Review by kobalobasileus

"Lesser Than the Sum of Its Parts"

3D Dot Game Heroes
“Lesser Than the Sum of Its Parts”

“3D Dot Game Heroes” (“3DDGH”) was something of a golden child for me. I was really looking forward to this game, as it represents everything I loved about classic action/adventure games. As the latest modern-day throwback, “3DDGH” draws upon some of my favorite games for inspiration: “The Legend of Zelda” and its sequel, “A Link to the Past,” “Dragon Quest 4,” and others. Indeed, this was a game with so much potential that I pre-ordered it the moment the option was available, which is something I almost never do. In fact, I was so psyched for “3DDGH” that I replayed “A Link to the Past” whilst waiting for “3DDGH” to arrive in the mail. With the pinnacle of the action/adventure genre still fresh in my mind, I wondered how this self-proclaimed ‘homage' would stack-up.

The title of “3D Dot Game Heroes” comes from the fact that most of the game world is made of 3D dots, called ‘voxels.' These voxels are analogous to the pixels used to create the images in old-school (8-bit and 16-bit) games. From the screen-shots and preview trailers I viewed, it looked like the voxelated world of “3DDGH” would be an attractive, yet highly-stylized, place. Unfortunately, the blocky graphics don't work quite as well when viewed in person… and the game isn't made ENTIRELY out of voxels. One of the biggest presentation issues in the game is with the lighting. The game world itself is actually a 3D environment with a normal-looking sky and strangely mercurial water. The voxel-constructed objects cast strange shadows and reflections that are difficult to look at. The reflections are most obnoxious in the game's many dungeons, which all feature identical floors polished to a mirror-sheen. Another hugely-glaring fault with the graphics is the fact that the pixilation makes it difficult to notice certain minor details, such as when a cliff is jumpable versus non-jumpable. Cliffs that can be leapt over are decorated with a couple of voxels that are a different color than the dirt, whereas in older games (specifically “A Link to the Past”) cliffs had obvious edges. Overall, the graphics are decent but limited. Characters only have two frames of animation, but the graphics engine compensates by wiggling the character models from side-to-side or spinning them. It seems that From Software turned the dial on the Wayback Machine a bit too far and overshot the Golden Age of gaming, ending up with a game that is much more visually reminiscent of 8-bit than 16-bit.

The best use of the game's graphics engine doesn't actually take place during the gameplay at all, but on the (optional) loading screens. There are dozens of different ones, each featuring a scene from a classic game, remade with voxels and the premade “3DDGH” characters. I actually got quite a bit of enjoyment out of trying to recognize these scenes. Unfortunately, half of these scenes appear to be locked, perhaps as some sort of future DLC plan, as they never appear during the main game, even on the two extra difficulty levels.

The game also features a full character editor, which allows the player to create their own 3D ‘sprite,' complete with two frames of walking animation, a ‘hurray!' pose, and two one-frame attacking animations. Though the graphics are simple, it's possible to make some really close approximations to other classic game characters (I made Taloon from “Dragon Quest 4”). The character editor allows the player to make three types of characters: Heroes (who have +1 Life and -1 Magic), Royals (who are balanced), and Scholars (who have -1 Life and +1 Magic). It is possible for the player to switch character types whenever they load a saved game, which can be helpful if a specific dungeon requires more magic or more life to clear.

The sound effects are mostly resampled from old “Dragon Quest” games. Memorable references include stairs, teleporting, and spellcasting. These sound effects are nice inclusions, but it would have been nice to hear the 16-bit versions instead of the 8-bit versions.

The music is by far the best use of sampling and homage in the game. The load-screen music is a near-duplicate of the classic and eternal “Dragon Quest” load music. Each of the other tunes in the soundtrack evoke other great compositions from gaming's past and feature modern-sounding digital instruments interwoven with the bleeps and bloops found in chiptunes.

