Rarely has a game danced the razor's edge between loving homage and flagrant copyright infringement--and gotten away with it--like From Software's 3D Dot Game Heroes. This PlayStation 3 title is, for all intents and purposes, The Legend of Zelda, from the broad structure of a hero tasked with recovering powerful artifacts from a series of themed temples to the rousing, adventurous tone of the overworld music. You will do battle with many abstract enemies, armed primarily with a simple sword and shield combination, from a mostly overhead perspective. You will earn access to boomerangs and bombs to aid in your adventure. You will have a fairy companion. You can kick chickens, to catastrophic effect. At one point, and I swear I'm not making this up, you might stumble upon a cave inhabited by a guy whose only apparent purpose it is to tell you that "it's a secret to everybody."
I cannot stress this point enough, as the Zelda connection is one of the primary defining characteristic for 3D Dot Game Heroes. Even after you read this review, you might play 3D Dot Game Heroes, and be shocked at just how directly it cribs from Zelda. Other than Darksiders--which, to be fair, keeps its inspiration sourcing limited to Ocarina of Time--you will be hard-pressed to find a game more directly informed by Nintendo's 8-bit adventure classic that wasn't developed by Nintendo itself.
And yet it's set apart by a certain self-awareness, as well as a visual style that takes the chunky 8-bit aesthetic and makes it three-dimensional, if just barely. It's hard not to be at least a little bit charmed by 3D Dot Game Heroes, though that charm has its limits. If you're not already fairly bananas about classic Zelda, or are at least nurturing an abiding affection for the square-wave sounds and butchered grammar that now typifies Japanese console games from the 1980s, 3D Dot Game Heroes might be a harder sell. It's not that this is a subpar Zelda-style adventure, and I think 3D Dot Game Heroes does a decent job of justifying its $40 price tag with a length that's reasonable by modern standards, it's just that the differences are more flash and gimmick than anything truly meaningful.
One key differentiator between 3D Dot Game Heroes and its inspirator is the fact that, to put it rather plainly, you're not playing it as Link. Instead of rolling as some knock-off green-clad elf lad, the look of your character is up to you. You can choose from a pretty deep stock library of character models, which include fantasy tropes like scruffy young adventurers, gallant knights, and dark mages, as well as more non-sequiturial stuff like a shark's fin made to look like it's poking up out of the ground, plus a number of characters from past, unrelated From Software games. If you're really dead set on rocking pointy ears and a green tunic, there's a simple polygonal editor that lets you design your character from the ground up. I personally lack the patience to make anything worthwhile with the editor, though I thought my swirling nightmare of random shapes carried its own charm.
That 3D Dot Game Heroes gives you the choice to swap out your character model whenever you load up the game speaks to just how little stock the game puts in its narrative, other than as a vehicle for some extremely mild satire. You'll see references dropped to other classic NES games like the original Metal Gear, and the citizens of Dotnia, 3D Dot Game Heroes' Hyrule stand-in, are perfectly aware of the fact that, years ago, their land used to be two-dimensional.
The familiarity of the Zelda-inspired gameplay in 3D Dot Game Heroes is offset by a very peculiar 3D visual style. Everything in the world appears to be constructed out of big fat blocks, mimicking the low-res quality of 8-bit visuals, which are married with modern elements like lighting, physics, particle effects, and an extremely pronounced depth-of-field effect. It's an interesting blend of old and new that makes these piles of blocks look and feel somehow more real. Similarly, the soundtrack weaves between blippy synthesized sounds and a full, orchestral-sounding score.
If you look past the tricky visuals, something that's admittedly pretty hard to do, you'll see a game that's operating on a lot of borrowed charm. There are differences, such as the fact that, when you're at maximum health, rather than shooting out an energy projectile with your sword, your sword becomes comically huge in a way that would put Cloud Strife to shame. It's different, and in an absurd way, but 3D Dot Game Heroes is still so deeply referential that a lot of it doesn't really work if you're not already in on the joke.