Developer: One Bit Beyond
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PS4, PC
Review code provided
Developed by One Bit Beyond and published by the typically excellent Devolver Digital, The Swords of Ditto is a curious beast. On the surface, it’s a cutesy adventurer hack-and-slash game not dissimilar from the likes of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. You explore the interwoven world of Dittocester like the plains of Hyrule, and delve into cavernous dungeons in search of superior loot. But then you die, and things take a turn.
Dying in The Swords of Ditto is not permanent, but it’s close; the game adopts some mechanics now associated with the exponentially growing Rogue-lite genre, in a turn that is both engrossing and infuriating. You begin the game as a nameless hero, and are told by a flying bug named Puku that you must wield a mythical sword and slay the evil Mormo – a villainous witch creature who has brought darkness to the land. So far, so expected.
But then you immediately die before even fighting Mormo, and awaken anew 100 years later. Yes, an entire century. Now a completely new character, you’re once again guided by Puku to go to the grave of the previous adventurer, and claim the sword. Now begins the actual game.
From here, you’ve got four in-game days to become strong enough to fight Mormo properly. You can do this however you’d like, but the game subtly guides you towards the most convenient route. Levelling up, for example, prompts a notice that informs you to visit a nearby dungeon that requires a stronger hero to enter. Puku also helps, by marking points of interest on your procedurally-generated map.
The main gameplay loop is to find dungeons, clear them, claim loot, and repeat this until you feel you’re ready to fight Mormo – or, if you’re slow, the game will force you to begin the battle after those aforementioned four days. Combat is simple enough, with rapid pressing of the square button (on PS4) causing your cartoonish hero to swing their sword, and miscellaneous items – called ‘Toys’ – can boost your damage abilities. A bowling ball, for instance, can be thrown and then guided with the left-stick to strike multiple enemies, while a bow performs exactly how you’d expect.
On top of this, The Swords of Ditto has ability-boosting items in the form of stickers. These can either be found or purchased, and increase skills like strength, defence, or speed. Some even grant further abilities for your sword, such as a charged strike or spinning slash, and these are a necessity for variety; the combat becomes very bland if you’re just swinging your relatively short blade for hours on end.
But back to those rogue-lite aspects mentioned earlier: they’re odd. In something like The Binding of Isaac, death is permanent. When you die, you’ll have to start completely over – which is fine, because there’s no progression beyond reaching the bosses and slaying them one by one. It’s a quick game, and it works entirely around that mechanic.
With The Swords of Ditto, however, death can be a frustration for all the wrong reasons. Every game over causes you to lose all of your stickers and items, meaning you’re back to monotonously swinging your sword to grind enough money to then buy better abilities – again. This wouldn’t be so bad, were grinding not such a core part of the early-game experience. There’s the option to skip the four days and head straight for the Mormo fight, but this will result in you getting almost immediately killed by her preliminary enemies. So back to the grind, and back to trying to work your way around the procedural map again and again. Even dungeons are entirely randomised upon death; both their location, and their internal layout.
However, despite the frustration caused by this mechanic, I couldn’t help but enjoy some of my playthroughs. Building your character through dungeons and purchasing better items is a fulfilling task, and the randomised nature of the game’s world can be as exciting as it is annoying. I came across a dungeon themed entirely around Playstation’s forgotten series LocoRoco, for instance, and collected a sticker that allowed me to roll permanently; that is, until I died and lost it forever.
There’s much more to do outside of dungeons, too. The citizens of Dittocester sometimes have tasks for you to complete for more loot; this could be as simple as killing 22 enemies, or finding 10 glowsticks around the game’s world. Further from the town, there’s also the likes of a ritualistic combat arena, or even a never-ending training dojo.
For a game packed full of discover-able content, it’s just a shame the insane difficulty spikes cause semi-permanent death, which then just causes more grinding. Even the boss of the first dungeon I encountered killed me almost immediately, because I lacked ranged weapons and close-quarters-combat amounts to swinging your sword in a panic. There is an evade button, but it rolls you a short distance that is easily closed by the game’s faster enemies.
So there’s a lot to like here, but also some governing mechanics that make sticking with The Swords of Ditto an occasionally arduous prospect. The graphical style is undoubtedly nice to look at, and the soundtrack – particularly the tune accompanying the quick-travel kazoo bus – is downright lovely. Wrap up this up with some couch co-op capability, and you’ve definitely got a tidy little package. It’s just a shame it’s such an inconsistent one.
There’s a lot of good to be found in Dittocester, but much of it is cruelly locked behind repetitive respawn mechanics. If you stick with it, though, then it’s as rewarding as it is punishing.