Friday, January 20, 2017

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance

Note: This review text was written in September 2014.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’ve been a huge fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise since around the time the original game released in America. If there’s one thing from the franchise I haven’t been a fan of however, it would be the fact that, beginning from Chain of Memories, you have to own multiple systems in order to keep track of the ever-growing kudzu plot the story is infamous for. It was because of this that, after Birth by Sleep, my excitement went somewhat dormant until last year when my review playthrough of the original game rekindled that spark that had nearly gone out. What helped immensely was the release of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, which not only brought a modified Kingdom Hearts Final Mix over to the west, as well as Re:Chain of Memories with better graphics, but also included the cutscenes from 358/2 Days. That last one was a pretty big deal for me, since I never owned a DS to be able to play it, so I missed out on an important bit of the overall story. With the release of HD 2.5 Remix, we not only got Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix and a modified Birth by Sleep Final Mix, but also the cutscenes for Re:coded, which gave me another important link in the franchises’ chain of events (because, like Metal Gear, Kingdom Hearts is not a franchise where you can skip a game and be safe). With the Final Mixes released on PS3, I’ve finally been able to experience the entire story on a single system, something I had been hoping for since the Nintendo handheld installments.

However, there is one entry I didn’t include up there: Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS handheld. When this game first came out, and especially after the formal announcement of Kingdom Hearts III at E3 2013, I became frustrated for a couple reasons: 1) I do not own a 3DS handheld of my own, thus preventing me from playing the game, and 2) Dream Drop Distance is supposed to serve as the seventh main installment, as well as connect every game before it together so that it may flow directly into Kingdom Hearts III. Since these two points presented such a large obstacle with being able to understand the highly anticipated Kingdom Hearts III (by now I’ve been waiting about ten long years), I was fortunately able to borrow a 3DS and copy of Dream Drop Distance from a friend, Tyler Uslan. So during the five days (29:50 in “man hours”) I had borrowed both the game and system, I decided to play on Proud Mode to more easily unlock the secret ending, though the other rationale was that I had already beaten Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep on that same difficulty level.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into the world of Dream Drop Distance and see whether or not the journey was worth it.

Sometime after the events of Re:coded, Sora and Riku are summoned to Master Yen Sid’s tower for an important meeting. The threat of Master Xehanort’s return is looming near, so the two of them are to take the Mark of Mastery Exam to try and grow strong enough to counter him. As part of the exam, Sora and Riku are sent off to awaken seven sleeping worlds disconnected from the others. These worlds are inhabited by Dream Eaters, creatures born from darkness that seek out the Keyholes of Sleep found there. The duo is encouraged to work alongside the benevolent “Spirit” Dream Eaters while extinguishing the malevolent “Nightmare” Dream Eaters. Should they succeed in their task, they will gain new powers that signify them as true Keyblade Masters. When Sora and Riku begin at Traverse Town, however, they are immediately separated, existing within separate versions of the same world. As they try to figure out what’s going on, a mysterious figure in a black coat enters the equation, leading to revelations that will forever alter the course of Sora and Riku’s lives.

Discussing the story is a little tricky, considering its placement in canon and how mixed I feel about it. Since I have gone the spoiler-free route in my other Kingdom Hearts reviews, I will attempt my discussion along those same lines. However, I feel that I may need to include minor spoilers, so there will be white text where necessary.

The story, at first, is pretty straightforward, since Sora and Riku have to reawaken seven sleeping worlds to complete their Mark of Mastery exam. However, the true mystery begins when the man in the black coat is revealed to be Young Xehanort. As the plot advances, we also see appearances by Xemnas and Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, mostly to provide insight on what makes a heart a heart as well as the nature of dreams. Interspersed with the main plot are scenes in Radiant Garden and the Mysterious tower involving Axel, who has mysteriously been restored along with some of his former cohorts from Organization XIII, but he can’t figure out where Braig (Xigbar) and Isa (Saïx) are. As the mysteries pile on each other, we do eventually receive the explanations we seek, though I’m having a hard time with how I feel about it. To put it simply, the answers involve time travel and forward planning that rivals, or even exceeds, Sōsuke Aizen from Bleach or The Joker from The Dark Knight. The number of retcons involved in the full explanation, which even go as far back in time as Birth by Sleep, creates a rush of confusion since it seems impossible for Tetsuya Nomura to have planned that far in advance for the series. On the other hand, possibly due to me understanding Metal Gear Solid 2 after multiple playthroughs, I have to commend Nomura for being able to come up with an explanation, and motivation for the big bad, that manages to not negate previous games and actually works with the entire timeline; after a while the whole thing begins to make a frightening amount of sense. After the ending of course, as well as the secret ending (Another Guardian of Light (which I highly recommend unlocking)), I’m waiting very (im)patiently to see just what Kingdom Hearts III will do with all of the new knowledge presented.

