Beginnings are funny things. Considering how few people actually finish games, you'd expect developers to front-load their titles with some of their very best content in order to prevent bored consumers from immediately writing off their masterpiece.
Instead - and RPGs are generally the worst offenders here - they dump you in a small boring village, making you run tedious and menial errands for the first five hours.
The original Kingdom Hearts was a game that got it right. The saga kicked off with a massive, prophetic battle backed up by the sort of classically epic score that Square Enix never seem to come up with any more. The following tutorial area was brief and enjoyable - leaps and bounds above the dreary five-hour slog of its immediate sequel and the confusing starting nonsense of the many, many resulting spin-offs. So no one would blame you if you gave up before any of those games finally opened up.
After playing through the intro of Dream Drop Distance, and also an entire world somewhere beyond it, we can hardly make the same complaints here. Following a short scene in which series big bad Xehanort springs back to life, good guy Sora and reformed renegade Riku do battle with a giant Ursula-from-The-Little-Mermaid, before being sucked into a whirlpool to begin their latest adventure. That's what we like to see from our Kingdom Hearts: no angst, no gibberish, and no bleddy Roxas.
It's then that one of the game's many interesting new features kicks in. Memoirs are optional cutscenes that help make sense of Kingdom Hearts' labyrinthine backstory, and they're joined by a new database that expands as the game progresses. Fans have been known to frequently tie themselves in knots trying to explain what this guy's Nobody is doing to that guy's Data-Heartless, so perhaps this will draw a line under that 'colourful debate' once and for all.
Luckily we have a helpful translator on hand to interpret this one, so we know that Riku and Sora have been advised by Mickey's creepy wizard friend Yen Sid to take the Keyblade Mastery Exam. It's the only way to defeat Xehanort once and for all, you see, as he was a powerful keyblade-wielder himself long ago, before he turned to the dark side of the, er, lock.
Master and keymander
Flashback over, we have a chance to check out yet another new feature: the freefalling minigame that now connects each fractured world. As Sora plummets to the ground, you have to help him avoid obstacles with the slide pad while optionally smashing things for points. It's a simple yet enjoyably brisk travel method, and infinitely preferable to another Gummi-ship shoot-'em-up.
Upon crash-landing in the familiar Traverse Town, Sora bumps into Neku from Square Enix's peerless The World Ends With You, who is, predictably, being a sullen-yet-enviously-hip jerk. Once they've made their introductions, Neku guides our relentlessly upbeat hero through the game's new combat and exploration mechanics, or 'Cirque du Soleil' as it's more commonly known.
Rightly theorising that walking is for chumps, Square have given Sora and Riku the ability to grind the environment, swinging on lampposts or sliding up bannisters like a fantastical Tony Hawk, only without that tiny plank on wheels he likes to get about on. This increased acrobaticism not only makes general getting-about much more enjoyable, it also comes into play during the game's slightly-too-frequent fights.
The two protagonists can now literally run rings around the enemy, thwack them from above, or pick up and chuck the bigger ones in a game of Extreme Shotput. It's all done with the context-sensitive Y button, which does perhaps take a tiny bit of the thrill out of dexterously performing these amazing combos yourself, but only just.
Pets win prizes
Replacing the Heartless as DDD's respawning keyblade fodder are the Dream Eaters - neon-hued animals that look like they've been caught in a fight between the cast of Tron Legacy and a sickly rainbow. In a startling coincidence, the 'good' versions of these guys also act as your new allies, dutifully following Sora and Riku into battle and making it fairly tricky to distinguish friend from foe.
Cute yet deadly, they've clearly taken a few cues from Square Enix's own Dragon Quest Monsters, but there's a distinct whiff of Pokémon and Nintendogs in there too. Up to three Dream Eaters can tag along with Riku or Sora - they each get a different set - but we've been assured there'll be loads more to collect and customise. Outside of battle, you can even stroke their fur and rub their bellies with the touch screen - something that never went down too well with Donald Duck.
Thankfully, the Dream Eaters are a bit less needy - and a bit more bloodthirsty - during battle. Each creature has a link gauge, which unleashes a Summon-type special attack when it becomes full. For example, the weird Cat-Dog-Bear-Thing (fine, you name it next time) turns into a rideable space-hopper, while another forces you to take part in an aggressive rhythm game. That's not all, because links can even be combined into one wildly powerful super-attack - Dream Eaters are pretty awesome, in other words.
At this point the demonstration 3DS unit was cruelly whisked away from us (booo!), but it was returned at a different juncture in the story (huzzah!). Sora and Riku have
just arrived in the world of the Three Musketeers, where it seems that Queen Minnie Mouse has been captured by ne'er-do-wells. Of course, this being Kingdom Hearts, the two heroes aren't there at the same time, or should we say at the same place - they've been diverted to two neighbouring parallel dimensions.
It turns out that Riku inhabits ever-so-slightly different versions of each Disney world from young Sora - somebody at Square has obviously been watching too much Fringe. At one point during our play session Riku's actions appear to bleed through to Sora's universe, but as a general rule the pair are kept separate, save for the torch-passing that occurs when one suddenly hits the hay.
And that's feature #3,874: the Drop gauge, which determines when Riku takes over from Sora, and vice versa. At the moment we've no idea why the dynamic duo fall asleep whenever this counter reaches zero, but we're betting it has something to do with the evil Organisation XIII.
Of all the new mechanics in this remarkably fully fledged spin-off, the Drop gauge is the most confusing, not to mention the most potentially annoying. In addition to forcing a character change, it essentially makes you play through each area twice. One jaunt through an Eater-infested opera house was quite enough, thank you very much; on the second, we were pretty desperate to move along.
The demo ended with a big ol' boss battle with perennial Disney nuisance Pete, a smartly choreographed affair involving yet another touch-based minigame. It was a silly fight but one that neatly encapsulated our feelings about the entire demo: this is Kingdom Hearts with a renewed vigour and sense of humour, with less self-indulgent, willfully confusing waffle.
We don't know about you, but that's exactly what we've been waiting for since the original game. Despite a few misgivings, we can't wait to return to Dream Drop Distance this summer.
Edited by Terranort9406, 24 March 2012 - 02:41 PM.