Drop It Like It’s Hot
It’s the ten-year anniversary of the Kingdom Hearts series, a fact that serves to remind us that there hasn’t been a main Kingdom Hearts game since 2006. Instead, a series of spinoff games have appeared on portable devices, expanding and sometimes obfuscating the lore of the series. This latest spinoff, awkwardly titled Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance], is meant to be a direct bridge to Kingdom Hearts III. It’s more than a light at the end of the tunnel for long-suffering fans, however. Like Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, Kingdom Hearts 3D introduces new gameplay elements that greatly enhance the action combat found in the series, and it’s worth playing in and of itself.
The game begins simply enough, with series favorites Sora and Riku being sent off on a test to obtain the “Mark of Mastery” and become true Keyblade masters. This time around, the two must awaken worlds that are trapped in a magical slumber, fighting nightmare creatures along the way. The worlds Sora and Riku visit in Kingdom Hearts 3D are largely off Disney’s usual beaten track, which is nice to see. As usual, the stories of each individual world aren’t very connected to the story at large, serving mostly to reinforce series themes like the importance of courage, trust, and friendship.
The real story of the game happens mostly via cutscenes in-between world completion, and is unfortunately full of the kind of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo we’ve become used to from the series. Along with plenty of stuff about hearts, light, darkness, and dreams, there’s an extra-confusing time travel element thrown into the mix. The original story has too many extraneous and needlessly complex elements, such as the parade of secondary characters that are very difficult to keep track of unless one has played all of the spin-off games. To its credit, Kingdom Hearts 3D includes a synopsis of what has happened in every game so far, but a mere synopsis simply isn’t sufficient for remembering who all these crazy people actually are.
A positive development in KH 3D’s storyline is that at least a bit of character development has occurred. Having overcome many trials and tribulations in previous games, Riku has emerged as a kind, courageous, and savvy young man. He displays the calm confidence of maturity, while Sora maintains his naivety and generally has difficulty understanding what’s going on around him. This makes Riku’s segments more enjoyable to play for anybody who wants their character to operate on an intellectual level above idiot savant. Later events in the game offer up hope that Sora could experience some character development by Kingdom Hearts III as well, which would be nice. Overall, though, I found the story in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep to be more meaningful and far easier to follow than what’s on offer here.
Story aside, Kingdom Hearts 3D is quite fun to play. The excellent action combat system from Birth By Sleep forms the base for combat in this game, complete with the Command Deck system that allows for a great deal of attack customization. Sora and Riku control similarly at first, though Riku is a bit more nimble, but differentiate as the game provides them with some unique abilities and movement controls. Layered on top of this basic system are several new elements that greatly enhance gameplay and combat.
The first and most frequently-used new element is the Flowmotion system. Flowmotion allows Sora and Riku to make use of the environment in order to pull of crazy acrobatics that can be used both in combat and for navigating the environment. The system seems chaotic and can be difficult to control at first, but once the player gets the hang of it, it’s a blast to use. Mastering Flowmotion can be very helpful for defeating the game’s most difficult enemies, and using the system is sometimes necessary during the game’s varied and exciting boss fights.
The second new element, Reality Shift, allows the player to complete a microgame that is unique to each world. Some Reality Shifts are linked to objects that can be used to solve puzzles or attack enemies. Others can be triggered during battle when a Reality Shift prompt shows up on an enemy, and completing the microgame successfully tends to equal an instant kill. Some of the Reality Shift games are more fun than others, but the system is entirely optional in combat, so players can ignore it outside of required environmental puzzles (and occasional boss prompts) if desired.
All these new combat elements give the player a lot of options in battle, but two final features provide a major change to the general Kingdom Hearts gameplay formula.
