Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Kingdom Hearts doesn't really need another spinoff. It needs a reboot.
Having played the original, its sequel and every handheld diversion since Chain Of Memories, I've watched the series thrive in spite of one of the most needlessly convoluted storylines in the business. It's the laziest kind of bullsh*t, disguising a lack of meaningful depth behind mountains of jargon and nonsensical diatribes designed to sound profound and intelligent. Instead of helping to straighten out the balloon animal, Kingdom Hearts' portable tie-ins have twisted it into extra knots; introducing so many unnecessary kinks that the whole canon is set to pop under the pressure of its own pretentiousness. Not unlike that analogy.
But despite all that, Kingdom Hearts 3D is more accessible than most of the intimidating storyline. Protagonists Sora and Riku are undergoing an exam of sorts in order to become a fully-fledged Keyblade Master, and therefore have to delve into the sleeping worlds to unlock their sleeping keyholes blah blah die. Essentially, all you need to know is that you'll journey through a number of Disney-themed worlds, meet some classic characters and engage in some brilliantly designed RPG systems. Square Enix has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Kingdom Hearts 3D, resulting in one of the most fully-featured games on the 3DS so far. We've got grind rails, augmented reality Nintendogs/Pokemon, new upgrade systems, a real-time card battle minigame, hair-raising plummets through dimensional vortices and a new mechanic so divisive that many players will be tempted to snap their cartridges in half.
After a strong tutorial starring The Little Mermaid's Ursula, Sora and Riku are thrown into another collection of Disney-themed pocket dimensions to battle evil creatures and restore harmony to the Sleeping Worlds, hurtling through a hectic new freefalling minigame to enter each one. You'll encounter an interesting mix of the old and new, from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame to Tron: Legacy, though Squeenix fans will be surprised to discover that nary a single Final Fantasy character makes an appearance unless you count a few Moogle shopkeepers. Instead, Kingdom Hearts 3D draws on cult DS RPG The World Ends With You for its support cast, which some may find disappointing. Even as TWEWY fans to a man, we're still a little taken aback by the decision.
As you'd expect, each Disney world has been rendered in full 3D (in any sense of the phrase), providing a colourful collection of levels to explore and battle spawning armies of Dream Eaters. These new adversaries resemble a mix between recognisable animals and vibrant children's toys, attacking with a range of different abilities and requiring markedly different strategies to defeat. Whilst level design initially appears to be a little on the bland side (typically a mix of corridors and arenas with a boss encounter at the end), a little exploration pays dividends, revealing a pleasing verticality stuffed with secret chests, shortcuts and optional extras if you return to previously-completed stages. An incredibly high spawn rate could have become rather aggravating, but wonderfully, Kingdom Hearts 3D succeeds primarily on the strength of its revamped and infinitely versatile combat.
Sora and Riku can draw on a responsive roster of Keyblade melee attacks to brutalise enemies at close range, supported by blocks, jumps and dodge rolls for evasion and defence. In addition, you've got a customisable command deck of rotating abilities to draw upon, which you can equip with any mix of magic (think blizzard, graviga and other powerful Final Fantasy spells), unique melee techniques and restorative skills. This system would have been enjoyable enough, especially since the lock-on mechanics are up to scratch, yet Kingdom Hearts 3D throws its first major innovation onto the table within minutes of entering the first world: FlowMotion.
By leaping onto a grind rail or any wall surface, Sora and Riku enter a state of enhanced mobility that allows them to perform massive jumps, boost enormous distances and enter into insane aerial combos, all effortlessly mapped to the face buttons. Not only is this a powerful new way of defeating enemies that slots brilliantly into the existing combat toolkit, but it's a fantastic new way of getting around the levels, giving you more manoeuvrability than ever before. You'll soon learn to chain FlowMotion jumps and slides together into lengthy combos, breezing effortlessly around the environments and punishing Dream Eaters with lazy grace. It lacks the mechanical polish of a dedicated brawler, but it still excels regardless.
