Kingdom Hearts 358/2 DaysKingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep.  Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded.  Since the release of Kingdom Hearts II, the last proper installment in the franchise, Sora and the Disney gang have participated in what feels like a never-ending stream of side quests.  And while we may all still be awaiting Kingdom Hearts III, fans of the series will be able to enjoy at least one more entry, this time on the 3DS with Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance.

Set after the events of Kingdom Hearts II, Sora and Riku are participating in their Mark of Mastery exams, a concept introduced in Birth By Sleep, in order to prepare for the looming threat established in the PSP prequel.  What does this mean for the two childhood friends?  It means a number of romps through new Disney worlds that have previously been disconnected from the rest of the game’s universe.

The E3 demo highlighted one of these new worlds, one based on The Three Musketeers.  Riku is playable as a main character for the first time since Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and the demo offered a chance to play as both of the series staples.  The demo primarily served to show how the combat has been altered in both drastic and subtle ways, which has become the franchise’s main gameplay hook, as exploration has been simplified over the course of the series.

One of the more apparent gameplay changes are that Donald and Goofy once again do not act as party members.  As substitutes, Sora and Riku can collect Dream Eaters, the game’s new breed of antagonists, who will battle alongside them and can be linked with to activate powerful attacks.  The Dream Eaters are noticeably different from the Heartless, Unversed, and other previous enemy classes.  They more closely resemble real-world animals, from lions to panda bears, but are decked out in a color palette including bright pinks, greens and blues.

While thrashing the Dream Eaters with your keyblade, the franchise again incorporates the command system from Birth By Sleep.  Players build command decks that determine what special moves Sora or Riku will have in combat.  They all felt quite powerful, making battle too easy at times, but their inclusion makes combat more strategic than previous outings.

Other new additions to battles include “flowmotion” and “reality shift.”  The former allows players to bounce off walls with the Y button to begin a combo while the latter, when activated by pressing A and X simultaneously, requires players to trace motions displayed on the touch screen with the stylus to defeat enemies.  Neither inclusion radically alters the series’ familiar combat, but it allows for some variation in how players approach each scenario.   Along with the command deck, I found myself rarely chaining together simple keyblade combos in order to maximize damage to most enemies.

While the combat felt fresh as a result, the level design also showed a bit of promise.  I’ve found some of the previous Kingdom Hearts games to be lacking in verticality, not really giving players the chance to explore.  While Dream Drop Distance is not suddenly filled with branching paths and floating platforms, the Country of the Musketeers level has players scale a tower and navigate a massive indoor area.  You’ll likely take one path and need to search every nook and cranny in order to retrieve all treasure chests and complete bonus missions.  These surprising but welcome inclusions demand players approach a battle with a certain task in mind, such as to avoid being hit, for better rewards.

Dream Drop Distance clearly wants to shake up a formula that has, even for some longtime fans, become overly familiar.  This entry is not a radical departure from the previous titles, but the little touches help to make for a more varied experience that interests me more than the changes Re:Coded introduced.  Whether or not this will be enough to be worthy of another spin-off is difficult to say, but in the short demo the franchise’s Disney charm was readily apparent alongside Square Enix‘s willingness to take liberties with the formula.  Fans want a proper sequel, but Dream Drop Distance may still be worth their time when it releases on July 31 for the 3DS.