Put simply, this game's story is Xehanort's fault.

Gameplay for Dream Drop Distance uses some mechanics previously introduced in the series, though it also adds some new things to the equation. For one thing, combat still heavily involves the command deck from Birth by Sleep, though the ability to meld commands together is now missing. This disappointed me, since trying to find good command combinations or exploiting lists, whichever came first, provided a great source of fun and discovery for me and the bore of grinding was mitigated by how awesome my commands would be when they proved useful (though let’s face it, even then it wasn’t always fun when leveling up lesser versions of commands). Since this time you have to do literally every other possible thing to gain new commands, and some commands are harder to obtain than others and/or require playing as Sora or Riku, it became a chore to try and figure out where the commands came from and I groaned every time it had to come from a Dream Eater (more on them in a bit). The ability to buy multiple copies of the awesome Balloon spell and raise their levels for fusing into a better version, like Balloonra or Balloonga, would have made for a less stressful experience when trying to have a specific deck combination for difficult boss fights or just plain fights in general. Otherwise, the command deck operates the same way as before, down to the most powerful commands taking up more slots, although it’s annoying how even rearranging commands will reset all of the timers for each command, forcing me to play the waiting game.

Balloonga in action.

And that waiting game is something to really worry about going through considering the game’s Drop mechanic, which is somewhat based on your Distance (get it?). As you play through either Sora or Riku’s story, a Drop Gauge will slowly go down no matter what you do, even if you are just standing around. When the gauge is fully depleted, the action immediately stops and you switch over to playing as the other character. From a narrative standpoint, this makes sense, since it allows the player to experience both stories simultaneously. When viewed from a gameplay perspective however, it quickly becomes one of the most annoying mechanics ever. As soon as that Drop Gauge hits zero, you are absolutely done with the current character, even if you’re in the middle of a fight, including bosses. If you want to continue the fight, you have to Drop back, which can be done manually, but as soon as you get back to the fight, you have to start all over again with all enemies, or the boss, at full health. It isn’t quite as bad when you’ve just barely started the fight, but I’ve experienced a scenario plenty of times where my foe is within an inch of their life and, just before the final blow is struck, I Drop to the other character and float helplessly in space, which is incredibly frustrating to watch.

Fortunately, there are some things which can alleviate the problem, though only a little. As you kill “Nightmare” Dream Eaters, you gain Drop Points (DP) that act as a sort of currency once you perform a Drop, allowing you to purchase bonuses for the next character ranging from deceleration of the Drop Gauge to Attack/Defense boosts and even extra items. Naturally, I always went for Drop deceleration, since then I could play as Sora or Riku longer and finish a task in order to trigger access to more worlds. There’s also an item called a Drop-Me-Not, which can be consumed to increase the length of the Drop Gauge while in the field. Unfortunately this is a command that may not always see use, so trying to use it and then switch it out creates the aforementioned hassle of resetting all command timers.

Though the Drop mechanic isn’t completely satisfactory, there’s a new ability called Flowmotion that almost totally makes up for it. When dashing or landing on certain surfaces, which includes some Dream Eaters, Flowmotion is triggered, creating new opportunities for rapid movement between other Flowmotion surfaces or getting off some Flowmotion attacks, which are weaker than most other attacks but are pulled off with incredible speed. The downside to Flowmotion is that you can still take damage while using it, and you aren’t able to activate commands, but the quick maneuverability it provides is the greatest benefit of the system and its use quickly becomes essential during some of the more difficult boss fights.

A Flowmotion command, specifically Kick Dive, in action.

