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3D Dot Game Heroes (PlayStation 3) artwork

3D Dot Game Heroes (PlayStation 3) review


"The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time did many things well and earned itself a gold star in the gaming annals, but it made some changes that moved its franchise away from some of its core values and started it down what I would call "the wrong road." The move into the third dimension definitely could have gone a lot of differently than it did. What I like about 3D Dot Game Heroes is that it fearlessly explores one of those other directions. What I adore about the game is that it actually makes that revised direction work!"



For many reasons, I am thankful for the classics such as The Legend of Zelda and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. They filled my childhood with magic and they provided a formative entertainment experience that still weighs on my mind when I approach video games some twenty years later. Even the newer Zelda titles--now considered classics themselves--don't always compare favorably to those early releases. I had begun to believe that the early offerings were good enough to be considered untouchable. That was all before "the event," though. That was before I played 3D Dot Game Heroes.

Developed by people who understand what made those classics tick, 3D Dot Games Heroes is both an homage to its predecessors and a journey down the road not taken when Miyamoto and crew explored three-dimensional territory with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. That title did many things well and earned itself a gold star in the gaming annals, but it made some changes that moved its franchise away from some of its core values and started it down what I would call "the wrong road." The move into the third dimension definitely could have gone a lot of differently than it did. What I like about 3D Dot Game Heroes is that it fearlessly explores one of those other directions. What I adore about the game is that it actually makes that revised direction work!

Mostly, the new effort works because it doesn't forget the best of the old ideas. From The Legend of Zelda for NES, the developers at From Software took the haunting dungeons. The temples that you'll explore consist of many rooms linked together one screen at a time. The perspective shifts up, down, left or right and monsters pop into sight as you pass through each new doorway. You push blocks to access stairs and treasure, use candles to see when the rooms are too dark and dodge projectile-firing statues at the center of some rooms or rush out of the way of sliding floor traps. It feels very 8-bit.

From The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for Super Nintendo, though, the developers took enough additional points of dungeon design that the simple approach I discussed above doesn't feel archaic. There are multiple floors in many of the dungeons, for instance. You can reach lower floors by falling through weakened tiles or by descending staircases. Sometimes you'll have to flip switches on one floor to clear the path to an opening in the room above you. Only a Boss Key will grant you access to the guardian of a given temple. It's possible to clear an area without snagging every last treasure, too, though it's not recommended.

The game's entire design exhibits that curiously effective mix of restraint and creativity. You'll have a great time the whole way through, which makes it easier to appreciate the nods to classic games. A brutish monster who looks a lot like a Moblin implores you not to pass around what he's just told you because "It's a secret to everybody." You'll hear a reference to Superb Joe, who surely is related to the adventures 8-bit gamers cherished in Bionic Commando, and another one to Mega Man 2. Upon leaving the first temple, the game pauses for a Final Fantasy-esque tale of heroes, plus there are more Dragon Quest references (from most of the series, mind you, not just the first one) than one might care to shake a stick at. The references feel fantastic for someone like me who has played through and loved so many of those titles. Even if the dialog and load screen images don't make you smile, though, there's a lot to love because the game is put together so skillfully.

As I played, the one thought I had most often was that 3D Dot Game heroes feels like Zelda with the bad parts removed. Gone are those unfortunate days where the overworld was just a collection of dungeons bordering the central level hub that was Hyrule Field. In place of a featureless, grassy expanse or a practically lifeless ocean, you'll see a world with towering cliffs, boulders falling down mountain ledges, a graveyard possessed by ghouls, bridges leading over wide rivers and shifting desert sands. Without a map, you'd surely get lost in one of the most enchanting adventure game overworlds since the one featured in A Link to the Past, so the game provides a detailed map overlay on-screen and then challenges you to explore every nook and cranny in search of Life Shards, Small Blocks and hidden caves populated by memorable merchants or secret dungeons. The land of Dotnia is one that's worth savoring.

As you explore that world and seek out its furthest reaches, you'll surely be delighted by the weaponry that's available to make your trek go more smoothly. Of course there are a few swords that you can't help but use, but those are joined by secret ones that are only collected once you complete side quests. Each new blade can be upgraded to your liking. Want a powerful spear that stretches across the screen? You'll need to bring the Dog Food to a grumbling enemy near the top of a fiery volcano, then pay the blacksmith in Raejack Village to get to work with his hammer and anvil. Interested in a Bestiary that allows you to record precious data about the many monsters you encounter? You'll need to bring a ring to a girl in Ortego Village, one of several such outposts spread throughout an otherwise hostile world. If you're after every available Trophy, you'll be busy for a long, long while.