Combined with the strong core combat and command deck, FlowMotion provides a staggeringly versatile and refreshingly varied battle system, one that encourages experimentation as well as timing and reflexes. The Dream Eaters don't stand a chance.
Not all Dream Eaters are evil, however. Many of them are on your side, and by collecting ingredients, you're free to assemble an entire army of cohorts to accompany Sora and Riku on their adventure. Two of these colourful critters can enter combat in a support role, attacking with the same abilities and zeal as their evil brethren, but they're also a powerful new addition to the upgrade system. By levelling them up - and interacting with them in an Augmented Reality minigame that rivals Nintendogs in terms of depth - you can deck them out with new skills to incorporate into your command deck, or passive boosts to your stats and resistances.
There's more. Square Enix, who are often known for being slightly staid in innovation terms, uncharacteristically threw an entire slew of new features into the cauldron. You can take your creatures into a 'flick rush' battle that functions like a mix of Pokemon and Poker, earning medals to spend on unique items. You can engage in a series of AR minigames to find treasure in your living room. You can Streetpass Dream Eaters with others, either as helpful support or as special encounters to defeat for rewards. It's a perfect fit for a handheld, a treasure trove of diversions that you can dip into at will for a few minutes at a time, with benefits directly tied into gameplay.
That said, they're a poor substitute for series mainstays like Goofy and Donald, who are relegated into cameo roles. Since Kingdom Hearts 3D isn't a core sequel, mind, I'd argue that the Dream Eaters are a successful inclusion.
Story-wise, Kingdom Hearts 3D is full of the same hamfisted heavy-handed nonsense we've come to expect from the series, which is absolutely fine since most players will already be fans. Thankfully a glossary can help newcomers puzzle out some of the more esoteric jargon, and the simple setup does allow new players to get a sense of the bigger picture without obsessing over the details (who's Ansem again? What's a Nobody?). More importantly, the thrill of discovering new worlds and classic characters is still firmly intact.
However, there's one mechanic we haven't explored - and that pretentious subtitle isn't just for show. Once you take the obvious 'Dream' connotations out of the equation, you're left with 'Drop' and 'Distance,' which explicitly references the fact that Sora and Riku are in fact inhabiting completely different versions of the same world. They're separated by immeasurable distance despite playing the same levels, which from a story standpoint, allows you to experience the same narrative from two wildly different perspectives. At any point, you can 'drop' between the two characters and change your viewpoint, each character picking up exactly where they left off (we like the fact that one character can explore new worlds while the other grinds or combs through completed levels), which ought to have been enough.
Bizarrely, though, you're also hamstrung by an inexorable timer that counts down every second, forcing a drop once it reaches zero. While you can delay the march of time with a couple of 'droplet' bonuses and inventory items, you'll eventually have to switch... even if you're in the middle of a boss fight.
We're still not sure what to make of it, frankly. The fact that you can just press the 'drop' button to switch back to your other character makes the decision meaningless, and the arbitrary time limits can force you to push forward rather than explore the environments to the full. It's ordained to royally piss off a sizeable chunk of the fanbase while leaving others nonplussed, so as such, we'll simply have to chalk it up as a divisive flight of fancy.
- Versatile and dynamic FlowMotion combat
- Some great Disney characters and references, loads of content
- Fully loaded with a host of enjoyable diversions and minigames
- More story details for KH fans to enjoy
- Drop system will inspire powerful anger in many players
- Slightly bland level design, high spawn rate, fussy Dream Eater designs
- TWEWY references, while cool, are no substitute for Final Fantasy
- More convoluted, nonsensical story
The Short Version: Though Kingdom Hearts 3D is likely to be a bit contentious, brilliant core combat, great minigames and classic Disney characters makes Sora's latest portable outing more than the sum of its myriad components.
With luck, Yen Cid will wave his magic wand and announce a sequel (or reboot the whole sorry canon) soon, but this will tide us over until then.