Review: Only you can save Dotnia from peril!
I'd been following the development of 3D Dot Game Heroes for quite some time, and I was thrilled to be involved in a web demo with Atlus a few months ago. I wrote an article in which I said several times that I hoped the game would live up to the retro feelings it was exuding from every pixel. Did developers Silicon Studios and From Software succeed at what they were going for? Absolutely.
The game starts out as a very typical RPG ? there was once a darkness in the land, and a hero who vanquished it. The evil has now returned, generations later, and the descendant of the hero ? that's you ? has to go forth and save the world. It all sounds pretty familiar, sure, but the developers have woven a story that is at once original and irreverent ? what they've given us isn't theft, but homage. The genre itself seems to come to life here ? it's not just a rip-off of a retro game. The game is rife with obvious references to many games, including, of course, Zelda. ?It's dangerous to go alone!? made me chuckle ? as it does every time I see it in any kind of Internet meme ? and another one that happened early on said, ?The door leading into the temple is locked. There must be a hidden gimmick here somewhere?? But by far one of my favorite retro references was when I found a dead body, and I was prompted to read the writing on the wall: ?Hero needs food badly.? He shouldn't have shot the food, then!
All joking aside, 3D Dot Game Heroes is far from being just a retro clone. This game is old school RPGs all dumped into a blender, mixed on the ?Awesome? setting, poured into a frosty mug, and enjoyed on a nostalgic afternoon. But it's so much more in addition to that ? it's obvious that the team at From Software had a lot of fun with this game. There are many references to their own games as well ? Demon's Souls especially! ? that made me chuckle. ?I have this demons game ? it's very hard!? one character touts early on. And after beating one of the temples, another character informs you that ?the true 3D Dot Game Heroes starts here.? In From Cave (ha, get it?), you can recommend someone's message on the floor, and you can also obtain a soul. This same locale is host to a series of events, culminating in an Armored Core reference.
The gameplay itself is quite charming. I was intimidated by the character creator, so I went with the typical Hero character, ?Frum,? who I already adored. The sword mechanics are very easy to get the hang of, but it can be difficult to master exactly how to swing it to catch those pesky monsters, specifically in the temples (and especially the two types of knights). Full health means fully extended sword, something that ? even after nearly 24 hours of gameplay ? never got old for me. You can also upgrade these weapons at the blacksmith in Raejack Village, improving them by lengthening, widening, and strengthening them. Swords ? and there are many ? can be found in caves, through trades and other sequences, by winning minigames, and through a series of events surrounding the Small Blocks. There are also a lot of items ? the extremely useful wire rod, a boomerang, bombs, and, of course, several shields. Some items ? such as the ribbon ? are obvious references to other games, while other items ? like the Rare Fish sword, which is a giant fish that swings out from your character ? are original and hilarious.
The gameplay never got tedious for me. The learning curve on the swords and items was not steep, and I got out of more than one slippery situation by dashing. Following clues, traveling from towns to temples, and embarking on sidequests are all things I revel in. Some of the temples ? especially the very last one ? had aspects that could be frustrating, but for the most part, the game centered around learning how to defeat monsters quickly, utilizing weapons and items properly, paying attention to what people said in various towns, and memorizing paths in temples to maximize victory. If all of that sounds like a familiar recipe for an RPG, that's because it is ? yet the game is refreshingly challenging in a way I never expected. My RPG muscles stretched in a way they haven't in a long time, and I welcomed and embraced the feeling.
How did I know it was a game like those I'd played as a child? Well, for starters, I lost all track of time every time I started it up. More than once, I stayed up far into the night, and once, I played for so long that day turned into night, and I barely noticed. Secondly, I have nice, well-developed calluses on my thumbs all over again. Those can be commonplace occurrences in the world of the gamer, true. But it's really the third reason that stands out ? much like the games of yesteryear, many events and items can only be found through luck, persistence, or word of mouth. For example ? looking for Sir Signe's signposts all over Dotnia can be fun (and quite rewarding). To find one sign, you must track it down and read it, then strike a strange-looking rock beside it 256 times...and then read the sign again, as it changes after you destroy the rock. The game is littered with events such as these. Before, we got our parents' permission to call a toll-free number to find out how to work our way through issues in games; now, we have our good friend, the Internet. I have to admit, though ? I'd have purchased a guide if it came with this game. And I'd have bought them for the first two Zelda games if they came out back then, too.
