Not content with releasing just the one big title for the 3DS system this month, Square Enix have also gone and given us a new Kingdom Hearts adventure to keep us busy over the hot summer days. Now, the Kingdom Hearts series has always been something of a mystery to me. The idea of combining Final Fantasy with Disney seemed like a weird yet wonderful idea, yet since never really owning a PlayStation 2 I didn’t ever get the chance to join Mickey and co on their travels to becoming Keyblade Masters. Dream Drop Distance is my introduction to the series and one that initially gives off a bad first impression. However sticking with it, I found it to be a truly awesome experience that ranks up there with some of the best the console has to offer.
The story follows heroes Sora and Riku as they attempt to pass the Mark of Mastery exam set out in order to become true Keyblade Masters and tackle the evil Xehanort. To pass this exam the pair must set out to save parallel versions of seven different worlds within the Realm of Sleep. If all this is beginning to sound a little complex then you’re not alone. Throughout the entirety of the game I found myself getting confused at different points by conversations and cutscenes as strange words were thrown around and new characters introduced. If you’re new to the series then prepare yourself as the story here is deep, complex and at times a little convoluted. This isn’t something you can tune in and out of, it requires your full attention to fully appreciate the tale and its themes from the darkness inside to friendship and more. Whatsmore if you have played previous games in the series it does help. If you haven’t it’s not essential as handy flashbacks scattered in the adventure attempt to bring you up to speed with the previous six titles.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is an action RPG that sees you exploring unique worlds and battling enemies called Dream Eaters. Like any typical RPG you can level up your characters, use attacks and magic, collect items, earn experience and so on. Things kick off in a pretty unimpressive looking Traverse Town (which essentially acts as the game’s tutorial area), before branching out to a number of exciting Disney influenced worlds from Tron, Pinocchio and Hunchback of Notre Dame to Fantasia and The Three Musketeers featuring none other than Donald, Goofy and Mickey. These all look fantastic and a lot of the characters actually feature the original voice actors too. If there’s one thing that’s lacking however, it’s the NPCs or lack thereof. Worlds can at times feel a little empty and lifeless with no one around apart from the Dream Eaters themselves. During Esmerelda’s burning in the town square for example, no one is around apart from the key characters. Where are the townspeople? Simply adding a few guards would have been enough, just something to give the impression there are actually people living in these worlds. All in all though, the production value definitely surpasses what you’d expect from a handheld title.
Battling starts slow but soon evolves as you unlock more abilities requiring you to plan your attacks especially during the tougher boss battles. All your commands are handled via the game’s easy to use Command Deck system, allowing you to pick and choose which moves you want at your disposal. Amidst heated fights using a potion or sliding attack at the simple press of a button proves vital in maintaining the upper hand and without it could easily have become too clumsy and confusing. A worthy mention also has to go to the excellent addition of Free-Flow that allows you to shoot around the environment at high speeds using it as a playground for your acrobatic manoeuvres. It looks slick and feels incredibly exciting (if a little twitchy to control at first) as you spin round lampposts or springboard off walls before landing a finishing blow on a Dream Eater.
Along the way you’ll come across friendly Dream Eaters (known as Sprites) who will join your party aiding you in battle. These cute little guys are customisable letting you to spray them bright neon colours and level them up just like yourself. The game also manages to take a page out of Nintendogs’ book by allowing you to stroke and pet your little pals using the touch screen or take pictures of them using the console’s camera. A weird and fairly unnecessary feature, but a funny one nonetheless.
Another new addition and perhaps less welcomed for some is the Drop system. Throughout your entire playthrough you’ll find yourself actually playing two adventures; one as Riku and one as Sora. The way the game handles this is simply by giving you a certain amount of time with one character before dropping you out and waking you as the other. That means you’ll be venturing the same worlds (albeit slightly altered) and battling the same bosses but with differences to the story. It’s an interesting concept that can create an element of excitement as you try to beat the clock, but one that will likely split opinions especially for those who aren’t one for retreading old ground a second time. There are also a few moments that can annoy. Boss battles for example can prove frustrating especially after whittling down an enemy’s health only to have you drop out before nailing the finishing blow. It’s these instances that make you want to throw the console across the room. Fortunately you can choose to drop at any time switching between the characters, handy should you want to finish a particular section with Sora before continuing Riku’s story or vice versa.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is the best sounding and best looking game I’ve seen on the console yet. From the introductory cutscene with Mickey in his sorcery hat to the end credits, you’re treated to a wonderful mixture of bright, exciting visuals and a powerful soundtrack that hits all the right notes, which is remarkable considering none of Disney’s original music is actually used in the game. The voice acting too, while bordering on a little cheesy at times still manages to deliver as over the course of both adventures you find yourself beginning to care about Riku and Sora and the characters they come across.
My first few hours with Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance were disappointing to say the least. Traverse Town felt bland, the enemies didn’t pose much of a challenge and the combat felt like nothing more than hammering the A button. Then I entered the first Disney themed world and it all started to click. I suddenly had more options and abilities along with a story to care about and it was then that I could really start to enjoy myself. Despite a painfully slow start and some niggling flaws, Dream Drop Distance is a beautiful looking and sounding game and a truly memorable experience on the 3DS.