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3D Dot Game Heroes Playtest

From lets players sample the retro RPG a few weeks ahead of release.

3D Dot Game Heroes, on display at Yodobashi Camera in Yokohama.

My biggest Tokyo Game Show disappointment was that 3D Dot Game Heroes was not on display owing to From Software's absence from the event. But the wait for a play chance wouldn't be too long. From brought a playable demo out to the Yodobashi Camera in Yokohama on Saturday, allowing the general public to sample the game a few weeks ahead of its November 5 release date.

The retail demo build appeared to be a pre-release build of the game, rather than a proper demo. Producer Masanori Takeuchi confirmed during a talk event that the game had already gone gold. However, there were a couple of clearly unfinished areas about the build, most notably a "debug" mode. More on that in a bit.

I got to play twice. I'll describe each in turn.

Beginning Dots

My first sampling was from the beginning of the game. You begin by first selecting your character and giving it a name. You can select one of the three default classes, available in male or female varieties. I presume you can also select your user-made character here as well.

You start off the game not as this character, but as the ancient hero -- you know, the one who long ago sealed away some great evil and prevented some great calamity, and so forth. The hero, talking apparently to himself, says that he must take the sword up to the holy forest to the north of the castle and place it there for future generations.

Follow his instructions, taking out a few simple enemies along the way, and the game fades out and takes you to modern times. You're asleep at an inn and have actually been dreaming the whole thing. The inn manager says that this is no coincidence, as monsters have been appearing in the castle's surroundings. She does remark that it's strange that your dream was in 3D when, during the time of the ancient hero, the world was still in 2D.

I'll avoid sharing any more story details, as some will presumably want to experience it for themselves. I wouldn't really worry too much about having the game's storyline "spoiled," though. As evidenced by that 2D remark, 3D Dot Game Heroes doesn't take itself too seriously. The first ten minutes seems to run through every RPG story cliche in the book, including the mysterious traveler who's asked by the king to take on some short quest which, while serving as nothing more than an introduction to the game's controls, is apparently so difficult that the king decides to put the fate of the entire kingdom in the hands of the traveler upon its completion. You'll also learn of orbs to collect, and the shrines from which to collect them, and even be introduced to a spunky little fairy companion.

The control chart.

After you make a short trip back to the northern forest where the ancient hero placed his sword, the king asks you to go about collecting six orbs by heading out to a series of shrines in succession. The world opens up here, allowing you to freely explore, to a certain extent. Some parts of the world are closed off early on in the game. There was a large tree blocking me from exploring to the East of the castle. While I was able to freely trek to the first shrine, the second shrine lay beyond a forest which, when entered would spit me back out saying that I'd gotten hopelessly lost. These barriers will presumably be cleared once you've progressed further in the game and gotten the requisite items or magic.

A run through of the 3D Dot Game Heroes world cleared up a misconception I'd had about the game. I previously thought the game would be a clone of the original Zelda. A more accurate comparison, at least for the overworld, is to Super Nintendo's Zelda: A Link to the Past. The overworld has a similar scrolling system -- properly scrolling in some areas while pulling a Zelda 1-style stop and scroll in other areas (I'm not sure if there's a technical term for that). The overworld also has towns and townfolk scattered here and there. And, of course, chickens.

Upon entering the first dungeon, I was reminded mostly of the original Zelda. The dungeons scroll room to room and have you solve puzzles that involve pushing rocks and blocks around to open new paths, using your boomerang to flip inaccessible switches, and killing all enemies to unlock doors. I didn't have to use bombs to tear holes in walls, but I have no doubt that this will pop up in a future dungeon.

The big difference from the original Zelda is that the dungeons have multiple floors. When you open up the dungeon map, a section of the map is reserved for selecting between floors. The first dungeon -- the only one that I tried -- is single floored, so it remains to be seen if the game puts its multiple floors to good use.

Progression through the first dungeon felt like it was pulled straight from the action RPG book that Nintendo wrote. The door leading to the boss is actually near the dungeon entrance. However, to get to the room with the door, you have to first flip a switch, which you can only do so with a boomerang, which can only be obtained by venturing deep into the dungeon.

From had three kiosks set up for play.

Advanced Dots

While I wasn't able to see a more advanced dungeon, I did get a preview of some of 3D Dot Game Heroes' more advanced play mechanics. On my second play test, rather than starting a new game, I went into the continue menu and selected a separate save file. This was apparently deep into the game, as my character had a full life meter, full magic meter, and all weapons and magic selectable in the menu screen.

