The Kingdom Hearts series is a strange beast. It started as a fanciful fling between Squaresoft and Disney, a pair of very unlikely bedfellows brought together by the fact that they shared an elevator. Over the past dozen years, developer Square Enix has evolved the series into a truly vast thing: increasingly complex, adored by its fans, and alienating to newcomers. The concept was originally very appealing to me, as I tend to enjoy unlikely combinations like this. I found the juxtaposition of cartoon whimsy and melodramatic fantasy to be irresistible, and I’ve played (or at least tried to play) almost all of the games in the series since the beginning. Sadly, as the stories of each successive game built on top of the rest and the universe grew more complex, I began to notice the quirkiness fading away with each iteration, only to be replaced by half-baked game mechanics and a heaping helping of hollow plot twists. I grew tired of watching such a fun concept go to waste.
The latest game, a 3DS spin-off called Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (D.D.D., three “D”, geddit?) was released a couple years ago, and frankly, as a disillusioned former fan, I couldn’t have cared less. I had all but sworn off the series after the previous iteration delivered some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen in a video game (truly a remarkable achievement). However, some friends of mine had seen fit to praise the latest entry, so being the optimist/masochist that I am, I decided to let Sora and friends break my heart just one more time. Perhaps, as Square Enix prepares to unleash the next main entry, Kingdom Hearts III, they would be able to return to their whimsical roots. What I found was, to my shock and bewilderment, equal parts Delightful, Defective, and Depressing (GEDDIT?).
Taken by itself, Kingdom Hearts 3D (KH3D) is a pretty good game. The story is lame all-around, but the gameplay is actually quite solid. I haven’t enjoyed actually playing Kingdom Hearts this much since the first game on PlayStation 2, and I’d argue that KH3D’s combat is considerably more enjoyable than the original, thanks to a combination of several elements:
You can create spirits called Dream Eaters to fight alongside you, and once you have a good handful of spirit recipes to choose from, it becomes quite clear that each of them has very specific strengths and weaknesses. Every spirit lends itself to different play styles, and your chosen combination of active spirits is a very effective way of developing a combat strategy. And it helps that they’re all enemy monsters, so you get to see their abilities firsthand before you make them into your allies. I highly recommend giving your spirit companions silly names and growing attached to them, because they are full of personality and thoroughly lovable.
This is a very fundamental thing, but in terms of special abilities, I’m not sure the pieces have ever really ‘clicked’ into place in this series as well as they do now. Each ability has its own tactical use, including rushing toward far away enemies, pile-driving into a spot (useful against crowds), and even throwing enemies into each other with magnet-magic (how does it work?). Even basic spells are unique to each other and tactically useful, including fire (ranged with homing), thunder (area attack), and status spells like sleep, which is useful for getting a free combo or two on an enemy, or for keeping tough enemies away for a few seconds while you take care of the small fries. I always love when a game gives me a digestible, yet potent tool set to develop my own strategies.
I honestly thought this was just a flashy gimmick when I tried the demo a long time ago. Flowmotion is a system that lets you spring off walls and enemies, zooming back and forth while performing speedy, stylish special attacks. It was janky to trigger (and, honestly, it still is), and flying around the battlefield is hard to control, which led me to believe that it just wasn’t worth it. I felt it was all style and no substance.
Having played more, however, I found it extremely useful, as it let me use the environment to my advantage to escape potentially devastating enemy attacks and deal quick combos in some encounters. It’s still very unreliable, due to the difficulty activating Flowmotion on some enemies or props, as well as the horrible, horrible camera. It’s downright nauseating to try to escape enemies sometimes, and I often flew in confused circles until an enemy would get fed up and just deal a finishing blow. BUT. As broken as it is sometimes, Flowmotion is very fun and lends itself to interesting level design (previously a severe weak point of the series). I really hope they can put a fixed version of it in Kingdom Hearts III.