Dungeon crawling isn't the only way to pass the time in Dotnia, either. Some of the mini-games that you'll encounter are engaging pursuits all by themselves. The Block Defense game (think 'tower' instead of 'block') is fiendishly addictive, for instance. You can spend hours placing your defensive weaponry as you block enemy processions. There's also a Breakout clone, if you know where to look, or you can seek out some extremely challenging footraces. Even though the prizes for winning those mini-games aren't particularly significant, I spent hours going back to them.

Character customization also warrants a mention. You can choose from a slew of different characters at the start of the game--and then again each time you load a save file--or you can create one of your own using a robust editor that allows a person to build a hero one three-dimensional pixel at a time. I usually fail when it comes time to play around with such things, but I built a princess character and had her running around like a champion within a few short minutes. Others have recreated familiar characters from other epics and have brought them to life in Dotnia. The possibilities are nearly limitless.

No game is perfect, though. I racked my brain for a long while and I've finally settled on a few things that I figure may qualify as flaws. The first such flaw is the occasional linearity. You can't pull some of the crazy stuff that worked in the first Zelda game. There's no way to reach the end of the game with no sword, for instance, or to clear the seventh dungeon ahead of the first one. Another potential flaw is the lack of difficulty throughout most of the adventure. I addressed that quite successfully by refusing to utilize any potions until the very final battle. The game definitely gave me some trouble along the way when I adopted that policy. As for other potential flaws, I guess maybe some folks won't like the pixelated visuals. I can understand where they're coming from, but I adored the retro look. I expect that a lot of other people who were old enough to play the classics back in the day will feel the same rush of nostalgia that I did.

In the end, the complaints that I'd level against the game really only amount to so much nitpicking. For me, they're easily outweighed by a soundtrack so perfect that it ought to sport a halo. However you slice it, 3D Dot Game Heroes is an effective and frequently exemplary look at the golden age of gaming that has all of the polish it needs to stand proud among tomorrow's classics. I'll stop reviewing now, lest I get carried away.

I suppose it's already too late.

Rating: 10/10

honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 31, 2010)

Jason Venter founded HonestGamers in 1998, and since then has written hundreds of reviews as the site's editor-in-chief. He also is a prolific freelancer with game reviews, articles and fiction available around the Internet.

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Feedback

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Suskie posted May 31, 2010:

Developed by people who understand what made those classics tick, 3D Dot Games Heroes is both an homage to its predecessors and a journey down the road not taken when Miyamoto and crew explored three-dimensional territory with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. That title did many things well and earned itself a gold star in the gaming annals, but it made some changes that moved its franchise away from some of its core values and started it down what I would call "the wrong road."

You are dead to me.
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LowerStreetBlues posted May 31, 2010:

What's bad is how vague but sure to rile OoT fans it is: "some changes" to "core values" started it down the "wrong road?" Something concrete might actually identify an audience, but only people with a grudge will nod along with that sort of unidentifiable griping.
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honestgamer posted May 31, 2010:

The griping isn't unidentifiable, LowerStreetBlues, because it's identified within the review (a few paragraphs down). Hyrule Field was, is and always will be a massive stain on Ocarina of Time, which is otherwise virtually spotless (with the possible exception of Navi, at whom 3D Dot Game Heroes also makes a well-placed jab). In a single swipe, Ocarina of Time hacked away nearly half of what made Zelda great: an overworld that actually was a pleasure to explore. Only the combination of a host of new elements helped the series to recover from that blow, but it definitely marked the obvious start of a shift for the worse (one that explains a lot of the vague complaints that people voice about newer Zelda titles without really saying specifically what they're complaining about). I could have gone into that in even more depth than I did in the body of the review, but I was already over my desired word count as it was.

The review, like 3D Dot Game Heroes itself, is aimed at people who appreciated the sense of wonder and exploration that Zelda stood for pre-OoT.

One of the central points of the review is that 3D Dot Game Heroes goes back to the likes of A Link to the Past and from there evolves it in a different direction. I'm not just mentioning the Hyrule Field thing here in my response to the feedback, either. It was stated in the review. The reader didn't see red the minute I insinuated that Ocarina of Time and its successors were less than perfect can then reason that "Well, I never played Zelda for exploration or adventure," and it should be apparent at that point that 3D Dot Game Heroes won't please him as much as it did me. That's the sort of realization that should in turn help him to say "And since exploration and adventure aren't important to me, I should bump this score down a few pegs to figure out how well the game will or won't work for me."

I'm aware that some will find my very failure to bow before the altar of Ocarina of Time to be a major transgression. Many of those people never thought the old Zelda games were all that hot, though, and loved Ocarina of Time to pieces. They're not really who this game is for, though. So I had to decide who I wanted to tailor an extremely favorable review to: people who will absolutely love the game and should be told about it in no uncertain terms--terms that align with the score I ultimately awarded it--or people who I can still identify with (because I still enjoyed Ocarina of Time and agree with the assertion that despite any flaws, it remains one of the best adventure games ever created) but who require all sorts of "soft" words to accompany each claim I make. The latter wouldn't have resulted in a review that worked for anyone, because I wouldn't have been able to really communicate what makes the game compelling for its real audience in a convincing manner.

If some people come away from this review feeling that I'm an idiot who actually prefers the old Zelda titles to Ocarina of Time, well, I can live with that. Mostly because it's true.
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Suskie posted May 31, 2010:

DEAD.
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LowerStreetBlues posted May 31, 2010:

Dude, I read your review before I commented. No need to explain it to me.

I still think it's drawing an unnecessary line in the sand between you and a potential audience before explaining a point and liable to make the point less well-received. I can think of the Hyrule landscape as magnificent (and it was in terms of scope and cinematic value for its time, for my money) or merely an overly large hub and still not agree with your introductory statement to the notion, that OoT "changed core values" and "traveled down the wrong road". If you really want to make that point, at least begin with some supporting information. And I'm not sure it's necessary to make that point to convince someone of 3DDGH's worth, and if not, such a blanket conclusion seems there just to rile.

The gist of your second paragraph is this: I like 3D Dot Heroes because it does what I thought Ocarina of Time and sequels should have been. That's a pretty cool perspective. You don't need to "bow before an altar" or suppose you understand the "core values" of a series or make broad statements that cast a revered game in a negative light to make that point. Ocarina of Time should not have to be a "featureless grassy expanse" -- especially to make a game over ten years later in conception, with that knowledge of ten years of innovations and mistakes made, on two generations newer hardware -- to make 3DDGH look lively. Or would you quote Super Mario Bros'. barren stretches to make Yoshi's Island look good? It's not wrong, just an unnecessary crutch to build on, and even worse is to focus solely on the worst points of a game so clearly just at a natural comparative disadvantage -- yet still wildly successful and acclaimed -- to build an argument in your favor. I think it'd be more effective to build the overworld description off of A Link to the Past -- since this is the most enchanting world since then(!) and it would help me as a reader understand if we like the same qualities rather than just share a mutual hatred of traveling vast expanses -- than using Hyrule Field as square one and focusing on the negative.

I'll shut up now. I really just like Ocarina of Time.
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honestgamer posted May 31, 2010:

Just in case you hadn't realized as much (though I think you have), I didn't decide on a whim to include the Ocarina of Time comparisions, and I didn't include them to incite anger or to chase people away from the review. I included the reference because the most important thing for me with the review was to communicate that:

1) I love the old Zelda games with an immersive overworld.
2) I like Ocarina of Time but I really don't like the absence of a worthwhile overworld and I feel that it was the wrong direction to take.
3) 3D Dot Game Heroes includes a welcome return of that meaningful overworld experience.
4) In addition, 3D Dot Game Heroes gets everything else right that the Zelda games have done all along.
5) The combination of those elements and the inclusion of the overworld justify a 10/10 rating.
6) People who don't care as much about the overworld half of the Zelda experience (or who balk at my belief that the overworld is anywhere close to half of the Zelda experience) will not find 3D Dot Game Heroes to be a 10/10 game, because for those who aren't invested in half of its triumphs, 3D Dot Game Heroes is NOT a 10/10 game. It's just really, really good.

Without resorting to a numbered list like the above, I feel that my review effectively communicated that. In the process, it irritated some people who like Ocarina of Time even more than I do. My sense is that the angrier someone got at that reference, the less he is likely to enjoy 3D Dot Game Heroes, because the things that it does so well don't matter as much to those readers.

I apologize in the unlikely event that someone is genuinely offended by the suggestion, but I don't think that's the case. There's been rational discourse in response to the review and I appreciate it. I also plan to leave the references as they are because it does appear that they have been every bit as effective as I had hoped that they would be when I included them in the first place. I don't expect to win RotW this week (especially going up against Suskie's excellent take on Alan Wake), but I said what I needed to say to really explain why I scored the game the way that I did and why other people should give it a try. I'm very pleased with that.
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Suskie posted May 31, 2010:

If it's any consolation, Jason, I was only kidding.

You make a good point, though. To me, Zelda is about the dungeons, which is why the first three games in the series don't resonate as strongly with me today as others do (Zelda II for other reasons as well, of course). In those games, by today's standards, the dungeons feel more labyrinthine in nature, whereas later games in the series (starting perhaps with Link's Awakening) they leaned more heavily in the direction of puzzles. And I'd easily say that Ocarina has, to this day, the best dungeons of any game in the series, which is one of the reasons why it remains my favorite.

So I'm still interested in 3D Dot Game Heroes but I think your point was communicated very clearly. It's just a point I don't agree with :)

Oh, and thanks for the comment about my recent review! Of course, this all rests on RotW still being alive, which I'm not sure it is.
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zippdementia posted June 01, 2010:

ROTW is happening! I'm doing it today. I'm just putting the finishing touches on the term paper and then I'm doing it.

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