Version tested: PlayStation 3
The two-dimensional RPG kingdom of Dotnia has seen better times. Stories of an ancient Hero's miraculous exploits have long since passed into myth, and as a result nobody can be bothered tripping along to check out his magical sword in a nearby forest. The king, desperate to boost the flagging economy, therefore declares that everything must be upgraded to 3D to save the day.
However, in a classic case of mistaking correlation for causality, the king has foolishly overlooked the impact on tourism of all the angry bunnies, men with bows, spiders and other monsters rampaging around the countryside. Not to mention the fact that the evil Fuelle has taken control of the six legendary orbs, condemning Dotnia to a future of pain and suffering.
So it turns out this 3D thing isn't good for business. But it is good news for us, because it means 3D Dot Game Heroes looks unlike anything else you've seen. It's still a 2D top-down RPG in form and function, but everything in it has been built in 3D out of little "pixel" cubes, and then augmented by modern effects like shimmering bodies of water, lens flare when emerging from a cave, deep shadows and fancy reflections.
It's not quite as stunning or delightful an effect as something like Paper Mario, another Japanese RPG series that sought to distinguish itself through its unique visuals as well as its enterprising gameplay, nor as evocative as your first glimpse of Zelda's divisive Wind Waker approach (which I loved), but it's a strong foundation, and a pleasurable background perk.
Once it takes on a passive role after the introduction, however, you're left with another strong impression: 3D Dot Game Heroes is a massive Legend of Zelda rip-off. It's inevitable that games will be derived from other successful games, but this isn't Batman: Arkham Asylum building on lessons taught by Super Metroid and Metal Gear Solid; this is something else entirely.
You are a new Hero, descended from the old one, in a kingdom overrun by monsters, charged with a mythical quest to restore peace by recovering magical orbs and besting the evil Fuelle. You navigate a mazy overworld to reach dungeons, and each dungeon confers a new ability that allows you to solve puzzles there and, once you emerge, access new areas of the world map.
Completing a dungeon also earns you another heart container for your life bar, which you can also admire on your inventory page, which is full of bottles, bows and arrows and other memorable (or rather familiar) items. In between dungeons you can puzzle your way to treasure chests, which are full of gold and other goodies, hack down long grass to find coins, and wallop enemies with your sword, providing you can reach them with your four d-pad angles of attack.
You could still make a good, distinctive game out of that premise, as Nintendo has proven about 478 times with the Zelda series itself, and to be fair developer Silicon Studio has a crack at that. There are some good gags and diversionary antics to uncover - a tower defence game, which is good for 10 minutes' fun, and a "From Cave" populated by Demon's Souls and Armored Core in-jokes - a nod to the game's Japanese publisher, From Software.