This should be a given, but the previous game, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (BBS), was so terribly unbalanced that I have to address it. BBS’ difficulty curve started off challenging (read: fun) for a world or two, then became piss easy (read: boring) for the longest time, until the endgame bosses suddenly become soul-crushingly difficult (read: FFFFFFFFFFFF). I’ll come clean here, I rage-quit before I could finish Terra’s story (the first of three included in BBS). Kingdom Hearts II, for that matter, was one giant cakewalk. Aside from a boss or two that were disproportionately difficult, that game was never actually challenging, even in that one battle where you fight off 1000 Heartless. It should have been an awesome, epic battle of tactics and resource management, and yet anyone could beat that fight blindfolded, no joke.
KH3D not only manages to be consistently challenging throughout, but has very good enemy design. All those special abilites that the different dream eaters have? As enemies, they use them against you in battle, and they can dramatically change how you approach each encounter, which enemies your prioritize, and which moves you focus on using. Monsters can hide in impenetrable shells (which can be knocked off), place boiling lava-looking things around the battlefield, drain health, impair your movement with slippery ice, and many other things. Combat isn’t just action-RPG meat-and-potatoes here; I’d go as far as to say that combat is a delight in KH3D (a series first, in my opinion).
Now, while the gameplay of Kingdom Hearts 3D is right on the money, the narrative of the Kingdom Hearts series is more broken than it ever was. To be fair, KH3D’s script is never as offensively bad as BBS, which includes a scenario that portrays the Evil Queen from Snow White as a victim of the player. No, really, BBS actually made me feel sorry for the Evil Queen, one of the most black-hearted villains in the entire Disney catalog. Anyway, even though KH3D is never that painfully bad, there is still no part of the KH3D’s story that makes enough sense to be worth paying attention to.
These denizens of the Kingdom Hearts universe never stop spewing crap about ‘hearts’ and ‘dreams’ and ‘being connected’ and ‘sleeping worlds’ and ‘darknesses and lights’ (yes, both those words are used in plural form by straight-faced characters). By the time I heard the words “dream within a dream”, I realized it was never going to get better.
The smaller story of each world is meant to reveal a miniature truth about the nature of these things. But the language is so garbled and repetitive, the message is so mindbogglingly abstract, and the use of these elements so wildly inconsistent, that any relevancy to the audience is rendered null. This is the stuff that has turned Kingdom Hearts into a decidedly uncool series, and for good reason. Nobody in KH3D will ever say anything even remotely useful.
Although sterile, incoherent writing has been a problem in this series ever since it became a series, KH3D only hurts itself by being an unintelligible mess. However, when considered in context with the rest of the series and the implications of its ending, it becomes clear that Square Enix is preparing to give us their Worst Story Ever. The reason that the series is broken is because the continuity of the Kingdom Hearts universe has been repeatedly raped by each new iteration, and KH3D is no exception.
Please bear with me, as the next couple paragraphs are going to be a bit confusing. This is entirely Square Enix’s fault, and only serves to emphasize my point, which will become clear shortly.
It was bad enough when Square Enix released Kingdom Hearts II, which was NOT ACTUALLY the sequel to Kingdom Hearts, but instead was the sequel to Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. A card-based game made for the Game Boy Advance, Chain of Memories was the actual sequel to the first game, yet most people probably didn’t play it because it was on a completely different console, had fundamentally different gameplay, featured almost no new worlds or Disney elements, and was billed as a spinoff. Lifetime sales of both Chain of Memories and its PS2 remake combined are still less than half of the original game, which isn’t even factoring in how many people actually finished playing it (twice, it has two stories).
Kingdom Hearts II was literally the second half of the story started in Chain of Memories, and if you missed out on Chain of Memories, you would start Kingdom Hearts 2 absolutely bewildered as to who these people in coats are and why we are supposed to care (even though it had all previously been explained). Imagine if someone were to watch Star Wars, skip The Empire Strikes Back, and then watch Return of the Jedi. They’d spend most of their viewing time just trying to piece together what the hell happened in the second movie. Kingdom Hearts II then proceeded to reveal that we never really accomplished anything in the first game, because the real villains have been plotting their own evil master plan THIS WHOLE TIME.
