Kingdom Hearts has a been one of the action RPG series to play for the last 10 years. It is a mixture of innovative ideas and appealing storylines which is one part what makes it such a great series, even though in theory, this franchise should have crashed and burned upon conception. With that in mind, one of the series’ biggest faults is the fact that Kingdom Hearts II came out in 2005 and it has 7 years before we finally get a continuation of that story, instead receiving a preqeul, a midquel, and a side-story that is technically a sequel but it told a rehash of the first game (again).
Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance or, so cleverly abbreviated, Kingdom Hearts 3D is the first game to star the actual protagonist Sora since Kingdom Heart II and it was boasted to be a full-feature Kingdom Hearts game, with new worlds, new scenarios and gameplay and finally begin wrapping up this wild mess of a narrative. Since it released last July, I’m going to trust that a good number of people have beaten it, but for those that haven’t, this full analysis of the game is going to cover as much of the game as possible, so there will be spoilers for just about everything.
The best way to start looking at this game is through the narrative, since it is by the far the glue that has held this entire franchise together. You can argue that most Kingdom Hearts games are written in such a way that even if you have never played any of the other games, you could still enjoy the story of the game you were playing. I started the series at Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and moved onto Kingdom Hearts II before playing the first game and I thoroughly enjoyed the narratives of both. Things became a lot clearer once I played the first game, but even if the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II doesn’t make much sense without Chain of Memories to put things into context, the rest plays out fairly straight.
Kingdom Hearts 3D is not that game. It is probably the biggest offender of a continuity lock-out in almost any game I have ever played. While the game gives you a pretty dream-like beginning of fighting Ursala out of nowhere, that’s to be expected in a game about dreams, but once you are in reality, you are given very little introduction to the characters or their motives since all major antagonists of past games are back, including a young version of Master Xehanort from Birth By Sleep.
The game finally goes back to starring Sora, with the twist now being that his best friend and brooding badass Riku has joined him as a main character (if not THE main character of the game). The game switches back and forth between the two (more on that later) as they encounter two sides of each world. Because they are in what is called The Realm of Sleep, each world is no longer plagued with Heartless or Nobodies, but Dream Eaters and their task is to find the sleeping keyhole in each world. By accomplishing this, the two hope to become keyblade masters, which is something you would only know if you had gotten the secret ending in Re:Coded. The two technically never meet up in their journey, because the sleeping realm is divided into two, with Sora and Riku on opposite sides. I don’t even pretend to really understand what that all means, but it was a good way to make sure that they can all be in the same place in the same time and yet never have to meet, even though in someplaces it would have made a lot more sense if they were. They are also hounded by Young Xehanort and by the specific sides of Terra-Xehanort that relates to them more: Sora by Xemans and Riku by Ansem.
This is where the continuity snarl kicks in and new players will have absolutely no idea what is going on. In one scene, Young Xehanort confronts Sora and for a couple of seconds, Vanitas, a Sora look-a-like from Birth By Sleep is shown next to Xehanort. It was most likely an illusion, but as for meaning, I am a little lost as it is probably foreshadowing for something in the next game, but this scene was in the trailer to get previous KH players excited for 3D while anyone who didn’t play the PSP game or is new the series would most likely go “who the hell was that?” Same goes for Xemnas, same goes for Ansem, and the same especially goes for Xigbar who acts like second main bad guy despite coming out of nowhere and playing a very minor role in KHII and 358/2 Days. Even some of the worlds, like The Grid inspirted by Tron Legacy, would have Sora’s story being basically Space Paranoids 2 as Sora tries to rescue Tron who has been reprogrammed into Rinzler. Didn’t play KHII? Then you probably don’t know why he would care.
And that is the main point of this little portion of the analysis. While I may have followed Kingdom Hearts for a long time now, I did always appreciate how some of the earlier games were pretty self-contained and for a while, I thought Birth By Sleep was a nice prequel adventure that explained a lot of stuff that we already knew, but once Master Xehanort appeared as the true orchestrator of the whole conflict, Birth By Sleep suddenly became one of the most important stories, perhaps only rivaled by Kingdom Hearts II.
But when continuity lockout starts, then fan service begins as the opposite side of the coin, and boy does this have a lot of fan service for those who have followed Kingdom Hearts for it’s 10 years. As I mentioned before, Vanitas makes essentially a cameo and Master Xehanort returns as the big bad. Also making cameos is Saix, Terra, Aqua, Ven, Roxas, Xion, and Lea (AKA Axel) not only plays an important role, but he’s going to play an even bigger role since now he also has a keyblade. Sora’s final boss is Xemnas, Ansem and basically dark Ventus are two of Riku’s bosses.