Beating the game gives you New Game+, allowing your game to continue with some of the items still in your inventory. It also unlocks From Mode, the hardest mode in the game, and playing that allows you to unlock the Spelunker character. This mode can be unforgiving ? one hit from any monster kills you instantly. The music and animations ? as well as the idea behind it ? are all modeled after the old Atari game by the same name. I'm not surprised by these continuations of the game, but I am a bit daunted by them.
Both the graphics and the music harken back to a simpler time, yet they were anything but plain. Each monster ? especially the temple bosses ? was rendered artfully and lovingly. The end boss was especially remarkable, and his music was like 8-bit Dio (RIP). Using a candle or a lamp in dark rooms in temples created a soothing light, setting the perfect ambiance for killing some Magi. And the small things ? the way your character sparkles when he picks up an apple, or how the monsters explode into pixels that bounce all over the screen, or the way the shiny floors in the temples enhance the Lego-like walls ? added up to create a very attractive game. The only bad thing in the whole game surfaced here, however ? when too much happened on the screen, the frame rate dropped, which isn't a big deal?unless you end up in a pit, or with a trap going off right in your face. This didn't happen more than a handful of times, thankfully. The music, too, was phenomenal ? each area of the map had its own soundtrack, every one appropriate and fittingly nostalgic. I'm surprised a soundtrack hasn't been announced yet for the game.
As I mentioned, the game took me just under 24 hours to complete, but don't let that scare you away. 3D Dot Game Heroes has suitable options for everyone ? if you aren't into long games, it can be easily beaten in 12 hours or less. If you're a completionist, you're looking at upwards of 25 hours or more. I would have logged a lot more hours if I had paid more attention to the mini-games. They were fun, but I was so eager to find out more about the story that I barely spent any time playing them. There are three in all ? Blockout, Block Defense, and Super Dash Circuit. Blockout is similar to the old arcade game Breakout ? you use your sword and shield to rebound a moving ball against a collection of blocks to break them. Block Defense is a tower defense game, like Q-Games' Pixeljunk Monsters or that adorable DS game from Southpeak, Ninjatown. You must defend a path against some very familiar monsters. In Super Dash Circuit, you get to show off your dashing skills. Each mini-game offers rewards for completing the various levels ? and some of these items are necessary for trophies, so completionists will definitely want to get practice in here.
The character editor was overwhelming at first, mostly because ? I'll admit it ? I'm not terribly creative. After beating the game, I went back and fiddled with it, and made a fully moving character in just a few minutes. The creator is very simple to use, allowing you to build with single pixels or entire blocks. It is truly a situation in which you can create anything you can imagine.
Other adorable touches dot the landscape of the game. The sound of the text as it's typed out is reminiscent of so many of the older games. Characters ask you questions and replying the opposite of what they expect yields humorous results. A joyous ?Life Up Get!? is pronounced whenever you find a Life bar extender (with like results for Magic). Occasional wall-bombing ends in a sharp reprimand ? ?you blew a hole in my house!? ? and your gol, the monetary value in the game, is depleted. (Frankly, I think the reprimand is warranted ? it's not nice to break into people's houses and steal their treasure. Am I right?) The ?Developer's Cave? ? not to be confused with From Cave! ? is full of quirky details and comments from the creators of the game. And I know I mentioned this in my preview, but it's so cool, I've got to say it again ? the only way to fill the Bestiary with monsters is to hit them with the book itself. You can even book the bosses, but don't make any plans ? some take upwards of 70 hits (that's hits that count, not just random hits) to get them in your tome.