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Review | Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance

by on August 13, 2012
 

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been 10 years since we heard the seemingly insane idea of a crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney. In that time, Kingdom Hearts has been a divisive series. Kingdom Hearts fans are among the most passionate you’ll find in the gaming world, yet many simply don’t get the appeal. For better or worse, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessors.  Fans of the series will be thrilled with its wonderful production values, but its design choices and style will be a turn off to many.

Like every other game in the franchise, Kingdom Hearts 3D involves touring various Disney themed worlds with an adolescent protagonist while defeating legions of the latest Heartless equivalents. This time around, you control Sora and Riku within the realm of dreams. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to awaken seven sleeping worlds. To do so, you’ll have to contend with countless Dream Eaters, which are similar to the Heartless, Nobodies, or Unversed. If you accomplish your task, you’ll be declared true Keyblade masters.

 

As always, you’re going to be beating down monsters.  Lots of monsters.

Kingdom Hearts 3D’s gameplay hasn’t changed all that much since the last original entry, Birth By Sleep, which in turn was a natural evolution of Kingdom Hearts 2’s mechanics. In other words, if you’ve played a Kingdom Hearts game before, you should feel right at home. Beating down enemies is accomplished by mashing the attack button, dodging and countering share a button, and you can map a set number of commands and spells to the X button.  The d-pad is used to scroll through your available items, and L and R control your camera.  If the system sounds a bit unintuitive, that’s because it is.  Manipulating the camera with the L and R buttons is surprisingly comfortable, but accessing crucial commands is less intuitive as it forces you to take your hand off of the analog slider and fiddle around with the Dpad.  Hopefully, Square will come up with an easier way to manage the large amount of available commands in future installments of the series.

While there are no Earth shattering changes to be found in Kingdom Hearts 3D, several smaller but meaningful changes have been implemented.  The most immediate of these changes is the “drop” system. Players control both Riku and Sora as they go on parallel adventures. At set time intervals, you’ll switch from one character to another. As you play, you’ll accumulate drop points from defeated enemies. When you switch between characters, you can use drop points to power up the incoming character. If you like, you can switch manually at any time, but doing so will forfeit potential power ups. The system will take a bit of time to wrap your head around, and it can be especially annoying during boss battles, but it’s a good way to juggle the two narratives.

Kingdom Hearts 3D also adds in what is called the flowmotion system. Using the Y button, you can kick off walls, spin on poles, and generally bounce around their environment. This new found ability can be used to quickly traverse areas and makes platforming and exploration flow a lot more smoothly than they did in the past. Flow motion also can be implemented in combat allowing you to use your surroundings to your advantage.

Also new to the series is the addition of Spirits. Sora was flanked by Donald and Goofy in his earlier adventures, but this time he’ll be accompanied by Spirits, friendly versions of the game’s enemies that can be created and raised. Raising your spirits will give Sora and Riku access to new spells and passive abilities. Spirits have a link meter which fills as you battle.  With a full link meter, you can link with your spirits to perform special techniques.  When Sora links with spirits, he performs powerful screen clearing special attacks, and when Riku links with spirits he fuses with them temporarily to power himself up. While the addition of spirits and flowmotion don’t revolutionize Kingdom Hearts battle system, they do build on what was already a pretty strong foundation. Kingdom Hearts 3D’s combat is fast, fluid, and fun. You’ll have access to tons of satisfying ways to dispatch the countless foes that will assail you.

Dream Eaters add a Pokemon like vibe to the Kingdom Hearts franchise.

As is typically the case with Kingdom Hearts games, Kingdom Hearts 3D makes excellent use of the hardware it runs on. The graphics are among the best that you’ll see on the 3DS, rivaled only by Resident Evil Revelations and Nintendo’s best first party efforts. In a pleasant surprise, the 3DS’s 3D capabilities really do enhance the experience. Stereoscopic 3D usually adds a pleasing sense of depth to your environment, but there are some instances where the 3D effects are used in truly creative and impressive ways. If you don’t like playing in 3D, you can keep your slider turned down, but those who play in 3D will be rewarded.

