Review: 3D Dot Game Heroes
Ahh, classic 8- and 16-bit days, how I remember you fondly. Remember The Legend of Zelda? I have a lot of fond memories of that game, as well as many other games from that time period. This feeling of nostalgia is exactly what you will feel when playing From Software’s 3D Dot Game Heroes, lovingly localized for those of us in North America by good ol’ Atlus.
I have been looking forward to this PS3 exclusive for quite some time – I read all the news I could find about it, followed the press releases from Atlus religiously and even attended a live online demo of the game a few months back. Needless to say, I was excited to finally receive a review product. With all the hype built up in my mind and the inevitable feelings of nostalgia that would overtake me, you’re probably wondering how I felt about the game. Ultimately, I’m a bit torn, and I’ll tell you why.
3D Dot Game Heroes is a game designed from the ground up to return you to those days of pixilated gaming goodness. The music, the atmosphere, the characters, the story, the animations – they all point to that. While that is all fine and good, this is 2010, folks. Believe it or not, not everything we remember from gaming during that time period or everything that makes us feel nostalgic, makes for good game play mechanics. I absolutely loved the visual and audio presentation, however the game was severely hurt, in my mind, by the clunky game play and annoying trial-and-error puzzles that will stop you in your tracks until you figure it out.
Let’s start from the beginning, though – the story. Legend tells us of Dark King Onyx, who stole these six fancy magical orbs and thus brought about darkness to the kingdom of Dotnia. Get it? DOTnia? 3D DOT Game Heroes? Ok, let’s continue. When this happened, a hero made his presence known and stood up against this Dark King, using his legendary sword to help seal this bad guy away. You play as the “grandchild” of the hero who sealed darkness away, and, when Dotnia is threatened once again with bad people going after the six orbs, you must find your forbearer’s legendary sword and take up arms once again to save the kingdom.
When Onyx was defeated the first time, peace and harmony came to the land, so the King of Dotnia declared that he was tired of boring old 2D pixels and mandated that the world be turned into a 3D environment, which is what we see in the game play of 3D Dot Game Heroes. I did think that was a rather humorous event that you see captured on-screen during the intro to the game.
The story, while simple, is reminiscent of those of times past, it fuses together the best of both the old and the new, especially with the whole 2D/3D change built right into it. Perhaps it is mirroring what happened in the real gaming industry after that 16-bit generation of consoles.
Once you create a new game, you’re given the low down on the story, then you are allowed to choose your on-screen avatar, which you will play as throughout the game. There is a hot mess of pre-made 3D sprites you can choose from – everything from your standard knights in shining armor, to shark fins, to cars and tanks. You name it, there is probably something already made that you will like. But, taking things a step further, if none of those tickle your fancy, you can create your own character to use in the game with a rather robust 3D character creation tool. From the moment I saw this in previews and videos, it seemed to me a lot like building with LEGOs, and that isn’t far from the truth. Once I got my hands on the character creation tools, that is exactly what it felt like.
However, I’m not a creative person. I played around with the tools given to us there for about an hour or so, then decided I failed at life and moved on. I picked my character from among the pre-made models. I ended up playing my first session with that character, quickly deciding I didn’t like it. “Ugh!” I thought. “Now I’ll be stuck with this character, which I don’t like, for the rest of the game!” How surprised I was to see, the next time I loaded my game, that it gives you the option to choose a new character if you so desire. Brownie points, indeed!
The very first things you’ll notice while wandering around the Kingdom of Dotnia, is that the visuals are pretty awesome. The 3D blocks are rendered in a way that looks current, but gives you that old-school vibe the entire time. The water effects are also shiny. Shiny, shiny water. The animations of the enemies and your character look initially rather stiff, however I do believe they were going for this “8-bit animation” look, which is one thing that I actually didn’t mind, and I felt it added to the overall experience.
There are towns, inns and shops scattered all over Dotnia. Some are grouped together in a proper manner, some are all by their lonesome. The varied environments are interesting and fun to explore. What I also really enjoyed – and this is just a little touch, but it makes a big difference – is when you emerge from a cave, everything seems to all run together for a moment, and the lighting is very bright. But it quickly fades into the colorful, sharp, normal visuals. This seems to simulate what you would be experiencing in the real world if you came out of a dark space into the bright, sunny outdoors. I know, as gamers, that is something we rarely experience, so why not put it into a game so we can at least see the virtual sunlight, right?
Gawd, people, that was a joke. Put away the pitchforks.
What I also enjoyed about the game was the wild ride the music took me on in my mind. From the audio effects to the sweeping musical scores, it all brings me back to my childhood. While the music seems a lot more than just your typical 8-bit MIDI sounds, it is composed in such a way that it brings you back to that era and wraps you in its warm, snuggly embrace. Remember back before you had a mortgage, a car payment, a job and tons of bills to worry about? Yeah, that is where it carried me. If only I could stay there a bit longer.
