Going into Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, I couldn’t help but feel that the series was in a rough place. It just seemed like the games had started losing their momentum. Despite the gameplay usually finding ways to keep itself fresh, the story seemed to be getting more convoluted as a result of every portable spin-off trying to fill in some gap. Now the story is practically inaccessible to newcomers, and admittedly, even longtime fans have trouble keeping track of everything going on.
However, I don’t feel like the story itself was the real problem. With a series this strange, you actually kind of expect to be confused every now and then. I also don’t believe it was so much the spin-offs themselves that really hurt the series, as they almost all fit in gaps where there is actually room for an interesting chapter. In my opinion, it was really the constant rate they were delivered that slowed things down. With each game, it seemed like we were looking back rather than progressing in the story and the universe that originally got our attention.
Progress is what fans have really wanted since 2006, and I’ll be the first to say that a 3DS game actually called Kingdom Hearts 3D didn’t seem like the way to deliver on that. As a fan of the series since the beginning, I was really wanting nothing more than for Dream Drop Distance to actually get me excited about these games again, but everything about this game seemed like just an excuse to have another Kingdom Hearts game on another system. So it was surprising and great to learn that Kingdom Hearts 3D is much more than that.
The game starts out with the two main characters, Sora and Riku, beginning their Mark of Mastery test to prove themselves worthy to wield their respective Keyblades. The test takes place in a sort of dream realm where Sora and Riku must visit a series of “Sleeping Worlds” in order to wake them up and reconnect them with the many worlds we’ve visited previously in the series.
Now, if what little I just explained about the story confuses you, then I have to add that it really doesn’t get easier as the game progresses. Although the game does technically give newcomers the reading material to get caught up to speed if they want, near the end of the game, in what was one of the longest cutscenes I’ve ever personally sat through (I mean, long enough to rival Metal Gear Solid), even I was completely baffled by what was happening. With the juggling of dreams, time travel, and everything else the series had already thrown into the pot, I could replay the ending multiple times and still not have a clue what the hell the bad guys were actually trying to do.
I have to say, though, despite KH3D taking things up a notch on the bewilderment front, it did remind me of why I actually kind of like the story of these games. It’s cutscene heavy, it’s confusing, and sometimes, flat-out stupid. But it can also be a strange, fascinating contrast to all the Disney elements, and KH3D really takes the time to focus on the main characters and develop them in interesting ways. Riku, who hasn’t stopped moping since 2004, finally has to conquer his demons once and for all, while Sora, the hero with a heart of gold, actually starts to develop a few demons of his own.
So even if it doesn’t always make a lot sense, I do feel like the story of KH3D is a surprisingly good chapter in the saga, and it’s one that serves as a strong vehicle to all the Disney worlds you’ll visit.
Of those worlds, it’s mostly a fresh line-up. Of the few worlds we have visited in some form before, there’s usually a new storyline twist, at least. Honestly, though, those were the only locations I wasn’t that big of a fan of, with the Tron: Legacy style Grid seeming terribly out of place when you consider the solid execution Tron had gotten in KHII. But worlds like the Fantasia-themed Symphony of Sorcery and the Country of Musketeers more than make up for that, capturing the style, and sound (the Disney worlds have some of the best music in the series, in my opinion), of these memorable settings as only the Kingdom Hearts games have been able to.
And you’ll be able to explore two paths in these places, using the Drop System to alternate between Sora and Riku.
How Dropping works is that, as soon as you start playing as Sora or Riku, you’re essentially on a timer. You get a good junk of time to make progress, and there are ways to slow down this bar, but eventually it will hit zero and your current character will fall asleep. You’ll jump to where you left off with the other, and proceed to go back and forth like that for the rest of the game.
Now this may sound like an annoying idea, and I suppose it is in some ways. For instance, if you Drop during a boss fight, that boss resets its health. It only happened to me once, but the Drop bar really should have been automatically paused for any Boss fight.
Still, the Drop system is fairly painless to work with once you understand how to prioritize each Drop, whether it’s to use your next run to primarily explore and find items or to mainly further the plot. If there’s anything you absolutely most do with a character, you can Drop manually, but there are helpful bonuses to encourage being productive with both Riku and Sora.
To be clear, I’m not a fan of arbitrary time limits in games, but the Drop system is where I’ll make an exception. I honestly think it’s the better means of telling two parallel stories than what we saw in Birth by Sleep, where you had three separate storylines to play through, but it was mostly covering the same ground. In KH3D, Riku and Sora go to the same worlds but they have their own unique experiences. And since neither character feels particularly worse to play than the other, I feel like the Drop system is mostly a smooth solution.
