“Let go of preconceived notions. Forget what you know about the Keyblade, and begin your training again with a clean slate.”
To say Kingdom Hearts is convoluted would be an understatement, but it’s always had an internal logic that’s made following the increasingly ridiculous story engaging. No matter how outlandish the plot may become, twists and turns are at the very least grounded in something– whether that something be as abstract as a theme or as seemingly insignificant as a forgotten scene in an earlier game. Kingdom Hearts demands the player be along for the ride, and holds no restraint. This is a franchise unabashedly itself, shameless in its hokeyness to the point where what should be embarrassing dialogue comes off as both endearing and emotional. Underneath the franchise’s musings of light and darkness is a character driven series of action RPGs where each subsequent entry further complicates matters, and no Kingdom Hearts title is as complicated as Dream Drop Distance.
A celebration of all things Kingdom Hearts, it’s perhaps only natural Dream Drop Distance self indulge a bit. Developed in conjunction with the series’ tenth anniversary, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance was to fully bridge the gap towards Kingdom Hearts III while explicitly linking every single game in the series together. Although 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage would actually end up leading into KHIII in 2017, it’s DDD that laid the foundation for the conclusion of the Dark Seeker saga (the series’ single story arc which began in 2002.) Couple that with the game’s main plot centering on the series’ two leads, Sora and Riku, taking their Mark of Mastery to become bonafide Keyblade Masters, and Dream Drop Distance opens with a lot of promise. Promise that it does deliver on, but not exactly in the most graceful of ways.
The truth of the matter is that Dream Drop Distance lives and dies on a double edged sword. So rarely do a game’s biggest flaws and greatest strengths stem from the same pools, but that’s the case here. It isn’t enough for Dream Drop Distance to celebrate the franchise; this is Kingdom Hearts at its most extreme. For as haphazard and chaotic plot progression could feel from game to game, every entry between the original Kingdom Hearts and Re:coded feels like a logical “next step” from the last. Chain of Memories bridged a narrative gap between the first and second numbered titles; 358/2 Days expanded on important characters, themes, and concepts introduced in the second; Birth by Sleep took the series back in time to give it a greater sense of history; and Re:coded resolved hanging threads KH II, Days, and BBS couldn’t. DDD’s role in the overall plot can’t be boiled down as simply.
On the surface level, it seems as though Dream Drop Distance will be business as usual. Sora and Riku are to take their exam, become Keyblade Masters, and essentially undergo an anime training arc to prepare for the endgame. Even the gameplay side of things gives the impression that Dream Drop Distance will be a relatively traditional non-numbered installment. With the exception of Birth by Sleep, all of the “side games” generally retread or re-contextualize content presented in the first game. This is something Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days, and Re:coded are all guilty of, and Dream Drop Distance initially makes the case that it won’t be any different.
Sora and Riku have been de-aged to better resemble their younger, Kingdom Hearts counterparts and the first few hours are even structured exactly like the original game: the tutorial take place on Destiny Islands and Traverse Town serves as the first real stage before players are allowed to progress through the rest of the first act non-linearly. Yet Dream Drop Distance’s KHI references never feel particularly egregious, nor does the game itself resemble the first past those opening hours. On one hand, this stems from the whimsy & smaller scope of the original being so far gone at this point, but Dream Drop Distance has a very strong individual identity that overwhelms quite a few of the series’ staples – whether thematic, narrative, or just in terms of gameplay. While it’s typically a good thing for a game to be secure in its identity, Dream Drop Distance arguably tries to do too much at a point in Kingdom Hearts’ chronology where such an approach comes off distracting.
Keep in mind that by the time Dream Drop Distance released in 2012, fans of the franchise hadn’t engaged with the “main” plot in almost 7 years. 358/2 was a companion game to Kingdom Hearts II, Birth by Sleep was a prequel, and Re:coded was… there. DDD was an opportunity to touch base with Sora’s character arc, weave into the current plot what the past three games added to the lore, and establish a clear direction for Kingdom Hearts III. Narratively, that’s a lot, but the non-numbered entries also tend to carry the baggage of “unique gameplay.” While the numbered entries typically build off fast based, traditional action RPG combat, games like Chain of Memories and Days opt for more novel battle systems, usually to make up for hardware limitations.
At the same time, this approach is part of Kingdom Hearts’ identity as a franchise. The numbered entries are standard action games whereas the rest of the series experiments mechanically. The closest a non-numbered entry came to matching the gameplay style of I and II was Birth by Sleep, whose main gameplay gimmicks ended up being the command system and multiple playable characters – concepts always rooted in the franchise. To say Dream Drop Distance takes the Birth by Sleep approach would technically be correct, but it doesn’t quite capture the borderline insanity of DDD’s design. With the stage set for an important game ready to influence the fate of the franchise, Dream Drop Distance takes six games worth of build up and derails Kingdom Hearts every way it knows how.
