting used to but once you get the hang of using the stylus to perform various sword strokes every other Zelda game seems clunky and slow in comparison. You can also bring down a map from the top screen which you can freely draw on and annotate as you wish. This is necessary to do for some puzzles and is generally used to great effect. I wish more games would use the DS's technology to such an extent as this game. Of course, some actions, such as shouting in the microphone to stun enemies aren't such a great addition - especially if you're playing in public.
The sailing from Wind Waker returns, only a bit less hands on. Considering the rest of Link's adventure this time around seems more hands on than previous entries this is a puzzling change. Anyone who didn't like sailing in Wind Waker certainly won't enjoy it this time around and even if you didn't mind the sailing portions (like me) you'll most likely find sailing in Phantom Hourglass to be excruciatingly tedious. Basically, all you have to to is draw a path on the touch screen and your ship will follow it - even if it means hitting every rock along the way. You can equip your vessel with a rocket and use it to hit the occasional enemy or randomly blast at seabirds but this doesn't really help to make the really long and drawn out sailing sections any less boring. It's a welcome change when you finally gain the ability to warp between places in the ocean. Later you can fish or salvage goods while sailing across the ocean through fun yet repetitive minigames, but to get to these parts you have to sail there first...
Graphically the game looks amazing. It takes the beautiful cel-shaded style of Wind Waker and somehow manages to fit it all on the DS Console. Link's movement is nice and fluid and the game is definitely one of the best looking on the console. It's a shame that the environments all look so sameish though. You travel to a wide variety of islands on your journey, but they all seem to look the same. Same trees, same grass, same bushes, same rocks. It all looks great, but I would have liked to see a bit more variety with the enviroments. The sound effects are all sound (ugh), but the music isn't, especially compared to the high standard we've come to expect from the Zelda series. Sure, there are some decent compositions - Linebeck's theme and the sailing theme are good (even if it does sound a bit too much like the sailing theme from Wind Waker), but the rest just sound awful. I'm glad that it doesn't just recycle music from previous games (the only piece I could recognize was the shop music), but they could have put a lot more effort into the music in this game.
Another part of the game which pales in comparison to other Zelda games are the actual environments and how they are set out. The series is generally known for having great dungeon design, but not one of Phantom Hourglasses' dungeons were memorable, except the Temple of the Ocean King which was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Basically, it's a massive temple with floors well into double digits. You can't explore this temple all at once though, and you have retrace your steps through it several times throughout the game in order to advance the story. I wouldn't mind this if the temple wasn't so annoying. For starters, it is infested with creatures which will send you back to the start of the floor if they catch you, so you have to use stealth to get through the dungeon. On top of that, the game throws a time limit at you in the form of the titular Phantom Hourglass. Combine irritating stealth sequences with unnecessary time limits and you have a recipe for cheap difficulty. The rest of the game is incredibly easy, but the Temple of the Ocean King parts are a challenge - and not in a good way. You'll be relieved it's over, and then you'll have to go back there and do it all again.
Many Zelda purists will also be annoyed a few "necessities" of the series which have been removed in this game. Pieces of Heart and Bottles are gone, but to be fair you can still collect heart containers and "spirit gems." These gems can give Link extra abilities such as the classic "shooting beams from the tip of your sword" trick, or to an incredibly cool and overpowered flaming sword attack. I honestly don't really care about things being taken out of the series - in my opinion the series was getting a bit tired, so it's good that Phantom Hourglass tries to freshen it up a bit.
Zelda fans should check this out anyway. It's not even close to being the best in the series, but it's certainly the most unique. It looks and controls like a dream, but it's a shame that most of the gameplay is taken up by either the tedious sailing or the tedious stealth/time limit sequences leaving not much left to enjoy.