When people think of iconic Nintendo mascots, it's easy to come up with the usual suspects. Mario, Link, Kirby, Samus... the list goes on and on. As storied as Nintendo's roster of characters happens to be, there's a lesser known protagonist that I reckon many would recognize even if they've never played his games. His name is Dillon: the gruff, silent, Lone Ranger-esque armadillo with a penchant for beating up evil baddies made of rock. Though his character model and the title Dillon's Rolling Western have graced eShop storefronts for years now, his games have never reached the mass appeal of other indies like Shovel Knight or Steamworld Dig.
With Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers, the sequel to 2013's Dillon's Rolling Western: The Last Ranger and third game in the franchise, Dillon finally gets his moment in the limelight. The 3DS is on its last legs, and developer Vanpool has pulled out all the stops to make Dead-Heat Breakers a high-profile experience. Explosive action cutscenes? Check. Impressive 3D-enhanced visuals? Check. A post-apocalyptic setting? Check.
In its abandonment of the Western theme and orange-and-brown color-scheme of past games, Dead-Heat Breakers provides an impressive and confident step forward for the series. It's gritty. It's serious. It's silly when it chooses to be. And, through it all, it's surprisingly endearing. While its uneven pacing and repetitive mission structure bring down the experience, Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers' charming characters and varied gameplay make it worth a play on your aging 3DS.
Given how most Nintendo-published games are upbeat and happy-go-lucky, Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers' setting might come as a surprise. The game takes place after the apocalypse, with civilization scattered into small settlements and threatened by rock monsters known as Grocks. As Dillon, players are tasked with defending these last bastions of humanity from the invading enemies. Though I used the word "humanity" above, that isn't quite accurate. That's because Dillon and his companions are all animals. His engineer and partner-in-crime, Russ, is a talkative squirrel. The inhabitants of these surviving settlements, likewise, are comprised of everything from foxes and cows to wolves and rams.
In an interesting wrinkle to this premise, players actually begin the game by selecting one of the created Miis on their 3DS. I, for example, chose my own likeness. After settling on one, I was brought to another screen and prompted to mash the A button as my Mii underwent a startling transformation. When the process had finished... I had become a mouse.
As it turns out, much of Dead-Heat Breakers is played through the perspective of your own "Amiimal" avatar, as the game coins it. An action-filled intro has your avatar driving a massive rig down a highway, only to be intercepted by Grocks and subsequently saved by Dillon and Russ. After the two secure the rig and its cargo, they bring you back to a large settlement that serves as your hub during the game. At this point, it is revealed that you are on a mission to save your hometown. By joining forces with Dillon and Russ, you agree to help save other nearby settlements in order to gather up enough materials to form a superweapon powerful enough to drive the Grocks out of your homeland.
From here, Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers tasks players with hiring teams of "gunners" to accompany you, Dillon, and Russ on various missions to other settlements. Completing these missions earns you cash and materials that can then be used to invest in new parts to build towards Russ' superweapon. Of course, Rome was not built in day, and neither shall this weapon; it'll take tens of missions and plenty of hours for players to reach the endgame.
While not particularly special from a narrative standpoint, Dead-Heat Breakers' story earns points for its fantastic sense of mood and place. The game has a surprisingly dark tone to it, from the lifeless expanses of the wasteland to the fortified barricades and armed guards that defend the hub city limits from invaders.
Inside the city itself, there's a small, quiet population of survivors. The gunners that serve as Dillon and Russ' teammates can be found drinking at the local bar before and after missions, as if they're treating every day and night like their last. Furthermore, the game uses the 3DS' StreetPass feature to populate the game with actual Miis and names of players you've encountered or befriended in the real world. It's a nice touch that makes traveling around the hub an especially personal experience that had me emotionally invested throughout.
Adding to Dead-Heat Breakers' strong setting is its compelling central lead. As a contrast to Russ, who is energetic and friendly, Dillon is silent and cold - perhaps a reflection of the dreariness of the world around him. He never speaks, instead opting to communicate with head nods, head shakes, and his fists when the moment allows for it. There's a sense of gravitas to the story whenever he is on screen - that despite the desolation and despair that has plagued the world, Dillon is somehow even scarier and more monstrous than whatever problems plague mankind. That compared to the small, feeble mouse that I controlled, Dillon would be the one to set the world straight. In the absence of any real storytelling here, Dead-Heat Breakers still manages to express a lot with few words at all.
Gameplay in Dead-Heat Breakers is tough to characterize as a single genre. At its core, it is half tower defense, half action game. When looked at holistically, though, it's also a mix of Persona, Catherine, Animal Crossing, and Star Fox. Confused yet? I'll explain. By hiring and paying gunners, players recruit people they can then assign to various towers around a given mission's settlement. Depending upon the gunner's weapon, the tower may either provide a short, powerful area of support, a larger area with weaker support, or a massive ring that encompasses other towers yet leaves itself open to attack.
