The Legend of Zelda games on the DS are probably the most divisive in the series. Both The Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks share the same conflicting control scheme. They also tried to recreate the look of the console Zeldas on a handheld that wasn’t quite powerful enough to do it right. The cel-shaded look from Wind Waker returns here, and it mostly works despite the DS being a terrible system for 3D graphics. It looks slightly worse than Ocarina of Time did. With the DS Zelda games, Nintendo could have taken the easy route and just made what was essentially A Link to the Past on a handheld and everyone would have loved it. They did that with A Link Between Worlds. They went for something else entirely. I can’t say it completely worked out, but it was a noble experiment.
The most divisive part of The Phantom Hourglass is the stylus controls. In what seems a desperate, and completely unnecessary, attempt by Nintendo to prove the usefulness of their touchscreen enabled DS very few actions in Phantom Hourglass use button presses, nearly everything is done with the stylus. Despite the fact that the controls are very different from the rest of the series or really any other game, playing Phantom Hourglass soon feels natural. There are times when the controls are awkward, mostly when the game is pulling mechanics straight in from previous Zelda games, but for the most part they are excellent. Many actions are streamlined, like picking up and throwing pots and rocks. It takes just two taps of the stylus to execute. Drawing paths for the boomerang or bombchus and aiming the bow are likewise very natural. The combat, however, suffers greatly. Swinging the sword boils down to imprecise flailing. Luckily, most enemies are designed to be taken down with such flailing, making it only a slight problem. The requisite bout of batting an energy ball back and forth with a boss is awful, though. It is all but impossible to be precise. I can understand how the controls are a love them or hate them prospect; they are far different from what players are used to, but I have to say they impressed me with how well they work.
The other common complaint with Phantom Hourglass is about the Temple of the Ocean King. This is a dungeon that the player must go through multiple times throughout the game, each time going a few floors deeper than the time before. It is a decent idea of the surface, but the execution completely ruins the idea. Other than the chests you open, the dungeon resets each time, so you have to solve each puzzle again. Also, the dungeon is timed. So not only do you have to redo the dungeon, you have to redo it quickly. That’s not all; it is also a stealth dungeon, full of enemies called Phantoms, giant ghostly knights that the player can’t hurt. So you have to repeatedly, quickly sneak through this same dungeon more than a half dozen times. It was a poor design decision. And since it forms the backbone of the game, it really hampers the proceedings.
The biggest flaw, though, is the overworld. Returning to the look and world of Wind Waker was great, but the barely interactive sailing on the world map is the worst. I understand that space on the DS cart is limited and maybe they couldn’t do a big overworld, but knowing that the map was a necessary compromise needed to get that ugly low-poly 3D look, doesn’t help sell it. This is a Zelda game where exploring is a chore that I spent most of my time trying to avoid. That is as far away from the normal Zelda experience possible.
Luckily the dungeons are all really good. When the game gets out if its own way and just lets the player play, it is a damn fine game. The available tools are limited, but the game comes up with multiple ways to use most of them. The grappling hook is really great in this regard. You can use it like the hookshot, but you can also use it to make tightropes across pits and like a slingshot to shoot the Link across some holes. It is the standout tool of the game. Most of the dungeons have some really great puzzles. They are not confined to one room, some of the better puzzles continue across several floors. They are truly satisfying.
The Phantom Hourglass is a flawed game. Most of the problems with the game could be fairly easily fixed. Taking out the repeating part of the Temple of the Ocean King mostly solves that problem and just giving the player direct control of the world map would make it less annoying. Still, despite those problems, The Phantom Hourglass is a largely enjoyable game. I find how experimental it is laudable, but that doesn’t really make it necessarily a good game. It is a divisive entry in the series with good reason. I liked The Phantom Hourglass, but I don’t see myself coming back to it any time soon.