If you're familiar with Hourglass, transitioning into Tracks shouldn't be too difficult a task. It uses the same love-it-or-hate-it stylus control scheme, and features the same visuals that have been adapted over from the Gamecube seafaring sim Wind Waker. What is different is the game's introduction of a hulking dungeon delving partner and, of course, the locomotive method of transportation that rides upon the game's titular rails.
The main new feature of Spirit Tracks is the aforementioned partner -- an apparently domesticated Phantom from the last Zelda DS game. Surely you remember them -- big armored brutes that crept around corners, destroying any green-hatted adventurers who wandered into their field of vision. You've got one as a kind of pet, now, giving you complete control over his movements and targets.
This is done by drawing a path from your pet Phantom to its destination. In the demo we played, we had to make the Phantom run in front of jets of flame in sync with Link in order to cross a pair of bridges, jump on top of our Phantom in order to wade through a pool of lava, and hit switches simultaneously in order to open a door. In addition, drawing a line between it and an enemy sends his massive girth into battle. For one miniboss, we had to keep an enemy distracted with our Phantom so link could give his unarmored backside the ol' Master Sword treatment.
It's a pretty neat mechanic, but one that seems like it'll take some getting used to.
The other new change is, of course, Link's new steam-powered ride. The game takes place nearly 100 years after Phantom Hourglass -- a period of time in which fostered the invention of the locomotive steam engine, we assume. Link, or rather, this generation's version of Link, is an apprentice train conductor -- one with large amounts of free time with which to spend upon frivolous dungeon navigation and world saving.
Spirit Tracks could end up being a completely delightful (though fairly familiar) DS offering.
The travel mechanics of the game are extremely simliar to the boat featured in Hourglass. You ride along pre-placed tracks, using a lever to control speed, a lever to switch directions at junctions and a rope to activate the horn. The first two elements are self-explanatory -- the third is used to scare Moo-Moos off the tracks to avoid a nasty collision and, of course, some violent bovine retribution.
Bloodthirsty cows are the least of your worries, however. A stylus-controlled cannon atop the train has to be frequently used to dispatch nearby enemies, would-be trainjackers, and the occasional massive boss. These segments exchange the familiar top-down action-RPG gameplay we all know and love in favor of something that resembles -- sorry in advance -- an on-rails shooter. (Get it?)
Are trains the most thrilling method of getting around? Well, no -- but really, neither are boats. As long as the game focuses more of the player's in-game time on exploring cleverly designed dungeons, tackling enormous bosses and imbuing the player with a feeling of grand adventure, and less time on riding the Hylian rails like a Great Depression-era vagrant hobo, Spirit Tracks could end up being a completely delightful (though fairly familiar) DS offering.