In the same way that Chain of Memories was to bridge the gap between Kingdom Hearts I and II, Square Enix has released a plethora of games to create a similar bridge between II and III. The biggest frustration of this strategy for franchise fans is that there is no clear indication of when KHIII will be released. Tetsuya Nomura is so wrapped up in Final Fantasy Versus XIII that it’s likely that the anticipated third entry hasn’t even begun development.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the latest in these filler games intended to tide fans over until the next numbered installment. It arrives just in time for the series’ 10th anniversary, and promises to further the timeline rather than tell another prequel story. The question is, is it a worthwhile entry or is it time for Kingdom Hearts to hang it up for awhile?
Since the Kingdom Hearts games are notorious for their convoluted plotlines. KH3D seemingly made a vow to itself to set the bar for the most complex and nonsensical story ever featuring Disney characters. This is coming from someone who enjoyed the plot in the other games and was able to make some reasonable sense out of the whole thing. Dream Drop Distance took me until near the end to fully understand what was going on, and by then, I had already tuned myself out.
KH3D takes place after Re:coded, as Sora and Riku have decided to undertake the Mark of Mastery Exam as per Yen Sid’s advice. By accomplishing this test, they would become Keyblade Masters much like what was done by the protagonists in Birth by Sleep. But rather than batting around some things with the keyblade for a few minutes (since that would make for a real short game), you have to travel to seven “sleeping”Â worlds and find the keyholes hidden within. Right from the opening moments, it wasn’t clear that this is what I was supposed to be doing, as these things were explained in optional flashbacks. Making things even more confusing is the fact that both Sora and Riku looked much older in the flashbacks than they do during actual gameplay. “Shouldn’t these be called flash forwards?”Â I kept wondering to myself as I plodded along waiting for something significant to happen. Eventually, it is hinted at that you may be inhabiting a dream world (which gives presence to the Dream Eaters that you do battle with), and with that knowledge, it becomes clear that this game should have been called Kingdom Hearts: Inception.
It’s not all bad, though. While the inclusion of FF characters has been all but done away with (save for naming challenges after them), characters from The World Ends With You make an appearance instead. While I wish they had a more prominent role in the story or could accompany you into battles, they make a welcome addition to the franchise. New worlds, such as Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tron: Legacy are featured as well to breathe new life into a journey that had otherwise grown stagnant from revisiting worlds like the Olympus Colosseum for the umpteenth time. Some of the events that take place towards the end of the game help build it up for the inevitable next entry, though they do little to shake the feeling that your actual journey has very little meaning in the grand scheme of things.
Story/Modes Rating: Mediocre
Right from the opening sequence, you know you’re in for a visual treat. Before you even make it to the title screen you are hit with a barrage of scenes that have taken place in the Kingdom Hearts series up to that point, neatly woven together in a nice little montage. If you’ve kept up with the franchise up to this point, it certainly gets you in the mood to play and works double as a nice celebration video for the franchise’s 10th anniversary. I found it interesting that there was a distinct lack of CG sequences throughout the rest of the game, but given how impressive the in-game graphics look, it’s easy to forgive.
You get to see the game’s characters in their various permutations during the series (Sora in his KH and KHII clothing, for example) which makes it easy to observe how sharp everything looks in comparison to the PS2 titles. Both the landscapes and those that inhabit them look crisp, and animate convincingly in relation to the things going on around them. Even better, I didn’t notice any slowdown when the screen is cluttered with enemies and there is a ton of chaos going on. Some worlds, like the one based off Tron: Legacy featured characters that were so close to their real life counterparts, it was eerie (Jeff Bridges in particular). The worlds that you visit still manage to remain cohesive with one another, however, unlike the way the Pirates of the Caribbean stage in Kingdom Hearts II seemed like it was out of place.
Graphics Rating: Classic
I knew when starting the game that there could only be two possible theme songs that would be used in Kingdom Hearts 3D, and sure enough, the song “Sanctuary”Â has filled the role this time around. As I’ve stated in reviews for the previous games, I like the song a lot. I just wish that they would write up a new theme song, as it would give each game more of an identity. Aside from that, the soundtrack is rounded out by series favorites, such as when you get into combat. One world in particular, the area based on Fantasia, uses the music as a gimmick for getting around the stage. It has you play a tap minigame not unlike what is found in Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy, so it’s a good thing many of the songs are so recognizable.
Since there are so many characters from past games that are featured in KH3D, it was impressive to see that Square Enix was consistent in bringing the voice actors back to reprise their roles. Haley Joel Osment is back in the shoes of Sora, but still manages to fit the character despite him spending the majority of the time in his younger form. David Gallagher also does a splendid job of reprising Riku, who you spend much of the game with as the other main playable character. The cast from The World Ends With You sounded about how I imagined they would from playing the game, save for Joshua who was a bit higher pitched and less cocky than I envisioned. Again, stellar performances all around and one of the shining aspects of the entire package.
