Few publishers seem to invest as many resources in handheld titles as Square Enix. From the extravagantly presented Dissidia and Crisis Core on PSP to the DS’s stylishly realised The World Ends With You, the company has an enviable string of portable console hits that comes from truly exploring the limits of each respective piece of hardware. Kingdom Hearts 3D brings that mentality to the 3DS, with fully-voiced cutscenes, an extensive soundtrack and extraordinary use of the 3D capability, even if it represents another creatively steady point in the series’ trajectory.
The latest in a long line of spin-offs that bridge the apparently endless gap between Kingdom Hearts II and III, Dream Drop Distance sees series stalwarts Sora and Riku trying to become Keyblade Masters, the equivalent of Jedi in KH speak. To explain the minutiae of the story would require diving into the series’ history – which is destructively complex for a franchise that features Donald Duck and Goofy in prominent roles – so to put it simply, Sora and Riku are exploring worlds that have been ‘split’, with their two storylines taking place in realities that exist next to one another. You take on the roles of both characters, with the structure of the game built around ‘dropping’, a fancy title for jumping back-and-forth between them.
Dropping can be prompted at any time through the menu screen, but the ‘drop’ bar is also counting down all the time, and will always chuck you back to the other protagonist when it reaches zero – which is particularly annoying when it drags you out of a boss fight. Collecting ‘drop’ points lets you slow down this timer for the next round, but it all amounts to little more than a gimmicky and convoluted way of switching between the two heroes.
The Drop mechanic has the hallmarks of a feature that wasn’t thought out properly. On the one hand, it’s entertaining to switch combat styles between Sora and Riku, who each have a different rhythm and spin on the traditional Kingdom Hearts combat, but the order of levels is set up the same for both characters, and there’s no way to deviate from this string of locales without the enemies being too strong. It’s a little like switching to another save game in the same section of an RPG: spending too much time in identical locations drags them beyond their natural lifespan, even with the individual storylines, boss battles and occasional character-specific areas to explore. It’s all too similar, with no real pay-off.
Be thankful, then, that the production values in Dream Drop Distance are so extensive, since that is one area where these handheld Kingdom Hearts offshoots have traditionally been a little patchy. The voice-acting and translation is at an all-time high, even if the overarching story is, as mentioned, absolute nonsense. The crucial Disney worlds encompass more hits than misses, with Tron Legacy’s blue-hued environments tackling that movie’s extraordinary visuals with technical mastery, as well as lending Nintendo’s handheld its most validating use of 3D yet. That’s the geekiest highlight, but the others, including the returning Traverse Town, are in the ballpark of the PS2 levels in terms of their scale and detail. There’s definitely enough high-end Disney content to conjure up goodwill from the player.
Key to the progression system in Kingdom Hearts 3D are Spirits, which are reverse versions of the game’s enemies, called Nightmares. The player creates them using materials dotted around the worlds and they act as party members, backing Sora and Riku up in battle, as well as governing special attacks. There’s a whole host of Spirits to create, but there are several drawbacks: primarily, the appalling character designs for each Spirit, which are like rejected anime cutesy creature designs, which seems completely at odds with the usually stellar art direction associated with Square Enix games.
Secondly, there’s a menu screen where you interact with the Spirits in a tedious Nintendogs-style fashion, playing minigames with them, taking photographs against your surroundings and prodding them with the stylus to indicate affection. You can even colour them in. It’s utterly arbitrary game design, with more than a whiff of feature creep. Irritatingly, learning new abilities hinges on developing these summon creatures properly, so even the most cold-hearted players will invariably find themselves rubbing a cartoon bat just to learn the Curaga spell. Without these awful touchscreen asides, the boardgame-style ability trees are actually smartly implemented ways of augmenting the two heroes, recalling Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid in a smaller fashion.
That’s symptomatic of Kingdom Hearts 3D’s confused collection of mechanics, however, which deliver the impression that Square Enix doesn’t quite know where the series is supposed to go next. The combat is basically identical to that in Birth By Sleep, with a few satisfying acrobatic additions and stylus-based extra moves, yet the Drop system exposes the weaknesses of the game, and we can’t really see it being a keeper for future instalments. What was exciting about Kingdom Hearts’ real-time combat ten years ago is still thrilling now, while the mash-up between Square and Disney has proven to be sustainable and great fun, aided this time by the especially nerdy cameos from the cast of Nomura’s cult hit The World Ends With You. There’s a mixture of novelty and intelligent ideas in Dream Drop Distance, that don’t quite add up to an evolved form of what the series has shown us before. It’s another sideways step for Kingdom Hearts, then, but undeniably a grandiose one.