Friday, May 14, 2010

PS3 Look - 3D Dot Game Heroes

Nostalgia is just one of those words that disgusts me. I can understand why it exists but all too often it's a crutch, an excuse, a reason for people to think negative thoughts about a game or in 3D Dot Game Heroes' case, game design that is held back. From the outset it's assured what players are going to get when they pick this game up. The most obvious comparison is the original Legend of Zelda, a top-down adventure that gives players an overworld to explore and a number of dungeons to complete. Along the way they discover weapons and tools that assist their progress and there are numerous puzzles to solve and secrets to find as well. The 3D in Dot Heroes is essentially a gimmick. While it lends it a bit of identity in terms of graphics and art direction the 3D has no bearing on the actual game and doesn't effect anything in terms of its design. Still it has its charm and gamers who have an appreciation for titles like Dragon Quest, the early Final Fantasy games, Zelda, and so on will find the references amusing.

The story is about as bland and predictable as the genre can get. A hero who is a descendant of a great hero must find six orbs that can be used to destroy the great evil. The game is broken up into multiple lands that carry similar themes to the dungeons they house. The player will traverse a volcano to reach the fire temple, cross bridges over lakes and rivers to enter the water temple, and so on. It's all pretty basic stuff so the player can focus on exploring.

Many of the secrets in this game are locked behind both keys and "keys". While keys are self-explanatory the "keys" are a different matter. The "keys" are the tools the hero finds in their adventure. The fire wand can burn down dead trees to access new areas, the hookshot can be used to travel over crevices via nearby posts, and so on. These items are keys because their usefulness is limited to a single task. The fire wand can't be used to burn away foes, the bow & arrow will hardly see any use beyond hitting targets that unlock secrets, and most of the spells are used for just a handful of tasks.

The sword is more often than not the player's sole necessity. By maintaining full health and investing in upgrades this sword can become quite the symbol of over-compensation. In fact after awhile the player's sword can clear out entire rooms of enemies with a single swing, making even the most complicated of enemy setups feel like a minor nuisance. Unfortunately this makes for a terribly unbalanced weapon. While a sword at full-health is absurdly powerful a sword at anything less leaves the player crippled. A weakened sword suffers a noticeable drop in length and girth which is fine but the lack of piercing really hurts it. What this means is that whenever the player hits a tree, a wall, or anything else their sword is cut short, making narrow combat areas an absolute chore.

The enemy designs are also lacking in creativity. These creatures wander around mindlessly until the player gets close and that's when they charge. Some might throw a projectile but otherwise it's all pretty one-dimensional. There are some foes that require a "key" like the wizards who can only be killed by reflecting their own magic or the knights as their shields are no match for bombs. Otherwise as long as the player's health is topped off the number of enemies is irrelevant as they will meet their end quickly and only the rare Blue Dragon offers up a fight. This is all with the consideration that the player has full health. At less than full health the battles don't become challenging they just become annoying, or worse they become frustrating. Essentially the combat in this game is summed up with pick your poison. One can either hold onto full health to breeze through fights as boredom sets in or they can allow half a heart or so and get frustrated when so much of the environment prevents the player from fighting effectively. Things would be much different if the controls and mechanics were a bit tighter but gamers used to running circles around enemies like the original Zelda will find that Dot Heroes just doesn't compare.

The dungeons start off decently enough. They're all broken up into room-by-room affairs like the original Zelda and there are keys of both varieties to find before reaching the end-boss. They're linear to a fault and the only side-paths usually lead to more keys or perhaps a reward like heart pieces or magic potions. It would have been several times more interesting if the dungeons had offered different paths to reach the end. Still for the most part they're alright and while the gimmicks they offer are trite(like blocks to push and switches to press) they're at least pleasant. Where this falls apart however is in the repetitiveness. These dungeons suffer quite a bit from the "copy-paste" school of design. Developers fearful that their game might be too short will take existing areas, change one or two things, and in effect create artificial length. By the time the player reaches the final dungeon they will have seen everything that aspect of the game has to offer, then over the course of the final dungeon they will see everything again. Some kind of inspiration would have done wonders here but for gamers that have played similar games this is all just going to be redundant and dull.

The bosses are more difficult than the regular foes at least, though again that difficulty is more geared towards annoyance and frustration than challenge. For example there is a Stone Golem who attacks with lasers. These lasers are telegraphed somewhat by the Golem's head turning but upon firing their effect is instant. The player can end up taking damage from this even as they are trying to maneuver around the boss. There's a dragon that's constantly spewing waves of fireballs and it takes a ridiculous number of hits before it finally dies. Even the most predictable of encounters take forever and there's just no reason for it. There are trophies rewarded for beating bosses without getting hit but this isn't rewarded for skill, it's rewarded for taking a more powerful sword to the boss and killing it in just a few hits.

The worst aspect of this game is that it takes all of the bosses, all of the bland dungeon designs, and wraps it up into the last couple hours of the game. There are at least a couple final battles to look forward to but by the time the player gets there they will be so sick of everything that they'll just want to get it all over with. Frustration and annoyance is a constant when it comes to the dungeons and combat but without those there's only boredom.

