Is the Magic Still there?
At first, when this game was announced, I thought 3 would mean Kingdom Hearts 3. Nope.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (KH 3D) takes place right after KH II and Re:coded. Sora and Riku, in order to prepare for the eventual Master Xehanort (voiced by Leonard Nimoy of Spock fame) take the Mark of Mastery Exam to become Keyblade Masters. To do this, Wizard Yen Sid tasks the duo by transporting them back in time to when Destiny Islands were taken over by darkness in KH to unlock 7 sleeping keyholes of worlds that “fell asleep” at the time, which protected them from the Heartless, but trapped them in a never-ending slumber.
The best way I can describe KH 3D is a culmination of literally everything that happened in the KH series up to this point to lead to KH 3 (one hopes). This involves tying almost all the loose threads from KH to Re:coded, showing that indeed this is one narrative, not simply disparate stories. It’s an interesting and good idea to be sure, and one I’ve seen implemented in many literary works. But KH 3D doesn’t truly deliver.
When the story starts to make sense, it’s not a bad one. It’s actually pretty decent. Until you realize that they don’t answer several questions again (of stuff that’s semi-important, but characters just accept it) and are confused. Not in the manner of “I can’t wait for more!” but rather in the way of “...What?”
As per games in the KH series these days, if you do not play every game in the series, expect not to understand a lot of things going on. Yes, that includes 358/2 Days and Re:coded. Square-Enix does try to rectify this, though, adding “Chronicles” periodically to your game, titled “Birth By Sleep,” “Kingdom Hearts II,” and so on that give you a lengthy, but very good, summary of the games. So, more so than other games in the series, you can buy KH 3D with little to no prior knowledge of the series and understand the story somewhat.
Now that the story portion is out of the way, we can look at other presentation aspects of KH 3D. Like other KH games, you romp around several “Worlds,” mostly of Disney origin (although some are KH original) sealing the Keyhole of said world while interacting with Disney characters. To be honest, this is one of the main reasons I like playing KH games, for it feels like I’m reliving my childhood. Some previous KH games re-hash old worlds many times over, but I’m pleased to say that KH 3D delivers pretty well on this front.
Save for Traverse Town and another world, KH 3D’s worlds pulled from the Disney World are brand new, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tron Legacy. These worlds, as well as the rest of the game, are brilliantly rendered and look fantastic in 3D, sporting pretty high-level graphics. New worlds leads to new music as well, and Yoko Shimomura delivers with a phenomenal soundtrack that truly fits these new areas. Lastly, the voice acting is absolutely great. No, Jeff Bridges is not Kevin Flynn, and that’s a major disappointment. But Leonard Nimoy is there, and Haley Osment and David Gallagher deliver good performances as Sora and Riku.
Before I get into the huge aspect of KH 3D’s gameplay, the combat, let’s first talk about the Drop system, referenced in the title. This game stars both Sora and Riku, and it makes use of a Drop meter that, when it depletes, switches you between the two characters. 3 times in the game you are forcibly Dropped, but really, the game gives you great freedom with this mechanic so you don’t neglect one story in favor of the other. You get the option to Drop at any time, plus you can control the rate of your Drop or refill the gauge with the use of Drop Bonuses (using in-game “Drop Points” to spend on different boosts like Attack Boost or Drop Decelerator when you switch between Sora and Riku) and Drop-Me-Nots, an item. A common complaint is that it cuts in bosses (thereby resetting the battle), but to be honest, the game gives you fair warning if your Drop gauge is in danger of depleting, so really save for one scenario where you have to fight 3 bosses in succession, such a Drop would be your own fault.
