Friday, August 17, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance Review

Not long ago, I took upon myself the task of reviewing each game in the Kingdom Hearts series from 2002 to 2010, in honor of the tenth anniversary of said series. I completed my mission three months ago with Birth by Sleep, but a new day brings new adventure, and so I once again find myself in front of the computer, typing up a massive, detailed analysis as to why Kingdom Hearts is mankind’s finest accomplishment since we reached the peak of our evolution as a species eons ago. All exaggerated praise aside, after ten years of Kingdom Hearts, we all should have a good idea of what to expect from Dream Drop Distance: spiky-haired, androgynous protagonists, nostalgic romps through Disney worlds and meetings with the characters thereof, an unreasonable amount of intense bloodless carnage carried out with a giant key, and an exceptionally convoluted storyline that will throw a seemingly endless amount of increasingly bizarre plot twists at you until your brain inevitably ceases to function.
They're all kind of the same person. Sort of. I could explain if you have a couple of hours to spare.

Yes, across the past ten years, that has certainly proven to be one of the more controversial aspects of the Kingdom Hearts series: the complicated narrative. I’ve made it pretty clear at this point that I’m rather a fan of it, but it’s not been received so well by everyone. Of course, this could be partially because some people simply don’t appreciate such complexity in general, which is understandable, because storylines such as that of Kingdom Hearts can get quite confusing if you don’t pay a lot of attention and also tend to become very…strange, I’ll say. Personally, though, I rather enjoy convoluted storylines so long as they’re careful to avoid plot holes, feature solid characters and don’t devolve into complete nonsense. The story of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which I would probably call one of my all-time favorites, is a perfect example of such a story: crazy and ridiculously complex, but deep, incredibly involving and far from stupid. It also gets bonus points for ret-conning many of the dumber elements of MGS2’s storyline so that they made much, much more sense.
Oh, by the way, these guys are all the same person, too. Kind of.

Of course, even I, being as big of a Kingdom Hearts fanboy as I am, wouldn’t insinuate that the series approaches MGS4’s standard of writing. The games’ scripts can at times be a tad hit or miss, featuring occasional sprinkles of uncalled-for cheese and generally awkward sequences. Some entries are worse about this than others – Birth by Sleep in particular has given us such lovely gems as “Has the DARKNESS taken YOU, TERRA?!!” and 3D, while one of the better ones in this regard, still has its more…”off-putting” lines. Kingdom Hearts has never prided itself on accessibility, either; start with almost any game except for the first and you will probably be completely lost. Even Birth by Sleep, despite being a prequel, may have some aspects that won’t make much sense to new players. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, fortunately, does away with this problem, as synopses of each of the previous games will unlock at relevant moments in the storyline.

As for the storyline of the game in question? It’s…probably the craziest one yet. Throughout the game, you can tell that the story is building up to something pretty significant, and it definitely delivers. The revelations and plot twists that come at the end of 3D turn the series’ entire continuity upside-down – and if you thought Birth by Sleep already did that, you haven’t seen anything yet. You are not going to this coming, but it’s definitely handled well and adds deeper meaning to the events of the franchise’s other games. Most fans such as I will probably eat it right up and it’s setting itself up for what will certainly be a conclusion of epic proportions. When it comes to other matters of importance, you won’t find any Final Fantasy cameos this time around; rather, the opening world is populated by characters from another popular Square RPG, The World Ends With You. I’ve never played it myself, but the characters seem very likable, so I’m definitely interested. The storyline is told from the perspectives of both Sora and Riku, making his first fully playable appearance since Chain of Memories, and you alternate between them constantly as the game goes on. What’s interesting is that the game doesn’t handle the Disney worlds like Birth by Sleep did, having the movie’s storyline play out across the three characters’ scenarios with the events in one storyline relating to events in another. Rather, Sora and Riku both visit different versions of each world – it makes sense in context – and two separate storylines that are drawn from the same movie play out.

As for the movies that were chosen for 3D, our list isn’t quite as extensive as that of other titles. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pinocchio, Tron Legacy, Fantasia, and, curiously enough, a direct-to-video movie called Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers are the movies we will be visiting in 3D. Before entering the world with either character, you are required to complete a “Dive” stage, which is basically the Gummi Ship without the Gummi Ship and there’s a bit more variety to these stages as well. As already mentioned, you visit the same worlds with both characters, but like in Birth by Sleep, they both have different challenges to overcome and at times even visit different areas of the worlds entirely. For instance, in the Pinocchio world, Sora visits the amusement park and ocean sections of it, while Riku’s portion takes place inside the whale, breathing new life into a familiar location from the series. You alternate between both characters constantly, whether it’s of your own accord or not, thanks to the “Drop Gauge”, which decreases as you spend time with either character. If it depletes completely, you will be forced to switch to the other character, and you will be allowed to use any “Drop Points” you acquired to give them various bonuses. This was obviously done for story pacing reasons, and, to that end, it succeeds. Some find it intrusive, especially in boss fights, but there are items called “Drop-Me-Nots” that restore some of the Drop Gauge, and you generally happen upon them quite often.

