Partnering with Tearfund

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

Rated: 7+ but there's large amounts of text, so any children playing will require strong reading skills.

Story: It's a Zelda game. To no one's great surprise, you're an elf boy with a sword and wearing a pointy green hat. You must rescue a kidnapped elf girl and dispatch an ancient evil along the way.

Gameplay: Most of the game involves exploring islands and dungeons using an overhead view. All control is via the stylus (although some buttons can be used as shortcuts). Touch the screen where you want to go. Tap monsters to attack them with your sword.

As the game progresses, you acquire extra equipment. These utilise the stylus well. For instance, to use the bow, you select it, touch the screen to aim and then lift the stylus to fire when the shot is lined up. With the boomerang, you get to trace a path for it to follow. The game's many puzzles require clever use of the equipment to open up new paths and doors.

Save System: Manual save at almost any time. Unfortunately, loading the saved game returns you to the start of the current dungeon, which is a pain. The game's best if you can play decent length sessions or leave it in sleep mode in between short goes. Tricky if you've got a seven-year-old Pokemon addict who shares your DS.

Comments: Can it be? A proper, traditional game on the DS that uses the dual screens and the stylus effectively and also plays to the machine's graphical strengths?

Goodness, we only had to wait two and a half years.

After Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on Wii, I approached Phantom Hourglass with some trepidation. Twilight Princess is good but far too similar to previous games in the series. I wasn't sure I could face another cookie-cutter sequel. Wondrously, however, with only a few apparently minor changes, Phantom Hourglass seems fresh and returns the fun.

The most obvious difference is the control method. Tapping monsters to attack them feels odd to begin with, but it soon becomes natural. It's much more pleasant and comfortable than using the d-pad and buttons, and allows better control, especially over weapons like the bow and the boomerang. The whole thing has obviously been designed with the intention of making the most of the touchscreen rather than taking an old template and trying to bolt on touchscreen functionality.

The other major difference is the use of the top screen. It shows the current map for most of the game. This is, of course, nothing new in a DS game - shoving a map on one of the screens is almost obligatory. In Phantom Hourglass, though, the map is integral to the gameplay. Most of the maps can be swapped down to the lower screen and drawn on, allowing notes and secret paths to be recorded. One dungeon requires several visits and getting through it at speed is important, so a well-annotated map is vital. In other places, sketching on the map is part of the solution to puzzles. When stealth is required, the map shows the location of enemies. Just as much effort has gone into utilising the dual screen aspect of the DS as has been used on the touch sensitivity.

On top of this attention to the features of DS, some minor changes have been made to the Zelda formula to make things less frustrating. The fighting is easier, monsters re-spawn less and the puzzles are sharper and more satisfying. Bottles, heart pieces, and tiny purses are gone. You no longer need to find the map and compass in dungeons. All in all, much has been added and it's so well designed that nothing that's been taken away feels like a loss.

Yep, if you've had enough of Brain Training and want to move on, this is the game to get.

The only real criticism is that the rewards for the side-quests are even less worthwhile than usual. Quite often you'll go to a lot of trouble only to receive a useless part for your ship. Mostly, you get spirit gems. There are three types of spirit gem and ten of the same type gives you a special power. Twenty of the same type allows you to upgrade the relevant power. Since the gems are dispersed fairly evenly, you'll have nearly thirty before they're any use at all. Getting all twenty of any given type requires vastly more effort and perseverance than completing the main quest. I played the game fairly thoroughly and only got eighteen of each. It's fun enough collecting them for the sake of it that the game isn't spoiled. Still, it's a slap in the face for less obsessive gamers. It's particularly jarring compared with the friendly nature of the rest of the game.

Oh, and, very occasionally, you have to yell into the microphone. That's just not too handy on the bus.

Nonetheless, Phantom Hourglass is a fantastic game that would be impossible on any other console. It's also the best game of 2007 on any format.

Conclusion: The finest Zelda game in ages and proof that the unique features of the DS aren't just gimmicks. Tests your brain and brings a grin to your face.

Graphics: Attractive, cartoon-style visuals that are bright and clear. Occasional close-ups highlight exactly how basic things are really but, in general, the game has the best graphics on the DS.

Length: Long.

Rating: 5/5.

No comments: