I’d imagine that the initial pitch for 3D Dot Game Heroes involved a lot of enthusiastic hand gestures, high-fives, and cheers of “That’d be awesome!” In their stroll down memory lane, the developers have created a title that manages to be fantastically derivative by cribbing from the best and adding their own twist to create one of the best action-adventure titles to come out in recent memory. Yet again, Atlus and From Software have brought North American gamers another treat.
For long-time gamers, action-adventure fans, and role-playing aficionados in particular, 3D Dot Game Heroes is a real delight. Set in the mystical Kingdom of Dotnia, recently changed to 3D from its seemingly passé 2D origins by decree of the King of the Land, you are the ancestor of the kingdom’s mightiest hero and have been tasked with capturing the mighty orbs needed to rid the land of evil. You aren’t just any hero, however, but a pumpkin, a car, a tank, a ship, a ninja, a businessman, a certain mech-suited US President, or any number of creatures and items - thanks to the games built-in editor. Aside from being able to give your hero a name, you can customize them with a new stance, poses, and profession. It’s a nice little system that will undoubtedly lead to some inspired heroes.
If you don’t feel like being creative, as I didn’t shortly after failing to make a proper Cicero (of Great Justice), then you can pick from one of the dozens of pre-made characters to be your avatar. After diligently checking out the selection, I then introduced the world to the great hero Master Pumpkin … a walking pumpkin.
Pumpkin might have been trekking across Dotnia, but he – let’s just assume it’s a he – could just as well have been in Hyrule. Dotted throughout the handily segmented lands are dungeons to explore with dark rooms to be lit, weak walls to be bombed, doors to be unlocked, and bosses to be defeated. Valuable items gathered by exploring the dungeons, and the magic bestowed for securing an orb, will be used to further explore the oddly familiar realm. From the lush forests to the arid desert to the dangerous coasts populated by hopping rock-spitting octopi, you always feel at home.
That comforting sense of belonging is really what 3D Dot Game Heroes is all about. From the King’s throne room that looks like it sprouted out of Ultima: Exodus to the load screens that honor the classics – from Doom to Castlevania to Street Fighter – and the innumerable references to other works – “It’s a secret to everybody” – and From Software’s own catalogue, including nods to Demon’s Souls brutal difficulty, it’s all strangely familiar. The large pixels might not make every reference clear, but if it isn’t one you catch, then it’s at least funny. And yet somehow this all works within the game world; nothing seems forced or trite, just a lot of friendly and respectful nods with a dash of good humor. If you’re one of the types mentioned above, then the game is often like being eight again and having your best friend over to check out his cool new game while he flips through a magazine, chatting away.
But what if you aren’t one of those types, or someone who doesn’t get the jokes? If you weren’t into gaming in the ‘80s or have steadily been since, then a lot of the references won’t mean much. Even then, thanks to the solid design, from the graphics to the combat, the game still has a lot to offer.
The graphics are absolutely lovely, with the trippy effects that feature some great lighting and clever use of physics that easily impressed passers-by. They don’t just look good, though, but do a great job in creating an atmosphere that compliments the world design which, in conjunction with the sound effects, make discovering new entrances, objects, and villages a constant pleasure. The music is whimsical – again, think 8-bit Zelda – and keeps the mood light, though can get a bit repetitive towards the end. There are tons of nooks and crannies throughout the world that can be explored, containing treasures from extra money to weapon upgrades, and the game’s inviting world makes the search all the better.
Combat is a satisfying mixture of offense and defense consisting of blocking attacks with a shield and attacking with an ever-expanding, upgradeable collection of swords. There is also an array of secondary items (a boomerang that stuns, bombs, bow and arrows, and magic) that help to mix things up, in addition to aiding in solving puzzles and navigating tricky obstacles. Movement is a little stiff and there is some odd collision detection, but in general, navigation is easy to get a handle on while handling items is a snap. Even the ridiculously huge sword seems normal after a while, though it does become smaller after being hit, with the slide slash and other moves become things to master. As strange and unwieldy as the action might seem in screenshots, it’s actually very solid.
The addition of several mini games also helps to broaden the game’s appeal. Throughout the scattered inns and shops are non-playable characters that either have a reference to make, a hint to share, though rarely anything lending to an actual plot (if a game with ‘King of the Land’ even needs one), or a game to play. From being the pad in a Breakout clone to fending off waves of enemies in one of the Tower Defense-style game, the games are some seriously addictive time sinks.
The world is also quite large, offering all sorts of hidden treasures. Towards the end, I found myself stuck at a dead-end and reverted to a FAQ – I feel no shame! – where I learned about even more side quests and items. I had already spent a good deal of time exploring and doing side quests and was genuinely surprised at what was left. The rewards from townsfolk for helping out tend to be special items, from apple health shards to a bestiary that collects humorous info on creatures after they’ve been sufficiently walloped enough with the book. The adventure is a good two or so hours longer than it initially seems.
Certainly, its more 8-bit legacies will go over better with those who enjoy or enjoyed that generation, but I wouldn’t let that deter you from at least trying it. The game is incredibly charming and offers a great light-hearted, relaxing adventure. The later levels can offer some difficulty, sometimes unexpectedly so, but always within reason and always worth the effort. I ‘got’ most of the jokes and references, so I know how beguiling it can be, but the foundations are there for everybody to have a good time. The mechanics and mini games are addictive, the dungeons a clever mixture of combat and puzzles, the townsfolk interesting to talk to, and the sword management system compelling enough to warrant searching the world over for tiny blocks to exchange for new steel (or a giant fish). You’re getting a solid game, perfect for any age, regardless of your experience with the genre or gaming in general.
3D Dot Game Heroes has a lot to offer action-adventure fans, but even more for those who like their games with a wink and a nod. It doesn’t hurt that the numerous references are from an era when many of today’s gamers were getting their start or back into gaming and are, like myself, overflowing with fond memories. It would be easy to say that the game coasts solely on nostalgia, but it doesn’t – though it does know how to work a reference. Behind the in-jokes, wacky non-playable characters, and traditional mechanics is a genuinely funny and enjoyable adventure that is great for all ages and going for a very reasonable price (MSRP $39.99).
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)