I've made it perfectly clear that, if I were ever to wage war on a video game series, it would be Hyperdimension Neptunia. Still, if I won and had enough resources to do it all again, I'd take my frustrations out on the Kingdom Hearts series. I'd list the reasons right here but, as that'd take way too long, I'll just stick with calling it an incomprehensible mess that just won't roll over and die already. We're 10 years into this series now and Kingdom Hearts III still has yet to show itself over the horizon because Tetsuya Nomura is still in his phase of going over every single unexplained corner of the current canon and making them even more complicated in endless spinoffs. Birth By Sleep is especially notable for being introduced only to give Sora, Kairi and Riku motivation to get their lazy backsides off the Destiny Islands when they've already completed their story. Now we have Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance which, surprisingly, gets away from all that side story business and shows that the main plot is actually going somewhere even if on a stretcher attached to life support.
Already, one can measure how big the ego of the series is by looking at the title of its latest entry alone. Dream Drop Distance sounds ridiculous; it sounds like an ice cream flavour made by monks with way too much time on their hands. Anyway, one of my problems with the series is how convoluted it is. The first game was just poorly written but I could forgive that because the plot was secondary to the fanservice of seeing Final Fantasy characters and elements cross over with Disney characters and elements. While such a combination normally wouldn't work, Nomura actually made a compelling story with it that still managed to retain its charm while still having deep undercurrents. Special mention goes to Sora being voiced by Haley Joel Osment who really managed to immerse me in the game's mystical and childish Disney atmosphere. Now, things are taking a turn for the worse as Haley Joel Osment's age has increased in inverse proportion to how much Sora's role now suits him and the plot just doesn't make sense anymore.
Do you remember the magic of flying with Peter Pan?
I'll show you what I mean. In re:coded, it's been revealed that Xehanort, who ripped his heart/soul from his body, causing him to split into two other people, has come back to life after his two other selves have been killed, allowing them to go back into the same body and already it's stopped making sense. So, in Kingdom Hearts 3D, Yen Sid has decided to put Sora and Riku but oddly enough not Kairi through the Mark of Mastery exam. For Terra and Aqua in Birth by Sleep, this just came down to smacking around a few yellow spheres and then beating up each other. For Sora and Riku, they have to travel to a completely different dimension via undisclosed means and "wake up sleeping worlds" by finding the seven sleeping keyholes or whatever. Putting aside the issue as to how worlds sleep in the first place, why are Sora and Riku allowed to do the exam if Ventus, who was their age (well, a year younger than Riku but whatever), was too young to do it? If it's because the worlds are in danger and they need to be Masters now, why is their exam so much larger in scale and more time-consuming compared to orb and friend whacking?
Anyway, Sora and Riku go into the dream worlds and are split up with Sora in one version of a sleeping world and Riku in the other, Xehanort's other selves are somehow alive and well and then it turns out there can be dreams within dreams-AAAAH! Damn it, I can't take any more of this. Play the game yourself if you want to figure out what the hell's going on although I doubt you'll be able to. I can't cover all of the plot holes and retcons and inconsistencies in a game review due to lack of space but, to give you a taste of how messed up this series can get, when he was asked in an interview what the most important thing to him is when making a story, Nomura's answer was "to make it surprising". By God, does it show; by the end of the game, we've answered maybe a handful of questions only to make way for a truckload more. Once time travel, the bane of all logic and reasoning, got brought up in a conversation, I pretty much gave up on trying to follow the plot from there on.
"Sleeping" keyholes... Alright then (Also, grammar rage moment; the comma should be outside the closing quote mark. Also also, what the hell happened to Riku's hair?).
I mentioned in my previous review of Kingdom Hearts II that the plot only progressed at precise points at the beginning, middle and end of the story in a display of massive storytelling fail and I am happy to say that the problem has been... assuaged in Kingdom Hearts 3D. The plot tends to always keep going even if the pacing is either sporadic or slow. The problem is just that the plot is going on in the real world while Sora and Riku are in the dream worlds. What's more, the plot that's going on in the real world is actually kind of interesting and I'd much rather be there than going through Disney worlds and doing their plots that have absolutely no bearing on the grand scheme of things.
While we're on the subject, I'm sick of how Disney, Final Fantasy and now The World Ends With You contribute precisely bugger all to the overall plot. I was fine with this in the first game because the story was just a framing device to hold the childish fantasies of visiting the worlds of Disney movies, meeting all our favourite characters and partaking in their stories but, with the overarching plot being so serious and the primary focus of the series, the fanservice doesn't have a purpose anymore and it fails to be charming. Of course, it could work if Sora or Riku's actions actually had consequences in the worlds. Despite their combat prowess and super manoeuvrability, Sora and Riku are completely incapable of stopping the bad stuff that's going to go down. The best example of this is in the Tron Legacy world; Riku and the good guys are on one side of a slowly separating bridge and another good guy is stuck with the bad guy on the other side. Despite being perfectly capable of jumping over there, knocking out the bad guy and taking the good guy to the other side in mere seconds, Riku stands there like an idiot. Kingdom Hearts shares a common problem with fanfiction in that new characters are introduced to established stories and they don't change them in the slightest even though their presence alone should.
