You can’t blame dungeon-crawling adventure games for often looking the same. Inherent to that genre — filled with games like The Legend of Zelda and Hyper Light Drifter — are dank caves, spooky monsters and ill-lit corridors where treasure (or evil!) awaits. Great as they are, these adventures can start to become indistinguishable.
But these games don’t always have to be that way. The Swords of Ditto, out now on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC, takes all the tropes that make adventure games a blast — like exploring dungeons with a multitude of weapons and tools — but then rips pages out of the Necronomicon and slaps them inside a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. What’s left is an adorable game with a unique, Saturday morning cartoon vibe that makes the dark adventure much brighter.
The story of The Swords of Ditto is largely by the numbers: You awake on the shores of a beach to learn you are destined to be a legendary hero, who must stop an evil villain within five days. If you don’t, the land succumbs to darkness, and you must wait 100 years to try again. The catch is that if this happens — and the game is designed to have failure as part of the process — a new, randomly generated hero awakens with hand-me-downs from the heroes that came before them.
You start over and return as anyone from an adventurous little girl (voiced by one of the developers’ nieces) to a robot or a cute animal. From there, instead of pilfering caverns and catacombs for gothic armor, you invest time buying stickers to put on your toy weapons to gain stat boosts. You’ll fast travel to the tune of your magical kazoo and fight cutesy skeletons on tennis courts. While the charming, kids’ cartoon-styled visuals aren’t what you’d expect from an adventure about saving the world from darkness, they only help make the game stand out as friendlier than your standard dungeon romp.
Many modern adventure games tend to punish players for falling in combat, often requiring them to start from scratch or hunt down what they dropped at the site of their death. In Ditto, death isn’t a punishment. Rather, it’s an exciting opportunity to start anew with some perks that will make the early goings a bit easier than last time. In this way, every loss makes you stronger and helps to make restarting less of a hassle — which is good, because that will happen a few times. It also helps that the landscape will be remixed when you reawaken, so you won’t have to go through the same map over and over.
Not everything strays from the norm. It’s still a journey across a maze-like land with a stockpile of weapons as you battle various creatures, similar to The Legend of Zelda’s top-down, 2D incarnations. Yet The Swords of Ditto left me confident that dungeon crawlers don’t have to strictly follow the same template anymore. Death doesn’t have to set players back farther than when they started. Instead, it can encourage and empower them when it’s time to step up to the plate again. In the case of The Swords of Ditto, the game is ready to dig players out with a Fisher-Price shovel.