Beautiful graphics; one of the best soundtracks in the series; deep yet accessible battle system; Flowmotion and Reality Shift are welcome additions; Spirits have a great catch-em-all feeling; Riku's story of redemption is compelling; the Fantasia level is out-of-this-world awesome.
Story is a mess; AI is inconsistent; camera and controls will kill you; Disney franchises are underutilized; half the worlds feel devoid of personality; lacks the magic previous KH games.
Square-Enix’s latest Kingdom Hearts installment is an interesting game in that it improves nearly every aspect of the series except those that need most improving. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance can best be summed up as a fun game with some limitations. For every two steps forward, it occasionally takes a step back. All that aside, though, the game does has heart, which may let you look past its shortcomings. It may not be the definitive handheld iteration of the beloved series, but it is a solid action-RPG experience nevertheless.
Continuing the saga of Sora and Riku, the two lads set out to save various Disney worlds from new enemies called Dream Eaters, who are very much like the Heartless, except not. They’ve caused these worlds to fall into a wakeless slumber, and it’s up to Sora and Riku to rescue them. As they do this, however, all sorts of madness begins to unfold around them and they soon find there’s much more to everything than meets the eye (naturally).
Let it be known now, the game’s story is not accessible to KH newbies, despite its best efforts to bring players up to speed on what’s happening. To really get the most out of DDD‘s narrative, you’ll need to have actually played most, if not all, the previous games. That said, the small arcs involving the Disney personalities are fun and straightforward, and the plot does have some genuinely touching moments, which is almost enough to redeem the rest of the narrative nonsense– the emphasis being on almost.
Taking control of Sora and Riku doesn’t happen simultaneously, though, which gives rise to the “Drop” system. Throughout the story, you’ll visit the same worlds with each character, but you’ll be “dropping” in and out of Sora and Riku’s respective stories and swapping between them. There’s also a timer dictating how long you can play as each character, so if you jump into a world with Sora, for instance, you’ll have a gauge that counts down over time; once it reaches zero, the game will switch you over to Riku. It will also diminish more rapidly if you’re attacked too, which really adds a welcome kind of frenetic tension to the game. It can occasionally be problematic if you’re really invested in one particular story, but you can buy items that replenish your Drop gauge if you’re really that worried about it. These time-extension items are particularly useful during long boss battles, as these can force you to drop into your other character mid-fight and then make you start all over again when you return, instead of picking up where you left off when the game forced you to drop. This can be super aggravating, but it’s avoidable with the aforementioned items.
The ability to play as Sora and Riku ultimately keeps gameplay feeling fresh because each has their own fighting style and story. Riku was hands down my favorite of the two, simply because his personality and story were more entertaining. His tale felt like it had profound, substantive meaning, as it was one of redemption, whereas Sora’s felt light, fluffy, and a little too-altruistic and black-and-white to be completely relatable.
You’ll also run into plenty of other familiar faces, though, such as Xehanort, the Organization, and naturally a host of Disney heroes and villains, but that’s where DDD drops the ball. Whereas many previous KH games had a heavy emphasis on Disney personalities, DDD seems to mostly focus on Square-Enix’s mascots, and, in the end, seems more concerned with telling the story of its proprieties, and less about their cartoonish counterparts. This is a real shame because when Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and all the other characters are on-screen, they really steal the show– the Tron: Legacy segment is especially delightful thanks to the spot-on voice acting. To say this is a missed opportunity would be an overwhelming understatement.
This is all made painstakingly more noticeable by the locations you’ll visit on your 20-30 hour journey. While previous games in the series incorporated some of Disney’s most legendary and recognizable settings to create a satisfying adventure that was both nostalgic and fantastical, DDD abandons this formula by only treating players to a handful of worlds that capture the same kind of magic. There are seven areas in total, but only Tron: Legacy, The Three Musketeers, and Fantasia really stand out. They’re wonderful depictions of their source material, sporting remarkable level design to match their glorious vistas, and Fantasia’s world is so good that it, in and of itself, makes up for the four remaining worlds, which are really quite uninspiring by comparison.
You can’t help but smile when Mickey and the gang show up on-screen. Unfortunately, they’re not used half as much as they should be.
Outside of the story and locations, though, the gameplay is what DDD is all about, and boy does it shine. At their core, the Command Deck system is the same as it’s always been, but the most significant addition to it is the new Flowmotion system. This allows you to perform special moves on certain enemies, and off certain environmental structures like light poles, walls, and grind rails to deal massive damage in a very flashy way. All players have to do is tap the Y button at specific moments to trigger context-sensitive maneuvers that will allow you to turn the tide of battle. Alternatively, you can also use them to simply traverse an area more quickly in lightning fast fashion. This supplement, to an already fantastic battling system, merely adds another layer of depth to the Kingdom Hearts cake.
Along with Flowmotion are the touchscreen-centric Reality Shifts– environmental attacks that implores the use of the stylus– and most of these are depicted via a variety of mini-games. And if that wasn’t a robust enough experience for you, there’s also the Spirit system, where players can now earn items and recipes to construct pets, or spirits, that they can then take into battle with them. These spirits can be leveled up and trained to assist you in battle, and they’ll also give you the chance to “link” with them and perform super-moves so you can lay the smackdown on your opponents. The inspiration taken from Pokémon is clear, but it’s such a fun system that it really gives players an incentive to find more ingredients and recipes to build new pets.
Unfortunately, your spirits won’t always fight that effectively, making it feel like you’re on your own a lot of the time instead of playing as a team. Then again, enemy AI isn’t that great either, and can be quite inconsistent. You’ll cruise through some parts of DDD without a problem, but then you’ll get a boss that will pound you into submission. Most of the time, however, your main cause of death won’t be down to the actual enemies– it’ll be the camera and controls.
The world of Tron: Legacy is a digital playground filled with neon and black, and is one of the best settings in the game.
The camera has never been your friend in Kingdom Hearts, but selecting commands is incredibly problematic. You do this via the d-pad, where you can map a variety of moves or items to use, but the problem lies in trying to activate them. With your thumb firmly on the circle pad, you either have to stop maneuvering your character and transition down to the d-pad, or continue to move but swap your right hand over to the d-pad, taking away your ability to actually execute the attacks you’ve highlighted via the command prompt. I can’t even begin to count how many times I tried scrolling through my command list to select a Hi-Potion but died in the process because I had to sacrifice attacking and moving. The Circle Pad Pro, however, does wonders for control, and I’d advise it to anyone looking to playing DDD in a functionally effective way.
But almost all of this is made right by the soundtrack. DDD features some of Yoko Shimomura’s best work and is, hands down, one of the most consistent and solid soundtracks in the series. It captures the mood perfectly without fail in all situations, whether it’s enhancing the intensity of a boss battle or tugging your heartstrings during the story segments. It’s breathtaking at best, and pure bliss at worst. Adding to the overall package are the gorgeous visuals. Character models are crisp and vibrant, with the Disney characters look especially charming, but even better is the game’s frame rate, which hardly ever chugs despite the ensuing chaos on-screen.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is an enticing action-RPG adventure that will take you on an eye-popping romp through classic Disney locales and have you swinging your keyblade to no end in its fantastic battling system. But for all it does right, it will still manage to leave a sour taste in your mouth at times. The camera is as bad as ever, the storyline is convoluted, the controls are awkward, Sora’s still an idiot, and the captivating set pieces that stole our hearts in previous entries simply don’t feel as magical as they have in the past. All that aside though, this is an experience that’s fully featured and greater than the sum of its parts, and because of that Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance should be viewed as an overall success.