In addition to having full weapon and magic access, your sword is a lot bigger at this point in the game. You can also press the A button to do a dash. This sends your character dashing through the map, taking out enemies and chopping up shrubs.

Before I was able to explore further, a From rep stopped me and said that I wasn't supposed to have accessed the save file. There were actually a few unannounced weapons and items accessible via the file. I only got a brief look at some of them, and while I have some theories as to what they may be, I'll keep quiet until From makes an official announcement.

This preview of a fully decked out hero gave me a much more positive opinion about 3D Dot Game Heroes' gameplay. There's clearly a lot of depth to the action, much of which you'll only see by advancing in the game.

Despite all the similarities to Zelda, 3D Dot Game Heroes doesn't actually doesn't really "feel" like the classic Zelda in its action and combat mechanics. The way you swing your sword is different. After pressing the attack button, you can rotate the d-pad or analogue stick (depending on which one you're using to control your character) to swing the sword attack around. This allows you to take out surrounding enemies. It took me a bit to get used to this system, but it eventually started to feel natural.

My overall impression of 3D Dot Game Heroes' combat is that it's more skill-based than your typical action RPG. In addition to the sword swinging maneuver, you can also lock your character into facing one direction, allowing you to strafe around and block incoming attacks with your shield. The game also lets you cycle through subweapons and magic quickly, without going into the main menu, allowing you to easily switch off between boomerangs to stun enemies, bombs to blast holes in walls, and arrows to strike at distant foes.

Having all this power could come in handy, as I got the feeling that 3D Dot Game Heroes is going to be a tough game. The enemies can be a bit aggressive, and the couple of bosses that I tried were not easy kills. The game supposedly has difficulty settings, so those wanting a challenge will presumably find it here.

Fans gathered to see the development staff speak.

Secret Dots

Most of what I've written about so far has been previously announced by From. I also saw a few things during my play tests that I don't believe have been officially announced.

In the main menu, there are slots for multiple fairies, outside of just the first one. This presumably means that the fairies do more than just serve as a tutorial for the game.

Outside of the main menu, there's a system menu. This lets you save (at any time), load, view your photo album, take a picture of the current scene, and change the camera angle. See this article for some leaked images of the angles. I prefer the three-fourths view personally.

Regarding the photo mode, one option you have is to switch the game into a first person viewing mode. Here, you can move the camera freely around the world. It's like an FPS, except your character doesn't move. This is presumably designed to allow you to put your character in your shots.

I also stumbled upon a menu that probably won't be accessible in the final game: a debug menu. The big discovery I made here was a "Trophy" option. It looks like 3D Dot Game Heroes will have Trophy support.

A few guests appeared at the event as well. The main character and Spelunker will be used at upcoming promotional events.

Blurry Dots

Now for the one area that has had people talking since 3D Dot Game Heroes was first announced: the graphics. The studio behind 3D Dot Game Heroes is known for their past visual work through games like Double STEAL on the original Xbox. Once of the main focuses during the day's talk event was on the kinds of complex effects the game uses.

The lighting, water and shadow effects are certainly impressive. But I didn't like one particular area of the game: its perspective blurring effects. Regardless of their accuracy, too much of the game screen feels out of focus. Thankfully, this problem is only really noticeable when you play the game from one of the two close-up camera angles. When played in my personally preferred 3/4 view, you don't see far enough into the screen for the blurring to be noticeable.

Aside from that, 3D Dot Game Heroes has the clean, solid look you'd expect of a game whose models are made up of tiny blocks. The effect of your enemies collapsing into a bunch of blocks adds a strange satisfaction to the combat, made even more enjoyable by the fact that you can run through the blocks afterwards, and they apparently react realistically. The game also has a smooth framerate, which is probably important here to keep the impression going that you're playing and old school game.

Aside from the depth effects, the only technical issue I have with the game is some of the load times. The game loads when you go into houses, and occasionally between areas of the world. They're not too long, and you do get to see some cute block art showing parodies of other games, but the loading did stand out a bit.

The few technical issues aside, what I saw from 3D Dot Game Heroes during my two play sessions was enough to convince me that the game is deserving of the excitement it has generated thus far. It seems to pay homage to the best of Zelda in its dungeon and world progression, while adding a uniquely flavored combat system. I look forward to seeing how both of these areas play out through the full course of the game come early November.

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