Dream Drop Disappointment: Why the Newest Entry in Square Enix’s Mega-hit Kingdom Hearts Franchise is Ultimately a Letdown
2012 is an important year for Kingdom Hearts. It stands as testament to the decade long historical unison of cultural phenomena. Birthed from the loins of Square’s Final Fantasy series and Disney’s long history of animation, Kingdom Hearts is a joining of Eastern and Western entertainment like nothing ever seen before.
Ten years ago gamers discovered what it meant to be in the Kingdom Hearts universe. They were introduced to a tale that revolved around a young boy by the name of Sora who left his home behind in search of his best friends Riku and Kairi, after their island was swallowed whole by the darkness. Sora’s quest began when he was given hold of a powerful weapon known as the Keyblade, an important artifact which links him to the many countless worlds and individuals that exist in the saga.
Of course, Sora wasn’t alone on his quest. Disney icons Donald and Goofy tagged along for the ride as well. Left with instructions to “follow the boy with the key,” they stuck with him in hopes of finding their missing king who is none other than Mickey Mouse. And thus, what was initially guard duty for the duo eventually budded into true friendship with the boy as the three traveled together in search for what they’ve lost.
Worlds in Kingdom Hearts are made up from a myriad of Disney films. This of course includes childhood classics such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Hercules, Pinocchio, and many, many more. Traveling through these worlds meant aiding each film’s cast in succeeding over their respective villains to foil their dark plots. Each victory provided a clue for Sora, Donald, and Goofy to follow on their own adventure.
From there the rest is history. Since its creation, the Kingdom Hearts saga never failed to create a wonderful surge of nostalgia with just the right twist to spin it into something new, exciting, and heartfelt. So, where did it all go wrong?
Ten years later, there are still new releases coming out on a constant basis. Kingdom Hearts is no longer the charming little concept full of potential that it once was. Rather these days, it has grown exponentially into a phenomenon all its own. The franchise is well known, boasting a tremendously large following worldwide. And who could blame them? For years now, players have been swept up by a rush that no other game series has been able to replicate. As with anything though, the rush can only last for so long.
This year marks the release of the series’ seventh major title. Dream Drop Distance follows Sora and Riku mere moments after their victory in Kingdom Hearts 2. They are summoned by Master Yen Sid, a renowned figure responsible for teaching Mickey Mouse in the art of the Keyblade. It is through him that they learn the forces of darkness pose a valiant threat. The resurrection of Xehanort, the saga’s villain, promises imminent disaster as his quest for the conquering of Kingdom Hearts continues ever still.
Xehanort’s schemes are hidden for a majority of time, but the threat is ever present throughout the game. To combat against this plot, Yen Sid has taken it upon himself to train Sora and Riku in the proper use of a Keyblade. The duo are sent into the Realm of Sleep to restore worlds that have fallen into slumber after being taken by the darkness. By aiding these worlds, Yen Sid promises that the boys will unlock a greater power within themselves.
Sora and Riku jump into the dreamscape headfirst into action and it is here that the game begins. Gameplay follows the standard Kingdom Hearts fanfare, players are free to map actions to the command menu in order to fashion together flashy combos and take care of enemies. A new addition to the combat is Flowmotion, which allows players to attack enemies by ricocheting off of walls and lampposts to deal devastating blows at the press of a button. Flowmotion can also be used outside of battle as well in order to quickly traverse the map.
While traveling through worlds is commonplace in the series, the method in which it is done is never set in stone. In this game Sora and Riku dive from world to world, literally falling through obstacles to reach their destination.
The Heartless and Nobodies that have served as series punching bags for our protagonists don’t make an appearance this time around as they’ve been momentarily replaced for the change in scenery. New to Kingdom Hearts is the race of Dream Eaters, creatures born of dreams that inhabit the Realm of Sleep. Dream Eaters come in two flavors: Nightmares which eat dreams and create their namesake, and Spirits which eat Nightmares. Spirits are recruitable teammates necessary to the game, as their presence allow Sora and Riku to learn new skills and abilities to continue their adventure.
Music is still of course brought to the game by series composer Yoko Shimomura, an aspect that Kingdom Hearts has always shined through. As per usual, Shimomura’s spin on classic Disney themes as well as her own original pieces leave anyone with a pair of headphones utterly speechless. This go-around she’s joined by composer Takeharu Ishimoto who provides remixed versions of tracks found in The World Ends With You, appropriately placed to coincide as a replacement for the Final Fantasy series’ growing lack of presence in Kingdom Hearts.
Even so, with everything the game has going for it, something falls short. While the game plays nicely on the surface, there are many hidden cracks deeper down. Gameplay is largely the same as it ever was, leaving the residual feeling of having done it all before. Flowmotion is as much a help as it is a hindrance, leaving its usefulness to be subjectively debatable among players.
Dream Eaters are fun and cute but are ultimately unnecessary, both in their debut game and in the overall story. Rather than having any form of plot relevance, they simply exist for the sake of such.
The biggest offense however, would have to be the growing lack of importance the Disney worlds hold in the game. Disney villains and their schemes have taken a major backseat in Kingdom Hearts. Though it is also possible to argue that the whole saga is at fault, as no game integrated their importance to the plot as well as the first game.
On one hand it’s a great step forward, it allows the story of Kingdom Hearts to truly shine on its own without the need of piggybacking plot lines. On the other however, it cheapens their presence in each successive title, making them feel more and more like mere obstacles than nostalgic trips and experiences. Understandably it is a difficult conundrum to balance, though this game is yet another in the list that enforces the occurrence.
Quite possibly what makes it so offensively noticeable however, is the Kingdom Hearts plot itself. Kingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura has spent the last ten years creating a massive universe with intricate rules and laws that evolve with each new title. Both characters and setting have undergone tremendous bouts of depth and definition. The problem however, is that it hasn’t moved forward. The story has been motionless for quite some time now.
Since Kingdom Hearts 2′s release in 2005, the plot has been definitively frozen. While it continues to expand with each successive title, it has yet to truly progress. The idea of a Kingdom Hearts 3 has been teased for more than half of the series’ lifespan to the point that it has reached near mythological levels of forthcoming. Too many titles have existed solely to create loose strings, simply so that they might be tied together in the future. The promise of an ending has created a dense and prominent stagnation, something that is simply so overwhelmingly disappointing after ten long years.
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