A few hours in
I didn’t even have to cheat, how good is that? With a decent understanding of game systems, enough hamburgers to give even Jughead pause, and maybe some help from a time-bending space-whale, I managed to find Mormo’s anchors, ascend her tower, and defeat her. A hundred years of cheer and good fortune were promised to all, and the erstwhile Sword was released back into nice normal life that I assume was filled with residual hero worship.
Then the next hundred years rolled around, and the next Sword stood up to resist Mormo’s incursion once more.
So I beat Mormo again. World didn’t seem much different during play, but then what do I know? Maybe I just wasn’t seeing things. There were some new items for infusing toys with elemental power that I hadn’t seen before, that was nice. Otherwise, pretty much second verse, same as the first.
Hundred years later, next hero. This one was a wolf, for some reason. Kicked Mormo’s ass again. World didn’t seem all that different this time either. I broke a weird underground crystal and traded coal to slime-Stonehenge for uncertain power, but the grand scheme of things played out as expected.
I’m currently on my fourth promising run, in which I am a cat for some reason. Level 24 and counting. Loaded with powerful stickers and upgraded toys. I could easily go kick Mormo’s ass again if I wanted to, maybe even without taking down both anchors first. I don’t quite know if I’ll ever want to.
Here’s the thing: If you regularly check out this website — you rule, first of all, keep living your best life. If you do, you might have seen last week that after one week of The Swords Of Ditto, I felt poorly equipped to review it. I wanted to give it another week, and did, in the hopes of finding — something that I was looking for. I think there’s more to The Swords Of Ditto than meets the eye, and I want there to be more to it — something deeper than the surface gameplay, something that uses the slow background buildup and pays off the grating intentional repetition.
But I didn’t find it. And even if I did, after a dozen hours of increasingly agitated play, I don’t even know if it would matter all that much.
Yeah, that doesn’t sound great. Let me take a step back.
Because there’s honestly a lot to like about The Swords Of Ditto. Every ‘run’, every instance of one Sword going up against Mormo, takes place in a wholly new procedurally-generated land of Ditto. There’s impressive procedural generation tech at play here, that makes each world feel not only new and interesting, but intentional — there’s no way of intuiting that even the very first world you land into is procedurally generated. It’s reminiscent of how A Robot Named Fight approached procedural generation for metroidvania games, except applied to Zelda-esque 2D dungeon crawling. Every world of Ditto is made of a dozen or so interlocking rectangular fields, each with a slightly different theme (and sometimes biome). Each world has a few set elements located somewhere: A village (with ‘Ditto’ in the name), Mormo’s castle, two toy dungeons and two anchor dungeons. There’s always a lighthouse, and that’s not just a funny reference joke I’m saying. Other elements might be less consistent: I think every world has a blacksmith, and an octopus, and a slime-henge, but I’m almost positive I didn’t see a cat store or a bird martial arts dojo in each of my runs.
Importantly, the created maps aren’t just uninteresting square boxes. The interplay of different fields is always interesting: Not every field is easily traversable, and not every field opens up into every other field. Some passages are even constricted at first, blocked by giant pink slime walls that you can destroy only from one direction — and that’s almost never the direction you first encounter them from. The end result is that even when the procedural generation becomes obvious, it never results in boring worlds: The tech on display here is impressive, and deserves to be recognized as such.
And inside a run, the moment-to-moment gameplay works totally fine. Perfectly cromulent, if you’ll let me use this same joke for the hundredth time in a row and beyond. The Swords Of Ditto controls smoothly and intuitively, to the point where I struggle to remember if I ever had any input issues at all. Since so much of the gameplay is combat, and since health is (especially early on) such a rare resource, this is pretty important: I’ve played games in this vein where winning or losing any fight felt like a function of unintuitive controls or bad lag, and that can be killer for the gameplay experience. But The Swords Of Ditto has no such issues: If you die fighting here, it’s probably because you rolled into a group of seven enemies at once. Or you didn’t quite understand what the bouncing slime does. Or you forgot to throw that bomb. Or you just plum didn’t pay attention to the whining beep of a low health bar — not that that’s ever happened to me.
