The studio pulled this impressive feat off by designing a world composed of giant cubes, essentially 3D versions of 8-bit sprites. This style is overlaid with insane visual effects, like an exaggerated depth of field that makes everything look miniature, and surreal, sparkling water. Even the spells are winkingly based on graphical effects like shaders and parallax maps. It's essentially the lost NES Zelda game. Or, rather, it's a parody of the Zelda series executed so perfectly that it is itself an excellent Zelda game.
3D Dot Game Heroes puts you in the role of a hero saving the kingdom of Dotnia from some threat by gathering some orbs from dungeons or something. Honestly, it isn't important why you're walking from dungeon to dungeon. The game does away with any pretense that the story matters right away. For one thing, you can select your character from a group including a little tank, a dog, Santa Claus, and the President from an obscure Xbox game -- or you can make your own in the character editor. The fact that the game expects you to look ridiculous immediately obviates any drama you could reasonably expect.
Second, the writing, both in terms of original scenarios and Atlus's localization, is rife with humor at the genre's expense, as well as references to, among others, Demon's Souls, Ys, and even The Goonies. Not only did this mean that I never forgot I was in a game, but it also meant that I actually wanted to speak to the people in towns -- which, to be perfectly honest, is pretty far from my experience with most "real" Zelda games. The light-hearted tone really makes this pseudo-8-bit world an inviting place in which to have an adventure.
Unfortunately, the experience is marred by constant backtracking. 3D Dot Game Heroes ameliorates a lot of the tediousness of traveling back and forth with an easily purchased warp item, but there's just enough backtracking throughout to be frustrating. Sidequests usually involve warping from town to town to town, picking up one thing and delivering it to someone else in exchange for another thing. These are usually rewarded by both items and hilarious dialogue, but there are only so many that I could do in a given session before getting tired of traveling the world. Even worse, there is a dungeon with a switch mechanism that requires switches to be hit in a specific order throughout. This resets when you die. And even if you don't die, and decide to warp back to the nearest town to get some items, you have to climb a mountain to get back to the dungeon, which you then have to retrace exactly. That's not fun.
Thanks largely to those sidequests, 3D Dot Game Heroes actually contains a lot more depth than its forebears, in ways that don't disrupt the retro purity of the dungeons. By undertaking these tasks, you can find a bunch of different swords (all of which are enormous when you're at full health), upgrade the swords you have, find extra health and armor items, and even play in-engine tower defense, Breakout, and racing minigames.
None of this is going to matter if you don't appreciate classic games. If you think the original Zelda is antiquated and no longer worth playing, you're not going to be thrilled with 3D Dot Game Heroes. Also, you're wrong. But if you do long for a day spent searching for bombable walls and fighting fire-breathing dragons with segmented necks, you'll be right at home in Dotnia.
Editors' note: This review is based on a pre-release disc provided by Atlus. The reviewer played the game for approximately 15 hours, but not to completion.