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Can you believe that Kingdom Hearts is celebrating its ten year anniversary in 2012? The mere thought of said celebration is enough to make most of us gamers feel extremely old.

Speaking of dated, recent iterations of the Kingdom Hearts franchise have had their ups and downs, and have had their own share of dated gameplay to boot, leaving gamers to clamor for Kingdom Hearts 3. As time goes on, worlds are reused, and the charm wears off, it’s easy to see the franchise as a relic of the past.

Thankfully, there’s nothing old about Dream Drop Distance.

 

Kingdom Hearts 3D sets itself apart from the rest of the series in many ways. Rather than lazily attempt to reskin levels in past titles, as some recent spinoffs have done, 3D features entirely new worlds to discover, as well as an entirely new collective of enemies: Dream Eaters. At this point in the series, I think I can honestly say as a fan, that I’m sick of fighting heartless over and over, so a new enemy type is a Godsend.

These creatures are essentially colorful rainbow-spectrum variants: the antithesis of the Heartless from an aesthetic standpoint. Nearly all of them have personality, and a unique look and feel. The 3D also looks excellent, and is one of the best games on the system to utilize the feature. But updated enemy designs aren’t the only new thing to the Kingdom Hearts franchise.

First things first, I have to address what is probably the most prominent new mechanic found in the game: the drop system. Essentially, Kingdom Hearts 3D is broken into two games: Sora’s story, and Riku’s story. Each storyline is completely seperate from one another, even though they eventually are going to visit the same worlds. Each character’s items and skills can be shared, but their XP and character levels are gained seperately. So far, so good.

But when you get into how each story actually switches, things can get a little sticky. Using the aptly named “drop system”, each character is sent into a suspended animation, sleeping and stuck in time after a certain amount of time passes. You can view how much time you have left in the bottom right hand corner with a drop gauge, but it’s not an exact science, and before you know it, you could only have thirty seconds before you’re forced to switch to the other half of the duo.

Ultimately on paper this doesn’t sound too horrible, especially when you can opt to drop manually before the meter runs out. Until you realize that if you drop during a boss battle, it completely resets it when you return to that character. Not only that, but it also resets optional challenge rooms.

The first few times it happened, as I was nearly done with a particularly hard boss only to drop out and have to completely restart, it was maddening. I had made all that progress only to have it arbitrarily wiped away, and to say I was furious would be understating it.

I understand that the developers wanted to force players into experiencing both stories roughly at the same rate, so they didn’t just “pick” their favorite character and ignore the other. Unfortunately, resetting boss battles is not the way to go about it.

Still, after time, I learned how to work the system. In Kingdom Hearts, it’s painfully obvious when a boss battle is about to begin (there’s usually a clear build up, and a save point/portable shop right outside): so all you have to do is drop to the other character, and when you come back, you’ll have ample time to defeat the boss.

You can also equip items called “Drop-Me-Nots”, which give you a bit more time, and are usable in battle. Waiting until you are actually forced to drop leads to benefits as well, as you’re able to use “drop points” to power-up the other character in various ways such as increased strength, magic power, and so forth. Ultimately, as long as you watch the meter, the drop system is actually an extra way to make the game easier.

“Diving” is now the new method of traversing worlds, replacing Gummi Ships and hubworld prospects of old. Utilizing the 3D effect to an amazing degree, diving is just that: Sora and Riku literally free fall into a pit designed around the world they’re attempting to get to, and have to complete various objectives.

Goals may range from collecting a certain amount of currency, to beating a mini-boss, to racing a clock. They’re all very short and entertaining sequences, and you can earn rewards through a bronze, silver, and gold medal reward system. Diving can be repeated at any time at the option of the player for better rewards, and you never have to do it again after the intial dive. Honestly, it’s genius.

Spirits are yet another attempt to reinvigorate the franchise with fresh ideas. Essentially, these are the Pokemon of the Kingdom Hearts world, as they’re [mostly] adorable little creatures capable of inflicting mass amounts of pain on your foes.

While they function in battle just like Donald or Goofy did in the past as party members, you can also learn new abilities through them with a sphere grid-esque progression system, take pictures with them and play AR games with them for fun, or team up with them for powerful double/triple attacks. The entire system is very robust, and even features a select amount of AR cards to expand the universe.

