Kingdom Hearts is a series that, in theory, shouldn’t work. Created by Square Enix and Disney, Kingdom Hearts uses the light, friendly Disney characters and themes and makes it all as hopelessly complicated as a typical JRPG. Somehow, though, it comes together in a way that it retains the Disney charm we all grew up with but with an exceptionally deep story spanning the entire franchise. I have only played a handful of kingdom hearts games – so throughout Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance – I was asking myself questions about some plot devices that the characters seem to ignore or only acknowledge passively. What’s the difference between a Heartless and a Nobody? How do characters exist in sleeping worlds if they also exist in real ones? But when I was asking those questions the game was also telling me something else: That these questions don’t matter if you don’t want them to.
The story kind of begins “in progress,” with the two main characters – Sora and Riku – being sent by their teacher, Yen Sid, to their final test before they become Keyblade masters, a significant step in the fight against the great evil of Kingdom Hearts’ world, a wizard called Xehanort. To do this, Sora and Riku, must unlock the sleeping worlds, which is a series of Disney Worlds that are somewhat stuck in a time stasis, where the inhabitants do not recognize the protagonist despite having an apparent relationship history. Why are they called sleeping worlds? The fact is the worlds have been disconnected from the rest of reality as they were originally destroyed, but now are reborn again. The story is essentially, Sora and Riku, veturing off to reawaken the Sleeping worlds as part of their test to become keyblade masters.
That’s just the first few minutes of the game. Thankfully, the big overarching story is put on hold for most of the game, leaving Sora and Riku to their own devices to unlock the sleeping worlds in their own ways. The gameplay is explained much better and is incredibly fun. The story in this case actually services the flow of the gameplay quite well, as the sleeping worlds are a perfect excuse to break up the gameplay into handheld size chunks for each world. In order to get to each of the sleeping worlds, you will need to dive into them, which in gameplay terms translates into a short flying section where the objective is always varied but still fairly simple. Luckily, once you find a save node in a new world you can teleport there from the other nodes, bypassing redundant dives.
Once your feet are on the ground, the real fun starts. The most exciting new mechanic, personally speaking of course, is the flowmotion system. The Flowmotion allows you to grind along handrails, swing around lamp posts, do really effective (and kind of cheap) attacks on enemies, and generally move around very freely around the various worlds some of which are quite large in scale.
An aspect of the gameplay that ties well into the story is the Drop system. Not to be confused with the dives discussed earlier in the review, the drop system is a unique concept. While, Riku and Sora are separated, they are still very much connected. This idea is translated into gameplay by allowing you to switch between the two characters. A drop gauge is located at the bottom of the top screen and it starts full when you initially switch from Riku to Sora or from Sora to Riku, but when it empties the game forcibly switches you back to the other character. It can be pretty jarring when you aren’t watching it early game (the first drop is actually integrated into the story, and is explained by sudden irresistible sleep) but as the game goes on you learn to watch the gauge and, since you can buy items to ward off the drop it becomes less of a worry, until the boss battles at least. The late game bosses take a while to kill and even when you are watching the gauge, you might still drop, which means when you confront the boss again, the battle will have been restarted, essentially you will need to fight the boss from the start complete with full health. It is annoying, but is a nice way of keeping the drop dangerous at later levels when it would have become nearly irrelevant.
One aspect of the gameplay that ties well into the story are the Dream Eaters, which are the main enemies in this game replacing the heartless (heartless can’t enter sleeping worlds because they have been sealed off). The twist about the dream eaters is that they come in both good and evil varieties. You can breed the good varieties to help you fight the bad ones. It may sound like Pokémon but it really isn’t like that. You can have two out at one time, but Sora or Riku (who you directly control), are always going to be the real difference maker in your fights. But the dream eaters will still do their best to contribute autonomously plus as they do damage their link gauge fills which, once full, can be used to link attacks with one or both dream eaters of them for extra damage which can make a noticeable difference especially in the boss fights. One of the small new abilities, and the one that takes the most advantage of the 3ds’ dual screens, is the reality shift system. Basically with some items or with some enemies that you have stunned, once you get near them three big pink arrows will appear across the entire bottom screen, and if you swipe your finger along them before they disappear, you go into reality shift mode. What happens at that point is always different depending on the level. But there are some certainties, including the fact that all the action will take place on the bottom screen until the shift is done, and it has the potential to deal lots of damage to enemies as long as you don’t mess it up. It is a fun mechanic and, if nothing else, is proof that the game was designed specifically with the 3ds in mind.
The graphics in this game are quite good for the 3DS with expressive characters, big worlds, and fun effects like the pink glow that forms around Sora or Riku when you enter flowmotion, but the voice acting is flat for some characters and some of the environment textures look strangely bad. But overall it is quite impressive looking, and the fact that you can move really quickly around the world with flowmotion at any time is a testament to how well the graphics were planned out.
In conclusion, Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance has as much story as any other game in the franchise, and that may turn off newcomers. But behind all this is a very fun and deep gameplay system that includes a pet sim and a fun and fast way to get around with flowmotion. By the end even I was starting to come to grips with the story…..Kind of.