Rock That Keyblade – Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance Review

Our Rating
out of 5.0

This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a true Keyblade master?  Well, now you have the chance to find out, thanks to the latest in the mashup from Disney and Square Enix entitled Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, for the Nintendo 3DS.  Does this title have the skills to fight off the darkness, or will it fall in the shadows by the wayside?

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (hereby shortened to KH3D) takes place directly after the events of Kingdom Hearts II, although it makes reference to just about every previous title (so if you haven’t played the series yet you might want to come back after a run-through).  The fate of all worlds is threatened by the impending return of Xehanort (an antagonist of sorts from earlier titles in the series), who wishes to start another Keyblade War (conflict that nearly plunged the world into darkness).  To counter the increasing danger, the powerful sorcerer and Keyblade master Yen Sid summons both Sora and Riku to his tower in order to start their Mark of Mastery exam.  In this test, he sends them off to the Sleeping Worlds – areas previously saved by our protagonists that never fully recovered.  On this quest they have two goals: reawaken these worlds by finding their hidden keyholes, and sharpen their Keyblade skills to mastery.

Nothing about KH3D’s story is bad per se; however, it has a few issues.  The first is the lack of development in the tale; Sora and Riku are about the same as they always were: an over-trusting child obsessed with making friends and a boy who can’t get over himself and trust others.  It was fun and interesting to watch in the original, but after so many Kingdom Hearts games the stereotypical “light will always defeat dark if we look inside our hearts and trust each other!” starts to get a little dull.  Seeing as the series is over ten years old now, a bit more development and growing up with fans would have been a nice touch – especially since you pretty much need to have played each previous title to understand current events.

As well, the title serves mainly as a prologue to the next game in the series – which you can tell is coming throughout the entire game.  Because of this, KH3D can be related to Assassin’s Creed: Revelations in some ways: both are decent titles in their own right with updated, more fluid mechanics, but both have obviously been crafted with the sole intent of holding off for another main title.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s just not going to deliver any final satisfaction for fans – only make them want more.

However, even with the obvious faults in the narrative there are still a few shining moments – but we can’t exactly touch on them without talking a bit about gameplay first.  If you’ve played a KH game before, you’re going to master the title almost instantly, as the same blend of free-form hack n’ slash and command-based RPG mechanics presents itself once again.  Players take control of both Sora and Riku (though at different times) and are free to move about, dodge, block, and attack as they see fit; while picking various special attacks, spells, or items from a command list like in a turn-based RPG.  This combination has served the series well in the past, and is the right degree of familiar and new for KH3D, which is mainly due to a few changes in the base design.

Where gamers used to have a fixed commands list covering categories like items, magic, and the like, they now have a Command Deck which can automatically cycle through individually assigned abilities as they’re used.  MP is also no longer used and has been replaced with individual recharge times for powers.  In between combat, the player can assign abilities or items within their Command Deck in the order they wish them to progress in combat, and upon using one of your chosen skills the deck will automatically shift to the next available one that’s ready for use.  Should you find yourself disliking the auto-cycle, or accidentally using a potion while trying to shoot fireballs (a mistake I personally made several times), then there is an option to either disable it or skip over healing items, making them only accessible by manual control – a truly helpful option!

For the tacticians among players, you’ll have access to a total of three different customizable Command Decks that you can choose between.  This means gamers can have one for, say, an all magic strategy, another for combat and healing items, and the final one tailored for a certain enemy or boss– just as a few examples.  Unfortunately, these cannot be switched between in battle, but should you fall in combat you have the option of respawning just before the fight breaks out – which is helpful when you run into a boss and you don’t have medic skills equipped.  Overall, the Command Deck system works out slightly better than the traditional menu system, as players will have their essential abilities and tools right in sight rather than having to avoid attacks while digging for a potion – which often leads to a lot of premature deaths.

