For ten years, Square Enix has built a universe around Disney and Final Fantasy characters, establishing a very vocal Kingdom Hearts fanbase. The last core entry released on the PS2 some six years ago. Now, Square continues to churn out handheld prequels as the original Kingdom Hearts development team works on the hushed Final Fantasy Versus XIII. But for once, the most recent release advances the story instead of filling the gaps left by fiction expanded well beyond its original scope.
With Xemnas destroyed at the end of Kingdom Hearts II and Sora and Riku safely back home, King Mickey sends word that another Keyblade wielder (Aqua) remains trapped in the Realm of Darkness. To rescue their friend, Sora and Riku must complete the Mark of Mastery exam under the tutelage of Yen Sid to become true Keyblade Masters and receive untold power. Meanwhile, a revived Master Xehanort, the real villain behind the events of Birth by Sleep and every other wrongdoing in the series so far, seeks to wage a new Keyblade War for Kingdom Hearts, the source of all light.
Dream Drop Distance chronicles the events of past Kingdom Hearts games in various mementos, sort of like a “Previously On...”, with dozens of other flashbacks, glossaries, and character bios added regularly to the index as the journey progresses. For someone like me that skipped the prior portable releases – except for Chain of Memories – the developers do a praiseworthy job summarizing the plots of 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep better than any Wikipedia article.
For once I'd like a JRPG villain to stay dead.
The happy-go-lucky Sora and troubled Riku brought many worlds back from the brink of darkness in past adventures, yet several Keyholes refuse to wake, holding their respective zones in a state of persistent sleep. Yen Sid sends the boys back in time to open the gates bridging these worlds, a mildly taxing request considering what the pair already accomplished. However, like a JRPG, evil intervenes. Old villains return, but unfamiliar acquaintances await to hold back the tides of corruption. The lofty storytelling lays the groundwork for the eventual Kingdom Hearts III, though Dream Drop Distance still retains one of the series’ superior narratives.
To rouse the slumbering worlds, Sora and Riku must ally themselves with the Dream Eaters, a race of chromatic creatures that seek the Sleeping Keyholes. These diminutive beings replace longtime companions Donald and Goofy. Initially, one glance at these rainbow plushies is enough to elicit a sigh from any self-respecting Kingdom Hearts fan, but I eventually grew to accept their combat prowess. Instead of the Heartless and Nobodies, the player purges Nightmares that devour pleasant dreams with the aid of Spirit Dream Eaters. These technicolor animals behave in much the same way as Pokémon, only less adorable and half as formidable in combat.
To improve your Dream Eaters’ stats, you must bond with them by nudging/petting their silhouettes with the stylus, bouncing balloons back and forth in childlike minigames, or feeding them poisonous-looking candy. Think of it like a cartoon Nintendogs sim, except you won’t go to jail for making your Spirits fight to the death. As you connect with your critters, they gain experience points. Each Dream Eater possesses a separate skill tree featuring elemental resistances, magic cooldowns, and HP boosts. These abilities also tie back to Sora and Riku. Unlocking a new skill in a Spirit’s arsenal grants the same bonus to the affiliate Keyblade wielder.
Every Dream Eater has a laughably bad name, although you can change them. Meet the Meow Wow.
Although borderline useless in the thick of enemy encounters, Dream Eaters do pull through once you link with them. Sora and Riku combine their strength with their selected Spirits once their Link Gauges fill. Once you initiate a link, Sora usually leaps aboard said Spirit to ride the creature like a rodeo star or log roller, and Riku borrows the power of his companions, fusing their essence with his Keyblade for a limited time. Not counting Sora’s invulnerability while linking, the showy fluidity of Riku’s flaming whirlwinds and shadow gauntlets one-up his friend in every regard.
If players wait until both Spirits max their Link Gauges, the boys can dual link with their monsters for yet more decimating results. A winged Dream Eater bestows Riku with flight while the other beast simultaneously buffs his equipped Keyblade with elemental power. Sora’s more humorous combos clear rooms in one fell swoop. An electrified piranha merged with a prickly maned cat spawns a massive meteor that wipes all but bosses out on impact.
Sora and Riku can also breed unusual Spirits from the numerous dream pieces the duo collect, ranging from elephants and pandas to more imposing beasts like dinosaurs and dragons. Crafted Spirits are shared between the two, so players need not worry about creating a monster exclusive to one character. Nurturing your Dream Eaters can become tiresome or addicting, depending on your predilections towards raising virtual livestock.
Riku surrounds himself in dark aura as he links with his prismatic bat.
Other than Dream Eaters, the roots of the combat remain intact. Players still build loadouts, or decks, split between combat commands and action commands. Combat commands consist of spells and special Keyblade throws, windmill strikes, and instant kills. Switching between commands is as easy as tapping up or down on the D-pad if you relinquish brief control of the circle pad, so block accordingly. The myriad abilities have recharge times, and activating an ability will cycle to the next attack/spell on the list automatically. Action commands, however, play a less damaging role. Aerial recovery allows Riku and Sora to regain their composure after being launched skyward, and the dodge roll is self-explanatory. Like Dream Eaters, commands benefit both heroes.
