Oct 24, 2011

3D Dot Game Heroes (2010)

Now here's a curious thing: a game that purports to be a throwback to 2D fantasy adventures like Legend of Zelda and early Final Fantasy, but in 3D. With the power of voxels, Silicon Studios renders every character and landscape in their 3D Dot Game Heroes as pixelated as a vintage 80s title from your favorite system, but expanded outwards into three dimensions. In fact, it even plays very close to the pre-Ocarnia "Zelda" titles, featuring many similar items and a basic progression via temples/dungeons, but with a few modern twists. 

Hearing that description, you'd be forgiven for thinking that "Heroes" is a hipster love song: a title meant to seduce those in love with nostalgia, crafted by people who don't know what it is that they're imitating. It is not. Nor is it a rip-off of "Zelda," as some charge, but more as Borges would claim a "translation" of its formula that twists said formula into an identity of its own. Breaking expectations, the 2D-but-3D aesthetic is not tacky. No, sometimes it is a breathtaking one that actually stuns, as in this opening transformation from 2D to 3D.
Those first few minutes are a succinct example of how "Heroes" succeeds and what, exactly, it's doing with itself. Silicon Studios shockingly—and intelligently—chooses not to solely glorify or solely shame retro aesthetics, but instead uses its technology-driven frame to tell a story of gaming history.

Before 3D...

In the intro, the kingdom of Dotina (the “Dot” of the title, which probably refers to the dots that form retro graphics) stands as a surrogate for fantasy adventure games. We're told the typical set up of how a Dark Lord tries to destroy the world but is defeated by a hero who, in the game's first twist, wields "the power of 2D." 2D is magic (as the success of Nintendo's Virtual Console attests.)

....After 3D [with thanks to IGN.]

Here, Silicon gives us another inventive twist. Defeating the Dark Lord draws tourists, along with the money and trade that portends, to the land. It thrives. But after many years, the tourists dry up and the land grows poor. There's probably no need to tell you, but continuing the above game-as-real-world metaphor, the tourists would be gamers, the Dark Lord's death bringing wealth is the initial popularity of 2D adventure games, while their drying up is the rise of newer genres in the 90s such as Doom's shooter revolution.

Finishing the industry-reflective commentary, the king, in a fit of wisdom, figures that the tourists left because they have grown tired of what was old and commands everything to exist in 3D. At that moment, the whole world morphs from a retro mimic into a pop-up mesh of 2D style and 3D wit.

The game then begins with the requisite Dark Lord being resurrected, and a hero being sent on a quest to gather magic orbs from wise sages, a la Legend of Zelda: Orcania of Time's Tri-force temple/sage questing, and here Silicon Studios again shows their intelligence. The magic you receive is called a “Shader,” and the first wise sage claims it is needed to defeat the Dark Lord because 3D magic is more powerful than 2D. (Indeed, in the inevitable final confrontation with him, the Dark Lord monologues on how 3D may have made Shader magic more powerful, but it made him stronger as well.)

Of course, "Shader" refers to how rendering effects are performed in programming. It's part of how games are made. It's magic.

The upgrades the player receives follows that idea of programming-as-magic: the first one, Parallax, is described as being able to see the truth by lifting a layer of reality. In other words, it's removing pixels to peer at the code of the game. Clever.

Finishing their commentary on the industry, Silicon made the most interesting decision. Instead of creating their own Link, or a copy, "you" are the hero character. Or, you have the ability to be, thanks to the inclusion of a character selector with several dozen character types that all differ in appearance, abilities, and one sentence backgrounds. There's a guy that resembles Cecil from Final Fantasy IV, an old king, a ninja, Santa Claus, a chicken, a tank. If none of those fit your tastes, you can play around with a character creator. By including so many sheer choices of character types, Silicon allows the tourist--the player--to be the hero.  

Not content on improving the adventure game formula just via its visuals and character selection, the game offers arguably better combat than any "Zelda" to date by altering a few key areas.
One, enemies are randomly generated: sometimes you might go into a room and depending on your luck fight three skeletons and one slime, or two skeletons, or nothing whatsoever. This adds a sense of rapid-fire strategy when the player enters a room they felt previously safe, only to find monsters popping into existence mere feet away. It sets the player on edge.

Two, enemies will randomly have versions that are stronger and faster appear. Denoted by a crown floating over their head, it takes some steps towards assuring the player is not growing bored.

Three, quickly deciding on methods of attack and defense are key. Entering a room to find yourself between a set of mobile spike traps with an enemy in front of you, to your left, and to your right certainly promotes hyper-decisions; one could almost consider it a more friendly version of Demon's Souls. It might even take some a while to get used to.

That sort of care, for their aesthetics, and storytelling via aesthetics and gameplay over cutscenes or lengthy dialogues, sets Silicons Studios' 3D Dot Game Heroes apart from mere pastiche. And it adds another notch to publisher From Software's increasingly large belt. They've set themselves apart as a unique company through support for and development of games like 3D Dot Game Heroes, Ninja Blade, Demon's Souls, Metal Wolf Chaos, and the recent Dark Souls—let's hope they continue to do so.

Of course, that means that the mainstream reviewing community will--like film critics did to Black Hawk Down--pass over it by praising its polished visuals and action with no thought given elsewhere. The Metacritic reads a solid 77% with a 7.8 user review score, but not a one of these give the game proper due. The critical community will hopefully be more awake next time: they caught Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, but it's hard not too; no one pays Ninja Blade, Metal Wolf Chaos, and now 3D Dot Game Heroes attention because they do not effuse artistry in the more obvious manners that the "Soul" games do. Hopefully, our cultural guardians will wake up next time.


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