This is a good month for Square Enix fans. First rhythm-action masterpiece Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy came storming into our midst and now it's Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance’s turn to hold the spotlight. Kingdom Hearts 3D may be one of the best looking games on the 3DS, yet like many previous Kingdom Hearts DS iterations, there are a few niggles that let the whole experience down.
The plot picks up from the end of Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded. It begins with Sora and Riku embarking on a quest to complete the Mark of Mastery exam to become Keyblade Masters, which fans of the series might recognise from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. Sora and Riku must then journey to the Realm of Sleep, and awake the sleeping worlds: Traverse Town, La Cite des Cloches, Prankster’s Paradise, The Grid and Country of the Musketeers. If all of this makes little sense to you at the moment, don't worry too much; you don’t need to be able to understand the complex plot behind the series in order to enjoy the individual games, but it helps!
In Kingdom Hearts 3D the usual enemies, the Heartless, have been replaced by Dream Eaters, who look like university freshers on their way to a UV party. While lacking the scare factor, there is a plus side to these colourful characters, as you can recruit friendly Dream Eaters (known as Sprites) to your party to help in battle. Sprites are customisable, with lots of different paint gun colours to collect and spray to your heart's content. There is also a new ‘petting’ feature, similar to Nintendogs, where you tap the lower screen with your stylus to give your Sprite a stroke, earning you ‘Link’ power-ups to make your compadre stronger in battle. You can also take 3D photos of your Sprite, but only if you really want to.
As usual Square Enix has done a great job with the visuals; Kingdom Hearts 3D looks absolutely stunning. The facial detail on Sora is particularly impressive, and all of the environments and movie flashbacks look fantastic. The only downside to this is that the juxtaposition of the photo-realistic Tron: Legacy characters with the spiky-haired Sora and Riku is so odd that it destroys the atmosphere in The Grid.
While the 3D effect is not pivotal, it does add a sparkle to the beautifully detailed cut scenes, most noticeably when flames rise in the Cite des Cloches stage — make sure you have the 3D slider set to the max for that scene. Like all Kingdom Hearts games the voice acting is also spot-on; even where the original voice actors from the movies are missing, an impeccable replacement has been found, making the change barely noticeable.
Even though Kingdom Hearts 3D may look incredible, the gameplay is rather tedious. You must play as both Sora and Riku, undergoing each world twice and therefore defeating the same bosses twice too. This is where the new ‘Drop’ element features, as you're only given a certain amount of time playing as one character before you're dropped out and wake up again as the other. Having a time limit is essential, as it stops you from levelling up and progressing too far as one character. However, the drop counter continues to tick down even during boss fights, meaning you could be grinding down a big Dream Eater for ages only to be suddenly dropped out, forced to replay the whole fight over again when you next wake up.
The combat has been improved with the addition of free-flow, an acrobatic feature which adds speed to the many street brawls you encounter and becomes a very powerful tool once you get the hang of it. There is also a new Reality Shift system which allows you to perform a special command or attack depending on the world you are in. For example, in Traverse Town, when you use Reality Shift mode you execute a Slingshot attack.
One of the biggest grievances is that there are simply too many random encounters. Every time you pass through an area the same horde of neon Dream Eaters will attack you, no matter how many times you knock them down and out. Because of this, you end up rushing through the game in order to avoid all of the random encounters, and fail to fully explore the environments, thus missing many of the hidden treasures. This is worsened by the fact that there're only a few worlds in comparison to previous Kingdom Hearts games.
The controls are quite easy to get to grips with, thanks primarily to the tutorial level at the beginning in which you fight Ursula’s huge, flailing tentacles. Yet after this, Kingdom Hearts 3D bombards you with a hideous explanation screen every time a new feature or control is introduced, which can be overwhelming at first even for experienced Kingdom Hearts players.
Once you're fully immersed and battling it out against never-ending streams of Dream Eaters, you'll soon notice that potions aren't very easily accessible. You can't retrieve them from the main menu — which would force the battle to pause — or even select them on the touch screen; instead you have to flick through the X button menu using the D-pad while the fight still continues. This bad menu positioning causes a few unnecessary fatalities and doesn’t do anything to make up for the cascade of Dream Eaters that continuously come your way.
Kingdom Hearts 3D is a great looking, solid game, held back by a few design choices which stop it from being as enjoyable an experience as it should be. If you are new to the series and want to know what it’s all about, then try Kingdom Hearts I or II before diving into this one. However, if you are a series veteran then step this way, as there is still a lot of fun to be had if you can overlook the small gameplay problems.