Outside of obtaining the branding, there’s little else Silicon Studio could’ve done to make 3D Dot Game Heroes more of a Zelda game. This is a classic 2D Zelda game through and through, although I’m hesitant to call it a clone as that implies a derisive reaction and I truly dig this game. The developer’s love for Japanese RPGs from the 1980s/1990s exudes in the innumerable references and qualities this game shares with the genre. The polish applied is evident on all fronts, from the gameplay and side quests to the visuals and audio. It’s easy to tell this was a passion project for the studio and they delivered a quality video game in turn.
In a quest to save Dotnia Kingdom, players control a preset character with lightly nuanced class differences. Or, players can create their own avatar, customizing them down to specific animations. This is seriously cool but not my cup of tea. I generally chose a traditional hero character but did rotate my avatar out to experience the different classes. Every time the game is loaded from a previous save, players have the option of switching their character. Since the protagonist is silent and the story is minimal I never found myself getting tied down to one character or a particular class, not that either was impactful.
Regardless of who, or what, I was playing as, the kingdom needed saving. That entailed recovering magical orbs hidden deep within caves and dungeons. With these magical orbs, the Sages of the land would be able to grant the hero greater magical power. Eventually my avatar would have enough power to defeat the Dark King Onyx and the Dark Bishop Fuelle and save Dotnia from their clutches. The caves and dungeons I explored were designed in the vein of those from The Legend of Zelda. They were chockfull of single screen rooms and navigating to their depths required adeptness at combat and puzzle solving.
As in The Legend of Zelda, the dungeons I traversed in this game were often designed around a recently discovered weapon, tool, or concept. Later dungeons were especially complex, requiring upwards of an hour and a half to complete. The difficulty ramped up nicely creating an enjoyable challenge; rarely did the game devolve into maddening frustration. There were moments of that to be sure, but isolated to the instances of my trophy-hunting. The trophies that caused me the most immediate ire related to beating bosses without taking damage. They were massive, gorgeously rendered, and generally fun to topple. Each one presented a different challenge that forced me to adapt with varying techniques, much like the fodder enemies strewn about Dotnia.
The overworld was divided into climatic regions typical of most world-encompassing role-playing games. Deserts, forests, and plains were present, accompanied by towns, townsfolk, and many enemies and obstacles. Navigation was often limited by key tools or magical abilities that were plundered from the dungeons. Towns were well populated and frequently, NPCs sent me on fetch quests. Most required me to search Dotnia for a specific item or NPC in return for a health upgrade or other beneficial reward. I found these to be a fun distraction and relished the opportunity to “check off” one more objective. There was also a bevy of swords to obtain, most being comically large with others just being comical. My use didn’t deviate much from the one or two favorites I came across. Fetch quests and collectable swords weren’t the only distractions in Dotnia Kingdom however.
Littered throughout the towns of Dotnia were NPCs offering minigames to play. Three minigames were available although there were multiple stages for each. The first I encountered was Dash Circuit. Controlling the hero, I ran around a course, a racetrack of sorts, attempting to finish a few laps as quickly as possible. The longer my avatar avoided contact with an object, the faster he went. My input needed to be very precise and I found using the directional buttons was the best option. Although I enjoyed the first track, the ensuing ones were too difficult for me. Blockout was the second minigame I came across and it was essentially Arkanoid. My objective was to keep an always moving ball in play and destroy all blocks on the game field. Power ups and tougher stages livened up the experience although this was the minigame I played the least. Finally there was Block Defense. This was an impressively fleshed out and fun to play tower defense game. Seriously, this is something they could’ve broke out and sold as DLC or even as a standalone budget digital title. With little competition, this was my favorite and inarguably the best of the bunch.
I can’t write about this game and not mention its stunning audio/visual qualities. The composers followed the developers’ lead and found inspiration in the classic RPGs of yesteryear. For real, most of the tracks are sound-alike versions of songs from The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest, and more. The soundtrack blends chiptune sounds and orchestral arrangements to great effect; a perfect sound to match the spirit of the game. As successful as the soundtrack is in blending old and new, the visuals may be the best example of this ethos. Visually, the game makes use of voxels to present a 2D world brought to life in 3D. Many of the NPCs make reference to this, proclaiming how great it is to live in 3D. It’s really something to see this game in motion (particularly the nearly blinding water effects) and that’s in part what drove me to continue playing it after my friend and I popped it in on a whim. Well, that and the fact that it’s a well-made and fun to play game.
3D Dot Game Heroes may be the greatest video game homage I’ve played. Essentially a classic Zelda game, Silicon Studio emulated everything from general game design and progression to specific items. It’s a formula that works and the twenty hours I spent with the game flew by. I was driven not only by the challenge and sense of satisfaction provided from core progression but also by the myriad of distractions available to me. Whether I was distracted by monotonous, yet fulfilling, fetch quests or a new level in a minigame, I rarely felt as if my time was being wasted. The superb audio/visual qualities didn’t hurt either; in fact, I sought out the soundtrack upon completion and still have it in rotation. Considering all these aspects and more, it’s clear to me that Silicon Studio released something more than just a great homage with 3D Dot Game Heroes, they put out a damn fine game in its own right.