Sound Rating: Amazing
If you’ve played the other games in the Kingdom Hearts series, particularly 358/2 Days on the DS, you should feel right at home with Dream Drop Distance. The nice thing about the 3DS controls is that you have a circle pad to work with for movement, so the directional pad is free to be used for cycling through your deck commands. These commands can be equipped from your menu and include various attack abilities and magic as well as items you may have picked up. Once you use an ability with X, that particular command is on cooldown for a short period of time before you can use it again. Otherwise, A is for standard attacks and you can use B to jump (yay for no more auto-jump from Re:coded!) Defensive maneuvers are designated to Y, which allows you to block or dash around depending on your character and what you have equipped. The L and R buttons control the camera, though it’s as unwieldy as ever. Sometimes when I want to rotate the camera around to see my surroundings, it will just shoot back in position behind my character with no provocation on my part. Pressing the shoulder buttons together will let you lock on to an enemy and keep them the center of focus, but this too can invite disaster when battling in cramped spaces. This is nothing new for the series though, and you learn to work around it.
When you visit new worlds for the first time, you will execute what is called a Dive. This is a minigame that involves you plummeting towards the world in a rail shooter type environment. As each Dive begins, you’ll be tasked with performing a specific objective, such as defeating so many enemies or collecting so many prizes before reaching the end. I have no strong feelings about these sequences one way of the other, as they are very similar to the experiences with the Gummi ship in the earlier games. It just comes with the territory.
Since you are in control of two different characters this time around, you will alternate between them throughout the game and experience each world from a different viewpoint very similar to Birth by Sleep. Unlike that game where you have the option of playing through with one character at a time, KH3D forces you to alternate at regular intervals, sometimes against your will. While you have the option to Drop at any time (that is, switch characters), there’s also a meter on the lower corner of the screen that slowly drains as time passes. As soon as that time runs out, you MUST switch characters. This is a nuisance for a number of reasons. While you can award bonuses to the other character (such as added attack strength or defense), it’s very jarring to return to a character in the middle of a world and remember what they were supposed to be doing. Especially considering that each character has very different goals for the various worlds. Even that is not as aggravating as being forced to switch in the middle of a boss battle. Once, I had a boss on its last legs before I was forced to drop. When I came back, I had to start the ENTIRE battle over again. I almost tossed my 3DS out the window in frustration because I wasn’t always paying attention to the Drop meter almost running out.
Rather than having Disney characters that you meet join the fight alongside you, you must instead rely on creatures called Dream Eaters. Collecting Dream Eaters is much like collecting Pokemon in a way, except rather than catching them during battle, you craft them with materials you pick up from your enemies. While you can find recipes that let you see at a glance what is needed to create a specific Dream Eater, you can craft them without one with a little bit of experimentation on your part. As they gain levels, they’ll also learn abilities that can be shared with Sora and Riku such as HP boosts and fire screens. So it’s in your best interest to switch them up on a regular basis in order to gain skills that are beneficial for your playable characters. Attacking the same enemies as them will build up a Link meter, that will unleash a special attack or transformation depending on the Dream Eater you are using. If two Dream Eaters have their Link meters maxed, you can utilize them both for an even different outcome.
In an attempt to make the scenery more interactive as well as move you around the map quicker, KH3D introduces a concept called Flow Motion. What this means is, when you see something that can be interacted with like a rail or a wall or a pole, you can swing or bounce off of these things to speed around the map. While you are in motion, you can unleash a devastating attack on your enemies too, and puts you at less risk for receiving damage.
In addition to Flow Motion, encountering certain objects will trigger arrows to show up prompting you to swipe the touchscreen. Dubbed Reality Shift, these context sensitive actions will often trigger a minigame of sorts to do things such as slash enemies, toss objects, or warp around the map. Some boss encounters will even require these actions in order to win the fight. Having to switch to the stylus while the majority of the game is played primarily with buttons is not ideal in my eyes, but at least it does add some variety.
Control/Gameplay Rating: Good
I was able to get through the main game in approximately 20 hours, though if you spend a lot of time getting all of the Dream Eaters and nurturing them, there will be a much bigger investment in store for you. As in prior games, there are multiple difficulty levels for you to conquer, and the requirements for the “secret ending”Â varies depending on the challenge you select. Each world also has a percentage for collected treasure, as well as ratings for your performance during Dives, so completionists should have plenty to keep themselves busy in this game.
KH3D also includes a meta game of sorts called Flick Rush, which is a card game/RPG hybrid of sorts that you can play against the computer or against your friends via wireless. You pick a party of three Dream Eaters to take into battle with you and you must swipe numbered cards on the touchscreen to trump the ones being drawn by your opponent. Whenever you win an exchange, you deal damage to the opposing player’s Dream Eaters until there are none left. After a battle, you are awarded with medals that can be exchanged for prizes. While the minigame wasn’t of any personal interest to me, it has enough depth to keep people involved and offers something outside of the core experience to blow some time with.
