Remarkably, it becomes apparent from the offset that there is a distinct lack of characters from the world of Final Fantasy in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, apart from the odd Moogle here and there. Whether it was thought that a decline in fortunes for the flagship series of late would not benefit the adventure this time round, or if it was more a case of the development staff believing that for the sake of furthering the storyline it would be better to remove the previous constraints, is unknown. Whatever the scenario, though, this time it is time for the cast of The World Ends With You to shine. Returning for the first time since debuting in Japan back in 2007 under the guise of Subarashiki: It's a Wonderful World, are Neku, Rhyme, Beat, Shiki and Joshua, all now present in polygonal state and fully voiced, with even some remixed tracks from the game itself being included for good measure.
Whilst it may seem like a random inclusion, many members of the Kingdom Hearts team were in fact involved in the creation of The Worlds Ends With You on Nintendo DS, alongside external group Jupiter, who had previously worked on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the Game Boy Advance. The characters are split into two parallel dream worlds, some partnering with Kingdom Hearts stalwart Sora, and others with the other fan favourite Riku. The premise is that both Sora and Riku are bracing themselves for the return of arch nemesis Master Xehonart and agree to take part in a test set by the powerful magician Yen Sid (of The Sorcerer's Apprentice / Fantasia renown) to boost their mastery of the special Keyblade weapon that is the mainstay of the series. Thus, the tale continues from the happenings of Kingdom Hearts Re:coded and the two are separated and then thrust into worlds previously thought to have been destroyed by the old enemy, Heartless, but now restored thanks to the power of dreams.
Tests being tests, Riku and Sora certainly do not have an easy ride ahead, and the Mark of Mystery exam they are aiming to successfully complete pits them against creatures called Dream Eaters, of which there are two kinds; dark 'Nightmares' that are intent on causing mischief, and 'Spirit' ones that can actually be enlisted to work as party members for the lead characters. There are all manner of Spirit Dream Eaters to befriend, with them being looked after using the stylus in a nintendogs fashion before unleashing them into the melee to ease battle situations (they can even appear in the 'real world' at times thanks to the Augmented Reality feature of the 3DS). The more nefarious of the bunch, though, need to be despatched in the usual way; via the traditional Kingdom Hearts action-based battle mechanic. It has been a decade since the oft-painful button-mashing of the first game, with its headache-inducing swirling camera, and thankfully there are not as many problems with the fighting side in this, the seventh entry into the Action RPG line. Notice how the term 'not as many' is used there? Yes, Dream Drop Distance is extremely solid throughout, yet still has some minor negative nuances that it could have done without.
The basics are to simply run around using the Circle Pad and slash away with the Keyblade, whilst using the shoulder L and R buttons to rotate the camera accordingly (Circle Pad Pro owners can use their device for this aspect) or tap both L+R to lock onto a specific monster for focused attacks. On top of this, however, is a 'Command Deck' (something followers of recent Kingdom Hearts games will be familiar with) that allows for differing abilities to be tapped into, such as use of magic, healing potions, or specially triggered manoeuvres. The last of these come from using a new system called 'Flowmotion,' where the surroundings can be utilised to the player's advantage; spinning around on lamp posts or zipping quickly along railings in a Tony Hawks style, for instance, before jumping up and executing a devastating string of moves that will help to deplete enemy energy bars quicker than by merely standing around, dodging and hacking repeatedly. Sometimes the camera can get quite confused and attempting to use the lock-on feature makes matters worse when faced with a deluge of enemies; some choosing to chomp away whilst others are firing off magic from distance. Fortunately, the command-based input allows for swift switching between choices, meaning that magic, special moves, items, and so on, are accessible with the greatest of ease, alleviating some of the possible camera-related frustration that could quickly mount up.
To assist with ensuring the non-stop action battling does not start to wear too thin in the early stages, other techniques can be applied, such as quickly swiping on the touch screen to access a slingshot-style approach where barrels can be launched at groups of monsters; specific code words can be input to disrupt a foe's flow; or even small enemies can be trapped in bubbles temporarily using the stylus to incapacitate them and affect others as well. The skirmishes never seem to abate, with new groups of combatants appearing around almost every corner. Luckily most can be ran past, but there is always the worry that characters will not level-up enough to increase their strength according to what is likely required for the next intense encounter. Boosting levels is imperative, as in any RPG, but the slant in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is that due to the concurrent team play, the story switches viewpoint not at certain junctures in the tale, as might be expected, but after a set amount of time. This not only forces the player to 'drop' into the parallel world to keep both teams to a high enough level, but also means that key explanatory elements are not bypassed accidentally.
In fact, Dream Drop Distance excels in this particular field, guiding players through what could have easily been a confusing mess of a yarn due to the fractured userbase caused by games in the series being spread across the PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, and now Nintendo 3DS. In addition to the story being laid bare during the main adventure, there are numerous optional 'Flashbacks' to cut-scenes that fill in the blanks, as well as 'Chronicles' that act as an overview catch-up of events from past entries in the series. It all attempts to make this a true compendium of Kingdom Hearts, and one that can even smoothly integrate newcomers into the universe.
Playing through the seven worlds is by no means a brief affair, with each one containing a wealth of tasks, hidden challenges, plenty of special items to collect, and various other twists and turns that make coming back time and again, even to the overly familiar Traverse Town, a joy. More often than not, though, there will be times when travelling and playing that a 'Quick Save' would come in handy, but sadly there is no such feature, meaning that the sparsely spread out save locations must be remembered and dashed to when wanting to halt the adventure. As mentioned before, there is a 'Drop' system where play can switch from Riku to Sora and back again at save points, but also when the in-game timer falls to zero. Whilst the timer can be extended using items and attacking more enemies, the majority of the time play will be suspended right in the middle of an event in one land and picked up wherever the last world had been frozen. This certainly adds an intriguing challenge to proceedings, but can also lead to objectives being completely forgotten. Anyone wanting to quickly complete tasks at hand may have found this awkward, but a quick tap on the touch screen is all it takes to refresh memories of the latest objective.
After explaining the 'Dream' element of the game's title (the story and lands visited) and the 'Drop' part (switching between parallel worlds), there is the 'Distance' that stems from the lack of interaction between Riku and Sora throughout, despite the player being privy to both sides of the coin. It can also be attributed to the manner in which new worlds are approached, as the protagonists must take part in 'Dive' challenges, soaring downwards through the 'sky' to reach a gateway at the end, reaching set mileposts along the way (hitting triggers, achieving collection requirements, and so on). Whilst unusual at first, they ultimately prove to be a far more engaging form of transport between the likes of Pinocchio's land, the setting based upon The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that of the wonderfully dark Tron: Legacy, and others that are great to uncover at the player's own pace. Trying to unlock each world to restore it completely outside of its dream state is a real pleasure, rather than a chore, and the presentation levels throughout are stunning; this is definitely the finest package on Nintendo 3DS so far, both visually and aurally.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance features the normal slew of RPG features, such as gaining experience, using item upgrades, and interacting with those in the surrounding world to complete missions, but keeps the action light-hearted and free from the confines of slow pacing thanks to its intuitive battle system. Packing so much into one adventure can sometimes overload players, but the development team has expertly tied everything together to ensure that this is by far the most enjoyable Kingdom Hearts experience yet, and the perfect precursor for Kingdom Hearts III.