Riku, you can easily break out of that (and no, he never does).
Another thing about the worlds is that they're all strangely abandoned. In the Hunchback of Notre Dame world for instance, there isn't a single other civilian in sight. There are tents around for the Feast of Fools but the only people present are Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Captain Phoebus and Judge Frollo. One could excuse this as the Dream Eaters- the monsters of the game- tend to pop up from out of nowhere and no one wants to take risks but Judge Frollo comes across Sora by chance when he's just walking calmly down the road as if he's going to pick up his laundry. The worlds feel incredibly lifeless and it really bugs me. Like the previous paragraph's point, this could probably be blamed on the game's strict following of the movie plots. Another thing that can be blamed on that is the fact that, every time Sora or Riku actually try to change the status quo and charge the villain, a Dream Eater comes in to intercept them or knock them out despite both of them having been on a minimum of three adventures each and they should be more prepared for that kind of thing.
As for the dialogue, it's as annoyingly ear-grinding as ever. Again, in the first game, this was alright because it brought the sprinkle of whimsy that would make the game feel just right but there's no excuse for such sappiness in a story that's trying this hard to be taken seriously. Among the list of things that make me want to cough up blood are the "strength of the heart" messages, the monologues delivered by Sora and Riku upon completing each level and when the game tries to be funny. The most annoying thing, however, is Sora and Riku endlessly giving out compliments to each other when they're not around like Valentines chocolates in the mail, with "Riku's always looking out for me" and "Sora's heart is full of light and he's the best person in the series because Tetsuya Nomura says so so shut up" being the most common ones. You know, I really would have liked Sora and Riku to have journeyed side by side in this instalment; I'd be able to see them interact with each other and actually see their friendship rather than have the dialogue force it on me.
This is one of the more milder ones.
Speaking of character development being acquired by the characters through cosmic coincidence rather than any actual effort of their own, the characters never put any conscious effort into achieving their goals and yet they achieve them anyway. I've lost count of how many times Sora and Riku blatantly disregarded the sleeping keyholes to participate in the world's plot and the keyhole of the world just presented itself when all was said and done. As I mentioned in my The Last Story review (actually inferred but never mind), characters should have to work for their status rather than have it presented to them. This is a problem with the series overall; characters that will become friends become friends and dilemmas are resolved because of "hearts" all the sifting time and no one actually works for anything. I'd say this was fine in the first game but it wasn't even present then; Sora was a hard worker who fought tooth and nail when the going got tough. He lost his Keyblade and took up a stick for crying out loud.
I think if I talk any more about the story, I'll give myself another headache so let's move on to the gameplay. As is always the case for the series, before you can play in a new world, you must do a little minigame. This one, seemingly made specifically to show off the 3D, is about diving slowly through the air to complete an objective so that you can leave, whether the objective is collecting enough points or whatever. Overall, these minigames are bland and forgettable and I found them to be massive wastes of time, especially the boss ones which are essentially just waiting games until they present their weak spots because their contracts said so and their employers are manipulative jerks. You get a reward if you get the gold medal but you can get the rewards from other sources anyway so you might as well forget it. I don't even know why it's even in the game; it's just a pointless delay that's hardly entertaining.
When you get to ground gameplay, the mode that actually matters, there have been two significant additions. The first is a new system like Pokémon where you can make Dream Eaters, this game's monsters, to fight at your side. These are called Spirits, recoloured friendly versions of the Nightmares which are evil Dream Eaters. By the way, forgive me for shifting topics a bit but, if I am expected to consider the Dream Eaters an adversary equal to the Heartless or Nobodies, then I will fund my own space voyage to find Russel's Teapot. They're only rainbow-coloured versions of animals in our world, for crying out loud. Cat-dogs, bats, scarabs, panda bears, rabbits and the like put through a rainbow filter in Photoshop are definitely not my idea of threatening. Anyway, back to the Spirits: by fighting with them, they can gain experience and level up and gain link points with which you can unlock abilities. You can play with them and feed them and do anything else that Tetsuya Nomura thought that the player would find endearing for the same effect.
Truth be told, I don't like how the game tries to wring affection from me by making it so that "connecting" with my Spirits provides benefits that are useful to gameplay. I don't show love and affection to video game objects because I get stuff that's useful to gameplay... okay, I do but that's beside the point. I hugged the Blob in A Boy and his Blob not because it'd give me the power to withstand those blasted floating mines (it doesn't, by the way) but because I loved the thing and I wanted to congratulate it for a job well done. Talking with Elena and giving her gifts in Pandora's Tower wasn't for getting items; it was because I truly cared about her. The affection and interaction felt genuine in those games while my relationship with each Spirit is generally materialistic in nature; when I unlocked all the abilities I needed, I just tossed them aside and got new ones to do it all again, so the Spirit system feels hollow, token and manipulative.
I'm only playing with you things to get your abilities. After that, I'm replacing you.