As I alluded to at the top of the review, many of the things I had issues with here revolve around game play mechanics and other odds-and-ends that, in my mind, regardless of the nostalgia, should not be here. That isn’t to say I disliked everything about the game play itself. You, as the new savior of Dotnia, end up finding the legendary sword that your grandfather used. While you are at full health, this sword is huge. No, huge would be an understatement. This sword is e-freaking-normous. It spans half the screen…but only when you’re at full health. As you health degrades, so does the size of your sword. A correlation to real life? I’ll let you decide, because you’ll get no comment from me. This ultimately gives you incentives to keep your health full, which isn’t particularly hard to do, as enemies routinely drop apples, which restore health.
Now, I have a couple issues with the sword, as awesomely huge as it is. First, you can swing the thing around 180 degrees to start with (with upgrades to increase the rotation later on). However, it is often difficult to do so with the left stick on the DualShock 3 controller. So many times I was surrounded by enemies, then when I go to swing the sword around, it doesn’t react and I get mauled to death in the most horrible fashion. Have you ever had a killer rabbit go for your jugular? No? Well I have and it is all the fault of this stupid legendary sword.
Secondly, the thing is as wide as a Montana horizon. While there are objects in the environment that you can chop down with it, such as smaller shrubs and the like, there are even more that the sword won’t penetrate. So, when you attempt to hack at an enemy anywhere near an immovable object, the sword will not extend past it, creating some very odd “collision detection fail” moments, followed quickly by the aforementioned mauling.
Now, if you combine these issues, you get into situations where the controls are so sluggish and/or the sword just won’t do what you think it will, that frustration may set in quickly. Too quickly, for my tastes, as I had these issues from the get-go.
The swords you get aren’t the only weapons at your disposal (although it is the best, and primary, device to hack enemies into pixilated bits). You will also acquire boomerangs, bows, bombs and various magic abilities throughout the course of the game. Some are discovered in dungeons, others can be purchased, still others are given to you by NPCs. You will also frequently need lanterns or candles to find your way in dark rooms. Luckily ammunition and lighting can be purchased in most, if not all, general stores, assuming you have the funds. You’ll also come across a grappling-hook-type device, called a Wire Rod. This allows you to reach various locations that are otherwise off-limits.
Spells are something else that are added to your arsenal a bit at a time as you work your way through the game. Not all spells are offensive or defensive, some allow you to figure out various puzzles, as well, when used in obvious locations. Obvious enough that there should be “Use spell here” signs in neon lights above the locations.
Your swords themselves can be upgraded over time, and all you need is the cash flow to support it. Money often drops from destroyed bushes and enemies, as well as found in chests. I even ran across one NPC that just immediately gave me 100 gold coins for speaking to him. All this can be used to purchase the aforementioned items, as well as upgrade your sword. You can upgrade its width, length, strength, swinging rotation and other things, but only to a certain point. In other words, you can’t necessarily max everything out and have the ultimate weapon, you have to decide how much of what improvements you would like for that specific weapon.
Another feature of titles similar to this back in the NES era was massive amounts of trial-and-error puzzles. I’ll tell you this right now, I hate them. Games with too much trial-and-error make me lose interest and, if I didn’t need to play this for review, unfortunately I probably would have given up on the game for a while at various parts. While some trial-and-error is alright, there comes a point when enough is enough, and puzzles are just too ridiculous and frustrating. 3D Dot Game Heroes seems to pass that point on too many occasions for my liking.
To give you one example, once you get a good bit into the game, you must travel through this desert region. This area is littered with these paths which I can only liken to moving sidewalks at airports. You can usually get on them from any point, however once you are on it, you can only get off where it drops you off at the end, and they only move in one direction. This desert is filled with them – FILLED. To start with, it was making me nauseated just watching them on screen and trying to figure out which one was going in which direction, because after so long it all blends together. But, even more to the issue, nine times out of ten you can’t see the end of the path – it is either off-screen or these paths are crammed too close together to get a decent idea of which direction it is going to send you and when. There is no guidance on how to get to the other side, there is no direction, nothing.
So, you start trying out various paths. Sometimes it puts you out at a place you don’t want to go, but it is easy to get back to the beginning. Sometimes it takes you someplace else you don’t want to go, but you have to traverse several map screens to get back to where you started. Sometimes it drops you off by a chest or a cave to check out, but once you’ve explored those options, you’re right back where you started. It is highly frustrating – too frustrating for me, in fact. I understand the need for there to be challenge to the game, but I think the game would have been challenging enough without these completely ridiculous puzzles. It is almost like artificial challenge, to some degree. “Hmmm, let’s make the player run around in circles for an hour trying to figure out how to get all these treasures and get to the place he needs to go to continue the story.” I swear there was a conversation like that amongst the developers. Prove me wrong.