The technical presentation is slightly flawed. “3DDGH” has a tendency to freeze randomly, which can result in the loss of accomplishments if a player doesn't save frequently. However, it is possible to save anywhere, which helps ameliorate the problem. The load times are reasonable, even without installing the game, and are barely noticeable if the loading screen art is turned off in the option menu.

The story isn't actually a story at all. It's just a bunch of inside jokes and references to other games' stories, strung together with a jokey, paper-thin narrative about collectable MacGuffins and an ancient evil. It makes the whole game feel more like a “Saturday Night Live” bit than a fully-realized product.

Perhaps the most annoying part of the story is the fact that there are numerous sidequests which reward the player with ‘key items' that cannot be used for anything except trading for other ‘key items.' Some of these trade chains result in something good (like a Life Shard), but many are completely pointless and only included in the game to add yet more references to other things. Some of the optional quests are missable as well, which leads to lots of boring wandering around, revisiting each town after clearing each dungeon in the vain hope that a new character will appear and offer a quest. The only noticeable difference in the game's story caused by completing most of the harder-to-find quests is that a few extra people will be present during the interactive ending sequence to offer meaningless one-liners. However, one of these missable quests is required to get the ‘good' ending, which is frustrating.

The main saving grace of the story is some of the humorous writing that makes up the basic mythology of the game world. The King of Dotnia is very forthcoming in the fact that he just decided to up and declare that the world should be 3D… and it became 3D… in the lowest-budget way possible. Other characters make comments about how different (both better and worse) things have been since the ‘3D Reform.' If there had been a bit more humor and a bit less reference-dropping, the story of “3DDGH” could have been a humorous parody. As it is, it kind of falls flat, especially compared to “A Link to the Past.”

“3DDGH” is an homage to the “Zelda” games. Therefore, we should know what to expect: overworld, dungeons, tools that expand the player's range of exploration. What I was not expecting, and is one of the greatest travesties in the game, is the default camera. While there are four camera options in “3DDGH,” only two of them are viable (Type B and Type C). The default camera (Type A) is situated far too close and to the side of the player's character. No 2D adventure game ever had a camera like that! It's horrible! And then there's camera Type D, which is zoomed-in even closer and is thus even worse. It baffles me that a game that does nothing but reference old games would employ a default camera that would be more at home on the N64.

Other than the default camera, the gameplay is mostly very solid. The controls are fairly simple, with Square performing a dash (after getting the requisite item), X performing sword attacks, O using the secondary equipped item/spell, Triangle opening the inventory, L1 opening the map, R1 raising the shield to block, and L/R2 cycling back and forth through a chosen list of secondary items. The addition of item-switching without opening the menu via L/R2 is a great improvement to the genre, as is the choice of using either the d-buttons or left stick for movement. Unfortunately, dashing is incredibly hard to control and can be interrupted by a non-piercing sword hitting a wall, both of which problems make dashing all but useless. The obligatory spin-attack with the sword can be performed (with any sword that had the ‘spin' property) by rotating the movement buttons/stick while the sword is extended. It's not as good an implementation as in “A Link to the Past” or even “Four Swords Adventures,” but it works within the silly game world of “3DDGH” and is the only possible implementation that would be compatible with the sword upgrade system.

The sword upgrade system in “3DDGH” is lifted straight from a Flash game called “Ginormo Sword,” which basically focuses entirely on grinding for gold to upgrade the character's sword to screen-filling proportions. In “3DDGH,” in addition to length, width, and strength, it's possible to upgrade other effects, depending on the sword. Pierce is absolutely necessary, as it prevents the character's 50-foot-long sword from being blocked by walls, trees, etc. Spin is also highly-important. The Beam option is fairly useless, as the sword's length can usually compensate for any extra distance the beam would reach. Some other special swords that can be found scattered throughout the game have other special features as well. In order to prevent the swords from becoming unbalanced, the game only manifests sword upgrades when the character is at full health (reminiscent of the sword beams from the “Zelda” series). Swords keep all of the abilities they have by default regardless of the character's health. Each sword has a Maximum Potential, which is a number that represents how much gold can be spent on upgrades before it's ‘maxed-out.' Many of the swords have more upgrade slots than potential, though, so it takes some forethought and wise decision-making to optimally upgrade them.