During battles, players take control of Dillon, who can roll around the battlefield at high speeds thanks to an engine Russ designed for him. At the onset of each mission, Dillon is free to coast around the map, charging batteries and powering up towers, reinforcing barricades by mining ore deposits on the map, and finding mysterious collectibles hidden in cargo containers.
After a while, the enemy Grocks begin their assault. Their goal? To steal and feed upon the settlement's livestock, known as Scrogs. As the battle to defend these Scrogs commences, groups of Grocks appear on the map. By rolling into any singular Grock, the game transitions to a combat encounter scenario, complete with its own RPG-like battle arena.
Combat itself is comprised of several straightforward beat-em-up moves. There's a dash attack, activated by charging up speed and catapulting yourself into an enemy. There's a claw combo that deals increased damage and can be chained between multiple Grocks in the battle. Finally, there's a grinding move that, while lower powered, is effective for breaking off chucks of rock that serve as materials for Russ' superweapon or sellable loot.
While Dillon wages these battles across the map, your team of gunners are also fending off enemy Grocks in real time. Even your personal Mii gets in on the action. With a tap of the touchscreen, you can command your Mii to travel to areas of the map and engage in battles. You can even have your Mii come to your aid if you're facing a particularly tough group of enemies.
While players boost around from sections of the map, your other recruited gunners will often share information on their tower's status. Those that aren't currently under attack might complain that they aren't seeing any action. Meanwhile, those under fire may deliver cheesy lines like "Oh ho ho, a customer. Welcome... to the BLAST ZONE!".
As I had these various lines pop up on my screen, accompanied by portraits of my gunners, I immediately felt a rush of emotion and adrenaline not unlike those found in Star Fox 64. There's a real sense of urgency at play during these encounters, in part thanks to how many different systems are at play during any given scenario. Of course, there's also the fact that Star Fox and Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers both star badass furries.
After a certain number of Grocks are eliminated, the game transitions to a final, Twisted Metal-like gameplay sequence. This time around Dillon is tasked with tearing up packs of Grocks-turned-vehicles that ride around the map like a crazed biker gang. Upon their defeat, the player is finally granted his/her spoils.
Back at the hub world, time takes place by way of a day-night cycle. Players can earn extra cash by completing Persona-esque side-jobs, from sorting trash and managing a mini-mart to competing in races and hitting hi-scores at a VR arcade. There's never enough time to do everything in a single morning, and just like in Atlus' hit JRPG series, night will fall whether you like it or not. At that point, players can talk to available NPCs, buy and sell items to various shopkeepers, visit and feed a herd of Scrogs, and play a city-goer's version of pinball.
When ready, the player then re-enlists gunners by talking to them at the bar, a venue complemented by laid-back jazz and plenty of booze. As Russ and Dillon watch on, the player's Amiimal interacts with other fellow Amiimals, investing cash into mercenaries both old and new. Players then go out to battle, and the process repeats.
As evidenced by the above description, there's so much to Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers' gameplay loop. Tower defense planning, beat-em-up gameplay, vehicular combat, side-activities, NPC interactions... there's even more I've likely left out. It's in this sheer breadth and diversity of content that Dead-Heat Breakers really shines. Add this the charm of its characters and pull of its world, and Dead-Heat Breakers becomes an experience so unique that I can't help but recommend it to 3DS owners, both veterans and newcomers to the franchise alike.
It's a shame, then, that as unique and as varied as Dead-Heat Breakers may be, things get monotonous fairly quickly. Missions themselves play out in the same exact way throughout the entire campaign. Recruit gunners, set towers, mine ore, reinforce barriers, fight Grocks enemies, destroy Grock vehicles, rinse, repeat. There's very little variation within this main gameplay loop, and before long, players may find themselves fatigued due to the simplicity of combat itself and the shallowness of the rest of Dead-Heat Breakers' side-activities. The game is, as the saying goes, as wide as an ocean, but as deep as a puddle.
This is exacerbated by uneven pacing that makes an otherwise enjoyable game into an unnecessary slog for much of the main game. Hiring gunners tends to be extremely tedious, requiring players to reselect and rehire the same gunners lying around the bar for every single mission, with no option to simply keep the same squad and skip to the fun bits. Even during the pre-invasion prep period, driving to and from parts of the map can get tiresome after a while, making replaying old missions for extra cash a particularly repetitive process. Come into Dead-Heat Breakers for the unique gameplay opportunities - not for the depth of the gameplay itself.
Despite its issues, Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers is a solid recommendation for 3DS owners looking for something new. Its bold and unorthodox setting makes for an experience unlike any Nintendo game before it, while its odd mashup of different genres makes it especially rewarding for open-minded gamers. It might lack the depth of other single-genre titles, but Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers makes up for it with uniqueness and furry-filled charm.