The long-awaited sequel to the Gamecube's Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass is a testament to just how powerful Nintendo's little handheld can be.
At the end of Wind Waker, Link sets sail with Tetra and her pirate crew on a journey to discover new lands. At the beginning of Phantom Hourglass, while in unfamiliar waters, a mysterious fog descends and a seemingly abandoned ship appears alongside the pirates. Tetra immediately jumps aboard to explore, and before long, Link hears her scream. Jumping to her rescue, link falls into the ocean and wakes up on an unfamiliar island. Together with the fairy Ciela and cowardly treasure-hunter Linebeck, Link must set out on an adventure to rescue Tetra from the clutches of the Ghost Ship and restore the imprisoned Ocean King.
Unlike other Zeldas, Phantom Hourglass is contolled entirely by the touch screen. By positioning the stylus toward one side of Link you will either walk or run, depending on how far toward the edge of the screen you are tapping. You tap enemies to attack them, draw a line to perform a larger slash, or draw a quick circle to perform a spin attack. Your items are controlled in the same way. For example, you draw a path for your boomerang to follow before it returns to you. Additionally, you are able to bring the map down from the top screen and write notes on it, such as the specific order you must hit switches or the location of a hidden path. For the most part, the game controls surprisingly well, with the only trouble being some advanced techniques like rolling. I would have appreciated the option for a traditional control scheme, as the constant use of the touch screen led to some accidental scratches.
The gameplay here is typical Zelda, which is a good thing. You travel to various islands in order to conquer their dungeons, fight enemies, and solve puzzles. The dungeon and puzzle design is very fresh, albeit easier than previous installments. This makes it more accessible to newcomers, at the expense of challenging veterans. Sailing also returns, but rather than controlling the wind to determine your direction, you simply draw a path on your sea chart for your motorized ship to follow, while keeping an eye out for monsters and pirates to blast with your cannons. A mystifying inclusion is the need to revisit the Temple of the Ocean King after beating each dungeon so as to find out where to go next. In the Temple there is a time limit, and it is populated by enemies that remain nigh-indestructible until the end of the game. Each time you enter the temple you are forced to start at the beginning and traverse the same rooms, puzzles, and enemies that you have already bested. As the game goes on you are able to use new items to create shortcuts and warp to the halfway point, but it is still a pain.
Graphically, Phantom Hourglass is amazing. They manage to squeeze in almost as much detail as in the Gamecube Wind Waker. The fully polygonal environments are viewed from a top down perspective, which can change when you fight one of the many bosses. The enemies are creative and varied, and the bosses are fearsome looking (if rather unchallenging). The game also has high quality, but forgettable, music, with most of the typical Zelda themes absent. What there is is appropriate for the ocean-going setting.
There is quite a bit to do in addition to the main story. There are extra hearts to find, gems that grant you new abilities, and several minigames to enjoy (like target shooting, a cannon range, fishing, or a maze game). You can also find different parts for your ship that change the way it looks in the game. Using pieces of the same set will increase its stamina and make it more formidable in battle.
Phantom Hourglass is a showpiece for the Nintendo DS. It is an extremely well-crafted game that is suited for new gamers and veterans alike. If you like Zelda, or think that you might come to like it, give it a try. It is a great entry to the series.