Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance
The Kingdom Hearts series has been avoiding the 3rd numbered outing for half a dozen titles now, opting instead for yearly iterations to extend the narrative. The frustration for fans as well as the fear of a lacklustre and even damaging title to ruin the series has been a constant threat and concern. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance fortunately brings enough variety to prevent it from becoming stale. Moreover it does a splendid job of making sense of, and refreshing your memory of the convoluted narrative. As such, Dream Drop Distance is one of the best games in the series.
Dream Drop Distance doesn't win you over with its story as much as it does with its intent and new mechanics. It's still as convoluted a tale as its predecessors and still feels like it's stalling the inevitable third game in the numbered trilogy that will bring it to its conclusion. However, it at least tries to explain what's happened in previous titles and bring the story forward. Once again you are put in the shoes of protagonists Sora and Riku and are put to the test by Yen Sid to see if you're worthy of the title Keyblade Master, before series antagonist Xehanort reveals his latest evil scheme. For the most part though you'll find yourself discovering and enjoying smaller, more insular tales within each of the Disney themed worlds you visit.
It's within these worlds and individual tales that Dream Drop Distance really shines. The environments are beautifully realised with secret areas tucked away with chests and other goodies to find, and their layouts ditch complex platforming for a more natural, simplistic design. The characters are also portrayed wonderfully, as you would expect from Square Enix and Disney, and the stories they spin fit appropriately to their themes. Additionally your objectives within each area tend to stray from the path of combat towards more puzzles and action sequences, adding a great deal of variety and appropriate obstacles and actions to each area.
Adding even more variety is the new Drop system which switches your control between Sora and Riku regularly during play. A time limit is imposed on each character as you control them and you're switched automatically at the end of it. You can also switch manually when you please. It adds a pleasant feeling of tension and urgency to proceedings as well keeping a good pace for the narrative despite two protagonists often split across different environments, the aforementioned variety is another bonus that's hard to knock. It can be frustrating, however, during combat, especially boss encounters, so training yourself to watch the clock and switch manually to best utilise your time with each character becomes an important skill.
Combat is still a matter of real time hack 'n slash and using special abilities and spells, a system fans of the series will be familiar with, but this time around you're provided a limited amount of slots - which increase over time - to assign skills to. These abilities popup in the order you assigned them and, once used, skip to the next in the list whilst they cool down. If you need to you can manually skip through the assigned list or go into the menu to pick new abilities on the fly but it's fiddly and interrupts the flow of combat, so instead assigning the right skills for each encounter is a smoother option, if a bit limited.
In combat you are also aided by Dreameaters, which provide a new team combo attack when summoned into battle. You can even summon multiple Dreameaters for a spectacular looking and hugely devastating combo. Dreameasters are creatures you can create from items gathered from fallen foes. Outside of combat you can build up their stats by caring for them in a similar fashion to Nintendogs through mini games and interacting with them via the touch screen or your 3DS AR cards. You can also bring them into a battle arena called Flick Rush to battle against enemy AI, other players via Wifi, or through Street Pass. It's a comprehensive monster creation, caring and combat suite that feels like an entire game in its own right. It's certainly a great addition to Kingdom Hearts combat and an enjoyable and compelling distraction outside it.
The Flow Motion system is another new mechanic that adds variety and fast paced movement in and out of combat. With it you can slide on rails, swing round poles and bounce off walls to quickly and dramatically traverse an area. In combat these same moves can be used to enhance your attacks. It's quite the spectacle but its usefulness shouldn't be overlooked. The enhancements to your attacks can be truly devastating and turn the tide in an instant. They do take their toll on the camera though. The camera does its best to move dynamically around you to give you the best view but you'll find plenty of times where you'll launch yourself off in the wrong direction of lose sight of an enemy. Plugging in the Circle Pad Pro helps with the camera if you're pedantic but for the most part it's a minor niggle that's easy to ignore or power through.
Lastly the new Reality Shift mechanic allows you to launch powerful attacks after completing a touch screen mini-game, with a new one to discover in each world. The combat has certainly been deepened in Dream Drop Distance but it's still an accessible and enjoyable system that just might be the best one in the series.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is definitely a step forwards for the series, introducing some of the best level design, combat and visuals so far. The bright colour palette and aesthetic is just as charming as Disney's source material and the Square Enix inspired score is as emotionally charged and dramatic as you would expect. Fans may be crying out for the third game to surface but for now, rest assured that Dream Drop Distance is a top notch action RPG well worth your time.