Repeat after me.
The premise of The Swords of Ditto instantly had me sold: a roguelite with classic Zelda gameplay. An evil sorceress called Mormo makes her bid for power every 100 years. You, the chosen ‘sword’, have only three days to prepare before taking her on. Fail, and be reborn a century later to try again.
As I begin my quest for the first time, the mystery of the world engulfs me. I’m bewildered by its myriad systems and collectables, like celestial tokens, smithing items and magical orbs which can be offered to the goddess Serendipity. You could always refer to a wiki, of course – not that I have such a luxury, playing before release. But there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in working it out for yourself.
Even the passage of time initially eludes me: time is frozen in dungeons, houses and towns, but passes in the overworld – fast. Something I do quickly learn is that health is my most valuable asset. Each tough baddie dispatched without losing any is a win. Every mob that drains my reserves of health items, a major blow.
Through exploration I manage to acquire two of the legendary toys: a ring which fires lasers and a bowling ball which increases in damage with the more enemies I ‘strike’ with a single bowl. These special weapons are found in dungeons and add a lot of variety to your playstyle. On subsequent playthroughs I’ll find many more, from golf clubs to drones and even a giant foot that stomps down from the sky.
I destroy just one of the anchors, mystical sources of Mormo’s power guarded within temples. Will it be enough to weaken her before the battle? Either way, I’m out of time: judgement day has arrived.
I make peace with the fact that victory here is unlikely. Not only has inexperience cost me in preparation; there’s a permanence in character levels across runs. This adds a nice sense of progression which stricter roguelikes don’t typically permit, but it’s something I can’t benefit from yet. No matter: I’ll scope out Mormo’s palace, learn her attack patterns then come back stronger and wiser.
I fight my way through the temple. It’s hard. The rooms are seemingly never ending, and teeming with enemies. This varied roster of baddies is a real strength of Swords of Ditto. From ether sword-wielding knights to anthropomorphic rocks and giant floating brains that lick you with their forked tongues, it’s a mad melting pot of evil adversaries which require significantly different approaches in putting them down.
Finally I make it to the final decisive battle, health items heavily depleted. Mormo spawns hordes of minions hell-bent on my demise. With a maniacal laugh she plunges deadly ether spikes at me. This is tough. I’m down to my last health-replenishing burger. I wolf it down, before breaking her defensive shields in a last-ditch effort. I wail on her with all of my might.
She falls. On my first attempt. I can barely believe it.
To tell you the truth, I’m a little deflated. I almost hoped for a crushing defeat; an unassailable challenge which could only be conquered after multiple attempts. But I try again – one beating doesn’t stop Mormo from returning a century later. On my second attempt, I’m humblingly cut down by a mere grunt.
All told, I’ve had five or six attempts at Mormo now, with mixed results. Some took several hours. With every life, the world layout, dungeon design, selection of quests and even the appearance of your character itself are randomised. This keeps the world enticing, as does the desire to uncover all of its secrets. It feels good once you’ve been reborn a few times and know your way around to an extent, though there are still some systems I don’t fully understand.
It’s a beautiful world, too, with a wonderfully cartoonish art style. There are some larger than life characters – literally – like a giant slovenly ginger tom and a ‘renowned’ explorer penguin by the name of Pengo, who’s lost all of his little penguin buddies.
Sadly, there are aspects which start to grind after a while. Collecting currency is a chore. There are too many bushes to cut down and pots to break in order to find coins, which have a split second of animation in which you can’t pick them up – just enough to slow the process and cause frustration. Because money is essential for stocking up on health items, ability-providing stickers and even toys, there’s the pressure to farm for it.
Some of the dungeons can be a bit of a slog, too. Each might have as many as 25 rooms, four or five keys to find, and endless, endless coins to pick up. You’ll also notice repeated rooms after a while. And whilst there was a strong opportunity for randomised bosses à la The Binding of Isaac, it’s the same few every time.
Level scaling is a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have a sense of progress, but when that progress just increases the strength and number of enemies you face, this falls slightly flat. It’s an age-old problem of level scaling since The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, however; so The Swords of Ditto perhaps couldn’t have been expected to solve it. Mind you, balancing is still unpredictable. It’ll be on an even keel for a while, then all of a sudden you’ll encounter a mob or guardian that’s dramatically more powerful and lays waste to your health bar.
More concerning is the host of bugs I encountered. Some were trivial, like framerate hitches. Others were more serious, like dungeon rooms and puzzles completely breaking. Or the consistently glitched tentacle robot which freezes and emits an ear-splitting static noise when hit and has the tendency to spawn near-infinite numbers of minions.
It’s a testament to the allure of Swords of Ditto, then, that I still battled through multiple playthroughs despite these shortcomings. Co-op, in particular, is a fantastic way to play. Two swords are better than one, lending the game a faster pace as you more efficiently dispatch enemies and gather items. Rather than multiplying the number of enemies or their sustain, your doubled strength is offset by the fact that there’s still the same limited amount of health items to go around.
Be warned that co-op is also ripe for disagreements. I hope the strength of your friendship is rock-solid on the way in, because a squabble over the best way to spend your limited time, or worse, who gets the last hot dog, could spell the end.
The Swords of Ditto is an admirable hybridisation of genres with a compelling gameplay loop. With a little streamlining and tidying up around the edges – entirely within the scope of a few post-release patches – it could prove to be something truly special.