Come hell or high water, the Kingdom Hearts series has invariably thrived on the success of its unconventional fusions—combining the more or less niche world of Square Enix properties with that of the essentially universal appeal of Disney, therein synthesizing an eccentric brew of thematic elements both weighted and effervescent. For 10 years now, detractors of the franchise have labeled it as an exercise in dual self-indulgence, nothing beyond a satiny novelty platform for the two companies to pile their assets atop one another in a video-game showcase of epically mismatched proportions. The peculiar thing is, no matter how applicative those snap indispositions may be, the theory that opposites attract has been true of each and every Kingdom Hearts installment. When I venture into a new IP-inspired area, I’m amazed at how seamlessly the storylines of Disney films (some more memorable than others) casually absorb the plights of countless Square Enix characters; it’s never too contrived or blasé for its own good, and the ideals of one source rarely override the other to the point of unappealing saturation. This feat has been downplayed ever since the very first Kingdom Hearts, and when the excellent Kingdom Hearts II turned up the drama by introducing a much darker motif, it would be several not-quite-as-grand chapters before that title received its proper follow up. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the seventh game in the canon, and despite the whacky chronology that precedes it, the game is the soundest entry since 2005—an authentically well-built bridge between Kingdom Hearts II and the forthcoming arc-ending Kingdom Hearts III.
A variety of substitute central protagonists have made the rounds in Kingdom Hearts over the past decade (Roxas in both the early segments of Kingdom Hearts II and as the lead in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, and Terra, Aqua, and Ventus from the origin story Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep), yet none have been quite as durable or philosophically prepossessing as the tale’s original heroes, Sora and Riku. In essence, they are two halves of one whole, light and dark, Riku the yin to Sora’s yang. Dream Drop Distance makes this balanced relationship the focal point of its narrative and the majority of its gameplay. Dream Drop Distance resumes at the conclusion of Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, with the spiky-haired Keyblade-wielding youngsters taking their Mark of Mastery examinations lead by the wise Yen Sid and observed by benevolent King Mickey. Instead of both Sora and Riku journeying across a set of environments in traditional side-by-side unison, Dream Drop Distance has each champion conquering different versions of the same world, telling parallel stories that bounce back and forth by way of the love-it-or-hate-it Drop system. Keeping track of time has never been an issue in Kingdom Hearts, but now it’s paramount, as only a certain amount of action can be completed before an on-screen countdown runs out, switching you from Sora’s scenario to Riku’s or vice versa. This definitely takes some getting used to, and can be a real pain during boss battles or prolonged treasure-chest hunts (forgetting just what you were doing when you return can be problematic), but by the third Disney-laden microcosm I fundamentally had Dropping down pat. The key, much like the game’s overall theme, is finding a balance between the two timelines: Keep Sora and Riku roundabout the same level and your progression will likely be that much more smooth. Of course, you can barrel through the bulk of Sora’s quest and then return to Riku’s if that’s your prerogative; Dream Drop Distance kindly gives you this option.
Many of the triumphant combat alterations from the PSP’s Birth by Sleep have returned in Dream Drop Distance, albeit with a few fresh additions that make this the better wholesale handheld episode. The reliable Command Deck is fully intact, making establishment of your move sets quick and efficient. The most notable addition is the Flowmotion directive, which is so easy to get a handle on that it almost feels like a hack when facing hordes of adversarial peons or simply moving around vast landscapes. Flowmotion allows, with the simple tap of the Y-button, for super fast maneuvering across specific objects like lampposts or stair railings, making movement light speed whenever you feel it. This power never runs out, and can be used in battle to link combos and spin around larger enemies, hurling them into packs of other foes like a dazed projectile. An indirect offshoot of Flowmotion is Reality Shift, which uses the stylus and touch screen in a variety of ways, whether its Faith Line’s connect the dots action, sending your character flying through the air over The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s La Cité des Cloches, or decrypting the Grid in the TRON: Legacy-galvanized domain. Many of the advanced mechanics in Dream Drop Distance involve speeding up movement, which, due to the time constraints created by the Drop system, is extremely necessary, further illustrating the attention to detail and care Square Enix has put into its product.
Sadly subtracting the loyal assistance of Donald and Goofy as wingmen in warfare, Dream Drop Distance takes a page from the Final Fantasy XIII-2 playbook by having various flora and fauna fight alongside you. More Nintendogs than Pokémon, the creation and maintenance of friendly Dream Eaters (mildly akin to the Heartless from previous games) is slightly burdensome, yet mandatory for ultimate development. As your Dream Eaters gain experience, both in altercation usage and by literal TLC (petting the creatures with your stylus in a separate menu), Link Points are awarded, which can then be used to unlock stronger attacks and stat boosts. I truly missed Donald and Goofy having my back, but the fact that the Dream Eater cycle is like an extended minigame in itself spawns some serious replay value.
