Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Video Game Review: 3D Dot Game Heroes

The kingdom of Dotnia has thrived as a hotspot for tourists from all across the land, come to see for themselves the place where centuries ago a legendary hero purged the world of darkness. But the economy has taken a hit of late, less and less visitors are making the trip to see its spritely wonders, and so the King decrees that from its grassy plains through to its quicksand maze, Dotnia be remade in 3D. The upscaling effort works a treat, and though, as some characters complain, there's now an extra dimension to keep tidy, everything seems to be going to plan otherwise...

That is until Dark Bishop Fuelle steals the orb in which the legendary hero sealed away the forces of evil so long ago and sets them loose upon the land, casting the kingdom into a state of chaos once more. As the grandchild of Dotnia's much-heralded saviour, it falls to you to take up sword and shield the better to battle through six holy temples in which the elemental orbs which alone can restore peace to the kingdom are sequestered.

Stop me if you're heard this one before.

3D Dot Game Heroes is one of those games you simply can't talk about without reference to another game. As Dante's Inferno was to God of War, the latest from Silicon Studio - not, as many reviews have asserted, either from Atlus or From Software (its Japanese and American publishers respectively) - is a direct corollary of The Legend of Zelda. Actually, come to that, to describe it as a corollary is perhaps too vague a description: 3D Dot Game Heroes is a down-to-the-ground clone of that NES classic, the likes of which I'm honestly surprised has seen such attention without attracting a lawsuit or two. It wears its inspiration on its sleeves from the get-go, lifting shameless the story - such as it is - the structure, the gameplay, even the isometric perspective of old-school Zelda. And it remains utterly faithful to its roots throughout - to a fault.

But we'll get to that.

3D Dot Game Heroes does very little to distinguish itself from the Zelda games which its developers clearly adore, and those minute differences that there are will all have come and gone inside of the first ten minutes of your experience with the game. First of all, you're not stuck with a single, pre-ordained player character. There are a wealth of pre-made heroes for you to pick from, should you so choose - including a shark's fin, a ninja and various other endearing if rather one-note jokes - but better to take advantage of the fully featured editor to make your own Link. And let's face it: we're all going to make Link. We're going to name our variously created heroes Link. We're going to be Link, for all intents and purposes. Except in 3D.

Well, kind of 3D, because the other differential in play, and the only truly unique thing about 3D Dot Game Heroes, is its visuals: a counterintuitive fusion of blocky, 8-bit pixel art rendered against the grain, in lavish high definition. Think Lego Hyrule and you're nearly there. Neat particle physics have enemies explode into pixels; specular lighting gives the overworld and dungeons a curiously unnatural sheen; there are depth of field effects layered upon every screen. Otherwise, this is Zelda, though and through, from the art to the level design and on. The what if? twist in the aesthetics is weirdly appealing, and though it takes a little bit of getting used to, get used to it you will.

And that's 3D Dot Game Heroes down to a T. An old game, made anew. But gaming has come a way since The Legend of Zelda - in point of fact, the Zelda series has come a long way since The Legend of Zelda - and so Silicon Studio's latest effort is a necessarily antiquated thing, an artifact from untold ages ago refreshed in the superficial sense but not at all where it counts: in the game itself. The overworld is a hodgepodge of short-sighted design, while the dungeons are chock-full of tiresome backtracking and cheap defeats that send you back to the start. The bosses in the latter half of 3D Dot Game Heroes are nearly impossible to defeat, relying on strict pattern recognition and perfect, sustained execution to defeat. You will regularly cast your controller across the room in frustration when facing off against the punishing dragon at the end of the fire temple. And when you realise the final dungeon is a seven-floor affair with bosses repurposed and strengthened at the end of each, yet lacking the warps you've relied on for retries in the past, you will, very likely, give up all hope.

Nostalgia is a fine currency to pay your way with, presuming it comes hand in hand with a refreshing new take on an age-worn affair, but 3D Dot Game Heroes does not innovate in the slightest: it is content simply to emulate, and emulate inadequately in many cases. In so doing, its unabashed adoration for its classic inspiration proves to be its own undoing. It does not take long for 3D Dot Game Heroes to squander the larger part of its players' nostalgic goodwill, and a whimsical, self-aware sense of humour, chiptune music and some neat visual trickery is not enough to overcome that obstacle in the long term. There will be some gluttons for punishment out there who will love Silicon Studio's tribute from end to end, and more power to them for their perseverance against all good reason, but the vast majority of gamers in this day and age will find that 3D Dot Game Heroes wears out its welcome all too soon.


  1. I can't really agree with you. Folks who grew up on Zelda should love this from start to finish. I'm working on the final tower now (and there are three warps, just not for each boss).

    There's still some good humor throughout the game, too.

    AND! I'm looking forward to going through the game again on "From" difficulty level.

  2. Joe's right: there are three warps in the final dungeon. Then again, there are seven levels, each with a boss at the end of it. Meaning you have to battle impossible big bads repeatedly just to get back to square one, where you died before. It's enough to drive a man up the wall.

    Then again, as I said, I can see why there'd be folks out there who will love this 3D Dot Game Heroes. I did want to, and perhaps I've been pandered to by video games these past few years. That last dungeon was the final straw for me, though. I like to feel that I'm accomplishing something, and that's a hard argument to win while playing a video game. While playing the same section of a video game over and over and over again, and getting nowhere fast... it's an impossible case to make.

    Still. Glad you're having such a fine time with it, Joe, and good luck with the run-through on From difficulty. You're more man than I! :)