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Review: 3D Dot Game Heroes

6:01 PM on 04.19.2010 // Jim Sterling

The kingdom of Dotnia was once a happy, two-dimensional kingdom. That is, until the King decided that 2D was out of fashion, and declared that his realm would forever be rendered in 3D splendor. Things were wonderful until the Dark Bishop stole six magical orbs and plunged the land into chaos. Now it's up to our brave protagonist, a descendent of the Legendary Hero, to rescue Dotnia and put a stop to evil. 

Yes, it's essentially The Legend of Zelda. You can't escape the fact that 3D Dot Game Heroes is a shameless pilfering of Nintendo's iconic series. However, just what counts as plagiarism, especially when From Software and Silicon Studio isn't even trying to hide its "influences" and is practically shoving the Zelda references in our faces? 

The games industry is unique in that it's apparently fine to copy another game provided that the results are good. With that in mind, 3D Dot Game Heroes needs to be really good in order to make up for the wholesale copying on display. So, is Dot Game spectacular enough to be forgiven, or has it been found guilty of Grand Theft Videogame?

Read on as we review 3D Dot Game Heroes.

3D Dot Game Heroes (PS3)
Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Atlus
Released: May 11, 2010
MSRP: $39.99

As you know already, 3D Dot Game Heroes is The Legend of Zelda for your PS3. All the top-down adventuring from the original NES classic is essentially preserved. Players navigate an overworld, taking out spawning enemies and discovering dungeons in order to collect magic orbs. The dungeons are full of puzzles, traps and bosses, and brand new equipment that can help players find new areas on the world map. 

Even though the game is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, it does have to be said that 3D Dot Game Heroes dangerously walks the line between homage and simple theft. Items like the hook shot and even a number of enemies act and look as they do in the Zelda series. It cannot be argued that the game is incredibly nostalgic and much of the in-game dialog is funny, but a lot of the game threatens to stop being hilariously shameless and end up as just shameless. 

This isn't helped by the fact that the joke gets old after a few hours. Dot Game acts entirely like an NES adventure game, complete with a lack of guidance and a tendency to get lost in between dungeons. While this is cute at first, it wears incredibly thin after a while. When you try and preserve the flavor of an NES title, you have to be careful with what you update and what you leave in as an "old school" reference, and when it's taking an hour to find the next dungeon because the game only gives vague directions and it's easy to miss vital overworld routes, there's a pretty clear clue as what should have been modernized. Nostalgia and irritation are difficult to balance in videogames, and it's a balance that Dot Game doesn't always get right. 

Once in a dungeon, however, pacing becomes noticeably better. While simplicity is the name of the game, some of the later areas can be incredibly tricky. All sorts of puzzles and brutal enemies await players, and the boss battles can be very challenging and fun. A player armed with healing items won't find themselves as bruised and battered as they were in Demon's Souls, but 3DDHG can still put up a stiff resistance when its wants to. 

The one thing 3D Dot Game Heroes doesn't pilfer from Zelda is the array of unique swords that can be found during the course of the adventure (although it was pilfered from an online Flash game). While the swords boast different looks, statistics and abilities, they all have one thing in common -- when a player is at full health, they are ridiculous. Once strengthened at a blacksmith's, some of these swords can almost stretch out across the entire screen, decimating any enemies unfortunate enough to get in the way. Weapons can be widened, lengthened, and given unique powers such as energy beams, depending on their type. In short, the game's weapons are hilariously overpowered. 

You'd be forgiven for thinking that such ludicrously almighty weapons would make the game easy, but you'd be wrong. Swords are only big and strong while the player is at full health. If one enemy scores even the smallest hit, your weapon is reduced to a tiny and weak shadow of its former self. With such a small weapon, it becomes increasingly easier for opponents to get in close and land their attacks while the player desperately hopes that they can find enough red apples to restore their HP and get the sword back to full capacity. 

Unfortunately, part of the challenge comes from rather dodgy controls. Characters feel unwieldy to handle, and the fact that everything glides along the floor is somewhat disorienting. It can be difficult to turn and face an enemy in time, leading to more than a few cheap shots during the course of an adventure. The giant sword can also be a hindrance as much as a benefit. It won't go through solid objects, so it actually feels rather useless in confined dungeon areas. The Dash Move ability is also worth very little, as the sword will hit walls before the player has even moved a few inches. Again, the limited controls are forgivable up to a point, but over the course of several hours, patience wears thin and the game can grow increasingly frustrating. 

That's the biggest issue with 3D Dot Game Heroes. All of its charm and humor consistently fades away the longer the game continues. The "joke" of being exactly like Zelda is not one that can be sustained for hours on end, and while From Software/Silicon Studio could be commended for persevering with the gag, the fact that it stops being funny is difficult to ignore. 

3D Dot Game Heroes works best in small doses. Completing a dungeon (when you find one) a day is the best way to ensure that the game doesn't outstay its welcome. Despite being a lengthy game with plenty of hidden subquests, Dot Game is absolutely not suited to much more than an hour's play at any given time. Spending much longer than that makes the game's faults far too glaring, and batters one's tolerance for the controls and aimless wandering. 

As well as the main objective of recovering orbs from themed dungeons, there are a number of minigames strewn about Dotnia that, in true 3DDGH fashion, have been appropriated from other titles. They consist of Dash Circuit races, Arkanoid-style paddle games, and a tower defense mode called Block Defense. Of all the games, Block Defense is by far the most robust, but all of them generally feel rather throwaway and don't really have an impact on the game. Not to mention, all of these minigames have been done better elsewhere.

Fortunately, 3D Dot Game Heroes manages to keep itself in good graces with one of the best character customization systems ever created. To put it lightly, you can make your hero look like anything. Want to explore dungeons as a mech that towers several heads above the NPCs? Want to be represented by a shark's fin that appears to cut through the ground when it moves? Want to create Link just to make the game look even more like Zelda? All these and more can be created. Ironically, by restricting players with limited colors and simple, construction-block based character editing, Silicon Studio has managed to make a customization mode that feel deeper, richer, and more satisfying than even the most complex and varied of Bethesda's RPGs.

It's also incredibly easy to make a character from scratch or edit an existing one. Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of how LEGO works will be able to arrange blocks in order to create anything they imagine. So long as they keep it relatively simple, there is no limit to what can be made, and in relatively short time to boot. For instance, I was able to create an Ekans in less than fifteen minutes, complete with wriggling tail and a tongue that sticks out when it attacks. Creative players could spend hours in the character edit screen, and may even find it more satisfying than the main campaign. 

Visually and musically, 3D Dot Game Heroes drips retro fluid that long time gamers will greedily lap up. Despite the blocky appearance of characters and environments, Dot Game looks beautiful in HD, with striking colors and adorable monsters littering the bright green lands. The game's soundtrack is also very catchy, and there are some great little tunes that make themselves incredibly difficult to forget. 

It's a shame that 3D Dot Game Heroes does not have the lasting power required in order to be truly special. As it stands, this homage/plagiarism to/of The Legend of Zelda is an enjoyable little adventure that will give PS3 owners the retro fix they need. Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, 3D Dot Game Heroes may have benefited more from being half the length and coming out as a digital title. It is still a good game that should most certainly be picked up by retroheads, but it will readily outstay its welcome and it'll take a lot of patience and more than a few days of having nothing better to do in order to stick with the game for too long. 

7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

Jim Sterling, Former Reviews Editor
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