Live, die, repeat. No, this isn’t Edge of Tomorrow but its tagline fits the significantly Tom Cruise-less The Swords of Ditto just as appropriately. Blending top-down Zelda with roguelite elements, players control a hero chosen once a century to wield the mystical sword of Ditto. The mission: use this weapon to slay the evil witch Mormo to prevent her darkness from gripping the land. If you succeed, the world enjoys 100 years of peace until Mormo inevitably returns. Should you fail, Mormo reigns for the next century until another hero emerges to challenge her. No matter the outcome, the adventure restarts again–and again, and again. Though it sounds like a grind, this creative distillation of the Zelda formula can often be a cycle worth reliving.
A neat byproduct of the game’s unique progression came in how seriously I took death. It already hurts to lose a character and the equipment and progress tied to them. However, the added sting of watching the world grow darker as Mormo remains in power is surprisingly potent. Monsters begin roaming in greater numbers. Citizens lament about their cursed situation; a sad few grow to accept and, in some cases, even celebrate their subjugation. The only thing worse than failing and starting from near-scratch is returning to a world made crappier because I failed.
So how does one avoid this grim reality? Get stronger. Killing monsters increases the sword’s overall strength level. Also, prepare to cut an ungodly amount of grass in search of coins used to buy stickers, which act as equippable stat upgrades. Primarily, though, you’ll explore dungeons to obtain helpful equipment called Toys. Some of these are exactly what they sound like. For example, a nerf gun does no damage but can push back enemies. More traditional gear, like a bow, join zany items like a wall-busting bowling ball or a giant foot stomping from the heavens.
Dungeons are procedurally generated. By that, I mean they consist of pre-made room layouts that get mixed and matched on each go-around. Some reward a new item while others hide magic anchors that, if destroyed, weaken Mormo in the final battle. The main dungeons center around the use of one Toy. Since some toys are more fun/interesting to use than others, this makes dungeon crawling a hit or miss affair.
For example, I enjoyed using the golf club Toy to knock orbs through obstacles and into holes. On the flip side, controlling the clunky drone made its associated dungeons a chore to complete. On a general front, the same puzzles and challenges recur more often than I would like. Nothing nails this point home further than the switch puzzles, where players toggle red/blue variations of each room. Just about every dungeon features this mechanic. While they’re adequately designed, I grew completely sick of them after only a few playthroughs. Greater variety on that end would have been a godsend during the later hours.
A randomized overworld means locations change with each playthrough. Thankfully, there’s plenty to do, and I was still finding new destinations even after multiple playthroughs. Hidden caverns and small dungeons compliment their larger brethren. Conquering scores of enemies at combat shrines nets big rewards. A penguin shopkeep’s tasks bestows more bombs in exchange for finding dozens of his children. NPC sidequests consist of simple fetch and kill missions but pad out the experience. The world’s unexpectedly fascinating lore made uncovering scattered text logs a real treat.
Each adventure gives the hero four days to prepare for the “final” throwdown with Mormo. With so much to do, the time limit can feel oppressive at times. Is it more worthwhile to go straight to the dungeons or uncover the world in search of other upgrades? I like that either option can be valid depending on players’ skill level. In fact, the four-day period can be skipped entirely to face Mormo at the outset. But for those who need more time, the clock can be rolled back by offering crystals at special shrines. Not only that, but extra lives can be purchased as well. Slain enemies drop these precious crystals, creating even more incentives to hunt them down. The Swords of Ditto becomes much more enjoyable and manageable once this option opens up, which thankfully isn’t before long.
Don’t let the cutesy veneer fool you. Even at normal difficulty, The Swords of Ditto can be exceptionally tough. In fact, I dropped the game to easy mid-way through, which extends the 4-day limit to a week. Though still a challenge, I had a much better time after making the switch, and I strongly recommend doing the same if you hit a wall. Either that or recruit a buddy to help out in cooperative mode.
And so the cycle goes: You wake up, then go to retrieve the sword (either from the last hero’s grave or at their celebratory statue depending on the previous outcome). Next, you’ll explore, earn money, buy items, and get stronger. Then you’ll fight Mormo, the hero triumphs or fails, a century passes, rinse and repeat.
Though the world continually resets, characters retain the level, wallet, and certain items of their predecessors. This small permanence makes the grind to become stronger both addicting and satisfying. Mormo kicked my butt in our first few showdowns, so conquering her for the first time provided a genuine thrill. After that, I wanted subsequent adventures to grow easier and, more importantly, finish quicker. I eventually became both strong and wealthy enough to explore by choice rather than by necessity. Destroying Mormo’s power-increasing anchors became an indulgence as I could consistently take her down at max strength. This is all well and good–until Mormo returns for the umpteenth time. Eventually, the fun in trouncing her wanes and you’ll want to end her for good. But how does one accomplish this? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as clear as it needs to be.
Beating the game “for reals” takes a minimum of 5 playthroughs. However, that’s only if you figure out the vague process of doing so. Without spoiling, it involves using a seemingly useless item in a manner not obvious on paper. I trounced Mormo three straight times (each after running the full gamut of adventuring described earlier) before figuring out the true way to break the cycle. Once I discovered the true solution, which required an online search out of confusion, I had to face her 5 more times as the previous 3 victories were essentially nullified. All of this came after 5 unsuccessful playthroughs.
Needless to say, I played more of The Swords of Ditto than I would have liked, despite mostly enjoying myself. I don’t mind riddles, but beating the game shouldn’t be this cryptic considering the time and effort each playthrough can require. My advice: search how to beat the game upon starting and save yourself from completing runs in vain.
Even if you don’t play the game as much as I did, repeating the same exact moments (primarily in the prolonged opening) inevitably gets old. Skipping through the same tutorials proves most irksome. After multiple adventures, I’ve got a solid grip on how fast-travel works, thank you. Reassigning hotkeys for the starting gear and permanent inventory items on each restart feel unnecessary as well.
Unfortunately, Mormo isn’t the only threat to worry about. A recurring string of technical hiccups routinely impeded my progress. A crippling slowdown became the most common. The framerate can drop dramatically when a ton of enemies appeared on-screen. By far the worst, though, is a horrible fast-travel bug which can bring the game to its knees. When using this important function, the game would come to a near standstill while loading the necessary animations, to the point of appearing frozen. It always churned through but took ages to complete. Slowdown can also occur in the loads between new areas. One load lasted so long that I was forced to restart the game, which wound up corrupting my save file. Thankfully I had a backup on the cloud, or I’d have been royally screwed otherwise. For a game as polished-looking as this, it’s disappointing that it sometimes feels like it’s being held together by paperclips and prayer.
If Zelda and/or roguelites are your main squeeze, The Swords of Ditto offers a fun, if not flawed, marriage of those two elements. There’s a real satisfaction in becoming stronger, although clarity in the main objective would help increase its sense of progression. Several gameplay bugs mar an otherwise solid experience, a few of which are flat-out inexcusable at times. My extended stay with the game has left me with little desire to ever look at it again. But the fact that I kept coming back for more says a lot about The Swords of Ditto’s brighter sides.
A PlayStation 4 review copy of The Swords of Ditto was provided by Devolver Digital for the purpose of this review.