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Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance Review
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance has been one of the major selling points of Nintendo's 3DS ever since it was announced in concert with the system several years ago. Now that the game has finally released, and in a year that is decidedly lacking in strong 3DS exclusives, it has a lot of weight to bear on its shoulders. Perhaps it's unfair to place such importance on a single title, but even without that lofty burden, Square-Enix's latest Kingdom Hearts is no dream. Instead, it digs itself even deeper into the inaccessible rabbit hole that the Kingdom Hearts series has been carving deeper and deeper ever since it went portable exclusive. This is the latest in a string of Kingdom Hearts games that make no allusions about their purpose; Square-Enix is churning these things out for profit, dragging fans of the series along by the nose for the ride.
That's not to say that Dream Drop Distance is an awful game or anything. It is, as far as portable action-RPGs go, fairly competent in terms of its core mechanics. It's just that those core mechanics make up woefully little of the actual gameplay, diluted as it is with lousy minigames and gimmicky pet-raising sims, and the story, the only potential saving grace, spends so much time examining the confines of its own ass that by the end of the ordeal it can't tell down from up. Thanks to a series of portable releases that despite all of Square-Enix's best efforts still feel completely unnecessary, the Kingdom Hearts fiction has become all but impenetrable for casual fans or newcomers. That issue really comes to a head in Dream Drop Distance, which weaves together the plots of all of the previous portable games and the old PS2 classics while introducing glossaries worth of new terminology and fiction on its own. I actually had to go back and do some research online to refresh my memory when starting the game, and I've played all of the games already.
Nevermind the fact that you're also expected to have a working knowledge of Disney films and other Square-Enix games, including the cult hit The World Ends With You. I just so happen to be a huge fan of the latter, so I wasn't phased when characters from that world suddenly and with no explanation began appearing everywhere in Dream Drop Distance, but the fact that the developers don't even bother with introductions when it comes to new characters is indicative of just how little they care to tell a sensible story with the series nowadays.
Mechanically, this Dream is a bit of a mixed bag. The core combat remains about the same as it's ever been in that you'll have a basic melee attack button, which you can use to form basic combos, and a skills button which can be used to deploy magic attacks, use potions and the like. You'll still cycle through each of your secondary attacks using the D-Pad, and you'll still be able to lock onto enemies and switch your lock using the shoulder buttons. It's tried and true stuff at this point, but that doesn't make it any less fun.
What does dampen the fun is the slew of new mechanics that Square-Enix shoehorns in at every opportunity. The pet-raising system is probably the most damning of them all, as your little pets, or Dream Eaters as the game calls them, will replace the standard party members who would accompany you in the core games. That means no Donald, Goofy, or Mickey fighting by your side, which is a little disheartening. Birth By Sleep didn't feature party members, but the core combat there was nuanced and varied enough to always keep things fun. Here, although there are multiple playable characters, they all handle more or less the same, and the Dream Eaters don't add much to the combat other than a few more meters to keep an eye on.
Raising your Dream Eaters is an insipid process that is carried out entirely in the game's menus. You can actually craft new Dream Eaters from the various components that you pick up from dead enemies and treasure chests. Failing that, you can even scan new ones in from AR cards. I will admit that the process of creating the Dream Eaters is in fact one of the more endearing aspects of the game, as mixing and matching different items during the fusion process can yield new and at times unexpected results. It's just that taking care of them afterwards is kind of a pain. You level the critters up by repeatedly tapping their silhouette on the touch screen, just like you might endear yourself to a Nintendog. But mashing on the screen over and over like a crazy person to level your Dream Eaters isn't exactly the most absorbing or immersive experience to be had on the 3DS. Couple that with the fact that you can't issue any commands to your Dream Eaters during battle, and the whole pet-raising experience comes across as an afterthought.
Other new additions to the formula also fail to excite, even if they don't quite inspire malice like the Dream Eaters do. Flowmotion is the game's new aggressive movement system, the goal of which is to allow players to maintain a constant flow whether they're navigating the environment or engaging in combat. At any time, you can hit the Y button to roll. If that roll happens to be directed towards a key environmental object, such as a lamp post, a rail, or a wall, Sora and Riku will perform a sort of magic-tinged parkour over it, maintaining extra speed afterwards for another Flowmotion action or a powered-up attack. You can even use Flowmotion on certain larger enemies, which is a nice little touch. Unfortunately, while Flowmotion is a fun way to navigate the environment and kill enemies, it is often imprecise as well. I found myself having to try multiple times just to get the character to engage with the objects I was rolling at.
Then there's the addition of little breaks in reality, the likes of which you can often use to engage in scene-specific minigames. For example, when you approach barrels in the early Traverse Town level, you can swipe down on the touch screen to begin a barrel-slinging minigame where you will use the touch screen to slingshot barrels around the level. This can be useful when there are lots of enemies onscreen, as the barrels will instantly kill most enemy types. This is probably the most interesting addition to the core Kingdom Hearts gameplay, but also sadly the most underutilized. That barrel minigame will end up playing itself out long before the end of the game.
So too will the combat, as pacing just doesn't seem to be a part of this game's vernacular. It seems like every five feet you'll run into a new mob of enemies just waiting to pounce on you, none of whom are tough enough to be anything more than a nuisance as you attempt to traverse the game's various levels. None of those levels, by the way, are endowed with waypoints or objective markers to lead you in the right direction, meaning that you'll spend a lot of time wandering the aimlessly-designed corridors and hallways being ambushed by mob upon mob of enemies. You know a game's pacing is bad when you get sick of the combat a mere hour into its ten-plus hour runtime; that is the unfortunate story of my time with Dream Drop Distance.
If there's one redeeming factor to the game, it's in the visuals. This is a positively gorgeous game, with lushly detailed environments breathing life even into worlds that we've seen going on five or six times now, like Traverse Town. The characters are textured and animated beautifully, and the fast-paced action simply pops on the 3DS's screen. And speaking of popping, the 3D in Dream Drop Distance is among the very best on the system. Rare is the occasion that I keep the 3D slider all the way up for the majority of a game's runtime, but here I just couldn't resist. It's up there with the best-implemented 3D I've seen on the handheld. It still made my eyes feel a little funny, and all things considered I would still rather play in 2D than 3D, but that's more of a system-level issue that any particular problem with the game's design. Dream Drop Distance handles the burden of 3D nicely, and it does it while looking gorgeous to boot.
It's quite a shame that I just can't be so enthusiastic about the rest of the game. While Dream Drop Distance is visually stunning and features some of the best 3D I've seen on the system, the gameplay is simply too diluted, the story just too incomprehensible and navel-gazing for me to in good concience recommend anyone go the distance with this Dream. Even Kingdom Hearts die-hards will want to think long and hard before plopping down forty bucks for this nightmare.