Two years after Phantom Hourglass released, we were surprised to see Link trade in his ship for a brand new train. Seriously, whether the shock comes from a quick turnover in Zelda games or the fact that the series had gone steampunk, nobody could have seen that coming. This game kept most of the formula from its direct predecessor, but changed it up in many notable ways. I will examine its strengths and flaws to see how this came out in the end. Let’s hop right into it!

Graphics

I would like very much to go in-depth about the graphical style of this game, but I will not today, because I already did a few weeks ago. Reusing the assets of Phantom Hourglass made for a quick release schedule, for which I am eternally grateful, however the graphics were changed so little that it isn’t worth noting hardly anything.

This is a design area in which the game could have taken notes from Majora’s Mask. Perhaps it was the new shield, possibly his acrobatic skills, or the tone of the world around him, but Link felt just a little older than in Ocarina. In addition, strange new enemies and an overall darker tone for the original art made this game stand out as visually unique compared to its predecessor. Spirit Tracks looks like they copied and pasted too much and then gave Link an engineer outfit.

The only things I feel like I could mention are the designs of original characters like Chancellor Cole and Byrne. While they were designed well, they didn’t really add anything overall that Phantom Hourglass was missing, and that’s basically a good summary of my thoughts on the style in general. It’s fine, it’s just it feels like it’s been done before… because it has. Six out of ten.

Sound

Unlike the graphical department, this was a radical departure from Phantom Hourglass. While several tracks were reused from the original score, this game added a plethora of unique tracks to the mix, and many of them were much more memorable to me. The soundtrack overall had a folky feel to it, which set it apart from not only its predecessor, but the rest of the series. Having that air of early 20th century Americana really added something to the game, especially considering you were riding the rails for the most part. The only thing more American than steam locomotives is a five-string banjo, right?

Where I had to think to remember the music from Phantom Hourglass, this game flooded to my mind immediately with track after track of unforgettable tunes that unexpectedly became favorites. I honestly did not see this coming when I purchased the game, but I love the music. If I were to really nitpick it, I’d say there are quite a few times when the music gets a little repetitive, but overall it still one-upped the last game. Accounting for that and the other sound elements I mentioned in the Phantom Hourglass entry, we have a seven out of ten.

Gameplay

As the previous game, the touch controls were hit and miss with fans, but the fact remains, they worked. Personally I considered a lot of the elements they produced to be quite unique from a puzzle-building perspective, and thus the dungeons in this game can match almost any other Zelda for quality. What holds this game back is railroading.

Railroading is a term I use figuratively on a regular basis to mean “telling you where you are and are not allowed to go next.” It has existed to some extent in most games since gaming began, and has practical applications which can benefit game design. However, if overdone, it crushes the feeling of freedom that I love experiencing in games, and such a feeling is my favorite part of the Zelda series.

This has been a problem in a handful of other Zelda games, I even mentioned that it was annoying in my review of Minish Cap. All other instances are dwarfed by the fact that you are put on a literal train and you have a map that tells you exactly where you need to go. It’s like they took the primary exploration element from the franchise out back with a shotgun. Is it really Zelda without exploration?

Luckily there was plenty of exploration within the dungeons to offset this enough to make me not hate the game. Controlling Zelda as a phantom was also an interesting new dynamic. Having to solve puzzles with two of you present made for a lot of fun along the way, and it was nice to not have a timer in the “come back here five times before the game is done” dungeon.

I feel like I am not writing nearly as much as I usually do and saying “Go check out the Phantom Hourglass review” far too often, but I’m not gonna stop. Again, the other ups and downs can be found there. So much of this game was copied that it basically is like reviewing the same game plus way too much railroading. Six out of ten.

Story

There was a surprising amount of lore to be found in this title. It was a massive shift from the previous titles to see the New Hyrule come together, and the history behind it all was intriguing throughout. It made several references to previous games, and was eventually placed on the official timeline in such a way that leaves it up for possibly having new adventures in this time in future titles. Even in doing so, it still had much new content to explore and learn about. Who and what were the indiginous species before the Hylians came across the sea? Meeting many bizzare races along the way helped shape the world in a way previous titles couldn’t, as they were confined to Hyrule.

Beyond that, there is not much to say. The villains were well designed, but their motives felt like they were just there to get the MacGuffin and leave. There wasn’t a lot of substance behind any character, to be honest. Zelda had a sassy attitude which made it clear she was Tetra’s descendant, but beyond that I don’t even think any of the characters are worth talking about. Linebeck got a cameo. That’s… Great?

Despite not being quite as epic as other entries, there was always that Zelda charm. This time it was a more whimsical world which relied on fun and adventure to get you to the end rather than a driving story behind the scenes. That’s not really all that strange within the series, and gameplay has always come first, and if it ever falls back to a secondary position, I’d be more than a little concerned. Was it perfectly balanced between wacky and thought-provoking? No, it tipped more toward the silly side than I would like, but it worked and it got me through the game so I guess it did its job. Seven out of ten.

Overall

There we go, another one bites the dust. Twenty-six out of forty is not as bad as it could have been, and certainly worthy of your time if you should ever have the inclination. Honestly it’s got a lot going for it, it just lacks in categories that ordinarily make Zelda so great. What’s your take, though? Should I have gone more in-depth on the marvelous multiplayer mode? Was Byrne really the best villain of all time and I’m way out of touch with what makes bad guys interesting? Be sure to debunk my opinions in the comments below or on Twitter and we’ll keep the conversation flailing!

Current Rankings:

Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons: 40/40
Ocarina of Time: 40/40
Link’s Awakening: 40/40
A Link to the Past: 39/40
Wind Waker: 39/40
Twilight Princess: 37/40
Majora’s Mask: 33/40
Minish Cap: 31/40
Phantom Hourglass: 30/40
The Legend of Zelda: 30/40
Four Swords: 28/40
Four Swords Adventures: 26/40
Spirit Tracks: 26/40
The Adventure of Link: 19/40