3D Dot Game Heroes
FROM Software seems to have found its niche. While most of the gaming public probably recognizes them for the long-running Armored Core series, the studio has now gone out on a limb and tried restoring an old genre twice. Demon’s Souls was last year’s under-the-radar hit; a gorgeous retake on the classic dungeon crawler that reminded people how satisfying throwing controllers at the screen was. 3D Dot Game Heroes, while a totally different kind of game, follows a similar formula: take something old and try to make it new again. 3D Dot copies the best things The Legend of Zelda and its ilk had to offer back in the day. Does that style of gameplay hold up today?
Dotnia is in crisis. The king, realizing nobody cared for 2D worlds anymore, used the world-shaping Dark Orbs to turn everything into 3D – until the Dark King stole the orbs, used them to create a hideous plague, and hid them in dungeons across the land. Legend tells of a hero who will claim a magical sword and rise up to challenge the Dark King and recover the orbs.
Part of what makes 3D Dot so much fun is the presentation. Unlike Demon’s Souls and its straight-faced fantasy plot, 3D Dot wastes no time letting the player know what it is, breaking the fourth wall and dropping references left and right. The game is more than an homage to Zelda; it’s an outright imitation, and I mean that in the most loving way possible.
The player can move their hero around Dotnia at their will, hindered only by obstacles that require items to pass – blocks that need bombing, and so forth – and explore dungeons to challenge bosses, gather equipment, and of course, recover the orbs. A wide array of weapons will eventually be available, including a bow, boomerang, bombs, and of course, your magic sword. Much like a certain other adventure game that came out on the NES, this blade becomes more powerful when the main character is at full health, growing to huge sizes and dealing much more damage. There’s also a fairy that follows the hero around and points out the bleeding obvious, and generally sucks up to you like nobody’s business.
Still, as funny as all this sounds, there’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck when making a game like this. When the joke in a game is “look at these old mechanics!” things can often turn sour – especially when the joke involves pointing out how little fun or how antiquated something is. Mercifully, 3D Dot manages to avoid this pitfall. While the punchline is often “this style is old!”, it doesn’t cripple its actual gameplay.
It helps that there are features that don’t come from the classic Zelda sandbox. If everything had been copied over, things probably wouldn’t have been particularly fun – things have evolved since then, a fact that 3D Dot carefully observes. The length and size of the magic sword can be upgraded – and yes, the game gets that joke, before you point it out in the comments – and there’s also an addictive bestiary component, requiring the player to smack enemies around with an encyclopedia to add them to the compendium. There’s also a character editor that allows players to craft their own hero, which, thanks to the Lego-esque way things are built, is surprisingly easy and entertaining.
3D Dot really nails the idea that Dotnia is a 2D world that has been stretched into the third dimension, with jumpy, simple animations and blocky models. Again, 3D Dot avoids shooting itself in the foot by using modern techniques to enhance the visual experience. The lighting is quite something to look at in places, and there’s a sexy depth-of-field that makes the character models really pop. Enemies even explode into individual “pixels” that bounce around the screen when you kill them. This trend of carefully imitating the good parts of retro games mostly carries over into the sound design, too, although there are a few songs that are absolutely grating. It’s a perfect example of what the rest of the game manages to avoid: 30 second loops could get annoying in the early days, and they’re even more annoying now. Still, the things the game gets right far outweigh the things it doesn’t.
3D Dot Game Heroes is challenging, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as Demon’s Souls – but it really doesn’t need to be. The overall experience is relaxed and humorous, and the retro concept stays amusing for the whole ride. If you’re a fan of the original Zelda or one of the many other dungeon adventures that followed its footsteps, 3D Dot is a great way to experience nostalgia without reminding yourself of all the things that have changed for the better in gaming. It’s a loving homage that carefully picks out the mechanics that made classic games charming, without dumping all the problems of the early 90s onto your plate. 3D Dot Game Heroes is a great genre piece that manages to be good in modern terms, too.