Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is something the series has needed for so, so long. A sequel! An actual, honest-to-goodness sequel designed specifically to lead into Kingdom Hearts III! The madmen at Square-Enix finally did it!
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (3DS, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released Mar 2012 | Developed / Published: Square Enix
There’s never any way to neatly summarise and introduce Kingdom Hearts plots. You’ve either been following along and you know what’s happening (well, ish) or it’s all so much nonsense. Sometimes it’s both. I feel like there’s little point in trying to tiptoe around – we’re 7 games deep at this point and the Kingdom Hearts lore is monolithic in scope and complexity. Instead I’ll just do my best with it.
Following the events of Kingdom Hearts II and re:Coded Mickey and his master, Yen Sid (y’know, that old sorcerer from Fantasia, except here he’s also a wizened former Keyblade Master and defender of the worlds) anticipate the return of Xehanort, the arc villain of the series. He’s not been seen since the prequel, Birth by Sleep, but he’s been the architect of practically every event in the franchise. Now that Kingdom Hearts III is looming, Xehanort is set to rise once again to terrorise the worlds in his quest for the titular phenomenon and the power that comes with it. To that end series protagonists Sora and Riku are invited to take the Mark of Mastery exam in order to prove that they are ready to be declared as true Keyblade Masters and can defend the universe from Xehanort.
Take a short breather. If you’re feeling lost, you’re not alone – the games have a reputation for incomprehensible plotlines and although I personally think the general narrative that goes through the first and second games isn’t too nutty, the handheld games often go off in wild directions and Dream Drop Distance is no exception. Sora and Riku’s Mark of Mastery takes the form of liberating the Sleeping Worlds, seven worlds stuck in a kind of dream state that were never freed after the events of the first game. As always the actual plots of the various Disney worlds don’t much matter but the actual Kingdom Hearts plot is denser than ever. Birth by Sleep ran into a similar issue in that the concepts it tries to introduce to the lore are farcical at worst and mind-boggling even if you roll with it, and Dream Drop Distance is definitely along the same wavelength. To say too much is to spoil but a late-game revelation really does run the risk of jumping the shark for the series; the problem is it’s integral to setting up the big finale in Kingdom Hearts III.
Dream Drop Distance is blessedly eager to catch you up on the story of Kingdom Hearts and between worlds you often unlock flashbacks and chronicles detailing the previous games’ events. Obviously recapping the story is important and useful but it’s likely to be utterly impenetrable if you’re new to the series and trying out Dream Drop Distance because it looks neat; even for veterans it’s a tough slog trying to summarise in plain text the convoluted narrative of Kingdom Hearts.
A key gimmick in Dream Drop Distance is that for the first time both Sora and Riku are fully playable. Because each character is diving deeper into the realm of sleep, this is represented in game by a constantly decreasing “Drop” bar; once the bar empties, whichever character you’re currently playing falls asleep instantly and play switches over to the other. I’m sure I’m not alone in my initially negative impression of this mechanic – putting players on timers never really appeals – but in practice I think it works out alright. The timer can be replenished through items, while completing worlds and fighting earns you points which can be spent to slow the rate at which the bar depletes. The game is also good enough to fully preserve your progress; wherever your character falls asleep, when you return to them the game pops right back in exactly where you were.
Combat is the familiar Kingdom Hearts action-RPG stuff. The command board returns from re:Coded and Birth by Sleep, so you spend your time acquiring new commands and slotting them in to use during battle. The ability to meld commands together to create upgraded ones has been excised from Dream Drop Distance, which feels like a shame; I really liked Birth by Sleep’s fusion system and I really wish it had come back for other games. Instead, commands you’ve no use for are now used in the synthesis of Dream Eaters.
The Sleeping Worlds aren’t plagued by Heartless but by creatures called Nightmares. To aid them in their fight, Sora and Riku can summon friendly versions of these monsters called Dream Eaters. This is done through fusing together special materials and commands can be added to the fusion to tack on stat augments; for example adding a Potion command increases the base HP stat of the fused monster. Once created, up to 3 Dream Eaters can be used to form a party that travels with Sora and Riku across the Sleeping Worlds. The monster collecting naturally owes something to Pokemon, and you’re encouraged to bond with your chosen Dream Eaters by playing with them as well as battling. You’ll want to do this partly because it’s adorable and captures the Pokemon feel quite well, but also because doing so aids in levelling up your Dream Eaters. By accruing experience you can progress along each Dream Eater’s ability tree and unlock new commands and passive abilities for both Sora and Riku, and so farming ingredients to build new monsters with more varied skill trees is both encouraged and a necessary of the late-game grind to max out your characters.
