We had some hands-on time with the upcoming game and spoke with Tetsuya Nomura, director of the Kingdom Hearts series about Dream Drops, Musketeers and the future of the franchise.
Set after the events of Kingdom Hearts: Re: Code, the game sees friends Sora and Riku training to become Keyblade Masters to counter the return of Xehanort, the antagonist of the series who threatens the fate of all worlds. To become Masters of the Keyblade, the two must undergo the Mark of Mastery exam, set by sorcerer Yen Sid. The two friends are separated, and are sent to various worlds that were once ravaged by the Heartless, but have since been restored. It is up to Sora and Riku to reawaken these worlds from their deep sleep, and reconnect them to the other worlds by unlocking the keyholes they find when they visit.
Along the way, they meet colourful new creatures known as Dream Eaters. Spirits act as party members, and are helpful in battle by giving Sora and Riku access to special attacks and abilities. Spirits can be bred, and the attributes you want can be assigned to them. Nightmares act as the game's enemies, who swallow dreams and create nightmares.
While it took a while to get used to the Nightmares as enemies because they look so incredibly similar to the Spirits, the Spirits themselves are truly a fantastic addition to the game. Using their special abilities in conjunction with Sora was a joy, providing fun co-operative moves, but more importantly it prevented the gameplay from being just typical Kingdom Hearts-style hacking and button mashing. They are fun and whacky characters that perfectly fit in the Kingdom Hearts universe.
Dream Drop Distance differs from Birth by Sleep, where you had to complete the game once as one character in order to play as another. Using the Drop system, players can switch between Sora and Riku at any time. It was nice to be able to experience the story and see the cutscenes through the eyes of the two different protagonists, and will surely offer a lot of replay value for fans of the series.
Dream Drop Distance returns players to Traverse Town and the World that Never Was. It also features new worlds based on Disney films Tron: Legacy, Pinoccio, Fantastia and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. When asked about the process in deciding worlds to put into Kingdom Hearts, Nomura replied that "it has to be fun, with a lot to explore. We also value user feedback, Hunchback world was chosen because a lot of players asked for it." Nomura revealed the Three Musketeers homeworld to be his favourite of the new locations, as Mickey, Donald and Goofy are dressed up differently and play different roles compared to other Kingdom Hearts games.
Dream Drop Distance is a lot more active and dynamic than previous Kingdom Hearts games. There's a new system, known as flowmotion which makes movement a lot smoother, allowing Sora and Riku to kick and bounce off walls, spin around poles and create slick combos. While this looks incredible with the 3D off, and makes for a more fun gaming experience, with the 3D turned on, it gets a bit much, with even Nomura describing it as "intense".
Dream Drop Distance doesn't really utilise the 3D capabilities of the 3DS too much. While overpowering in some situations, it looks fantastic in others. As the Gummi ship is no longer on hand to get between worlds, players must instead use the new Dive mode mini-game. It's reminiscent of using the Gummi ship to unlock pathways in Kingdom Hearts II, but instead you're free-falling and must collect stars to get to the next world. In 3D, it looks and plays brilliantly, and was truly made for the 3DS system.
The game does make frequent use of the touch screen - considerably more so than in previous handheld Kingdom Hearts games. Nomura noted that he and the developers made a big effort to integrate it into the gameplay, and so gave each world a Reality Shift system. Nomura explains that these shifts differ depending on each world.
The shifts begin with Sora and Riku diving into the bottom of the screen, and uses the touch screen to deal damage to enemies. For example, in the Tron: Legacy world, a program code runs across the bottom screen, and by you can use the stylus to "crack" it, and take out your enemies. In Fantasialand, musical notes appear, and you can play music, and in the Three Musketeers there's an interactive comic book.
These fun additions to gameplay are why Nomura believes interest in the Kingdom Hearts series has not waned in popularity since its inception ten years ago. He believes that adding new features such as the Limit Powers system from Kingdom Hearts II, the stylus system from Birth by Sleep keep players coming back to the engaging world of Kingdom Hearts.
It's been almost seven years since Kingdom Hearts II first hit shelves in Japan, and we simply couldn't let an interview with Nomura go by without asking about the future of the series. While III has not been officially announced, it has been subject to much speculation over the years in terms of plot, characters and format. When asked for details about the long-awaited threequel, Nomura replied "Obviously, I can't really say. But we understand that everyone wants III."
Nomura's work on the upcoming Final Fantasy Versus XIII has reportedly been the reason behind the delay, and while he couldn't comment on a time frame or format for the game, he did offer some hope for those eagerly awaiting III. According to Nomura, Dream Drop Distance was developed as if it were a console game - and that both the action and story in the 3DS title offer players a glimpse at Kingdom Hearts III.