The main gameplay in KH is your action adventure combat. After a little snag of button-mashing in KH 2, most KH games try to give a balanced experience, and KH 3D is no exception. Combat in 3D is dynamic, and by no means simplistic to the point where bosses are pushovers. Of course, mashing A is not the only thing to do in battle. Like BBS and Re:coded, 3D makes use of the Command Deck system, several commands you stack in a deck that you can scroll through with the D-Pad and execute with the X Button, which then undergo a cooldown time, depending on the command. This certainly is a fun system, but has the flaw of the D-Pad’s positioning with regard to the Circle Pad. It’s hard for you to scroll through the commands at times to get to the Cure spell you need, so you need to do some weird hand maneuvering to run around like a headless chicken so you can heal. Combat is further hindered by a jerky camera. Despite the amount of freedom you have with controlling it, there are times you have no idea what is going on and you wish you had even more freedom (the Circle Pad Pro allows you to tilt the camera up and down, which provides only menial help).
3D introduces 3 new gameplay elements: Flowmotion, Reality Shift, and Dream Eaters. Flowmotion allows you to interact with your environment with the Y Button to dart around different parts of the battlefield, allowing for quick escape or easy transportation. Flowmotion can be used in combat as well, allowing for some extra quick and flashy attacks. While this mechanic is overpowered throughout the first 60% of the game or so, it’s a great addition to your repertoire and is invaluable against tough bosses.
Reality Shift utilizes the Touch Screen, and changes depending on which world you’re in. This can be activated either with items in the environment or on your foes after dealing a constant stream of damage. These are QTE's that use the Touch Screen, such as slingshotting your foe in Traverse Town or hacking into him in Tron Legacy's The Grid. It's sometimes tough to tear yourself away from battle to activate Reality Shift by sliding down the screen or pressing A and X, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.
Finally, there are the Dream Eaters, and I will use the trite but accurate description of them being a cross between Pokémon and Nintendogs. Initially, I was skeptical of these cutesy-looking creatures, thinking of a shoehorned monster-capture process or something. I was pleasantly surprised that the addition of Dream Eater companions is actually a well-thought-out and deep process, and a welcome addition to the game. You literally synthesize these Dream Eaters using items you find after beating enemies (or in chests or in shops). If you have the corresponding recipe, you can whip up the little critter (provided you have the proper ingredients) or you can mix and match 2 ingredients and see what’s possible.
These spirits have multiple purposes, and the most obvious one is combat. You can have up to 3 Dream Eaters in your party at any given time. 2 will be out helping you, whereas the 3rd one is in a standby-type position. These spirits help you somewhat, by doing some damage or giving stat boosts/healing you, but their main purpose in-battle is their links. All Dream Eaters have a link gauge that fills up under certain conditions, and by touching their icon on the touch screen, you can execute various effects. For Sora, he teams up with his Dream Eaters to perform devastating combo attacks. Riku, on the other hand, literally absorbs his partner(s) to power his own attacks up for a brief period of time. If 2 spirits have a full link gauge, you can unleash an even more powerful Dual Link attack. Admittedly, having Donald and Goofy is better (‘cause they’re way more fun), but these Dream Eaters do a decent job.
The second purpose is for abilities. Spirits earn Link Points (LP) from battles or mini-games (see below) that can be expended in a Crystarium-like system to gain Dream Eater boosts (abilities that are stackable and are only active when the corresponding Dream Eaters are in the active party), actual new abilities or Link abilities, or even new commands (all of which stay with you forever), resulting in a deep system to customize your character.
KH 3D is also laden with mini-games, with semi-pleasing distractions (my favorite is Flick Rush, a game reminiscent of Chain of Memories, but better) that result in Medals for you to spend on better items, or more LP for your Dream Eaters. It also has some Challenge Portals, where you can take on a type of a side-quest, where you kill a bunch of monsters (and maybe get a bonus by blocking or something).
With all that being said, KH’s magic isn’t really there anymore. 3D’s story is really silly, and the overall story is changing from pretty good to inconsequential fast. I’m interested in what happens next, but not as much as I used to be. The camera, poor story, and overall lack of this magic prevents KH 3D from truly shining. But it’s still a great game, don’t get me wrong there.