Ten years. Ten excruciantingly long years. Kingdom Hearts has been around for ten years, yet so far there has only been two main entries. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance denotes the seventh game overall and the fifth (!) portable spinoff. We've waited long enough for Kingdom Hearts III, haven't we?
The procurator of the franchise, Tetsuya Nomura, promised us that Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance would give us a glimpse of what to expect from the story in Kingdom Hearts III. Unfortunately the key word in that sentence was "glimpse".
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance marks another addition to the long line of bread crumbs faithful fans have been following for ten years in hope of answers, but really we're all waiting for that long overdue third chapter of the story of Sora, Kairi, Riku, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy.
The story in Dream Drop Distance plays out after the events of Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, and it focuses on Sora and Riku's "Mark of Mystery", a proving ground for those who are strong at heart and chosen as masters by the Keyblade. In other words the same setup we experienced with Terra, Aqua and Ventus in the prequel adventure Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
It's a reason as good as any for the heroes to go on a cameo rich adventure through the strange hybrid world of Disney and Square Enix universes and locations. Even if it comes across as a bit cheap, recycling locations and characters from past games. The story is a roller coaster ride of dizzying heights and awful lows. Sometimes I'm blown away, at other times I'm cringing and the script is a complete mess. And even if I consider myself familiar with the series, it's hard to grasp everything here as it is notoriously difficult on beginners and you will need to fit the pieces together long after the end credits roll.
That said, there's something special there. An X-factor of sorts that has always been central to the series. Something that keeps us coming back for more, some kind of bond we have with the characters and worlds on offer here. The irresistible mix of Disney's characters, a deep-rooted anxiety, and broad themes such as friendship, childhood, and the struggle between good and evil. It's just a shame that the main story just hasn't progressed much since Kingdom Hearts II.
Dream Drop Distance is completely dedicated to Sora and Riku. They get separated and thrown into different versions of the same world, forcing them to go at it alone. So instead of controlling both characters, you play one at a time. A smart system makes sure you don't play with one too much, so they're both on a similar level, without forcing you to play as one or the other.
There is a new "flow motion" system that is just in both combat and platforming. This mode is triggered when you make use of the environment - swinging around a lamp post, bouncing off a wall, or circle a large enemy to name a few examples. This allows Sora and Riku to cover great distances extremely fast and a variety of special attacks.
Free Flow is makes controlling the game a bit troublesome, but adds a bit of relaxed variation and fun. It's a controlled chaos you throw yourself into in the hopes of one day mastering the system. It transforms combat that used to be rather tiresome exercises in button mashing to quick bouts where improvisation and reflexes are key components. A welcome change.
The other new big addition are Dream Eaters. These cute dream creatures come in two shapes - Nightmare and Spirit. Naturally you fight against the Nightmare creatures, while you are aided by the Spirit Dream Eaters. That's right, Kingdom Hearts takes a cue from Final Fantasy XIII-2 and adds a "Pokémon element".
You gather ingredients and create new magicial monsters that you can use for special attacks in battle and you can cuddle up with them using the AR card supplied with the game. And just like that Square Enix have created a potentially lucrative plush toys and spin-off products.
Normally, I would grunt something cynical about all of this, but I can't quite bring myself to do it. It's common practice to mix up this sort of feature soup, and these features are really well implemented in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. I don't mind that Donald and Goofy sit this one out, searching for monster recipes and combining these for wonderfully absurd special attacks is good, wholesome fun.
As far as the visuals go Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is almost disgustingly good looking. At times it feels as though I'm enjoying a money shower, as I bask in the glory of the incredibly detailed and colourful character models. The framerate never misses a beat, even with intense battles full of magic spells and special attack. The 3D effect is also really neat and used with moderation, but the notoriously difficult camera that the series is known for could still do with some improvement.
The audio is even more of a mixed bag. The music is of the same high calibre as the rest of the series, and offers up a mix of new compositions and updated classes, while the voice acting is all over the place in terms of quality. Something the is extra difficult to endure as the game maintains a fairly naïve tone throughout. And the root of the problem is Sora, voice by Haley Joel Osment, as he does his best impression of what 13 year-old Haley Joel Osment sounded like. It's painful to listen to. The amount of voice acting in this game, however, is impressive in itself.
All things told, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, is another instalment in a series that continues to tread water, but still manages to offer enough gameplay incentives to lure back the players. It's an elaborate way of milking the fan base, and for the most part it works on me, as the game lands somewhere in between the brilliant Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and the often rather awful Kingdom Hearts Re:coded.