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Square Enix's Redemption
on August 2, 2012
I've been a fan of the "Kingdom Hearts" franchise for a while, but even the most devout followers have begun to grow weary of its publisher's practice of shelling out prequels, in-between-quels, and all-over-the-place-quels. In all of these games, the gameplay remains fundamentally unchanged, with the exception of "Re:Coded", which was otherwise a disappointment in my book. It seemed that, on the surface, Square Enix was simply jumping on the 3DS bandwagon and shelling out another half-baked entry in order to stall before people tore down their door and demanded Kingdom Hearts III already. Regardless, I decided to give this the benefit of the doubt, and I'm pleased to announce that this is the best game in the series since "KHII". In fact, it may arguably be the best entry yet.
We join Sora and Riku after the events of II and "Re:Coded". Riku is playing for the good guys again, teaming up with Sora to take on the Mark of Mastery exam. This involves them travelling to various worlds in order to find hidden keyholes that will prove their meddle as true Keyblade Masters. The plot is a welcome change of pace from the treacly sentimentality of "358/2 Days", the rehashed narrative in "Birth By Sleep", and the confused logic and pacing of "Re:Coded." Nomura and all others involve certainly listened to the critics when it came to the story in this entry, and gave us what we wanted: a true follow-up. Much in the vein of "Chain of Memories", "Dream Drop Distance" expands on world of the game without losing its focus, and never gets lost trying to pander to fans. The result is the most focused game yet, and one whose story is filled with enough emotion and excitement for any gamer to enjoy. That being said, it's best to be familiar with the franchise before tackling this one. Newcomers may feel a little bit lost.
My main concern about "DDD" was definitely the gameplay, given that it hasn't really changed in several years. All fears have been put to rest now, due to the fact that the dev team definitely took their time with making a fun and balanced experience. The level-based hack-n-slash we're used to is still here, but it's aided by the addition of a new system called "Flowmotion." This is a snazzy way of saying that Sora and Riku now fancy themselves to be masters of parkour. The real surprise here is that Square Enix managed to slide in a new gameplay feature without turning it into a convoluted wreck. Flowmotion works fabulously. Within a few minutes of playing, you'll be grinding off of rails, using enemies as pommel horses, and careening off walls hundreds of feet in the air. Doing this allows you to deliver devastating special moves on enemies. Every enemy encounter, and especially every boss stage, transcends typical button-mashing battles and turns into something more visceral and downright fun than I ever expected from this franchise.
The other addition is the "Drop" feature. You'll be playing as both Sora and Riku in this game, as they battle through parallel worlds to find the hidden keyholes. This works in a very unique way; you have a time with each character, as they experience different narratives in the same worlds. You have to beat the world with both characters in order to truly beat it and progress the story. This is less cumbersome than it sounds, and is in fact a very interesting way to approach handling both characters. You can also jump to another character early by using the "Drop" button on the pause menu. This can be handy if you get to a good stopping point in one character's progression. Getting to experience both characters' unique perspectives is a welcome change in pace for the series.
Another worth mentioning, if only for a few sentences, is the addition of Spirit companions. Much like the world-specific partners of previous games, these animals fight side-by-side with you and can be teamed up with for a special attack. However, it works in a similar fashion to the "Shin Megami Tensei", where you collect certain components of the monsters, then combine them in order to create them. Depending on how many components you have, you can alter the strength and abilities of the monsters. You can have three with you at any given time, and I highly recommend you do so. These partners are very helpful, and fun to customize and level up. The interface for leveling them is very similar to a virtual pet simulator by way of "Final Fantasy X"'s level system. It's not too complicated, but not overly simplistic. Just the right balance of strategy and fun make this a worthwhile component to an already great game.
Graphically, this is the best-looking game in the series, without a doubt. Having played several 3DS titles, I can firmly say this is the prettiest one yet, and clearly demonstrative of what we can expect from Square Enix in the near future. Environments pop to life with dazzling use of textures and shadows, and everything blazes forward with no drop in the frame rate. From Notre Dame to The Grid, these are beautiful renderings of iconic settings, some of which have never been visited in the franchise before. The only negative is, unfortunately, the uneven use of 3D. Frame rate has a noticeable drop when the feature is used in some areas, yet flows smoothly in others. While the effects are nice and all, I would recommend only using it for cutscenes. The game actually stands very strong on its own graphical merits, and the effects steal the thunder a little bit.
Haley Joel Osment (remember him?) turns in another show-stealing performance as Sora, enough to make one wonder why he hasn't just decided to become a full-time voice actor already. The rest of the cast is predictably great, as is the music. The soundtrack once again spans a variety of styles, implementing the techno and trip-hop found in "The World Ends With You" when its characters are on-screen. There's nothing more to say, really, given that people already know Square Enix excels in this department.
Here we are, seven years after "Kingdom Hearts II" left us speechless, and we're finally given the sequel we've wanted for so long. According to series creator Nomura, "Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance" is a taste of the gameplay we can expect from the third entry. If this is truly the case, then I say bring it on. This is the best entry in the "Kingdom Hearts" series so far, and a surefire candidate for Handheld Game of the Year. If you've been holding out because of Square Enix's incessant milking of the franchise, this is the one you've been waiting for.
Ironic. In creating the best game of this stellar series, the developers have created perhaps the best 3DS title yet.