The Legend of Zelda is a series that has begun to move away from its roots in favour of a bold, more open direction. That’s all well and good—Breath of the Wild is a bonafide masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned, and one of Nintendo’s most confident productions in recent memory. Yet I can’t help but miss that distinct old school Zelda flavour, the kind of flavour that made me love Link’s Awakening, the Oracle games, Four Swords Adventures and the list goes on. Sure, that formula had started to get a bit stagnant, but the more I think about it, the more I realize there might still be legs in those older titles, more than ol’ Ninty’s willing to admit. At least, that’s how I feel after checking out the upcoming The Swords of Ditto, a lovely blend of action-RPG and rogue-lites from Onebitbeyond.
“Nintendo is leaving behind some of those old ideas,” level and sound designer Sam Robinson told me as he guided me through a co-op demo. “We’re kind of taking them back.”
There’s really no other way to look at it when exploring the overworld and dungeons of The Swords of Ditto. 16-bit Zelda influence is everywhere in this game, from visual homages to certain enemy types. It was hard to stay professional and not act like a nerd and point out every little nod, easter egg, and reference I picked up during my time with the game. Through and through, this whole thing feels like a love letter to those days of Nintendo’s revered adventure franchise.
At the same time, The Swords of Ditto isn’t just a Zelda homage—far from it. There’s layer after layer of original concepts and intricate systems on top of that basic framework, making for a product that feels confident in itself as opposed to simply cribbing from other games.
The biggest departure here is the progression system. As a rogue-lite experience, players take on the role of a rotating cast of heroes who wash up on the shore of a strange island. That hero—or that hero and their buddy, thanks to the excellent local co-op—gets as far as they can in the island, exploring dungeons and taking down monsters. According to Robinson, a successful run of this game could theoretically be completed in 2–3 hours, but if a player ends up wiping, things get really interesting. Several in-game years pass, and a new hero find themselves washed up on the same shore. Yet this is very much not the same island—the layout is different, the citizens are a bit more shaken up, and the whole island will be worse for the wear. The new hero has to find the memorial of the fallen one, and take on the mantle of the hero, continuing their quest to purge the evil from the island—and gaining a cute little hat in the process.
While going on this quest may feel a bit familiar to Zelda fans, the basic progression is a bit different. Players have to actively trigger the spawning of dungeons, which they’ll then have to fight and puzzle-solve through in order to get their crack at the final boss. In between each dungeon crawl though players will have a chance to stat out their character with randomly generated items. The most prominent of these are stickers, which give players abilities like passive healing or various buffs. There are also chances to pick up stones that can imbue weapons with various properties, or use a wide arsenal of different tools, ranging from bombs, to Nerf guns, to vinyl records, to what looked like a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto that was actually on fire.
If those tools didn’t give it away, The Swords of Ditto is a game that’s oozing with charm and personality. But unlike games that go overboard with trying to feel unique but come across force, Ditto’s humor actually feels authentic and understated. Little jokes are dropped here and there, visual gags will occur from time to time, but it never beats the player with its own attempts at being clever. The result is something that seems, so far, like a genuinely clever, charming experience.
This is aided by a 2D art direction that, honestly, is nothing short of sublime. While comparisons might be made to something like Adventure Time, I feel this has even more personality than Pendleton Ward’s charming hit. There’s a distinct, bright-eyed whimsy to Ditto that’s defined by bold lines and bright colors. Each frame of animation, every new environment is bursting with energy and life, and feels like something that one might think the inside of a kid’s might look like. According to Robinson? That’s very deliberate.
“We tried to design this game as if we were looking through a child’s eyes,” he said, with a gentle warmth to his voice. “When you’re a child, happy things are really, really happy, and scary things are, well, pretty scary.”
That balance is pretty clear when playing the game. On the one hand, this is a game where a long, warm hug with your buddy can resurrect you from the dead. On the other, it’s one where certain enemy types don’t telegraph their movements and can complete wreck the player in a few hits if they’re not careful. There’s an appreciation for the fragility of life and the sinister threat of mystery that balances out the adorable, heartwarming art direction. Ditto, indeed, feels childlike in the best ways possible—charming yet curious, intimidating yet heartwarming. That’s a hard balance to strike, and it’s been done here.
There is, in fact, a lot that’s been done with The Swords of Ditto. Onebitbeyond has somehow made a homage that doesn’t feel like a retread, an entry in a well-worn genre that feels fresh, a charming title that doesn’t force its charm down your throat. This four-person team has done something that larger teams with more money can’t even get in striking distance of, with a game that holds its own next to some of the best on the market and potentially some of the best entries in the series it’s paying tribute to. My time with it was the most fun I had at E3 on my first day, and I suspect that after the rush of this week dies down, I won’t forget this special, arresting little gem.