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The latest Zelda sequel on the Nintendo DS, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, puts players back in control of Link as he investigates the disappearance of the titular Spirit Tracks - magical shackles to keep a vicious Demon King imprisoned under the Earth. With the same excellent touch-screen controls that Phantom Hourglass pioneered, Spirit Tracks offers a few gameplay twists and tells a dramatic story that will keep fans of the series entertained and enthralled for hours.
Acting as a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks takes place 100 years after the events in that game and has you living and working in the Hyrule Kingdom you set off for at the end of Phantom Hourglass. You begin the game as an apprentice railroad engineer and are soon called off to the palace to receive the honour of Royal Engineer, to be bestowed upon you by Princess Zelda herself.
This set-up enables for a pretty dramatic first hour which sees you using stealth to sneak past guards, going on a train ride to escape capture and finally a showdown which leaves Princess Zelda close to death. With this impressive start the game moves on to show that Zelda's spirit has left her body and now floats around Link in a similar way Yorda did in ICO. But whereas that game had you guiding Yorda from room to room, Zelda acts with a very different set of gameplay mechanics.
Her spirit can possess the Phantom Knights and this turns the gameplay into a loose single-player co-op mode. Controlling both Link and spirit Zelda means the puzzles are a little more complex and the combat is much more aggressive and enjoyable than previous games. It also means Spirit Tracks is the first game where you get to control Princess Zelda herself - in a roundabout, ethereal way.
This change to the gameplay really freshens up the experience and Spirit Tracks certainly builds on the previous successes of Phantom Hourglass. The improvements come in the way the major dungeon is managed, with the option to skip previously played levels to get to the new areas you need to play in order to progress. The stylus controls have also been improved with Link responding in a much more intuitive way than before - no more drawing circles to do somersaults as a quick double-tap at the edge of the screen will do the job quicker and easier.
What makes these Zelda games so appealing on the DS is their accessibility and the narrative they spin. Spirit Tracks is a beautifully crafted game that has charm, grace and the involving gameplay you really want from a Zelda title. The addition of steam trains is a cute touch that shouldn't go without praise as it adds an element of real-world charm to the game and serves to give Spirit Tracks a unique style that few games can show.
Perhaps I'm a little more cynical than I should be about previous Zelda storylines but I usually find them weak affairs - not helped by each game essentially telling the same tale. But Phantom Hourglass piqued my interest and this sequel, Sprit Tracks, takes it a step further by providing me with a much more compelling storyline than I was expecting. The first few hours were incredibly dramatic and the fact the game effectively kills off Zelda in this beginning honestly shocked me more than I thought possible. Having her come back to life in a ghostly form made for some impressive gameplay variations and this new direction, combined with the gripping overarching plot, makes this the most engrossing Zelda game I've played in a long time.
With the gameplay improving over the already excellent Phantom Hourglass, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is the pinnacle of the action/adventure genre on the DS. The superior stylus controls and the storyline alone make it worthy of purchase, but the continuation of the Zelda series in this amazing new way with some fantastic gameplay variations means itís a must-buy for fans and newcomers alike.
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