Third time's the charm.
Five years have passed since Dillon last appeared in his own game and the landscape has changed immensely since then. When Dillon’s Rolling Western: The Last Ranger hit, the Wii U was six months old and still had some semblance of hope. Now, in 2018, when Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers launches on 3DS, the Switch has been out for more than a year. But Dillon’s latest is on the system he started on and the time off has done the game very well.
My experience with Dillon’s first game was a rough one. I didn’t enjoy it much at all despite generally liking the world and characters. The Western theme suited the silent but deadly drifter idea of Dillon well. Dead-Heat Breakers draws far more inspiration from the likes of Mad Max though - far more dystopian than the Wild West - and it makes for a more interesting environment. The story isn’t a driving force, but the setup of your animal Mii (or “Amiimal”) teaming up with Dillon to save the day is fun.
The action and tower defense blend of past games in the series is still here, but it’s changed for the better. The difficulty is less punishing and the controls are mapped to buttons as opposed to the touch screen, which is a very welcome change since frantic stylus taps don’t hold up well over frantic combat sequences. You place Amiimals as gunners at turrets and all of the Miis are pulled from your 3DS. It makes for a goofy and amusing interactive element as Reggie Fils-Aime shows up as a bull with a cannon and your roster of Mii friends and celebrities are mapped to animals ranging from lambs to foxes. The writing is all decidedly tongue-in-cheek, making the Mii moments feel like a weird pseudo follow-up to Miitopia or Tomodachi Life.
After a round of setup to explore the map and setup your gunners, the battle kicks off as the villainous Grocks start to descend upon your map trying to take down your towers and bases. In this point, you control Dillon but you’re also guiding your personal Mii around the map as well, bringing a little more depth to the strategy. Dillon’s main task in these segments is to take down bigger enemies while your gunners take care of the easier ones. It’s also beneficial to go after specific types of baddies because the material drops can be used to upgrade items.
When the remaining Grocks dips below a certain amount, the action kicks over to a racing mode where Dillon, in Sonic-like ball form, speeds around a track to catch up to vehicular Grocks, slamming into them with proper timing to destroy them. A time limit keeps this segment focused and it’s a fantastic finale to the tower defense sections. It also feels really good to push those dastardly rock monsters off the road.
If this were the past two Dillon games, that’d be the whole game - rinse and repeat the tower defense segments. That would have been a marked improvement over Rolling Western by itself, but Dead-Heat Breakers adds more to the experience with a much more involved town segment. The flow eventually settles into segments where your Mii completes odd jobs around town to earn money followed up by tower defense battles. The tasks you take on for funding aren’t terribly intricate, including a racing game, an arcadey combat game, and a simple shop simulation, but the variety is what helps make these straightforward side gigs work so well. The individual elements might not be all that strong, but together, combined with the pleasant visuals and charming post-apocalyptic style, it’s much more than the sum of its parts. That being said, the pace of the game is on the slower side, and the repetition of the town portions certainly makes it feel much longer.
After how much I didn’t like Dillon’s past adventures, I had low expectations for Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers. The final game’s quality is a revelation, as it turned out to be so much fun, with smart tweaks to the tower defense bits and a much more fleshed out overall game with an involved town segment. After years of digging Dillon as a character, it’s a relief to thoroughly enjoy one of his games. The only shame is that Dead-Heat Breakers is launching on the 3DS at a time when the system is old hat. If you have the desire to put down your Switch and play some 3DS, Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers is very much recommended. Here’s hoping the silent armadillo makes it to the greener pastures of the Switch in the future.