Kingdom Hearts, in many ways, has always been about two halves coming together to form a whole. Light and dark, good and evil, Final Fantasy and Disney, the left and right hands on your Playstation control. The latest entry in the franchise, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, not only has a ridiculous name, but takes this formula to the next level by giving you two playable characters, two divergent storylines and too little Donald and Goofy. The question you’re probably asking is “Does it work?” and actually, that’s a story of two halves as well.
It’s been over ten years since the principal ideas behind Kingdom Hearts were conjured up in the cosy elevator of a Japanese high-rise. The story began with a young boy, Sora, and his good mates Riku and Kairi running around the sandy shores of Destiny Island before being entangled in a plot to save the world. It was way back in 2002 when we learned of the evil intentions of the remarkably-Sephirothian Xehanort (read: Ansem) and set out as Sora, to stop him from enveloping the world in darkness.
In Dream Drop Distance, the plot is pushed forward by the threat of Xehanort’s impending return. In an effort to oppose the darkness, Fantasia’s own Yen Sid, the Dumbledore of our tale if you will, tasks Sora and Riku with the Mark of Mastery exam so that they may become Keyblade Masters. A number of worlds have fallen asleep and are being invaded through their Keyholes, by the rainbow-licked Dream Eaters. The exam tasks the two boys with sealing the Keyholes of each world and waking them from their dreaming state. It’s all a bit convoluted and sounds a bit ridiculous when you put it on paper, I know. Without having played the handheld titles in the franchise before 3D, I found myself staring out the window as my brain melted into a gelatinous ball of confusion.
The first half of the game throws so many tutorials and flashbacks at you that it feels disjointed and slow. It’s hard to want to sit down and actually play because time in the game world is so limited. Only in the latter half do you find things progress quickly and the story moves at a pace much closer to a runaway train; albeit one that runs on steam. The confusion never subsides however, and as the game comes to a close you may begin to roll your eyes at the deus ex machina used to cover those shiny plot holes and get you ready for Kingdom Hearts III.
The major new feature implemented in 3D is the Drop Gauge or the most annoying alarm clock of all time. If you think waking up to a constant dinging at 7am is bad, wait until this bad boy goes off. Every time the Drop Gauge empties, you are forced to swap from Riku to Sora, or vice versa, and continue their side of the story from where you last left off. The idea is fantastic, allowing you to switch between two playable characters in two parallel storylines and keeps the game fresh, especially if you have been struggling in a certain area for a while. Yet at the same time it is implemented carelessly.
Drops often occur at the worst of times, and in some cases cause you to lose progress upon your return. Each drop also comes with a screen that wraps up your time as either protagonist and allows you to put ‘Drop Points’ (collected from defeating Dream Eaters) into certain stats for your opposite character. This comes in the form of attack or magic gains, or even new abilities. The frequency of forced drops puts a limit on your spending but this adds an element of strategy and forward thinking that is unnecessary. It could be argued this forces you to better plan ahead, but in a game that moves as fast as Kingdom Hearts, that isn’t the task at the forefront of your mind. Moreover, the game allows you to manually drop at any time you like, which sort of defeats the purpose of forced drops in the first place.
Fortunately, the combat is still interesting, maintaining the upbeat, combo-based tempo of its predecessors. Dream Drop Distance pillages the use of the ‘Command Deck’ from Birth by Sleep to great effect and adds a couple of neat, if not flawed, elements to the system. Most importantly, Donald and Goofy have been replaced as your jousting buddies because they seemingly have important things to do like not-star-in-feature-films. Instead, you get two new compadres in the form of friendly Dream Eaters, otherwise known as ‘Spirits,’ which act as your allies in battle.
The Spirit system is most easily described as Nintendogs-Pokemon Cooking. It involves the procurement of recipes from chests and quests and the use of Dream Pieces (dropped by enemies) to create colourful friendly animals. Once you’ve created a spirit you can enter the spirit menu and rub a spirit’s belly, poke it with your stylus, feed it treats that build it stats or play mini-games with it. It’s all a little cheesy and distils that sense of pace that Kingdom Hearts is renowned for. It’s bothersome to open the menu though, namely due to slow loading and having to continuously return in order to upgrade spirit stats to gain more abilities. Furthermore, there is no AI tweaking, so you can’t dedicate specific tasks to your spirit allies in the hope they will only cast Cure or defend you during battle.
The combat stays true to the series’ roots otherwise and adds two new features: Reality Shifts and Flowmotion. The former involves the use of the touch screen in dispatching enemies and the latter involves Sora and Riku’s movements around the screen. Reality Shifts are awkward in that, in the midst of battle, you are required to use the stylus to draw lines on the screen, or move objects around. It slows down the speed of combat even though each Shift can cause powerful damage. There were numerous times where I had to fumble around the back of my 3DS for my stylus. The other half of the equation, Flowmotion, is a little better incorporated, allowing you to bounce of walls, dash long distances and attack enemies with new moves. It inherits the speed of the game but Kingdom Hearts’ Greatest Enemy Of All Time, the camera, serves to infuriate you as you struggle to land Flowmotion attacks.
Of course, Kingdom Hearts is lauded for its wonderful use of Disney-themed worlds and Dream Drop Distance is no exception. The first half of the game introduces you to the worlds of Tron: Legacy, Pinocchio and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Importantly, each world has two distinct areas that can only be accessed by one protagonist. This doesn’t quite mean there are 14 worlds as there is significant overlap but it is nice to know that you’re not replaying worlds with a different leading man. The latter half of the game is much stronger than the first, predominantly due to the fact that you’re not bombarded with cutscenes and tutorials, even though it scrapes the bottom of the barrel in terms of Disney franchises.
Interestingly enough, not a single character from the Final Fantasy franchise appears on screen in this game (perhaps Square Enix has taken my advice). Instead their names are used for Link Portals: gameplay devices that allow you to earn rewards for completing specific goals in battle. That’s not to say Square Enix hasn’t injected some of their blood into the game because The World Ends With You stars Neku and Shiki make appearances early on in the game. It’s an unusual decision but one that was met happily.
All in all, Kingdom Hearts fanatics will want to get their hands on this game, with enough of the panache and Disney nostalgia that made the series huge in the first place. Even though the new features are a little clumsy, the storyline is about as enjoyable as having wet socks and the petting of your Spirits is dull and uninspired, these shortcomings are made up for with the game’s combat, soundtrack (big ups to Yoko Shimomura and co.), collection and exploration elements of each carefully crafted world.
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