Review - Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance

Posted on July 31, 2012 - 8:45pm

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I imagine that a lot of people reading this aren't going to care what I say. After all, Kingdom Hearts has become such a beloved series that devoted fans will buy any and all games in the series. For every other 3DS owners, or those who have not kept up with the series, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance has a lot of familiar gameplay with a lot of familiar problems.

For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts is an action RPG featuring Disney characters and worlds, with cameos from other Square Enix properties. Kingdom Hearts 3D has seven worlds to explore based on Disney cartoons and movies, with a few of them being retreads from previous games. You play as both series hero Sora and his best friend/anti-hero Riku. Goofy and Donald are replaced with new "spirit" creatures for your party. It mixes platforming and action into one, as you use combo swings of your "keyblade", magic attacks, and fusions to beat up enemies.

The standard combat has not changed much. You still swing away with the A button, press Y to block and dodge, and you can select additional commands, such as magic spells or special keyblade attacks, with the directional pad and execute them with the X button. The most difficult thing to use are the special attacks. Selecting them with the d-pad means taking your thumb off of the circle pad, which means you're stuck standing in place as you try to find the command you want to use. Also, more often than not, the responsiveness of actually executing it, despite rapid presses of the button, is more than questionable. Activating the lock on camera and reality shift maneuvers require pressing multiple buttons at once, and the camera is awkwardly set to the L and R buttons. It's hardly intuitive to use, but if you have it, the Circle Pad Pro alleviates these problems and has better camera control. The lock on and auto-targeting can also cause confusion in target priorities, which can make your attacks go in directions you did not intend them to. These are all problems the series has had in the past, and it stays the same here.

Changing up the beat 'em-up style combat are the new "flowmotion" attacks. You can airdash off of walls for a boost in speed and use that to link into over-the-top attacks filled with flips, spirals and spins. It allows you to spin on posts, throw some larger enemies, and smash into the ground. These attacks are beyond effective, as they're usually a better option than casting magic as you're generally invulnerable during the flowmotion attacks. Unfortunately, flowmotion also completely kills any sense of platforming, as you can continually jump up a single wall to reach areas that were supposed to have intricate paths to them. Flowmotion adds a rather unnecessary layer to combat. It feels forced in to make combat more flashy and to make trailers look like they have more going on in it than constant, redundant fighting.

Additionally, when enemies are weakened, you have a chance to ignite a "Reality Shift". It allows you to do extra damage by using the touch screen depending on the world you are in, doing things like touching musical notes or pressing color coded letters. It seems to be placed in so that you use the touch screen more often, and is generally harmless. Some of the reality shifts are especially useful, making it worthwhile to perform. Others can be ignored without any detriment to gameplay.

Longtime companions Goofy and Donald Duck are no longer with you, as Sora and Riku employ dream creatures. Defeating enemies and looting treasure chests nets you components that you can use to create animal-like monsters. These monsters can fused into your hero for over the top attacks, find hidden passages, and soak up a few hits. Their actual combat effectiveness is disappointing, as they do not dish out a lot of damage or quickly come your aid.

Rather, they're mostly used to power up your main characters. Every creature gains "link points", which can be used to unlock different abilities and bonuses through their ability link tree. These trees are actually more like stumps with a few twigs sticking out, but they are useful. Spending ability points can get you permanent stat increases, new attacks, resistances, or new abilities. It's integral, as these bonuses are practically necessary to keep up with the constant fighting. It's also rather cumbersome. Each monster has its own tree, and you'll have several monsters to swap between, and only those in your party get link points. Plus, getting new attacks means having to go into your list of commands and manually swapping out which ones you want to use, even for simple things such as items.

A new meter introduced is the drop meter. This is essentially a timer for the character you're playing as. You swap between Sora and Riku intermittently (or by a choice), and causes the current adventure to come to a halt as you take up the other character. It's a clever way to fundamentally double the game's length through its short seven worlds. Switching can have its bonuses, as drop points that was collected by one can be spent on the other for temporary buffs and items. Switching back also picks up the action exactly where it left off, even if its in mid-battle. The only exception to this is during boss fights, in which "dream dropping" means you have to restart the entire boss fight. This is extremely aggravating when the boss has but a few hits left and you're forced to start over.

If this all sounds complex, it is. More than any other Kingdom Hearts game, Dream Drop Distance requires a significant amount of micromanagement. Constantly checking your spirit companions and making sure they are "happy" (through a few lame augmented reality minigames) keeps pulling your attention away from just enjoying the game. And you have to do this all twice, as Sora and Riku have separate command decks, spirt companions, and ability links to check on.

And that's without mentioning the plot. If you have never played a Kingdom Hearts game before, the convoluted story will hurt your brain and practically laugh at how ridiculous it is. At the very least, the story is continued forward for once instead of sidestories and backstories. A few flashbacks and recaps of the other games unlock as you go along, but even meticulously reading every detail in those will leave you scratching your head at just what is even happening.

Even if you're left helplessly confused, you have to admire at just how beautifully the game is presented. The cutscenes are some of the best the 3DS can muster. Areas are impressively large, if a bit empty, and character models accurately capture their cartoon counterparts. It's one of the few 3DS games where playing with the 3D on at full blast really does make the game look better than normal. The high quality music rings of familiarity from iconic Disney franchises, but have their own jaunty twist that makes it their own. The voice acting is solid with every returning actor (although Haley Joel Osment as Sora isn't holding up like he used to) even when they're saying some of the most silly tripe about friendships, dreams, and time travel. If it's one thing Square Enix knows how to do, it's making their games look and sound fantastic.

If you're a Kingdom Hearts fan, then you knew before even reading this review that you were going to buy it. And you're going to love it, too. If you can handle the same kind of problems the series has always had, then there's no reason to not enjoy Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. Newcomers to the series will be lost for the plot, but will have a pretty good 3DS game. Constant battling is tiring but never a chore, the party management is perhaps too complex for its own good, but it does off a lot of options. Plus, the Disney touch makes it all a little charming.

It's a lengthy, worthy purchase. Dream Drop Distance is easily the best handheld Kingdom Hearts game to date. It's just a bit disappointing that the series still can't quite shake the same problems over and over again.

7.5 / 10

(7s are very fun that has solid appeal. It has obvious issues that stick out, but can still be enjoyable by anyone.)

Jared Knabenbauer is the Reviews Editor, Hard News host, and a host of our weekly video podcast, "SideScrollers". He has also produced several notable ScrewAttack shows, including Newsroom, Nametags and Control Issues. He specializes in RPGs, and has a great fondness for Dungeons & Dragons. A comedian at heart, he is one serious gamer.

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