There is a pedigree of role-playing fan out there that inherently 'gets' the Kingdom Hearts series. To these magical people each new entry in the series is another skein of thread being woven into a glorious tapestry of fantastic fiction.
And then there are the game reviewers.
Having reviewed several Kingdom Hearts titles myself, I can honestly say that there's nothing more terrifying that hitting that submit button and waiting for the die-hard fans to scrutinize every syllable I've committed to digital paper. Did I mistakenly refer to Vanitas as Xenahort? Did I get Sora, Roxas, Xerox and Rorschach mixed up again? Did I refer to the series as a confusing mess, and need to be put down?
Well this time around I dodged that bullet. These poor unfortunate game critic souls, however, did not.
There's not a long history of video game crossovers, but when they do happen they rarely go for the obvious. But the likes of Marvel Vs. Capcom and turning Mario & Sonic into a sports game has nothing on a crossover between Disney movies and Final Fantasy games.
The two universes seem to have little in common, but Kingdom Hearts has been a huge money-spinner for Square Enix - even though it hasn't seen a numbered sequel since 2006. Even though it seems to be leading into Kingdom Hearts III this is yet another side story, and a confusing one if you're not already familiar with the overarching plot.
Kingdom Hearts 3D follows the events of last year's Kingdom Hearts re: Coded for the DS. Series protagonists Sora and Riku must undergo the Mark of Mastery test – a physical examination that, if passed, will earn them the title of Keyblade Masters. They advenure to worlds based on movies such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tron Legacy, with both protagonists working through their own unique storyline in each area.
In Kingdom Hearts 3D the usual enemies, the Heartless, have been replaced by Dream Eaters, who look like university freshers on their way to a UV party.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.
Flowmotion, meanwhile, allows you to hurl yourself around the environment. Activated by rolling into an object or larger enemy, it can be used to travel quickly or to unleash immensely powerful attacks. To begin with, it's basic stuff - high altitude slam attacks, whirling around a post and clobbering everyone in range, or throwing an enemy into the distance - but like almost everything else in Dream Drop Distance, the more you experiment, the more layers you uncover.
It's just a shame that the game's camera isn't always up to the task of keeping Flowmotion in the "pro" column as opposed to the "con". The whirling, lurching motion can be distracting or downright disorientating during combat, while the need to cram a lot of info into the small 3DS screen adds to the cramped feeling of data overload. The game is compatible with the Circle Pad Pro, it helpfully points out, and will no doubt look the business on the 3DS XL. It's just a shame that the greatest weakness in a game that pushes boundaries in so many other areas is something as old and irritating as a poor camera.
There is considerable meat to the gameplay, for sure, but mechanically the game leaves a lot to be desired. Swapping commands on the 3DS' awkwardly positioned D-pad is very difficult to do while moving, and that can be deadly during a boss battle. The lock-on system is functionally the same as previous games', but here it just can't seem to do the job. There's frequently so much going on and so many enemies around that you'll struggle to lock onto the correct enemy, and you'll end up flying off in random directions or accidentally Flowmotioning off of a wall or large enemy.
It's a beautiful looking game on the 3DS, and compares favorably to the gorgeous Birth By Sleep on the PSP. It's certainly a step up from any other Nintendo handheld entry in the series (which isn't saying much, I know), and looks pretty fantastic in full 3D. The soundtrack is also filled with a lot familiar tunes, but also some catchy new ones and a nice Dearly Beloved remix at the title screen.
And if you're new to the series, there's a lot of optional material in the game that'll attempt to catch you up on the overall plot, with various text breakdowns that kick in at important points of the story. I'd say to really appreciate everything going on it's a good idea to be familiar with the PS2 and PSP entries at least, but I think you could come into this cold and still have some fun.
Although it's hard not to miss Donald and Goofy-or, for that matter, party members who can actually talk-it's easy to ignore the inevitably incomprehensible story (and even skip cut-scenes) in favor of whacking your way through lovely Disnified worlds. Dream Drop Distance isn't a great game. Nor would it earn a particularly high ranking on my list of "video games you must play in your lifetime" (which, of course, starts with Suikoden II). But it sure is fun.