I had a minor epiphany while playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Wii, and it was this: all of the Zelda titles are essentially the same game with different puzzles. About three-quarters of the elements are common to all of the games in the series: Link, the boy with the green clothes and pointy hat (mostly referred to as Link); the eponymous princess; the various races (Gorons, Zora, etc.); the weapons (the sword and shield, bombs, boomerang, hookshot/claw – which tend to accumulate from sequel); and of course the sound effects. The remainder are innovations in either the puzzle design or the interface. As the first Zelda title on the Nintendo DS, it should be patently obvious which way The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass leans.
The question is, are these differences enough to make the game fun? Happily for me, the answer is a resounding “yes!” but I now have a vector for understanding why others might not like it. Zelda is not the franchise for you if the story matters, or you find that familiarity breeds contempt. The Zelda framework here – because that’s what it boils down to – is but the thinnest veneer of gloss holding a bunch of random puzzle elements together, making Twilight Princess seem like Lord of the Rings in comparison. At least it’s better than the Professor Layton games where they make almost no attempt to hide the fact that the “story” is an inconvenience that gets in the way of the game’s brain-teasers*.
Phantom provides a fresh take on old favourites, for instance the ability to draw paths for the boomerang, and lots of drawing and tapping puzzles making full use of the stylus interface. The cel-shading graphics style borrowed from Link’s Gamecube outing, Wind Waker, is a love-it-or-hate-it affair but are at least functional and reliably consistent in quality throughout.
The puzzles aren’t at all taxing, and if weren’t for the baffling decision of the game designers to make you play through one of the key dungeons several times throughout the course of the game, would be a rather short adventure. The side quests do provide some challenge for those interested enough to pursue them (I did a few of the easier ones and then gave up).
When all’s said and done, I greatly enjoyed the light intellectual diversion provided by Phantom Hourglass, but came away from it with an empty feeling. I do like my stories, after all.
* I’m not saying that these games are bad, by the way. I actually have both the original and the sequel, and hope to get around to reviewing them soon.