Much the same as our Theatrhythm Final Fantasy review, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance stands as the first time I have ever played a game in the series. I sort of understand the concept — Disney properties mixed into a Square Enix action role-playing game — but I had not even seen what the gameplay was like until turning this on for the first time. In celebration of the tenth anniversary, I push forward, and in the process, end up experiencing one of the best games in the 3DS library.
As previously stated, Kingdom Hearts is primarily an action RPG series infused with Disney properties and characters and a plot that is gripping to some and a confusing mess to others. In Kingdom Hearts 3D, two series protagonists, Sora and Riku, attempt to complete the Mark of Mastery exam (by entering several dream worlds, which somehow signifies their mastery of the legendary Keyblade weapons) in preparation for the return of the main antagonist of the series. While many of the finer points of the plot will be instantly lost on any non-series veterans, the general story is rather easy to follow, and ends up more engaging as the player progresses. I give the game credit for adding a glossary and several summaries of the various games in the series, but don’t expect to understand any callbacks unless you have actually played previous entries.
The gameplay, while equally complicated, might be more polished than anything else on 3DS. Kingdom Hearts takes place on a 3D plane and features basic sword-slashing mechanics that are used to take out enemies, level-up, and such. Separating it from the pack, however, are several mechanics (most of which entirely new). Perhaps the most important of these is Flowmotion, a mechanic in which the player can bounce all over levels using crazy acrobatic techniques, and defeat enemies in unique ways. It is slightly broken, in that you can temporarily become untouchable and escape enemies without much effort, that fact aside, the feature is still insanely fun to use, and once it “clicks” with you, it makes the game more of something to love than something to like. And, the fact that this works as well as it does is simply a testament to how good the controls are.
Kingdom Hearts sports something called the Command Deck, and acts as the place where magic and items are used. It allows a large number of items and spells (like fire spells, cure spells, anti-gravity spells, spells that spawn balloons, and tons more) all to be mapped to the X button with switching mapped to the d-pad, and works fairly well, if not being a little clunky when combat gets to the peak of intensity.
Up next, let’s talk about the new Dream Eaters. In a nutshell, they take the role of the game’s minor enemies (and some of the bosses), but they can also become your allies. By collecting “recipes” for these monsters (which are primarily based on various animals like pandas and cats) and gathering materials, you can build a party of three of these creatures to help you in combat (with two actually fighting at any given time). They are very optional and non-intrusive, and don’t make the experience feel any less “pure”. They are controlled by a very competent AI and can trigger one of several special moves once a bar is built up in combat. Bringing further depth are the extra things you can do with Dream Eaters. Like Nintendogs, you can take pictures of your “pets”, give them treats and small toys for stat boosts, and even pet them using the touch screen. In addition to this, there is the new Flick Rush mini-game, pitting your team of critters against another at various tournament levels. These touches may seem inconsequential (as they are, more or less), but they make the package feel even more complete than it already does.
Lastly, the game introduces the new Drop mechanic. On each of the seven worlds, both Riku and Sora play through a different iteration of it (with mostly different locations, different bosses, and entirely different stories). This in itself is fine, but every 20 minutes or so (marked by a bar on the screen), either player will pass out in the middle of playing, and the game will immediately switch control to the other. If you like, you can switch back immediately or you can take an item postponing Riku or Sora dropping, but it is incredibly annoying and unnecessary to the actual game. If you’re in an intense boss battle, and you drop moments before beating the boss, the entire fight starts over when the character drops back in. This may add a certain urgency to fights, but I am astounded that Square Enix decided that this was an improvement on not having the mechanic exist at all. It doesn’t nearly ruin the game, but the mechanic is pretty awful.
Most of the game’s seven worlds are based on various Disney properties, like Tron: Legacy and Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers. Within these include stories about various Disney characters, with all of the charm intact inside of entirely voiced cutscenes. Even when the character isn’t voiced by the original VA, the replacements sound spot-on. The little Disney-based sub-plots are my favorite parts of the entire story, and it’s absolutely wonderful (and not as awkward as expected) to see Disney charm fit in with a sometimes melancholy plot. My only complaint about these worlds come in the form of level and boss design. The levels, despite being huge and full of treasure, feel totally lifeless and rather monotonous at times. You fight enemies, push forward, and repeat. It’s not too bothersome when one considers how excellent the combat is, but it’s very noticeable. My other issue is that some of the bosses (one at the end of every world for each character except the last one) are just one-off dream eaters with huge life bars, to spice things up I would have liked to see more bosses based around Disney properties.
On a technical level, Kingdom Hearts 3D does not disappoint. The graphics easily look good enough to be on a PlayStation 2 (if not Wii), and the 3D only makes the visuals pop in the best way possible. If nothing else, the visuals are what convinced me that this is a game that needed to be on 3DS. The sound is also great, and though little of the soundtrack remains memorable, fans should feel right at home with some of the music, especially the track that plays after you beat the game.
In my experience, playing through Kingdom Hearts 3D took about 23-24 hours to beat, though, I was taking my time. Players with more experience should easily be able to finish it in 20, if not less. If you, for some reason, wanted a longer game, I should mention that my Activity Log now lists the game at over 33 hours. This is due to the wealth of content that exists outside of the story, from Flick Rush, to secret challenges, to unlockable weapons, and more. Truly, if you want to put the time into Kingdom Hearts 3D, you will get one of the meatiest experiences on 3DS, with a level of quality only matched by something released by Nintendo themselves. There are some hiccups in quality, as there is in anything of this magnitude, but I recommend Kingdom Hearts 3D to any 3DS owner. It’s not just a great game — it’s a great experience that shows off what Nintendo’s portable device is truly capable of.