It took ten years and a move to handhelds to get me to care about Kingdom Hearts again.
Just in case you've been living under a rock for the last decade, Kingdom Hearts was a weird Square spin-off series that combined original characters with Final Fantasy and Disney. While there were some flaws, like a finicky camera and stale combat, Kingdom Hearts ended up being a surprisingly great game that was a lot of fun to play.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance separates itself from other handheld entries in the series by not being a prequel or interquel--it's actually the set-up game for the upcoming, still-not-actually-announced Kingdom Hearts III. This allows the game to go off on its own instead of making sure players are on the up-and-up with KH's hilariously convoluted story, showing Sora and Riku protecting parallel worlds while completing their Mark of Mastery exam, in the hopes of becoming full-fledged Keyblade Masters.
I'm wondering just what a "Keyblade Master" can do, since Dream Drop Distance has some of the fastest and most dynamic combat the series has yet seen. While Sora and Riku only have a few animations each (it's unfair to expect this game to be Bayonetta or Arkham City), each of the characters is agile enough to evade most attacks and control easily in combat. The new Flowmotion combat system lets you use scenery fixtures like lampposts and stairway rails for flashy, hard-hitting attacks to quickly clear crowds of enemies.
KH3D is basically this generation's equivalent to Chain of Memories--whenever Kingdom Hearts III does come out, you can simply jump right into it and play, but certain characters and situations will seem alien to you if you're not caught up. Unlike Chain of Memories, though, this is a straight action-RPG like the rest of the series, with some pet raising and training elements in the form of Dream Eaters.
Sadly, Donald and Goofy don't back Sora or Riku up in this game--like Final Fantasy XIII-2, when certain conditions are met you can get monsters to join your party, bringing their abilities into battle with you. The 3DS' AR functionality is used well, letting you take pictures of your Dream Eaters and play with them, helping them level up. There are no Gummi Ships in Dream Drop Distance, instead letting you freefall between levels in the new "Dive Mode," where you collect stars and fight enemies as Sora or Riku. You can also use special Dive Mode items to clear large groups of enemies, collect more stars, or level up your Dream Eaters.
Like I mentioned before, the story follows Sora and Riku, who have been separated by Yen Sid (the sorcerer from Fantasia short The Sorcerer's Apprentice) to hone their individual powers. Each of the heroes is sent to a world where they must battle new enemies called "Nightmare" Dream Eaters. Along the way, they run into revived members of Organization XIII, most of the cast of The World Ends with You subbing for Final Fantasy cameos, a man calling himself "Ansem," and KH series villain Xehanort, but... he's not really Xehanort and is just travelling through time and is just AAAAGH ERROR ERROR ALVIN SIMON THEODORE--
The whole "Captain America being 'killed' with time bullets" story makes more sense than this game
The story is the real weak point of the game, and probably the series as a whole, but it's made more difficult to bear as the start of the game has very little Disney content. You see, if you're like me and prefer sharp writing and smart pacing over a story that's just complex for the sake of being complex, you can generally tune out all the Nomura and just enjoy a fun action-RPG where you occasionally meet and/or kick the crap out of your favorite Disney characters. It's harder to get into that this time around, as you have to put up with an hour or two of just Sora and Riku with all the sturm and drang that entails, and very little Disney to go around.
Sora's inspiring speech is killed by that hat
Kingdom Hearts was built on the premise of combining these original characters with Disney, and sidelining our modern mythology in favor of a bunch of brooding zippers-and-hairspray tweens feels almost criminal. It's been 75 years since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs started Disney's tradition of gorgeous, timeless animated films, and people still enjoy it and love it today. Will Kingdom Hearts be regarded half as well, or even remembered in 75 years? Probably not.
Even with that caveat, the game looks fantastic, making excellent use of the 3DS' solid horsepower with detailed character models and frenetic action. It's not necessary at all to play the game in 3D, but some segments, like Dive Mode and certain boss battles, get an extra level of depth and visual style when your 3D slider is turned up. While the controls aren't perfect, they get the job done without any glaring flaws. Camera control can take some getting used to as it's mapped to the shoulder buttons--it's like the PS2 games in this regard, but you can use the Circle Pad Pro for camera control if you like. It's not necessary at all, but a nice perk if you have the peripheral.
Subliminal Circle Pad Pro advertising from Minnie?
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance joins the growing library of standout 3DS titles. Sure, it's lacking in the story department, but the game itself is fun to play. That's the important part right there. It's the Kingdom Hearts action-RPG goodness you know and love, with some smart new adjustments and additions.
+ Beautiful graphics that don't over-rely on 3D
+ Solid controls (once you get comfortable with them) and ability management
+ Fast-paced action and inventive battles that require some think-on-your-feet tactics
+ Good voice acting, and more than I expected in a handheld game
+ Olivia Wilde
- Story is convoluted and meandering
- Takes a while to get started--gamers who come for the Disney may be turned off after two hours of Sora/Riku
- No new Utada Hikaru song--they're probably saving that for whenever Kingdom Hearts III comes out