As the age-old tale of a youngster who defeated the evil Dark King Onyx slips into legend, tourist numbers begin to drop in the quaint land of the Dotnia Kingdom. The economy needs a boost, and the King of the land has an idea that'll bring people flocking to the once bustling greens of Dotnia. The once sprite-based landscape will be given a breath of new life with a third dimension added — and thus begins the tale of 3D Dot Game Heroes.
With the forces of evil back once more in the now three dimensional land of Dotnia, a young child (incidentally the grandchild of the brave hero from legend) must rise-up in order to collect six orbs and seal the Dark King once more.
It's The Legend of Zelda. We really wanted to write this review without mentioning Nintendo's flagship franchise, but in honesty it would be injustice not to draw the comparison. From the mechanics, right down to the audio and visual style, 3D Dot Game Heroes is every inch the parody — almost to the point of downright theft. And in many ways, that's kind of genius.
Without doubt 3D Dot Game Heroes stands alongside the likes of flower and PixelJunk Eden with one of the most staunch visual styles on PlayStation 3. There's an obvious plastic sheen to it, with a strong presence of depth that delivers a world you can almost reach into and become a part of. It's beautiful. From the lapping water animations reflecting the sunshine, to the eye-catching green shrubbery of Dotnia's forests, 3D Dot Game Heroes is packed with personality. It's not just the artistic design of 3D Dot Game Heroes that is admirable though — the game's unique animation style really brings the world to life in an almost stop-motion like regard. See, despite 3D Dot Game Heroes' objects being rendered in the third dimension, their animation remains strictly sprite-like. It's a joy to behold, occasionally distracting from actual gameplay as you set to admiring the world around you.
Someone, somewhere, early on in the development process for 3D Dot Game Heroes was instructed, "What you need to is create a soundtrack that sounds exactly the same as The Legend Of Zelda's, without using the same notes, key or tempo." Somehow, that sound team achieved its aim, creating a soundtrack that couldn't sound any closer to The Legend Of Zelda's iconic score without straight-up copying it note for note. The ecstatic twinkling hit when you open a chest? Present. The satisfying clunk when you open a locked door? Check. The exciting jingle when you bomb a cracked wall and discover a secret passage? Uh-huh. Name the memorable Zelda instance and 3D Dot Game Heroes parodies it with loving reverence.
As in any memorable game of its genre, 3D Dot Game Heroes delivers some awesome boss fights. An early altercation has you going head on with a giant dragon-like creature. Hitting it on its head fails to do any kind of damage, but the flashing point at the end of its tail is literally inviting a swipe from your sword. You smack it with vigour and elate as the dragon gets smaller and angrier. You toss your boomerang to slow it down and land another hit — causing the dragon to fall and leave behind it a shiny new heart container, an object that will boost your survival chances in later dungeons. A neat trick in 3D Dot Game Heroes is the way you're able to respawn bosses once you've defeated them in order to encounter the fights at any point in the game. Why did Nintendo not think of this with Zelda?
As you'd expect, perusing the darkened rooms of 3D Dot Game Heroes' dungeons eventually results in the discovery of a new and essential weapon. Boomerang, bombs and bow are all delivered sequentially with earnest intent. It's a comical, if not predictable touch that perhaps toes the line of exactly what 3D Dot Game Heroes can get away with and leads to the dungeons being a tad tedious. That's not a slight against the combat however, with swordplay feeling excellent if a little picky in regards to direction. Here, Link's thrown sword is replaced by 3D Dot Game Heroes' ridiculously long sword, which just stretches out across the length of the screen until it hits a target — satisfyingly sending clumps of pixels flailing across the screen.
One of the most prominent features of 3D Dot Game Heroes is that there's a full character editor available from the get-go. This allows you to create your own pixelated protagonist out of coloured blocks. It can be pretty difficult to make something worthy of merit, but patient players should be able to come up with something neat. Those not so patient will be pleased to know that there's already a huge set of pre-made characters included with the game, so you won't need to spend five hours making something that looks half-decent. Sadly, there's no easy method of sharing creations short of uploading them to a website or emailing them to each other. While this is not an outright offensive method of getting things done, an online hub for sharing and downloading would not have gone a miss.
Perhaps 3D Dot Game Heroes' weakest element are the six dungeons you'll need to explore, which are decidedly flat and lack some of the imagination of Nintendo's puzzle design. Indeed, 3D Dot Game Heroes ticks all the boxes — treasure chests, switches, keys and boss rooms — but it lacks a lot of the genius of Nintendo's carefully considered design. 3D Dot Game Heroes is a little too open, a tad too obvious and a bit too short on ideas in this department to design something imaginative enough to sit in the memory. That's not to say the dungeons are outrageously bad. On the contrary, they're enjoyable and consistent with enough ideas to stop them being ruefully repetitive. But given 3D Dot Game Heroes' whole (and this is a compliment to the entirety of the game), they are the weakest link.
If you were the cynical type, you could argue that 3D Dot Game Heroes' obvious parody and lack of ideas result in a game lacking its own identity. It would be a fair criticism. Despite all of the game's flash in terms of presentation, 3D Dot Game Heroes does nothing you haven't seen before. Evidently, that's part of the joke — but as the same joke keeps playing some might feel a little bemused by 3D Dot Game Heroes refusal to mix things up instead of hitting the same notes. As such the game can feel a little monosyllabic. If you're incapable of having fun, that is.
A self-referential gem, 3D Dot Game Heroes is as earnest as it is ironic. It's brought to life by a stunning visual style and genuinely iconic design choices that are delivered with a wink and a nod via the game's outstandingly aware script. Gameplay-wise, the dungeon design can be a little flat, and the game's a little too self-aware to ever identify a personality of its own — but when that plays into the joke, it's a struggle to consider it an honest criticism.