For ten years now the Kingdom Hearts train has been chugging along smashing Heartless in its way and picking up colorful characters from all walks of life, from our childhood Disney films to our melodramatic role playing games. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS is the latest title to drop in, and it is also the latest in an ever growing chain of silly names. After ten years does this title go the distance to bring the series forward, or is it more shameless padding along the lines of Re: Coded? Thankfully, it is most definitely the former category.
Dream Drop Distance, or “3D” (get it?) is the first game in the series to finally move the story past the ambiguous epilogue of Kingdom Hearts II from back in 2006, and does not dwell on the past like Re:Coded. The story opens with our two heroes, the increasingly anemic Sora, and the decreasingly moody Riku. Master Xehanort, who we have fought in one form or another since the series’ beginning, has apparently returned from the dead after our heroes destroyed both his Heartless and Nobody causing his original self to reform. Despite both heroes having defeated at least one of Xehanort’s incarnations on several separate occasions, Master Yen Sid, the old keyblade master that trained Mickey and the wizard from Fantasia, states that they won’t be strong enough to fight him for real unless they participate in a Mark of Mastery Exam, a mildly contrived idea from Birth By Sleep to confirm whether or not a key wielder has what it takes to become a Jedi Master.
However, unlike Birth by Sleep, in which Terra and Aqua got off with just having a flashy duel for their exam, Sora and Riku are thrown into a pocket dimension to revive “Sleeping Worlds”, Worlds that were destroyed by darkness, then restored at the end of the first game but have yet to fully awaken. These Worlds are also cut off from the regular timeline, justifying a whole slew of new situations with characters we know and love, as well as new, and in some cases surprising, characters such as Neku and the rest of the trendy cast from The World Ends With You. We are then thrown almost directly into the action with no long boring prologues, intrusive tutorials, or seven day periods where we painstakingly raise pocket change only to have some jerk five finger it.
It is no secret that Kingdom Hearts as a series has become rather infamous for being inaccessible to new players, as from one game to the next the plot becomes more and more convoluted, snarled even. However, Dream Drop Distance subverts this trend by peppering in text recaps and synopsis of past games at relevant points. You didn’t play Birth by Sleep? Here’s an explanation. Never bothered with Re: Coded? Here’s the skinny version. This was an unexpected surprise for me, especially in a series unkind to the uninitiated; an in-game glossary is even provided in the journal section. All things considered, this makes 3D an arguably a good starting point for new players who don’t have access to the older titles.
Now, if there was ever a problem I have with this series as a whole is that Square Enix has rehashed the same worlds over and over again (I’m looking at you, Agrabah). Dream Drop Distance subverts this by throwing in an almost completely new roster of worlds, and in the case of worlds we have already visited, completely new areas. While Traverse Town is the first area we visit, the hub world from the original title, the first, second, and third districts are the only familiar locations, adding sprawling neighborhoods, grand plazas and cavernous shopping malls. Exploration is done through both Riku and Sora in a dual story mode in which one character is played on a timer, upon the end of which you “drop” and switch to the other; you receive money and other rewards depending on how many baddies you smashed in that time. While they share an arguably small pool of worlds, the two have very different stories and perspectives, enough that the game doesn’t feel unnecessarily padded.
Dream Drop brings back entrance minigames for each world, a la Gummi Ship, but with a unique twist. Worlds are entered via “diving”, a high speed descent through an obstacle course or boss fight. Of course, since this is a Japanese game there is a point and rating system, the player receiving a bronze silver or gold medal based on his or her performance and rewards await those who make a point of getting top marks. While this dive system is not as flashy as the old Gummi Ship, nor does it have the hours of fun from building the perfect ship, it is a fast paced and fun experience.
The Worlds themselves are well designed, and call back to the platforming and treasure hunting of the original game that I loved so much. Exploration is aided by the addition of the “flowmotion” system. By pressing the Y button in the direction of a wall or other obstacle Sora and Riku and seriously fly and jump around the map at high speeds, though the handling is not as fluid as it could be. While this is an awesome way of traveling and treasure hunting, it can often interfere in combat. It is the same problem games like Mass Effect 3 encounter, oddly enough. By mapping dodge and flow to the same button, it can be a roulette of outcomes sometimes; instead of dodging the boss’s rocket punch, Sora can try running up a wall and tank the hit, much like how in Mass Effect you can tell Shepard to dodge behind cover, he or she will decide to get intimate with the wall instead and get mowed down by the Cerberus turret you were trying to avoid. There is a compromise to this however, as there are certain situational attacks you can use to leave flowmotion, and I can confirm that these are extremely useful in the early stages of the game.
Of course, continuing the pattern of new enemy types, Heartless are completely absent from this game. Instead we have “Dream Eaters”, monsters that formed in the sleeping worlds that are here to give us experience and justify non-Disney boss fights. Dream Eaters are an interesting direction however, and they have been rather polarizing in the fan base. I always felt that Heartless were charming with their originality, and Nobodies were unsettling with their seizure-like movements, while the Unversed were a bit bland but still colorful. Dream Eaters are extremely bright and colorful, with high contrasts and round squishy looking edges and a penchant for bouncing. In fact, most Dream Eaters look like prizes from a grab claw machine.
