Despite what the first half of its title may imply, Kingdom Hearts 3D is not Kingdom Hearts III. Sorry, long-time fans who’ve long been pining for that official console sequel. That said, with the wide variety of handheld Kingdom Hearts spin-offs to sift through – Chain of Memories, Birth by Sleep, Re:coded, 358/2 Days - this installment comes the closest to recapturing the same whimsical magic we felt playing KHII on the PS2 (one of the best games of all time). Dream Drop Distance unloads a bevy of mechanics onto the player all at once, some of which could be decidedly polarizing – but the series’ same basic principle holds true: Square Enix and Disney devotees will feel joyously sentimental during their trip through this Magic Kingdom.
The “hook” of Dream Drop Distance is that it stars those lovable keyblade-wielding buddies, Sora and Riku, in equally substantial parts. Bonded at the heart by their innocent bromance, they’ve taken to exploring alternate worlds in a test to prove themselves worthy of a Mark of Mastery. While working together across time and space, Sora and Riku will encounter two considerably distinct halves of each of the seven worlds, constantly lending their counterpart a helping parallel-dimension hand. Once again, we applaud the performances of Haley Joel Osment and David Gallagher in the leading roles (backed by the dozens-strong supporting cast) – their sincere delivery of each and every line will remind you how crucial voice acting can be to the emotional payoff of a game.
Combat is mostly the same as you remember it, with a few refinements from previous games and a Pokémon-like twist. You’ll still be swinging your keyblade with abandon as you tear through enemies, casting spells and unleashing flashy special moves using your sequential, customizable Command Deck – but instead of vanquishing darkness with Goofy and Donald at your side, you’ll be collecting a menagerie of battle-ready pets as your allies. The shadowy Heartless have been benched, replaced by psychedelic Technicolor animals called Dream Eaters.
Slicing them up yields materials used to craft your own loyal Dream Eaters, who’ll link up with Sora and Riku to unleash a variety of attacks. Collecting Dream Eaters has the same addictive appeal as amassing souls in the DS Castlevania games: encountering each new enemy type will have you excited to see what they’ll eventually bring to your roster. But despite their cuddly cuteness, no amount of touchscreen minigames or pet management can make the voiceless Dream Eaters match the same charming companionship that Goofy and Donald offered.
At any time, you can “Drop” between the two characters and pick up where the other left off; eventually, you’ll be forced to switch over, thanks to a constantly depleting Drop Gauge that’ll last around 20 to 30 minutes (or longer, if you’ve been stocking up on Drop-Me-Not potions). It adds a novel element of strategy to your macro-level gameplay: you’ll need to plan ahead for the appropriate times to drop, lest you get ripped out of your body mid-battle. We learned the hard way that dropping during a boss fight restarts the encounter – a groan-worthy setback, but one that’s easily learned from, and unlikely to be repeated.
Other new mechanics include the Dive, Flowmotion, and Reality Shift systems. Dive Mode is a replacement for the repetitive Gummi Ship segments of previous games: you’ll still be zooming around a scrolling stage, but they’re offered in much more palatable segments that are just exciting enough to feel fun. Flowmotion turns Sora and Riku into venerable combat acrobats, where dashing into parts of the environment will trigger nifty offensive moves, or highly mobile methods of travel like gliding and grinding. Flowmotion makes the chore of exploring previously cleared areas a breeze, though it’s a bit less satisfying to use during skirmishes.
Reality Shifts are mid-fight quick-time events that utilize the touchscreen with prompts unique to each world; nailing them will bolster your attacks and break up the pace nicely, but if you’re wary of QTEs, you can easily skip them. Additionally, the Flick Rush minigame offers an amusing distraction in the form of a 3v3 Dream Eater tournament – think Pokemon Stadium meets the classic card game War.
Like the Kingdom Hearts games before it, much of DDD’s magic lies in its environments, and how flawlessly they evoke the original film or game setting they’re based on. Watching Sora and Quorra team up in the TRON: Legacy level is fantastic, and we were over the moon for Riku’s run-ins with the stylish teens of The World Ends With You (complete with the same voice actors as their DS debut). Every detail of each world, character, and Dream Eater looks crisp and clean on the 3DS screen, whether you’ve got 3D enabled or not, and the score is equally enchanting. Slashing enemies to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” in the Fantasia (1940) world was an experience we won’t soon forget.
As with previous games in the series, DDD is not without its problems: the camera is still finicky (though it’s a bit more manageable when using the Circle Pad Pro), the plot can get convoluted (but its got nothing on the tangled confusion of Birth by Sleep), combat can sometimes feel more tedious than engaging, and the difficulty ramps up wildly in the final world. Speaking of which, the final boss is a doozy – we nearly lost our minds after dying countless times to its two-hit kills and teleportation trickery. KH’s ultimate baddies were always tough, but this one takes the cake. Even with those issues, don’t consider them a deterrent to a great experience.
Kingdom Hearts 3D doesn’t revolutionize the franchise, and some of its experimental mechanics might not cater to your tastes. But despite any flaws it might possess, Dream Drop Distance still delivers splendidly in terms of unabashed fan service, and the kid in you will be ever gleeful tagging along with Sora and Riku for the ride.