Dillon the Armadillo is every stoic hero of the Old West… but as an anthropomorphic armadillo. He doesn’t say much because he really doesn’t need to. His prowess with weapons and dedication to defending good folks just trying to make their way is essentially his whole character. And while, until now, he’s been known for his forays within small downloadable games, Dead-Heat Breakers represents a big next step for the franchise.
Most of the game makes the transition well, in part because the premise is played in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Dillon’s a no-nonsense guy, and seeing him surrounded by a colorful cast of goofy sapient animals works pretty well. But, after a time there’s definitely the feeling that too little game is spread out over too much time. Dead-Heat Breakers grinds to a crawl at times, and while it’s far from insurmountable, it’s hard to shake the feeling that in this case less would have been more.
While Dillon may be the game’s namesake and main action hero, he’s not the actual protagonist. When you start up the game, you’ll have a Mii of your choice polymorphed into an Amiimal. And it’s this “person” that the story centers around. In short, you’ve narrowly survived an attack on your home town, and you’ve gone to get help from the infamous “Red Flash,” Dillon. On your way, your big rig is attacked by some industrial monstrosities and Dillon and his sidekick/mechanic Russ happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Most of the proceedings are played for comedy, poking at the classic tropes of the western, while mixing a good bit of modern absurdity. Not too long after that encounter, for instance, Russ determines that the team needs a massive gun. And they aren’t kidding. He maps it all out in his head and sets to work getting the materials to build a weapon that would put World War II-era train-mounted cannons to shame.
This pair of scenes (the battle between your would-be attackers and Dillon, as well as the process for gathering materials after the fact) make up the two primary phases of play. They loosely correspond to the day and night and will follow that pattern throughout. In the prep part (daytime), you’ll wander around town doing odd jobs for the people and participating in mini-games to gather up the required gear for your nightly missions. This works well for pacing at first, but you’ll start to feel the drag as the cycles wear on.
Daytime will put you through a few different main activities, including time-trial races and bouts against the series’ most iconic foe–the stone-headed, space-faring Groks. Here you can earn money which you can then toss to Wendon for supplies, which go to Russ for assembly into the Breaker (i.e. that giant gun). These are meant to help give you some practice for the more rough-and-tumble nighttime bouts but are too dissimilar to serve as a proper warm-up, and not unique enough to feel like a good break from the main action.
When that time does come, though, you and the Amiimals of your friends and other Miis on your system will assemble into a group, ready to tackle the big bad of the night. This is where the series’ touted tower defense-action fusion comes in. Here, like in the opening segment, you’ll command the Red Flash and have the option of hiring on the different Amiimals to play defense. Each carries a different weapon with their own attack styles and strengths. Ostensibly the daytime’s mini-games are there to help acclimate you to these differences, but in practice, over the game’s 15 missions, you’ll know who does what pretty quickly and can make your own appropriate choices.
Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers is best enjoyed in spurts. Powering through the game quickly reveals its many weaknesses (the toll on your hands, and the repetitiveness of the combat and day-night cycle being chief among them), but no part of the adventure is bad, really; it simply wears thin.
Once you’ve made your choices, you’re off to the fight. Your job as Dillon is to keep the pressure off the Amiimals. Using a powerful accelerator as well as Dillon’s natural claws and thick hide, you can slam and slash your foes while zooming about the map. On the bottom screen, you’ll be able to see a breakdown of the map, the attack range of your team, and which places need your help.
Recruiting more teammates helps take the pressure off you but depletes your coffers and therefore cuts your strategic options for later down quite a bit. Therein lies the big question for how to allocate resources.
Dillon himself can be great fun to play, but the controls are perplexing. Most everything is handled with the joystick and the A button; attacks are somewhat contextual but rely on holding the button down, releasing before pressing, and holding or tapping quickly to different moves. This isn’t ideal as it can be occasionally easy to accidentally dash instead of landing an attack, and the constant strain on your thumb during combat sections would have been reduced if you simply used another button or trigger when your attack was ready.
Many of these sequences devolve into high-speed chases where you’ll have to clear out every foe during their final assault. There’s an excellent bit of white-knuckled tension as you rush from enemy to enemy, spinning up, bashing them, and slashing to bits. Combined with some smart visuals and a great system for snapping you to baddies so you don’t inadvertently overshoot them makes these segments a great bit of intense fun–even if they leave your thumbs sore.
Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers is best enjoyed in spurts. Powering through the game quickly reveals its many weaknesses (the toll on your hands, and the repetitiveness of the combat and day-night cycle being chief among them), but no part of the adventure is bad, really; it simply wears thin. It’s a competent, fun little outing that’s almost perfectly suited for kids who need something silly and ridiculous that won’t require too much thought or technical mastery.