Anyway, those are certainly very diverse locations, yes, but when compared to previous major titles, this does come off as a meager amount. Fortunately, the game makes up for this. While there aren’t as many worlds this time around, the worlds we do get are the absolute largest the series has seen yet, giving you massive areas to explore. Accordingly, there is no shortage of treasures and other assorted secrets hidden within each of the worlds, making exploration very worthwhile. Of course, to explore effectively, you will have to make use of 3D’s primary gameplay mechanic. Yes, it’s time to discuss that.
 Really, mere words cannot describe how utterly amazing Kingdom Hearts 3D’s “Flowmotion”, as they have so lovingly named it, is. From the very first trailers, watching Sora and Riku swing around poles and ricochet off walls, I knew that this was going to be something special. No doubt, it’s one of the coolest and most useful things ever programmed into a video game. By simply dashing onto a pole or wall, you activate a technique that suddenly allows you to soar to massive heights, jump off or even climb up walls, and fly around at the speed of light. Grinding on rails, pipes, and wires as if you’re Sonic the Hedgehog is also rather common, and the Flowmotion in general makes merely traveling from place to place a great joy, and you will be required to make use of it to reach many of the game’s secrets. Flowmotion isn’t broken, as you can only perform so many actions without making contact with a wall or a pole of some sort, which makes it that much more satisfying when you use it skillfully, soaring from wall-to-wall with such finesse, grabbing onto a pole in preparation for another jump and then taking to the skies once more until you reach a dead end. Words can’t do it justice, of course; you’ll have to experience it for yourself. What’s even more interesting is that many of the worlds give the Flowmotion uses of their own. From jumping across rooftops in La Cite des Cloches, to grinding on lines of data in The Grid, to riding a freaking rollercoaster in Prankster’s Paradise, and even to reaching the boss of Sora’s section of Symphony of Sorcery, Flowmotion proves an incredible addition that will no doubt make any previous game feel limiting by comparison.

Flowmotion is also put to very effective use in the realm of combat. Yes, with this being a Kingdom Hearts game and all, you can expect a lot of that stuff. This time around, Sora and Riku are actually fighting off “Dream Eaters”. They’re much…cutesier than previous foes, but they still put up quite the fight. As far as combat is concerned, Flowmotion gives you access to several new moves, including a ground pound, a spiral attack, a spinning attack, and various others that depend on how Flowmotion is being used. One that is particularly fun is an ability that allows you to grab onto large enemies with your Keyblade and then fling them across long distances. Combat retains the Command Deck used in Birth by Sleep and Re:coded, which you customize using the various commands you get through various means over the course of the game. It’s still not quite as deep as it was in Birth by Sleep, getting rid of the Command Styles and lacking the ability to meld commands, but it makes up for it by giving you a much wider variety of commands at your disposal. 3D also adds another all-new mechanic to the combat system that makes use of the 3DS’s touch screen: the Reality Shift. During combat, you may see a pink circle form around the target reticle of an enemy or object; press “X” and “Y” simultaneously, and you will enter Reality Shift and control will switch to the touch screen. The exact move depends on the world you’re in; the Reality Shift for Traverse Town allows you to fling enemies at each other, the one for Prankster’s Paradise encases an enemy in a bubble that you then ride to trap other enemies in, the one for Symphony of Sorcery is a rhythm game, and so on and so forth. Ultimately, while it does remove some of Birth by Sleep’s more interesting features, what it adds in return ensures that the combat of Kingdom Hearts 3D is just as much fun.

In case you’re wondering, no, you still won’t be accompanied by Donald in Goofy as in the days of old, but you won’t be entering these worlds alone either. There are actually two types of Dream Eaters. The ones you have to fight are Nightmares, but there are also Spirits, which fight alongside you when you create them. These Spirits also have Link Gauges that fill as you fight, and if they fill all the way up, you can team up with that Spirit to perform a devastating attack as Sora or combine with it to change your moveset as Riku. Spirits don’t just help you in battle, though; by interacting with them through petting them with the touch screen and playing various mini-games, you can build up Link Points. These Link Points are used on a Spirit’s Ability Grid, which contains various stat boosts as well as several useful commands, and the Spirits are so ridiculously lovable that it doesn’t come off as busywork. Be aware, though, that if a Spirit dies and you aren’t able to save it in time, it’s gone for good. And that’s really sad.

The visuals of Kingdom Hearts 3D are simply gorgeous by 3DS standards; in fact, I’d say it’s the best-looking game released for the console thus far. The 3D effect is also particularly impressive, especially in the Dive stages. As usual, the soundtrack is sublime, and, since this game is a celebration of ten years of Kingdom Hearts, you can expect to hear some nostalgic tracks from some older games. One thing that’s really interesting is the fact that the same music used in the movie serves as the soundtrack for the Fantasia world. All in all, it’s pretty awesome.

Kingdom Hearts 3D is one of the shorter games in the series, but there’s a great deal of replayability. There are tons of secrets to find, extra missions to complete and a lot of collectible Trophies, received by performing various tasks. There is also a card-based mini-game reminiscent of Chain of Memories called Flick Rush, which is played with your Spirits. It’s actually quite fun and features several matches. And, as any fan would expect, there’s the secret ending that hints at the next game, which you can always watch on YouTube! …*ahem*…That is, if you’re too lazy to unlock it legitimately like a REAL gamer! Hehe!

Overall, I didn’t actually expect Kingdom Hearts 3D to blow me away as much as it did. Of course I was expecting to have a great time with it, but I didn’t think it would surpass Birth by Sleep as the series’ pinnacle and I definitely didn’t expect that I wouldn’t have any real problems with it. I mean, I suppose I have a few nitpicks: the framerate can chug a bit at times, for one, and while the script is mostly decent, like I said, there are a couple of stupid lines.  But on the whole, I didn’t feel like these were anywhere near severe enough to knock the game’s grade down. Kingdom Hearts 3D is borderline perfect. It’s the best game in the series thus far, a must-have for the 3DS and my personal favorite of the titles released for the console so far. Square only knows what the future holds for my favorite RPG series, but whatever it is, it has some pretty big shoes to fill. It may very well be the long-awaited HD Kingdom Hearts III we’ve been begging to receive for oh so long.

Grade: A+

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