Graphically, Dream Drop Distance takes advantage of every ounce of the 3DS’s power, generating one of the best looking titles the system has yet produced. From the moment characters from The World Ends with You, an overlooked Square Enix masterpiece for the DS, begin to appear in Kingdom Hearts mainstay Traverse Town, fully rendered in gorgeous 3D, I was ready to secrete tears of joy. Similarly, the voice acting is top notch, with much of the initial cast members reprising their roles. Square Enix commonly kills it in the music department, and Dream Drop Distance is no exception. Composers Yoko Shimomura, Tsuyoshi Sekito, and Takeharu Ishimoto do a marvelous job of compounding the symphonics of Square Enix and Disney to make a harmonious whole. If there’s a downside to the game, one that impedes it from achieving genuine greatness, it’s that its platforming aspects fall short of its other accomplishments, with not much in the way of improvement imbued into artlessly jumping from one rooftop to another.
With what is perhaps the franchise’s most fine-tuned script to date, thematically dense but never too hard to follow, Dream Drop Distance does well to escape the chains of gloating self-worship that has become the stigma of the series. By focusing on the dream-intensive chiaroscuro correlation of its two leads, it contemporaneously highlights brotherly themes frequently related by both the makers of Final Fantasy and the world’s largest multimedia conglomerate. Square Enix and Disney, much like Sora and Riku, are so very different, yet at their cores share an unlikely bond that, once secured, can be considerably toilsome to sever.
Developer: Square Enix Publisher: Square Enix Platform: Nintendo 3DS Release Date: July 31, 2012 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game
Review: DiRT Rally 2.0 Celebrates the Driver’s Will to Try, Try Again
At the very least, the game’s epic trials will make you respect the practitioners of this most insane of sports.4.5
After you unlock only the second rallying event in DiRT Rally 2.0, the game’s extreme difficulty is dryly confirmed by the British voiceover: “Some might suggest this is where your first real challenge awaits.” For newcomers to the world of developer Codemaster’s rally simulators, the understatement of that quote might sting as much as it inspires laughter. Throughout, you might spend numerous hours struggling to find out how to deal with understeering, oversteering, lack of tire traction, vehicle instability, track degradation, unideal weather, and the sense that, no matter how focused and careful you are, you’re just not fast enough to keep up with your competitors.
But this is no arcade racer, after all. It’s the sequel to what some critics have called the best rally sim ever. In rallying, drivers don’t race head to head on a circular track, but rather take turns zipping along on literal roads—whether gravel, dirt, asphalt, or various combinations thereof—that might cut through forests, towns, mountains, and water. As the lone car on the track, your goal is to make it to the finish line in the shortest amount of time, but one good performance isn’t good enough. A rallying champion, according to this game, must achieve the best composite score across several miles-long tracks within multiple countries.
At the very least, the game’s epic trials will make you respect the practitioners of this most insane of sports. As your vehicle weaves through the beautiful fall-season trees of New England or rocky terrains of Argentina, you can’t help but ponder the bravery of individuals who confront ever-changing street and weather conditions and live to see another day. Your tragic incompetence in DiRT Rally 2.0 allows you to empathize with the hypothetical real-world competitors who nail one death-defying turn after another before misjudging a single kink in the road that sends their vehicles through a fence and rolling down a hill.
Mercifully, you can at any point in the game open a pause menu and restart a track so that your composite score isn’t ruined by a slight miscalculation on your part on a given track. A purist might say that this fundamentally contradicts the reality that rallying is a death-defying sport where there are no second chances, but a restart is often what the common player needs to maintain the will to keep trying within the framework of an otherwise viciously unforgiving game. For a title without a clear tutorial—and for one that can make Dark Souls seem like a walk in the park—the unrealistic do-over option is a necessary mercy.
Half the battle here is figuring out what car works best for you based on how it operates on a variety of surfaces. Though acclaimed, the first DiRT Rally was criticized for not making car and road types feel distinct—a limitation that’s been solved here. Not only can you almost taste the dirt and gravel kicked up by your vehicle, the difference in traction between rocky terrains and asphalt roadways is unmistakable. Likewise, the superior handling of a car, such as the gorgeous Lancia Fulvia HF, that weighs less than 2,000 pounds cannot be overstated.