There are a number of mini-games that involve a variation of Breakout, using the dash ability to race around a track, and engaging in a tower defense game. Non-fans of Tower Defense need not apply but I found myself enjoying this particular mini-game. I wish I could say the same about the other two as they're just not any fun. Completionists are going to be in for a world of hurt if they pick this game up. In order to get all of the trophies these particular gamers must find everything and beat the game on a difficulty setting where one hit is instant death. Since the game seems so fond of frustration and annoyance over challenge it would take some impressive levels of patience for gamers to pull through this mode.

In the end it's not even a worthwhile adventure. Dot Heroes forgot a number of things that made the first Zelda a classic and one of the most important was its sense of discovery. There are no mysteries in Dot Heroes as there's always a clear indicator of what the player should do next. There are hints pointing out places that the player should go to via "locks" placed throughout the overworld. If the player sees a wooden post somewhere or a rock that can be blown up it's basically a signpost saying "Go here you'll find something!" and sure enough there's a heart piece, a weapon, or a dungeon to progress the game. All of the discoveries that the game doesn't give away are events and sequences that the player can easily miss as they involve mundane things like sleeping at the inn or talking to people at certain points. Since the alternative is boring as it would require talking to everyone after every dungeon completion that leaves reading through a guide, which will give away the locations of everything else in the game anyway.

When a game is overwhelmed by nostalgia it can only hope to be as good as the game it worships. Dot Heroes is enamored by all things Zelda and yet it just can't match it in quality. To me that's just embarrassing because The Legend of Zelda is over twenty years old. Dot Heroes is a serviceable game and it can be fun but it isn't even as good as the game it emulates. In fact I would go as far to say that even if the developers behind this game decided against making a Zelda-clone I'm doubtful that it would turn out any better. From the dungeons and game design balance alone it's clear that they still have a ways to go in crafting a solid game, let alone a good one. Sure there are plenty of amusing references that'll fly right over the heads of younger gamers and a rather distinct art-style but to me it's just a waste of money when I can get a better game out of a title I've played since I was a child.

Admittedly comparing this game to The Legend of Zelda is unfair in a way. I have to take into consideration that some might find Dot Heroes more appealing as unlike Zelda all of its secrets are pretty obvious and don't require the player to set fire to dozens of like-colored bushes to find a heart piece or bomb hundreds of similar rock walls to find a dungeon entrance. Times were a bit different then and I guess in some ways Dot Heroes and Zelda aren't compatible. Still all things considered there are ways in which Dot Heroes could have been a better game even under the shadow of its predecessor.

Game Rating - 2 out of 5

The dungeons are easily the weakest part of this game. There are a few original ideas in all of them but by the end they will be overused and lose all entertainment value. The framerate also tends to take a severe hit depending on the dungeon as well as any traps in the room and this sort of thing is simply intolerable. The unbalanced weapons could have been worked out by making the tools more useful as well as making the sword more viable even when the player isn't at full health. Exploration is nice and the world isn't huge to the point of every destination being miles apart from each other. In fact the overworld is the best designed part of this game.

My rating - 2 out of 5

Despite its faults I got a bit of enjoyment out of the game. The soundtrack is really good and while I can't say I'll spend any time with the character-creation it is a nice bonus. A dungeon-builder would have been far more interesting but apparently it didn't make the cut. I really doubt I'll ever play through this game again as my options at this point involve thumbing through a guide on my next play-through so I don't miss anything or moving on to the harder difficulty where everything does substantially more damage and there are more enemies in the dungeons. To me that doesn't sound like any fun since for one if I wanted a game where every little thing can kill me in one hit I can play a 2D shooter and for two this is not the kind of game that's designed well enough that people should be trying to play through it without getting hit. As far as I'm concerned I'm done with this game.


  1. Nice writeup. Will avoid it until the bargain bin at least.

  2. When I read bits like "The story is about as bland and predictable as the genre can get" in a review for 3D Dot Game Heroes, I realize that the reviewer is missing the point. These flaws are very much intentional and by design, as these were the same issues 8-bit era gamers struggled with as well.

  3. Indeed. There's a throwback here, but it isn't *exactly* focused on Zelda. It's a kitschy take on what amount to, more or less, a fictional Zelda clone. Think Retro Game Challenge and you start to get the idea.

    "From the outset it's assured what players are going to get when they pick this game up."

    Apparently it wasn't so obvious for you. :(

    The only thing I can kind of agree with is the use of the sword. The size of a full-health sword is comically fun, but I do think it hurt the core gameplay. The game did seem somewhat more difficult with a smaller sword and I wish it had just gone with that, forcing you to get up close and personal with enemies that could wallop you at that range. Instead, it really does just make the game easier. :\

  4. I don't consider the story being "bland and predictable" a complaint. It's pretty much the same storyline as a number of other similar titles and I'm perfectly alright with that.

    The creativity or lack thereof is the thing that bothers me though. It's one thing to pay tribute and serve as a throwback but some original ideas would have gone a long way.

    Aside from revamping the weapon system some more unique or creative uses for items would have helped the combat out immensely. Maybe the fire wand could be combined with arrows to create fire arrows or maybe with bombs one could get bomb arrows. Instead most of the time whenever I entered a dungeon room I used either the sword, some bombs if the knights were giving me trouble, or the reflect magic if I was in a room full of mages. There were just not enough options and when so much of the dungeons rely on aspects I've seen before(like the colored wall-switches straight out of Link to the Past) it feels like a retread that wasn't worth the time.

    Maybe I was expecting too much from this game and it resulted in disappointment. Still there's nothing I can do to change what I think of it.

    Glad others are enjoying it at least.