But Dropping is just one of the new systems Dream Drop Distance introduces. While the core gameplay goes back to the Deck system of Birth by Sleep, where you have your basic attack and a customizable deck of special abilities you can scroll through during the game, the pace at which you get around picks up with the Flowmotion mechanic.
From the beginning of the game you’ll be able to bounce from wall-to-wall, grind rails, and dash across the air. You can also use this ability to pull off some unique attacks depending on what you’re currently interacting with. To compensate for how quick you’re going, most of the areas are much larger in size than previous locations in the series, but it still is very much the linear experience where the only things off to sides are mainly treasure chests. But Flowmotion does add an enjoyable sense of style and speed to getting around, and the ability to wall jump practically eliminates the frustrating platforming that had plagued the series since the first game.
Another new mechanic to the combat is the reality shift, which replaces the reaction commands. Instead of hitting a particular button, you’ll jump to a quick world-specific mini game on the 3DS touch screen to do a special attack. And these can be neat little additions to compliment whichever world you’re currently in, but all of them are incredibly easy to pull off, and most of them just take a bit too long to bother attempting during a fight, considering you usually have to get the stylus ready each time.
Now, your party, as well the common enemies you’ll be facing, in KH3D are new creatures to the series called Dream Eaters and they’re probably the most noticeable addition in the game. In a sort of combination of Pokemon and Nintendogs, you can create, collect, and customize a wide variety of these creatures, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
The Dream Eater system is handled pretty well, for the most part. Each one has a unique fighting style so you can set up your party with monsters that compliment how you play. And, through each Dream Eater’s Abilities Link board (Similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X), the more work you put into your Dream Eater means the more abilities and upgrades you can unlock for yourself. This gives you a good reason to experiment and work with a bunch of Dream Eaters to get the best perks, which certainly gives them an addictive quality.
Unfortunately, for as adorable and colorfully designed as the Dream Eaters are, it’s the Nintendogs aspect that isn’t all that enjoyable. It’s not hard or terribly time consuming to keep them happy, but the time you spend petting them via touch screen doesn’t feel very productive. There’s also the issue of their AI, as I had a few moments where my Dream Eaters were just running into a wall way back at the beginning of an area.
Still, Dream Eaters serve as a nice change of pace for how to handle your party, but they also take center stage in Kingdom Hearts 3D‘s token minigame: Flick Rush.
Flick Rush takes your party of three Dream Eaters and takes them to a 3 vs 3 tag match, either against the computer in a tournament or wirelessly. It kind of combines the touch screen with the card-based combat of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, where you’re playing a variety attack cards and trying to play ones with a value higher than your opponents. You can stack cards together to increase your chances, but you also have to manage a sort of fatigue bar.
This minigame is supremely addictive and, as somebody who felt Chain of Memories had some of the best combat in the series, seeing it sort of reimagined here couldn’t make me happier. I can’t give Flick Rush enough praise.
Just to cover any loose ends from the gameplay side, I will say that the camera was alright since the game allows you a couple of control options even if you don’t have a Circle Pad Pro. One of them should work. There’s also the “Dive” mechanic which is basically just this game’s on-rail sections to get to each new world. It’s not the most fun you’ll have with the game, but they are kind of cool with the 3D effect on, although I thought the rest of the game looked a lot better without it.
So, when you look at Kingdom Hearts 3D‘s gameplay as total package, I can’t help but think it’s some of the best. Admittedly, when you start the game, juggling those three major system additions will probably overwhelm you, and even later on, they aren’t executed perfectly. Each one has their faults, and there will be moments of frustration, but I can’t help but feel like each one is there for the overall benefit of the game. When I think about all the things they added to the core gameplay and how they could’ve gone wrong, I can’t help but be impressed with what they pulled off. The game may not land perfectly all the time, but when it does, you’ll be having a blast.
In a way, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is a good representation of the whole series. You have to look a little bit harder than you have to with other games, but there is a great game to find in there. So, if you’re a fan of the series, I think Dream Drop Distance will make you glad you picked up a 3DS. 3D may not cure everything wrong with the games, but its willingness to experiment with its gameplay results in something that can be as incredibly fun as the series has ever been. And if you’re curious about the series but you’re worried you just won’t understand it, don’t worry. None of us understand it.
But I can say that I’m eager to see what comes next for it, anyway.Posted in Reviews by Ben Matlock on August 10, 2012