Behind the charming presentation and often wonderful character design and animation, The Swords of Ditto is a challenging and often punishing spin on the action-RPG made popular by the likes of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Admirably Swords of Ditto distances itself, design-wise, from the classic game from the 16-bit Super Nintendo era. As it does indie titles that bear similar inspiration. Or even other rogue-like experiences.
The premise is an endearing one, fantasy-by-the-way-of-small-child’s-bedroom, the world of Ditto is filled with toys, candy, swamps, lighthouses, and dungeons. And enemies that include wizards that throw fireballs and zombies children that throw up green poison. Overrun by the evil Mormo the hero (or heroes, if you’re playing co-op) must venture to her lair, conveniently located on the edge of town, and face her. This is where the game begins, and where you ultimately die for the first time. No matter though, 100 years will pass, a new hero will arrive, find the Sword of Ditto, and give the quest to take-down Mormo another go-round.
In Swords of Ditto every time you die you respawn as a new hero. 100 years later, and with five in-game days to get powerful enough before the final showdown is triggered. Embarking on this quest, through time, is a core part of the design. Thematically and visually speaking, it’s executed brilliantly. Coming back as a small child dressed in black, one that wears a cape, a cute frog creature, or a lego-like block with big eyes, keeps the journey feeling diverse and interesting. As does watching what happens to the world around you thanks to the mix of detailed hand-drawn art and procedural generation.
From buildings that decay over time through to more danger lurking around because your previous quest failed before it even began. As a new playable hero progression is mostly limited to the mythical Sword of Ditto. Where dispatching creatures, zombies, and sentient plant life, serve to give it a dash of XP. Where it can then go from Level 1 to Level 10 across several hours.
It’s here though where some of the overall mechanics begin to feel not all that well implemented. And that is because levelling the Sword of Ditto acts as a trigger to level-scale the world and enemies around you. A necessary thing to happen sure, but it’s a process that occurs even whilst you play and move back and forth between areas. So, no matter what, your sword will never feel powerful enough to head straight to the hardest dungeon next time you ‘respawn’. Which, due to the overall difficulty, can become frustrating.
In fact, for the most part The Swords of Ditto becomes increasingly difficult and challenging the more you play. As soon as you hit a difficulty wall the game then uses that to ramp up and become even more difficult. Why? How? Well, thematically it makes sense. And is an admirable design choice. You see, it goes back to the brilliant visual and thematic decision to make the world and environment harsher if you were to fail in your quest early-on. Evil grows more powerful over time and such.
That decision, and then making it so if you venture off with a Level 9 Sword of Ditto you’ll soon encounter Level 11 and Level 12 enemies that can kill you in a few hits, begins to feel like your path is limited. And the go-anywhere, approach each dungeon in any-order feeling, is only hinted at before disappearing entirely. To combat this there’s a deeply involved perk system that, in keeping with the fun children-at-play theme, take the form of stickers. Also, key items, called toys, can be upgraded and improved upon.
Unfortunately, not a lot of this side of the game is communicated all that well, and for the most part your progression and inventory disappears entirely once you die. Thankfully, you’ll get to keep all your gold and crystals earned in each run. And once you’ve explored enough of the world, you are given the ability to rewind time to buy more, err, time. In addition to paying a fee to transfer items from one hero the next. The only problem with this though is that buying stuff is often prohibitively expensive, meaning that you might need to grind out run after run just to even have a shot at getting enough resources, toys, stickers, and help to take the fight to Mormo.
Naturally, all of this works a lot better when played co-operatively with a partner. Where difficulty becomes a shared burden, and the allure of a lengthy but mechanically repetitive quest has merit. At its core The Swords of Ditto seems more interested in the concept of a never-ending fight against evil where a hero rises every century than it is about resolution. Or, reward. Which could very well be a case of expecting one thing and getting another.
The only problem, fundamentally, is that it the setup doesn’t exactly work within the context of a traditional top-down action-RPG. That experience where items obtains throughout your travels can then be used to delve deeper into more dangerous territory. For all its wonder and remarkable variety, where even after a dozen attempts at adventuring through the world of Ditto no two versions ever look the same, it’s overly punishing when it doesn’t need to be. Especially when exploration is concerned. And keeping you several steps behind the threat, never powerful enough to feel like a true hero, feels slightly off. Fun, charming, but ultimately frustrating.