Occasional Reality Shifts help Sora and Riku even the odds. When in proximity to designated objects, players can flick down on their touch screen to alter dream world logic, such as pummeling enemies in comic book slides or hacking apart skyscrapers obstructing the forward path.
Rounding out the controls is a new mechanic called Flowmotion, granting quicker traversal than endless sprinting. Rolling against a wall, latching onto a pole, or grinding a rail launches Sora and Riku at blinding speeds with a simple tap of Y. Coming into contact with another wall or such allows the two to maintain the momentum as they soar around rooftops out of Nightmares’ reach. Although the concept appears clumsy at first, it took mere minutes for me to start flying around the environments with delightful efficiency.
Less ridiculous Reality Shifts include reprogramming turrets and a rhythm-based minigame.
Just as Sora and Riku use Flowmotion to propel themselves to great heights, so too can they use Flowmotion to aid them against opposing Dream Eaters. The prompts will change with every strike depending on the surface you launch from. Flowmotion combat magnifies the ensuing attack, and there is no shortage of objects to ricochet between. Of course, you could always use Flowmotion to make a speedy getaway when health potions run low.
With the increase of fresh skills at your disposal, one might assume the controls would suffer. Not so. Camera controls dial back to the original Kingdom Hearts, with the L and R shoulder buttons rotating Sora and Riku’s behind-the-back perspective. An exceptional auto-aim and lock-on system assists in pinpointing targets when enemies dwell off-screen, too.
The two friends never fight together, though, so Square Enix ensured players do not ignore the parallel storylines with a novel Drop mechanic. Each character will remain awake for a set amount of time until succumbing to sleep, at which point control switches back to the other. Items called Drop-Me-Nots delay the timer, but I never found the forced perspective swap annoying. Players may find the idea of dozing off in the middle of a boss fight irritating, but the manageable encounters seldom necessitate feline reflexes.
Riku readies a Flowmotion ground slam.
In terms of originality, Square Enix took feedback to heart. The team may be working to establish Kingdom Hearts as a universe unto itself, but the developers could only employ the same kid-friendly Disney-scapes before they bent to exhaustion. Dream Drop Distance ditches rehashed Disney worlds for the likes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pinocchio, and Fantasia that find their protagonists in dire straits.
This time, the vibrant worlds of Disney lack the typical whimsy, simply serving as the victimized sanctuaries for the main characters to save – a repercussion of Donald and Goofy unavailable to provide their trademark comedic relief. Fans scrutinized the abhorrent controls of Sora in merman form while visiting Atlantis, but Square Enix still captured the “down where it’s wetter, down where it’s better” jovial atmosphere of a sing-along under the sea, take it from me.
And for all the plot holes Dream Drop Distance corrects while familiarizing fans that missed previous Kingdom Hearts titles, I worry that the story is beginning to get away from the Japanese studio; a sensible narrative pulse continues to grow faint. Throwing time travel in the mix just halts the palpitating beat.
Furthermore, Dream Drop Distance forgoes all Final Fantasy references. The closest we get are characters from the DS release of The World Ends With You. No-show cameos from Tifa, Sephiroth, or Auron birth a painful epiphany, reminding me which portion of the Kingdom Hearts mashup attracted me to the series (hint: not Disney). No other moment tops the teaming of Cloud and Squall in Kingdom Hearts II as Sora and company battle a literal 1,000 Heartless. Instead, Dream Eaters form the pastel-colored backbone meant to keep the series' handheld integrity upright.
Mickey, Donald, and Goofy sideline themselves for this journey, seeing as they cannot enter the world of dreams with Sora and Riku.
Nevertheless, Disney’s worlds provide quality visuals with each location and character faithfully remodeled in 3D – the Grid (Tron: Legacy), especially, busies itself with blue-laced circuitry and Jeff Bridges look-alikes. However, unlike most of the Kingdom Hearts cast, many of the animated voice actors do not reprise their roles, considering some of the Disney films are decades old.
As with every Kingdom Hearts, Kaoru Wada’s orchestral arrangements bring the worlds to life, each piece greater than the last. With composers gathered from every Kingdom Hearts entry, the Dream Drop Distance soundtrack is the grandest yet, pushing over three hours of philharmonic melodies that rival Final Fantasy’s. Dangerous overtures build towards a crescendo as you whittle away at a boss’s massive life bar, and slow, instrumental refrains begin just as Sora and Riku bring each world back from darkness and find solace in their hearts.
At a completion time of roughly thirty hours, Dream Drop Distance drives a hard bargain. Few other RPGs offer a more lengthy adventure on Nintendo’s 3DS. Leveling Spirits, visiting new worlds, meeting fresh faces, advancing the Kingdom Hearts story, and consuming the paramount soundtrack make for a must-add to any fan’s anthology. Dream Drop Distance is an absolute wonder to play (minus the insultingly frustrating final boss) as the most mechanically sound iteration in the franchise yet, and with a new Keyblade War imminent, one thing’s for certain: I’m counting the days until Kingdom Hearts III.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: July 31, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed)