The Kingdom Hearts franchise and I have a… complicated history. When the first game came out in 2002, I was in a very angsty teenage phase; I had little interest in anything Disney that wasn’t a theme park, and my passion for Squaresoft was burning out quickly. I was far from the target demographic at that point. I tried playing it a bit, but it never really clicked.
Two years later, somehow the card-battling sequel for GBA, Chain of Memories, grabs my attention. I fall hard for it, and wind up obsessively playing both the original game and Kingdom Hearts II when it releases in 2006. I was deep into the franchise at that point, totally immersed in the lore (despite/because of the fact that it was completely bananas) and then… I completely fell off and didn’t play any other KH games until the PSP prequel Birth By Sleep on a whim in 2013. I don’t even remember why I picked that one up, other than giving my PSP a reason to exist.
Very recently, I found myself eager to catch up on the series. What spurred this on? Well, I purchased a copy of Kingdom Hearts III for very cheap, and thought that I had better play any important games that I had missed along the way. The good news is that the only one I’d missed (that matters) was Dream Drop Distance for the 3DS. The bad news (as I would find out) is that I would have to play Dream Drop Distance for the 3DS.
As an aside, how redundant is the full title, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance? Should the “3D” not just be implied? Or does Square-Enix just think that little of its audience?
Something that the Kingdom Hearts franchise is very well known for is its intensely convoluted storyline. KH3D does not solve that, and even the self-contained story is quite hard to follow. This game come right before KH3 in the timeline, which is why I deemed it important to play before diving into the final entry. Of course, being the tie between the finale and everything that’s come before, that means that it’s bogged down by the weight of lots of plot that nobody understands and most people have written off. To greatly simplify it, the plot of KH3D goes something like this:
Main character Sora and his best buddy/rival/partner Riku have beaten up a whole lot of bad guys. But they still haven’t truly mastered their magical Keyblade weapons. So they are sent off on a training journey to awaken seven “sleeping worlds” (whatever that means) and presumably earn the Mark of Mastery. I don’t remember what that really means, if it’s just a title or provides a tangible benefit. Along the way, shadows from their past show up and the protagonists discover that all may not be as it seems…
Also there’s Mickey Mouse in there a bunch, and some other Disney characters stop by briefly. That’s really my first sore spot, as since the “let’s visit world based on popular Disney franchises” has been recycled so many times, there aren’t a lot of exciting worlds to visit by this game. We get Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tron: Legacy, The Three Musketeers, and Fantasia. This is not exactly an A-list Disney line-up, and Pinocchio and Tron have already had worlds in previous games. Let it be known that by this point, all of the Final Fantasy characters have been completely excised from the series (except the shop Moogle). However, a gaggle of characters from The World Ends With You are randomly dropped into KH3D’s version of Traverse Town. Why? Because reasons, that’s why.
To gloss over the production values quickly: they’re exactly what you should expect from Kingdom Hearts. A big-budget game that looks great and runs smooth like butter. If the frame rate ever dropped, I didn’t notice because I was too busy trying not to get dizzied by how much was constantly happening on-screen. The soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura is as excellent as ever, though it seemed to me like there were more re-used tracks than original compositions. The voice acting is competently performed to Disney-level standards, complete with the authentic voice cast of all the major characters. Most of the bit parts are done by stand-ins, with the exceptions of Jason Alexander and Charles Kimbrough, who return to voice two of the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
While the big budget went a long way in making KH3D look and sound good, there’s also a downside: it has a serious case of feature bloat. There is so much going on in this game that it’s really hard to keep track of it all, and I found myself picking and choosing things that I just had to ignore so that my entire life wouldn’t get consumed by the minutiae. For example, there’s a card battle-ish type of mini-game that you can play. It seems like it might have some depth and valuable rewards, but I played it once and literally never thought about it again until I started writing this paragraph.
Other things that don’t really need full explanations: Reams of text describing the plots of all previous games. A weird parkour-ish ability (“Flowmotion”) that is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. More types of useless collectible junk than Banjo-Tooie. Random battle arenas that are only visible on the map screen. Weird touch-based mini-games (“Reality shift”) that can defeat enemies and help you get around the worlds. A system that forces you to swap between Sora and Riku’s parallel storylines at the game’s whim.
Special shout outs to that last one, which can be absolutely maddening. Your timer can run out in the middle of a boss fight, which will force you over to the other character, and completely reset the boss’s HP when you get back there. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!
