"While veteran gamers will definitely feel at home with The Swords of Ditto's controls and handling, newcomers to the genre will have no problem figuring it out. That being said, there is a lot more under the surface that could leave players feeling very frustrated."
Spending my weekends with friends at seemingly endless sleepovers was a staple in my teens. We would get up, maybe watch cartoons, maybe play video games, maybe eat some junk, whatever! It was a blast and upon which the foundations of some of my best friendships were built. Two-person team onebitbeyond's The Swords of Ditto harkens back to those days, mashing up my childhood loves into one fun package.
Players take on the role of the Sword of Ditto, a randomly generated character whose first act is to claim the titular sword and become the hero of legend, so they can face off against the evil witch Mormo. Very much in fashion of the games this apes, there is an obnoxious guide in Puku, a mystical dung beetle with a penchant for understatement and obtuseness that guides players though a brief tutorial which serves as an introduction to the game's main conceit of death and rebirth. Afterwards they are to take up the sword again, now with a set number of days to prepare by gaining levels, items, and Toys of Legend; all found while exploring the monster- and puzzle-ridden landscape and dungeons, for an unavoidable showdown with Ditto's ancient foe in hopes to defeat her to secure 100 years of peace.
That is also the bulk of the story. Indeed, if you are looking for an epic tale of struggle throughout the ages, this game is not it — at least, not on the surface. The moment-to-moment storytelling is shallow and given to you by Puku as she essentially tells you where to get to next. This gets understandably repetitive life after life, going through the same motions until Mormo's defeat, but what really makes this bothersome is that it continuously breaks the fourth wall to wink at the audience and acknowledge the tropes they tread upon. If it took its delightfully ridiculous world more seriously, instead of letting the audience in on the joke each time, I feel the immersion in and acceptance of the given circumstances could be stronger. Furthermore, players may uncover "ancient tablets" which allude to a deeper lore that gets really intriguing and quite dramatic, much akin to the rich history in Cartoon Network's Adventure Time: a delightful, candy-coated shell upon a rugged, bitter interior. The air of mystery around Ditto's history in these collectible tablets is something that will bring me back to the game, but the main storyline could have done its audience a service to allude to these darker themes without having to compromise the light-hearted nature and nods to nostalgia. Still, I acknowledge that the story Puku feeds you merely exists as a guideline, and for people just looking to boot it up and slay some monsters, it serves that purpose.
Clearly style was the biggest focus and the team has executed this brilliantly. While paying homage to gaming of yore, they have dressed it up in an artistic style like anything you could be watching on Cartoon Network today, though very much its own. For lack of a better word, the art direction feels "juicy" as everything is incredibly vibrant and bouncy, brimming with such charm that it could almost give you pause when you encounter some of the arguably adorable foes in the field. My 7-year-old expressed remorse over slaying one of the robotic cats in the trials dungeon, deeming that it sounded "too cute" to kill. The variety in the environments while wandering the overworld and plunging into dungeons is surprisingly robust for this "compact RPG", with clear theming present in each location, and the procedurally generated nature of the maps that shift with each playthrough helps these realms to not feel tired and played out. Furthermore, as you progress through the game and experience death and rebirth over and over, things become grimmer in the overworld: pools of clear water fill with a noxious neon pink, everything takes on a more purple hue, and rainfall seems more consistent. But even in these dismal times, the style remains bright and does not weigh the player down, unless you are like me and want a return to blue skies. Bringing the island to life is the colourful cast of characters, ranging from a giant octopus that trades rare stickers with you, to a gargantuan penguin who will boost your bomb capacity, as well as several randomly generated NPCs populating homes and the main hub town who look more akin to the player-character. The enlarged animals and quippy hipster-esque people of Ditto may seem out of place in any other fantasy adventure, but they suit the outrageous world created here, meshing the bizarre and believable seamlessly.
