Friday, October 2, 2015

Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Review

This entry is a little late, but I had a busy week and a birthday to contend with. I sat around playing games, ate a bunch, and then sat around playing games in a food coma. It was great. Besides, if you look at the history of this blog, the real anomaly is that I have a regular update schedule to miss in the first place. So you should probably be in awe of how far I’ve come, and showering me with praise and money. And free ice cream. And while you’re out, would it kill you to buy me a birthday present? Also, I think we’re running low on milk and...I feel I’ve gotten off track here.

Sorry, I don’t get paid enough free ice cream to stay on topic.


It should be clear from my several other articles, I really like the Legend of Zelda. Unfortunately, there’s a trend in the Zelda games I’ve reviewed on this blog. I’ve only been writing articles on the games I’ve played through recently, and it stands to reason that the last Zelda games I’d bother to beat are the ones I have the least drive to do so. I played Zelda: Phantom Hourglass when it first came out back in 2007. I gave up midway through and recall feeling frustrated about it. This is odd because reviews for the game praise it a lot. Were those outlets too caught up in the hype of a new console and the well-known series pedigree? Having finally replayed it to the end, was I wrong? Or did I feel the guilty pleasure of validated complaints, like in Zelda 2?’s not AS bad as Zelda 2. At least, not in the same ways. Yeah, not the strongest praise.

So now that I’ve gone and spoiled the verdict for you, let’s backtrack a bit. Phantom Hourglass was the first handheld Zelda worked on by Nintendo in-house instead of outsourcing it to Capcom. (This will be relevant much later). Phantom Hourglass was also the first Zelda game released on the Nintendo DS. This is important because the game choose to have its controls entirely restricted to the touch screen. Shoulder buttons could be used as shortcuts and Start still pauses, but everything else is handled with the screen.

Some people had issues with these controls, and I’m no exception. They didn’t bother me that much, but there’s no denying I would’ve preferred normal buttons. There are a couple things made easier with touch screen controls. Drawing paths for your boomerang to fly worked great, and aiming a bow or grappling hook is definitely faster and more precise with a touch screen. But the bread and butter of controls, movement and combat, are worse off. Buttons are simply more precise. You just tap enemies to attack, so you can’t control your angle of approach well. You can also slash in place by swiping across the screen, but that’s even less precise. Keep in mind that this is Nintendo, whose first-party efforts make the absolute most of non-standard controls like touch or motion. It’s not terrible, but it’s a bit muddled and that’s likely the best they could do. These controls just don’t suit this type of game well.

If you tap slightly off from the enemy you’ll run right into them instead of attacking them. Oh yeah, that’s ideal.

So the controls are less responsive than normal, but it’s not a problem most of the time, as the game is properly designed around them. They’re sometimes a bother, but never that bad. The worst they get is in the many touch-based minigames they forced into the experience, like fishing, salvaging and target shooting. The game would be better off without some of those. You can pull up your map and write on it with the touch screen, a feature that’s heavily relied upon. It’s pretty clever at times, but on the flipside the game throws enough remember-this-number-sequence and draw-intersecting-lines puzzles at you that you’ll be sick to death of them by the end.

Apart from those issues the gameplay is...good. Fine. Perfectly acceptable. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but reading between the lines you can tell not much made an impression on me. The islands, towns and caves you explore are fairly small and lack much interesting scenery or things to do. The side quests in the game are uninteresting or repetitive. The dungeons, with a couple exceptions, are engaging enough. The combat feels neglected, but there are some good puzzles and each dungeon has its own mechanics to work with. They’re not very strong on theming though. They feel like tile-based, video-gamey, someone-made-this-in-a-level editor spaces.

But hey, these are all problems that 2D Zelda tends to struggle with, especially on handhelds. The experience is still pleasant enough, and there are even some pretty enjoyable boss fights in the latter half of the game. If this review ended here, I’d call the game a pleasant experience that was good but didn’t leave a huge impression. Unfortunately, I’m not done yet. There were three major things in Phantom Hourglass that drove me absolutely insane. They soured my opinion on an otherwise good game and left it feeling merely average. And the first of those problems is...

