This Zelda entry has the same soul, but has lost some of the steam.
Zelda games are a tricky bunch to scrutinize as each has an intrinsic high quality simply on the virtue of them being a Zelda game. Nintendo does not skimp on the quality and production values of each title of their secondary flagship series, so it's easy to consider adding the proviso that a specific element is disappointing "for a Zelda game", with the implicit acknowledgement that the game's presentation and core is still stellar but for the occasional misstep.
Make no mistake, Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is a great game. It's full of the trademark storybook whimsy of the cel-shaded Wind Waker family of Zelda iterations, with the expressive faces and delightfully exaggerated cartoonish elements of Hyrule (or, in this particular case, the fledgling kingdom of New Hyrule) that manage to evoke the bright and cheerful visuals of the 8- and 16-bit Zelda games without sacrificing any modern graphical fidelity - a clever tactic often lost on pixel-based retro-styled also-rans. The core concept of Spirit Trains is innovative too, or at least as innovative as one could consider the unfortunately cookie-cutter nature of modern Zelda games: after discovering a sizable landmass upon which to found a new kingdom, Zelda (the erstwhile pirate queen Tetra), Link (in his "Hero of Winds" Wind Waker/Phantom Hourglass incarnation) and Tetra's pirate crew set up New Hyrule in a land mysteriously covered by train tracks. These tracks are actually the remnants of a massive, island-wide seal to keep an evil shadowy deity named Malladus from re-emerging. The seal part perhaps isn't as new - and Skyward Sword would immediately re-use it for their own decidedly non-porcine original antagonist - but rather the part where the resourceful pirates began using it as a nation-wide means of conveyance which would eventually begat a travel system that could replace the Wind Waker series's trademark sailing with something equally as nostalgic and carefree: that of the noble steam train. The tale, which begins a hundred years after New Hyrule's founding with fresh new incarnations of Zelda and Link, focuses on restoring these spirit tracks once Malladus inevitably escapes his bonds, and with it provides incremental access to new parts of the world.
Spirit Tracks could never be lambasted for refusing to take the train aspect as far as it could possibly go. There's a popular series of games in Japan named Densha de Go!, which are semi-serious train driver simulators where the goal is to get passengers to their destinations on time by maintaining a high speed, dropping only for harsh corners and emergencies, before judging when best to slow to a gradual complete stop at the scheduled station without going past it. Spirit Tracks has a similar focus in its passenger mini-games - the passenger's happiness is reduced when ignoring signs or failing to stop (slowly, as a jarring emergency brake will upset them) at the appropriate station. Similarly, its cargo transportation missions are often time-based and require that you reduce the number of collisions you take. Even outside of the more overtly train-based objectives, the game spends a lot of time getting from point A to point B upon its rails, as new lands continue to open up with new dungeons and locations looming on the horizon. While it's a very well-realized transport system, it can be a little too ponderous for its own good - pretty much the same complaints leveled towards Wind Waker's sailing mechanics upon which Spirit Tracks has built, if only in spirit.
Talking of spirits, therein lies another of Spirit Track's new ideas that ultimately becomes one of its most frustrating foibles. Princess Zelda, rather than fulfilling the inessential role of an enigmatic maiden who vanishes for much of the game, is an NPC that is with you for every significant story moment. Her physical form still gets abducted, of course, but her spiritual form follows Link around like so many exposition fairies have done previously. Ironically, her apparition makes her a much more fully-fleshed out character than she has been in previous entries of the series, and one that doesn't necessarily maintain Zelda's usual reserved and dignified personality. For one short amusing cutscene, she visibly freaks out over the idea that the antagonist will possess her body as its new vessel and scares the heck out of Link in the process. It's a testament to the Wind Waker series that they're willing to be a little more lighthearted with the legacy characters like this, in much the same way as the Mario & Luigi DS RPGs are willing to poke fun at its two stars. It's equally heartening too that these games are finally starting to inject some personality in their eponymous character after working with a one-note royalty archetype for so long. The problem with Zelda-as-spirit is that many of the puzzles in the central Tower of Spirits - which has the same role as the immense, recurring Temple of the Ocean King dungeon from the Phantom Hourglass - has her controlling one of the ambulatory suits of armor and allowing her to perform all sorts of actions that assist Link in some fashion. These include distracting other Phantoms, letting Link stand on her upright shield to pass through lava and certain abilities unique to each type of Phantom such as warping around or rolling in a destructive ball form. However, to control all this, the player needs to use the stylus to draw lines directing her on where to go, and the pathfinding is often quite dire. The stylus controls in general, while polished since Phantom Hourglass, are often still a less preferable control method than simply using the buttons. It's not like Zelda games will ever leave a Nintendo handheld to moonshine on an Android or Apple touch device, so it's a little inexplicable why these controls return. Maybe we'll see HD remakes on the Wii U touchscreen further down the road? Seems a bit hopeful.
For anyone who played through Wind Waker and loved the relaxing sailing sections, or played Phantom Hourglass and quickly got to grips with the stylus control system with little issue, this is an easy game to recommend. Everything outside of those aspects is characteristically top-notch: The dungeon puzzles are smart and devious in equal measure, the few new items that exist have some interesting applications, the world is huge and full of odd little side-activities and nooks to explore and looks as amazing as the DS's graphical prowess is able to muster, the story's a characteristically enchanting if slightly rote fairytale adventure and the score - featuring tunes from longtime Zelda composer Toru Minegishi and the legendary Koji Kondo - is simply superb. It's easy to take such elements for granted after all these Zelda games, but they really do stand in a league of their own in these and other respects.
I would recommend playing this on its native DS or DSi rather than on 3DS, as many of the game's song puzzles require you to blow into the mic with timed intervals, which is less easy than it sounds when you're dealing with the 3DS microphone. But that's an issue the game couldn't possibly have accounted for, so it doesn't affect my overall opinion on the game. Which, don't get me wrong, is overwhelmingly positive. I just can't help but feel like the new additions don't quite live up to their promise.