The Swords of Ditto Review
The Sword Falls…
All is not well on the small island of Ditto. The poor inhabitants have been suffering under the rule of the evil witch Mormo. But there is one small ray of hope. Every one hundred years, a Chosen One appears, taking up the mantle of the Sword, the island’s sworn protector. It is the Sword’s duty, with Puku the dung beetle tagging along as a guide, to travel the island to recover the Toys of Legend and to seek out Mormo in her fortress and defeat her. This is not only the story set up in onebitbeyond’s The Swords of Ditto, but effectively amounts to 95% of the narrative.
Much of the game’s overarching framework is a very direct love letter to classic Legend of Zelda titles, right down to specific dungeon and exploration elements, like lighting torches in order to unlock doors, or the way that each successive Sword begins his or her journey by being awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of a rainy night by a mysterious disembodied voice.
And there will be successive Swords, generations after generations of them, in fact. The death of the protagonist is a big part of The Swords of Ditto, with each failed hero dooming the island to another hundred years of Mormo’s tyrannical rule before the next Sword can rise. As the centuries pass, the island and its inhabitants will change, affected by further years of misery; buildings will fall into disrepair, spirits will drop. A cemetery that was previously a dignified place of rest for the departed will become a cruel celebration to mock the island’s suffering, with gaudy balloons, strings of skull-shaped party lights, and a statue of the island’s malefactor.
Of course, the biggest parallel The Swords of Ditto draws to The Legend of Zelda is evident in the Toys of Legend it tasks the player to find, magical artifacts used within dungeons to solve their many puzzles. The developers have taken a tongue-in-cheek approach to the Toys of Legend, straying away from the typical fantasy relics of such games and making them everyday modern household items, like vinyl records, laser pointers, and flying drones. Each playthrough features two such Toys, each stashed away in its own Toy Dungeon, and each used in a further dungeon with puzzles specifically designed for it. Completing these extra dungeons, and destroying the Anchors at their center, physical conduits that serve to strengthen Mormo’s power, serves to weaken Mormo before the final showdown against her. So far, so Zelda.
But here is where the similarities between the two games end. Apart from the similar flow of the games, The Swords of Ditto is very much a roguelike, with procedurally generated overworld and dungeon layouts. The game picks and chooses from certain predesigned elements and combines them in new and unique ways each time a new Sword’s journey begins, so no two Swords will have the same experience. Even entering the same dungeon in two subsequent generations will result in completely different layouts. This of course means that each Sword must begin the journey all over again, with no progress carrying over after death, though levels and gold earned are passed along from generation to generation. As players make progress and complete certain tasks around the island, other items may also be passed down from one Sword to the next, but for the most part each new character equals a new beginning.
Those not familiar with roguelikes may get easily frustrated, particularly in the game’s early stages when combat and enemy patterns still haven’t been mastered, and death is a much more common occurrence. In addition to this, there’s an element of constant pressure, as there are only a few in-game days, depending on the chosen difficulty level, given to the player to destroy Mormo’s Anchors and weaken her before the final battle. Alternately, one seeking a greater challenge can simply skip right ahead to the final battle. Should things become too challenging, however, the difficulty level can be changed at any time, even mid-battle, to increase damage output and defense and extend the time limit.
For all its Zelda inspirations, The Swords of Ditto places a lot more emphasis on combat than exploration, to its detriment. It’s not that the combat isn’t enjoyable on its own, and a decent initial amount of enemy variety means there’s plenty of baddies whose weaknesses must be worked out and exploited. But all too soon the enemy types encountered become a little repetitive, with new types appearing too rarely to alleviate this. Getting one’s hands on the Laser Ring, if the randomized dungeons allow it, or spending one’s hard-earned gold to buy a bow in town adds fun new wrinkles to the combat, but those only last as long as the Sword manages to stay alive, as they’re lost upon death. Thus, most of the fighting boils down to swordplay and performing dodge rolls to safety. It’s still fun enough, but completely having to reestablish one’s entire arsenal on a regular basis gets tiresome.
The trouble doesn’t lie in the simplicity of the battle system — Zelda‘s combat was far from nuanced — but on the way that grinding and leveling is emphasized above exploration in The Swords of Ditto. This is evident chiefly in the level-lock for both Toy and Anchor dungeons. After completing the first dungeon, subsequent ones require an additional level before becoming accessible. For example, a level nine lock on the first dungeon means the fourth dungeon won’t open for a character lower than level twelve. This can lead to a lot of forced grinding between dungeons, difficult when time before the endgame grows short and there are still things left to do. Once a dungeon has been opened, regardless of whether it was cleared or not, it will lock again and raise its level requirement by one for the next generation’s hero. The need for level-locking dungeons seems questionable, as enemies grow in level along with the Sword, keeping the challenge threshold virtually the same at all times.
In classic Zelda style, there are puzzles to contend with in dungeons and an array of optional side content to discover and take part in while out and about on Ditto. Reuniting a scattered clan of penguins, battling through floor after floor of an underground arena-style dojo, and exploring smaller-scale caves, wells, and grottos can all be expected. Due to their random nature, rewards vary, but can include stickers — Swords of Ditto‘s version of equipment — which can be applied for defensive boosts and increased damage output. There may even be some genuine side quests waiting in town. The trouble is that the random and temporary nature of the game keeps most of this content from having much depth or lasting effect and side quests from having any meaningful story attached to them beyond collecting or dropping something off.
It isn’t long before the single-player mode has revealed its hand and shown the player everything it has to offer. From that point on, the game depends on players’ dedication to continue: the combat/dungeon cycle repeats endlessly, and some will even begin to recognize individual dungeon puzzle rooms repeat before too long. At least players can bring a friend along for the ride in couch co-op mode, and face the challenges of Ditto together as a pair of Swords, injecting some much-needed fresh enjoyment into the proceedings when the base game begins to grow stale. Aspects such as dungeon puzzles, boss fights, and overall difficulty are adjusted accordingly once a second player joins the fray.
To its credit, The Swords of Ditto is a gorgeous game, with crisp, vibrant, Saturday-morning-cartoon visuals through and through. All characters, enemies, and environments are drenched in bright pastels, really driving home the reminiscent feeling of the 16-bit classics it takes so much inspiration from. The cheerful music is also responsible for creating a relatively carefree experience, particularly the happy-go-lucky kazoo stylings worked into the score. However, perhaps appropriately, there is no voiced dialog delivery system, but without much dialog to speak of in the first place, it isn’t missed either.
I wish I had a better time with Swords of Ditto. By all rights I should have. Its bright and cheerful aesthetic is immediately appealing, and drawing so much inspiration from one of my favorite games of all time should make it a surefire win for me. But “looking like” and “playing like” are two different things entirely, and the game’s roguelike elements are much more emphasized from a gameplay perspective. The repetitive gameplay cycle, taken to its extreme by asking the player to clear the game a total of five times before the true ending is even unlocked, won’t win everybody over. But fans of the genre should find the game more than worth checking out, provided they know what they’re getting into.
Brings back plenty of old-timey feels
Gorgeously bright art style
Tongue-in-cheek humorous design
Couch co-op adds lots of human-powered fun
Too random and repetitive to have a very meaningful narrative
Level-locking dungeons forces more grinding in an already combat-centric game
At least one game-breaking bug experienced