What does set Dream Eaters apart from their less colorful cousins is that they are not only your enemies, but are also your party members. Unlike the last several portable games which had the hero or heroine go it alone, Dream Drop Distance has a surprisingly deep creation system, much like the Moogle synthesis shops and from past games, through which you can create Spirits, friendly Dream Eaters with warmer color palettes. Pretty much any non-boss Dream Eater can be made as a friendly Spirit, and can even be color customized and named. The Spirits are also vital because they are your primary source of new abilities. 3D continues Birth by Sleep‘s pattern of stiffing you on abilities naturally but rewarding the ambitious; every Spirit has a grid of abilities and skills that Sora and Riku can learn by spending points accumulated from slaughtering their Dream Eater brothers and sisters. Don’t worry, your Spirits never voice any objection to this.
Outside of combat, the spirits are used to play a card based minigame in Traverse Town called “Flick Rush”, a card based system in which your chosen Spirit dukes it out with another in an arena as the player uses number based cards to boost power. This rewards you medal points which can be redeemed for neat abilities and items from a shop run by Moogles, the only Final Fantasy based characters present.
In combat the Spirits behave very much like you would expect party members to, except you have a much deeper pool of available partners. At any time outside of combat you can change your party, by having two active Spirits, and one on reserve for passive upgrades. If at any time in combat a Spirit falls, you can run over and hammer the A button to resuscitate him, her or it. The only real difference between each character and the Spirits is how he uses them for special attacks. Your spirits have a “link level” with you, and when full can be cashed in for a special attack. Sora teams up with his spirits for fanciful special attacks, such as bouncing on the enemy, while Riku harnesses their energy for a special mode. This is the only hard difference between Sora and Riku’s fighting style, and ultimately gives Sora a very Kingdom Hearts I and II feeling, evoking the old summoning system, while Riku evokes more Birth by Sleep‘s command styles.
The core combat of Dream Drop is definitely one of its strongest points. Combat is very fast paced with waves of enemies throwing themselves at your near constantly. Using the command deck system, a wonderful standard set by Birth by Sleep, allows the player to really unleash their full strength without the fear of running out of magic for a cure, a danger we faced in Kingdom Hearts I and II. The command deck allows you to equip a limited number of abilities and items for use in combat, with magic and special attacks on a cool down system. The other great joy of the command deck is that is entirely customizable; you want to bombard the enemy with magic? Go ahead! You want to fill up on cures and button mash it? The option is there! The player is completely free to take the reins.
Personally, I was always partial to the zero gravity spells combined with dive attacks and while I shed a single tear for the loss of Magnega, Dream Drop holds us over with a whole host of flashy abilities. What’s more is that each world presents a unique “Reality Shift”, analogous to the reaction commands of Kingdom Hearts II that the series had since neglected. Reality Shifting, while being randomly available, keeps combat fresh and flashy; I can’t overstate how awesome it is to hack Dream Eaters in The Grid and then be able to attack in comic book form at the Country of the Musketeers. It should also not go unrecognized that Dream Drop presents much more of a challenge than I have come to expect from the series, especially after the cake walk that was II, as well as Birth by Sleep whose critical difficulty should have been the normal experience. Baddies are quick and merciless, and the player needs to stay on their toes if they don’t want to get whacked; boss fights in particular are less forgiving than previous titles. Also, for such a fast paced game, I experienced very few frame rate issues, which I was both surprised by and impressed with.
For all the good decisions Square Enix put into Dream Drop Distance, it is not without flaw. The most basic flaw is that this game drowns you in menus. You have a menu for creating new Spirits, there is a menu for teaching them new powers and a different for changing your party; there is another menu for equipping new abilities, and another menu for equipping new passive skills. Normally this wouldn’t be too much of a burden, but there is no especially convenient way of passing from one menu to another beyond returning to the parent start menu. While inconvenient, this is by no means a deal breaker.
While I played, the most apparent thing to me was the drop gauge timer. The game only provides two save file slots, while I understand that the drop system was likely implemented to work with the limitations of the 3DS, but the fact is playing on a timer is stifling. You constantly have that timer breathing down your neck, and because of that it can be hard to enjoy all the great decisions they made in designing the maps. Do I look for treasure, or do I carry on the story? While there is nothing stopping you from immediately dropping back into your preferred character, the whole transition completely breaks your immersion. Another huge problem is that dropping happens immediately as you run out of time no matter what you happen to be doing at the moment. This is especially cumbersome if you run out of time mid boss fight; you are given no choice but to start the battle over again when you next switch characters. This happened to me more than once, and it sucked every time.
Speaking of the 3DS and its limitations, my biggest beef with this game is that it has no real reason to be on the 3DS. Many of the flaws seemed to be in place because of the 3DS’ limits on save files and separate stories that I don’t think would have been quite as apparent on another platform, such as the Playstation Vita. While the game does make use of the touch screen during Reality Shifts, it does not do anything that wouldn’t have been capable on the Vita, nor does the game make any meaningful use of the system’s Augmented Reality functions. While it can be interesting in small amounts, the basic 3D added little to my experience. Platform jumping has been a problem with the series overall and can lock out many players unwilling or unable to shell out the cash for those systems.
Overall, this is a good step in the right direction for the series. While the plot is only becoming thicker by the game, Kingdom Hearts III is just a bit over the horizon (allegedly). With fast paced combat, a surprisingly deep partner system, and two distinct story modes, I heartily give Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS a recommendation.
+Fun fast paced combat that strays fresh from one world to the next
+Few frame rate issues
+Great open level design with a host of new locales and return to platforming and exploration
+Deep Spirit creation system with many levels of customization
-Timed drop meter makes gameplay unnecessarily stressful
-The game drowns you in menus
-Few real reasons to be on the 3DS
Final Score: 8/10