On the surface, The Legend Of Zelda: Spirit Tracks seems like a marked departure for the 23-year-old franchise. But rather than actually providing new wrinkles, Spirit Tracks’ selling points and innovations go no further than what’s on the cover of the box: “Hey, it’s Zelda, but with a choo-choo!” Still, things start with some potential at the adventure’s refreshingly different outset, where Link is an aspiring railroad engineer with hopes of one day becoming a full-on tycoon. But you have to be certified by Princess Zelda personally, so things take a familiar—and for many, reassuring—turn, as you must set off on another dungeon-hopping, treasure-collecting quest that ends with Link as a walking arsenal plunging his blade into the last enemy.
The specifics here are somewhat different, though. This time, you smuggle Zelda out of her castle at her request to the Tower of Spirits to investigate the disappearance of the Spirit Tracks, ethereal railroads that shackle an evil force and prevent it from tormenting the peril-prone Hyrule. Then the suspiciously double-top-hat-wearing Chancellor Cole reveals himself to be a horned servant of the Demon King Malladus, and swiftly absconds with Zelda’s body, leaving her spirit behind to accompany you on the quest to restore her and the Spirit Tracks. In spite of all the new names and concepts, Spirit Tracks quickly settles into the series’ aforementioned familiar routine. Also, as in Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, the long stretches of time spent commuting from point A to point B feel tacked on solely to artificially extend the game’s length. Not that Spirit Tracks should be faulted for sticking to its tried-and-true roots, given that it exhibits reliably funny dialog (particularly between Zelda and Link) and fantastic music that builds on familiar melodies from previous games by unexpectedly weaving them into inspired new compositions, or introducing catchy original ones into the series’ lexicon.
But like the train you conduct, much of Spirit Tracks feels rigidly stuck on rails. After beating one dungeon, you must report back to the Tower of Spirits to pinpoint the location of the next one, and while you can pimp your ride, that and the woefully unchallenging combat doesn’t distract from the fact that this feels like an adventure without the sense of adventure. Wouldn’t Link achieving his dream of becoming a railroad tycoon be more of a step into the unknown?