Anticipation for The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass has been known to induce mouth-foaming and convulsions in Pocket Gamer's less battle-hardened staff. It's certain to be the biggest title to hit Nintendo DS this year, and while we had a taste of Zelda's promised multiplayer component at Game Developers Conference back in early March, we only got a taster of the much-hyped single-player adventure in Nintendo's suite last week at E3 2007.
Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker as released on GameCube in 2003, which saw Link's triumph over series villain Ganondorf. With the baddie out of commission, Link decides to team up with Tetra and her band of pirates in search of treasure. And so the fearless crew navigate to treacherous waters with hopes of finding plunder.
Instead of fun and riches, they run into an enigmatic ghost ship that sails out of a dark mist. Tetra jumps aboard the ghost ship, as do members of her crew, but doesn't come back. Being the little hero he is, Link attempts to save Tetra only to find himself cast overboard. He subsequently wakes up hours later on a small island, greeted by a fairy named Shiera.
The miniature maiden guides Link through the long, arduous quest that lies ahead, serving as a navigator and cursor on the touchscreen. Only by collecting sand for an ancient artifact – the eponymous phantom hourglass – will Link be able to save Tetra and her band of pirates.
Naturally, tracking down every last grain of sand involves dungeon crawling and exploring the high seas with Shiera by your side.
All of the action takes place on the touchscreen, while the top screen displays a map of your current location. The controls are therefore also handled through the touchscreen, with different motions of the stylus yielding various results. Movement, for instance, is done by tapping the screen in the direction you want Link to travel. Ingeniously, the farther away from Link you touch the screen, the faster he'll walk or run (flicking the edge of the screen while running causes him to roll).
Combat, which also requires use of the stylus, can be done with quick slashes on the touchscreen or simply by tapping an enemy. We were even able to pull off Link's classic spin attack by tapping a target and following it up with a circular motion with the stylus. A combat tutorial at the start of the game should help you learn the ins and outs of the controls, which we found to be far more intuitive than expected.
Later in the game, Link can equip a variety of weapons, not limited to bombs, a boomerang, and a bow and arrow. The boomerang is of particular interest because of how you'll control it with your stylus. Throwing it involves tracing a path to your target and then back to Link – additionally, you can hit multiple targets by drawing a long line.
Not surprisingly given the theme, you won't be shackled to land for the entirety of Link's adventure. For starters, you get access to a steamboat early in the game with which to navigate the seas. A stylus-controlled map enables you to plot a course by drawing a line from your current position to a destination. You can jot notes on the map, which, amusingly, are mimicked by Link as you write on the screen.
Once the path has been traced, the steamboat automatically moves along the course without any need for direct control. You can move the camera about and reassign the end point, although it's largely a hands-off affair.
Our short time with Phantom Hourglass shed a bit of light on the single-player experience, even if it didn't offer a deeper look at how the dungeon sections play out or more advanced features offered by the wider range of items, to name two obvious examples.
Fortunately, we know when we'll get to grips with those as the game's long-delayed release has at least been confirmed for October 1st in the US and October 19th in Europe. Now there's just the issue of ensuring the next three months won't feel like an eternity.
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