Fun fact: Most video games are accompanied by a list of restrictions from the game’s publisher when you go to review them. Many times you’re asked to not give up story details or even talk about certain items you get later on in a game. The review guidelines for Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance are particularly notable because of the second requirement in the list from Square-Enix. It reads: “The storyline of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance may not be revealed past the prologue. The overall storyline of the Kingdom Hearts franchise may be discussed.”
Frankly, describing the Kingdom Hearts storyline in any detail, whether in the context of this new Nintendo 3DS entry or in terms of the larger series, is a baffling challenge in and of itself. This is a franchise wherein five different protagonists in four different games are the same person. Do you hear what I’m saying? Sora, one the leads in Kingdom Hearts 3D isn’t the same Sora of 2011 DS game Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded. That Sora is a computer program based on this Sora. In fact, the Sora in Kingdom Hearts 3D isn’t even Sora. He’s the dream projection of Sora. Right. This is not a mere mash up of Disney and Squaresoft characters like Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud anymore. It’s its own weird beast.
All of this minutiae is to illustrate a point: Despite having video games’ most convoluted, vague, obtuse, saccharine, and downright weird storyline—not to mention one of the longest running as the series turns 10 this year—this is still a great game. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, for all its seemingly needless complexity in story and mechanic, is the best game for the Nintendo 3DS and the second best game released in the series.
Square-Enix’s request for discretion about the story isn’t necessary because, for anyone not entrenched in the series, it is impenetrable. This is the first real continuation of the story from Kingdom Hearts 2. Sora and his best friend/rival Riku are called by Yen Sid (he of Fantasia’s famous Mickey short “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) to unlock the sleeping hearts of a number of worlds based on famous Disney films. In doing so, Riku and Sora will become Keyblade Masters, expert wielders of the series’ iconic weapons, and they will be able to rescue the heroes of PSP prequel Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep and finally defeat villain Xehanort.
If all those specifics mean something to you, know that Kingdom Hearts 3D delivers the goods in the story department, nicely setting up the series for a proper Kingdom Hearts 3. For people wondering what the hell a Xehanort is, know that all of this is context for sending Sora and Riku into the worlds of films like Tron: Legacy and The Hunchback of Notre Dame where the duo run through a truncated version of the movie plots while pursuing their own adventure. This means you get to make an anime teenager fight an evil Jeff Bridges named CLU and his minions. Strange? Certainly. Awesome? Surprisingly so.
Those fights are delectable as well. Riku and Sora don’t control too differently from one another, with a selection of special attacks, spells, and items available to both. They’re customizable, suiting your taste and depending on a given challenge. What is new is the game’s “Flowmotion” maneuvers that make the combat faster and more acrobatic. Pressing the Y button will send you rushing into the environment letting you propel yourself around the space and pull off special attacks. Flowmotion into a wall and you can jump to higher ground where you can land on a lamppost, swinging around and damaging enemies. It makes for exciting battles and it’s impressive how easy it is to follow what’s happening on screen, something that’s been a problem for past Kingdom Hearts.
Also new are the Dream Eaters. Rather than a battle party of Disney characters or flying solo, you have benevolent versions of the game’s enemy Dream Eaters to fight with you. Raising them in a pet simulator—you can pet them with the touch screen, feed them, and play minigames with them—unlocks a variety of spells and skills accessible to Sora and Riku when they’re partnered with those particular pets. You can also “sync” with the Dream Eaters for big attacks. This is the area that Riku and Sora differ: If Sora syncs with a weird cat/porcupine hybrid named Pricklemane, he’ll swing him like a morningstar whereas Riku will absorb the critter and gain new combos.
Fighting well with your Dream Eaters is an enjoyable mix of experimentation and exploration. If you’re fitted with a bad crew, you’ll lose quickly, which can keep you from progressing in the game’s story but also kill your “Drop” time. Sora and Riku are actually adventuring through separate dream versions of the same world and they’re stuck on timers. You only have a limited window before you have to drop into the other character’s dream, and you have to collect points to buy yourself more time in the next drop.
It all sounds absurdly complex on paper—the minigames, the raising of pets, the shifting between characters—but it all works in execution. Kingdom Hearts 3D puts very few barriers between you and its world, a nice realization of its themes of world hopping and personal connections, and these myriad rules ultimately gel into a fluid game. It’s beautiful and inviting in spite of its complexities. The game’s clean look deserves especial mention, with vibrant cartoon graphics that best even Resident Evil: Revelations as a showcase for the hardware.
Like Square’s review requirements, Kingdom Hearts 3D has a lot of rules, and they may seem just as needless and contradictory as those on the list at first. Then again, so do the rules in dreams. Dreams are actually a lot like Kingdom Hearts. “I was me but I wasn’t me and I could fly. Then Sephiroth showed up! It was crazy.” Like you do in a dream, it’s best to pick up Kingdom Hearts 3D and just go with the flow. The action, the art, even the labyrinthian story; they’re all as bizarre and wonderful as any good dream. Pick it up, dive in, and dream on.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS on a copy provided by Square Enix)
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