Thirty seconds. That’s roughly the span of time it takes for you to overcome the shock of seeing a train in the Zelda universe and to wholly accept that in Link’s latest romp rail travel is as normal as strapping a sword to your belt or smashing pots to uncover Rupees.
Hardcore devotees may have snorted in disgust when the first details of Spirit Tracks were released and protested that locomotives had no place in the fantasy world of Hyrule, but whatever personal reservations you might harbour towards this unorthodox stylistic choice, they vanish within that opening half-a-minute.
In fact, Spirit Tracks actually shares an awful lot in common with its predecessor Phantom Hourglass, despite the presence of steam-propelled vehicles. The game engine remains essentially unchanged, offering the same eye-catching cel-shaded visuals that made the previous title so aesthetically compelling.
The DS hardware is getting a bit long in the tooth now, but Spirit Tracks proves that in the right hands the machine can truly shine in the graphics department.
Granted, some scenes look a little jagged and rough around the edges but character models showcase bags of charm and some of the environments you traverse are surprisingly detailed.
As was the case in Phantom Hourglass, you’ll be doing a lot of travelling here, although naturally it’s going to be via rail instead of sea. Your main quest involves restoring the titular 'Spirit Tracks' rail network before evil forces - led by the sinister Chancellor Cole - can obliterate it completely, spelling certain doom for the kingdom.
Navigating this network is obviously more straightforward than sailing was in Phantom Hourglass - you can only go where the rails allow and your interaction is limited to switching junction points and altering the speed and direction of your engine.
However, despite the restrictions imposed by this new mode of conveyance, getting around Hyrule is actually a lot more fun. It’s impossible to get lost which saves on aimless wandering.
Also, because you’re on a set track it gives you more opportunity to scan the horizon for enemies, which can be scared off with a hoot from your horn or taken down with your trusty cannon.
As well as restoring the fading railways you’ll also have to reunite Princess Zelda’s spirit with her earthly body. Early on in the story the two are ripped asunder, but rather than mope around in a depressed state the feisty princess actually comes along for the ride, making the negotiation of each monster-infested dungeon very much a team effort.
Zelda can possess Phantom suits of armour, and this talent enables her to enter areas inaccessible to Link and even get past other Phantom guards.
It’s possible to toggle between the two characters at will, and this duality adds yet another dimension to the already impressive gameplay - it allows a humorous relationship to blossom between the two leads, which is ably reinforced by some tightly written dialogue.
As in Phantom Hourglass, the interface is completely touchscreen-driven - to move Link you simply tap where you want him to go. By holding the stylus in place and varying the distance between its tip and Link it’s possible to emulate analogue control, seamlessly shifting between a walking and running pace.
Likewise, combat is handled by tapping enemies with your stylus. A quick double-tap will result in a focused offensive but it’s also possible to add swipes and spins-attacks via appropriate stylus gestures.
This control system is easily one of the best yet seen on a touchscreen device, so it’s hardly surprisingly that Nintendo has kept everything pretty much the same this time around. Similarly, many of the innovative items introduced in Spirit Tracks's predecessor - including the brilliant boomerang - make a welcome reappearance.
The road less travelled
Where new ideas have been incorporated, the results are actually somewhat disappointing. The Spirit Flute - arguably the most significant new item in Link’s inventory - involves a lot of blowing into the microphone, which is a practice that has never really been factored into DS software in any meaningful or satisfying manner.
While it’s utilised with a little more thought here, the huffing and puffing remains unconvincing and it will probably dissuade you from playing the game in public.
Thankfully, other new features are a little more welcome. Those of you who struggled with the time-related challenges and constant repetition in Phantom Hourglass will be pleased to learn that Nintendo has changed the way the central dungeon operates.
You’re no longer restricted by the amount of time you have, and it’s not necessary to replay entire sections each time.
Boss battles are similarly pleasing and stretch the host hardware to breaking point with their superb visuals. Sadly, the online multiplayer component that so successfully augmented Phantom Hourglass is conspicuous by its absence, although the local version does at least allow you to indulge in four-player action with just one copy of the game.
The Zelda series has a habit of evolving quite rapidly from game to game, but Spirit Tracks feels every inch a sequel to Phantom Hourglass, regardless of the change in transport. Naturally there will be those who will argue that Nintendo should have produced something more inventive.
However, when you consider the stupendously high standard of the previous DS outing such criticism seems almost foolish: this is a second glorious helping of what remains one of the most accomplished handheld titles of all time, and it brings enough new content with it to be deemed a worthy successor.
With this in mind you can comfortably discard those preconceptions of 'Link goes Train Spotting' and snap this up at the earliest possible opportunity. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is every bit as epic, enjoyable and downright brilliant as its forerunner - and every other entry in this illustrious franchise, for that matter.
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