The Ocean King Temple

The Ocean King Temple is the main unique gameplay element in Phantom Hourglass. It is a gigantic, 13 floor dungeon that you have to return to again and again, getting deeper and deeper each time. You have to go there a minimum of five times in the game, more if you’re not efficient with your trips. Every time you enter you have to clear the floors you’ve already done over again. The entirety of the dungeon is on a timer, as only the titular Phantom Hourglass protects you from its life-sucking energy. The temple is patrolled by phantoms, wandering knights who can’t be hurt and will send you back to the start of the floor with a time penalty when the strike you. It’s also filled with “puzzles” that are really just hitting switches or ferrying different shaped pegs into appropriate holes.

Seasoned gamers may recognize this as the WORST POSSIBLE COMBINATION of mechanics they can think of.

I really don’t know what they expected to happen with the Ocean King Temple. Stealth segments in games not dedicated to stealth, with complicated stealth mechanics, are poorly recieved. Gamers don’t enjoy being timed, especially on segments more puzzle than action-based. And no one likes repeating the same gameplay over again, especially when it’s stressful. There’s no hidden joy to the temple either. It’s exactly as bad as it sounds. Half your time there will be spent dully waiting in safe zones where phantoms can’t chase and your time doesn’t tick down. The other half will be spent trying to simultaneously rush yourself, carefully avoid enemies, and be frustrated that you aren’t solving puzzles faster. There really is no upside here, only things that stem the pain.

There are some shortcuts that can save time if you’ve got items from later in the game. Maybe that’s why they force you replay the same floors, but that doesn’t really make it enjoyable. There’s also a midway checkpoint halfway through the dungeon you can teleport back to, but it saves the time you took to get there. If you were slow reaching that checkpoint, a likely scenario your first time through you don’t have access to the shortcuts, you’ll have to repeat the early floors anyway to save time. The temple has no unique puzzle mechanics or items, all of them are used somewhere else in the game. The temple has a bland, uninteresting visual aesthetic. The temple is stressful in all the wrong ways, inducing not terror but eye-rolling, exasperated concern that, if you’re not careful, you’ll be punished by spending more time there.

The temple SUCKS.

This was what made me quit playing this game. Despite being the most unique part of Phantom Hourglass, it’s also unquestionably the worst. In fact, it’s among the worst things I’ve experienced in any Zelda game. The various elements that comprise it, the stealth, the timed dungeon, the repetitive-solving, are all lackluster mechanics. Even so, on their own they could’ve been at least tolerable. Combined these elements drag each other down to make an at-best endurable, at-worst excruciating slog of a gaming experience. It’s not fun. Instead, it’s just something you have to push through to get to the good parts, and that’s a real shame.

I suppose they do have one sorta unique mechanic: Floors that you have to walk on slowly. In timed stealth segments. OH BOY.

So that’s the low point of Phantom Hourglass. Let’s dial back the bile for a while and talk about something much milder and more subjectively bothersome.

The Story

People have differing expectations for story in the Legend of Zelda series. Some don’t really care about it at all, and most don’t consider it the most important part of the experience. But even if the story and setting of most Zelda games is rudimentary, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or doesn’t matter. A basic story set-up well told and with memorable characters can really elevate an experience. Unfortunately, Phantom Hourglass follows the trend of most handheld Zelda games with a minimalistic and uninspired story.

Phantom Hourglass has one and a half good characters. Linebeck is your companion and ship’s captain for most of the game, and he’s great. He’s cowardly, self-serving and awkwardly shifty, but also charismatic and likeable. Your fairy helper Ciela is fairly bland on her own, but when interacting with Linebeck his charisma rubs off on her and they have some amusing back-and-forth exchanges. This is not to say that Linebeck is an amazingly complex or well-written character. But he doesn’t need to be, and I don’t expect that from a broad archetypal tale like the Legend of Zelda. He’s simple, but vivid and memorable, and it’s worth noting they got him right.

