Shiny graphics can't hide twenty year old gaming conventions
3D Dot Game Heroes is a game without a home. Its charming tilt shifted environments filled with colorful blocky characters could never run on my NES, but the gameplay conventions that it brings with it probably should not exist on any modern console.
It sells itself as a lighthearted parody of The Legend of Zelda brought into 3D and drenched in lighting effects and a heavy layer of gloss. It embraces its blockiness to the point that when you kill an enemy, they shatter into dozens of pixels that bounce all over the screen.
If you have any doubt so far as to the lengths they have gone to emulate Zelda, watch the below video and see how they even try to mirror Zelda's ad campaign.
Building on the Zelda theme is a very similar world map, even down to the way it scrolls between areas, and grid style Temples consisting of a series square rooms that you traverse one at a time. Starting with the character select screen you learn the kind of humor to come. You can start as a standard warrior or wizard, but then it quickly breaks down into things like skeletons, Santa Claus, and some obscure and not so obscure characters from other franchises. This is all just for laughs of course, don't expect anyone to bat an eye at a dragon carrying a sword and shield.
You are a descendant of the legendary hero, quested to obtain the six orbs hidden away throughout the land of Dotnia in the six aging temples, such as the Desert Temple, and the Flame Temple (it's full of raging fire!) As you wander through the first village, there are plenty of townsfolk with all sorts of interesting things to say with a great deal of humor directed at the genre. I enjoyed the game for quite a few hours with no qualms, and even enjoyed with some of the mini-games. The game is charming, you can't deny it that.
As I kept playing, I came upon a realization; this isn't actually a parody, this is the new sincerity. As much as you may have laughed at the girl who asked you to bring her a spa, they seriously want you to bring her a spa. The game is meant to be searched and explored, talking to everyone along the way and doing this between each temple so you don't miss out on any time sensitive events. There are plenty of sidequests, but in line with classic RPGs you have no idea what the spoils are before you begin, nor do you know how long it will take, or if you have the proper equipment to complete it. You have to decide if you want to go all in and spend countless hours trying to complete these missions or if you can make it through without all of the hear pieces and bottles available to you.
Another feature from the Zelda series is that when you die in a temple, you start back at the entrance. If you run into a challenging area then prepare to do some backtracking. Even if you don't die, you still can't totally avoid backtracking because there is an inherent limit to temple design when the map needs to look like an Excel spreadsheet. You can make your way through the game skipping over most of the tedium of wandering around pointing a mirror at things, or being a medieval mailman, but while you may avoid some frustration in the short term by skipping these events, you will pay for it when you get to the later temples. There are large swings in difficulty for not following the prescribed path, you either end up underpowered and consistently dying or you come to a complete stop where you have to backtrack and find a weapon that you missed.When you take so much inspiration from a source as old as the NES it's hard not to be left with some imperfections and annoyances that will frustrate almost any modern gamer. This game is a hard sell for anyone who has not played the original Legend of Zelda, and is truly crafted for the maximum amount of enjoyment from someone who would consider themselves a retrophile. I thought this as going to be a nostalgic romp poking fun at a style of game all but forgotten, but 3D Dot Game Heroes was truly made to reanimate a game made over twenty years ago, flaws and all. Atlus has been toting it as "the ultimate love letter to retro gamers" and I completely agree, and while I can forgive 3D Dot Game Heroes for not innovating, it still sticks a little too close to its roots for its own good.