Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] Review

One of the first things you'll see when you pop Kingdom Hearts 3D into your Nintendo 3DS handheld is a static, black and white screen with a stylized Keyblade number "10." Believe it not, it has been 10 years since the original Kingdom Hearts hit the PS2. Ten. years. Wow. I remember driving over an hour to get to the nearest EB Games so I could get my copy of the Disney/Final Fantasy mash-up on the day it launched, and in some ways it still feels like yesterday. The Kingdom Hearts series of games and spin-offs that followed the landmark title (and probably my favorite of all PS2 games) had varying degrees of quality and, admittedly, were all pretty much retellings of the original game's story (we've been to Agrabah and Hollow Bastion, what, like a million times?). The handheld spin-offs from the main duo of PS2 games have pushed the series' storyline forward, though often in ways that are equally redundant and ridiculous. And just when fans couldn't imagine the storyline getting any more convoluted, Kingdom Hearts 3D ups the ante with a tale and, by extension, an entire game that is all at once a landmark title, a new direction (sorta) and a baffling ordeal.

Let's get this huge point out in the open first: If you haven't played all the Kingdom Hearts games up to this point, AND the DS action RPG The World Ends With You, you will have absolutely no idea what is going on in Kingdom Hearts 3D. I've played all the games multiple times and still had trouble keeping things straight. Here's the setup: Master Yen Sid (spell it backwards...) and King Mickey have gathered Sora and Riku to take the Mark of Mastery exam, a kind of ancient MCAT or bar exam for Keyblade wielders. To be considered "masters," Sora and Riku must find a number of sleeping keyholes (i.e. worlds) and restore them. All this must be done as the heroes prepare to battle Xehanort, an ancient villain who may or may not be tied to Ansem or Organization XIII. Unless all of that explanation made perfect sense to you, you will be totally lost from the very second you turn the game on until the last gasp of the final boss.

It's worth mentioning that the game makes a half-hearted attempt to catch up newbies on the previous games with "Chronicles," which are written summaries of past events slowly unlocked by playing through the story. It's a nice thought, but the Kingdom Hearts storyline is so muddled and confusing at this point, these summaries can actually blur things even further. Like I said, I've played and replayed all the games with the Kingdom Hearts branding multiple times and I'm still not 100 percent on everything. Imagining how those with no experience will react to the summarization of story quagmires like Birth By Sleep and 382/2 Days makes me think the series has morphed into one that is strictly for big fans and Kingdom Hearts scholars only.

To a lesser extent, you'll also need to know the aforementioned DS title The World Ends With You. The characters from that game pop up very early in the adventure and carry with them almost no exposition of who they are, why they are there or what happened to them in the past. If Kingdom Hearts fans never played through Neku's story, they will still be able to follow the rest of the title; they will, however, be lost for the first few hours in Traverse Town. If you did play the DS RPG, you'll be delighted to see these familiar faces again. Some music from that title also sneaks its way in, and it's a nice nod to fans. The Disney-themed worlds share the lack of exposition in telling stories, but the characters in them are (mostly... I was unfamiliar with The Hunchback of Notre Dame's plot going in) universally recognizable. It boils down to this: If you plan on following Kingdom Hearts 3D's plot, there is a significant amount of stuff you'll need to know beforehand.

Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] screenshot 19

Because there is a whole bunch of new gameplay points to hit, let's talk presentation first. Though the jury is still out on whether or not this is the best looking and sounding 3DS game yet, it is in the top three for sure. The visuals live up to SquareEnix's usual high standards and remain equally strong across the game's many cutscenes and almost too fast action. I detected no framerate slowdown at any point and even though the 3D can feel unnecessary, it's executed with style and an understanding of the medium not quite attained by most other third party titles. Granted, you'll never say, "It's a good thing that was in 3D," but it's a nice option to have, especially during some of the cutscenes.

The sound is just as impressive. The instantly familiar background tunes sound better than ever with full orchestration, often even better than the PS2 anchor games. The star-studded voice cast also does a great job, and only Sora's lines come off as too cheesy; that is less about the acting and more about his often annoying upbeat attitude and willingness to trust anyone or anything. The worry that recognizable Disney and Final Fantasy characters' voices won't match what is already in your mind is also put to rest in the first few minutes of the game. And really, how could I fault any voice cast that includes George Costanza (Jason Alexander)?

Ok, on to the gameplay. The first change to the formula is the Dream Eater system. These little monsters replace Donald and Goofy as your wingmen (winganimals?) in battle, and the switch is not a welcome one. These little things offer almost no assistance in the heat of battle, offensively or defensively, and dealing with them can be a major distraction. Not only do they get in your way during fights, a lot of Sora and Riku's abilities are tied directly to their growth and well-being. Creating and raising Dream Eaters grants new unlockable moves and bonuses, meaning you'll constantly have to micromanage what they're doing to get stronger. Imagine Pokemon mixed with the Deck System of previous Kingdom Hearts games and you'll have a good idea of what you'll be dealing with. Even being a huge Pokemon fan, this system is still annoying and Donald and Goofy are sorely missed.

The game's major annoyance, however, is the Drop System. You'll split your time with Kingdom Hearts 3D between playing as Sora and Riku, and the two separate perspectives on the story adds depth to the narrative. The problem is you have almost no control over when the game will force you to switch heroes. The game is always counting down your time while playing; and at certain points you'll be forced to stop everything and swap to the other guy. This can happen at any time, be it during boss battles, intense fights and/or periods of quiet exploration. I've often complained that random encounters in RPGs drag the player kicking and screaming into fights they may or may not want; the Drop System is like this, only about a million times worse. It's bad enough to deal with it during fights (which you are forced to restart post-drop), but it's much worse during quiet times. I found myself wasting far too much precious time trying to remember what I was doing after forced switch-offs, time the system dictates as a valuable commodity. Being lost is never fun, but it's way more vexing when it isn't your fault. It's easy to see what the developers were going for in forcing you to play as both characters, but the lack of control makes the Drop System among the worst ideas yet in the series. Prepare to be super pissed when dealing with this misstep.

Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] screenshot 20

The last innovation, unlike the others, is actually pretty cool. The Flowmotion combat system makes taking on groups of enemies flashy and fun. A press of the Y button sends Sora or Riku flying towards objects, walls and enemies, and a series of new commands come up. These allow for some neat-o combat that is a feast for the eyes and a lifesaver in more difficult segments. The wrinkle comes with the controls during Flowmotion fighting; it can be easy to lose track of things amid all the speediness, and that can make succeeding or failing equally likely. The camera, though normally OK, doesn't help the situation. It usually fails to focus on where you'd like it to, and finishing up some Flowmotion combos can have the feeling of button-mashing autopilot. Flowmotion is certainly better than the Dream Eaters or the Drop System, but its existence as a double-edged sword will bring out some serious frustration and cheap deaths.

With all the concepts that are either totally broken or only semi-useful, it would be easy to give Kingdom Hearts 3D a low score. The thing is, though, is the Kingdom Hearts magic manages to shine through all the faults. The action RPG combat is still just as fun, and the nostalgia factor for the Disney, Final Fantasy and now Kingdom Hearts favorites is tangible and all-encompassing. The feelings aroused by this latest handheld entry are comparable to hanging out with an old friend, though this old friend now has a stupid set of gold teeth and a face tattoo; it's nice to see him/her again, but some of their decisions sour the otherwise pleasant encounter.

Final Rating: 68%. Kingdom Hearts 3D is a no-brainer for fans, but those new to the series would be better served by playing almost any of the past titles or spin-offs.


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