There's certainly enough key Zelda elements here to make it shine
There's certainly something unique about the cel-shaded Zelda style. I was one of those few who didn't have an instant heart-attack when Wind Waker was first announced, and now I see why. Of course having the so-called mature Zelda -- having absolutely nothing mature about it -- is cool and we all want them to keep coming, but the cartoon style can't be forgotten. From what I see it seems pretty reasonable that consoles get the "normal" Zelda while handhelds are graced with joyful titles like this one.
This is a changing point in Zelda's handheld games, mostly anything before it had the retro vibe due to insufficient hardware power, those games were amazing in bringing some of that magic the 8 and 16 bits eras had. Now everything looks 3D, even though the controls feel like a mix of 2d with some occasional situations where you go deeper while controlling link or the boat. I wouldn't like a complete depart from the old-school Zelda, but if it is futile to fight against it, cel-shade is definitely the way to go.
The biggest change here occurs on how Link is controlled. No more d-pad for movement, the touch screen takes the role by touching the direction you want Link to go, the farther from the character you touch, the faster he'll go. At first it feels pretty awkward, in time it manages to feel natural, or at least less intrusive. I still wish, some how, Link could be controlled using the d-pad.
If moving the character doesn't feel right right away, the touch screen surely adds much to the gameplay. Things like using the boomerang or throwing arrows are much better by touching the direction you want. For the boomerang for example, you can even go circling the path you want it to move, allowing for various different types of puzzles.
You can only equip one item at a time, you can set it for use by pressing on the touch screen or holding the shoulder button. Managing through items is easy since a items bar is located in the lower part of the screen. With some practice changing and using the items quickly become easier and easier.
When it comes to use your sword the controls turn out to be easier, but not exactly the best feature ever. To use your sword you simply tap the touch screen -- opposed to holding the touch, making Link move to that direction. To perform the spin attack you just need to make a circle around Link. Pretty functional and don't get in the way of moving the character, like it would seem at first. But if you encounter some enemy, chances are you'll simply tap the monster, since touching the monster through touch screen makes Link go after him right away, hardly ever missing.
Maybe fighting feels functional, but sometimes it just seems too easy, especially with the tapping and automatically attacking, even if you're facing the opposite direction. Overall the game is easy, I can think of one or two that offer real challenge (one of them actually stands as vile, as far as difficulty goes). The dungeons, although fun, won't offer much to stop your quest.
The story i9s average Zelda, while navigating through the seas a ghost ship appears, the ship kidnaps Link's friend Tetra and Link decides to go after her. On the way he meets a mysterious old man and a fairy. After the old man teaches you how the handle a sword, you and the fairy look for someone with a boat, after finding the three of you embark on the journey. Although only you and the fairy actually go off boat and explore.
Maneuvering the boat is actually pretty different from what you might expect. You don't actually "control it", you simply use your stylus and the touch screen to create a path in which the boat will navigate. As you automatically navigate through the path, enemies might emerge, like deadly birds or sharks, it's up to you and your cannon to defend the boat and yourselves. A feature from Wind Waker returns, the treasure hunting, this time much more fun, having to control the crane as it dives all the way down to the bottom of the ocean and back.
An0other interesting feature are the boat parts, you start with a common boat but acquire new parts as your adventure goes on, by exchanging these parts you can create many different combinations. Parts of the same set give you a bonus on the boats stamina. Though many will simply use this feature for its cosmetic value, even though the combinations doesn't give you the best result on the boat's health points.
Something innovative is one of the dungeons, the biggest one of all, probably of the entire Zelda franchise, where you don't complete it right away, instead you keep returning to it, as you gather new items. Also, the dungeon is cursed, so you lose hearts by simply being there. Togo around this Link finds the Phantom Hourglass which give immunity to the curse and allows him to venture through. The hourglass has limited time though, so to reach the lowest chambers of the place you'll have to upgrade the hourglass to make it last longer.
Many people complain about this dungeon, it's certainly strange to keep returning and having to redo what you have already just to reach your last checkpoint with that new items that will allow you to go further. On the other hand, it's something that adds a completely dynamic to the game, something that the Zelda franchise is, by now, known for. The repetitiveness is just a price to be paid, and not a steep one.
One aspect I though was a downside was the antagonist. You never really see him, he actually don't even exist since it's a ship. So the absent antagonist actually makes is a little unfocused at times, not really sure who you're fighting against. Some villains are absent, some creating a sense of being untouchable and all, but in Zelda Phantom Hourglass not even that feeling is present, because you don't even feel his evilness inflicting any damage whatsoever on anything. With the obvious exception of the kidnap of your friend, which also happens out of nowhere, so it all feels strange when it comes to this aspect.
If you're looking for a true Zelda experience you're bound to find here. Most Zelda keys features are present, even the innovation that comes on the form of the giant dungeon and the controls. Something fresh when the DS still hadn't come up with nothing major yet. This game, while not being the best Zelda ever, most likely not even the best handheld Zelda, is still solid and deserves to be taken into account.