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.