Available On: PC, PlayStation 4
Many video game genres overlap and blend well together. Shooting and third-person action. Narrative-rich adventure with first-person exploration. RPG elements in just about everything. Yet in the paraphrased words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, just because you can combine genres doesn’t mean you should.
The Swords of Ditto is a cautionary tale. The concept seems solid: combine the basic structure of classic top-down, 2D Zelda within the framework of a challenging roguelike, creating a frustrating experience that relies too much on repetition.
Magic School Bus
The world of Ditto is stuck in a vicious cycle. Every 100 years the evil wizard Mormo wrecks havoc on the surrounding area. The people’s only hope is a magical sword, which is passed down through generations. You play as the latest victim, er, hero, who wields the sword, literally going to the graveyard to dig it up from the last failed attempt.
The gameplay is simple and intuitive, particularly if you’ve ever played a top-down Zelda game like The Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds. Your hero has a basic sword attack, and can find special weapons, called Toys of Legend. The Toys are familiar Zelda-like weapons like a vinyl record (boomerang), a golf club, a bow, and even a remote-controlled drone.
The goal is to acquire these toys in specific Toy Dungeons, then go to an Anchor Dungeon to weaken Mormo’s hold. There are only two of each of these big dungeons in each run, though there are a few hidden dungeons and side quests to tackle.
Dungeons are structured very similar to classic screen-by-screen Zelda dungeons. Some of the dungeon puzzles are clever and interesting while others are frustrating and annoying. The Anchor Dungeons specifically make use of previously acquired toys, such as hitting golf balls with the golf club.
One of Ditto’s strongest elements is its cutesy, whimsical art. Even when the world grows dilapidated and overrun with monsters due to repeated failures (a neat feature), the world remains brightly colored, with a cheery, bopping soundtrack and lovely artwork.
The fast travel system, for example, summons a flying magical school bus with a kazoo. It gives me fond memories of Earthbound and the Yoshi’s Island series. Unfortunately this child-like aesthetic makes the incredible difficulty all the more painful to swallow.
Live, Die, Repeat
Enemies level up with you, which has been a derided feature in games since Bethesda infamously featured it over a decade ago in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Not only does it rob me of ever feeling stronger, but it makes every enemy encounter a challenging chore. Since I only have one life to give, it’s often better to simply run away from most encounters, particularly if there’s more than one enemy, which is almost always the case.
Compounding the difficulty is a time limit, another no-no in gaming. As if inspired directly from one of the most divisive Zelda games (Majora’s Mask), I have only four days to defeat Mormo, which equates to about half an hour of game time, before I’m forced to confront him in the final dungeon. However, the clock pauses while in a building or a dungeon. This means that all overland exploration should be minimized to save time, reducing a major fun factor.
Death comes quickly. The world grows darker and a new Sword of Ditto is chosen, as lead by the odd magical dung beetle Puku. By passing down the sword I retain the experience and level, but as previously mentioned that almost doesn’t matter since the world levels up as well.
Later I unlock the ability to spend a specific currency to pass down stickers, which are neat forms of loot that can be equipped to different slots. Stickers unlock new sword attacks, add elemental abilities, and buff attack and defense.
Toys, however, are never passed down, since the game wants me to get them from exploring the dungeons. This means repeating the same randomly generated dungeons to acquire the same toys, and using those same toys in the Anchor Dungeons to repeat many of the same puzzles. That’s a lot of repetition that makes the game feel much smaller and more linear than it should be.
Even successfully defeating Mormo isn’t the end. The world becomes a bit less darker and the cycle continues until you can find a way to break it, and I just don’t have the patience for it.
The Swords of Ditto is rated E for Everyone with Fantasy Violence. The art style is bright and colorful, but the enemies are shockingly evil and a bit nasty, including zombies, spectral skulls, floating brains, and demonic-looking sorcerers. And as mentioned, the game would be way too difficult and frustrating for most young kids.
Co-op multiplayer is available locally. It’s seamless and enjoyable, though lacks split-screen functionality. The second player simply plays a copy of the first, sharing toys and stickers. Technically you have twice the firepower, but you’re also sharing the very limited healing items, leading to the same balance issues.
The Swords of Ditto would have been a much better game had they simply made a charming mini-Zelda-clone and eliminated the roguelike, repeated elements entirely. By the third or fourth run the frustrating repetition has permanently set in, and I doubt the poor people of Ditto will ever break the cycle.