As a result, I groaned a little when I started playing Spirit Tracks, seeing all these common Zelda elements played out for the umpteenth time. But as I played the game, I forgot all about my gripes, won completely over by its charm and by its excellently designed challenges. The great game shines through all the cruft Nintendo has thrown on top of it.
Spirit Tracks starts about 100 years after Phantom Hourglass, in a Hyrule dominated by the Spirit Tower and the Spirit Tracks which radiate from it and seal a demon called Malladus -- and also, quite conveniently, enable train travel. However, those tracks have been disappearing, and Link and Princess Zelda (in spirit form after a run-in with a villain) set out to find out what's happening and restore the tracks.
As a direct sequel to Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks retains the basics from that title. That means that if you hated the stylus controls before, you're likely to hate them now, unfortunately. (Although the rolling maneuver is now harder to pull off accidentally, which is a major improvement.)
Even if you hated the game's central "Temple of the Ocean King" dungeon, you're likely to enjoy Spirit Tracks' Spirit Tower. For one thing, though you return to the tower throughout the adventure, you don't have to go into areas you've already completed, so it's essentially several different dungeons in the same location. This tower is where Zelda can inhabit one of the invincible Phantoms patrolling the floors, leading to puzzles involving both Link and the Zelda Phantom working together -- often with each in an area the other cannot access, and occasionally with the Phantom carrying Link. I looked forward to these tower segments; they're a little shorter than the normal dungeons, and the Phantom puzzles were always intriguing.
Spirit Tracks's main dungeons ("Temples"), while a bit longer, remain brisk. Each Temple features a few new puzzle elements, like movable, rotatable turrets that fire arrows when shot, or ice "flames" that allow a boomerang that crosses them to freeze water along its path into platforms. It isn't just a series of gimmicks designed to force use of the item you just picked up -- the game uses that newly claimed equipment as a lead-in to new and interesting kinds of puzzles.
I'm not as enthusiastic about the trains. Not for narrative or tone reasons -- I think riding the rails is as apt an expression of Zelda's themes of exploration and discovery as anything, and I'm amused by the casting of the game's tiny villages as literal whistle-stop towns. But the relatively slow travel and the train's limited ability to withstand damage make getting from point A to point B an occasional chore, especially when you're rammed by one of the autonomous evil trains prowling the tracks. That's right, evil trains.
Spirit Tracks is the most fun I've had with a Zelda game in a long time. It's not just a more concise work than the slow-paced Twilight Princess, it's also a much more enjoyable setting to inhabit. This is also a game in which Princess Zelda and Link share a sincere high-five. Now that is a tradition I wouldn't mind seeing continue.
This review is based on a retail build of the DS version of The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks provided by Nintendo.