The Kingdom Hearts franchise has certainly experienced its ups and downs, and while certain problems have plagued the series since its onset, the spirit of the franchise has returned in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance.  As a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the original game, the handheld offering returns Sora and Riku in fine form despite the occasional frustrations along the way.

Danger looms on the horizon, as Master Xehanort’s return appears inevitable, and King Mickey hopes to prevent this evil from consuming all worlds.  Master Yen Sid calls upon Sora and Riku to complete their own Mark of Mastery exams to become true keyblade masters and battle the oncoming assault.  By reawakening sleeping worlds, Yen Sid believes the two childhood friends will be able to battle the darkness threatening to introduce a reign of terror.

Is it just me or does Yen Sid ALWAYS seem angry?

Fully-voiced and replete with cutscenes, Kingdom Hearts 3D, despite not being a numbered sequel, feels like a proper entry in the franchise.  Advancing the main storyline, the title explores hallmark themes including friendship, good versus evil and the heart.  The subject matter sounds weighty, but the game generally handles them well in addition to advancing the plot forward.  Unfortunately, the storytelling techniques are incredibly convoluted at first, even for a series known for its confusing plot.

Players not well-versed in the franchise’s overarching narrative will likely be confused from the start, as even I had to play for a little to find my bearings.  The game employs a memento system to tell the story through traditional cutscenes and flashbacks that fill in the gaps as players progress.  Initially, however, the game throws players headfirst into a bizarre situation that may make no sense and, instead of simply explaining things, carries on like this for a time.

The system improves as the game continues and in fact makes for a great story that feels like it is moving the plot of the world along.  Whereas Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded felt more stagnant, 3D’s attention to the main characters allows for an engrossing time.  It sadly does continue the franchise’s recent trend of shortchanging the Disney stories, but if players need a refresher on the main narrative, the included glossary and chronicles make for a more comprehensible plot.

Replacing Gummi Ship segments, RIku and Sora must literally "dive" into each world with a quick minigame before advancing.

The story will swap between Sora and Riku through the game’s “drop” system.  At any point during the game, from small skirmishes to major boss battles, the character players control will go into a sleep state, returning control to the other character wherever they were in the story.  The mechanic requires a little adjustment at first; it can be quite irksome to lose control just as a boss is about to be vanquished, but in no time at all it becomes an exciting aspect of the title.  If the player is wise about using their Drop-Me-Not items to extend their playtime, the system never really becomes an issue.  It also forces the player to advance both interconnecting narratives, never letting one lag too far behind.  Sora appears somewhat more infantilized than I remember in previous outings, but Riku’s reserved sarcasm and more intriguing story make up for the other hero’s lackluster progression.

The narrative itself spans seven worlds, and though The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Tron Legacy may not be the high points of Disney’s catalog, nearly every world works on some level.  Even Traverse Town earns a much-needed expansion, inheriting characters from The World Ends with You.  The Final Fantasy aspect of the series is seriously downplayed here, which is quite the disappointment, but this substitution, giving voice to characters like Neku and Shiki for the first time, allows for a more fully realized world and some hilarious scenes.  I can only hope the cast is included in future installments.

The World Ends with You characters make for one of the game's best additions.

The remainder of the worlds are great too, and noticeably large for a handheld outing.  Square Enix has smartly made worlds vast enough that at times, Sora may traverse a part of the landscape Riku will never see during his story.  This setup erases any worries of fatigue that come along with visiting the same worlds twice.  Some of the level design is plagued by the problems of past worlds in the series, offering a generally flat or direct landscape without much in the the way of surprise or variation.

For the most part though, this batch of worlds represent a well-crafted, if weak, selection in the gradually reducing pool of untapped Disney properties (though we’re still waiting for some Pixar films).  It’s a blast to explore The Grid from Tron to music inspired by the film’s phenomenal soundtrack, while climbing Quasimodo’s bell tower for hidden treasure is another treat.

But when it comes to gameplay in the Kingdom Hearts series, the combat takes center stage.  The platforming is still not as refined as in other third-person titles, but for players familiar with the franchise, that never becomes much of an issue.  If anything, the newest combat addition also serves as a great traversal mechanic.  The real updates to these systems are Flowmotion and Reality Shift, both of which play an integral role in the new title.

All aboard the Faithline! On your right you'll see a church and on your left...another church.

Flowmotion, as the name implies, allows Sora and Riku to interact with the worlds like never before.  By rolling or air dashing into a wall, for example, the character will receive a boost in their dashing and jumping.  Additionally, each Flowmotion technique, from grinding rails to spinning around lamp posts, allows the character to pull off special attacks.  More importantly, Sora and Riku can hop from wall to wall with a rapidity never seen in the series, and if players ever wanted easy access to the rooftops of Traverse Town’s second district, it is now a breeze to scale such heights.

The Reality Shift technique allows the two protagonists to interact with enemies in a new fashion.  By causing enough successive damage, players can perform a shift unique to each world.  So, while in Traverse Town, players catapult a barrel or enemy at other foes, or they can ride the Faithline in La Cité des Cloches to combat foes around expansive battlefields.  The system is a smart incorporation of the touchscreen without feeling intrusive, and though never a necessary part of combat, can be fun to use in a pinch.

Perhaps the other most significant addition to the game is the enemies and foes of the title known as Dream Eaters.  The latest set of foes to be included in the series, these opponents are inspired by real-world animals, albeit more colorful in their appearance.  Players will bring two friendly Dream Eaters into combat with them to aid in the fight (as opposed to party members of the past), and can even link with these creatures for more powerful moves.

I don't mean to insult him, but I think Meow Wow has been packing on the pounds...

Players’ mileage may vary with these assistants, but included in the game is essentially a pet simulator where players can train their Dream Eaters.  Players can pet or use items to boost the Dream Eaters’ stats or to unlock abilities to improve Sora and Riku. Gamers may find themselves interacting with the Dream Eaters more than they expect, but they will never replace having Donald Duck and Goofy by Sora’s side.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is both a strong handheld offering and entry in a series with some impressive titles.  The lengthy campaign benefits from fantastic visuals and effects that bring these Disney and original characters to life.  And the series’ beautiful soundtrack is only enhanced with new tracks and a returning and impressive voice cast.  Make sure to keep the headphones plugged in.

Kingdom Hearts 3D feels like a complete and brand new experience in the franchise that some of the previous non-sequential games have failed to live up to, and as a player of the series since its onset I could not be more pleased with the result.  It’s great to have Sora and Riku back at the helm, and despite how Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep fleshed out the franchise, I felt less attached to those events than I did while playing through Dream Drop Distance.  The latest entry is a fitting way to celebrate 10 years of keyblades, King Mickey and cheesy theme songs, and if fans thought they were excited before, Kingdom Hearts III can’t come soon enough.

 

Here’s The Rundown:

+ Flowmotion and Reality Shifts are great additions to combat and exploration
+ The World Ends with You characters are a surprisingly great addition
+ The story feels like it actually progresses the series forward, and Riku’s story in particular is intriguing.
- Where are the Final Fantasy characters?
- Bizarre storytelling choices make for an initially baffling tale
- Level design and exploration problems have not been resolved, and the drop system can only complicate things further at times

8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance was developed and published by Square Enix.  It was released on July 31, 2012 at the MSRP of $39.99.  A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.