3D Dot Game Heroes is a game that is very clear about its inspirations, and isn’t ashamed if anyone knows it. The game can best be described as a loving parody/homage, stuffed full of jokes and tributes, and is about as close as you’re going to get to Zelda on the PS3. It’s a shame, then, that it never quite reaches its potential.
You play as the descendent of a legendary hero, who must take arms against the evil bishop Fuelle, by collecting six orbs from the temples of the sages and use them to defeat Fuelle’s dark and ancient power. The game is split into the open world of the kingdom of Dotnia and the temples which serve as the game’s dungeons. As you complete the temples you gain new equipment, which not only lets you get to the next temple, but also lets you explore more of the world, so if you’re in no real rush to give Fuelle a thrashing, there’s still plenty to do.
If all that sounds familiar, well, it’s supposed to.
You can’t talk about 3D Dot Game Heroes and not mention Zelda. Every element has been crafted to evoke the original 8-bit Zelda, from the stylized graphics, to the music, to the game’s plot. It’s quite happy to poke fun at the foibles of its inspiration, and makes numerous jokes about the genre conventions and tropes of fantasy videogames, but the developers clearly have a lot of love for the games as well.
The problem is that by going out of its way to make you think of such a well-known and well-loved game, 3D Dot Game Heroes creates certain expectations, some of which it meets, and some of which it doesn’t. It does such a good job of hitting all the nostalgia cues, that when it goes off and does its own thing, it’s a little jarring. For example, you don’t need the items you find in the dungeons to fight the bosses, because the emphasis is on the game’s enormous swords, but it feels a trick has been missed somewhere.
As you’d expect, the dungeons are filled with monsters to fight, puzzles to figure out and traps to avoid, and often different elements will be combined into different challenges. The puzzles in 3D Dot Game Heroes aren’t going to really tax your brain all that much, as usually you just need to push blocks into the right positions or hit switches. You’re never going to be stumped, but it’s definitely satisfying to solve some of the more involved puzzles.
There isn’t a huge amount of variety however, and puzzles come in broad types, like holding down the right switches with blocks or freezing fires with ice magic so you can get past, and once you’ve figured out how to solve that type of puzzle, others like it are going to be pretty easy. There is some effort to spice things up, like pushing a block to use as cover from a dart trap while you shoot at a switch with your bow, but these moments are few and far between.
As simple as the puzzles are, the combat is simpler still. The emphasis is very much on hitting things with your sword, and you can upgrade the length, width and power of your blade, or give it special powers like being able to hit enemies through walls or shoot lasers, so as long as your health bar is full, your sword will be huge, and you’ll breeze through dungeons with very little risk to yourself. You can also use your sword to pick up items, and when you’re at full size, that’s an incredibly useful ability.
Should you take even a single point of damage however, your enormous blade goes away, and you’re back to the basic model. In theory, this is how the game is supposed to be played, but the difference is so great, it’s hard not to feel underpowered, especially when you lose basic abilities like being able to swing your sword rather than just stab. There’s plenty of variety though, as you can buy and find new swords, or get them from completing side quests, so if one sword isn’t working it’s a pretty simple matter to just switch to another. Not all the swords are entirely serious either and it’s hard not to smile when you’re whacking enemies with a huge fish.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with 3D Dot Game Heroes, but it puts too much effort into recreating the Zelda games and not enough into doing much new. Nostalgia will only take you so far sadly, and 3D Dot Game Heroes doesn’t have much else to offer. The gameplay and plot lack depth on purpose, because they’re aping a game nearly a quarter of a century old, without realizing that that isn’t anywhere near as charming in a new game as it is in a much-loved classic.
The Bottom Line: It’s a funny and charming little game, but it plays the retro card a little bit too much. A lot of the gameplay feels very dated in a modern game, and you can’t make the same allowances for age that you can with an actual retro title. There’s plenty to do, but it’s worth trying it before you make a more serious investment.
Recommendation: If you have fond memories of the original Zelda game, then there will be a lot in 3D Dot Game Heroes that will resonate with you, but if you’re not a fan, you might find it lacking.[rating=3]