He’s got a nice character design too. You can see the dynamic these three have from this image alone.

So now that I’ve given the game its due, the rest of the story is completely forgettable. It’s technically a sequel to Wind Waker, but that doesn’t matter much. Link and Tetra are adventuring the high seas when they encounter the ghost ship. The ghost ship has been retconned from a side area in last game to a mysterious force of evil. You go on board to loot the ship, Tetra ends up kidnapped by it and you end up washed ashore in some unknown island with none of your gear.

You then need to track down three mystical whatevers to find the ghost ship and rescue Tetra. After getting to the ghost ship, you find that Tetra was turned to stone off screen (it’s never explained how) and that the ghost ship is actually powered by some new evil monster the writers pull from nowhere, Bellum. To defeat Bellum you need a special sword, so now you need to track down three mystical whatever metals to get the sword to beat the final boss. I refuse to spoiler tag any of this because it is the plain oatmeal of video game plots.

This story bothers me for a couple reasons, but one complaint lies separate from the rest and contains spoilers for Wind Waker. I’m going to see if I can put it in a spoiler tag for those not interested or who haven’t played Wind Waker, as it’s a fantastic game I can soundly recommend.

Spoiler start

It bothers me how they dealt with Tetra in this game. In Wind Waker, Tetra was leader of a pirate crew and had an active role in the story. Apart from being very expressive visually, she was written as a dynamic character capable of doing things without the player. She ordered people around, was snarky with you, did things while you were away, and tried to jumping kick the villain three times her height in the face. Then, in a literal, visual flash, that was taken away from her. It was revealed that she was the descendent of princess Zelda. Suddenly she had pale skin, make-up, and a pretty dress. You could hear an audible clunk as her writing immediately had her acting subdued and demure. With a vaguely concerned faraway look she apologized for the trouble she’d caused and agreed to stay in the basement until you were done with your quest. Until she was kidnapped, of course.

Phantom Hourglass picks up after Wind Waker, where Tetra is her old self and you’re out having adventures together. After several whole seconds of this, she is promptly kidnapped again. Before you wake up on the shore you see a cutscene of her fading into darkness and saying “Please help me” over and over. This scene plays every time you load the game up until the midway point on the ghost ship, as though the game was actively taunting me about it.

Then you get to the ship and it turns out she’s incapacitated until the end of the game anyway. She actually regains consciousness right before the end, only to be grabbed by a tentacle straight through the wall, kidnapped yet again for the final fight. I really don’t see why they had to eliminate her from the story like this. You wouldn’t need to have her follow you around constantly, she could stay on the ship and/or contact you remotely like she did in parts of Wind Waker. I’d bet Linebeck would be even more entertaining if they pit him against Tetra. This just seems like a waste of the character. Fortunately, Nintendo seem to be improving about this. For example, Twilight Princess’ Midna...transforms into an emotionless and conventionally attractive woman. Huh.

To be fair though, Midna transforms at the end of the game so her character isn’t cut out of any of the action. It’s still a bit weird that they felt the need, but not near as irritating. And the next DS Zelda game, Spirit Tracks, had Zelda follow you around the whole game in spirit form. Her personality was more of a girly princess, but she actually got to play an active role in the plot the whole way through, which is more the point. Because the goal isn’t to throw accusations of sexism around, but to have more interesting dynamic characters, whatever gender they may be.

End spoiler

Apart from that spoiler section, it really disappoints me how bland the writing is. I’d say the worst part is Bellum, the antagonist. Unless I missed something, it literally is not mentioned at all in the first half of the game. When it is mentioned in the mid-game exposition dump, there’s nothing noteworthy about it. It’s a big demon eyeball thing that you need to stop, and that’s where it. Now big, force-of-nature villains like this are common in video games, but the games have a couple ways of making them more interesting.

And no, giving them more eyes is not one of them.

One way to do this is by giving the bigger evil an intermediary. They use some disciple or right-hand man to handle all those “talking” and “being an actual character” moments. It’s essentially this trope, and quite a few other Zelda games use it. As I said in my article on the writing of Final Fantasy 6, characters are the most important part of writing. A sub-villain like this puts a face and personality to the antagonist and actually gives you a reason to care.