Particularly once you get a few Toys of Legend under your belt, larger combat scenarios are generally at least engaging, if not necessarily incredibly interesting. The small pool of enemies (that cycles through different colour variations to denote larger, more dangerous versions) are meaningfully distinct enough that each enemy merits its own consideration, even if in practice many of them can be killed by ‘wailing on them until they die’. But still — the robed wizards keep a distance, but are easily stunlocked. The oozes are immune to normal sword-fighting and arrows, so you’ll need to stun them or kill them with ranged Toys. The horn-headed wizard can summon reinforcements. The bats have a harsh short-range attack. The lumbering death knights are very tough to kill — but if you have a golf club, you can easily stun them or knock them into pits. And so on, and so forth. It’s not necessarily gameplay to entertain you for the ages, but there’s enough depth here to keep you good for a few runs.
And that’s before we get into the limited elemental system, which sees fire attacks burn plants and ignite the poison from toxic attacks, and ether attacks slowly freeze enemies in chunks of crystal.
The game world levels up with you, so while you’ll always find enemies just above or just below your power range, there’s really no ‘out-growing’ enemies. Instead, your power increases come from finding new Toys, upgrading those Toys, and primarily from equipping Stickers. You have a small number of Sticker slots on your head, body, arm, and sword, into each of which you can equip any relevant Stickers you’ve found. Basic Stickers give a particular ability: The Tumbleweed lets you roll farther, the Tank unlocks a Dash attack, the Torch imbues your sword with fire, and so on. Rarer Stickers, which you can buy or trade for or find as dungeon rewards, give that same ability plus one or two other things. In practice, once you get a few runs in, it’s entirely possible to use specialized Toys and preferred Stickers to craft a play style you like: I enjoy settings things on fire with my sword and laser pointer ring and doing roll-attacks off my increased roll, while slowly regenerating health over time. You can also poison enemies or crystallize them, drain health, use spin and charge attacks, and increase your health and attack power during the day or the night.
Oh yeah, because that’s a thing: As your time to face Mormo ticks ever-on, Ditto moves from day to night and back. This has two general effects: One, different, stronger monsters tend to come out at night, making travel a little harder — if potentially more rewarding, if you know where to go. And two, it just looks nice.
In general, the Ditto world is just… nice to be in. It works at the experience it wants to present. During my first full run, I was routinely surprised by how well the procedural generation works: So many random dungeons and quests and secrets felt like they obviously belonged where I found them. If you told me these maps were hand-designed, I probably wouldn’t be too skeptical. Particularly the Anchor Dungeons work incredibly well here, as each of them is keyed to the specific Toy of Legend you’ll have found on beforehand. And like, actually keyed: The LP dungeon has puzzles that require you to bounce the frisbee to a target. The Golf Club dungeon makes you play golf. The Laser Pointer dungeon has distant targets that teleport you places if hit by the laser. The Drone dungeon requires that you switch between the Drone and yourself to solve puzzles and hit targets. And so on, and so forth.
All in all, The Swords Of Ditto is a fun little game to play the first time around. Or until you win the first full run, basically.
From the second run onward, it starts losing some of that glamour.
The problem isn’t so much that The Swords Of Ditto repeats itself. I figured that would happen, it’s acceptable. The problem is that it repeats itself verbatim. The major NPCs you meet in every world introduce themselves with the exact same speech every single time. Puku has about three different speeches for when you wake up, and two or so dialogues for when you face Mormo. The first time you find an empty anchor room and Mormo taunts you with “you use this strategy every time, don’t you think I’d figure it out“, it’s a funny lampshade; the third time, it’s just grating.
