If nostalgia helps to fuel the passion for the medium of video games (and from an industry standpoint, it appears to be a worthwhile pursuit), then 3D Dot Game Heroes is a fervent mash note to gamers hoping to reconnect with some past relationship. The game feels both familiar and alien, a facade of a childhood home with its blueprints ingrained in some forgotten recess of the mind. Those who grew up playing The Legend of Zelda, from which Heroes borrows heavily, may find themselves offended at first, then perplexed by their own faint smiles moments later. Is Heroes an homage? An unofficial sequel? A pastiche? What exactly were the intentions of the developer? No matter. Those hypnotized by the 8- and 16-bit action RPGs from decades ago will find their muscle memory bubbling to the surface again, and their childhood clocks resetting. Those not entranced by that idea—or at least willing to accept it—may find Heroes nothing more than a fleeting, frustrating novelty.
In Heroes, the player assumes the control of the descendant of an ancient hero in the land of Dotnia, a kingdom recently forced to upgrade to three dimensions in order to retain its relevance. It’s a delightfully clever premise, but the narrative skeleton is old-school Zelda through and through: Traverse a large and varied landscape, gathering new items and abilities from self-contained dungeons that become progressively harder and more complicated as your hero fights to save the world from potentially Earth-destroying (and most definitely stock) dark forces. Clearly, the emphasis is on character development through gameplay instead of plot, as the hero can be swapped out for a multitude of other models at any time, ranging from the bland to the bizarre (and a simple character editor allows one to create and use a grid-based hero of their own design, a nice touch). Gamers looking for an engaging story or politically charged setting need to keep right on drivin’. But anyone who has played the original Zelda and its many clones knows that it isn’t really about the story, but rather the satisfying feeling of trailblazing, familiarizing themselves with each new screen and poking through every nook and cranny until one forms an almost symbiotic bond with the game’s world and can navigate by visual landmark alone. The Legend of Zelda perfected this genre (blending character leveling and item management with real-time and immediate swordplay), and Heroes is, well, a wholly faithful recreation of that design. It’s hard to demerit a game that strives for that kind of a bar and almost—almost—reaches it.
The biggest obstacle in the way of incontestable success is controlling your character within the charming and vibrant environments themselves (rendered, obviously, as three-dimensional block renditions of 8-bit pixel art). The player has no direct control of the camera, and the default angle can make some precise character and item placement hard to judge, which is especially trying in dungeons where the pitfalls and traps are numerous and punishing (several options for camera placement are available, including a more traditional and 2D-like overhead view, but these are only accessible through the pause menu and cannot be changed on the fly). Likewise, sword fighting with your hero requires a slow adjustment period; a “spin-slash” move, for instance, is a crucial technique for defeating some of the more aggressive enemies in the game, but this is awkwardly performed by rotating the analog stick within a short time-frame during a button-press, lacking the fluidity of the quintessential charge-and-release mechanic of A Link to the Past. Thankfully, the variety of swords that you can collect and upgrade with different attributes—such as lengthening a weapon to the point where it can fill the entire screen when the player has full health—makes the majority of combat fun and robust. This emphasis on spatial relationships between player and enemy feels right and natural in a 3D re-imagining of a 2D action game.
Also of particular note is the dialogue, which is written with so many self-referential nods and winks to other vintage video games I was worried that a forum group had gotten to my review copy before I did. The jokes range from barely indirect quotations from Zelda and other Nintendo games to non-existent gameplay options from other RPG franchises to references from Demon’s Souls, From Software’s previous title, an intimidating dungeon-crawler released last year for the PS3. While these various instances of meta humor are well written, I’m not quite sure which audience they are intended for; those who aren’t already exhaustively familiar with the inside jokes aren’t going to understand any of it, and if someone is already exhaustively familiar with them, then how can they come across as anything other than stale?
Yet I caught myself smiling and enjoying myself many times throughout Heroes, as if my inner child had reawakened and was gently reminding me of the many details that should resonate with any retro gamer worth his or her salt: striking an innocent chicken and eventually being punished for it; blowing open hidden caves with bombs; paying money for vaguely worded information that may or may not be useful; and roundabout fetch quests for collectibles and weapons, completely arbitrary but addicting for completionists who want to fill out their inventory screens. In addition, three varying sub-games (one in the vein of the “Tower Defense” genre, one a skill based racing game, and the last modeled after Breakout) can be accessed at various points in the game, or they cannot be accessed. I don’t think that they’re there for any reason other than they can be there, so they are, and if one finds enjoyment with them, then all the better. It’s a philosophy shared mostly by older games than modern ones striving for congruous “interactive experiences,” and it’s refreshing to see it implemented so plainly and freely here.
So, is 3D Dot Game Heroes a blatant copy of Zelda, or something more? The wonderful thing about the game is that it doesn’t seem distracted with or intent on distancing itself from its roots, so debating whether it should be something more or different is irrelevant (it knows what it is and isn’t ashamed of acknowledging that). Heroes does feature a unique visual presentation and an irreverent style that isn’t common in many other current-gen titles, but unfortunately a crucial element that made those original titles so pleasurable in the first place—fluid play control—comes up a little short. Still, with its budget price, 3D Dot Games Heroes proves to be worthwhile excursion into the veteran gamer’s memory, for though Silicon Studio’s love letter to Zelda features some less than stellar penmanship in comparison, at least it was written in earnest, and that is commendable.