The Kingdom Hearts series of games came out swinging: Coiffed characters who’d be at home in a Final Fantasy universe teamed up with the likes of Donald Duck and Goofy to take down Disney villains. The tone blended fast action with the more staid role-playing tradition in a dark fantasy setting, lending a sinister look even to the cheeriest sections of Alice In Wonderland or Aladdin. It was a blind date between two seemingly disparate universes, but they got along great. Square Enix had cracked the code. But as a faux Jeff Bridges says in a Tron: Legacy-themed portion of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, if you mess with the code even a little bit, you mess everything up.
Welcome to KH3D:DDD (catchy), the bloated seventh installation into the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Its code bears little resemblance to the svelte mashup from whence it came. No longer is it simply a Final Fantasy game in a Disney costume—it’s also a rhythm game, an Angry Birds ripoff, and a (very not at all superfluous) Tamagotchi. And the game’s so nice, it forces you to play it twice.
Seriously. Sora and Riku, the perpetually teenaged powerhouses of the series, are on a quest to become Keyblade Masters—the Keyblade being a weapon of choice, and exactly what it sounds like. They must travel to worlds from previous Kingdom Hearts titles, only this time the worlds are trapped in slumber, occupied by hungry Dream Eaters that take the shape of stained glass-inspired goats, bats, and snakes.
In keeping with the sleep theme, Sora and Riku occupy parallel versions of the same worlds and are marked with a Drop Gauge that counts down to zero, at which time one falls asleep and the other wakes up. The upshot is that if Sora is about to kill a boss, for instance, you have to then continue questing with Riku before returning. This also means you have to conquer worlds as both Sora and Riku, and the difference in runs is barely noticeable.
There are some things you can carry over between the worlds, most notably the Dream Eaters you’ve constructed for yourself—creatures that you enlist to fight alongside you on the front lines of combat. Or you can play with them—that is, touch their icon in the bottom screen, over and over, until they feel your love. They roll and purr with delight as you “pet” them or “feed” them treats. You can sit there and do this as long as you’d like, too. Did I mention “never” is not an option? It is not an option.
Dream Drop Distance is filled with touchscreen joys like this. Occasionally, you encounter railings or large pillars that are set up for “flowmotion”—a sort low-stakes parkour played via touchscreen swipes. You enter “reality shift” mode in the same way, which allows you to, for example, fling barrels into the battlefield with the flick of a finger as your character disappears entirely. There are different permutations of both modes in each of the worlds (you hack computer terminals in Tron and ride bubbles in the funhouse world loosely based around Pinocchio), so you’ll never want for variety.
Nor needless explanation. Every aspect of this game is detailed ad nauseam, from the way you free-fly between worlds to the power-ups you can purchase when you “drop” and switch between Sora and Riku. There are plenty of exposition-filled flashbacks, too, though these are thankfully optional. It takes about two hours to get through the game’s instructional lectures before you’re allowed to figure anything out for yourself.
And once you do, Dream Drop Distance can actually be quite fun, much like every Kingdom Hearts title. There are plenty of Keyblade varieties to try on, challenging bosses to slay, and a multitude of Dream Eaters to fight or ally yourself with. But every time you’re about to discover something new, up pops an explanation screen to ensure you’ll follow the rigid rules the game’s laid out for you. Or, worse yet, the Drop Gauge reaches zero, and you’re back in a world you’ve already explored.
Kingdom Hearts’ two-games-in-one premise was once a gamble, but it has proven to be a tried-and-true formula for success. Now, the series shoehorns even more disparate ideas into the mix, like a new film that’s part fiction, part documentary, part animated, and randomly 3D for a few minutes at a time. Fake Jeff Bridges would be furious.