It’s been so long since the last numbered Kingdom Hearts entry that the portable games that were meant to supplement the main story as side-adventures are now the norm. Right now, there’s five portable games for the two main titles on PS2, which means to experience the whole Kingdom Hearts story, you’ll have had to have owned six consoles to keep up with the evermore complex saga. This brings us to Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, a confusingly titled appearance on the 3DS which may be the last of these side-stories before the big #3. Purporting to advance the story and provide faster, flowing gameplay, Kingdom Hearts 3D certainly feels a little more necessary than the other titles, but it’s not quite a series’ revolution.
To get this out of the way, the story is probably one of the most convoluted I’ve seen yet. After completing the game, I’ve read up on fan theories and explanations for what transpires and I’m still not sure I understand all of it. In the Kingdom Hearts world, Hearts (souls, I think) can be separated from their bodies, bodies can live without their souls and the two can be recombined in a number of fashions. This is the imminent threat our heroes, Sora and Riku, face from Xehanort – the big bad of the Kingdom Hearts series, whose heart (or Heartless) they defeated in Kingdom Hearts, and whose body (or Nobody) they blew up in Kingdom Hearts II. Apparently, this means he’ll be returning as a complete individual, so to prepare for his return, the duo have to pass the ‘Mark of Mastery’ exam to become true Keyblade masters.
Sora and Riku do this by travelling to seven ‘sleeping worlds’, some of which they have been to in the past, although they find themselves in different realms and unable to communicate with each other. It becomes a kind of Disney-styled Inception, and that’s even before we have to suffer through Mickey Mouse discussing the intricacies of time travel. By the end of it, we are in a good position to launch into KHIII, if and when that should ever arrive, but you’d better be paying attention every second of every cutscene if you want to have a hope of knowing what’s going on. This is made a little easier by a new ‘Flashback’ feature, or what I like to call the ‘What the Hell is Going On?!’ feature, which allows you to view additional cutscenes or information to supplement the story.
The game looks and sounds great, at least. It’s at least as good looking as KH and KHII on PS2, although what really sells the game on the 3DS is the 3D effect. It seems much more pronounced than on many other games, and the cutscenes and action make use of the 3D space much more than I was expecting, making for a great showcase for the console. Each of the worlds is represented fairly accurately, perhaps too much in some cases, as the Tron: Legacy world’s realistic humans just look weird next to the anime-styled Sora and Riku. Some worlds like Fantasia and The Hunchback of Notre Dame make the most of their setting, while worlds based on The Three Musketeers and Pinocchio don’t seem to have much material to use. Voice acting is also pretty good, in general, as the actors do their best to sell hamfisted lines about dreams, hearts, light and darkness.
There are three big additions to the gameplay this time – drops, Dream Eaters and Flowmotion. Some of these work better than others, so let’s start with the good: Flowmotion. This is a new system for both movement and combat that makes everything a lot faster and more fluid, as the name suggests. Your dash can now be supercharged if you run into walls, poles or rails, giving you the ability to wall-jump, grind and generally avoid your enemies much more easily than before. In combat, you can ricochet off any of these objects to perform a special attack, which can help with dealing with large groups or giving you an extra edge on a boss. It’s the best thing about this game, and it’s a system that would be interesting to see in a future HD title. Combined with the command deck system from Birth By Sleep, which allows you to pick which moves and attacks you go into battle with from the quick menu, fighting through enemies and exploring environments can be very fun at times.
The drop system doesn’t fare quite so well. You play as both Sora and Riku in Kingdom Hearts 3D, but the system to switch between the two is a little funky. They both have their own storylines and adventures, so you’ll be going through all of the game’s seven worlds twice. A drop meter on-screen counts down constantly, and when it runs out, you’re forced to switch characters, no matter what you’re doing. About to beat a boss when the clock runs out? Tough luck, it’s back to the other character, and when you return you’ll have to restart the battle. Drops can be kept at bay with items, but it always feels like an annoyance rather than a needed gameplay feature.
Dream Eaters are also a big addition, replacing the Heartless, Nobodies and Unversed not only as enemies, but also as your new allies. Donald and Goofy, your regular companions, sit this one out, as you recruit Dream Eaters like Pokemon through combining items. Even when you’re able to make more awesome ones like dinosaurs, they’re incredibly inept in battle, rarely helping you out and effectively leaving you on your own. They’re only good for the special attacks you can dole out occasionally, but overall they don’t help with the sometimes uneven difficulty of the game. Levels do indicate how hard they should be from the world map, but even then I found myself breezing through bosses on supposedly harder levels, only to be hit by an impassable force in a flash. Dream Eaters are also used for a card mini-game that’s fun, but not incredibly compelling.
There are plenty of reasons to pick up Kingdom Hearts, as fans will no doubt go nuts over every new story detail or piece of fan service presented, no matter how convoluted. The Flowmotion system actually makes the gameplay feel pretty fun, and the game is a very cool showcase for the 3DS. Some of the other additions like the drops and Dream Eaters take away from the experience more than they add to it, but they’re forgivable in light of the bigger picture. If you’re a hardcore follower of the series with your own Organization hoodie and Keyblade, then you probably already own a copy of the game, and hopefully you’ll have an easier time understanding it than I did. Newcomers to the series will almost certainly be lost.