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3D Dot Game Heroes
Score: 85%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Silicon Studio
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ Action/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:
3D Dot Game Heroes could be considered a "rip-off" of the original Legend of Zelda. You play as the descendant of a legendary hero who must use his sword and bag full of special items to navigate dungeons and seek out six sages to save the kingdom. So yeah... it sort of is like Zelda. There's no way to deny the game doesn't borrow heavily from NES-era games, but like last year's Retro Game Challenge, 3D Dot Game Heroes is really more homage than blatant rip-off.

If you take 3D Dot Game Heroes seriously, you're playing it wrong. Not two minutes into the game, you're introduced to a king who decides 2D is boring, transferring his 8-bit kingdom into a 3D 8-bit kingdom. How does it look? Awesome. The world is made up of tiny cubes, offering a not-quite-8-bit look. It's 3D, but still retains the sensibilities of NES games. While some of the self-referential elements don't go all the way, the visuals really push the game's appeal. Enemies explode into piles of cubes and there are nice touches like reflections. The two-frame animations also create a neat stop-motion effect.

Music is every bit as charming as the visuals. It's all chip-tune and right out of the NES era, but with a slightly modern twist.

Once again, if you take anything about 3D Dot Game Heroes seriously, you're doing it wrong. The game is soaked in callbacks and pop culture references. One cave will lead you to a character advising you its contents are "...a secret to everyone" while in another, you'll stumble across a group of game developers toiling away at a game they claim, "... isn't as hard as everyone says" (a reference to publisher From Software's previous PS3 outing, Demon's Souls). The problem is it doesn't retain this same sense of self-awareness throughout. Honestly, this is something that won't matter to a majority of people who pick the game up, but I figure if you're going to go for self-reference the way 3D Dot Game Heroes does, go all out.

You're given a sizeable world to explore filled with secrets. A large part of the game is built around exploration. Rather than guide you between dungeons in a linear fashion, you're given a general direction and blip on the map. Finding your way is up to you. It's a sense of freedom rarely seen in games, even in so-called "open world" ones. It's refreshing in an old school sort of way and also offers plenty to do. There's a lot to uncover in the kingdom. Villages hide side-quests that lead to new swords, life segments and shields... no journey ever goes unrewarded.

Although 3D Dot Game Heroes offers a lot to do, it's best played in short bursts rather than long marathon sessions. It's possible to fill out a couple of hours of play, but gameplay tends to drag the longer you go. It's not that dungeons are particularly bland, but there's a reason this level of complex simplicity isn't seen more. It's hard to sustain the same amount of motivational push required to get you through the adventure. The rewards are nice, but more than likely you'll end up sticking with the best shield you own and one or two swords rather than constantly switching, which I suspect is the idea behind the sizable collection of blades scattered throughout Dotnia.

When I first saw a demo of the game in action, I was skeptical of the difficulty. One of the catches to the multiple swords is their size. Link's sword launched laser-like bolts of energy when at full strength; you hero's blade grows to cover nearly a third of the screen. It's a massive tactical advantage, but one that is incredibly hard to hold on to for long. One swing can take out most enemies on the screen, though it usually isn't enough to kill them all. Some will always survive and manage to land a hit in the time it takes you to recover from one swing and roll into another. Some enemies, like mages, require special tactics to take down, proving that the size of your sword doesn't always count.

You'll also have to contend with various tricks, traps and general level layout. Dungeons aren't too complex, but some will push your navigation and logic skills pretty far. Some will really test your patience, requiring you to step out of the dungeon and search for some missing piece of the puzzle (usually an item) or at least take a break and gain some perspective.

Game Mechanics:
Every sword has its own attributes. Some take up whole sections of the screen, others are long but not wide and others shoot bolts of energy. There's a wide selection, though ultimately you're going to end up going with what you like over some tactical advantage. Lots of options are nice, but when the selection isn't very meaningful, it seems like overkill. Still, options are good and finding them all will keep you busy, even if just to scratch that completionist itch.

Outside gameplay, 3D Dot Game Heroes' more appealing aspect is the fully-realized character editor. Rather than playing as a fixed set of heroes, you can enter Edit Mode and build your own custom character block-by-block. The system is admittedly intimidating, but its amazing how much you can do with just a bunch of blocks. If you want to play through the game as an albino tree sloth (or in my case, Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees), you can do it. The only limits are your imagination. I'm sure we'll see a number of knock-off characters populating games about a month after the game hits, but I look forward to seeing what more creative artists are able to create with the toolset.

If you're not feeling particularly creative, there are nearly a dozen pre-built characters. These include unique characters as well as cameos from other From Software games and a few oddities like a tank and a sports car. It's even possible to edit the pre-built characters if you want to dip a toe in the character-creation process.

3D Dot Game Heroes isn't a wholly original experience, but it's appealing enough that anyone with a bend towards the nostalgic - especially Zelda - will want to add it to their collection.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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