Review: 3D Dot Game Heroes (Sony PS3)

3D Dot Game Heroes
Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 5/11/2010

Though I’m one of the biggest retro freaks on our staff, I am not a huge fan of this New Retro craze going on. What is “New Retro”? It’s when a game makes a huge deal out of being retro, but does it in a way that makes a big show of slapping its own back. “Look at us! We use old-school sprites, and we just made a reference to a popular old game! We’re cool! YOU HEAR US!? WE’RE COOL!” Are we really so desperate for nostalgia over time long past that we’re willing to continue to revisit those times, without even putting up the facade of innovation?

If that isn’t the most revealing foreshadowing I’ve ever done, I don’t know what is. While it’s a decent fangame of Zelda, that’s all 3D Dot Game Heroes (henceforth known as 3DDGH) is: a fangame. I’ve heard people try to argue that this shouldn’t really be considered “PS3 Zelda“, but what else can we call it when the developers give us no other choice? While this is definitely a loving homage to not only Zelda but all retro games that we’ve grown up with, there comes a point when “love” turns into “restraining order”, and 3DDGH crosses that line a bit often.

Story

The story is that the legendary kingdom of Dotnia had their six orbs stolen by the Dark King, the Legendary Hero went to retrieve them with the help of the Six Sages, who formed the Light Orb with the six orbs. After killing the Dark King, a dark orb was formed, which was stolen by someone wanting to take over the world. In that span of time, the king of Dotnia, after finding out that people were no longer coming to his kingdom, declared that people weren’t interested in 2D worlds anymore, and renovated his entire world in 3D (which is shown by a 2D world literally being turned into three dimensions, with giant pixel trees and buildings popping up). You play a descendant of the Legendary Hero, and after finding the Legendary Sword in the back of the kingdom, are asked to retrieve the orbs, save the world, and if you happen to spot Princess Iris along the way, could you kinda save her?

At first glance, this seems extremely simplistic, but this doesn’t stray too much from the source material; most Zelda games didn’t have an outstanding, Xenogears level plot, either. For what it’s worth, the plot drives the game just fine. Your character is given a Navi-like fairy to act as your guide and confidant, and considering it doesn’t actually speak, it works better than its inspiration, if only because I don’t have to hear “HEY! HEY! LISTEN! HEY! LISTEN!” every five seconds. There are other NPCs as well, though they don’t give hints so much as walk around being witty. The plot also has no real twists; it’s straightforward all the way through.

We’re not talking War and Peace, but considering what the game is trying to be, it works.

Story Rating: Above Average

Graphics

By the sheer nature of what From Software is trying to pull off, the graphics aren’t going to be attractive at first glance. The whole *point* of the game is to mix old-school 2D charm with today’s technology. In terms of pure aesthetics, 3DDGH doesn’t get the job done. Everything is specifically pixelated, which is never going to result in a technically beautiful game. Furthermore, due to the highly pixelated nature of everything, getting close up to certain characters causes everything to separate, meaning it’s hard to tell at certain times what you’re looking at. It’s not meant to look good, at least not in still shots.

With that said, still shots don’t tell the story. There’s actually quite a robust 3D engine at work, which shows good rotation and scaling between the character, boss and scenic models. There are little introductory movies before fighting bosses that show off just how well everything moves. The whole game plays in 60FPS, and there’s no slowdown whatsoever, something I’m thankful was left behind in the 80s. When you defeat enemies, they explode into little pixels, which is a nice touch, and also very well animated. There are also some very nice lighting effects, such as a bloom off of your fully powered up sword, and the candlelight inside dungeons.

There are a few problems that aren’t intentionally added. The 3D engine means that sometimes, enemies or items can end up behind raised structures, and since there’s no way to rotate the camera, it means you have to be very careful if you end up behind something. It’s also hard to see certain traps, since everything tends to blend together due to the lower colour palette; I had trouble noticing arrow traps in dungeons. This also shows up when going through conveyor belt puzzles; there are arrows that show which direction the conveyors go, but they’re so pixelated and poorly animated that it’s hard to tell which direction they go. Bunch them up, and it turns these puzzles into a guessing game.

Overall, the package is about as nice as one can expect for a “retro” game.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

Sound

The whole game sounds like a Zelda cover band. Each area has a song that sounds an awful lot like something out of past Zelda titles. On a positive note, there are a lot of different themes depending on your location, but these are intentionally made to sound like Zelda themes. Even the loading screen music is made to sound very similar to the loading music from Dragon Quest. The music in the game is nice for what it is, but there’s nothing memorable, or at least as memorable as Zelda’s iconic tunes.

