When it comes to Japanese RPGs, the Kingdom Hearts games are odd ducks. Odd Donald ducks. 'Cause it's Donald, Mickey and Goofy, along with a whole host of other Disney characters who once again populate the latest in this unique series.
Never ventured into the Kingdom Hearts realm before? You should be prepared for a dash of charm, a sprinkling of fantastical twists, a steady stream of violent-but-sanitized clashes and some head-scratching confusion.
From Goofy to the Grid
There have been six games in this series so far, and each is a continuation of the last. So the complex, intertwining narrative—even with flashback recaps—isn't easy to unravel. To boil it all down to its simplest form, though, this particular game is the story of two spikey-haired teen pals named Sora and Riku. Both guys want to take on the exam necessary to master a magical key-shaped weapon called (logically) a keyblade. But wait, in the midst of the exam, an evil baddie named Xehanort pops up with his mind set on world domination. And so our good guys must turn their practice efforts into real ones, battling his malevolent minions in the kingdom's many Disney-centric worlds.
One of the fresh/confusing ideas this time around is a game mechanic called a "dream drop." The two teens have taken off on parallel journeys. And since it's important that gamers keep track of both their storylines, the game keeps bouncing you between the heroes with a ticking clock of sorts. You may well be in the middle of a quest with Sora and suddenly be dropped down into Riku's adventure when the clock hits zero.
Among other things, the guys fight with Ursula in a Little Mermaid world, help out Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, look for Pinocchio inside Monstro the whale, pay a visit to the Grid from Tron and even stop by to see Mickey in his "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment from Fantasia.
Put Up Yer Dukes, Feller
I should make it clear, however, that this isn't just a colorful stroll through a series of cartoony fantasy lands. This is a combat RPG. And so you can expect to face off with countless enemies in virtually nonstop battles. Most of the foes are spirit-like, brightly colored animal thingies called Dream Eaters that swarm at you in all shapes and sizes. There are fire-breathing lizards, sly-eyed kitties, blue demon-like destroyers, rumbling dinosaurs and a devilishly difficult big dragon boss called the Chernabog. (You can recruit some of these multicolored spirits to fight on your team, too.)
You must master physical dodges, blocks and attacks—swinging your keyblades and lashing out with magic spells and combo chains. No blood and guts here. And the baddies just puff out of existence when defeated. But there's tons of slashing and bashing nonetheless.
The overlay of magic, even though it leans more to the fantastical than the dark arts, will make some families stop and think a bit. But the game's language won't slow anybody down. Even Pinocchio's original "jacka‑‑" is replaced with "jackamule."
So, while I still can't fully wrap my mind around the game's alliterative Dream Drop Distance title, I can now give dimension to the rest of Kingdom Hearts 3D: It's a role-playing fantasy battler bearing cartoony bad guys, Disney nyuck-nyucks, quasi-spirituality and a nearly impenetrable Japanese story narrative. It's a Duck-Duck-Mouse mix to be sure. But it's not so strange that fans have stopped asking Mickey and the gang to come back for one more steamboat visit.