- Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance
- CLR [rating:5.0]
Release Date: July 20, 2012
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action role playing game
A Game That’s All Heart
The Kingdom Hearts series is quite possibly one of the most bizarre ever made. A fusion of Final Fantasy and Disney, its real time combat with a JRPG game style combined with locations and characters from everyone’s family favourites made it a massive hit when it was first released in 2005, and it reached PlayStation2 Platinum status. Most regard Kingdom Hearts II as the true “sequel” to the original Kingdom Hearts, but between them came a game symptomatic of the blight that was to come – Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded, a Game Boy Advance title which forwent the original’s use of traditional weapon and magic combat in favour of a card deck system. Revamped for the PlayStation2 but only released in Japan and North America, Re:Coded never reached the same acclaim as Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II due to being pretty mediocre and deviating too far from a formula that already worked.
The fact that fans of the series were not too keen on handheld instalments completely passed the developers by, as two different studios released Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep for the PlayStation Portable, and Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days for the Nintendo DS. While Birth By Sleep was at the very least palatable and added considerable “prequel” lore to the games, 358/2 Days was a turgid mess, nothing less than dull filler and fan-service for the tweens who swooned over the antagonists introduced in Re:Coded : Organisation XIII.
With no sign of the much awaited Kingdom Hearts III to continue the storyline (which is admittedly nonsensical and at this point utter drivel), fans weren’t really jumping for joy when yet another handheld game was announced for the 3DS – Dream Drop Distance.
Dream Drop Distance sees the return of the two protagonists from the first game – the kind hearted and painfully optimistic Sora, and the sterner, more reserved Riku who battles constantly the “darkness” that resides within him. Tasked with training as true Keyblade Masters (because for the last three games they were in they apparently just winged it), they are sent by the wise Yen Sid of Fantasia to seven sleeping Disney Worlds which, while freed from the Darkness of the first game, now lie in slumber and under attack from a new enemy: Dream Eaters. By closing the keyholes and awakening these worlds, Sora and Riku can join the ranks of the Masters of the Keyblade for good.
It’s a flimsy premise, but that hardly matters at this point. The plot of Kingdom Hearts bottomed out with Kingdom Hearts II when the player had to sit and read endless reams of literature detailing the crazed experiments of the main (mostly) antagonist Xehanort, who masqueraded as a Heartless named Xemnas for the first game before returning as a Nobody in Kingdom Hearts II, and after Birth By Sleep’s Keyblade War was thrown into the mix nothing made very much sense any more. The multitude of characters weighing in combined with the series’ effort to be “deep” resulted in a convoluted mess spouting a whole load of heart based metaphors. Put simply, playing Kingdom Hearts for the story is like playing Heavy Rain for the visceral action.
It’s a good thing then that the bulk of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is all about the action. Introducing a whopping seven new gameplay elements in the space of an hour, at first the player is nearly overwhelmed by the variety of tactics on offer. The introduction of the play styles is far too heavy handed and leaves the player no room to take in what they were learning only ten minutes ago, but once adapted to and eventually mastered they give Dream Drop Distance a greatness of breadth and depth not yet achieved by any Kingdom Hearts title.
First, and perhaps most vitally, there is the “Drop” from the title. In a foolhardy move, the developers impress upon the player urgency and a questionable lack of agency by forcibly swapping them between Sora and Riku’s stories with the Drop mechanic. Each character only has a set amount of time of consciousness, during which the player can progress through the story, fighting enemies and talking to characters before closing the keyhole of their respective world. Once their time has run out, no matter where they are or what they are doing, they fall asleep – and the player Drops to the other character and their story.
The game alternates back and forth between each character, and it’s a testament to the design of the game that it feels very natural and isn’t as much of a hindrance as you would expect. As an incentive, bonuses can be transferred between drops from collecting “Drop Points” during battle, finding lucky items and setting Portals. If the player stubbornly insists on finishing whatever they were doing with Sora, they can use a Save Point to access the World Map and Drop back into Sora’s storyline manually, although they will forfeit any bonuses that Sora previously gave to Riku. Dropping allows for tactical players to give themselves an edge if they wish, but for the average player it’s simply about keeping things interesting. Going back and forth between characters breaks the game into manageable chunks and gives the player time to give pause to any problems they encounter with one character by switching to the other.
Portals offer both Drop bonuses and immediate rewards for both Sora and Riku. Standard Portals offer standard prizes, with an additional six exclusive Special portals in each world which randomise after each drop. By accessing Special Portals Sora and Riku can engage in challenges that reward rare recipes and items, as well as gain access to alternative Spirit teams for a short period of time.