There are sound effects for your sword, various items, and other sundries you would expect from a game like this, and they sound competent. It’s hard to really judge them, because they’re the same things you’d hear in a Zelda game.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

Control and Gameplay

I could go into vast details about the different tools, items, swords and the like used in 3DDGH, and it would take up a lot of space. In the interest of time, space and a loaded schedule on my part, know that for the most part, if you’ve played A Link to the Past, you’ve played 3DDGH. Most of the set pieces are *exactly* the same, from the currency to the items to the overworld structure to the dungeon structure. The only difference is the lack of a dark world. Wait, another difference is that instead of hearts, you use apples to gauge life. How witty and novel!

The main thing setting apart 3DDGH from classic Zelda games is how the sword system works, in terms of acquiring them and using them. Here, there are multiple swords to be found, which all have various stats to them based on length, width, and whatever extras they have such as a pierce ability (the ability to stab through objects) or the ability to shoot beams. Stats can be added to the sword at blacksmiths, up to a certain point based on the sword’s potential, as determined by amount of money spent on it; for example, spending 400G on adding the Pierce ability drops the max potential of the sword 400 points. The swords themselves, when used, can grow to comical lengths and widths, some of them taking up the whole screen if built up properly. The catch is that these powers are only added on when you’re at full life; when you’re less than 100%, your sword goes down to its “normal” level. This turns the game into a contest to see how long you can maintain your maximum life level, and unfortunately, being at less than 100% life is more game breaking than it is in any Zelda game. There’s also the ability to swing your sword around, which is different from LTTP because you can swing the sword, then move in a different direction mid-swing to sweep around and hit anything in your path. This is a nice gameplay mechanic, but you have to be using the digital pad to really use it effectively; the analogue stick is a little too finicky, because the game plays in digital. When you can only walk in eight directions and swing in four, the analogue stick is more trouble than it’s worth. Thankfully, the Dualshock has the best digital pad of any of the current generation controllers.

There’s also an ability to trade for swords via small blocks, who you trade to King Block. If this sounds suspiciously similar to the mini medal system in some of the Dragon Quest games, you’re noticing a trend. Blocks can be traded or saved to be brought over via New Game + (since blocks transfer, but swords don’t), but other than acquiring swords, there’s not much in them.

Other than these things I’ve mentioned, this is almost a carbon copy of everything LTTP has, only less of it. Less dungeons, less to do in the dungeons, less to see on the overworld, just… less. This is something that could have been pulled off in a fangame or *gulp* a romhack. It’s true that 3DDGH is relying a lot on its charm to win gamers over, but the gameplay part of this equation, while competent, feels lacking.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Mediocre

Replayability

There’s a lot to be done in 3DDGH, even once the game is over. For one, there’s New Game +, and while I felt they could have added some things to bring over to make it better – like the swords – it’s still nice to know that you can collect small blocks, at the very least. Most impressive is the character editor. Here, you can build out a hero pixel by pixel, with a nearly limitless array of options at your disposal. Think of it as having an amazing set of Legos to do whatever you want with. Best of all, you can take your creation and upload it to Atlus’s servers for others to add to their game (downloaded to a pen drive), and vice versa. Whether you want to play with a creation of your own doing or be one of the millions playing the game as Link, it’s up to you. There’s a healthy selection of default characters to use as well, and changing characters doesn’t change much except a few text bubbles depending on their “job” (Hero, Scholar, etc.). Either way, this is a great addition for people that wish to use it.

There’s also the challenge of finding every single item, just like in every Zelda game. There are a lot of items in some pretty inventive locations, and most of them are difficult to find without a walkthrough or FAQ. There is also a separate Spelunker mode (via a name entry password), and a beastiary, where you literally put monsters into your book by whacking them with the book. Filling the bestiary up is a separate quest in and of itself. Plus, there are other minigames, and while they’re competent, Block Defence is itself a pretty competent form of tower defence. While the game is devoid of any original thought, they at least did a good job of making sure anyone buying the game gets a lot of bang for their buck.

Replayability Rating: Great

Balance

I already mentioned that losing some life did a number to your sword. This knocks balance out of whack because there are times – especially during boss fights – where that longer sword is a virtual necessity. Yes, you *can* get the job done with the smaller sword, but the quicker you lose life, the more time you spend desperately getting back to full health, which is now much harder to do because you don’t have your normal weapon. In Zelda, usually having full hearts meant you had a beam sword, but that beam sword wasn’t 100% useful like the regular sword; for example, the beam bounced off of Darknuts. Here, a full sword is life or death in some cases, and boss fights usually boil down to how much damage you can do before you lose your good sword, and with it, the length, width and other goodies – like pierce – that come with it.

The difficulty of the game in general also has a late spike. For a long time, the game isn’t too hard, until you get to later dungeons, and marvel at just how hard everything became. There’s more to making a Zelda clone than just copying over set pieces like dungeons and swords; you have to get intricate design details like a proper balance into the mix as well. From Software failed this test.

