Publisher: Square Enix / Developer: Square Enix / Played on: 3DS / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Fantasy Violence)
It was 10 years ago that gamers first picked up the keyblade, battled with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, and met the eager hero Sora in the very first Kingdom Hearts. The newest iteration of the game, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, is a step in the right direction for the action RPG series, introducing new gameplay mechanics, characters, and storylines. Though it’s not Kingdom Hearts 3 that gamers have been so eagerly craving, at least it has a 3 in the title. That counts, right?
Dream Drop Distance follows the events that took place at the end of Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded. The evil Xehanort is poised to return and wreak havoc on the universe, so Yen Sid tasks Sora and Riku with completing the Mark of Mastery exam to prove they are true keyblade masters and protect the worlds from the emerging threat. In order to show their worthiness both set out on separate journeys to awaken the sleeping worlds recovering from damages suffered from the heartless in previous games in the series. Each world, like The Grid from Tron: Legacy and Prankster’s Paradise from Pinocchio, is split into two versions, one for Sora to explore, and one for Riku. Though the two friends are never fighting together, the actions of one usually lead to a reaction in the other. For example, in The Grid Sora works with Quorra to defeat Tron, while Riku travels with Sam and Flynn to stop CLU. The interweaving story is very well done; playing through each world and seeing the outcome is as fun as slashing away at enemies. That is if you can follow everything. The story has been a confusing and muffled mess since the very first game, with one answer being followed by two more questions. Square Enix tries to help with this somewhat by giving primers that describe the entire plot of the previous games in the series, as well as flashback cutscenes that flesh out the scenarios, but even then the game can be hard to follow. If you can comprehend the plot then Dream Drop Distance is a very enjoyable game in the KH narrative, comparable to the entries in the main series. If you can’t then you’ll be scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on or why you should even care about these characters.
Dream Drop Distance takes the improvements from the PSP title Birth By Sleep and expands upon them. The core of gameplay revolves around swinging your keyblade and casting spells to defeat enemies in real time. The Command Deck is a customizable assortment of attacks and spells you can use in conjunction with Riku and Sora’s keyblade attacks. Upgrading the Command Deck with more powerful spells and attacks, like Blizzard Strike and stronger Cure magic, becomes crucial during the latter stages of the game. As I said before, you play as both Riku and Sora, but not at the same time. The Drop gauge slowly diminishes as you play as one character, and when it depletes you “Drop” into a slumber and resume play right where you left off with the other character. This can be bad at times; on two occasions I dropped in the middle of a boss battle, and had to start the entire battle over after dropping again. The game tries to tell you that Sora plays differently than Riku, but aside from aesthetics in attack animations there really isn’t a huge gap between them in gameplay.
Aside from that, the basic gameplay system should be familiar to KH fans. It’s everything else that makes the game feel fresh. The biggest addition to gameplay comes in the form of Flowmotion attacks. By jumping off walls, sliding into enemies, and leaping from ledges, you can perform special attacks you couldn’t otherwise do. These attacks deal more damage than usual attacks, and are way more flashy and fun to watch. Not only that, but some enemies take more damage from Flowmotion attacks, and the game does its best to encourage you to use them every chance you get by placing railings and launching points throughout each level. Flowmotion not only adds another effective method of dispatching foes, but it is also pretty cool to watch Sora and Riku fly around the stage beating the crap out of everything in their path.
Another change for the series is the introduction of Dream Eaters, little creatures you can befriend that grant you special abilities and bonuses. The Dream Eaters basically take the place of your party members, as you can have up to three with you at one time. These little guys give benefits like increased damage or randomly casting spells for you. On top of that, assuming your link with a Dream Eater is full, you can combine with them to enter a powered-up mode and deal more damage and gain new attacks for a short while. Though I was initially saddened by the omission of Disney characters as allies, having the Dream Eaters gives a lot more options for customization.
There’s also a ton to do outside of combat. You can improve your relationship and subsequently the effectiveness of your Dream Eater by petting them and playing a variety of minigames with each. You enter Dive Mode when you travel to each new world, which is a Star Fox-like minigame which has you collecting stars, avoiding obstacles, and defeating enemies in a free fall. Scattered throughout each world are portals that allow you to link with others Dream Eaters, gaining their powers for a short time. Speaking of which, you can collect ingredients and recipes to create even more powerful Dream Eaters. In short, there’s plenty to do in Dream Drop Distance to keep you busy, and the whole game keeps rewarding you for what you do.
You’ll notice Dream Drop Distance’s incredible use of color the minute you press play. Every zone you explore and character you interact with is unique. Each of the game’s seven worlds has its own distinct look and feel: I personally thought The Grid from Tron: Legacy looked especially well done, capturing the setting of the film perfectly. The animation holds up well when in the midst of combat too, never slowing down or showing any other visual hiccups. The game’s many cutscenes are praiseworthy too, featuring smooth animation and voice acting. The dizzying nature of combat and Flowmotion attacks can cause you to lose your sense of direction, and not aiding in the matter is a camera that takes some getting used to (even though you can manually operate it). Due to the hectic nature of the combat, playing the game with the 3D slider turned on makes following the action even more difficult. During the cutscenes however it’s nice to see characters pop out in 3D, if for nothing more than novelty. Overall the visuals are on par with that of Kingdom Hearts II on the PS2, which is a compliment for the handheld title.
Dream Drop Distance borrows heavily from the PSP’s Birth By Sleep when regarding control. A dedicated jump, attack, and dash button make defeating baddies a cinch, and the aforementioned Command Deck takes up the remaining 3DS face button. Using the control stick moves Sora/Riku while using the direction pad cycles through each assigned slot of the Command Deck, making casting a specific spell or using an item simple and efficient. The touch screen is used to perform Reality Shift commands: extra attacks that utilize a unique aspect of the world you are in. These special moves range from flicking exploding barrels at enemies to riding giant bubbles to stop foes. Reality Shift attacks come off as more gimmicky than necessary, but they are there if you want to spice the game up even more. While playing with your Dream Eater, the 3DS’ back camera is turned on, creating an augmented reality scenario with your little pet appearing in the actual world for you to play with. Not only that, but you can use specially designed AR cards to unlock rare Dream Eaters. There is definitely a lot going on with KH3D, but the controls all feel intuitive: attacking feels normal, pulling of Flowmotion attacks after casting a spell is no sweat, rubbing the belly of your fat cat pet is simple, etc.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance isn’t Kingdom Hearts 3, but it’s a very bright sign of what is to come. Taking some of the best parts of past games and weaving them into a worthwhile story makes this one of the better KH games to come out in years. The story can get confusing and nonsensical at times, and the camera gets caught up in some funky angles, but these are tiny flaws in an otherwise stellar RPG. If you call yourself a Kingdom Hearts fan then you have to check this one out. Even if you’re not familiar with the series, Dream Drop Distance is a good starting point for newcomers. Just don’t expect to completely understand the story.