That isn’t to say some puzzles weren’t done right, the game is full of those, as well, although they tend to be smaller, less harrowing affairs. In a few situations you have to figure out how to move various stone statues so as to create a path to a chest, or how to hit various switches to open a door. There are six orbs that you have to get, each having its own dungeon. And, within these dungeons you’ll find a lot of smaller puzzles. In fact, if you want to view it like this, the entire dungeon is one big puzzle, although rarely as frustrating as the one I described above in the desert.
I describe them that way because you always have to figure out how to open a door to proceed, or how to find a key to a certain door, or whatever. Luckily, once you get to the boss’s room in these dungeons, you’ll find a teleportation pad right outside so you can return to the entrance in case you need to leave and restock consumables or just take a breather. These also allow you to easily return to the boss’s room after defeating it the first time. There you will have a stone in the center that can be used to summon the boss once more, with a higher difficulty. I’m not sure if there are trophies associated with defeating any or all the bosses more than once, as the review copy supplied to me did not include trophy support.
If you get bored of the main quest, or playing around with the character builder, you can always choose to play one of the various mini-games that are available during the course of the game. Some open early on, some you have to wait a bit to play. They all are fun in their own way…at least for a little bit. However, I would have driven myself insane if I forced myself to play any of them for more than a few minutes at a time. I enjoyed the concept of the “brick breaker” game, however it was, at times, hard to control and manipulate in the ways I thought it would be. Although it is fun to use your sword to deflect the ball if you can’t get your actual character to the point he needs to be quickly enough.
By participating in these mini-games, you can win yourself some items, extra life or magic capacity and gold coins. Plus, they add some much-needed replay value and, of course, the ever-so-important time-waster element.
One last aspect that adds a lot of value to the game is the various side quests that villagers and random NPCs you meet will send you on. Just like your typical RPG, completing these quests will garner you rewards. This is one main way to get yourself more total life, but there are other rewards, as well. These quests also prompt you to explore some, if you aren’t naturally inclined to do so. (Although, if you spend any time with the game at all you’ll realize exploration is almost a requirement to find your way around.)
As an adventurer, you will inevitably eat dirt at one point or another. This game has a weird “home point” feature. By sleeping at an inn (or another location in the field via a tent) you make that location your new spawn point if you happen to die or when you restart the game, regardless of where you saved. This was a bit annoying to me, as I feel if you’re allowed to save anywhere (which you are), you should just start from that exact save point, except maybe if you’re inside a dungeon. What is the point of spending time traversing map segments again just to get back to some place that you were, when you had to save and exit the game to go to bed in the real world? It makes no sense.
I can’t finish this review without pointing out all the nods that the developers included to classic titles like Mega Man and Contra, as well as, of course, The Legend of Zelda, which is seems like the entire experience was molded after (although the devs may refute that statement). The various loading screens throughout the game depict a scene from the box art of various old-school titles, and you’ll be able to view these again once you’ve seen them once, in case you want to examine them in closer detail. While you can install the game to the PS3’s hard drive, this shortens the load times by a bit and, given the fun nature of the load screens themselves, I’d actually recommend against an installation and am glad From Software didn’t make that installation mandatory.
Ultimately, I can’t ignore the adoration I have for what 3D Dot Game Heroes attempts to do, even though it isn’t actually an original idea (see Half-Minute Hero, for starters). It does succeed greatly in bringing you back to that special place in the past that most of us older gamers often reminisce about, back in the NES and Sega Genesis days and before. There will always be a place in me for games that attempt to bring some of that look and feel back to the modern gaming world. But, going beyond that, it has to be a game that will appeal to present-day sensibilities, as well, and I can’t honestly say that this game worked in that regard. To sum up all my issues with it – it is way too frustrating in way too many places. Folks, this is different than the often-used example of Demon’s Souls (also a From Software title, by the way). That game was downright hard, but it kept you wanting more the entire time, so you worked at it to get to that place. 3D Dot Game Heroes works at frustrating you, for sure, but it isn’t hard and doesn’t quite reach the point of wanting to push through the frustration to see what is coming around the next corner or in the next dungeon.
I do recommend anyone who even remotely enjoyed the era of gaming this title attempts to bring you back to, to try it out – you’ll definitely enjoy it to some extent, just like I did. The game retails for only $40, which is a lot less than your typical current generation game, so it does offer a lot of value, even though the main story segment can be rather short going from start to finish without doing any of the side questing or mini-games. Given the amount of hype I built up for this title in my mind, did the game let me down? Not necessarily. However, a game can’t survive on nostalgia alone, and 3D Dot Game Heroes ultimately doesn’t do enough above and beyond that to fill my need of a great, must-have game.