Another neat and new little feature in KH3D is Reality Shift, an ability that changes from world to world and can be used to deal extra damage to your enemies.  On occasion, players will notice a special purple icon appear over an enemy or set piece, signaling that a Shift is possible by pressing either X and A at the same time or flicking from the top to the bottom of the touch screen.  From there players get to play a mini-game which differs depending on the area.  Gamers will take actions such as shooting items like a slingshot, connecting lines to make grind rails, and tapping words within a jumble to take control of an enemy.  These tasks give gameplay some extra depth and diversity, which is a nice touch for the ten-year-old formula.

One issue many gamers will find is camera control, which is less than ideal.  There are two options gamers can choose from.  First, players may use the L and R buttons to rotate the camera left and right respectively, and pressing both will lock on to the closest enemy – keeping them constantly on-screen in one way or another.  The other option does the same, except with R exclusive to lock-on, and the camera is controlled by holding L and using the Circle Pad.

Keeping a lock-on in combat isn’t the problem, it’s navigation and situational awareness that suffer.  Unless locked on to an enemy it’s fairly hard to keep your eye on what you want to, as using the shoulder buttons is a very slow and clunky experience.  Worse yet, it means you can never look up or down while moving, as one or both buttons need to be held to do so.  This makes for very awkward control in fast pace situations, especially trying to navigate and battle in a vertical based environment, or when in combat against aerial enemies.  As a bit of a compromise, KH3D supports use of the Circle Pad Pro peripheral.  The device can be used to map camera controls to a second pad, eliminating the clunky feeling of using the shoulder buttons.

In between chapters, players are brought to the world map.  Here gamers can revisit completed worlds as well as plot their next course.  Once you’ve decided, it’s time to take a Dive – literally.  Dive mode is the start of each world, and sees Sora or Riku falling through a bright and colourful tunnel with the overall goal of reaching the gate into the world.  However, in order to do this an objective must be met to open the portal, which can range from defeating a boss to collecting items, and at the end of the Dive players get a rank based on their time and performance.  The mini-game is fairly entertaining and serves to add a small degree of replayability, as gamers chase those gold medals.

As previously mentioned, players will play as both Sora and Riku, although never at the same time.  This is thanks to the Drop mechanic, which has players switch between the two at different points.  Underneath gamers’ health bar is the Drop meter which slowly empties as you play.  Once it runs out, you’re given 30 seconds of bonus time to rack up as many kills as you can, and when it hits zero your character falls into a sleep.  It’s at this point you’re awarded points and are able to buy bonuses (like augmented magic damage), and then the other character takes over – who plays a different part in the current story.  This mechanic is where KH3D’s tale shines brilliantly, as the two protagonist’s narratives run parallel and interact with each other, showcasing events in a way just one perspective couldn’t.  Where the events on Sora’s side appear to make perfect sense, you realize just what exactly is going on from Riku’s – and vice versa.  What this makes is a brilliant form of storytelling that is just so interesting to watch, even if the tale in questions is a bit dull and cliché.

Another change in gameplay is obvious from the get-go, and that is enemies and party members.  No longer are Sora and Riku battling the Heartless and Nobodies alongside Donald, Goofy, and other characters, but rather creatures unique to the Sleeping Worlds: Dream Eaters.  These beasts come in two forms: Nightmares and Spirits.  Your main foes, Nightmares, are dark, malevolent beings that feast on happy dreams, while Spirits (your party members) are benevolent creatures that work for the light, eating the sad dreams of sleepers.

Spirits can be crafted for use in your party in two ways: following a recipe or starting from scratch – though both require ingredients.  Players will find different shards, fragments, and recipes throughout the game which are used in this process.  Following a recipe will make a specific Spirit of a set power, but going from scratch using random ingredients can create various Spirits of different strengths and appearances.

Gamers may have two Spirits in combat at any given time (although they can make and store several of them) and gain experience from defeated enemies just like Sora and Riku, but they may also be augmented through affection and training items.  Gamers can use their stylus to pet and poke their Spirits, giving them small bits of affection and experience, and certain toys can be found or purchased from shops which allow you to play games with your companions – which also offer XP.