Overall though, the story is very formulaic just with a bit more continuity added in that previous games. It of course wraps up into an amazing ending, which in my eyes might seem a bit controversial. Basically, Master Xehanort has restarted the Keyblade war, with his 13 Seekers of Darkness, clones of himself from all across time, against the 7 Guardians of Light. In this end, it was revealed to us why some evil characters had yellow eyes, why the Organization all had X’s in their name and the significance of the letter X in general, and Xehanort’s plan was to rebuild the X-Blade correctly, It all sets up for the what would most likely be the end of the Xehanort saga and maybe the end of Kingdom Hearts, but the most shocking twist of all is that Sora’s heart gave into darkness and Riku went in to save him, and when they emerged, Riku was named a keyblade master instead of Sora, a callback to the original game where Riku was suppose to wield the keyblade and in Birth By Sleep where Riku, not Sora, was actually knighted.
Sora is supposedly the chosen one, which makes it all the more interesting and it was nice to see Terra’s successor failed. Even more interesting was that Sora was totally ecstatic that Riku passed at all, showing that he truly does have an innocent heart, despite getting totally engulfed in darkness multiple times. The story has basically taken a turn for the darker but Sora is still a shining light of enthusiasm, maybe even more so. He’s so close to being a Mary-Sue but it is the fact that he fails at all and the story can really focus on other characters that stops him from being one. Overall, like all Kingdom Hearts games, great voice work and dialogue saves the day and while the middle may be a little rough and nonsensical, the ending drives everything home and thensome.
The secret endings to Kingdom Hearts games have varied between non-sense to huge hype machines. While early on, the Kingdom Hearts game relied on just random images and sequences because they were unsure where they were going, Birth By Sleep, Re:Coded, and 3D have all had secret endings, and this one was probably the most satisfying of them all. To put in perspective, in case your forgot, Birth By Sleep’s secret ending was basically an epilogue to the main story and showed us all what we knew already, that Sora’s journey wasn’t over. In Re:Coded, the secret ending gave us an ultra-critical plot point that lead directly into Dream Drop Distance, which shouldn’t have been a secret because its pretty necessary to understand what’s going on in 3D.
The secret ending for Dream Drop Distance finally feels like something worth getting because it actually answered something brought up in the main plot and could be easily integrated into the plot of the next game to still be a surprise to someone who hasn’t gotten the secret ending without totally confusing them. I assume if you made it this far you don’t care about spoilers so I’ll just say it: the seventh light is Kairi, who has been neglected for a large part of this series despite having Aqua as a parallel and being pretty important at first. It was mentioned towards the end, that seven warriors of light were needed to fight Xehanort’s 13 darknesses, and Mickey rationalizes that it as suppose to be keyblade wielders. At the time he says mentions Terra, Aqua, and Ven (though cleverly not by name), and then himself, Sora, and Riku, meaning that one more is needed. Xehanort counters that one of them (Terra) belongs to him, so they are short two, and about to lose Sora. So of course when Axle, I mean Lea, gets his keyblade that solved one problem (with Riku parallel thus making him a perfect Terra parallel) and to those who may have forgotten, poor Kairi wielded a keyblade for about 3 seconds in Kingdom Hearts II and it was never brought up again, which makes this secret ending so much more satisfying proving that the writers didn’t forget about her. This secret ending fulfilled it’s goal perfectly, answering a question, providing some fanservice for those who have stuck around the whole time, and has generally gotten me very, very excited about the next game, which could be the end of the series as far as we know and I for one would very much like to bookend the series with the three friends who started their journey together at the very beginning.
Gameplay wise, Kingdom Hearts 3D pushes the envelope again for constantly evolving its formula. While the game uses the abilities slots started in Birth By Sleep and created news ones as well as reimagined takes on some old ones, the biggest change in combat is the “flowmotion.” I like flowmotion for a couple of reasons: 1) It lets players do some of the awesome stuff Sora could do in Kingdom Hearts II but were reaction commands and cutscenes only and 2) it varies up the combat in a significant way to not only distinguish between the other games, but also to prove to everyone that the games are still getting better. Flowmotion allowed for things like walljumping, grinding, and slide kicks, each coming with a variety of melee attacks so even if all your commands are recharging, you can do still deal some significant damage if you know what you are doing. I don’t think flowmotion is as useful as shotlocks from Birth By Sleep, and you have to learn the timing for dodges because you could accidentally go into flowmotion which leaves you vulnerable afterwards, but it is definitely more fun.
