Review: 3D Dot Game Heroes

3ddotgameheroes_boxart_printres.jpg Retro reboots and homages are a hot trend in gaming right now, and I can’t think of any game that pays tribute to the 8-bit era better than Atlus USA, From Software and Silicon Studio’s upcoming PS3 exclusive, 3D Dot Game Heroes, scheduled to ship on May 11.

Although Atlus won’t come out and specifically say it, 3D Dot Game Heroes is unashamed in its mimicry of The Legend of Zelda. But make no mistake about it – 3D Dot Game Heroes is not some cheap Zelda knock-off like some of you may be thinking. Yes, it borrows liberally from the old NES classic; however, it does so in a way that is only meant to honor the legendary action/adventure classic, with a delightful sense of humor and an excellent use of parody that would surely make Shigeru Miyamoto blush and giggle. It also just so happens to be better than any Zelda game since A Link to the Past if you ask me.

As soon as you slide the 3D Dot Game Heroes Blu-ray disc into your PS3, the blatant Zelda influences come heavy and hard, and immediately an overwhelming state of nostalgic euphoria sets in. 3D Dot Game Heroes is, in a word, retro-gasmic!

You are the fabled hero chosen to save the kingdom of Dotnia – once a world of 2D sprites, now one of eye-popping 3D blockiness – from the clutches of the Dark Bishop, and to do so you must seek out the six magical orbs of the six legendary sages. And to find the orbs and save the kingdom from darkness, you must venture to the six ancient temples and brave the dangers lurking within, fairy companion Lee flying by your side.

This epic quest has you exploring a huge overworld map from a top-down isometric perspective, slashing familiar-looking baddies with a HUGE sword, hunting hidden treasures, cutting grass and cracking pots for coins, delving into treacherous, labyrinthine temple dungeons and dispatching nasty boss creatures just like action-adventures of the good ol’ old days. If you’ve played a Zelda game before, you know the routine: enter dungeon, find the map, find the latest gadget to help you overcome new puzzles and obstacles, find the key to unlock the boss door, slay the boss, collect the health bubble increase as a reward (apples represent health instead of hearts), grab the magical orb, move on to the next temple and repeat the process again, only with tougher enemies and trickier dungeon layouts to deal with.

Indeed, the Zelda formula is copied to a tee, but you shouldn’t think of that as a bad thing. Even though the game’s design isn’t original in the slightest, 3D Dot Game Heroes uses some sort of mystical power to make something so ancient feel fresh and exciting again. Parody is used throughout to both mock and honor old game design clichés, and a constant barrage of videogame and pop culture references – from NPC dialogue to the loading screens which recreate the box art of countless games of yore – turns the experience into an all-out celebration of gaming geekdom. The LEGO-esque 3D graphics and toy-like animations also bring the kingdom of Dotnia to life with a whimsical charm and distinct visual personality that too pokes fun at titles of the 8-bit age. And I certainly can’t forget to mention the music — the MIDI-style soundtrack is pure retro fire!

Amazingly, the vintage gameplay is every bit as fun today as it was back in the late 80’s. Certain design flaws do poke through – most notably a confusing lack of direction that often leaves you backtracking across the world map trying to figure out what to do and where to go next, usually without even a hint – but by and large the game does hold up to modern standards and plays beautifully, bolstered by effective controls, intelligent level design and a challenging-but-fair level of difficulty.

Silicon Studio also put its own spin on things to further pep up the gameplay with greater complexity and humor, including things like blacksmiths you can pay to “naturally enhance” (or upgrade) sword abilities, swords that stretch across the entire screen at max power, racing, tower defense and Arkanoid-style mini-games, and an intuitive character creation toolkit you can use to build your own hero…one pixel at a time. Dozens of pre-created characters are already on the disc for those who just want to pop the game in and go (everything from the standard hero to a GT car to a shark to Santa Claus to Rikimaru and Ayame from Tenchu), but with the editor you can create pretty much anything your imagination desires — even a single pixel can be Dotnia’s savior, the King does not discriminate. Supposedly once the game officially launches next month there will be a way for users to share created characters as well, but that’s not something I was able to test with my early review build.

Trophies weren’t available in the review copy either, but even without them, 3D Dot Game Heroes is loaded with replay value. On top of the aforementioned character editor and mini-games, which can easily eat up hours of your life on their own, tons of side quests (some of which are time sensitive) and hidden areas add substantial longevity. Rushing through, you can probably complete the quest in around 10 hours, but this is the type of game that can (and should) be savored for 20-30 hours, not counting the unlockable New Game+ mode and harder difficulty. Best part of all – the game’s price tag is set at an amazing $40. A budget price for what is far above a budget-quality game… now that’s a deal!

Proving that great game design philosophies never go out of style no matter their age, 3D Dot Game Heroes pays homage to the golden age of gaming in the most flattering way possible while at the same time delivering a gameplay experience that can stand toe to toe with the Hollywood production values, cutting-edge technology and intricate complexities found in games of the current generation. And, forgetting about all the Zelda comparisons for just a moment, it’s a damn great game in its own right. That’s no easy task to pull off, but Atlus, From Software and Silicon Studio have done it, and we as gamers should be very, very thankful.

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Pros:
+ Effectively pays homage to Zelda and other classic games
+ Celebrates gaming culture through parody and references
+ Blocky 3D graphics ooze charm
+ Awesome retro fantasy music
+ Fun character creator
+ Budget priced with immense replay value
+ Forget the Zelda comparison — it’s a great game on its own!

Cons:
– Lack of direction often leaves you confused on what to do next
– Heavy Zelda influence may rub some players the wrong way

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Silicon Studio
Release Date: 5/11/2010
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!