As with every series, as amazing as it may be, there's a low point. Phantom Hourglass is just that for the Zelda series.
3 years after the DS's launch, Nintendo brought Zelda finally to the DS, with Phantom Hourglass. Guessing because the DS has a weaker graphic engine, Nintendo decided to present this Zelda game on a more classic way. Instead of following Link, the camera has a more zoomed out perspective, showing the near environment around Link, fitting perfectly for one of Phantom Hourglass's new innovations, the touch controls. But to that later.
Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to the game-hit Wind Waker. The story of Phantom Hourglass takes off a little after where Wind Waker had end. Phantom Hourglass, just like Wind Waker, has it's gameplay divided into 2 parts, one on land and one on sea. (Correct me if I'm wrong there, never actually played Wind Waker.)
So what's the reason Link is traveling through new territories, venturing a step into risky locations? That is because Zelda, or rather Tetra in this case as well, has once again been kidnapped. Everything starts with Link and Tetra along with their crew sailing among the expanses of the sea yet another time. That is until they come across a haunted looking ship. Tetra, being rather carelessly than brave, jumps upon the ship. Then lightning growls from above the clouds, a loud scream of Tetra comes from the Ghost ship and immediately it sails away, without handing out Tetra before leaving. That's where the adventure starts. Of course, there's still a lot more to come within the story, while you progress you'll find out who's behind all the evil happening and what's the reason for all this, and you'll meet some new, key characters like the pretty selfish Linebeck. It's a story that's pretty good and entertaining. If there's anything to niggle about the story, it is that it does not always evolve in a good pace. Besides that, though, this story is as good and entertaining as any Zelda story.
But that's where the Zelda charm stops. While, of course, the DS isn't capable of that good visuals, I've seen far better looking games than Phantom Hourglass, on the DS that is. Sure, it's got a more classic look, but it still could look better. Environments look mostly generic, and there isn't much variety between the different environments, they all look pretty much the same to an certain extend. Animations are great, but the characters suffer a bit from the low graphic quality the DS provides. This game isn't up to par with other Zelda games when it comes to character designs, and the facial expression of these characters are pretty bland.
Once in sea, the visuals become a bit more varied and vibrant, and the islands don't only consist out of a specific amount of planes. However, it seems a bit odd that, looking at the islands from on the sea, the islands look way different than they look once you entered the island.
The soundtrack isn't stellar in any way either. While it contains some good tracks, there aren't that many different music tracks to be found in the game. And besides a few really great themes, you'll also come across some generic, boring tunes, like the temple music, that become repetitive and even annoying after a while.
So where's the decisive reason to play this game? The story is good but not enough to convince you to purchase this game only because of it, so may the gameplay make the game worth it's price?
What is most noticeably are the new controls. No more are there any buttons to be used in order to control Link, now it's all per touch screen. Guide Link in a direction by simply pointing with the touch pen in a direction, Link will always follow your touch pen. Of course Link also has some moves up his sleeves. Tap on enemies to let Link attack them, or tap on other objects so that Link interacts with them. And there are more actions of Link, each performed by doing a certain move with the touch pen. It's not always that responsive however. At times I found myself trying to perform a roll attack of Link, but it didn't react because of the slightly inaccurate controls. The same goes for the spin attack.
As for the game design itself, Phantom Hourglass does fine in that aspect. While barely ever challenging, main quests, side quests and temples are generally fun. The temples are what save the game. While picking up in challenge not until the near end, their clever puzzles and great designs make it one of the most enjoyable aspect of the game. And each of these temples end in an exciting or less exciting boss battle. These boss battles range from good to annoying.
The Sailing in Phantom Hourglass on the other hand is quite boring, really. You draw a route along the sea card on the touch screen, and then you'll have to wait until your rather slow boat finally reaches the destination. Along the way you are able to fight enemies by blasting them with a canon, but the sailing still remains on the boring side.
If there's one part that really ruins the whole game, than it is The Temple of the Ocean King. Unlike the other temples, that temple is absolutely disastrous. You'll be visiting that temple way too many times, and each time you do, you will have to solve all the puzzles again and again, even though you already cleared those puzzles multiple times, and it's incredible frustrating and odd having to do the temple over and over again, with only one mid point to skip at least the first half of the temple once it's reached. And it does not help that you're limited with time in the temple, which after the time has run out sucks out the life of Link rather fast. It's super annoying.
Dealing with all the down sides of the game, you'll at least get enough content out of the game for it's price. Besides the lengthy main adventure, you've still got a lot of treasures and other hidden secrets to find, both on land and in sea, including ship peaces that can thereupon be used to modify your own ship. It's definitely not the biggest Zelda world, but it's big enough to keep the game on the long side. Farther including to the game's length is the multiplayer mode. It's, well, just meh.
You probably could tell until now, Phantom Hourglass does not rank up there with the truly great Zelda titles in my book. There's a lot of innovative ideas including the touch screen controls and new ways to solve temples and other puzzles by simply being able to make notes on the corresponding maps appearing on the touch screen, may it be temple maps or island maps, but in a whole Phantom Hourglass falls short on what we usually get out of a Zelda game. Visuals and audio are to be improved, and the gameplay only feels half-hearted. It's mixed with great and odd moments. What really hurts the overall package is the Temple of the Ocean King. It's rare that a game's biggest flaw is some specific content within the game, but in Phantom Hourglass's case, this comes true. Rarely did I ever encounter any content in a game with such awkward and downright terrible design choices. It ruined quite an amount of my motivation to play the game, and once it even almost made me quit the game totally. A real shame, really!
As a game on itself it's already just a little above average, but what really makes it disappointing is the fact that it's got Zelda in it's title and doesn't lead up to what a "Zelda" Title normally leads up to. While it does have those occasional moments where the Zelda magic shines through, overall the game falls quite flat, especially considering it being a Zelda title.
+ Some nicely designed temples and puzzles
+ entertaining story
+ very innovative
+ nice amount of content
- generic visuals and audio
- control quirks
- low on challenge
- Temple of the Ocean King is incredibly frustrating and annoying
- lacks a lot of the Zelda quality and charm of other titles in it's series
Review Score: 6.0/10