While it was a bummer that I didn’t get to team up with heroes from the game’s various worlds (like Quasimodo, would be a beast in combat), Spirits bring some consistency to the game, as you are able to work with the same party (if you wish) throughout the entire game, whilst having the ability to utterly change it at anytime. It’s a very well done system that ultimately expands upon player choice, and one I hope they address in future iterations of the series.

Freeflow combat is another new addition that feels a bit more successfuly implemented than the drop system. Basically, it allows you to ninja flip poles, grind rails, run up walls, and perform all sorts of awesome parkour maneuvers. By pressing the dodge/dash button, you can interact with all sorts of environmental objects, and unlock new powerful Freeflow moves as a result. For instance, if you start flipping out on a street lamp, you can launch a spinning keyblade attack, like a human buzz-saw.

Early in the game, Freeflow attacks are fairly devestating, which may lead to abusing the system. Thankfully, it evens out later on as you earn sturdier magic and abilities, and Freeflow essentially becomes relegated to an easier method of traversing the game world. Ultimately it could use some tweaking early game (maybe by restricting use of attacks to once per an interval of time, rather than let players spam it), but ultimately it becomes an incredibly intiutive tool, and a great addition to the franchise.

Everything else controls great. Spirits are easy to manage, combat is clean, and abilities are easy to earn and equip, and the controls are excellent. I even made my way through my entire first playthrough without the Circle Pad Pro entirely. Unfortunately, the only real glaring issue with the game from a combat perspective is the camera: the 3DS (even the XL) simply does not have a lot of real estate to work with, given how gigantic most of the game’s bosses are.

Without exaggeration, some of the bosses in the game could fill three 3DS screens worth of space, and having to figure out where enemies are while getting cheapshotted is not a fun experience. I obviously understand that a smaller budget was a factor for a 3DS release, but if KH: Dream Drop Distance was released for the PS3, all of the camera issues would be solved.

So as every Kingdom Hearts fan knows, the game can be made or broken on its worlds. Kingdom Hearts 3D features Traverse Town, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pinnochio, Tron Legacy, The Three Musketeers (Mickey, Donald and Goofy), Fantasia, and another secret non-Disney world that I won’t spoil here.

While fans are probably sick of Traverse Town by now, it actually isn’t that bad this time around, and the new musical theme makes it feel a lot less repetitive. As for the other worlds, while La Cite Des Cloches (Hunchback) and The Grid (Tron Legacy) aren’t all that inspired, the rest of some of the most entertaining worlds in the franchise.

In particular, I found Symphony of Sorcery (Fantasia) to be my utmost favorite world ever. It not only features most of the sountrack from the original Fantasia film, but it sounds absolutely wonderful even through the 3DS’ tiny speakers. Also, every strike you make against an enemy is replicated into an instrumental sound. It immediately made me want to watch Fantasia again, which is exactly what every one of these worlds should do.

As is usually the case with this franchise, the dialogue is usually dreadful. Despite the fact that this time around, the story is extremely easy to follow, you’re still going to get typical lines like “did you follow your heart?” and “I knew you’d be fine if you unlocked your heart from the darkness.” It’s all very cheesy and on the nose, and none of it is actually profound. Thankfully, pretty much all of the voice actors in the game (whether they’re Disney vets or anime vets) nail their parts.

If you’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game before, you may still enjoy the combat and the challenge on a visceral level. Of course, you could really miss out on meaningful character interactions, even with the flashbacks and text explanations built-in, but you could also YouTube playthroughs of the previous games to get a feel for the universe. While I wouldn’t outright recommend playing KH:3D without dipping your toes into the KH universe, I wouldn’t say it can’t be done either.

When everything is said and done, Dream Drop Distance goes above and beyond the call of duty in terms of replay value. If you didn’t tackle Proud Mode the first time, you can do it in your next playthrough in a New Game+ mode, where you can transfer over your spirits (and nothing else). If Proud didn’t suit your needs, you can also try Critical Mode, and go after a fairly surprising (and ingenious) superboss with your clear file.

In fact, after you finish the final boss, the entire game can be rexplored and completed as you work towards earning every in-game achievement (called accomplishments). It’s all very refreshing that all of these options were added, as New Game+ has been a woefully neglected feature as of late.

All in all, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance might be my favorite game in the franchise. I’d have to replay Kingdom Hearts 2 to truly decide, but as it stands, the franchise’s latest 3DS iteration is an excellent addition to the series.

This review is based on a copy of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS.


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