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Critical Reception: Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, a stylus-driven sequel to The Wind Waker that critics call "one of the best experiences, casual or hardcore, available in gaming to
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, a stylus-driven sequel to The Wind Waker that critics call "one of the best experiences, casual or hardcore, available in gaming today." In its 20-year history, Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda series has featured a relatively consistent control scheme across all the consoles it has appeared on. The just-released Phantom Hourglass for the Nintendo DS shifts to a stylus-based setup, however -- a move that had longtime series fans worried, as its implementation could have had a negative impact on gameplay. These concerns appear to be unfounded, as the formula is thus far a hit with critics, who average a score of 91 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. Patrick Joynt at GameSpy awards Phantom Hourglass 5 out of 5 stars. "The major issues of its direct predecessor, Wind Waker, are dealt with, and the stylus control scheme more than works," he praises. "But what makes Phantom Hourglass a five-star game is, simply, fun." "What makes the game so satisfying is a great understanding of Zelda design, as well as careful, conservative implementation of the stylus controls," Joynt explains. "Each dungeon is built wonderfully, full of those moments where you shift from 'I can't solve this' to an ecstatic 'eureka!'" Joynt takes issue with some aspects of its control scheme, however. "Key commands [...] aren't as reliable as they should be," he claims. "Since the DS interprets your stylus inputs for you, all too often one input will become another command. Somersaulting is the worst offender. Even with practice, far too often you'll end up slashing instead of rolling, making the move too unreliable for combat." "The frustration is moderated by a very approachable difficulty curve," Joynt continues. "Regular gamers will doubtlessly find Phantom Hourglass an unchallenging experience. Hearts are abundant, things move at speeds that are easy to track with the stylus, you begin with the ability to hold as many rupees as you like, and even if you die, you'll find you haven't lost too much progress." "Phantom Hourglass tries to be all things to all people; easy and approachable enough for the DS' vast install base of casual users but rewarding and challenging enough to satisfy the hardest of the hardcore Zelda fans," Joynt concludes. "Somehow, magically, it succeeds on both counts. Phantom Hourglass isn't perfect, but it's one of the best experiences, casual or hardcore, available in gaming today." Game Informer's Andrew Reiner thinks that even those who were disappointed in many aspects of The Wind Waker may find a lot to like in Phantom Hourglass. "As a direct sequel to Wind Waker, a game that left off with Link and his ragtag pirate crew setting sail for uncharted waters, this installment also requires that you have sea legs," he explains in his 9.5-out-of-10 review. "A good portion of this journey takes place on the salty blue, but unlike the previous offering, you won’t have to pay attention to which way the wind is blowing or travel great expanses without anything happening." Despite the strength of its improved sailing segments, "The best that Phantom Hourglass has to offer takes place on land," according to Reiner. "The gameplay and puzzles that unfold within it are unlike anything this series has offered before. This is largely due to the unique functionality that the Nintendo DS brings." Reiner feels that the game's few problems stem from the Phantom Hourglass itself. "This item basically brings about a time-based challenge," he writes. "As the sand drips through the glass, you must hustle through a stealth-heavy multi-floor maze. If you fail, you have to start from floor one again." "In the end," says Reiner, "the Phantom Hourglass just brings frustration and unwanted repetition." Reiner's overall opinion is largely positive, however. "It may not live up to the lofty standards recently displayed in Twilight Princess," he summarizes, "but this adventure is worthy of Zelda canon, and still has enough great stuff going for it to be considered one of the year’s best adventures." James Mielke at 1UP, on the other hand, feels that Phantom Hourglass could have benefited from greater ambition and willingness to stray from series tradition, and scores it at 8 out of 10. "Not all Zelda games are created equal," he begins. "Each game, including the new Phantom Hourglass, has its own quirks. Whether it was Majora's Mask's unconventional game structure and time limit, or The Wind Waker's meandering boat excursions, pretty much every Zelda game uses its fundamental gameplay ideas to transcend any such perceived 'problems.'" "But the honest truth is that Ocarina of Time did such a fantastic job [...] in bringing Link to life in 3D that even the best follow-ups couldn't make that same impact; they could only apply various twists and turns in an effort to stand out," Mielke continues. "The same can be said of Phantom Hourglass: it's more of the same, relatively good thing." Mielke notes an initial dislike for Phantom Hourglass' control scheme. "Truth be told, adapting to this new play style proves irritating, especially since your stylus and hand frequently obscure the action and your field of view," he criticizes. "It would've been a definite plus to allow you to move Link around with the D-pad, but as the game progresses, new moves become available that wouldn't be possible without the stylus (like drawing out a path for your boomerang), so this method eventually proves its worth." Mielke describes many of the game's high points as well, including "expertly accomplished" dialogue, an "impressive" graphics engine, and a fitting musical score. "But another Zelda basically means another carefully choreographed series of fetch quests and multipart boss battles that, if you're less romantic about the series than others, eventually start to feel like going through the motions," Mielke argues. "The biggest problem, if it can be called one, with Phantom Hourglass is that it's too beholden to what's come before it." Series fans may have little problem with this lack of innovation, but anyone expecting an experience radically different from previous Zeldas may be disappointed. Regardless of its strict adherence to tradition, however, critics agree that Phantom Hourglass is another worthy entry in the Zelda series, and should prove to be a worthwhile purchase for almost any DS owner.

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