Speaking of the boss fights, if you thought Organization XIII from Kingdom Hearts II or the final boss of Birth by Sleep was difficult, the bosses of Dream Drop Distance can make those guys seem like pushovers by comparison. Sure they start out easy enough with Hockomonkey, a Nightmare Dream Eater, but over time the bosses start going from mostly annoying, like Holey Moley, to absurdly difficult. The worst of it for Sora was the Spellican Dream Eater and the “Final Bosses” of his portion of the campaign. By the time you reach the final world of the game though, the Dream Eaters you fight as regular enemies can easily overpower you if you’re not careful and the bosses seriously make any Sephiroth fight feel like a light breeze. What compounds this is when Riku has a section near the end where he has three boss fights in a row with no time to change the command deck, so having the Dark Splicer ability really comes in handy to break their tactics, unless of course there’s an attack that can break right through this technique. But he’s not even done then, since he has two more consecutive boss fights afterwards (fortunately with opportunities to switch commands). I’ll warn you now that going in full throttle won’t work against them, so you’re going to have to simplify everything down to the basics, with very liberal use of Dark Barrier and Counter Aura combined with conservative use of the Balloon series of spells and other long-range magic, as well as two or three Cure spells. I don’t normally give much boss advice in my reviews, but since I beat the game on Proud Mode while a little under-leveled, LV 36 Riku and LV 33 Sora, I figured I’d make someone’s life easier with this knowledge.

Of course, I still need to discuss the primary feature of the game: Dream Eaters of the “Spirit” variety. In combat, these replace Donald and Goofy, and prospective Disney characters, as party members, operating as a purely offensive force combining physical attacks and magic (though thankfully no item usage). You can have up to three Dream Eaters on you at once, though only two are on the field with you at a time, so you can switch between your active Dream Eaters and the one in reserve with the touch screen. As Dream Eaters fight with you, they earn Link Points to fill up a Link Meter. When the meter is full, you can tap their icon to gain new abilities based on which character you are playing as; when playing as Sora, he briefly gains a new attack in tandem with the Dream Eater until the meter empties, but when playing with Riku, his attack style changes based on the Dream Eater(s) he’s linked with. When both active Dream Eaters have full meters, an icon appears between both portraits to allow Dual Linking, combining their strengths to form stronger and often more unique links.

But there’s more to Dream Eaters than just their combat prowess. In order to add more to your party, or just have more options, you’ll need to create them in one of a couple ways. The first, and most common, method is to combine Dream Pieces obtained from defeated Nightmares and follow a recipe or experiment from scratch. Right off the bat the game will give you the resources for a Meow Wow (as Sora) or Komory Bat (as Riku), but it’s good to experiment to find out which Dream Eaters suit your play style (and you don’t know it yet, but you want to have a Tyranto Rex as soon as possible). The other method is to scan AR Cards with the 3DS’ rear cameras, which is useful for obtaining specific rare Dream Eaters. Three AR Cards can be found with the main game, but an additional two can be found in the Mark of Mastery Edition for a total of five of these special cards. While borrowing the game, I was unable to use any physical cards, but I was able to trick the 3DS into accepting my Smartphone as an AR card by finding scanned pictures online and blowing them up on the screen; alternatively you can use full-color print-outs of the cards.

A Tyranto Rex Dream Eater.

Dream Eaters provide more than one gameplay twist though, in that they become your primary source for obtaining new abilities and commands outside of chests or story events. To do so, you spend Link Points earned by any given Dream Eater on their Link Board, with each space on the board costing a different number of Link Points. It doesn’t sound too bad at first, but a few annoyances with the system quickly pop up. For one thing, all Nightmares that you defeat will only grant one Link Point no matter how strong they were, so you end up having to devote your time to your Dream Eaters if you hope to get anywhere fast. The game does provide a way to do so, but in the form of a full-blown virtual pet simulator, where you can stroke/pet your Dream Eaters for more EXP, Affection and Link Points, or you can use a number of training toys, which usually cost Munny, to speed up the process. Due to my time constraints with borrowing the game, I became frustrated after a while from having to do this to get the most out of my Dream Eaters, not helped by how the aforementioned petting/stroking with the stylus for a while is the only way to change their disposition, and changing a Dream Eater to all four of their dispositions is the only way to unlock more spaces on the Link Board. When you’re strapped for time or simply don’t care about virtual pet simulators, the process is a pretty tedious one to go through for the chance at the most useful commands/abilities (Protip: use the Water Barrel training toy). However, I’m aware that there are those who would buy this game specifically because of the virtual pet elements, as well as those who would enjoy this aspect regardless, so this is really more of a selling point if you’re in that camp (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

