Mostly, the Zelda-possessed phantoms will follow you around without your help. Tap the Call button on the touchscreen and she’ll do her best to reach you, and the AI is generally pretty credible. There are, however, times when you’ll need to take direct control, tapping an icon to transfer focus from Link to the phantom, then drawing a line on the screen for Zelda to follow.
Dragging the line to an enemy or object will get Zelda to fight or interact with it. It’s a great, intuitive system, and one the game uses for more and more ingenious puzzles and battles as time goes on. While this leads to some pretty frantic scribbling and tapping in later stages, the game takes enough time to build your skills. It adds a new dimension to Zelda, and one that’s a lot of fun.
In the meantime we also get some other nice features that make effective use of the DS hardware. The touchscreen boomerang of The Phantom Hourglass is back – just draw on the screen and projectile will follow – and it’s joined by a cool whirlwind cannon which you fire by moving a line on the screen and blowing into the DS microphone. There’s more mic-blowing action with the Spirit Flute, which you use to play magical tunes in a distinctly Ocarina of Time style. I’ll leave you to discover the delights of the Snake Whip and Sand Wand, but you can be sure that cool gadgets are not short on supply.
Now, a truly great Zelda game really needs two things: a rich, interesting game world that you desperately want to explore and a set of ingenious, mind-bending dungeons that will challenge your wits and your nerve. Spirit Tracks has both. If you like Zelda because you like the side quests, the silly bonus collecting missions and the cast of weird, oddball characters, then Spirit Tracks won’t disappoint you. It’s full of nutters who want to engage you in peculiar and slightly pointless tasks. If you want a break from the main story, then there’s plenty of scope for rabbit capturing, stamp collecting and statue awakening adventures.
The quests in-between dungeons, meanwhile, feel more fleshed out and less like filler than they perhaps did in the previous Zelda title. The dungeons are simply in a different class altogether; the monsters are tougher, the puzzles more layered and more challenging. Where the dungeons in The Phantom Hourglass could be conquered without much difficulty, these will take you a bit more effort, imagination and persistence. If you can get through the game without at least a squint at an FAQ, then you’re a better man than I.
And that does bring me to my one major criticism of the game. For the most part, Spirit Tracks is tough but fair. I’m sure some players will find elements like the evil trains that hunt you down on the spirit tracks annoying, but with careful route planning and a little point-switching improvisation, you will get past them.