Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (3DS)

This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.

As I've said in the past, the Kingdom Hearts games are a slave to their narrative. Regardless of your opinions on whether the plot of the series is any good or not (It's not very good); there are now 7 games all part of the same story - of which Dream Drop Distance is the latest in terms of both release and chronologically. To properly appreciate a new game in the series, it almost requires a working knowledge of the previous entries. And that's a bad thing.

©Square Enix

KH3D tries to mitigate this with in-game reference material and flashbacks to the game's past events - but to the newcomer, the convoluted path that leads plucky anime teens Sora and Riku to an all-important quest that involves 'diving into the dreams of sleeping worlds' is confusing, and ultimately feels irrelevant. It's almost as if Square Enix want you to ignore the overarching plot altogether, which may really be for the best.

See, it's not the narrative that has made the Kingdom Hearts series so enjoyable, it's all about spectacle and satisfaction. The spectacle of exploring bright and detailed worlds, and the satisfaction of weighty and involved combat.

In regards to the spectacle, Square Enix definitely took the time to use the 3DS' graphical abilities as effectively as possible. The 3D is strategically used to be more noticeable in cutscenes than gameplay, so while battles do benefit from the depth-of-field, they won't strain your eyes.

The series staple of exploring multiple Disney franchises is of course present, and although they all have shared design aspects to get everything looking cohesive, they're also incredibly distinct through set-pieces and colour use. The clean, geometric and faintly pulsing landscape of the Tron Legacy world caught my interest in ways entirely other to the soft golds, rich purples and towering buildings of the Hunchback of Notre Damme world.

In regards to gameplay satisfaction, every sequel to Kingdom Hearts series has improved on the base mechanics of the original in some way. To those who have played Re:coded on the DS or Birth by Sleep on the PSP, you'll already be at home with the basic setup, but KH3D adds three new (notably huge) features: Parkour, Pokémon, and Narcolepsy.

The opening stage quickly introduces parkour - or 'Flowmotion' as the game insists on calling it. This allows you to slide along rails, swing around poles and spring yourself off walls, all of which gives you incredible freedom of movement and new context-sensitive attacks. The wall-springs work out to be rather imbalanced in the long run, as you quickly find you can use it to scale walls of any height, and you can accidentally trigger it if you try to dodge roll too close to a wall.

Instead of classic Disney characters assisting you as party members, you can summon friendly versions of the enemy 'Dream Eater' monsters you battle throughout the game. The Dream Eater system is very robust. Every monster has its own abilities and AI patterns; they unlock special abilities for you via simple 'skill trees'; and there are even Nintendogs-style minigames for the cuteness factor. The part of me that never grew out of loving Pokémon adores this addition, but it's a shame that because of this system, I can never fight alongside the main characters of each world.

To keep with the theme of 'sleep and dreams' beyond just the plot and the game title, sleep even affects the player characters. The protagonists Sora and Riku are playable in tandem - both exploring the sleeping worlds, but in separate realisations. However, they (for vaguely explained reasons) cannot be awake at the same time. As you play as one character, you'll see a 'Drop Meter' that acts as a timer until they spontaneously fall unconscious, and he counterpart takes over. This can happen literally any time outside of menus and cutscenes. Bosses suddenly become a lot more harrowing when it's against a time limit.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance makes some undeniable design faux-pas. The ability to scale any surface trivialises platforming. Raising Dream Eaters eventually becomes more time consuming than the main combat. The idea of using theming as a limit on you feels just... wrong. And yet, that it keeps the gameplay of the series solidly intact, and still dares to try new ideas and push things even further. And I've gotta give it props for that.

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