Balance Rating: Pretty Poor

Originality

This is where I lose the fans for good. I can almost feel everyone rushing to our comments section to flame me.

I suppose redoing 80’s games with 21st century technology, while intentionally giving the product a “retro” feel, could be considered “original”. At least, that would be the case, until you look into the actual game and notice that they did little more than blatantly copy past Zelda games. This is not an “homage” to that series; this is a blatant facelift. It’s a $40 plagiarism. There is not one original idea in this game. Not one. 90% of this game was stolen from Zelda, and every other design bit was pasted on from various other games, either retro or not.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Consider this game a wedding proposal to Shigeru Miyamoto.

Originality Rating: Awful

Addictiveness

For comparison’s sake, I actually dragged my copy of Link to the Past out of mothballs to compare my experience with that game – a game I haven’t played in seven years – to my experience with the brand new 3DDGH. In one day, I had all three of the first dungeons beaten, and wanted to continue playing more before I forced myself to put it down.

I never got that feeling with 3DDGH. In fact, going through this game felt like a chore a lot of the time, partly because the whole “retro” joke got old within the first half hour, but mostly because I had this feeling of deja-vu while playing. I felt like I’d been there, done that, which is a bit ironic considering the fact that I never got that feeling with the 19 year old LTTP despite the fact that I literally HAVE “been there, done that”, having beaten that game in my youth.

The only real part of this game that I can say is addictive is the Block Defence minigame. Tower defence games are a dime a dozen, so if that’s the only compliment I can give, that doesn’t bode well for your product.

Addictiveness Rating: Poor

Appeal Factor

I have multiple friends of mine waiting on this review. Not because they genuinely care about my professional writing, but because they’re *that* interested in this game in particular. The only time I’ve ever had that kind of response from my friends is when I reviewed the import copy of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, and that’s mostly because most of these friends came from around the time I ran that fandom’s largest community. Needless to say, a lot of my friends are legitimately excited about this game and everything it brings.

To be fair, I think most of these people will be able to overlook the issues I had with the game and enjoy it for what it is: something to laugh at, to point fingers at and say “hey I remember that!”, while playing a fairly competent Zelda clone in the process. My friend Samantha, in particular, will treat this like a party game; she’ll get her friends over to her house, and they’ll play “Count the References”. Samantha will enjoy this game for a lot of the same reasons I got tired of it.

There’s another group of people that I think will be interested in something like this: fans of the old show Mystery Science Theater 3000. These are people that watch old movies specifically to make fun of them. They’re not going to care that Chris Bowen, Professional Prickā„¢ had issues with the control and killed the game on its originality score. They’ll be too busy laughing.

Appeal Factor Rating: Very Good

Miscellaneous

I don’t think this can be stated strongly enough: there are a LOT of “witty” references in the game. So many, in fact, that it feels like they were stuffed in with a trash compactor. In the first half hour, I found four direct references to other games, like the king telling you “It’s so dangerous to go alone! Take this!” before giving you a sword, and the “crazy inventor”, before giving you the Dash Boots, saying “ITEM COMPLETE! GET YOUR WEAPONS READY!”. These references – everything from Zelda to Metal Gear to even modern Atlus games like Demon’s Souls – are SO frequent that it beats what would normally be something cool into the ground, and makes it nauseating. I went from “that’s kinda cool” to “alright already!” in less than an hour, and the game doesn’t get better about it.

I will freely admit that the developers of this game put a lot of love into their product. They obviously love the games they either borrow from or reference. That’s not the issue. The issue is a lack of restraint. I had another friend ask me if this compared to Retro Game Challenge, and it really doesn’t. RGC was inspired by similar games of that era, but never blatantly ripped off any games as badly as this one rips off Zelda. I would recommend that From Software – a good developer – take RGC as the lesson, even conceding the fact that RGC is based off of a game show.

Miscellaneous Rating: Below Average

The Scores
Story: Above Average
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Great
Balance: Pretty Poor
Originality: Awful
Addictiveness: Poor
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Below Average
FINAL SCORE: MEDIOCRE GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

3D Dot Game Heroes is not a bad game by any stretch. It’s a competent Zelda wannabe, and old school fans could spend the entire game picking out references to other games. However, judged purely as a game, this game is not as good when placed alongside The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It has fewer of everything than the game it’s patterned after, which is inexcusable considering the better game is almost nineteen years old. Due to this, I can’t justify spending the full $40 on this game unless you’re going to spend a lot of time with the character editor. I would recommend either renting it or waiting for a sale or discount, to see if this is for you.

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  1. Steven Kess
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