Like Birth by Sleep, Dream Drop Distance features more than one playable characters and the return of the command system, but that’s where the similarities end. DDD, at most, takes concepts from the rest of the series before bending them to its will. Where you played through each character’s campaign one at a time in BBS, Sora and Riku’s stories are played alongside each other, with a timer dictating when players switch characters. Where commands could be melded together and leveled up in BBS, Dream Drop Distance forces players to craft Spirits, basically Kingdom Hearts Pokemon with their own skill trees that need to be leveled accordingly for Sora & Rike to gain new commands or abilities. Spirits also replace traditional party members, can permanently die, and take a decent bit of work to keep relevant.
These are pretty jarring reinterpretations of pre-existing concepts as is, but they don’t hold a candle to Flowmotion. In calling back to the franchise’s origins, Dream Drop Distance capitalizes on the platforming present in Kingdom Hearts I. Where later titles would emphasize action above all else, DDD features expansive environments designed around parkour. Flowmotion allows Sora & Riku a level of mobility unprecedented in the series. Both characters essentially have endgame movement out the gate, with access to: double dashing, wall kicking, sliding, rail grinding, pole swinging, and so much more. With a single kick off a wall, Sora can now zip across the entire map in no time at all, throwing his momentum into whatever he hits. This becomes useful as Flowmotion can chain directly into attacks, adding a new dynamic layer to combat.
Dream Drop Distance simply can’t be played like other games in the series. Flowmotion makes sure of that. The purpose of Flowmotion is to incentivize frequent movement during combat, and the enemy design has to change as a result. Nightmares (the game’s enemies) typically spawn in large groups ready to gang up on the player. Players who don’t move much during combat will be immediately punished, especially since enemies don’t seem to stun as easily (if at all in the 3DS release.) Double tapping into a slide can not only be a great way of weaving in & out of enemies, it can transition into a fairly high damaging attack. Some of Sora and Riku’s strongest moves are a part of their Flowmotion, and players who don’t make use of the entire kit will have a difficult time.
Flowmotion completely changes how we’re meant to approach control in Kingdom Hearts. No longer is the series grounded to the literal ground. Sora and Riku can shift into Flowmotion with a level of fluidity that makes it difficult to go back to the more traditional Kingdom Hearts games. The level design doesn’t always make terrific use of Flowmotion, often settling for just some basic walls here and there to encourage creative movement, but Flowmotion’s contributions are ultimately a net positive. Plus, there are plenty of secret chests tucked away that can only be found via Flowmotion, encouraging players to experiment with vertical movement.
Interestingly, Spirits do actually help DDD play more like Kingdom Hearts I and II. It’s not that traditional ground combat doesn’t work here, it’s that your party needs to be designed around it. For as time-consuming as the Spirit system is, it’s the most in-depth party system in the franchise. Essentially this game’s stand in for synthesis, materials are used to craft monsters that accompany Sora and Riku in battle. Three can be equipped at any time, with two actively fighting and the other on stand-by, ready to swap in at a moment’s notice. More importantly, each Spirit has its own unique attributes. Want to chain long ground combos? Equip Spirits that block hits for Sora & Riku.
Spirits add an incredible amount of variety to DDD’s gameplay, and paired with Flowmotion, there’s so much that can be pulled off during combat. Of course, this system is not without its caveats. While an in-depth monster raising mechanic is certainly admirable, it might just be too out there for Kingdom Hearts. Especially when it’s integrated into such an important component of the game’s core design. All of the 50 Spirits have their own skill tree with unlockable commands and abilities. While some commands are purchasable, all the best are tucked away in skill trees. Building a useful deck of abilities not only takes much longer than it did in Birth by Sleep or Re:coded, it’s not even guaranteed.
There’s quite a bit of trial and error involved in finding the right abilities without a guide. The only way for Sora to get useful skills like Combo Plus or Once More is to synthesize the appropriate Spirits, and there’s no way to know which abilities a Spirit will have beforehand without looking it up or already knowing. Then there’s the process of actually progressing through a skill tree. 1 LP is rewarded for every enemy a player defeats with that Spirit in their party. It is not a lot, and most of the best commands require 300 – 400 LP for purchase. Taking into consideration all the skill, commands, and abilities that need to be purchased through the tree and Spirits become investments.
