Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the seventh entry in Square Enix’s popular action RPG series that began life on the PlayStation 2 and quickly found a home on portable devices. The game looks and feels remarkably similar to previous instalments in the franchise and it won’t take series veterans long to spot recycled music, sound effects, animations and even some environments.
Amidst all the familiar characters and reused elements, however, are some welcome refinements to the way combat and exploration works, and the 3D capabilities of the 3DS really heighten the sense of immersion you feel when venturing into the game’s Disney themed worlds. Best of all, Kingdom Hearts 3D is just as fun-filled as previous titles in the series and offers a lengthy quest that’s sure to keep fans glued to their 3DSs until Sora and Riku’s latest adventure has run its course.
Kingdom Hearts 3D is set after the events of Kingdom Hearts Re:coded and paves the way for the next numbered entry in the series – KH III. Sora and Riku are invited to take the ‘Mark of Mastery’ exam to prove that they are true Keyblade Masters and are therefore prepared for their next confrontation with series’ antagonist, Xehanort. Seven Sleeping Worlds need to be freed from darkness in order to pass the exam and the two protagonists will need to tackle each one on their own since they unexpectedly find themselves separated into different realms.
This plot setup has a significant impact on the length of your adventure since you’ll need to visit each world as both Sora and Riku. You’ll explore different parts of the world and see unique cut-scenes depending on who you play as, but there’s still quite a bit of overlap in terms of the characters you meet and the foes you fight.
You can switch between Sora and Riku at will by using the ‘Drop’ command, but there’s also a ‘Drop gauge’ that forces a switch when it’s fully depleted. Thankfully there’s an easily obtainable item that can buy you a bit of extra time if, for example, you’re in the middle of a boss fight and want to see it through to its conclusion before ‘the Drop’ occurs.
Kingdom Hearts 3D features five Disney-themed worlds to explore as well as two original locations. The environments based on the films Fantasia and Tron: Legacy are particularly memorable due to their striking setting, but it must be said that all of the game’s locations are enticing in their own way.
Many of the levels feature expansive courtyards, halls or caverns and these prove impressively immersive with the 3DS’ 3D slider set on maximum. For example, La Cite des Cloches – the level based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame – features a view from the top of a cathedral over city rooftops which looks absolutely incredible in 3D.
Story progression in Kingdom Hearts 3D is handled very similarly to previous games in the series. Sora or Riku enter a new world and quickly encounter characters that need their help. You then work your way through enemy-infested locations until you’re met with a new cut-scene. This pattern repeats until you fight the level’s final boss and unlock that world’s keyhole with your keyblade.
Keeping in mind that there are seven worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3D, you may expect the game to only last you a few hours, but this is not the case as it took me almost twenty hours to complete on my first playthrough. While a few of these hours were spent level grinding to get past some of the game’s later bosses, Kingdom Hearts 3D is still impressively lengthy for a handheld title.
If you’re keen to extend your play time even further then there are a number of mini-games and optional activities to partake in. One of the areas you can sink plenty of hours into is collecting and nurturing creatures called ‘Spirits.’ In Kingdom Hearts 3D there are colourful beasts called ‘Dream Eaters’ and these come in two types – Nightmares (your opponents) and Spirits (your allies). You can collect as many Spirits as you like but only two can fight alongside you during battle.
You can unlock new abilities for your team-mates by using them often, and there are plenty of fun mini-games involving your Spirits that also help to boost their stats. These creatures are particularly useful when their ‘Link gauge’ fills up during battle as this allows you to select powerful attacks that can devastate your opponents. Part of the fun of creating or collecting new Spirits is seeing what kind of damage their Link attack can do.
The introduction of Dream Eaters is not the only change the Kingdom Hearts series has seen with regards to combat in the latest instalment. You can now open treasure chests in the midst of battle and two new systems have been introduced: Flowmotion and Reality Shift. Flowmotion makes combat even faster and more fluid by allowing you to slide around the battlefield, grinding on rails and kicking off walls. You can even slide into your enemy and launch them into other Nightmares in the vicinity!
Reality Shift, on the other hand, is a new mechanic that helps to keep things fresh between levels. At certain points you’ll see three large pink arrows appear on the 3DS’ bottom screen and touching these will activate a mini-game that’s unique to each world. For example, in ‘Traverse Town’ the Reality Shift system allows you to catapult objects into each other by pulling back on the touch screen.
Kingdom Hearts 3D also boasts plenty of new commands, magic spells and moves for series veterans to try out. While there aren’t that many keyblades to collect this time around, I found myself spending plenty of time in the menus adjusting my Command Deck and making sure I tried out all the new attacks on offer.
One surprising (some would say disappointing) aspect of Kingdom Hearts 3D is that it doesn’t feature any Final Fantasy characters apart from a couple of Moogles. Instead, the cast of the DS title The World Ends with You makes an appearance on two separate occasions during the storyline. While fresh faces are always welcome, I have to admit that the lack of Final Fantasy cameos is a bit of a letdown. I always thought of the Kingdom Hearts series as a crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney, so not having the likes of Cloud, Squall or Tidus in the game is somewhat disheartening.
An area where Kingdom Hearts 3D is true to previous titles in the series is its excellent presentation. Menu design is crisp and colourful, and the game boasts a wonderful soundtrack. The graphics don’t fully take advantage of the 3DS’ hardware but at least the game runs smoothly even during the heat of battle and load times are typically short. Disney-quality animation has always been a part of the Kingdom Hearts series’ appeal and it once again impresses in this latest instalment.
In true Square Enix fashion Kingdom Heart 3D’s menu contains a wealth of information about every conceivable aspect of gameplay and an in-depth glossary covering the characters and plot points featured in each world as well as the main story. Reading through these entries thoroughly really helps you get a good grip on the game’s narrative because there are times when the overarching plot all but disappears as you get entangled with each world’s self-contained storyline.
Kingdom Hearts 3D features enough innovation and new elements to keep the series feeling relevant and fresh despite being on its seventh instalment. The game is well-suited to the 3DS and the system’s bottom screen and 3D capabilities have allowed Square Enix to craft an immersive experience that you won’t want to put down.
The series’ fast-paced, fluid combat makes a triumphant return and features some awesome new commands, spells and systems for long-time fans to try out. If Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is indeed a stepping stone to Kingdom Hearts III then it’s definitely a step worth taking!