Most of those other features I only interacted with when it was strictly necessary, and some I was able to ignore completely. One thing that you really can’t get around, however, are the Spirits. The enemies in this game are neon-coloured animals called Dream Eaters, and you can craft helpful ones called Spirits to follow you around and assist you in combat. Spirits are a huge chunk of the game, with half a dozen sub-systems devoted to crafting them and powering them up, and I actually wish I could have just recruited Donald and Goofy bakc into the party and ignored the Spirits entirely. But unless you’re one of those really elite players, you can’t.
Spirits provide three absolutely necessary functions for the average player to progress. 1) They act as meat shields, which is hugely important as the game likes to spawn in between six to ten enemies in most encounters. So having a couple distractions running around to keep some of that heat off Sora/Riku is essential. 2) Your passive abilities are tied to your spirits, not character levels. From general stat boosts to unique abilities, you have to save up points and pump them into your Spirits to earn them. Doubly irritating because you need to either luck into finding the correct Spirit or check a guide when looking for the most important abilities like Leaf Bracer (can’t be interrupted when healing) or Second Chance (survive a fatal hit with 1 HP). 3) Sora can link up with Spirits to perform special moves, like casing Curaga and Regen on the party, or performing a screen-clearing meteor attack. These are great for getting out of trouble or giving yourself some breathing room. Riku can link with Spirits too, but it just makes his keyblade glowy. If it improves his combat ability any, the effect is slight enough that I couldn’t tell it was making a difference.
Having all the advantages that you can muster in combat is vital, because this. Game. Cheats. HARD. I already mentioned that it spawns in huge enemy groups that can easily overwhelm you, but it’s so much worse that that. Sora and Riku are delicate flowers, and even a light breeze can interrupt any action they may be trying to take (which is why Leaf Bracer is so important). Their stunned animations are long, and you can’t snap out of them, leaving huge potential for enemies to gang up and stun-lock you to death very quickly. And that will happen a lot. I can’t even give you a rough estimate of how many times I died in KH3D, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s more than all the times I died in every other Kingdom Hearts combined.
Here are a few more things that I found very frustrating: It’s basically impossible to interrupt enemy attacks. Player animations are long, with even longer recovery times, and you can’t cancel out of any of them. You can only block for about a second at a time, then you have to watch the recovery animation before you can do anything, which leaves you vulnerable. Enemies can block for as long as they want, and some stay immune to physical attacks even after they stop blocking (which may be a bug?). Dodge roll has no invincibility frames. Sora/Riku have no invincibility frames after being hit. Enemies have lots of invincibility frames, most of which will cause your attacks to bounce, leaving you open to hits. Many enemies have continuous attacks which you cannot escape from, and are essentially instant death.
So yeah, KH3D is a very frustrating game. It feels like the deck is constantly stacked against the player, and no matter how many levels you gain, you’re always living in fear of a stun-lock death from off-screen. In all fairness, I made it worse on myself than was strictly necessary, as I was playing on Proud Mode, which is the Kingdom Hearts way of saying Hard Mode. I made that choice because I recalled that in previous KH games, there’s a secret special ending cutscene that can be unlocked in two ways: collect 100% of all the garbage in the game, or complete the game on Proud Mode. Generally speaking, Proud Mode has been the easier -or at least less tedious- option, and since no KH game I’d played before had been overly difficult, that’s what I naturally gravitated to.
Imagine my frustration upon learning that KH3D does not conform to the secret ending unlock criteria that I described above.
There’s probably a lot more that I could say about Kingdom Hearts 3D, but now I’ve got myself whipped up into a sour mood after remembering just how frustrating it was to play. So I’ll end with this: I don’t think that Kingdom Hearts 3D is a bad game, at it’s core. At least, it’s not significantly worse than any other comparable game in the series. But between the deluge of tacked-on features that I didn’t care about and the combat system that is in dire need of some fine-tuning to make it less unfair, KH3D becomes something else. It becomes a tedious slog that kills you over and over without remorse. A Sisyphean grind, even though you know that as a video game, there surely must be an end.
If, like myself, you find yourself coerced by a mental illness to finish this game before you can move onto Kingdom Hearts III, then I would recommend that you just burn through it on Easy Mode and watch the secret ending on YouTube if it matters to you. It’s just not worth the pain and frustration. Not even a little bit. I just wish that I could go back and relate this information to Three Months Ago Ryan. If you don’t feel like playing KH3D is an absolute necessity… then don’t. Aside from setting up the plot for the final game, I don’t think it offers anything that is both unique and worthwhile. Every other Kingdom Hearts I’ve played has been a more satisfying experience, and at the end of the day, I just didn’t have very much fun with KH3D.