I decided to opt out of writing my full Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance review until finishing the entire game. As a result, it has taken me over two full (and very busy) months to get around to publishing this.
That being said, Square-Enix’s action/RPG was one of my most-anticipated games of 2012, 3DS or otherwise. I admit, I wasn’t exactly expecting brilliance, but I hoped that the Kingdom Hearts franchise might pick up some momentum after this new installment.
Fortunately, this happens to be the case – at least, as far as I’m concerned. Without further adieu, here is my summarized review of KH3D, including the parts that I liked and didn’t like so much about the long-awaited 3DS title.
The Console-Quality Production Values
I should just get it out of the way and say that Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is one of the best-looking, best-sounding games ever released on the Nintendo 3DS. To say that it reaches “console quality” does it little justice; in addition to the beautifully-rendered character models, highly-detailed environments and silky-smooth animation, KH3D benefits from some of the greatest 3D effects on the 3DS to date.
The story still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but any interaction with the cast of “The World Ends With You” is welcome, as far as I’m concerned.
The soundtrack is utterly fantastic; it goes without saying that the Fantasia stage is as much of a treat to the ears as it is to the eyes. Equally impressive is the voice acting, featuring a wide cast of Disney characters such as those from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tron: Legacy, and Pinnochio. Finally, I really enjoyed the cameos from the cast of The World Ends With You…Neku & Co. have never looked better. Take a look at the footage below and see for yourself just how great the game looks; then think of how much cooler it would be if it was in 3D:
The New & Improved Mechanics (FlowMotion & Reality Shift)
Compared to past Kingdom Hearts games, Dream Drop Distance plays like a dream – this is largely due to the new game mechanics, such as the “FlowMotion” movement system and the “Reality Shift”attacks.
FlowMotion is probably my favorite of the two; basically it allows for slick, acrobatic movement through the environment with the simple press of a button. This feature allows you to swing from vertical poles, “grind” handrails, and more…not only does it look cool, it’s highly practical for traversing each of the stages in the game. Finally, it really opens up the real-time combat system, making some of the aerial battles more exciting than ever before. Moving on, the Reality Shifts are more useful for puzzle-solving or dispatching enemies…each stage features its own unique use of the function, my favorite being the one from Tron: Legacy, where you de-code various bits of text to perform different actions in the game.
The New “Spirits” System
Another one of the new ideas that I really enjoyed was the “Spirits” system; basically you can create your own versions of the “Dream Eater” opponents that you encounter throughout the game, put them into your party with either Sora or Riku, and earn special experience points to earn new abilities and skills. It’s almost like Pokemon combined with the Sphere Grid (Final Fantasy X) and the License Board (Final Fantasy XII).
The Spirits ultimately replace Sora’s previous companions, Goofy & Donald, but I enjoyed being able to customize my own party and interact with the spirits through the “Spirits Menu”. This part of the game makes use of the AR camera (you can take snapshots of your creatures within your real-life settings…sweet!), adds a lot of depth, and extends the replay value by giving you an incentive to “collect ‘em all”. For a Pokemon fan such as myself, this entire concept is pretty great.
The Game Keeps Giving
If you haven’t already gathered that KH3D is a content-rich experience, believe me – it is. It took me roughly 35 hours to play through my first time on the standard difficulty setting; a lot of those hours were admittedly spent toying around with Spirits or the AR camera function. However, the majority of time was invested into exploring each of the stages, clearing the “Reports” and charting data for all of the Dream Eaters, finding the hidden treasure in each stage with Sora and Riku, unlocking the special “Trophies” for certain milestones, and reading the descriptions of the countless characters and locations featured in the various worlds.
Those who strive for 100% completion will be delighted to find that Dream Drop Distance offers plenty to keep you working for a while; I didn’t spend any time checking out the special battle system between Spirits, which supports multiplayer…I also didn’t check out the “New Game+” option after I finished playing the first time. Ultimately, there is a lot of contentto be found here, and all of it takes advantage of the hardware in impressive form.
I Didn’t Like:
The New & Improved Counter-Intuitive Mechanics (Drop Gauge & Command Deck)
Unfortunately, not all of the newer concepts that were explored in Dream Drop Distance make the “best of Kingdom Hearts” list; I would like to focus specifically on the “Drop Gauge” and the “Command Deck”. While neither of these mechanics make KH3D a lesser game, they certainly present additional obstacles to work around. Ultimately these seem like pointless obstructions, where other new concepts (FlowMotion, Spirits,etc.) fit very smoothly and feel like intuitive components of the overall design.
The “Drop Gauge” is where the “Drop” part of Dream Drop Distance comes from; this new concept essentially puts a limit on your play time with either Sora or Riku. When the meter is fully depleted, the action comes to a halt as you’re abruptly “shifted” to the other character, put right back into the same point of the game you played when you last “dropped”. Basically, this is makes it an incentive to focus equally on Sora and Riku, but it ultimately means that you must play through roughly the same parts of the game with both characters.
