In the Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, your most important asset isn't a sword or shield, but a thin, white writing utensil.
Link's latest journey is a delightful mix of nostalgic action reborn with a unique control system centered around only the touch screen and stylus of the Nintendo DS.
Phantom Hourglass boasts a deeper level of touch-screen manipulation. Rapid button presses are replaced by short stylus strokes to swing your sword. Moving Link throughout the game's landscapes requires a simple point and drag. The stylus doubles as a variety of items, from ship navigator to fishing pole.
Phantom Hourglass picks up right where predecessor Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker ends, with Link and cohort Tetra setting sail for uncharted territories. Joined by a band of pirates, they encounter a mysterious ghost ship.
The discovery leaves Link unconscious on an unknown island, with Tetra nowhere to be found. Link is later awakened by a fairy who agrees to help him search for his friend.
As fresh as Phantom Hourglass feels and looks, there's also a strong sense of familiarity -– almost comfort -– when you're playing. Much of this comes from the overhead camera angle and presentation used in classic Zelda titles for NES. Environments are vibrant and colorful, while the signature Zelda soundtrack sets the game's epic tones.
Most of the action breaks down in two parts: on land and by sea. The map consists of a series of islands you'll sail to throughout your quest. Using your stylus, you'll draw your route and then set sail. During your trips, you'll also encounter spots for fishing, hidden treasures and aquatic enemies you blast away with your cannon.
On land is where the bulk of your exploration and puzzle solving takes place. You'll move Link by pointing to his fairy and dragging her to spots where you want Link to go. Quick, small circles send Link rolling past obstacles.
Swordfighting and other attacks are easy once you learn the precise stylus strokes. You can target attack by tapping on an enemy, slide the stylus across for a slashing strike, or draw a quick circle around Link for his spin attack.
The boomerang is another fun weapon to utilize. Instead of tapping a target to throw to, you'll draw the path your boomerang takes when thrown. Create a wide semi-circle to knock out multiple opponents at once, or bend your tosses left or right to hit unreachable obstacles. Flipping between items isn't that complicated, although an easier method for toggling items is missed.
The puzzles in Phantom Hourglass are as engaging and challenging as previous Zelda titles. The game's best feature is the ability to take notes on your map. Puzzles take frequent advantage of this tool, whether through writing a specific ship route or noting a sequence in which to pull a series of levers. It's also perfect for recording key phrases from characters to determine your next moves.
Beyond the solo adventure, players can also enter multiplayer dungeon battles wirelessly. One player controls Link while another controls hulking creatures called Phantoms. Link attempts to seize Force Gems to return to his home base, while the Phantoms are tasked with stopping him. The single-player adventure is already robust, but the online duels extend an already healthy shelf life.
It's amazing how much control Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass provides using only the stylus. This inventive level of control is but one of the reasons Link's DS debut is one of this year's best titles on any portable.