Strikingly, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance feels more like the next core instalment within the ever-expanding franchise, rather than the inevitable spin-off identity that it’ll most certainly be attributed to.
Serving as a precursor to the oft-demanded Kingdom Hearts III, it traces the journey that Sora and Riku must undertake to become true keyblade masters. To do so, and a necessary preparation for the eventual return of Master Xehanort, the powerful sorcerer Yen Sid tasks the young heroes with completing the Mark of Mastery exam.
Such a quest charts the course of the game, with seven Disney themed worlds trapped within a deep slumber that each must be awoken by the keyblade wielders for them to succeed.
Whilst new gameplay mechanics serve to differentiate Dream Drop Distance from its predecessors, the experience remains largely the same albeit vastly improved. Each world once again presents its individual narrative scenario, in which players will meet well-loved Disney characters as well as cast members from critically acclaimed Nintendo DS classic The World Ends With You. Your progressive goal to navigate environments, defeating countless enemies, triggering key cutscenes, besting a gargantuan boss and sealing the heart of the world to reawaken it.
It is in the execution of its gameplay design that allows Dream Drop Distance to truly stand out. Rather than Sora and Riku simply splitting in separate directions, they find themselves within parallel dimensions from one another. Left to fend for themselves as they tackle the challenges of the Mark of Mastery exam, they travel to the same worlds but encounter entirely separate narrative sequences once there.
To travel between worlds the player must enter Dive Mode, a freefall graphical display that lends itself well to sumptuous 3D visuals. These are based on the world that you are to visit, and either task players with gathering a certain amount of prize bubbles to open the goal ring, or to defeat a boss character within the fastest time possible, for instance.
Ensuring that the player divides their time relatively evenly between each character is a new Drop mechanic, presented by the depleting Drop Gauge in the lower-right corner of the screen. Once empty, the player automatically switches to the other character, such occurrence able to be slowed by refilling the Drop Gauge by defeating enemies.
If you ever feel that you are slightly too far ahead of a certain character, you can also choose to Drop whenever you wish through the Start Menu. This may make things harder, however, with players rewarded with Drop Points for the enemies they neutralise and challenges that they complete. These may then be spent either to provide the other character with temporary statistic bonuses, to receive extra items, or simply in exchange for Munny for use at the in-game Shop.
Whilst encouraging progression, this also assists each character in making their way through the increasingly difficult levels and, in particular, boss encounters.
With the Heartless unable to enter the sleeping worlds that you visit, this makes way for a new type of creature to make its first appearance within the Kingdom Hearts universe. Dream Eaters, creatures that seek the hidden keyholes of the sleeping worlds, come in two forms: Nightmares, dark versions that actively neutralise good dreams to replace them with more horrible ones, and Spirits which reverse such process.
You are able to enlist the aid of the latter, who then act as your party members, although the player must create such critters through gathering materials detailed within Recipes. There are dozens within the game, each producing a range of colourful Spirits clearly inspired by various animals. These can be levelled, with players able to increase the amount of materials used to boost their initial statistics, whilst also free to fuse them with a chosen Deck Command skill to further enhance their abilities.
In addition, optional mini-games encourage players to further bond with their accompanying Dream Eaters, interacting through use of the touchscreen with the reward being Link Points. These can then be expended on the Ability Link board, on which you can unlock new Deck Commands, abilities and permanent stat boosts.
Such mini-games include Balloon, during which your Dream Eaters bounce such inflatables towards you which must be deflected back using the touch screen, Water Barrel, where you use bubble streams to direct your Dream Eater to collect stars, or Treasure Goggles during which the 3DS’s AR capabilities are implemented and you must scan your location for items that your Dream Eaters can collect.
Combat, in which you will spend most of your time, is now refined with more fluidity. A new Flowmotion mechanic sees the player utilise their environment to deal increased damage to enemies. Running up walls, sliding along rails or swinging yourself around lamp posts may sound like fun, but whilst these can be used for traversal, they can also be used to fling yourself heroically at enemies.
Similarly, a further mechanic known as Reality Shift adds a level of strategy to the mix. In certain instances, players can perform the manoeuvre which sees your character dive into the touchscreen. Dependent on what you are interacting with, you can perform actions such as hacking turrets so that they attack enemies, catapulting barrels to flatten foes or unblock hidden paths, or to connect a series of points across the map for your player to grind along.
If there was room for criticism then it would once again have to be directed at the delivery of narrative, which has been a convoluted mess since the series’ conception. Whilst great efforts have been made to incorporate a new Mementos system, within which includes key cutscene Flashbacks, and Chronicles, which are text-based plot summaries of previous games, these merely aid but don’t entirely assist the player in an easier understanding of the overarching Kingdom Hearts storyline.
Still, Square Enix, who I have long regarded as being able to squeeze the very best out of handhelds in terms of graphical performance, can celebrate an incredible accomplishment here. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is not only the greatest handheld entry within the series to date, even after the effusive quality of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, but will forever remain as one of the finest and most notable additions to the Nintendo 3DS game library.
Version Tested: Nintendo 3DS
Review copy provided by Square Enix