There are mini-games you can play that tend to reward around 40 – 50 LP, but they’re lousy, time-consuming, and just as grindy as actual grinding. The Spirit system is a great concept that ultimately pays off for those that stick with it or just like monster raising mechanics, but for the average player it’ll be an enormous distraction that cripples their playthrough, potentially locking them out of useful commands and definitely locking them out of useful abilities. It’s fine for games to allow players to struggle or just fail outright, but there are certain expectations seven entries into a franchise.
Still, it’s hard to deny how dynamic the Spirit system makes combat in the grand scheme of things. A good chunk of them have great AI and do a lot of heavy lifting in battle if you let them. Inherent abilities allow them to tank hit, stop them outright, or stagger enemies when the player can’t. Spirits aren’t too useful either, though, and comfortably allow Sora or Riku to take control of the action. Just as important as it is for party members to be useful, they shouldn’t dominate the gameplay in the player’s place. Spirits are important, but they aren’t at the heart of the experience. That honor belongs to Dropping.
The Drop mechanic is what makes or breaks Dream Drop Distance for most fans. As previously mentioned, Sora & Riku don’t have their own unique campaigns and instead share a single story that they trade control between. A Drop Gauge now gradually depletes during gameplay and, once exhausted, whoever the player is controlling will immediately fall asleep with control being given to the other character. There are ways to perpetually extend the gauge by using Drop-Me-Nots (inexpensive items that can be bought as soon as players reach the second World,) but DDD forces Drops to happen multiple times over the course of the story.
For those that hate the idea of playing games on a timer, this is effectively a death sentence, but it’s not a poorly integrated mechanic by any means. Although Spirits go a bit harder than they should, the Drop mechanic is given as much room as it needs to breathe while still controlling the core gameplay loop. Anyone who wants to stick with Sora or Riku for long play sessions can and are treated to playthroughs that more or less play out as if you’re switching between BBS characters every few hours. Those who submit themselves to Dropness, however, will be able to better appreciate the inherent differences between Sora & Riku’s playstyles, their level design, and even their storytelling.
While Sora plays as he normally does (a satisfying to control action character with a good balance of offense and speed,) Riku manages to be floatier and carry more weight behind his actions. Initially, the differences are superficial, but unlocking more Combo Plus abilities and each character’s unique commands result in two radically different characters. Worth noting, Spirits are shared between both characters, ensuring that even if Riku isn’t being actively levelled, any abilities or commands unlocked by Sora will still be usable once control switches over. This does help mitigate the grinding a bit, and it means players can immediately outfit their other character with new commands every time they Drop.
Although Riku and Sora go through the exact same Worlds, they don’t go through them in the exact same way. Beyond obvious narrative differences, Sora & Riku have exclusive areas & bosses that only they get to go to or fight. At first, most of the differences are minor, but they start to pile up gradually. Prankster’s Paradise is an early world that’s completely different for Sora and Riku. Where the former goes through a dense amusement park with plenty of obstacles ripe for Flowmotion, the latter is inside of Monstro, an enormous whale. Riku’s version of Prankster’s Paradise places an emphasis on open space while Sora’s indulges in chaos.
The penultimate Worlds, Country of the Musketeers and Symphony of Sorcery are arguably Dream Drop Distance at its very best. In terms of game design, the second act is where all the core mechanics start to really gel together. By this point: players should naturally have enough Spirits to get by comfortably even if their commands or abilities aren’t great, an understanding of Flowmotion & when to use it, and a handle on how to approach Dropping. Just as importantly, these two Worlds engage with the core mechanics better than most others. Spirits’ abilities to find secret passages are necessary for progression, Flowmotion is constantly encouraged by the level design, enemies spawn in waves after waves, and Sora & Riku embark on completely different journeys.
For Sora, Country of the Musketeers is one of his longest Worlds in the game. It’s filled with set piece after set piece with multiple battles and plenty of areas that make use of Flowmotion. There are even arcs for the supporting characters in the World’s story (most notably Donald,) and a proper 3 act structure that sees Sora interacting with younger versions of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Riku, on the other hand, is mainly confined to the World’s Opera House where he’s tasked with rescuing Minnie from Pete. There aren’t as many set pieces or battles in Riku’s version of the World, but the level design he interacts with is far more engaging than Sora’s, requiring players pay attention to their environment and use Flowmotion properly to make progress.
Symphony of Sorcery highlights Dream Drop Distance’s incredible art direction for both characters. DDD makes great use of a vibrant color palette and surreal imagery. Taking place in a dreamlike environment, the visuals are given an opportunity to be all the more abstract. Based on Fantasia, Symphony of Sorcery goes all out with this concept. Riku environments are visually very one-note, opting to emphasize single colors. His first area is deep blue, his second red, his third white, and his last pitch black. Symphony of Sorcery feels very restricted and dead for Riku as a result. Which only makes it fitting when he fights Chernabog as his boss– a fan-favorite enemy from the first game and the star of one of Fantasia’s best sequences, Night on Bald Mountain.
