Another excellent Nintendo title. They really have put a lot of effort into making the more recent games in the series accessible, enjoyable, and challenging. Just to recap: in the last two to three years we've seen a Metroid Prime series makeover, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and DS, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
At any rate, I am about halfway through Spirit Tracks and I'm loving it.
Firstly, I should not that I have not played Phantom Hourglass, which is the other Zelda title for the DS that shares a lot of characteristics with Spirit Tracks. The game is definitely different from Twilight Princess (the last epic Zelda game for the Gamecube and Wii): dungeons are still the central part of the game, but a lot of gameplay occurs outside of these dungeons in the form of various quests and backtracking, along with smaller dungeons which serve different purposes. These are all great aspects of the game and keep things refreshing. Filling in the gaps between all these dungeons and towns is your standard world map, but travel to different towns and dungeons takes place on a train (thus the title "Spirit Tracks"), which is a surprisingly fun part of the game.
Your train is your mode of transport on the world map and as you progress, you can make additions to the engine, car, or cannon. There are also some game-specific tasks to be completed on the tracks, such as delivering goods (or people) to various locales and having to keep to a set of tasks in the process. There is a minigame which you can play on the tracks as well, involving spotting rabbits hiding behind various parts of the scenery ... it's nothing serious, but this game was not meant to be serious (something one can tell from the very beginning). Overall, the train bit does not become monotonous (yet... and really, I think it would have by halfway through the game considering this is the slowest the train will be).
One dimension many have complained about is the controls. The dual screen of the DS is used well, with the top screen providing a map in dungeons which the player can fully write on, which may be useful for taking notes on treasures to return to or for help in solving puzzles. The bottom screen touch pad is used to the fullest extent: the XYAB buttons are not used in this game, nor is the D-Pad. So, movement involves touching the screen in the direction you want Link to move. Attacking involves tapping an on-screen enemy. Occasionally, a poorly placed rapid tap will send link somersaulting across the room, which can get a bit annoying and (at rare times) dangerous to Link's health. Link's items also make extensive use of the touch pad (and even the mic!), but for the most part if you properly use the shoulder buttons for activating the items, you will not run into any issues. In fact, once I realized that holding down "L" button activates my weapon, say boomerang, and then I can trace the direction of the boomerang with my stylus in the right hand, and then simply let go of "L" when I am done using it, things became immensely easy for me. I am able to rapidly switch between item and sword which makes battling much more effective, quick, and fun. So really, I don't think there are any serious problems with the controls; like most of the people who have issues with controls, it is more often than not about the person using the controls.
I sound harsh here because it's really the same thing as when people blame the controller, or the game itself (!) for missing a critical jump in, say, one of the early platformers (remember Spyro!? what about the early Mario Bros. ... they could get quite frustrating). I can't tolerate these arguments, especially when reviewers use it to say a game is not worth getting. This stuck out most clearly for me in some reviews of Okami for the Wii. As most of you who have read this blog for a while know, Okami is my favorite game of the last 4 or 5 years. Originally for the PS2, Capcom decided to bring it to the Wii around two years ago. This game relies heavily on the Wii controls since a central part of the game is painting designs on a canvas (for special moves, or items, etc.), so any imprecision can be a real hindrance to gameplay. Some people said that the controls were outright terrible and made the game unplayable. This is completely untrue! Perhaps the reviewers should have paid more careful attention to the sensor bar in relation to where they are sitting/standing, because I honestly had no problems in that game.
Of course, there are times when controls are so bad that the game is unplayable. But this rarely happens, and definitely rarely happens to a game that has a lot of hype behind it. One of the many testers are sure to point this type of flaw out.
At any rate, I hope you see my point that the controls really are not that bad and it's more about adjusting yourself to the game and learning a few shortcuts. Overall, this is a really good game and you can look forward to a fuller review quite soon.