What’s more is that both Sora and Riku can interact with their spirit partners through Linking, though in two entirely different forms.  Linking can be triggered when the Link gauge under your Spirit’s individual health bar is filled, which occurs bit by bit when players land a hit at the same time as a companion does.  When Sora links with a Spirit, he combines this strength with the creature, usually in the form of riding it.  Riku, on the other hand, absorbs the Spirit temporarily in order to unlock his potential and deliver powerful Keyblade combos.  Should both your Spirits have a full Link gauge, they can both be Linked with at the same time.  For Sora, this means his two buddies combine into a single super-powered creature, whereas Riku absorbs both at once for a power boost that causes him to sprout wings to fly while dealing great amounts of damage.

While this shift from a supporting cast to a breedable army allows players a lot more freedom for strategy and presents a fun and interesting Link system, it makes for a much less enjoyable story experience.  Where Sora and Riku would laugh, love, fight, and cry with party members in previous titles, your crafted Spirits are simply for battle and play zero part in the plot – which has a devastating side effect.  This lack of a long-term supporting cast leaves Sora and Riku appearing more as outcasts, rather than true leading roles since your Spirits don’t even appear in cutscenes.  Other characters found in each unique world end up taking the center stage, with our protagonists giving more of a cameo appearance to provide a few supportive and cliché pieces of advice here and there. Overall, this makes KH3D feel like a disjointed collection of short stories rather than a game with an overall story arc.

In terms of graphics, KH3D is an embodiment of the Light vs. Dark theme of the story.  What I mean by that is it has brilliant shining moments and pools of terribly deep darkness – without a real middle ground.  Praise for the title can be found in character design and animation, as both are pretty stellar.  Most worlds reflect a Disney movie, such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tron: Legacy, and Pinocchio, with a very diverse palate for set pieces and enemies.  Animation is also handled very well, with incredibly lifelike facial expression – especially considering the cartoony aesthetics of the game.  These two areas contribute greatly to the overall quality of the game, and it’s nice to see that the KH can still whip up some new designs after ten years.

However, just about everything else involving graphics is pretty much in shambles.  For starters, the game features a fairly low resolution which leads to some grainy looking moments, and just about every edge in the title looks like a jagged and blurry mess – a problem that is even more apparent if playing on an XL system.  What this leads to is a very unappealing visual experience, making it impossible to tell finer details on characters farther than a few feet from the camera – completely wasting the brilliant facial animations.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there.  If you wish to play in 3D, you might want to rethink your choice, as some aspect of turning on 3D seems to make the jagged visuals seem even worse – which is a problem given the entire concept of the title is that it features 3D (if the name wasn’t a given).  While it may simply be gamers’ eyes adjusting to the 3D, texture quality appears to decrease, and edges appear even more ridged and pixellated.  However, the trade-off is brilliant 3D depth as the opening video is a splendor to behold with the 3D setting turned on, as are several other flourishes and animations in-game.  Characters, magic spells, and other in-game animations move about the set in a brilliant and realistic fashion.  It’s a shame that the graphical issues are more noticeable in this mode, as the title sports some of the best actual 3D design on the console.

Moving on to audio, KH3D is a fairly positive listen.  All the voice actors are original (Sora is played by Haley Joel Osment, and David Gallagher voices Riku) and deliver a decent performance for their parts.  Musically, the title is a neat blend of original songs and tracks we’ve heard before.  The opening cinematic features several themes from previous games, including an orchestral version of Utada Hikaru’s iconic song, “Simple and Clean,” and returning worlds (like the familiar Traverse Town) still feature their original themes, although they appear re-recorded or remixed specifically for this release.  Overall, the title is a nice audio experience best enjoyed with headphones.

At the end of the day, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is a decent addition to the series, though it’s not without its setbacks.  Some clunky gameplay mechanics, terrible visual quality, and a story that was obviously written as pure filler hold the title back from being on par with the main games.  If you’re a fan of the series, then this is certainly a game for you to play, just don’t expect any closure from it.  Hopefully soon the forces involved in the series will give us the current or next-gen release we’ve been waiting for, but until then Dream Drop Distance will have to do.

Final Score: 4.0 / 5.0 and the original Keyblade with some extra detail.

Our Rating
out of 5.0

About This Post