Celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Kingdom Hearts series, Dream Drop Distance seems completely unconcerned if you're either a new or lapsed fan. Sure, the game contains numerous cutscenes and text "Chronicles" that elaborate on the past games, but all of the emotional currents and connections, all of the narrative complications are pretty much put out there with little or no explanation for the lay fan. That's to say that in the couple of dozen hours it took me to play through Dream Drop Distance I was never really sure what was going on with the plot (although I got the impression that it was more about the development of one-time villain Riku more than any journey longtime hero Sora was on).
So completely completely cast adrift by the game's story, it was up to how the actual game played to make an impression I could make sense of. And with the introduction of a series of new systems along with the Spirit companions, Dream Drop Distance certainly adds all kinds of compelling complexity.
I'm taking this from the back of the box since I couldn't make sense of most of it myself, but in Dream Drop Distance, Sora and Riku must take their Mark of Mastery exam under the threat of a looming cross-world threat. That means hopping between Disney-themed worlds (naturally) and vanquishing the colorful Dream Eaters that have taken root. Disney and Square trot out some classic film worlds with Tron's grid and Pleasure Island from Pinocchio.
The twist is that Sora and Riku are separated, not quite by time or space, but any given one is only playable when you "drop" into sleep and emerge as the other character. Their version of these "sleeping worlds" is slightly different and will take place at either an earlier or later part of that world's overall story (for example, Riku gets the back half of the Tron: Legacy story while Sora gets the first half, and so on). It's the first game I can recall that's indirectly and perhaps unintentionally evoked Ladyhawke.
The combat is a mix of a few great ideas and a couple of bad ones.
First and foremost, you're going to have to get used to the Flowmotion system, which involves diving with the Y button onto ramps, rails, or up poles to gain speed and execute diving attacks at enemies. Flowmotion is also used to navigate some platforming segments in the game, although the rush of speed is sometimes counterbalanced be the inability to see where you're about to jump (meaning lots of retries when it comes to certain areas of a level). Still, when you're able to string together multiple attacks on clusters of enemies, rebound off a wall, and then come down in a devastating attack, it's more often than not worth it.
The other winner is the Spirits system, where you can find recipes to create your own companion Dream Eaters that will follow you into combat. You can equip two at a time with one in reserve, and there's very much a Pokemon collection/caretaking element to your combat pets. In the menu, you can feed, play with, scratch, and nudge your pets on the touchscreen to increase your affinity, thus boosting your ability to link with them and execute special attacks during combat. Each Spirit also has a skill tree in which you can unlock ability bonuses for them as well as new spells for Sora and Riku.
Whether it's because you're just set on maxing out one of your spirits or you simply like bonding with the little critters through the minigames in their menu, you're going to spending a bit of time messing around with Spirits. Dream Drop Distance seems to be tacitly implying that you should replay the sleeping worlds again, though, because it takes a bit of effort to build up a single Spirits' stats and you may need to find more items to unlock the minigames or treats to feed them. Also, your Spirits aren't always the most dependable critters--in a couple of instances, their AI has caused them to hang back during a battle, leaving me hanging during the big fights.
You might also enjoy the Flick Rush arena, a 3v3 card battle game where you can pit three of your Spirits against three controlled by the CPU for medals which can be redeemed for abilities, items, Spirit recipes, and all the like. It's a fun enough diversion from the main game, but you have to travel all the way back to Traverse Town to participate.
Dream Drop Distance has a real "problem system" though, with the way it has you assigning spells and potions. Because the combat is real time, some designer struck on the idea of being able to cycle through your list of pre-selected spells and potions using the D-pad. What this means in practice is that when you need your cure spell, you're frantically attempting to run using the analog stick while navigating through the list of commands in real time. It's an inelegant solution and one that's lead to a few frustrated game overs for me during the campaign.
One other nagging issue is the animation cost to your characters' actions which might see you attempting to use a spell or potion after coming out of an attack, but instead you'll simply stand still with no reaction for about a quarter of half second (during which you could easily get killed).
And the camera: it's just the worst. Given the small size of the 3DS screen, there's not a lot of real estate for Sora/Riku, their Spirits, and one of the game's huge bosses, meaning that when you've locked on to your enemy, the view is just as likely to whip around behind the baddie as you lose sight of your character. And if you don't lock on to an enemy, it's often tough to track whether your attacks are landing, so it's something of a lose-lose.
I've already mentioned how unapproachable the story is, but what feels especially unsatisfying is how partitioned off the Disney characters feel here. All the way back in the first game, Donald and Goofy were your comrades in combat--now, your only interaction with the staple of characters is during cutscenes and three boss fights with Disney villains. Also, while the characters from The World Ends With You makes me wish we got a sequel to that game, it underlines that the Square Enix staple is likewise underrepresented here.
It makes sense given that Dream Drop Distance has seemed to move on from simply being a Square/Disney mashup but I couldn't help but feel dissatisfied.
Dream Drop Distance is a better than mixed bag experience and if you want to look past the very bad camera and clunkiness of the spell/item selection system there's some well thought out combat along with a few very clever combat setpieces. More than anything, it feels like a solid first draft of great ideas for the next handheld game in the series.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is available now on the 3DS.
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