The first is the addition of friendly spirits, which are good-aligned versions of the nightmare creatures Sora and Riku fight throughout the game. These creatures are created using dream fragments looted from enemies and serve as companions in combat throughout the game. Improving spirits involves a system that feels like a cross between Pokémon and Nintendogs. Once created, spirits gain experience via combat but can also be enhanced by bonding with them or playing training minigames in an augmented reality setting. Each spirit has an ability tree that permanently unlocks new special attacks for Sora and Riku’s command decks, as well as augmentations that are in effect as long as the spirit is in the active party. In battle, the spirits usually do a good job supporting the main character, though they can sometimes get in trouble and need healing or rescue. The only major issue with the spirits is that the game is far too short to facilitate building up the huge number of available spirits—a disappointment for those of us who have a tendency to catch ’em all.
I enjoyed playing with spirits quite a bit, but the final new addition to the Kingdom Hearts system was far less to my liking. The Drop system is the mechanism by which players alternate between playing Sora and Riku. On rare occasions, control passes between the two characters for storyline reasons. Most of the time, however, a “Drop Meter” on the bottom of the screen shows how soon it will be before the characters automatically switch. The rate that the meter counts down can be increased or decreased via various methods, and time can be added back onto the meter by using up a valuable Command Deck slot on consumable Drop-Me-Not items.
Still, even with these methods of control, the Drop System creates a lot more confusion and frustration than it does excitement. The storyline of the various worlds would be better served by having Sora and Riku complete their segments in a specific order, rather than randomly depending on the drop meter. Being Dropped in the middle of a complicated area leads to disorientation upon returning to that area some time later—where was I, and what was I doing? Finally, being Dropped in the middle of a boss fight leads to great aggravation, as it is sometimes automatically restarts from the beginning when control returns to that character. I understand the motivation that the developers had in implementing this system, but it simply doesn’t click, and I think it should have been left on the cutting room floor.
One consolation prize for getting lost after a poorly timed Drop is that Kingdom Hearts 3DS features some lovely worlds to explore. The graphics look great, appearing a bit crisper with the 3D turned off, but making good use of the 3D when it’s on. Every world has a particular theme that is well-implemented across the level graphics, enemy selection, and minigame design. The characters are particularly well-realized, and even the digitized versions of actual humans don’t descend as far into the uncanny valley as they did in Kingdom Hearts II.
The music in the game is excellent, as usual for the series, blending Disney’s music seamlessly together with original tracks scored by Square Enix’s all-star composition team. A particular star of the show here is the Symphony of Sorcery world based on Disney’s Fantasia , which combines the game’s graphics, music, and sound effects in a way that’s practically worth the price of admission on its own. The voice acting is similarly solid, with particular kudos to Riku’s English actor, who conveys his maturing personality quite well. Only a couple minor performances sounded off to me.
Gamers looking for a large amount of play value may find the game a bit on the short side. There are eight main worlds, some of which take longer to complete than others, and players may find themselves at the final world sooner than expected. Though the Drop System discourages exploration to some extent, there are plenty of hidden secrets to find in the various worlds. Collecting and taming spirits can also take up a major chunk of time, though much of that will be dedicated to grinding for experience. On top of these already-mentioned activities, players can participate in a side game called Flick Rush, try for high scores in some minigames, and attempt to earn achievement trophies that are found within the game.
Despite issues with the Drop System and a story that splashes merrily in the deep end of the Pool of Absurdity, Kingdom Hearts 3D is a genuinely fun game. Mixing Flowmotion into the Command Deck battle system works quite well, giving the player a wide variety of battle strategies, which in turn has allowed the developers to design more interesting and difficult enemies for the player to face. It’s also an audiovisual treat on the 3DS, keeping up Square Enix’s tradition of making the most of console technology. Selectable difficulty levels make this a great action RPG for players of varying skills. For anybody interested primarily in the action, activities, and likeable characters rather than in following a coherent story, Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] is a great addition to the 3DS library.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.3 Graphics
In both 2D and 3D modes, Kingdom Hearts 3D has some of the best graphics in a third-party game on the 3DS. 3.9 Control
Controls are responsive and Flowmotion is fun to pull off. A Cricle Pad Pro is helpful for looking around. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is fabulous as usual for Kingdom Hearts games, and the voice acting is high-quality as well. 3.9 Play Value
Though a bit on the short side, the game has tons of side activities to participate in like hunting for treasure chests and raising spirits. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|