From the start of the game, this tries to impress me as much as it possibly can. The overworld is simplified and uses trains! There's more of an emphasis on story with cinematic animated cutscenes! The soundtrack is catchy and more pronounced! Zelda is an actual character that has actual screen time to develop and interact with Link instead of being captured/turned into a rock the whole game! Instruments are back! There's only 5 dungeons, so it's short and concise! Alas, the longer I played and further I progressed, the more the cracks began to show, the smoke and mirrors fade, and the truth becomes blatantly obvious.
This game is just Phantom Hourglass in a train-colored trenchcoat.
Pretty much every problem that I had with Phantom Hourglass is still in full blast here, from the clumsy controls and movement being entirely locked to the touch screen (though to give them SOME credit at least you can double-tap to roll instead of having to draw those dumb circles on the edge of the screen, thank christ), to the giant tartarus-ass main dungeon that requires constant retreads, all the way to the overworld being a painfully slow time waster with really not much to do whatsoever. If you weren't a fan of Phantom Hourglass, this game will give you deja vu in all the wrong ways.
And again to give them some credit, I can see that there were attempts to improve the general experience. The new items are more interesting and unique than in PH, and the giant central dungeon no longer has a time limit and you can start from the beginning of each unlocked section rather than only from either the very start or a singular checkpoint, and there are the aforementioned control and aesthetic/narrative upgrades. It's just that despite all the polish it's still using a game I didn't like as its foundation.
The two biggest new titular elements, Ghost Zelda (the spirit) and the train (the tracks), weren't even that interesting. Having Zelda be able to possess the guardians of the main dungeon to work on your side is conceptually really cool and there are a handful of interesting puzzles that come from the dynamic between link and ghost zelda, but the guardians crawl-like movement speed combined with the games insistance that you and zelda pass through doors together means there's a WHOLE lot of just waiting for her to just mfin catch up. Zelda's AI pathing isn't the smartest either, as I had multiple instances where calling her to me would cause her to go in the complete opposite direction, which was very fun and not at all irritating. Zelda's inclusion basically turns the big central dungeon from one giant annoying stealth mission to one giant annoying escort mission. Pick your poison. The train turns the mindless sailing of Phantom Hourglass into train track navigation that at its best is equally as mindless as the PH sailing and at its worst is some messed up game of pac-man where you gotta dodge insta-kill suicidal bomb cars that move faster than you when I just want to goddamn get back to a town already!!!!!!
Shoutouts as well to the flute that requires actual constant blowing into the DS mic to play and the final stretch of the game for being a gauntlet consisting of a dungeon with way too much slow guardian-swapping backtracking, a game of unfair train pac-man, boss fights with arguably unavoidable attacks depending on RNG, a perfect game of projectile tennis, and even more mic flute blowing shenanigans. FUN!
If you like trying to control fully-faceted adventure games with a stick, Nintendo has you covered with this game and its predecessor. I can't believe I had more fun with the fucking Tingle games than I did with the actual mainline titles when it comes to the zelda series on DS. What in the hell was Nintendo cooking dude