The Kingdom Hearts franchise has a special place in my heart. Growing up, my mom worked in a Disney Store during the height of the Disney Renaissance. So a lot of classic moments are fused into my DNA, despite being the kind of person who would also get down ‘n’ dirty in a mosh pit at a Slayer concert. Somehow the Kingdom Hearts franchise has managed to create a false nostalgic feeling when it comes to injecting my childhood with characters that didn’t actually exist yet. But it’s worked pretty well.
It’s already been 10 years since Square Enix introduced us to their odd mix of Disney and Final Fantasy characters. It’s enough to make a gamer like me feel old. I was 12 when the first game was released. That should paint my age quite nicely for you folks out there.
Vowing to celebrate the anniversary of one of their most celebrated franchises this year, Square has released Kingdom Hearts 3D with hopes that they’ll manage to produce a game in the franchise that won’t be viewed as a worthless spin-off. The series has had a knack for having every game other than the numbered games create the feeling of an uninspired cash-in, except for the excellent PSP entry, Birth By Sleep.
Thankfully, Kingdom Hearts 3D makes it very clear that it’s no spin-off.
Taking place after the events of Kingdom Hearts II, (or Re:coded, if you wanna get technical,) Sora and Riku have visited the Mysterious Tower in which the powerful sorcerer Yen Sid lives, better known as “that guy that Mickey stole the hat from in Fantasia.” Sora and Riku are told they must become true keyblade masters in order to stand a chance against the threat of Xehanort, and are sent on a Mark of Mastery exam in order to prove they can handle the darkness.
The test is simply to visit the seven sleeping worlds, and awake each one using their hidden keyholes. Having two protagonists means you’ll be playing in two parallel stories, separated from each other.
Sounds easy, right? Opening keyholes is what you’ve been doing for the entire franchise.
Gameplay at its base works exactly as you would expect of any Kingdom Hearts game. Combat is done in an actiony, hack-n-slash style, and enemies drop money, health and experience when defeated. Earn enough experience and you’ll be able to use new abilities and your stats will go up. The overall pace of combat remains somewhat quick, vut there are a few things making the game different this time around.
The first are the Dream Eaters. There are two kinds of these neon-colored monsters. Nightmares are the angry creatures that appear and attack you, and serve as this game’s Heartless or Nobodies or Unversed. Spirits are Dream Eaters created by the player in order to assist you in battle. The Spirits act as your companions for this game, since you don’t have any other friends accompanying you this time around. Donald and Goofy are nowhere to be found when the going gets tough in the heat of battle.
Dream Eaters themselves are actually created by combining parts dropped from slain enemies. Players are tasked with collecting so many of any two given objects in order to create a new battle buddy. You can create as many kinds as you like, but you can only have three in a party with you; two in battle with you and one to switch out in case of emergency.
Dream Eaters, like any other adorable animal in a Japanese game, require constant attention. Caring for them, buffing them and upping their stats are much like a virtual pet. They get tired, so you need to pay attention to them to up their morale and have them attack more effectively. You can increase their stats both the traditional XP way in battle as well as playing minigames with your Dream Eaters, and even further by feeding them treats.
The second major addition to combat is the Flowmotion system. Roll Sora or Riku into a wall and you’ll be able to launch off the wall and execute a powerful attack. Jump onto a rail to grind to the end and again gain the ability to perform a stylish attack. Some enemies in particular are actually incredibly weak to certain attacks using Flowmotion. Aside from dispatching certain enemies quickly, I felt the whole Flowmotion system was useless overall. Granted, the few times I used it were moments where it would naturally fit into my attacks, but you could theoretically go through the entire game and only use Flowmotion during the tutorial at its onset. I personally barely used it.
Also new to the combat is the Reality Shift system. While in the heat of battle, you’ll see a pink reticle encompass your normal one. This signifies that you’ve done enough damage to an enemy in which you can perform a Reality Shift. These will change based on which world you’re on. For example, the Reality Shift in the Tron world has players tapping similarly colored bits of computer code on the touchscreen in order to perform the related action, such as an attack or hypnotizing the enemy into attacking their own brethren. But on the Fantasia world, you’ll have to tap and slide circles in time with the music in order to make an attack stronger. The Reality Shifts are crucial not only to regular battle, but many boss battles actually require a finishing blow using a Shift.
The boss battles, ironically, are some of the most challenging parts of the game. I don’t recall this being much of a problem in previous games, but many of the bosses have several health bars. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was only 2-3, but I’m fairly certain that, by the time I had gotten halfway into the game, I was facing bosses with upwards of nine full health bars.
None of the bosses are terribly hard, all requiring just a simple sense of timing your blocks and dodges in order to take advantage, but the battles are long. Normally this would only be a slight annoyance, but there’s one more new mechanic that turns a slight annoyance into an infuriating experience.
The Dream Drop.
Dream Drop Distance isn’t structured like Birth By Sleep was, where you could play each of the three main character’s individual stories one after the other. Dream Drop Distance switches back and forth between Sora and Riku automatically. Which wouldn’t be a problem had it been something simple like after one character finishes the events on a world, but you’re given a meter that tells you when you’ll Drop. When that meter reaches zero, no matter what you’re doing, you’ll switch.
This isn’t too much of a hassle if you’re simply wandering around one of the many expertly crafted worlds, but if you happen to be in the middle of a boss battle, you’ll have to start that entire boss battle all over again. Which means any potential key items you may have used in your previous attempts are completely lost. Granted, this is a great excuse to XP grind here and there, but it’s infuriating to get so close to defeating a boss only for your character to go limp and transfer to the next. I nearly threw my 3DS at least twice because of this.
It gets to a point where you start planning strategic saves right before boss battles to give yourself the most time possible for the battle itself. The unfortunate part of this is the bonuses you miss out on if you’ve not completed a full set of challenges to obtain any Dream Points. These Dream Points are used during a Dream Drop in order to give buffs to the character you’re about to play as, like strength and defense buffs, and the ever-helpful Drop Decelerator, meaning it’ll be much longer until you have to worry about another drop.
Overall, the game is as much a work of art as the other games have been. The cartoony atmosphere mixed with silly characters and the occasional serious moment are tradition for the franchise, and any fan will feel right at home here. Many of the series’ voice actors have returned to play their parts, like Haley Joel Osment as Sora and Leonard Nimoy as Master Xehanort and the music will inspire bouts of nostalgia in between cutscenes. I was a particular fan of the Fantasia world because they stayed true to the movie and didn’t have a single spoken word through that entire level.
The question on most fans’ minds is whether or not Kingdom Hearts 3D falls into the “must play” category or the “spin-off that no one will remember” category. Thankfully, Kingdom Hearts 3D is a full-fledged Kingdom Hearts game from top to bottom, and deserves the attention of fans and newcomers alike. There’s the odd misstep with the Dream Drop mechanic, but the rest of the game is very masterfully done, and it’s easy to remember why millions of gamers fell in love with the franchise in the first place.
Unlike 358/2 Days, Re:coded and Chain of Memories, the story doesn’t immediately retcon everything that happens during the course of the game. In fact, while I won’t give anything away for obvious spoiler reasons, the events occur in a perfect fashion to set up an easy entry into an inevitable Kingdom Hearts 3. Although the story can become somewhat confusing and convoluted at times, it’s easy to see where the franchise is headed from here by the time the credits roll.
“See you soon!” Sora says to his friends as they split up for their respective adventures in the game.
See you soon indeed, Sora. See you soon.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided to us for review purposes.