Now, the other addition, Flowmotion, is something I welcome with open arms. Flowmotion activates when you slide into walls or poles or jump on rails. It allows you to jump really high or zoom across the level Caster style if the Caster floated in mid-air. Getting around by zigzagging across the field has a really exhilarating quality to it and I found myself loving the open level design that allowed me to speed around at Mach speeds without a care in the world. What's more, Flowmotion allows for you to use some really powerful attacks that can make short work of most enemies. It's a bit wonky and you'll probably find yourself going in the direction opposite of where you wanted to go but, once you get the hang of it, you'll be wondering why Sonic the Hedgehog even exists if we have this addictive mechanic that may actually be enough to justify buying this game.
However, I get the impression Tetsuya Nomura failed to anticipate how I'd use Flowmotion. You see, a greater emphasis has been put on platforming in Kingdom Hearts 3D, which I greatly appreciate; Kingdom Hearts II stopped caring about the whole platforming gig that the first game utilised to break off the monotony of countless random encounters and it's nice to have it back. However, Flowmotion lets you wall jump like crazy and completely clear almost any obstacle in your way without pressing the switches that the game insists you press. The only reason you'll press the switches is because the game puts up barriers that will stop you from pressing on. Another thing stopping you from just Flowmotion-ing to the end of the level is that treasure chests are sprinkled in the far corners of each world and you need to do some combing to find them. You can just skip past them but I don't think you should as they actually have some useful stuff in them this time around. Still, Flowmotion is incredibly fun; it's just that Tetsuya didn't see its full potential.
OH MY GOD, THIS IS AWESOME!
Aside from the Flowmotion and Spirits, combat itself hasn't really changed much but, being on the 3DS, it suffers from the usual problems of transferring to a handheld such as a terrible camera that can only be controlled by the shoulder buttons, meaning you can't look up or down. Something notable is that the menu system has been replaced by something called the Command Deck (haven't played Birth By Sleep, don't want or need to because I watched the cutscenes online, shut up) which has slots that you put your abilities into and you scroll through it during combat with the D-Pad and activate the abilities with the X button (your attack button is A). You have no MP bar this time around; each of your abilities must recharge after each use. Part of me wants to say that this is definitely a better alternative to how Kingdom Hearts II worked, what with being unable to attack or move while you cycle through your items for your potions while a giant ball with arms and legs is trying to ram you, but then I remember the perfectly fine Favourites system that is absent from this installment. Also, to my chagrin, items can only be used when they're in your command deck, meaning if you don't suddenly want to Drop (that is, change characters) but you don't have a Drop-me-not in place, you can grab a spoon and open wide.
Oh yes; the Drop mechanic. You see, with Sora and Riku being split up, the player is able to alternate between the two of them to control. However, the game insists that you don't play as one for too long; when your Drop meter at the bottom right of the screen empties, you have thirty seconds before the game forcefully boots you to the next character and you pick up where you left off. I don't understand why this is necessary and I find it especially annoying that this can happen during boss fights. Twice, I got the boss to his final bar of health and then the game says "Alright, you've had your fun. Now, go play as Sora". Upon returning to Riku, the battle restarts with the boss at full health. It took me ages to get those bosses to that state, game! Here's an idea, free of charge: why not have Sora and Riku travel together and the player can switch between which one they're controlling whenever they want?
Hm... I have a little bit more to go.
Another problem I have with Sora and Riku being split up is that, since there are only seven levels in the entire game and Sora and Riku both explore each world individually... Do you see what's going on here? You're exploring every area twice. I know the barrel for Disney movies is running kind of dry but this makes the game feel artificially lengthened. Sure, Riku and Sora often explore completely different areas but it still feels like I'm treading old ground regardless. It doesn't help that the game's twenty hours of expected game time only feels like doing the same ten hours of gameplay twice over.
Oh, almost forgot. You see, something that I very much love with the series is the animations for the characters. In cutscenes, the characters have very lifelike facial movements and they work so well. Every single character looks great and lifelike with the animations. Even the humans from Tron: Legacy escape the uncanny valley and blend right in with the rest of the cast. That is, when the series feels like using the animations; too often, characters just use their stock motions and faces in cutscenes, producing an uneven effect that's kind of jarring and I can't help but notice it. The series has been moving away from this the longer it's been going so, hopefully, this will all go by the next game. In any event, it's amazing how 3D animation from ten years ago still gives characters more verisimilitude than most graphics technology today.
As lifelike as ever.
Still, even with the animations that are good (most of the time) and the hilariously entertaining Flowmotion, I really can't find it in myself to recommend this game. The overly convoluted story, narmy writing that makes a series that's trying way too hard to be taken seriously hard to take seriously and the poor implementation of the Disney worlds leaves me feeling empty and disappointed. I'm sure you fans of the series will love this game regardless and, if that's the case, then whoop dee doo. Myself, with the pieces in place and the plot heading straight for the final battle between light and darkness, I just hope this means this game is the last non-main console release and we can finally get to Kingdom Hearts III where all the plot threads will be tied up and we'll have an epic conclusion and everyone can finally live happily forevermore after a series more than ten years into the making and we can finally get on with our lives.
That is what I would be saying if it weren't for the fact that Kingdom Hearts III would just be the end of the Xehanort saga rather than the series as a whole.
Here are the rest of my reviews.
Well, so much for not doing this all over again.