Each Dream Eater has its own set of attacks and elemental strengths and weaknesses to learn but I can’t say I found any real worry with it during my playthrough, and often I could get away with hurtling into battle with whatever Dream Eaters I wanted. Attacking at the same time as your Dream Eaters raises their Link gauge and once it’s full Sora and Riku can combine with them to unleash powerful attacks. In a nice touch, this works differently for them both: Sora, ever the power-of-friendship chap, teams up with his Dream Eaters and does combo attacks, whereas Riku, used to being a loner, temporarily fuses with them and his attacks take on new properties and animations that often are reminiscent of, and in some cases directly lifted from, Birth by Sleep’s command styles.
Though no handheld games have the Gummi ship like the first two Kingdom Hearts, Dream Drop Distance is the first one to try and introduce something similar. To reach new worlds Riku and Sora must “drop” into their dreams – think Inception but way more colourful and probably even more confusing – and this takes the form of shmup-style levels where our characters can attack and burst about the screen, trying to collect points and defeat enemies until the world opens. Sometimes there are bonus missions or alternative goals to achieve such as bosses to defeat to give the stages both variety and a reason to replay, and completionists will no doubt need to get very good at them to reap the rewards gated behind the highest ratings.
In another similarity to Birth By Sleep the level design trends towards quite large open spaces. This combines with the sometimes quite sparse combat encounters to create a sense of emptiness unfortunately but at least in this game there is a greater emphasis on platforming as a means to cover the ground. This comes in the form of Flowmotion. A new addition to the franchise, Flowmotion allows Sora and Riku to activate special platforming moves in order to more efficiently get around levels: our protagonists can grind on railings, spin off lampposts, and bounce off walls and launch themselves across the level. It’s also very useful in combat as Flowmotion can be incorporated into combos to launch special attacks. It’s a super stylish way of spicing up Kingdom Hearts’s platforming, and something I’d love to see expanded on.
Along with the dreamlike movement of Flowmotion each world’s status as being in a malleable sleeping state also manifests in the Reality Shift mechanic. Every level has elements which can be interacted with in unique ways, and this includes enemies as well. When prompted Sora and Riku can initiate a Reality Shift which triggers a little microgame specific to that level – in the TRON: Legacy-themed world The Grid for example, a tiny hacking game allows the player to reprogram enemies to fight their allies. Although it’s more a gimmick than anything, the mechanic adds a little sense of flavour to the game, and they’re quick and rewarding enough to keep using, rather than being vestigial and ignored.
There are definitely plenty of elements of Dream Drop Distance’s plot I’d love to discuss here but won’t because of spoilers; suffice it to say that this game is significantly more dense and narrative-heavy than any other portable Kingdom Hearts game save Birth by Sleep. Between the narrative weight and the high production values this feels so much more like an entry akin to the console releases; Dream Drop Distance is for all intents and purposes a major release in the franchise and one which players will benefit from its wider release on consoles as part of the collection Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. The series has a reputation for mad plots but I’ve long been a defender of them; that said Dream Drop Distance really does threaten to go off the rails with one particular plot point it introduces here, and I suspect less-invested fans will roll their eyes and mentally check out – it is used, however, to perfectly set up the events of Kingdom Hearts III, and as such is a game that it is hard to recommend passing on.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend skipping this game in any case – Dream Drop Distance is a joy to play, and one which has sweetened with time for me. My first playthrough of this game, way back on release, was an uninspiring one and I would really struggle to recall any feelings I had about it beyond a tired apathy. This time however I paid more attention and, buoyed by the fact that in my franchise replay this game represented the last game I had already played before and that completely new experiences were on the horizon, I found myself enjoying Dream Drop Distance. I feel very comfortable recommending this game and holding it up the same levels as other great entries in the series.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.