Originally released in 2012, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream, Drop, Distance (possibly the most forcibly alliterative title since Resident Evil: Deadly Silence, and hereafter referred to as "3D") is chronologically the last game in the series to take place before the impending Kingdom Hearts III. Tetsuya Nomura and the staff at Square Enix were reportedly very impressed with the Nintendo 3DS hardware and wanted to make a game for it, taking full advantage of the system's unique capabilities. The result is a game with a lot of interesting, if slightly flawed, gameplay systems, and a story that leads directly into III. Let's get into it.
Following the post-credits scene of Re:Coded, Yen Sid has summoned Sora and Riku in order to train them in the Mark of Mastery, allowing them to become fully fledged Keyblade Masters. In order to accomplish this task, the duo will have to enter the "sleeping worlds" — worlds consumed by the Heartless that remain in a dream-like state — and unlock seven sleeping Keyholes. While in the realm of sleep, Sora and Riku will encounter the Dream Eaters (yet another new enemy type), which are split into two categories: malevolent Nightmares, and benevolent Spirits that assist them on their mission.
The Mark of Mastery exam belies real danger this time, however. It isn't long before things go amiss, as Sora and Riku begin to encounter the apparently resurrected Ansem and Xemnas, as well as a third mysterious figure who turns out to be a younger version of Xehanort sent through time to assist in the resurrection of his future self (yep: time travel is a plot device in Kingdom Hearts now, in case things weren't convoluted enough at this point). It turns out that Xehanort has laid a trap for Sora, who is an unwitting component in his resurrection. This leads to an epic confrontation between Riku, King Mickey, and a cavalcade of villains from across the Kingdom Hearts series, including Master Xehanort and several returning Organization members, in a battle for Sora's heart. The prospect of having all of the major villains back for a final showdown in Kingdom Hearts III is pretty exciting. It's just unfortunate that 3D's storytelling is probably the most convoluted in the series, throwing around concepts like time travel and parallel realities with reckless abandon. It's still necessary to experience this tale if you want to know what the heck is going on in future entries, but it's one of the weakest narratives in the series, which is a real shame.
Instead of having multiple campaigns like in Birth by Sleep, 3D employs the "Drop" system. Players can switch between Sora and Riku's campaigns at any time, and after a certain amount of time has passed (indicated by a meter on the character's icon), the game will automatically switch to the other character. This sounds like it would be a massive pain, and it is a bit weird at first, but in all honesty, there are enough item pickups and consumable "Drop-Me-Nots" that render the problem moot, and switching characters for short play sessions is ideal for handheld play. Sora and Riku will explore the same worlds, all while fighting different bosses and encountering different characters. Some of these characters even include Neku and company from The World Ends With You (a nice nod to another popular Tetsuya Nomura game), who reside within the never-before-seen fourth and fifth districts of Traverse Town.
The Flowmotion system is perhaps 3D's biggest innovation, and it kind of makes or breaks the game depending on who you ask. Sora and Riku are way more mobile in 3D, with the ability to bounce from wall to wall, grind on rails, and perform gravity-defying acrobatic attacks. There are also context-sensitive "reality shift" actions that change based on each world. Flowmotion in combat feels satisfying to pull off, and navigating the game's worlds with it is enjoyable at first, but there are a few wrinkles that ought to have been ironed out. For starters, Flowmotion negatively impacts the game's level design: worlds are much wider-open, but largely consist of empty space for the player to bounce around in, making backtracking tedious. There are exceptions to this, of course (a late-game world based on Fantasia ranks among the series' best), but areas like the new Traverse Town districts are essentially just enormous corridors with enemies scattered throughout. Flowmotion also breaks some of the game's platforming challenges, as it is entirely possible (and possible even encouraged) to abuse Flowmotion and infinitely wall jump up to hidden treasure chests like something out of Sonic Boom. It's by no means a deal-breaker, but hopefully Flowmotion movement is refined in future games.
Despite taking separate Mark of Mastery tests, Sora and Riku's journey won't be a solo one like in Birth by Sleep. They are accompanied by their own party of Dream Eaters, the anthropomorphic denizens of the dream worlds. These creatures are basically cute, Pokémon-like animals that serve as makeshift party members, having their own unique attacks and unlocking new abilities for Sora and Riku. The player is also able to use the 3DS's stylus to play with their Dream Eaters, in a mode the developers based on Nintendogs. Playing with your Dream Eaters, feeding them treats, and playing minigames with them allows the player to unlock new commands and passive abilities, essentially tying the Dream Eaters to the player's progression. Your mileage may vary on this particular aspect of 3D, but I had a blast with it, although admittedly it does become a little tedious having to constantly micromanage your pets (especially in the PS4 port, which has far less touch-screen functionality). Speaking of abilities and such, though, the command deck customization from Birth by Sleep is back, and it's still a lot of fun creating custom loadouts of attacks for Sora and Riku: although certain commands are far more effective than others, like the Balloon line of spells that essentially creates a deadly minefield that can easily dispatch of the game's toughest enemies.
There aren't any Gummi Ships in 3D, but there is a new method of traversal: the "Dive" mechanic, which was clearly designed with the stereoscopic 3D capabilities of the 3DS in mind. Upon entering a new world, the camera goes behind Sora or Riku as they dive into it, collecting pickups, racking up points, and defeating enemies along the way. It can be a fun diversion replaying different Dive missions in order to get the highest scores (indeed, one of the game's better Keyblades is locked behind this mode). It's kind of like a light version of Panzer Dragoon, and while Diving isn't as fun or as in-depth as Kingdom Hearts II's rendition of Gummi Ships, it's still a worthwhile component of the game. Really, the issue with Kingdom Hearts 3D is that the game has entirely too many game mechanics, all of which feel slightly underdeveloped. The developers wanted to experiment with mechanics in the handheld games to see what would work in Kingdom Hearts III, which is all well and good, but it creates a product that is less than the sum of its parts. 3D isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not nearly as good as Kingdom Hearts II or Birth by Sleep, making it a somewhat tepid note to lead into Kingdom Hearts III on.
However, we're not out of the woods yet: there are still a few loose ends to tie up. So let's dive into mobile games, playable tech demos, and other oddities that are still worth experiencing for Kingdom Hearts fans.