The combat is made more frustrating than necessary because most swords don't pierce by default, thus losing that ability after the character takes a single hit. It makes fighting in dungeons frustrating, as I frequently found that my sword would refuse to extend at all if I was standing parallel to a wall. The dungeons themselves could have been a bit more inspired, as they all look alike and play too similarly except for one specific gimmick in each dungeon. Overall, the types of puzzles are limited (too many 3-block-pushing moments), partially because the main character can't perform very many actions. There are no rock/pot/bush lifting/throwing, nor is there grabbing or pulling. Every puzzle consists of pushing a block, standing on a switch, hitting a button with a boomerang, or grappling across a gap.

An incredibly irritating (but entirely optional) aspect of “3DDGH” is the inclusion of minigames. I hate minigames, but I must admit that the ones in “3DDGH” are fairly well-developed and fleshed out. There are three, consisting of a nearly-identical clone of “PixelJunk Monsters,” a nearly-identical clone of “Breakout,” and a nightmare-inducing travesty called ‘Dash Circuit,' which forces the player to master the obnoxious dash maneuver in order to win time-trial races. I personally tried these minigames once, found them detestable, and never touched them again. I know it's possible to get some useful items out of the minigames, which makes them even more unforgiveable.

One of my favorite additions in any game is the inclusion of a Bestiary. I'm something of a collector of these books in real life, so I enjoy them in games too. Unfortunately, the Bestiary in “3DDGH” is annoyingly implemented, requiring the player to hit each monster a certain number of times with the book itself (which is humorous for a few moments, but quickly loses its charm). “Booking” each monster requires a specific number of hits, with boss monsters usually requiring a number that borders on insane (30 to 70).

The worst fault in “3DDGH,” however, is the inclusion of an invisible teleporter that leads to an incredibly important item. This teleporter is located on a square of the map where nobody would have a reason to walk unless they already knew that there was an invisible teleporter there. The item hidden behind this teleporter is necessary to access several areas of the game world, and also to get the ‘good' ending! This was just a flat-out awful, awful design decision. Whoever decided that an invisible teleporter (not even a ‘hard-to-see' teleporter, but COMPLETELY invisible) was a legitimate place to hide a game-breaking item should be fired, or at least demoted to ‘coffee-getter.' Of course, it's entirely possible that this terrible design decision was made in homage of the many terrible design decisions in NES games that made them completely inscrutable… but that still doesn't make it okay! Homages are supposed to pay respect to the best parts of something, not the biggest flaws.

Despite its faults, “3DDGH” manages to keep the old-school action/adventure spirit alive for the 25-or-so hours required for a first playthrough. The second playthrough (which is essentially mandatory as nobody would find that hidden teleporter unless they read about it on GameFAQs!) should take about half as long. Grinding for gold for sword upgrades and playing the minigames naturally can add many more hours of gameplay time, but these would not be hours well-spent.

“3D Dot Game Heroes” succeeds at what it set out to do: be a light-hearted homage to great games of the past. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it as great as those games. It's still an enjoyable experience and the only top-down action/adventure game available this generation. Unfortunately, the constant reference-dropping means that the player must have a solid background in old games to appreciate this one. Thus I can only recommend “3D Dot Game Heroes” to fans of classic and retro gaming. Anyone who is not well-versed in ancient gaming lore should drop my review score by 1 point.

Presentation: 8/10
Story: 5/10
Gameplay: 8/10
Overall (not an average): 8/10

Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/21/10

Game Release: 3D Dot Game Heroes (US, 05/11/10)

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