But growing up doesn't just mean inheriting a world of convoluted complication. It's about, well, growing – changing, evolving and taking a measured, realistic look at your own flaws. And in that respect, Kingdom Hearts really hasn't grown up at all. Case in point: Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. It isn't bad by any means. Rather, the spin-off with the goofiest name yet (though sadly, perhaps the least Goofy) is simply a mishmash of middling new ideas and the clunky, frustrating and otherwise upsetting bits that have polluted the series over the years. Regarding the story, you're in for another awkwardly written eye-roller, but here's what you need to know. In the aftermath of Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, Sora and Riku have – at the behest of Yen Sid – decided to undergo a test to become Keyblade Masters. It sounds all dramatic and meaningful, but in reality, it's simply another excuse to adventure through Disney-themed worlds and smash things with keyblades.
Some of these beloved locales are, unfortunately, retreads of Kingdom Hearts' comically oversized footsteps (e.g. Traverse Town, Monstro), but worlds based on Hunchback of Notre Dame, Three Musketeers, Tron: Legacy, and Fantasia are all-new. Unfortunately, regardless of which order you choose to tackle them in, the first few aren't particularly spectacular – featuring hollow takes on stories already told with far more feeling in their respective movies. Once Kingdom Hearts 3D finishes the infamously slow first verse in Square Enix's usual song-and-dance, however, the stories and battles get more interesting. And at that point, I found myself legitimately hooked right up until the credits.
There is a twist this time around, namely a timer that constantly looms over your every action. When it runs out, whichever character you're controlling immediately succumbs to a case of plot-mandated narcolepsy, and control shifts to the other in whichever world he happens to be in. The idea is for Sora and Riku to experience different parts of each world's story while swapping items and stat bonuses based on how well you perform before the clock strikes zero and you turn back into a pumpk– er, fall asleep.
In practice, however, the forced switching mechanic is pointless at best and downright obnoxious at worst. At one point, for instance, it interrupted me right as I was about to strike the killing blow on a particularly frustrating boss. The next time I took control of Riku, I had to start the whole battle over again. Pacing, meanwhile, goes out the window, with one character's moment of big drama often giving way to the other's ho-hum introduction to a world and its stiffly acted characters.
Combat, fortunately, makes most of the hassle worthwhile. By and large, long-time Kingdom Hearts fans will come away with a kingdom-sized case of déjà vu (miserable camera angles included), but the new "Flowmotion" system makes walloping candy-coated baddies with a giant key feel pretty damn cool. It allows you to push off walls and enemies to gain a tremendous (and strangely purple) burst of speed and altitude, bouncing from surface to surface and culminating in a dazzling special attack.
In the process, both Sora and Riku look like a mix between the Tasmanian Devil and a Cirque du Soleil performance, eliciting the requisite "oohs" and "ahs" in equal measure. Theatrics aside, the combat still won't win any awards for brilliant tactical complexity. Even the toughest bosses tend to favor devastating blows and cheap animations over anything that requires a functional brain to puzzle out.
On top of all this, Kingdom Hearts 3D employs a brand new progression system based almost entirely upon virtual pets. Known as Dream Eaters, these Pokemon-meet-Heartless critters serve as the game's central friends and foes. Collect enough materials, and you can breathe the joyous miracle of life (and eternal servitude!) into almost anything you face in the field. Your three-creature party will then fight alongside you, level up, and accrue points that are spent on unlockable abilities for Sora and Riku.
In theory, hand-picking both my party and my skill set should have led to all sorts of variety and customization, but in practice, it made the most sense to seek out old Kingdom Hearts essentials (healing spells, stat increases) and pretend like my party didn't exist. And that's a shame, because boosting Dream Eaters' stats by petting them or playing mini-games via the touch screen is – while sometimes tedious – an oddly emotional experience.
I petted an adorably rotund dog creature, for example, until it leaped up and licked the screen in a spittle-soaked show of pure glee. That moment gave actual, unscripted personality to what would otherwise be just another weapon in my arsenal. Unfortunately, man's best friend became Sora's worst, most brainless enemy in combat, and that bond shattered almost instantly. And that extended to most Dream Eaters: dodgy AI meant that they rarely did enough damage to be truly useful and often failed to heal me when I really needed it.
As a result, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance leaves me in a tough spot. I still enjoyed the high-flying hack 'n' slashing, and the lapsed Kingdom Hearts fanatic in me even took a certain amount of delight in attempting to untangle the game's matted mess of a plot (especially when it involved copious The World Ends With You fan service). Still, the experience is flawed. It never entirely drops the ball, but it comes dangerously close – especially where new systems like the forced character-swapping and the pet system collide with old problems like awkward pacing, occasionally clunky combat and unreliable AI. Here's hoping Square Enix decides to perform some flaw-flushing open-heart surgery on the series before its next entry, because hiding the messy bits under arbitrary new systems clearly isn't doing it any favors.
This review is based on a retail copy of the version of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance for the 3DS, provided by Square-Enix.
Nathan Grayson is a Dallas-born, San Francisco-based freelancer whose work appears on Rock Paper Shotgun, GameSpy, Eurogamer, VG247, and IGN, among others. His three great loves are puppies, manticores, and puppies again. Also, videogames. You can follow him on Twitter at @Vahn16.
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