Musically, Salkinitzor complements the Saturday morning cartoon vibe expertly, bringing a great deal of energy to the game as players delve into dungeons and roam the wilds of Ditto. The kazoo has a heavy focus alongside the synthesized melodies, bringing a childhood playfulness to many of the tracks. In other places, Salkinitzor brings it down with something more sombre, while never losing a driving beat that eggs players ever forward. It is in these more mellow tracks that I really felt the weight of Mormo's oppression, and the deeper mystery of the island hinted at in the collectible lore of the game. Further defining the sense of style The Swords of Ditto establishes visually is a broad soundscape from the monsters and environments. Players will know when a zombie vomits on them, or possibly revel as I did every time they blow the kazoo to summon the bus for fast travel. The sound design, coupled with the soundtrack, rounds out the plucky package the onebitbeyond team seems to be going for.
So, quick question before this goes on: are you a fan of the Legend of Zelda? If yes, then: Great! Learning to play this game is an easy affair! If no, then: Great! Learning to play this game is still an easy affair! The fluid movement is mastered with the control-stick, consumable and reusable items are mapped by the player to the D-Pad for toggling and executed with triangle, circle has you rolling around, you use square to slash with your sword, and x is for general interaction. The Options button functions as you would expect, allowing you to cycle through player stats, inventory, map, sticker, and options pages. You can also hit the touchpad to jump directly to the map. All familiar activities that facilitate your adventure with a shallow learning curve, allowing an approachable jump-in-and-play experience. While veteran gamers will definitely feel at home with The Swords of Ditto's controls and handling, newcomers to the genre will have no problem figuring it out. That being said, there is a lot more under the surface that could leave players feeling very frustrated.
Beyond the seemingly simple hack-and-slash affair, though, The Swords of Ditto offers a lot for patient players to suss out and master, which is the eventual key to defeating Mormo with finesse over multiple playthroughs. For example, there is the time-limit, which differs amongst the game's three difficulty settings (I played on Normal which allowed me 4 days of adventuring) and can be manipulated by a visit to a shrine of Serendipity. However, the game only loosely explains this concept to you, informing you that by collecting one of the game's MANY collectibles, Celestial Tokens, and presenting them at the fountains that "something good might happen" relating to adjusting time or cheating death. Naturally, I brought my token there to get some time back only to find nothing happened and I had mere moments left before being forced to face Mormo. It turns out that you need a specific number of tokens to turn in before you can even meet Serendipity, a lovely giant whale god, who then tells you to track down another collectible, Celestial Fragments, and turn those
over for her favour. All I could do was throw my hands up and accept my inevitable death. Fortunately, the progress I had made with collecting tokens was persistent, as were my coins, fragments and levels gained. Again, this is just one example, and I have a hard time condemning The Swords of Ditto for this as I really appreciate them taking a "show, don't tell" approach to figuring out the game's surprisingly robust systems. But at the same time, they could have given players the means to dive into these deeper mechanics with, say, a visit to a library or to the Swordkeeper Togo. Learning through experience is great for feeling gratified at your own ingenuity, but when time is a commodity in our busy modern lives, I would have at least appreciated the option to go and read up on how to make use of the game's systems. It is not just time management that's a sticking point; you can upgrade your sword, upgrade your Toys of Legend, upgrade your stats via stickers, manage elemental attributes, and several other mechanics that are only vaguely referenced at best.
Starting The Swords of Ditto came with high expectations, and I was disappointed with what seemed a shallow offering at first. But, with some perseverance and a healthy interest in adventuring, I have become more and more enthralled and impressed with the bigger picture this game presents. With the conceit of dying only to be reborn, trial and error becomes the name of the game and the drawn-out payoff hidden beneath what seems to be childish simplicity could turn less patient folk off. For myself I played for a few hours, got the hang of it, then deleted my save and started up another adventure (since the game oddly does not offer a "New Game" option once started) leading to a more enjoyable experience. Overall, onebitbeyond has created something quite special. However, there is a lack of polish that can be found in the odd bug or typo. Thankfully, the two-person team is already working hard on this and really, as it is just the pair of them that have fabricated this intricate title, it is incredible what they have accomplished. Being able to play in a familiar gameplay setting with some modern accoutrements to spruce things up, alongside a friend via couch co-op, is a win in my books.