For those interested in a more recognizable form of racing, Codemasters has more than doubled the original game’s number of rallycross locations, where five drivers jockey for position around the corners of a racetrack. Although the rallycross events don’t feature the natural surroundings of rallying competitions, they can seem more visceral as you bump and ram into your rivals. Between these races, you might find yourself tinkering countless times with your car selection and setup, as many rallycross cars are built more for power than graceful maneuvering. Stay patient, however, and the subtleties of executing a win—how to anticipate the green-light signal that starts the race, when to steer into an opponent, and what modifications to make to a vehicle—will take shape in your mind, leading to a deeper appreciation of a sport that’s foreign to almost all of us.
Developer: Codemasters Publisher: Codemasters Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 26, 2019 Buy: Game
Review: Metro: Exodus’s Evocative Open World Starves for Nuance
The game ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.3
Previous Metro games found texture through their limited scope. As seen through the eyes of Russian soldier Artyom, people in the subway tunnels beneath an irradiated Moscow cobbled society back together from the ruins of the old world while dealing with mutants, sickness, and rival factions built on all-too-familiar forms of extremism. 4A Games’s epic Metro: Exodus expands the series beyond those familiar claustrophobic tunnels, placing Artyom’s gaze firmly on the horizon as he and his companions journey across Russia by train, searching for a new home free from the ravages of humanity.
Appropriately, the game’s metaphor for its expanded world is to make parts of it literally open for the player. Artyom is now free to roam wide-open spaces—to peek into desolate houses for abandoned supplies and scout points of interest from a distance. All around you, mutants search for food, and bandits survey the wasteland from within ramshackle fortifications. The game is still driven by story segments, many of which fall back on the Metro series’s familiar brand of desperate survival horror; players creep around in the dark to conserve resources before a firefight breaks out or before massive spiders skitter through the rays of a draining flashlight. Other segments, though, take advantage of the world’s openness by providing multiple routes to do things like infiltrate a train yard, one of which might bypass a cluster of zombie-like humanoids entirely or drop Artyom right into their toxic nest.
The series is, as always, evocative in its atmosphere and the interactions it affords the player, such as allowing you to wipe the condensation off your gas mask with a press of a button. And Exodus’s open areas only enhance this specific sense of place. They even carry the occasional emergent thrill, like stranding you in a rowboat while a winged demon dives from overhead, forcing you to paddle to safety on land and take refuge in what turns out to be a populated bandit camp with a towering mutant shrimp in pursuit. But Exodus struggles to incentivize exploration of its world. You grow accustomed to the rusted, landlocked boats and the anonymous houses that dot the landscape and contain, if you’re lucky, an audio diary or a new attachment for the game’s robust weapon customization system. Most of the time, though, you’ll just find the same crafting materials when you explore the wasteland.
Unlike many crafting systems, Exodus’s never has you create anything new so much as replace what you’ve used up: things like bullets, gas mask filters, and medkits consumed either in missions or, paradoxically, in the very act of scavenging materials. When playing with some measure of stealth (which the game encourages) and keeping an eye out for materials on the way to (as well as during) missions, you’ll rarely struggle with the resource scarcity that might actually require a risky journey out into the world. Exodus is most successful elsewhere, in one forested area that provides an open-ended approach to a fixed destination. Its environments and encounters are more authored than the bland open world, and its scavenging is purposeful because it’s the only way to prepare for the encounters ahead.
The game’s open world feels like little more than overly elaborate wrapper for an underwhelming story that loses much of its drama to an awkwardly silent protagonist. Though Artyom narrates loading screens, he expresses himself in-game primarily by waving his hands around, as if miming because no one can hear him under a gas mask. His wife and his other companions refer to character traits we never see, alleged goals and ambitions conspicuously jammed into lengthy dialogue sequences. He’s supposed to be a dreamer. For one, the idea of a world beyond the metro is Artyom’s, yet none of that passion or hope ever comes through.
Not that the game thinks much of those apparent hopes, of course. The series’s typically dim view of humanity is on full display for much of Exodus’s length, as Artyom and his companions encounter terrible new societies birthed in distant parts of Russia. The game depicts people as easily subjugated when society breaks down, clinging to whatever is offered to them. Despots prey on desperation and fear, offering hope through perversions of community, religion, or protection. Violent forces upend what seem to be safe havens.
Exodus’s sweeping critique of humanity is practically nuance-free. Here, dissent among followers is rare, cultists are unquestioning fanatics, and cannibals screech “MEAT!” and jot the word down in unintentionally hilarious diary pages. Even slaves uniformly cower before their masters, weeping and begging for sympathy. Despite introducing an open world, the game is very much a forward journey, barely spending enough time in one place to inject any complexity to its exploration of how society claws its way back from the brink. You’ll hear the leaders of each group speak but seldom the people who follow them. They have no more voice than Artyom, no more interiority. Just as Artyom is essentially an anonymous pair of floating hands, the people that his party encounters often represent little more than simplistic avatars of a post-apocalyptic society gone mad. Exodus ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR.
