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Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Chugging elegantly down the same railroad

Is the Zelda series in need of a major refresh? Maybe. But no one can contest against Zelda's consistent display of charm, polish and genius design that few games can even hope to match. And Spirit Tracks is another example of Nintendo's creative mastery.

[Relax, we've kept this review as spoiler-free as possible - no major plot details, no obvious puzzle solutions.]

Now, as huge Zelda fans, let us drop one bomb: Some people in the office didn't like Phantom Hourglass. Sorry Nintendo, but not everyone wants to go through the same dungeon over and over again. And with a time limit, too? That's just a kick in the danglies, and the reason why a fair few put down Link's first DS outing prematurely.

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Luckily, though the central dungeon mechanic remains, Nintendo hasn't made the same mistake with Spirit Tracks, and that for us is why this is an instantly better quest. This time there's no time limit, and a central staircase allows you to climb to a new floor in the tower with each visit, so you never have to traverse the same rooms twice.

The plot wrapped around this familiar structure revolves around the relatively insignificant-looking train tracks that cover the land. These tracks not only guide Link's new ride - his steam train - but they also carry the magic of ancient spirits who locked away the Demon King in an eternal prison inside the central Tower of Spirits.

However, as evil-doers seek to free the Demon King's spirit the tracks start to disappear, and it's up to Link to restore the tracks one area (and one subsequent dungeon) at a time, defeat his new foes and seal away evil forever. Again.

And so unfolds a journey of familiar structure. You explore the first floor of the Tower of Spirits, unlocking the tracks to reach a new dungeon. Slay the beast at the end of said dungeon and return to the Tower to take on the next floor and unlock the next dungeon. Repeat until you've planted your blade into the final foe 20-to-25 hours later.

It's a fairly rigid formula, and admittedly, it's not the only familiar aspect of the game. Yes, you travel around an expansive map in a vehicle, shooting cannonballs at incoming hazards. Yet Link's train strangely provides a more satisfying and visceral travel mechanic than the boats of previous cartoon Link quests.

Evil trains roam the tracks and avoiding them is like a mini game of Pac Man in itself. Then there are enemies that need to be shot, others scared off with your horn, and yanking the brakes to stop at a platform is always more satisfying that merely arriving automatically as in the previous DS game.

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Though you encounter items and characters you've seen before (enter the boomerang) the puzzles in the game's dungeons are intricately clever, and test your gaming logic in ways that makes them consistently rewarding when solved. And even seasoned fans will encounter a fair few puzzles that they haven't seen before. We don't want to ruin any, but that age-old 'success' jingle will still bring a smile to your face.

The new co-operative mechanic also provides a fresh spin on dungeons. The princess in spirit form (we won't spoil the plot) possess Phantoms to help Link through obstacles. You control her by drawing her path on the touch screen before switching control back to Link - throwing up all manner of clever co-operative battle and puzzle mechanics, such as carrying Link through pools of lava or past streams of fire, or distracting enemies that can only be hit from behind.

That's the thing with Spirit Tracks. While you may have seen slightly different variations of many of its puzzles and gameplay scenarios, it still doesn't fail to do everything with the level of brilliance you expect from the series and sprinkle in a sufficient level of fresh content to keep long-term fans interested.

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