Flowmotion also allowed for the player to refocus on elusive foes if they are having a hard time focusing the camera. For example, you could dodge roll/dash into a wall which would engage a wall-based flowmotion and then hit the attack button. This has the character spin through the air straight for the nearest or locked on enemy. This allowed for some different kind of boss battles. Some of these included a grinding battle where you had to dodge enemy obstacles and catch up, a boss in an large circular arena that would fly away and you had to chase it, and one who could basically make portal holes. The flowmotion helped keep these boss battles just be a lot of futile running and made for some pretty high action, thrilling chases.
Another mechanic in combat is the Reality Shifts, world specific abilities that would use the bottom screen of the 3DS and while these seem cool at first, the novelty wears thin after a while. In Traverse Town for example, the reality shift is simply using an enemy or a barrel as ammo for a catapult. You pull pack on the enemy using the bottom screen, a targeting reticule lets you know the area of damage and this is one of the best uses of the Reality Shift. Generally after that, they get a little tedious and you just stop using them because beating enemies down is a lot quicker. For example, the world based on Fantasia has a Reality Shift that uses a classic DS rhythm style of taps and drags, like Elite Beat Agents. Problem is, there are like two variations and they are like 15 seconds each. Useful in a pinch, but it just stops the action flow to a grinding halt and is just annoying. They’re also randomly induced, I’ll let you know why that turned into a problem for me in a bit.
Spirits and Dream Eaters are the new bad guys of this Kingdom Hearts game, with Spirits being the good ones and also recruited as your partners. In an interesting twist, players now gain their abilities and some more powerful attacks, through leveling up Dream Eaters. By hitting an enemy at the same time as your Spirit companion, you get Link Points. When you have gained enough Link Points, you can engage use a team attack. For Sora, those are often super attacks and for Riku, they are transformations. You can have two Spirits out at a time and Linking with both of them creates even more powerful attacks. These points also accumulate so you can spend them on the Ability Board, and this is where the game gets either more interesting or horribly, horribly frustrating. By spending these points players can unlock abilities ranging from simple things like more health to ever useful abilities like second chance and once more. Luckily a reserve Spirit can also be selected and switched out in midbattle, so even if only two spirits are fighting, a third one is still giving you all of the abilities from it.
Still, this does restrict the freedom of the player a bit because crucial abilities will outweigh whatever other benefits any other Spirit has to offer. I have an Elephant on my team who is there for no other reason that he gives me second chance, something I needed against the secret boss post game. This was a fun an interesting alternative to having partners (something that was last a main focus in the game in Kingdom Hearts II) but I still would have preferred Riku and this game was a grinders nightmare and a general pain to people who like me who don’t grind. Mainly because no matter what level you are at, abilities are based on the Spirit, so it almost seems like non-stop grinding as oppose to just getting to a point and in some cases, you need to grind to make your spirits stronger because you could use the same ones since the beginning and if you play the game as quickly as possible, they still probably wouldn’t at the max.
Luckily, most of this only culminates at the end, at least for me. It was against Ansem, who per tradition seems to have about a bazillion forms. The fight starts off easy at first, but his final form was just a mess. Not only did I not have Spirits that granted me abilities that other Kingdom Hearts would have given me by now, it also seemed the best way to beat him was to use a Reality Shift. I died too many times before finally getting one off and after that, in a dual linked transformation, I pretty much beat him in seconds compared to what felt like hours each time I lost and all because of a random Reality Shift. Also, when I looked online to see if there was something I was missing, the person playing had abilities I had never seen before. That’s because some of Riku’s abilities (you only fight Ansem as Riku) come from the real-time card game Flick Rush, which puts teams of three Spirits against each other in a very Chain of Memories like experience. You earn medals which gives you great abilities like an all around block, better dodges, and some of the strongest magic attacks in the game. The reason I call all of this luckily is because it is the only instance where I had to stop, grind, and endure a horrible boss fight, the rest of the game runs smoothly with expertly crafted levels and bosses and brilliant mechanics. The three other bosses Riku has to right afterwards are tough, but not nearly as dumb, and Sora’s final boss fight against Xemnas is pretty straightfoward.
My overall rating of this game is that if you like Kingdom Hearts and can’t wait for Kingdom Hearts III, you’re going to like this game. It has so many nods to previous games and everything seems to be coming together, but if you’re new the series, you have some catching up to do before you can really enjoy this game the way it was meant to be played. This game also took risks, as it always does, changing the formula to a very popular game franchise as much as it did. It is one of the reasons why I stick with this series for more than just seeing how it will end. So if you’re like me, you’re going to enjoy this game just to see what ups and ends it has, both storywise and gameplay wise.