Bit by bit, the paint flakes off. The general routine never changes; the game hardly acknowledges its own conceit, that hundreds of years are passing. It’s the same dungeons in the same setup every time. And hey, you might expect that you’re at least served different Toy Dungeons: Surely the game wouldn’t give you the same Toys and the same challenges twice in a row? But I’ll do you one better: The game doesn’t even care to check which Toys you actually own. The last Toy Dungeon I played, I was ‘rewarded’ with the Golf Club — a Toy I had used extensively in the previous boss fight. And The Swords Of Ditto ignores this; not even so much as a lampshade.
The most frustrating part of all, though, is — I can tell all of this is intentional. Reading the text logs and picking up what’s said between the lines, it’s clear that in the narrative fiction of The Swords Of Ditto, none of what you’re told is happening is actually happening — or at the very least, it’s all heavily staged. Ditto is trapped in a curse of repetition, Puku and Mormo are actors or pawns or victims or some combination of all three — there are missing gods and present gods and all that jazz. I can tell there’s more beneath the surface, or rather, I want there to be more beneath the surface.
I just can’t get to it. I’ve played this game for twelve hours now, three successful runs and a fourth in the works, and I do not know how to push this forward. I don’t even know if it’s possible! I think that it is: There are enigmatic places in the game world that seem connected to a larger plot. Serendipity’s shrine asks for five orbs, which spawn in bubble monsters randomly across the world… but I’ve only ever been able to get four. The Blacksmith requires four components to upgrade your weapon… but I’ve only ever found three. There’s an Air Kazoo stand in Mormo’s castle, but I don’t know how to activate it, or what to do with it. There’s obviously something playing, but it’s just out of reach.
This was what my second week of play was for: I didn’t want to review The Swords Of Ditto ‘knowing’ that there was more to this game than I could experientially give it credit for. I didn’t want to say ‘this game is neat at first, but it gets repetitive real fast’ if what actually happens is the intentional breaking of that repetition. That would be interesting. I wanted to push through, see the other side, give the game a fair shake.
But twelve hours and two weeks in, I no longer know if it matters or not. Even if there is a grand payoff behind all this… I’ve had to play how many hours of The Swords Of Ditto to get there? How many hours of feeling increasingly frustrated at a game flaunting its false repetition, but refusing to help me along on the path? It’s 2018 now, and all of us who grew up with games like these are long in possibility and short in time. My baby nephew would probably enjoy a game based on endlessly replaying things until they get it right. But me?
I do have next week’s column to think about.
Literally the night before this review, I played through my most recent The Swords Of Ditto playthrough and finally made meta-story progress. I think. It was weird, and it wasn’t based on what I expected, and I’m still not entirely sure that what transpired is actually what was intended — maybe I accidentally bypassed an inventory trigger in a really dumb way. Whatever the cause, though, I can’t deny that I want to explore this further now: I’m a sucker for resolving stories.
It doesn’t change my overall view on The Swords Of Ditto, though. Which is this: The Swords Of Ditto is obviously a game made with a lot of care, attention, and love for the genre. It looks and sounds great, it plays well, and it has very impressive proc-gen technology at its core. It also gets repetitive too fast, in a way that alerts the player to the intentional nature of it without actually giving them the tools to proceed. It’s the equivalent of having a game character complain about a game system: Having your guy say that random battles are a pain doesn’t stop them from being a pain. And having play events literally repeat run after run, to make obvious how fabricated everything, doesn’t actually stop them from being repetitive.
Oh, also worth noting is that I’m pretty sure the game is still being patched regularly. That’s good, insofar that the designers aren’t letting it lie fallow — but it does mean some of the things I complain about right now might not exist later on. Had I only played until last week, I might have complained that your character loses all Toys and Stickers in a new run — that’s just no longer a thing now. So keep that in mind.
If you think yourself a better puzzle cracker than me, or if you just enjoy the aesthetic and the gameplay of endless dungeon solving, The Swords Of Ditto might be right up your alley. I’ve been told it’s a lot of fun in couch co-op, too, so that’s worth looking into. It’ll run you twenty Steambucks, all in all.
Jarenth prefers listening to podcasts for games like this. Suggest good podcasts to him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?