Developer: 4A Games Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PS4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game
Review: Kingdom Hearts III Is a Pedestrian Trip Down Memory Lane
The little that’s good here isn’t enough for one to shake off the faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.2.5
The Kingdom Hearts series takes a simple fan wish-fulfilling premise—an action adventure featuring popular Disney characters who become friends with your hero—and complicates it with an unnecessarily dense and largely incoherent backstory concerning multiple generations of protagonists, a time-traveling puppetmaster, and an organization of possessed bodies in ornate trench coats. Despite more than 13 years having passed between the last numbered sequel in the series and its current installment, little has changed when it comes to the Kingdom Hearts formula. Savant Sora returns with his casually abusive pals Donald Duck and Goofy to journey through the worlds of various Disney feature films, all leading to an ultimate confrontation with the evil-or-not Xehanort.
In terms of gameplay mechanics and level design, Kingdom Hearts III has evolved so little since its forebearers that it feels less like a product of its time than it does a PlayStation 2 remaster. Each level consists of blocky open areas that your mostly pushed through in linear fashion, though the characters occasionally stop to fight enemies in arena battles before proceeding onward. The combat has been reworked (here it’s mostly the same as that of Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage), but the clunky, chaotic, seemingly unending battles favor endless button-mashing over precision. Nearly every skirmish is a mess of hard-to-follow on-screen activity, with dozens of same-y foes and effects flying in your face. Perversely, though, Kingdom Hearts III seems to be aware that its gameplay is a chore, allowing most combat sequences to be avoided by simply running past them.
The game is notable for the inclusion of levels inspired by recent Pixar and other Disney 3D films, but almost none take advantage of their source material in any meaningful way. The levels inspired by Frozen and no one’s favorite Disney outing, Tangled, serve up nothing but unvaried landscapes and gameplay. Worse, when Kingdom Hearts III specially references notable sequences from these films, such as Elsa’s showstopping “Let It Go,” the game does so with clumsy, overlong cutscenes, leaving us to imagine what it might have been like to actually take part in the action—to, say, have been invited to control Sora and interact with the ice castle as Elsa creates it from the ground up. Which is unfortunate, since that invitation to engage with Disney’s film art was one that was gladly extended to the player by Kingdom Heats II, most memorably in its inventive black-and-white world of “Timeless River” (based on Walt’s classic Steamboat Willy) and the Tron-themed “Space Paranoids,” which was set inside a server where the protagonists fight programs and compete in Light Cycle battles.
It’s only late into Kingdom Hearts III’s campaign, around the time that the worlds of “Keyblade Graveyard” and “Final World” are introduced, that the game begins to take its action in interesting directions, and just ahead of tying a bow on the overarching story. Here, Kingdom Hearts III somewhat successfully merges disparate, convoluted plot points from the entire series into an almost comprehensible whole, though that’s not enough for us to shake off the depressingly faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.
Consider the frustrating treatment of love interest and series favorite Kairi, who’s damselled as part of a disappointing trend of rendering Kingdom Hearts’s female characters helpless. Worse, protagonist Sora is an idiot in the Monkey D. Luffy mold: childish, stupid, and largely useless if not for him being an all-powerful “chosen one,” and not for any narratively or thematically justifiable reason. (The game seems aware of his generally pathetic nature, based on how often other characters insult and degrade him.) Sora is the embodiment of a participation trophy. Not that the others in this Calvinball soap opera hold much value either, as they speak entirely in empty platitudes and meaningless catchphrases, frequently distilling any narrative action down to the clumsiest metaphors about the power of friendship.
This is ultimately the biggest failing of Kingdom Hearts III, a game pitched as the finale to a series so many have grown up with but one that hasn’t matured with its audience or video games as a medium. It pretends to have something consequential to say in its bombastic conclusion but delivers only the most childish of dogmas. To the very end, the game’s subtext-free lore remains intentionally impenetrable, if for no other reason than to give the impression of actual depth. At the same time, Kingdom Hearts is in total adoration of itself as a concept—a brand and a commodity to sell. Kingdom Hearts III literally begins with two trailers for itself, a title card, then another trailer for itself and another title card, followed by another title card as a self-referential jab at the nonsense naming conventions of the series (“KINGDOM HEARTS II.9”) and finally a fourth title card two hours later. (It’s worth noting that these trailers feature much more stylistic and interesting combat sequences than anything you’ll stumble upon in the game proper.) Kingdom Hearts III offers a rote experience that rarely rises above mediocrity, failing to deliver on the promise of its lengthy campaign or as a meaningful conclusion to the dozens of games in the series that have preceded it.
The game was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy purchased by the reviewer.
Developer: Square Enix Business Division 3 Publisher: Square Enix Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 29, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game