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