Can the innovative implementation of 3D pixels and a good sense of humor save Silicon Studio's 3D Dot Game Heroes from being labeled a gimmicky Zelda clone?
The king of 2D Dotnia felt that sprites were outdated, so he decreed the kingdom switch to 3D, and so it did, though not in the way one might expect. Instead of granting the buildings, monsters, and citizens of Dotnia new polygon models, the sprites themselves became polygons, giving the kingdom a unique, building block look. It is into this new, 3D world that our hero ventures, armed with a ridiculously large sword and burdened with a quest to save the land from the rebirth of a diabolical evil.
But our hero's quest is not without stumbling blocks, mainly in the form of fans who see the game as nothing more than a PlayStation 3 exclusive rip-off of The Legend of Zelda and its various sequels. 3D Dot Game Heroes has the same game play mechanics, tools, enemies; even the music is similar, but there's more to 3D Dot Game Heroes than that, isn't there?
Building Blocks: I wasn't quite sure what to make of the graphical style of 3D Dot Game Heroes when I first started playing. It wasn't a question of quality. These were a type of graphics I hadn't seen before in a video game, melding together pixel-block constructed landscapes and characters with high-end graphic and lighting effects. I was a little disoriented, but then it dawned on me...I was playing a stop-motion block diorama, gorgeously rendered via the PlayStation 3 hardware. The creatures and characters you encounter might look primitive, but a hell of a lot of work has gone into making them look that way.
A Block To The Past: Call it a Zelda clone or call it homage, Atlus and developer Silicon Studio have made it pretty obvious where the inspiration for 3D Dot Game Heroes lies. The gameplay is Zelda with one, enormously oversized twist: Your weapon. When your health is full, your generally meager sword becomes a massive force of destruction, with different models upgradeable to the point where they span the entire screen, taking out everything in their path.
The rest of the game is unapologetically Zelda, with popular items like the boomerang, bomb, bow, and even hook-shot making an appearance. It's derivative, sure, but it's derivative done well. Gaining new powers and tools opens up new areas to explore, twisting dungeons will test your patience as well as your skills, and hidden areas packed with secrets abound. If the evolution of 3D graphics had gone terribly wrong, maybe this is what a 3D Zelda might have ended up looking like.
Blockin' Ain't Easy: 3D Dot Game Heroes is not an easy game. The giant sword is an advantage, sure, but one hit and it's gone. Dungeons start off straightforward enough, but as you progress the difficulty ramps up substantially. By the third dungeon, death was no longer simply a possibility; it was a certainty, and by the end, making your way through the labyrinthine, monster-filled catacombs became a matter of getting as far as I could, hoping to find a key, map, or new tool to use before death dumped me back at the entrance again. Still, the frustration never becomes unbearable, and never outweighs the sense of accomplishment you gain from getting the job done.
Build Me Up: 3D Dot Game Heroes is plural for a reason. Not only does the game come with a large selection of pre-made block characters (I played the majority of the game as a Morrigan-esque succubus), players can use the character creator to build their own custom hero from the ground up. Build, color, and create your character's mighty six frames of actual animation, and you're off. There's a great deal of leeway here, and you aren't limited to human characters either. Want to be a tank? You can indeed be a tank. You can even load that tank onto a USB drive and share it with your friends. I can't wait to see what sort of creations pop up once the game hits store shelves.
Extracurricular Activities: While the main quest alone ran around ten hours, there are easily enough diversions in 3D Dot Game Heroes to double your play time. There are blocks to collect that can be traded for rare, powerful swords, simple side quests, frequent trips to the character editor, and several mini-games scattered across the landscape of Dotnia, uncovered at key points in the game. The 3D Dot version of tower defense is particularly engaging, allowing the player to place and upgrade various weapons about the field as in traditional tower defense, but then leaving on the game board as well, leaving you free to lend a helping sword if things are going poorly.
A Good Sense Of Humor: At times, 3D Dot Game Heroes straddles a thin line between parody and homage, but ultimately the game's sense of humor has it ROFLing on the side of good. Humorous references to classic games, Zelda and otherwise, abound, be it a subtle line of dialog from a random non-player character, final words scrawled on the walls of dungeons next to the corpses of fallen game developers, or a twisted take on conventional plot mechanics. I was smiling from start to finish, even when the game was kicking my ass.
From Simple Roots: The only problem with aping the game play of an older title is you wind up with the game play of an older title. 3D Dot Game Heroes humor and polish carried me a long way, but there were points where the wandering from dungeon room to dungeon room, hitting the sword button over and over again grew tedious. Not many times, mind you, but then I am an older gamer who can appreciate the old-school charm. Others might not be so tolerant.
Some will see 3D Dot Game Heroes as a homage to the classic video games of old, nostalgia sprinkled with humor and wrapped up in a lovely high-definition package. Others might shun it for being far too close to their beloved Zelda series, more mockery than tribute. There may be forum arguments, and pixelated blood might be spilled.
Meanwhile, those who ignore attempts to classify it and simply play the game will find themselves wrapped up in a good 10-20 hours of old-school adventuring goodness, retro enough to bring back memories while pretty enough to flaunt the power of their PlayStation 3.
3D Dot Game Heroes was developed by Silicon Studio and will be published by Atlus in North America on May 11 for the PlayStation 3. Retails for $39.99. A review build was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played game through to the end.
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