Developer / publisher Square Enix was one of the biggest supporters of the Nintendo DS but they have been noticeably absent in their support of the 3DS. That is until they opened the flood gates and threw their full support behind the device this summer with a trio of highly anticipated titles. Theatrhythm and Heroes of Ruin both released to generally positive critical reception but it is the third title, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, that carries with it the highest expectations and the ability to single-handedly move 3DS hardware.
It is hard to believe that the Kingdom Hearts series is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It is even harder to believe that Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (Kingdom Hearts 3D) is the seventh entry into the series during that span of time. Much has changed from the series that started out as a merger of the Disney and Final Fantasy universes. Six years have passed since the release of Kingdom Hearts II on the Playstation 2, and the series has been found exclusively on handheld and mobile devices during that time. One thing that has not changed though is Tetsuya Nomura’s penchant for over-the-top costuming, ridiculous titles and deeply intricate, albeit somewhat convoluted, storylines.
The Dream in Dream Drop Distance is an indicator of the storyline at play in the game. Series stars, Sora and Riku, must free seven “sleeping” worlds and become true Keyblade Masters so they will be prepared for the return of Xehanort. Along their journey Sora and Riku will interact with iconic Disney characters such as Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tron, Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and more as well as characters from Square Enix’s unique DS roleplaying game, The World Ends With You. Unfortunately the Final Fantasy franchise, a major part of past Kingdom Hearts games, has been relegated to moogles and cursory mentions and as such I personally feel the game is missing some of its personality. Regardless though, Kingdom Hearts 3D narrative is on par, if not better than past games and that should make many fans happy. What will not make them happy though is the delivery method used for experiencing the story.
The Drop in Dream Drop Distance refers to the game’s overarching gameplay mechanic. Players will play as both Sora and Riku independently dropping into the other’s dimension to progress that character’s story. To clear a world in Kingdom Hearts 3D, both Sora and Riku will have to play through each area by themselves in alternate realities. While interesting from a conceptual standpoint it leads to a lot of visiting the same areas and experiencing the same storylines back-to-back, worse yet is the disjointed way the drop system actually works. Drops work on a timer, although they can also be triggered manually, and regardless of where one is in a level when that timer expires you’ll move on to the other character. For example say the player is in the middle of a boss fight involving Sora when the timer runs dry, the game will automatically stop the battle and thrust you into the role of Riku, forcing players to return to that same boss fight as Sora when Riku drops out. And while it is a frustrating system from a gameplay perspective, it is even worse in keeping any sort of narrative flow going.
By constantly dropping players involuntarily into different roles, the game quickly loses its narrative pacing making the story, which is actually one of the better overarching narratives in the series, a mess to experience. The designers must have realized that the drop system can very easily throw the entire narrative of track, especially if a player gets stuck in a certain area as Sora and Riku, because there are narrative points where it requires both players to be level with each other. But even with that understanding the system itself is annoying, frustrating and at times downright infuriating.
For as frustrating as the narrative delivery is though, nothing is more frustrating than the game camera. Anyone that has played a Kingdom Hearts game prior to this one knows the game camera has always been awful but Kingdom Hearts 3D drives it to a new level. While you can soft and hard lock on enemies in combat, these locks fail to hold and players can quickly get turned around and lose track of their placement on the battlefield resulting in some rather cheap deaths.
This is most unfortunate because the combat in Kingdom Hearts 3D is the best the series has seen to date. The series staple of third person action mixed with menu driven special attacks returns and works as expected, however that standard combat is enhanced in a trio of ways. The most important addition is the Flowmotion system. Activated by using jumping off of walls, poles, railings, or even large enemies, the Flowmotion system grants players the ability to move quickly around the environment as well as land extra damaging attacks. Learning to master Flowmotion is the key to success in Kingdom Hearts 3D but the camera makes utilizing it properly so very difficult.
The other two additions to the combat system are less affected by the awful camera but they also play a far more limited role. Players will be able to reality shift in certain areas of a level and each of these shifts is based on the universe the player is in. For example in the standard hub location of Traverse Town, reality shifts are performed by barrels and activating one allows players to use the barrel as a projectile however on The Grid reality shifting activates a simple code breaking mini-game where players can overtake or destroy turrets. The other addition is the inclusion of a Pokemon like companion called a Dream Eater. These Dream Eaters, which are the primary enemies throughout the game (called Nightmares) can be “crafted” using materials found throughout and fight alongside Sora and Riku. Much like a limit break in Final Fantasy, players can link up with their companion Dream Eaters and perform specialized attacks based on the type of Dream Eater being used. Dream Eaters extend beyond the game world though as Kingdom Hearts 3D has augmented reality functionality built into it. Players can interact with their Dream Eater by feeding them and playing with them, ultimately leveling up the creature’s stats. All in all it is a very well thought out system, even if it may not be used by everyone.
For a game that shows so much polish in individual areas, so much of Kingdom Hearts 3D just does not fit together. It is not that Kingdom Hearts 3D is a bad game it is just that this lack of cohesion makes the game one of the most genuinely disappointing releases of the year. And fans of the Kingdom Hearts series deserve better.
- Visuals are top-notch
- Fully voiced story is impressive
- Flowmotion is a blast to use
- Drop system is thoroughly frustrating
- Camera is utterly atrocious.
- Disney universes are slightly underwhelming.
- Sora’s voice is annoying.
3 / 5