Kingdom Hearts is one of those series whose quality varies wildly from game to game. Sometimes they are nothing but near pointless filler while others are as solid as the numbered iterations in the series. Much like the "even-number Star Trek films curse," fans of the series believe those Kingdom Hearts titles released on Nintendo consoles are doomed to be inferior. So does the 3DS' Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance prove the pattern true once again or drop it like a bad habit instead?
Good — A Whole New World
The high point of Dream Drop Distance is the welcome amount of new content. Of the game's seven worlds, only three have been visited before—and of those three, the vast majority of their maps are completely new. And while you visit each world twice (once as Sora and once as Riku), these are the largest worlds of any Kingdom Hearts game to date, with many areas accessible only by one character but not the other.
Lesser known properties like Disney's Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers and Square Enix's own The World Ends With You get their own moments to shine as well—especially the latter. The characters in these worlds are fully voiced and optional cutscenes allow you to see the back story of the world and characters if you so choose. Overall, "new" is the name of the game and Dream Drop Distance is better for it.
Mixed — Dream Dropping (Like It's Hot)
Instead of playing the whole game to completion and then doing so again with a different character—as it was in Birth by Sleep—you can swap Riku and Sora at any time by "Dream Dropping." However, while it can be done manually, you will be forced to "drop" automatically every twenty minutes or so as the "drop gauge" runs out. When dropping, the game calculates a score based on the enemies you killed and allows you to temporarily buff your partner for his next turn. This buff acts as the main incentive for not immediately switching back to the character you were just playing as.
While dropping serves to break up the gameplay and keep both characters progressing through the game at an equal rate, there is one major flaw. When time is up, it's up. It doesn't even matter if you're in a boss fight, you'll be pulled out and the battle reset. This means you have to play a full cycle with the other character before you can try again—if you want the buff, that is.
Mixed — No Companions. Have Some Pokémon Instead
In past Kingdom Hearts games, you have had Donald and Goofy—or the heroes of any given Disney world—as computer-controlled party members. In Dream Drop Distance, however, your party consists of Riku or Sora and two of the game's monsters that you have previously collected. By defeating wild monsters—called Dream Eaters—in battle, you gain the materials to make your own. But while this does add a "gotta catch 'em all" aspect to the game, it sadly cuts out a score of crazy team-ups. And even though world specific characters do join your party for cutscenes, the fact that you never get to fight side-by-side with Tron Legacy's Olivia Wilde or the cast of the World Ends With You is more than a little disappointing.
Mixed — When Old and New Mechanics Collide
The big new addition in Dream Drop Distance is the "free-flow" system. Outside of battle, it allows you to practically fly through areas by jumping and dashing from wall to wall; but in battle, it's even more useful. By grinding on a rail or dashing into a large enemy, you can perform incredibly powerful physical attacks. While they look really cool and are very effective, the fact that you can do them constantly makes the magic and attack system carried over from past games completely obsolete. Moreover, the monsters are much faster and the AI is much improved so normal magic and attacks are practically useless anyway. Before long you'll be doing nothing but the same free-flow action over and over again till you win because that's simply the most efficient way to play. And sadly, that gets real old real fast.
Bad — Wasting Your Time (Like a Boss)
The bosses in Dream Drop Distance are always a battle of attrition. Most of them are not all that hard, but take forever to defeat. To start, they all have a mind-boggling amount of HP to hack through. Many simply run away from you or have hit boxes that move out of your range mid-attack, forcing you to constantly reposition to score even a single hit. While some of the bosses can conceivably kill you with an ill-timed air juggle, the question is never "Will I beat them?"; it's "Will I beat them before I dream drop?"
There is one exception: Tron. Normally I don't go into personal stories in a preview like this, but Tron is the perfect example of how not to make a boss fight. Though only the third boss in the game, he is by far the most difficult. Not only does he have a crazy amount of HP, but he's also faster than you. On top of that, every single move of his is an air juggle and he won't hesitate to snipe you with his data disc if you try to run away and heal. That alone would be a challenging boss fight—and maybe even a really good one—but then every 30 seconds, he flips the stage. Not only your screen is upside down, but your controls are inverted as well. It's hellishly maddening. Your only hope is to stand still and counter every single one of his attacks. If I had been playing the game for pleasure instead of work, I would have quit right there.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the very definition of a mixed bag. There are many great additions in terms of gameplay, but for each of these, there seems to be a hidden downside. The stories in each individual world are entertaining nostalgia trips like always, though the over-arching plot and its resolution may rub longtime fans the wrong way. So while the game is full of extremes both good and bad, it zeros out to something about average.
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