Review: The Swords of Ditto (PS4)

Starting The Swords of Ditto was an absolute joy. The whimsical cartoon world of Ditto is beautiful and packed with playful touches, like stickers that give you new abilities and a fairy dung beetle that acts as your guide. But by about three hours in I wanted to tear my own face off in frustration. This game may look cute, but it has a beating heart of pure evil.

Full disclosure: I’ve played around 8 hours of The Swords of Ditto and I haven’t managed to finish it in that time. But I also can’t face going back and playing it any more, for the reasons I’ll explain below.

The main conceit of the game is that a witch called Mormo arrives in Ditto every 100 years to cause mayhem. And every 100 years, a chosen hero becomes the Sword of Ditto and tries to defeat her. But, and here’s the killer bit, if you die on your quest to face down Mormo, then that’s it. Mormo has won that time around, and the game picks up 100 years later with another hero. Most importantly, you lose all of the items you’ve gained – and you have to start right back at the beginning.

It’s not quite that simple though. For a start, the world is apparently randomly generated each time, so although there will always be a town, for example, it might be in a different spot or called a different name. Each time you start your quest, the aim is the same – retrieve a toy from a toy dungeon, then use that toy to complete two more dungeons that will destroy Mormo’s magic ‘anchors’ and weaken her for the final fight. Or if you want, you can just fight Mormo straight away when she’s at full strength.

The random generation means that nothing is quite the same thing each time – although generally it’s pretty similar. You might end up with a different toy each time as well, like a laser ring or a fun little drone that you can use to ambush enemies. But if you die, you lose everything.

Well, almost everything. The sword itself gets stronger, so you keep the experience points you’ve accrued. But every time you die, the enemies all level up, too, so overall there’s no real effect. You also get to keep the money you’ve collected, which you can spend on food (health), stickers (perks) and toys (additional weapons). But after a while I gave up on purchasing items from the shops – there seemed to be little point in doing so when everything I owned would be lost the next time I perished.

Eventually you do unlock the option to keep hold of a few things after you die. If you deliver eight celestial tokens to a whale statue, which represents the goddess Serendipity, enemies start dropping celestial fragments as well as coins when they die. Then the next time YOU die, you can trade the celestial fragments you’ve collected for the option to keep some of your items.

But the rarer or more powerful the item, the more fragments it costs to keep it. At one point I discovered a cave with the PS4-exclusive LocoRoco crossover quest, which yielded a cool sticker that let me roll around continuously. But when I died I discovered that limited sticker cost a whopping 2,000 fragments to keep, and I had to give it up. As you can imagine, that was immensely frustrating.

You can unlock what are essentially extra lives by collecting enough celestial fragments – but you need to gather a lot of them. And to be honest, by the point that this ability was unlocked, I was utterly fed up.

Which is a shame, because at its heart, The Swords of Ditto is a charming, fun, witty RPG, and I really thought I’d love it. The swords and other weapons are fun to use, the dialogue made me laugh, the art style is gorgeous, and the enemies are imaginatively designed. But that rule about losing everything when you die feels so incredibly punishing that it taints the whole game.

Basically, after eight hours of play, I felt like I’d got absolutely nowhere. I was still attempting the same thing – beating the toy dungeon and destroying the anchors – that I was trying to do on my first go. And with every death, all of my progress was undone. I actually felt like I was making things worse – the land of Ditto corrupts or improves according to how well you do on your quest, and it was a miserable place by the time I decided to stop throwing good hours after bad.

If only you could just keep the things you collect, simply as evidence of some kind of progress! If only you weren’t locked into some endless Groundhog Day of attempting the same mission again and again! I kept imagining better, less punishing ways of using the same system. Perhaps there are eight toy dungeons on the map, and you keep the things you retrieve from each, meaning there’s no need to return to one – and if you’re very good, you could nab all eight toys in one life. Perhaps Mormo has castles that can be attacked and weakened to reduce her power, but that can also be repaired over hundreds of years, so there’s a constant back and forth between the influence of good and evil. Anything but this brutal cycle of despair. After a couple of hours, I knocked the difficulty down to ‘Relaxed’ to see whether that helped, and certainly there’s a marked increase in health-giving items – although even then, they’re nowhere near as plentiful as, say, the hearts in Zelda games. Yet still you get this steel gauntlet slap around the face every time your health drains to zero. DO OVER.

Things might improve in the two-player mode, but sadly I can’t vouch for this. I attempted to persuade the games-averse Mrs Merriweather into joining me for a bit of couch co-op ‘merely for evaluation purposes’, but she was having none of it. So the two-player mode remains a bit of an unknown for me I’m afraid, although apparently you can revive your fallen teammate with a hug, which sounds very cute and could help with the difficulty. For what it’s worth, I love the idea of a two-player mode – Secret of Mana back on the SNES showed how great RPGs like this can be in local multiplayer, and it’s a shame the format has been used only very few times since.

Actually, I love the IDEA of The Swords of Ditto as a whole. The different generations of heroes is a nice touch, and the world itself is beautiful. But the balance between risk and reward is all wrong. It was bad enough dying at the hands of a tricky boss and realising that all my hard won progress had been undone. But other times I’d die by stupidity or seeming chance, not realising how low my health was as I blithely took on a hoard of low-level enemies, or getting poisoned and only noticing when my health bar petered out. Those times were REALLY infuriating. Considering how colourful and kid-friendly it is, The Swords of Ditto has stirred some surprisingly robust, archaic and adult-only words from my usually coy throat.

In short, The Swords of Ditto plays beautifully, but only approach this game if you’re prepared to take on a stern challenge – and you have the patience of a saint.

The Swords of Ditto is available for PC and PS4. We reviewed the PS4 version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for The Swords of Ditto was provided by Indigo Pearl. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.