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.
There are gameplay variations too - tablets that allow you to view hidden writing or reflect offensive magic, and the ability to upgrade your swords at blacksmiths, increasing blade width, length, strength and other attributes. When you're at full health your sword swing is comically gigantic, and by whipping the analogue stick as you strike you can tackle a circle of enemies.
But these distinctions, along with the graphics, are like doodles in the margins on a test paper where all the actual answers have been copied off the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma. Your first discovery, for example, is a pair of dash boots. Then you find a boomerang, which you use to hit switches or stun enemies. Then there's a grapple hook for pulling yourself across chasms toward particular wooden posts. Then there are bombs, for breaking through obvious cracks in walls.
Oh, and every discovery is celebrated with a little musical jingle, which is familiar in composition and tone, yet somehow nowhere near as catchy as the one it's ripping off from Legend of Zelda. Predictably, this ends up being 3D Dot Game Heroes' problem in microcosm: it looks very pretty, and some of the chiptune music is pleasant (I've got the desert overworld music stuck in my head at the moment), but otherwise it's a poor imitation.
Dungeon design, for example, is rough around the edges next to the intricate, ingenious and beguiling labyrinths that define the series 3D Dot Game Heroes seeks to emulate. The Zelda games would hint at the way to reach an out-of-the-way treasure chest, but they wouldn't just reward you for reaching it - they would be careful to deposit you in such a position as to continue exploring with a minimum of confusion and backtracking. 3D Dot Game Heroes gets the first bit right, but then makes it frustrating or boring to get back to where you left off.
Arbitrary punishment is a problem upstairs in the overworld, too. Deciding where to step onto the tangle of "quick sand" conveyor belts in the desert is tricky enough, for example, because the arrows that show which direction they point look very similar whether they're pointing up or down, or left or right. But this is compounded by an apparent delight in sending you back to the beginning of the maze when it's not your fault, all because you couldn't see far enough ahead.
The developers have incorporated a patch, released in Japan at the turn of the year, which enables a hard disk install option (something of a must), so that's good, but there also remain performance issues, like frame-rate drops in dungeon interiors, which all look very similar, ensuring the problem is noticeable throughout.
3D Dot Game Heroes does have its moments and fun features, like a cute little avatar editor (guess what I made), and the ability to take screenshots and save them to your PS3's photo gallery. But every one of the problems it suffers from elsewhere is something that Legend of Zelda, through its longevity and the massive expertise of its designers, has either long since overcome or never had to worry about anyway. More or less everything 3D Dot Game Heroes does well, meanwhile, is something Zelda has already done better.
6 / 10