3D Dot Game Heroes makes no secret of blatantly ripping off the Legend of Zelda formula, milking nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek references about gaming to create an updated adventure game. Can this homage to an out-dated gaming era hold up now in the land of FPS’s and RPG’s without becoming some flippant inside joke? 3D Dot asks this question while handing you everything you may have loved about Zelda while throwing in its own tricks.
In the land of Dotnia, a formerly 2D kingdom, a great warrior stopped a big bad guy and sealed him up with the power of 6 orbs controlled by 6 mages. Since then the land upgraded to 3D due to lack of tourism until a different menace threatened to unleash the big bad guy again. As a living descendant of the first hero, you are called upon by the King to stop this imminent threat, and save the princess in the process. The game milks it for all it’s worth by blatantly making fun of why you need to do things, including subtle pokes at gaming in general and more specific references to other Atlus games that may not click with the non-initiated. How many people are going to get a Demon’s Souls reference, really? But in wit and charm the game rewards you with great, intentionally bad writing (Life Up Get!) and some moments that catch you off-guard, such as using a bomb to open up a secret cave only to find the owner of the cave mad and demanding money to fix his wall. Treasures like these are generously sprinkled throughout the game and show the developer has more than a passing interest in creating a quirky backdrop for the action.
Speaking of action, do you remember all the great things about the original Legend of Zelda? Well, they’re all here and they’ve aged remarkably well. Atlus was kind enough to throw in its own unique tweak to the formula as well: A giant sword. Not just big; I’m talking about half-the-size-of-your-screen big. As you progress through the game, this sword can be upgraded to be longer, wider and able to swing a full 360 degrees around your screen which means clearing an entire screen in one sweep. A combination of the old and new satisfies in so many ways and by limiting the outlandish-sized sword to full health, it encourages you to play flawless lest you are forced to play with a mortal sword.
Difficulty is gradually ramped up so that you won’t be playing with the massive sword the whole time, as enemies will most likely cause at least a little damage to you every now and then. In dungeons, the difficulty is ramped up even further while you try to figure out puzzles. These puzzles and dungeon design are directly descended from Zelda, as you need to find the special item of the dungeon that will allow you to progress to the boss. First it is the boomerang to hit switches from a distance, then the bomb to explode cracks, and conveniently enough these objects let you eventually access the next dungeon on the list. While it may seem simplified, it is satisfying working your way through the increasingly puzzle-laden dungeons.
At the end of each dungeon is a ridiculously oversized boss that you need to get through to get the orbs. Even though the bosses follow the old-school “I will follow geometric pattern until you kill me” formula, the fights stand out for their increased difficulty and fun nature. Atlus was kind enough to leave a boss replay option in each dungeon, so I can come back any time I want to and re-fight an old boss as I attempt to get the perfect boss kill achievements offered by the game. Add to this a deep world to explore with plenty of secrets to discover, and side games of tower defense and block attack and you have an experience that could go over 20 hours on the first playthrough.
The game takes the 3D-pixel look to the extreme. I thought it was beautiful at first (especially the water effects they used), but towards the end I wished for some sort of soft edges somewhere. One benefit to this engine was the ability to choose different models for your hero, including a custom-built character. With my custom snake hero I noticed more model blips that showed the unit frame box, so I swapped back to one of the many default heroes.
Similarly, the sound may either bring feelings of nostalgia or drive a person to insanity. Using faintly familiar 8-bit soundtracks and sound effects, the game capitalizes on repetitive music loops and almost stock sound bites to complete the homage. I never thought hearing a character climb stairs or destroy an enemy would make me remember things from almost 20 years ago. Unfortunately, if I lingered in a zone for too long I would become annoyed listening to the same loop over and over again and would turn off the sound. Now that’s commitment to nostalgia.
It is impossible not to compare 3D Dot Game Heroes to Legend of Zelda, whether it is a wholesale stealing of the game or a light-hearted homage to a great game is up to each gamer to decide. Regardless, the Zelda elements still hold up and the additional sword leveling action make this a game any gamer will appreciate whether they have played Zelda or not.
Plays Like: Old-school Zelda, complete with boomerangs, bombs and puzzles
Pros: Great old-school gaming, interesting progression, deep world
Cons: Graphics may not be for everyone, very repetitive music