Sound is another strong point for the game. Kingdom Hearts features an excellent combination of original tunes, old favorites from the series, and Disney songs. Voice acting is strong throughout. Many of the original Disney voice actors reprise their roles, and new voice actors do a great job of mimicking the originals. Voices for Kingdom Hearts original characters are universally solid. On the whole, the audiovisual package is top notch. The Fantasia based world is particularly beautiful.

One of Walt’s most beautiful works is one of the highlights of the Kingdom Hearts franchise.

One of the most pleasant surprises is the variety found withing Kingdom Heart’s worlds. In earlier entries of the series, many of the worlds felt strikingly similar. This time around, each world has an entirely unique feel with set pieces and objectives that change in each world. While you’ll traverse each world with Sora and Riku, each travels through different portions of the world and each quest feels unique. To top it off, the game has a nice variety of bosses to overcome.

The game is very Japanese in its execution, and may not appeal to Western sensibilities. In particular, the story is surprisingly dense. If you haven’t followed the series across the PS2, PSP, GBA, and DS, you’ll likely have a hard time grasping a few plot points. It doesn’t help that the story involves time travel, dreams, dreams within dreams, alternate realities, and enough confusing plot devices to leave Christopher Nolan scratching his head. Expect to hear long musings on darkness and light, and somewhat repetitive speeches on the importance of friendship that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of Naruto. In short, if you’re not a fan of Japanese style storytelling, you might not be able to invest in Kingdom Hearts’ narrative. On the contrary, if you’re an Otaku, you’ll probably love the story.

If you don’t know who these guys are, some of Dream Drop Distance’s plot points may fly over your head.

Dream Drop Distance begins to tie together many of the loose ends that have been created through various Kingdom Hearts spin offs. The story’s main objective seems to be setting up Kingdom Hearts 3. There are several important plot points and a few moments that may bring mist to the eyes of longtime fans. The latest spin off should have fans even more desperate for the long awaited Kingdom Hearts 3, but the story doesn’t feel self contained. At the end of the game, you probably won’t feel the sense of catharsis that a complete story should provide.  In some ways, Dream Drop Distance feels like an extremely long Kingdom Hearts 3 trailer.

Like the story, the gameplay can also be a bit dense. If you’ve played earlier Kingdom Hearts games, particularly Birth By Sleep, you’ll have no trouble getting into the swing of things. Newer players may find themselves adrift in a sea of menus. Between your command deck, passive commands, spirits, ability linking, and inventory management, there is a lot to learn. In general, Kingdom Hearts 3D is not especially friendly to new players. Despite some tutorials and refreshers on the franchise’s history, novices will have trouble gathering their bearings.

Fans of the criminally overlooked The World Ends With You will be happy to see a few old friends.

Seeing Sora and Riku’s journey through to the end will take you somewhere around 20 hours.  There are a few minigames and some unlockable challenges to compete which will significantly raise the game’s length for the devoted. There are multiple difficulty levels to be conquered, and the more intense difficulty levels offer a surprisingly hearty challenge. Dream Drop Distance lacks the amount of content and replayability of its console big brothers, but it offers a respectable amount of on the go gaming.

Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance delivers on everything you would expect out of a Kingdom Hearts game. The production values are among the best in the industry, the gameplay is solid, and the story has a unique charm despite its unnecessary extravagances. If you’re too cool and manly to play a game that features Mickey Mouse as its chief badass, or you don’t want to listen to speeches about the nature of light and darkness, Dream Drop Distance won’t change your opinion of the franchise. At the same time, it’s hard to fault Square for giving fans almost exactly what they want. While I’m still hoping for something more revolutionary for Sora’s triumphant console return, Dream Drop Distance shows that the old formula still has a bit of magic left.

Pros

  • Incredible Production Values
  • Satisfying Combat System
  • Flowmotion and Dream Eater System Are Nice Additions To The Franchise
  • Engaging Story
  • Strong Level Design

Cons

  • Story May Be Difficult For Newcomers To Follow
  • Gameplay May Be Complex For Newcomers
  • Few Major Additions To The Franchise

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