The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
I’ll just come out and say it: Spirit Tracks is my least favorite Zelda title yet – and this is coming from someone who fell in love with Wind Waker, the Zelda game most commonly cited as the series’ lowest point. If you’ve made the unfortunate misstep of riding a train across the United States, you’ll have a good idea where this game goes wrong. On the railway, Link’s adventure embraces lengthy stretches of countryside travel with little in terms of action or variation.
You’re probably saying, “this is exactly what I hated about Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass’ sailing segments.” Thematically they are similar, but the sailing retained the series’ thrill of exploration – allowing players to veer off of the beaten path to explore any nook and cranny – whereas the train is railroaded into predetermined paths. This linearity removes exploration from the Zelda equation, making the world and progression feel as sterile as moving from world to world in a Mario game.
The train does offer a few standout moments, primarily a clever spin on the series’ trademark Lost Woods. The train’s touchscreen controls are nicely designed, allowing players to place precision cannon shots while keeping tabs on speed and track switching. You can also lay on its horn as much as you want – something I would rightfully abuse on a real train. While showing just a hint of promise, the train doesn’t fit with the Zelda formula. When it’s in play, it saps this journey of its excitement and wonder.
When the conductor hat is thrown to the side, Nintendo shows us that it hasn’t lost a step in dungeon and puzzle design. Once again, Link’s staple items – the boomerang, bombs, etc. – are used in ingenious ways. I especially love how the boomerang channels elemental properties. Moreover, many of the “stumper” puzzles require a fair amount of on-screen note taking, and are unlike any riddles in any other Zelda title.
Adding Princess Zelda as a controllable character further enhances puzzle and dungeon complexity. Players control the princess by drawing her movement paths. This can be as simple as weaving in and out of geometry to avoid tripping a trap, or can be as complex as having her flank an enemy and attack from behind as you distract it with Link. Occasional pathing issues lead to her getting stuck on geometry or stopping in her tracks, but she does comply without error most of the time.
Link’s obsession with the worst music instruments in the world continues with the introduction of the pan flute. The functionality of this device couldn’t have been better, as you play it like a real flute by blowing into the DS’s mic to activate specific notes. Unlike Wind Waker, this instrument is used sparingly, mostly when you see visual clues.
The stylus-based combat is identical to Phantom Hourglass. Sometimes it feels great, allowing you string together a flurry of attacks from enemy to enemy. Other times, the slightest miscalculation in your touch leads to Link rolling off a cliff or running into fire. It hits more than it misses, but I still don’t understand why Nintendo doesn’t include a standard control option for people, like myself, who would prefer to play it like a traditional Zelda title.
Narrative-wise, Spirit Tracks derails in a peculiar way. The initial story set-up is good. The new antagonist, a smarmy chancellor that you’d think was plucked from George Lucas’ trade dispute stories, is only on screen for a few seconds before you want to whack him with your sword. Mysteries tied to Hyrule’s past and the train tracks keep you engaged, and the breadcrumb trail of answers is nicely paced from start to finish. The problem is tied solely to Princess Zelda. Now that she’s at your side for an entire adventure, she essentially becomes your narrator. Her bubbly personality isn’t what I expected. She comes across more like a teenage-angsty Hannah Montana than the calm-yet-troubled princess I knew in previous series iterations. Place her rambling tantrums next to Link’s inability to do anything other than sigh, and the adventure is further taken off course. Multiplayer, while fun, doesn’t offer enough depth to bring me back.
In my tenure as a game critic, I haven’t come across a game that fluctuates between highs and lows as frequently as Spirit Tracks. I often found myself taken aback by an amazing puzzle, only to be bored to death on a train moments later. Even though the path is rocky, this is still a good game. Fans shouldn’t be afraid of it. The train segments could use a shot of adrenaline, and Zelda needs to shut her trap, but the puzzles and dungeons retain the classic charm that keeps us coming back for more.
Nintendo's classic formula is derailed in Zelda: Spirit Tracks.