Perhaps the highest praise you can give Kingdom Hearts 3D is that, despite being a spin-off, it rarely feels like one. It's a substantial action-RPG with production values that put just about every third-party game currently on the 3DS to shame. It draws from a deep well of ideas, a handful of which are so good we wouldn't be at all surprised to see them in the eagerly (and long) awaited Kingdom Hearts 3.
There are occasional reminders that this is not the aforementioned game, though. While the narrative has a few highlights, it's made to feel a little inconsequential and while that set dressing may be sumptuous, it's used to decorate just six worlds outside the omnipresent Traverse Town. So yes, it leaves you wanting more, but then that's partly because this is surely the best Kingdom Hearts title on a Nintendo console to date.
You wouldn't automatically think that from the opening hour, mind. It's an awkward mess of instructions and tutorials, confused storytelling and ropey dialogue that will leave the uninitiated baffled, overwhelmed, or both. At least it tries to get you into the action quickly; while it's a bit keen to throw all its systems at you at once, you learn by playing, rather than by watching.
Sites For Sora Eyes
The setup is fairly straightforward: series regulars Sora (ebullient) and Riku (moody) are sent by Mickey Mouse and beardy wizard, Yen Sid, to reawaken six sleeping worlds, an examination they need to pass to become Keyblade masters. Every setting has its own self-contained storyline, though in each case you'll be solving the problems of a variety of Disney characters before defeating a boss and then moving onto the next world.
It'll be familiar stuff if you've played any of the previous games, but early on there are a few notable changes to the formula. A fair portion of the combat still revolves around whaling on the A button for basic attack combos, but this time you can use the environment to your advantage. The Y button is used as your all-purpose parkour button for running up walls, swinging from beams and whirling around poles - or even the larger enemies. This opens a range of additional combat options on top of your steadily expanding command deck, which houses more powerful moves and spells that need to cool down before they can be reused.
More importantly, you're joined in battle by Spirits, creatures that will automatically assist with moves of their own. They're friendly versions of the hostile Dream Eaters that have taken over each world and are created by fusing Dream Pieces collected amid the orbs that burst from defeated opponents.
To make them more effective combatants, you'll need to spend some time bonding with them. One way of doing this is via a Nintendogs-esque aside in which you stroke their silhouette with the stylus to increase their affection. Various foodstuffs keep them happy, while adjusting their stats and a handful of touchscreen mini-games helps raise their experience and earn you Link Points. These are spent unlocking permanent buffs and individual commands on skill trees, with some additional paths opening when a Spirit's demeanour changes, either through care or through cuisine.
A strong bond will see them attack more regularly, offering the chance of a Link Critical, where you connect with an enemy simultaneously, helping to fill a gauge that enables you to use their powers. While Riku's combinations are strengthened, turning him into a blade-spinning blur capable of flying into battle, it's Sora who has the most fun here, directly controlling his pet monsters as they charge, bounce, slash and leap with phenomenal force. Wait long enough and you can combine the effects of two Spirits, making for even more powerful specials. There's something oddly satisfying about squashing enemies with the bloated stomach of an enormous bouncing cat.