Beyond the combat, there are a couple of things which provide extra gameplay, those being the Link Portals and Flick Rush mini-game. Link Portals are like a sort of challenge mode, where you complete certain objectives with specific conditions for the chance to get Dream Pieces. Due to my time constraints, I ended up not using any of these (my apologies), although I know that people have used Link Portals to farm some particularly hard to get Dream Pieces, as well as the fact that certain portals are next to impossible to complete, so go at your own risk. Flick Rush is a bit different though, kind of like the Mirage Arena from Birth by Sleep with some major differences. In Flick Rush, you use cards like in Chain of Memories to have your three Dream Eaters fight against other teams of Dream Eaters to complete Flick Rush Cups. Each victory grants Medal Points, which you can spend at the Medal Shop for new commands and items. Flick Rush is actually a little fun, with a system that is easily addicting and is a good gateway to obtaining more Balloon spells. Plus, you can play Flick Rush with other people via the 3DS’ StreetPass functionality. Also notable is that, as far as I’m aware, this is the first Kingdom Hearts game with post-game play, meaning you can continue even after the credits roll, so the game now has further replay value, including a New Game+ feature where you can carry your Dream Eaters and abilities over to the next playthrough; always a good inclusion.

Before I really move on, I’d like to mention one great feature: Mementos. Due to the placement of Dream Drop Distance within the chronology of the franchise, there’s quite a bit of continuity lockout involved in the story (ie. starting with this game is like starting Metal Gear with Guns of the Patriots or Ground Zeroes). Thankfully, whenever something revolving around a previous plot point comes up, the game will automatically unlock a Memento summarizing a previous game. This is a really good idea for helping people that really are starting with this game, although as a veteran I find that there’s a downside. Yes the summaries are pretty comprehensive, but the way they are written is such that the information given is most important to the part of the story where it was unlocked, so you’re not really getting the full story or the entire context for certain scenes. For the purposes of Dream Drop Distance it works reasonably well, but to truly understand what’s going on, it’s best to experience the story through HD 1.5 and HD 2.5 Remix beforehand.

Or just get this.

For a 3DS game, Dream Drop Distance has some very impressive graphics. While obviously not quite as good as the HD Remixes, it does rival or even exceed the capabilities of Birth by Sleep or the PS2 entries (I’d chalk this up to more advanced technology). Everything is very clear thanks to the bright color palette and I like the designs of the Dream Eaters as well as Sora and Riku. The Disney-based worlds also maintain their unique visual style very well, although The Grid, based on Tron: Legacy, has the same problem as Port Royal from Kingdom Hearts II whenever the human characters share the screen with Sora or Riku, creating an unsettling contrast in styles. In know that characters from The World Ends With You are also included in the game, but since I have no prior experience with the game, I can’t really say how faithful they are represented visually or vocally.

Speaking of vocals, the voice acting is great as usual, with all of the Disney characters sounding how you’d expect them to sound, though I think Jiminy Cricket was a little different in his voice this time around from what I remember (well, it is a different voice actor after all). Haley Joel Osment and David Gallagher both continue to do a great job respectively as Sora and Riku, although they are, for some reason, in younger bodies through most of the game, so it sounds weird to hear the adult voices coming out of them in this case. The original characters also continue to have great voices, though it’s understandable if some players are getting tired of Axel due to his increasing plot presence and screen time.

Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is a rather interesting game. The combat remains fun, but the problem with command timers and the need to take care of Dream Eaters to get the most out of them is a bit of a drag (for me due to the conditions I was under). But despite its flaws, the game is very fun to play and if I had my own 3DS and copy of the game, I would totally play it again. The story, though confusing, makes a lot of sense when you sit and think about it and there was a surprising thrill from getting past the difficult bosses while a little under-leveled, with a huge adrenaline rush after defeating them. All Kingdom Hearts fans should play this, no matter how much of the legendary hype they got sucked into, and new fans could theoretically start with this game, but as I said before, it’s really for the best to go through the HD Remixes on PS3 first.

And with all of that said, just remember: this leads to Kingdom Hearts III.

But first...

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