Release Date: April 24, 2018Platform: PS4, PC (Reviewed)Developer: onebitbeyondPublisher: Devolver DigitalGenre: Action/Adventure
In The Swords of Ditto, you play a hero of destiny who is tasked with taking down the evil sorcerer Mormo and saving the world. Then you die quickly and without honor. After that, you play a hero of destiny whose is tasked with taking down the evil sorcerer Mormo and saving the world. Then you die quickly and without honor.
And so on, and so on, and so on…
That may not sound like the typical tale of a mythical video game hero, but that’s because Swords of Ditto isn’t the typical adventure story. Instead, it’s a new roguelike from developer onebitbeyond and publisher Devolver Digital in which you control the lineage of heroes of destiny across untold millennia.
Here’s how it works: you begin the game as the latest hero in the chain, but you’re beaten rather quickly by Mormo. You then flash-forward 100 years later to the next hero in line – a randomly generated character – who must find the previous hero’s body. Once you do, you gain the previous hero’s sword, equipment, knowledge, and skills. From there, you have just four in-game days to ready for the conflict against Mormo.
There is a time manipulation element in the game in the form of an item that allows you to extend your current character’s run (each one otherwise lasts about an hour in real-time), but ultimately, every hero does get just one life. That might sound like a strange mechanic, but if you think about it, that’s pretty much how roguelikes work. This is just a more overt version of that core concept of “permadeath.”
The death and resurrection mechanic does occasionally manifest itself in interesting ways – it’s particularly great to see whether your hero was buried unceremoniously or given a grand memorial of honor – but that element of the game actually ends up being somewhat underwhelming. The problem with Swords of Ditto’s resurrection system is that every character ends up feeling basically the same.
In Rogue Legacy – a game that utilized a similar lineage concept – every new hero you played as came with some kind of unique physical or personality trait. Some were very small, some were big, some could only see in sepia tone, some would launch into berzerk rages, etc.
Swords of Ditto doesn’t really have anything like that as it relates to your new hero. You pretty much pick up exactly where the last hero left off, plus or minus a few consumable items. While this system couldn’t have worked if you had to start from scratch each time, it feels like a little more effort could have been made to distinguish these heroes beyond their physical appearance. Granted, it’s sad to watch your little hero fall, but mechanically speaking, this system leaves something to be desired.
The concept of having to take down Mormo in a certain amount of time fares a bit better. Maximizing the value of each life really comes down to time management. For your first few heroes, you might want to grind some levels, bump up your stats, buy some stickers (which enable new skills and upgrades), and purchase some of the legendary toys that carry over from hero to hero. Beyond that, it’s time for quests, dungeon exploration, and other more involved tasks.
While not nearly as deep as Majora’s Mask, the limited time mechanic does lead to you trying to figure out how to maximize every minute of the game. It doesn’t make things “stressful,” but it does make it feel like your every action and decision matters. What stress there is in the game comes from the bond you form with your current hero and your desire to not want to go through the resurrection process again. Generally speaking, though, the system does a good job of adding the necessary levels of tension that every great roguelike experience relies on.
Speaking of Zelda, it should certainly be noted that Swords of Ditto unabashedly – and sometimes humorously overtly – copies the formula of old-school Zelda games (most noticeably A Link to the Past). Some items are similar (including a kazoo that lets you travel between various points) and dungeon puzzles are eerily reminiscent of those seen in classic Zelda games. Impressively, those dungeons – and the map in general – are randomized every time that you come back to life. The randomization does help each run feel a bit fresher than it would otherwise, and the design of the dungeons remains consistently amusing no matter what random layout you may encounter. Meanwhile, the game’s hack and slash gameplay will surely speak to the heart of any old-school Zelda fan.
Well…for a time, anyway. Swords of Ditto’s combat is far from bad – it’s occasionally quite good when you manage to upgrade your character’s skills enough and must deal with a variety of enemies – but it can start to feel monotonous. The game relies a bit too much on combat for leveling your character, which tends to be an issue given how important it is to build your character up over generations. I’d often find myself hacking and slashing every enemy and patch of grass for XP and resources, which wasn’t always the most amusing way to spend my four days in the world. However, the Zelda-like dungeons, town design, and inventory systems generally manage to do their jobs quite well. In a world devoid of a new classically styled Zelda experience, Swords of Ditto’s core gameplay does fill a void.
Yet, the game’s greatest feature isn’t its roguelike resurrections or the memories of Zelda it invokes. That honor belongs to the game’s art style.
Swords of Ditto’s visuals borrow heavily from Adventure Time. Much like that series, everything in this game is bright, colorful, and bizarre. Human characters interact with obscure monstrosities without comment and childish concepts of how “adulting” works – such as the toy store containing legendary equipment – rule the day.
It’s fantastic. Swords of Ditto is designed to put a smile on your face, and it rarely fails to do so. Every character feels like it was carefully considered, the random environments shockingly all work together quite well, and the game’s soundtrack is a rare combination of grand and charming that I can only describe with the term “whimsical epic.” It’s easy to compare Swords of Ditto’s style to other pieces of entertainment, but much like Cuphead, it’s more about how the developers managed to form such a cohesive and constantly enjoyable world from that slightly familiar style.
The smile Swords of Ditto invokes is even more pronounced when you play the game in co-op. While I’d stop just short of saying that it feels like Swords of Ditto was made for local co-op, playing with a friend does help alleviate some of the repetitiveness of the combat and allows the both of you to gawk at the various visual and sound details spread throughout this adventure.
The joy of that co-op mode makes it that much easier to realize that The Swords of Ditto isn’t an epic adventure in the tradition of Zelda, it’s just a really good time. It’s hard not to look past the ways the game could have been better – especially as it relates to the game’s resurrection system – but what we ultimately end up with is an impossibly charming hack-and-slash that compels you to experience the game’s world over and over again.