I'm in California this week for the purpose of checking out a bunch of video games that will be shown at E3 next month. I'm a pre-E3 judge*, you see, bouncing from one showcase with a game publisher to another, signing lots of paperwork in which I swear not to tell people about these games for a few weeks.
Except: I can tell you about Square-Enix's 3DS games, because, according to Square logic, these games are coming out in the (northern) summer and therefore it's OK to not wait until E3. You might infer that nothing else I saw at Square-Enix's showcase will be out this summer, but maybe you shouldn't!
The three 3DS games they had were English-language versions of Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy as well as the it-was-always-in-English-because-Americans-made-it Heroes of Ruin. I played them all, rapidly. I tried each for about 10 minutes, sort of like I was speed-dating with the games (spoiler: I went back to my hotel room alone).
Game journalists are often mocked, partially because of their wardrobe and partially because some of them — me! — frequently find themselves in situations such as last night's when they suddenly have to wrap their heads around three exotic games and then must humiliate themselves to the reading public by explaining that, uh, yeah I didn't play enough Final Fantasy to recognise many of the songs in the Final Fantasy music game I was playing last night and, well... let's see you get a new Kingdom Hearts role-playing game shoved in your hands and you try to make sense of it in a few minutes while trying to ask the assistant product manager nearby to refresh your memory about Kingdom Hearts lore.
What can I muster from something like this that you aren't able to get from some official website, or from, say the in-depth previews that one of our guys in Tokyo was able to write based on playing his very own copies of the games? (Richard on Kingdom Hearts; Richard on Theatrhythm).
The best thing I can say about Kingdom Hearts is that I came back to it at the end of the night after having started with it. Honestly, that's because it confused me the first time. Dream Drop Distance is the newest game in the series, a snappily (for Square-Enix standards) four-month translation-turnaround from its March 2012 release in Japan and the newest game in terms of the 10-year-old series' storyline. About all I retain from my toe-dips into this series is that these are the games where Disney characters hang out with Final Fantasy or Final Fantasy-like character, lots of characters in black cloaks say mysterious things and the ever-flashy real-time combat rewards rapid button-pressers with spectacular special effects. This new game's got all of that.
You play alternately as series regulars Sora and Riku both of whom have been been sent by the series' wise-old-man Yensid into a bunch of dreamscapes in order to take their Mark of Mastery Exam, a qualifying test that you're supposed to have aced to earn the right to wield the signature weapon of the Kingdom Hearts games, the Keyblade.
The game is all sensory overload. Lots of talking, lots of dropped items and text alerts. We've got action on the top screen rendered in deep 3D that occasionally appears to pop out of the screen. On the bottom screen we've got a map and some tappable buttons, including a trio that are associated with a batch of so-called Dream Eaters whose menacing classification belies the fact that they look as threatening as balloon animals. As you smash through enemies the Dream Eaters fight alongside you and can be summoned to your side to enhance your attacks. You need to smash enough enemies to fill their pink power meters and then summon one or both for increasingly devastating combo moves. As Sora or Riku you've got the standard Kingdom Hearts rapid-fire battle controls, which let you smash buttons to chain attacks that are listed as a bunch of branching labels, all changing on the fly depending on which move is available next. So, yeah, these games are still sugar rushes.
You were always spry in Kingdom Hearts games, but you're even more spry in this one thanks to a new Y-button-activated feature that lets you bounce of walls and twirl around lamp posts. It's Kingdom Hearts parkour, I guess, though of course they don't call it that. As a result, the best instructional text prompt of 2012 so far is in this game: "Own your enemies with flowmotion." OK. I will!
Any decent games reporter will ask a Square assistant product manager to explain a weird title like Dream Drop Distance. Any decent Square assistant product manager won't waste time with the obvious "3D" aspect of the name and will instead explain that the "Dream" is for the idea that Sora and Riku are on an adventure in dream worlds, the "Drop" refers to the game's distinct flow (you play a chunk as Sora while an on-screen Drop meter slowly drains; then you cash in Sora's items and experience to level up Riku and play as him until his Drop meter drains and you're warped back to his part of the adventure), and... oh, yeah, "Distance" kind of refers to that, too.
Even in two 10-minute sessions, the most I can get out of KH:DDD aside from all of those basics is confirmation that, yeah, if you want to go through large levels in, say, some sort of opera house while chasing Disney bad-guy Pete, you'll be able to do it. You'll be able to do it, while mashing many buttons to fight many rainbow-monster bad guys, with rainbow-animal allies at your side. And, if you want to play a game in which you might open a chest and find Minnie Mouse inside it and in which, while you're talking to her you might see some dark-robed guy in the background messing with some big piece of gears or clockwork or something and this is all part of a big plot of some sort... here's your game.