You can use items called Drop-Me-Nots that replenish your Drop Gauge, but getting too far ahead with one character just means that you’ll have to catch up with the other – the result is that Dream Drop Distance occasionally feels like less of a “parallel adventure” and more of an exercise in repetition and patience.
Unfortunately, the Drop Gauge is only a fraction of the pain-in-the-ass that is KH3D’s “Command Deck” system; outside of basic attacks and movement abilities, Sora and Riku are required to equip their skills through the Command Deck. The deck is split into “slots”, with stronger skills requiring more slots than weaker ones.
This whole system would work just fine if the Command Decks were expanded a bit more; unfortunately you’re limited to just a small handful of slots for the early parts of the game, which really puts a restriction on the amount of things you can do in combat.
Sora and Riku have “Attack” and “Magic” stats that dictate the strength of their abilities, including special attack skills and magic spells…unfortunately, due to the way the Command Deck works, it’s pretty tough to take advantage of magic, simply because you spend so much time waiting for your commands to “re-charge”after they are used in battle. The game ends up feeling more one-sided than it really should, favoring attack more than magic.
Forgetting to equip a healing command such as “Curaga” could be a big mistake if you’ve “Dropped” into a boss battle.
Worst of all; the Command Deck cannot be changed in the middle of a battle. KH3D doesn’t let you access the basic menu when you’re in combat; you’re only allowed to pause or quit the game. Say you’ve accidentally stumbled into a boss battle without equipping a cure spell or healing item; this is an inconvenience – no doubt. Sadly, the problem only gets worse if your Drop Gauge is running low, and you’re about to “drop” to the next character – it means you’ll be forced to drop right back into the same boss fight the next time, without any chance to change your skills. This problem happened to me several times, and as a result there were bosses that I had to really grind through just to avoid re-loading older save data.
The Other Small Nags & Gripes
Without meaning to sound too hard on KH3D, I have just a few more complaints that came up during my trip through the adventure. Fortunately, these issues weren’t game-breaking by any means – just certainly worth mentioning. For example…
The camera is clumsy and the “lock-on” targeting system is even more cumbersome. Basically, you can rotate the camera with the L/R triggers…this works fine, although the camera seems to go absolutely nuts whenever you’re in any of the slightly cramped or crowded areas of the game. Also, controlling the camera is an additional distraction when you’re busy trying to fight off a bunch of Dream Eaters, or avoid attacks from a boss character…near the end of the game, half of my failed attempts to finish boss fights could have been blamed on spending time to struggle with the camera rather than using a healing command. Additionally, the target lock is activated when you hold both triggers – this feels awkward and is sometimes difficult to do when you’re trying to navigate the battle area. Even worse, holding both triggers and pressing one of the face buttons acts as a shortcut to your “Link” abilities with your Spirits; I ended up linking with my Spirits countless times throughout the game on accident, wasting their link gauges when I was simply trying to lock onto a target.
The levels feel more linear and “closed-off” than in any Kingdom Hearts game to date. Again, each world is full of detail and treasures to discover, but each of them feels very limited – almost like you’ve been cut off and barred access from a lot of the space within each area. Combined with the abruptness of the “Drop Gauge” system, the linear level design makes certain parts of KH3D feel like they were designed to be rushed through, not savored or enjoyed.
The lack of a “quick save” function really hurts. In general, this may sound redundant, but it summarizes the issue perfectly: Kingdom Hearts 3D is a fantastic game for a handheld system…but it’s not the greatest portable game, at least not where “portability” is concerned. You see, the save points scattered throughout the worlds are not particularly rare, but the fact that you can’t just quickly pause and save the game for any reason makes KH3D less “handheld-friendly” than other 3DS games. For example, New Super Mario Bros. 2 has a Quick Save feature that forces you to resume from the exact point you quit when you re-start the game, deleting the quick save data once it’s loaded. Why not utilize a similar function for a meaty game like Dream Drop Distance? You can always close the 3DS to put it into sleep mode, but what if you need to turn the power off? What if you need to access the Home menu, but can’t locate a save point? These are issues that I encountered in my time with the game – again, not game-breaking, but certainly annoying to deal with.
Recommendation/Conclusion: Buy It.
While it doesn’t come away without a handful of flaws, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance really doesn’t suffer very much as a result: the console-quality production values, slick new gameplay mechanics, and surprising amount of depth hold it together. The result is one of Square-Enix’s greatest efforts in this beloved franchise; KH3D doesn’t sacrifice anything to bring its charm to the portable platform, and it stands as one of the finest titles in the 3DS’s library to date.
If you’re not a big fan of the Kingdom Hearts series, you may not enjoy Dream Drop Distance quite as much – regardless, I think the game offers enough content and such a high level of quality that it makes the purchase justifiable for any fan of RPGs or action games.