"This seems like Kingdom Hearts in top form."
The moment I found myself with a free moment during E3, I took the chance to try out the English version of Square Enix's upcoming Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. Currently set to release on July 31st, the game seems to serve up an experience that draws on many of the strengths of the PSP's Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
My time with the game was spent running around with Donald, Mickey, and Goofy in the Country of the Musketeers. One of the most readily apparent aspects of the game is how large the areas are. Every room affords ample space for rocketing around, smiting foes and exploring, which really helps make the worlds feel more expansive than they have in some previous games in the series.
The graphics are sharp and appear to be very close in fidelity to the PS2 Kingdom Hearts games. This beauty comes at a cost, though: the demo version I was playing had pretty consistent framerate dips. It wasn't game-breaking, but it was a very noticeable blemish on an otherwise great presentation.
Gameplay was very similar to Birth by Sleep; both Riku and Sora have access to a regular string of combos, as well as a customizable deck of commands. Commands range from unique keyblade attacks to healing and defense abilities, as well as various offensive spells. Pressing the X button while in the air activates Freeflow commands, which cause your character to rocket around the area, bouncing off walls and interacting with the environment in various ways. These attacks are very flashy and incredibly satisfying to pull off, though they do seem a bit overpowered compared to the standard deck commands, since they can be used infinitely.
A "drop" meter on the bottom of the screen slowly drains during gameplay. When it runs out, you are immediately switched to the other character. You can also manually change characters before the gauge runs out, giving the next character a quick infusion of money or a stat boost. This method of character swapping does keep the pace of things moving quickly, and the unique commands and combos available to each character help keep the combat feel fresh.
Aside from the usual combat, the monster-raising Dream Eater system also appears to add some nice depth to the combat, though I didn't have a chance to work with the actual customization aspects. Beyond soaking up some hits for you, the dream eaters can also link up with your player character for powerful attacks akin to the limit attacks from Kingdom Hearts 2.
All in all, the experience was about what I expected from a new Kingdom Hearts title. The gameplay is a refinement, not a revolution. The presentation is very solid, except for the framerate hiccups. It's unlikely that this game will change the minds of those not already interested in the series, but for everyone else, this seems like Kingdom Hearts in top form.