The 3D was good and it played nice and flashy. I think that's what Kingdom Hearts fans want? Aside from all that great mash-up fan service?
Occasionally my less forgiving readers verbally butcher me for not having played Final Fantasy games that didn't end in IV, X, XII and XIII. (Credit for Tactics, anyone?). To those people I say, yeah, a 3DS music game that lets you tap and swipe a stylus to keep the great musical themes from the numbered Final Fantasy games going isn't the best game for me.
This was essentially the part of my speed-dating when I might as well have sat down with a lady speaking Russian.
The gameplay is sort of like that in the great DS rhythm games Elite Beat Agents and Ouendan in that you're tapping and tracing paths and icons on the machine's lower screen (a 3DS in this case) to keep a scene going. Sometimes you're doing this to keep a cinematic scene playing (Hey, look at all those moments from Final Fantasy VII! Somehow, I know who that girl is and what happens to her!). Sometimes you're tracing and swiping through an overworld theme as a cute big-headed version of an old or modern Final Fantasy character side-scrolls through some scenery. And at other times — the best times, I dare say — you're tapping and swiping to various Final Fantasy battle themes, keeping a four-character party alive and well as they battle computer-controlled monsters.
This battle stuff is way more interesting than the other two modes. Your party lines up vertically on the right of the 3DS' top screen. The prompts for all your tapping and swiping flow in from the left, usually a bunch of them toward one character, then a bunch toward another. As in all the modes and with just about all rhythm games, you're expected to tap and swipe with good timing. The better the timing, the more effectively the character associated with each wave of taps fights in the battle. A good of run of notes will make them charge up big moves, cast useful spells, etc. At the end of the battle/song, you gain experience points, can customise your party and — what do you know? — we've kind of got a musical role-playing game here. I dare say this visit with the Russian was worth it!
Any song in Theatrhythm that I tried at random in this game sounded all-new to me, though I'm assured that the soundtrack is pretty much all-old and made for true FF fans. So this is for you, maybe? That battle mode, however, might also make this for me.
Heroes of Ruin comes form n-Space, the Florida studio that, among other things, made Call of Duty DS games. Now they're making a DIablo-y kind of thing, a top-down action-role-playing game in which you kill monsters, collect loot and improve your character. You can party up with up to three other people on Wi-Fi, though at the Square event I settled for partying up with ex-Kotaku man Mike McWhertor over local wireless. I was a Gunslinger-class fighter, shooting from range, mostly. He was a Vindicator, who the n-Space developer coaching us along described as more of white knight, a tank/healer.
Mike and I did what you'd expect to do in a Diablo-y kind of game. We roamed around killing monsters and collecting loot. The n-Space developer said that people who play together will gain special friendship level-ups the more often they link up. He was also proud of how open Nintendo has let them be with the networking, enabling players to drop into games being played by strangers. Modern internet gaming, people!
I can do no more than classify Heroes of Ruin as solid so far. It seems like it could satisfy the genre checkboxes.
I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that Mike giggled some over the mage/crowd-control class being called the Alchitect. (The fourth class, the burly berzerker, is called the Savage). But at least he wasn't the wiseass who asked the n-Space guy if the development team had embraced the fact that the acronym of their game sounds like "whore." The infinitely-patient n-Space guy (real name: Charles Stuard; real title: senior designer at n-Space) can think on his feet. He told me it was focus-tested and, well, he guesses people like "whore"s. Suddenly, while writing these impressions, I'm having second thoughts about this speed-dating metaphor.
I've never had an easy time falling head over heels for a game during short demos like these. You have to take in so much all at once and flaws are easily hidden from a reporter's eyes. The best I can do is form a snap judgment that all three of these games are worth another look. I don't sense a break-out hit or all-time favourite here, but I do detect three at-least-solid-but-hopefully-better-than-that games that use the 3DS hardware well enough to look good and play pretty well. These look like solid entries for the second year of Nintendo's handheld.
If you like what you're reading keep paying attention to them. They're all coming out around July or so.
*Full disclosure: We deviate from standard policy at Kotaku for E3 Judges' Week ( organised by the Game Critics Awards) and allow our travel and lodging to be paid for by game publishers. The rationale is that while we still don't believe it's healthy to have a single publisher like EA or Capcom or whoever pay for a reporter's travel to an event for their games, at pre-E3, the fact that a pool of participating publishers divides costs nullifies the potential for subconscious favouritism. In the case of 2012's pre-E3 week, my airfare and lodging was paid by the publisher assigned to me, Bethesda Softworks.