I had hoped that Square would not make the same mistake twice. Having played KH3D I’m convinced that they’re not only making the same mistake again, they’re screwing up harder than ever before. I’ve illustrated the bewilderment of a Kingdom Hearts II player who hasn’t played Chain of Memories. Now consider the fact that, since Kingdom Hearts II (almost a decade ago), there have been not one, but four entire games building up to Kingdom Hearts III. How terrible will the next game be for anyone who hasn’t had the time, or the money, or even the hardware to follow these side-stories on DS, PSP, and 3DS?
And yet, they aren’t mere spin-offs. Each of these stories includes major details and plot twists that dramatically alter the rules of the universe and the dynamics between the characters. And to top it all off, KH3D’s finale is setting up Kingdom Hearts III to reveal, once again, that everything we accomplished in all the previous games doesn’t amount to anything because it was ALL a part of the real-real villain’s impossibly convoluted and yet totally premeditated plot.
The Wasted Potential
I was really hoping that Square would use KH3D to wrap up the mess it’s made of the Kingdom Hearts universe, and prepare the heroes for a new quest. Let Sora discover new bullshit about hearts that had nothing to do with Ansems (again, yes, plural) and organizations consisting entirely of people whose defining characteristics are their stupid, forgettable names. Instead they want to redefine every element of the previous games, many of which have already been redefined several times over.
A long time ago, the first Kingdom Hearts came from way out of left field, converted many skeptics, and generally charmed the pants off people the world over (yes, this series was actually cool once). Shortly after, Square Enix said that Kindom Hearts would be a major franchise for them, sitting alongside Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. With seven unique Kingdom Hearts games, they’ve certainly made plenty of sequels, yet the series is increasingly lacking in accessibility as the story bloats more and more with convoluted plot twists. This is decidedly unlike its sister franchises, both of which manage to keep things fresh by making each entry into its own self-contained story.
Kingdom Hearts could enjoy the accessibility of an episodic story, if only Square Enix would ever be willing to throw away elements from previous games. The adventures of Sora and friends could absolutely be self-contained journeys focusing on a just a handful of major Disney, Square, and original Kingdom Hearts characters. Instead, we are being treated to an ever-expanding story built on shaky foundations, where the writers have smashed the foundations to pieces and rebuilt them many times over, all while keeping the frame and everything inside of it intact through liberal use of duct tape. So long as this continues, I don’t believe for one second that this series isn’t going to come crashing down.
The tragic thing is that it’s not all bad. Kingdom Hearts 3D contains actual proof that Kingdom Hearts could be wonderful again, free of the current story’s eyeball-glazing garbage. You see, there’s one world in this game where Square Enix makes the dialogue magically disappear, the awkward, grown-ass voice of Haley Joel Osment muted out of existence: towards the end of the game, KH3D puts you in the world of Fantasia.
Here sound effects are replaced by the clashing rhythm of orchestral instruments and the background music transforms from generic fantasy loops into the enchanting melodies of The Nutcracker Suite and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. And most importantly, for just a little while, there is no puerile babbling or irritating combat grunts. For just a little while, you’re no longer running through hollow shadows of the Disney movies you loved as a child. For just a little while, there’s nothing but exhilarating combat in a world filled with beauty. It’s a glimpse into the Kingdom Hearts we could have had, a series that blends the thrilling fun of the great RPG classics with the legendary “magic” of the world of Disney.
Kingdom Hearts 3D is clearly meant to prepare players for Kingdom Hearts III. While the gameplay has finally been built into something worthy of the Final Fantasy legacy, the quality of the story accelerates ever faster in a downward spiral of worthlessness. As I anticipate the impending sequel, I realize that I have never before wanted so badly to play a game I know I’m going to hate. I give this game a score of 7 lights and 13 darknesses, because if Square Enix can make a plot device that sounds this stupid, then I can make a review score that sounds just as stupid.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is playable and was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS. Completed the story on Standard difficulty in approximately 26 hours, with Sora at level 36 and Riku at level 39. Used “Flowmotion Jump” 351 times after realizing that I could use it to wall-jump like Mega Man up to any height. According to the completion screen, my “Best Spirit Friend” was a porcupine-cat-thing that I named “OW THE EDGE”.
Special thanks to Jaryd Hall for naming my cat-unicorn-balloon-thing “Emerowds”, and to Laura Hotchkiss for naming my magical-healing-flower-thing “Pork Chop”.