Replayability Rating: Good
Each world tells you the level of the enemies you face there and acts almost like a recommended level for that particular area. On the standard difficulty, I found that I could be massively underleveled for each world and still come out on top with minimal struggle. Some of the late game boss battles gave me a serious run for my money, particularly towards the end when you have to utilize Reality Shifts more and what to do with them is left more vague.
Dream Eaters that are in your party are generally not that intelligent and the ones that do have useful healing spells don’t appear to use them at opportune times. Furthering the frustration is the fact that if they fall in battle, you have a limited amount of time before they disappear from your party and turn back into the materials you made them with. I’d almost be better off going solo if not for the benefits of learning abilities and the Link skills.
Balance Rating: Decent
While I appreciate the new features that are introduced as well as new worlds that have not been utilized yet in a Kingdom Hearts game, it’s hard to shake off the feeling of repetition that has begun to creep its way into the franchise. It may be celebrating its 10th anniversary, but in that time there have been nine games. NINE. That’s almost one a year. I wouldn’t mind so much if each entry has been meaningful to the overall plot and each game is leaps and bounds better than the one that came before it. But very little has changed gameplay-wise from one game to the next and the storylines in the portable titles, save for Birth by Sleep, has consisted mostly of filler material. If you expected KH3D to use the 3DS technology to truly do something new and different, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Originality Rating: Poor
Kingdom Hearts 3D is a fun game. However, I still found myself having difficulties being motivated to play it a lot of the time. The plot goes nowhere a majority of the adventure, and while the addition of Dream Eaters, Flow Motion, and all sorts of other jargon do add to the experience, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done it all before, but better. I remember a time not so long ago playing the first two titles and wanting to invest a ton of hours into them to do things such as take on Sephiroth. And it was FUN. KH3D gets better as it goes, and it’s easier to get motivated to press one once the game is already started, but the magic is starting to fade. KHIII better get here soon.
Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre
I have no doubt that this game is going to reach a wide audience. Kingdom Hearts has grown into enough of a franchise on its own that it doesn’t need to rely as much on its Disney and Final Fantasy roots to move units, which is good since the Disney properties used this time around are less of the “classics”Â and the FF characters have been axed completely. The World Ends With You fans will be delighted to see their favorite characters come to life, even if their presence is limited. I would like to see an announcement of the next numbered sequel, as the sudden influx of spin-off titles has shaken confidence in the brand a bit. Still, KH fans should get a kick out of the game regardless and casual players should be able to pick up and play without much trouble save for the confusing plot.
Appeal Rating: Great
All of the standard 3DS features have been utilized in KH3D to some degree, though some are less impressive than others. The 3D effect in particular, while ideal for the opening movie, isn’t quite as awe inspiring in the rest of the games. It makes it appear as if you are peering into a window and doesn’t really do much to make things appear as if they are popping out at you. I left it off most of the time to conserve battery. When managing your Dream Eaters, you are taken to a menu where the 3DS camera is turned on and you can take pictures of them with whatever cool backdrop you can locate in your immediate vicinity. The game even comes with a set of AR cards to use with this too. If you want to use the touchscreen to interact with your Dream Eaters, KH3D allows you to do that in a move that is remarkably similar to last year’s Nintendogs + Cats. You can obtain items to play little minigames with them and boost their stats, or you can use the stylus to pet them and boost them up that way.
If you were fortunate enough to get a hold of the Mark of Mastery Edition of the game, you are treated to a gigantic box full of goodies. After you remove the slip cover, the black box inside opens up to the copy of the game on the left hand side concealing the AR cards that were mentioned earlier. On the right hand side, there’s a white protective case for your 3DS with black designs on it that looks really sharp. There’s also a collection of art cards that depict that all of the games in the series for both the Japanese and international releases which look really nice. Overall, it’s a nice package, though it was a shame it was made in such limited quantity as second hand prices are currently double that of what it originally released as.
Miscellaneous Rating: Good
Appeal Factor: Great
Final Score: Enjoyable Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance graces Nintendo’s latest handheld to take advantage of the added horsepower of the system. While it succeeds in bringing with it a top notch presentation, it takes a minimalist approach to its storyline that leaves players confused and with little reason to care about what’s happening. Things do pick up towards the end, but I can’t help but feel like the game does its best to convince you that there’s more going on than there really is while the inevitable KHIII continues its insanely long incubation period. It’s not a bad game by any means, as it plays better than 358/2 Days and Re:coded, but doesn’t even come close to the high bar set by Birth by Sleep. Diehard KH fans will get a kick out of it, but casual onlookers might find this entry a bit more unapproachable than most.