“A Modern Masterpiece with Classic Roots”
Where to begin? 3D Dot Game Heroes is a game aimed at a specific audience, and the odds are that anyone considering purchasing it already knows more of less what he or she is going to get. Nobody is trying to deny that this game is basically a nod to the original Legend of Zelda game, and some will accuse it of being a blatant rip-off. And even that may be true – but I would argue that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. This review will use 2D Zelda games as a basis for comparison, but the game will be evaluated based on its own merits. Due to the nature of this title I did not feel it was appropriate to assign numerical value to specific categories, but rest assured that I’ll cover all the different aspects of the game. Let’s get started!
Let’s start by discussing the graphics. As the title of the game itself indicates, this game’s graphics are all composed of 3D dots – cubes, if you will. The idea being to take the pixelated look of classic NES games and updating it into a sort of 3D version. This already shows you without a doubt that the game is going for retro, but especially when it comes to graphics people might see this as stupid or a cop-out, or what have you. But don’t be fooled; the 3D transition is executed brilliantly. Things like the speckling of colors across surfaces maintain the feel of an old game, but at the same time there are very detailed areas and surfaces. Everything is clean, and obviously each block “pixel” has high resolution. The most obvious reminder that you are indeed playing a PS3 game is when you come across reflective surfaces. The reflections are created beautifully and realistically, despite the fact that everything that is being reflected has been created out of blocks. Even the lighting and shadows are done very well, and it shows. And of course, the game is rendered in 720p.
Apart from all of that, seeing the amount of variety and creativity present in the character and monster models is very refreshing. You will find that there is a lot of charm to be found, not to mention a character editor. And we’re not talking about selecting from a set of designs and tweaking them, or designing a face. This is the real deal – create your entire character out of little blocks, in 3D, from the ground up. Including colors, different poses, you name it. The shape and size of your character is completely up to you – I saw a screenshot online of someone whose main character was made to resemble Majora’s Mask.
If you are familiar with Zelda, there’s no surprise here. Long ago, the sages used their power to seal away a great evil, then divided their power to prevent its misuse. Now, in the present, evil has returned, and it’s up to you obtain that power and vanquish the evil. The neat thing is that you can actually play as a few different characters, aside from your own creations. But more on that later. At any rate, this is a highly gameplay-oriented game, and while there are tons of interesting NPCs to interact with, the story itself is not meant to be revolutionary. There are, however, a few optional quests that can affect the outcome of the game.
As in other areas, 3D Dot Game Heroes tries to emulate auditory feel of the 8-bit era. It definitely succeeds, despite the fact that the music is obviously not 8-bit. You will find a variety of catchy tunes that change every time you enter new areas, towns, houses, dungeons, caves, etc. Many of the songs are upbeat and very fitting, and if you listen carefully you’ll often find that they are quite complex and satisfying. I personally know the music in a game is good when I find myself unconsciously humming its various tunes, and that certainly happened here. All in all, this is not an area in which the game disappoints. It is very clear that a lot of work went into making everything just right.
The gameplay is the meat of the game, and simply put, it does everything right. The basic structure is again the same as 2D Zelda games. You explore a (quite large) world map, solve dungeons to recover the orbs of power, gain equippable items along the way that let you access new areas, and so forth. Many of the items’ functions and even design are identical to items found in Zelda games, so I suppose in that sense it’s copying, but that doesn’t make the game any less fun or captivating. Similarly, your life is measured in apples, and you can find “life fragments” (apple pieces), four of which complete a new apple in your life bar. Magic works similarly with vials of magic, but you simply find entire vials of magic as opposed to pieces of them.
What I want to highlight, however, are the differences between this game and Zelda, and the things that truly make 3D Dot Game Heroes shine. First of all, magic plays a somewhat bigger role and is more involving than most Zelda games. As opposed to depleting it by lighting a lantern or charging a spin attack, you consume it by activating spells that you learn throughout the game. There are several of them, and unlike in some games, many of them are absolutely required to progress, and the ones that aren’t are incredibly useful when used strategically. You might do damage to enemies, freeze an area, or slow down time, as examples. Each spell consumes a different amount of magic vials. However, the amount consumed actually depends upon the character you’re playing as. Females consume less magic per spell than males. The different characters also vary in terms of their strength and toughness, so it’s not all aesthetic. This adds a neat extra element to the game.
Aside from a healthy arsenal of usable and equippable items, a big element of the gameplay is your sword. There are quite a few swords you can earn or find, and they all vary in terms of stats. Swords have seven attributes: length, width, strength, spin, piercing, beam, and special. Not all swords have every attribute, but each attribute a sword does have can be upgraded for cash, and the maximum level of each attribute also varies. To add even more strategy to this, each sword has a limited number of upgrade points, which tend to run out before every attribute is maxed. This means you cannot fully upgrade every category on most swords – you have to decide which attributes matter most to you. The special category depends on the sword, but one example is that it will make you run faster. Having the right sword equipped, or the right attributes boosted, can make all the difference.
On top of what I’ve already discussed, 3D Dot Game Heroes has all kinds of little things here and there that simply make the experience more enjoyable. Lanterns (which light up dark areas) are now usable items which can be bought and found, and they last quite a while. There is a buyable item that allows you warp to various areas you’ve previously visited, highly reducing backtracking when you don’t want to run across the map – but there is also a lot to explore, and new areas become accessible constantly. There is an item you can buy which allows you to recover your health on the world map (it doesn’t work in dungeons) and create a restore point, should you die. There are items you can find which permanently decrease the amount of damage you take. These are all tweaks that make the game pleasant. Perhaps most importantly, there are practically no required fetch quests in the entire game. The creators are not going to insult your intelligence or test your patience by bloating the game with such things.
There are, however, all sorts of optional quests. You are rewarded for paying attention and talking to NPCs, many of which will initiate events which store on an event menu. Some are fetch quests, some are just for fun, and many result in rewards such as life fragments or swords. The characters’ dialogue will also change as the game progresses, and new events open up.
Between sidequests, exploration, events, and minigames, this game offers quite a bit of replayability. The minigames are actually quite difficult and in many cases lengthy, but at the same time highly entertaining. If trophies are your thing, there are plenty of those to seek out as well, including trophies for beating the dungeon bosses without taking damage (bosses can be revived and re-fought at any time). There is a monster log which you fill by smacking enemies repeatedly with the log itself until they are acquired. Or why not try collecting every sword? The game is not incredibly long if you rush through the base story, but that wouldn’t be doing it justice. In addition, the game is actually quite difficult. It’s not frustratingly hard, but there are plenty of good puzzles and difficult enemies. And if it turns out not to be challenging enough, there is a hard mode to unlock, in which enemies are much tougher. And if even that’s not enough, play through it and unlock Spelunker mode, in which you die in a single hit from anything.
All in all, 3D Dot Game Heroes flawlessly takes an old game design and renews it and kicks new life into it, while at the same time updating the style and adding a plethora of new elements to keep gameplay fresh, all without losing the classic feel. Whether or not it copies material straight out of old titles, 3D Dot Game Heroes is nothing short of fantastic.
Score: 10 out of 10