In previous titles, Sora has always been accompanied by Donald Duck and Goofy – known as a trio for repeating their introduction “Sora! Donald! Goofy!” ad nauseum for the entirety of Kingdom Hearts II. This time, however, they are nowhere to be found until the Three Musketeers level, and Sora and Riku are instead joined by creatures known as Spirits – “good” versions of the Dream Eater Nightmares they spend the game tackling. The Spirits themselves come in all shapes and sizes, from cute and fluffy to large and powerful, and the player must collect recipes and ingredients in order to create them and add them to their party. A focus on collecting them all gives the Spirits a definite I’ve seen this before feeling, along with a few suspect designs and names that might have GameFreak reaching for the phone to call their lawyer.
Spirits can also be petted and played with using the stylus in a Nintendogs style Spirit screen, where Augmented Reality is used to place them in the room with the player. Playing with the Spirit here and taking the spirit into battle adds to the Spirit’s “Link Points”, which can be used on the Spirit’s Link board to unlock spells and passive abilities for Sora and Riku so long as the Spirit is kept in their party. Different Spirits specialise in different areas, such as fire, confusion, defence and a myriad of others. Depending on the battle ahead and the player’s preferred game style, selecting the right Spirit is important for those heading into tough boss fights on harder difficulties. The Spirits are shared and levelled between Sora and Riku equally, which makes them both adorable and trans-dimensional. I’d like to see the average house cat manage that.
If the Spirits weren’t already suspect enough on the copyright front, it is also possible to battle them in a mini-game called Flick Rush, using card combos (reminiscent of Re:Coded) to beat the enemy. Players can go up against the AI or fight each other over wireless.
Moving between worlds in previous games was a simple affair: hop in your Gummi Ship and navigate a surreal landscape of blocky shapes and foes. However, being as the Gummi Ship belongs to Donald and Goofy and they are no longer part of your team, worlds are instead approached by literally “Diving” into them. Each Dive that Sora or Riku takes has a set objective – earn a certain number of points before you reach the gate, defeat a boss, or beat a time limit. Diving is ranked as gold, silver or bronze and can be attempted as many times as you like – but once you have Dived to a world in the first instance, it’s not mandatory to do it again if you don’t want to.
While unessential the Dive mini-game (which is what it really boils down to) is a nice break away from normal combat, although trickier encounters can prove irritating for players who don’t enjoy it as much as the standard fare. Being unable to progress in a game because of a side element at which you cannot excel is a frustrating position to be in.
In combat, two additional modes have been added to give players who prefer variety a buffet cart of options. By pressing the Y Button the player can activate Free Form moves such as scaling walls, zipping down banisters and diving onto enemies with different special moves, such as Sparks or Drain. Larger enemies (the ones that look like they could have their own gravitational pull) often have exclusive Free Form moves such as Blow Off, which sees the player running circles around them before catapulting them across the field. In conjunction with Free Form is the Reality Shift mode; in every world a different Reality Shift can be performed using the stylus on the bottom screen, enabling the player to do things like throw barrels or zip line over rooftops. These two new features make combat a blizzard of movement, with few enemies capable of withstanding such a relentless onslaught.
Dream Drop Distance offers the best Kingdom Hearts combat to date as a direct result of these two additions. While it’s leaves things a bit on the easy side as a result, gameplay is so fast paced and intense that it’s difficult to put the game down for very long before you’re itching to play it again. While the game drew the short straw on the featured Disney worlds (the Hunchback of Notre Dame makes for a very drab setting and the glitziest world, the Grid from Tron, was already visited in Kingdom Hearts II) it makes for an engaging experience that will please both completionists and players who just want to blitz through. Several characters from the Square Enix title The World Ends With You make an appearance as well, giving a much under-rated game a well-deserved shout out and role in a more popular franchise.
I’ve lamented before that 2012 has been a very poor year for games, with numerous cancellations and delays leaving quarters one and two depressingly bare of quality titles. Had Dream Drop Distance been released in a year overflowing with other iconic names it may well have flailed and gone under much like its fellow handheld brethren, but instead it has been given the chance to stand out as one of the most outstanding games 2012 has to offer. The Kingdom Hearts series, on the decline for several years now, has finally been given a much needed boost by the release of Dream Drop Distance. A stellar title and a must-own for the 3DS, it shows that there is still hope for the franchise – indeed, that there is still hope for the games industry – and it will certainly placate the fan base and tide them over until the inevitable arrival of Kingdom Hearts III.