Failing that, the other thing you could do is focus more on the effects the force-of-nature villain causes. Show people being oppressed, show villages being attacked, or show some aspect of the world being hounded by its presence. Have it fight you in some reduced form at earlier points in the story, whether at random or set plot moments. Whatever you do, impress upon the player the reach and consequence the villain has, so that you can motivate them and strengthen their connection to the world they need to save. If nothing else, foreshadow it as much as possible without throwing it in the players face, giving little hints to build it up over time.

Phantom Hourglass does none of that. It’s story, setting and characters (beyond Linebeck) are all bland. But I’ve spent enough time on this writing. There’s one last thing that bugged me about the game.

The Music

Phantom Hourglass has the worst soundtrack of all 16 Legend of Zelda games.

It took some careful consideration, but I’m convinced. There is only one, singular song I like in Phantom Hourglass. Fittingly enough, it’s the theme of Linebeck, the one character I liked. There are some other themes in the game that are okay, like the regular and final boss themes. But besides that one song, the only songs I’d call truly memorable are ones lifted straight out of previous Zelda games like Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. It’s not quite as bad as the music of Four Swords Adventures in terms of recycling music, but I’d call it the worse soundtrack.

This song plays on islands outside of towns or dungeons, and is probably the second-most heard piece of music in the game. And it’s terrible. Too short and repetitive to work well as atmospheric music, but completely lacking in anything resembling a memorable melody. It leaves no impression, and is at best generic and uninteresting. Just because you want a subdued theme for wandering about doesn’t mean you have to resort to this. Look at the theme for similar situations in Spirit Tracks. It fits the mood well enough and stands repetition well, but still has a clear melody to it and its own unique tone. It’s about ten times as long as well. Remember that this game was on the same console just a couple years later, so this isn’t at all down to technical limitations. But that’s not the worst of it. No, that would be this:

How long did you listen to that before you got sick of it? 15 seconds? 30? A minute or two? Why don’t you guess how much this song plays in Phantom Hourglass. Go ahead, give an estimate.

...this music plays in every single dungeon in Phantom Hourglass. It is the only thing that plays for all seven dungeons, and the entire Ocean King Temple. This is easily over half of the game. If I were to give an estimate, I’d say that you’ll be listening to this music for, at minimum, six hours. Possibly much more. Keep in mind this isn’t standard for the series. The Legend of Zelda is known for having excellent music, and a variety of it at that. Not since the first two games has the same music played for every dungeon, and those songs were hugely iconic despite being on more limited hardware. Now that I think of it, even those games had a different song for the final dungeon. So, knowing all this, I had a question:

How? How did this happen? Well, I think I have an answer. Remember waaaay back at the beginning of the article, when I noted that all previous handheld Zelda’s were made by Capcom? That’s what I think the problem is. Being the first handheld Zelda made by Nintendo, it was probably worked on by a new team of developers. I speculate that this is where a lot of its issues stemmed from, especially its music. For what it’s worth, I think they learned their lesson. Spirit Tracks has a superb, varied soundtrack, and is notable for being the only handheld Zelda game where main series composer Koji Kondo helped create the music. The most recent Zelda handheld after that, Link Between Worlds, also has fantastic music.

I enjoyed the gameplay and writing of those two games much more than Phantom Hourglass as well. Spirit Tracks still had stealth sections, but non-timed, non-repeating and with more mechanics unique to those segments. The gameplay had a bit more variety and the story was more involved and better executed. Link Between Worlds was a wonderful blend of new and old Zelda conventions and I’d call it the best 2D Zelda to date. So the future of the series is bright, Phantom Hourglass was just an unfortunate, transitory stumble along the way. It had some fun bosses, an enjoyable sidekick and decent puzzles, but everything else was merely average. A good game, but Zelda has trained me to expect more than that.

Looks like compared to its peers, Phantom Hourglass didn’t stand a GHOST of a chance!


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