Sora’s SoS is far more dynamic. His World starts in the middle of a downpour with dark skies clouding the environment. The area is dark & moody, but progressing eventually clears the skies and reveals a lush field full of color– a complete contrast to Riku’s World. Sora’s World is more about healing the environment and being in the elements. It’s immersive in a different way than Riku’s, but just as effective. Both Worlds are surreal, but Riku’s is more abstract, even ending with a boss with no narrative stakes in the plot. Sora, on the other hand, finishes off Spellican here, a recurring enemy during the second act of the game, thus resolving his loose ends before the final World.
Clearing Symphony of Sorcery with both characters, Dream Drop Distance seems destined to end on an absolute high. In spite of how jarring its mechanics are, DDD’s design ultimately uses Flowmotion, Spirits, and Dropping fairly well. Players have more control greater customization over their play style than ever, all framed through a gameplay loop that frankly just makes for a more interesting playthrough. Swapping between Sora and Riku is not only fun, it’s enlightening to see these characters contrasted so directly with each other, both through gameplay and story… for the most part.
Dream Drop Distance’s greatest sin is taking a complex but fun to follow story, and turning it into a full-blown conspiracy. Wrapping your head around the idea of DDD taking place inside of sleeping Worlds is daunting, but it makes enough sense when all is said and done. Riku being inside of the World’s dreams complicates matters, but there’s still some internal logic to it. This is a franchise that’s made data sentient, so characters diving into their dreams and finding some semblance of sentience there isn’t out of the question (if anything, it makes more sense.) Considering sleep has played an important thematic role in the story before, all this dream business feels like the logical next step.
But, believe it or not, this isn’t Dream Drop Distance’s narrative focus. It’s the framing and it contributes greatly to the game’s overall aesthetic, but DDD’s real contribution to the lore is time travel. Messy, horrifying time travel that cheapens the main cast’s victories by not only bringing Xehanort directly into the plot (something Re:coded’s secret ending made clear,) but by reviving every main villain. Xehanort coming back was honestly enough and made sense. Kingdom Hearts I and Chain of Memories dealt with his Heartless, II and Days his Nobody, and Birth by Sleep his original self. Re:coded put it in certain terms that Xehanort was still alive somehow, and all Dream Drop Distance needed to do was bring him into the main story in a way that satisfyingly connected him to the main cast.
Frustratingly, Young Xehanort fills this role well. He’s a more composed and inexperienced version of Xehanort who we haven’t seen before, but that’s what makes him interesting. His presence also fits with the idea of a new version of Xehanort stepping in as the main villain, but he’s hijacked by BBS’ old man Xehanort at the end of the game. Not just that, it’s made clear he won’t remember anything that happened in DDD, essentially just creating a stable time loop that’ll guarantee all of Sora’s victories lead to Xehanort reviving. To its credit, Kingdom Hearts’ version of time travel isn’t too hard to understand, but the issue is that it’s present in the story at all.
The issue is that time travel revives Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, a character who was intimately tied to Riku’s arc and whose defeat in Chain of Memories symbolized Riku overcoming the darkness inside of him. The issue is that time travel revives Xemnas, the one villain whose motivations weren’t overtly evil, only for him to reveal that Nobodies could have hearts all along and he had even less depth as a villain than we initially imagined. The issue is that time travel doesn’t allow the series to naturally move forward in time, interlocking Sora & Riku’s arcs with a history that means little to nothing to them personally. The issue is that Xehanort is now intimately tied to everything, trivializing the scope of the story. What really sours the time travel more than anything, however, is how well written the final act is otherwise.
As soon as Sora and Riku touch foot on The World That Never Was, Dream Drop Distance drops all pretense of sanity. Sora finds himself locked in a dream where he’s confronted by everyone inside of his heart. The scenes here are incredibly abstract and some of the best directed in the game. Seeing Sora actually have a conversation with Roxas or acknowledge Xion after years of these characters all just existing together is a huge moment for Kingdom Hearts that carries a lot of weight. This isn’t just the series’ flexing its surrealist muscles, it’s an examination of who Sora is and his journey.
Sora starts Dream Drop Distance confident to the point of arrogance. He’s vehemently against the idea of taking the Mark of Mastery exam at first, rightfully believing he has nothing to prove having saved the world twofold over. Recognizing Riku’s personal feelings of insecurity, however, Sora decides to take the test alongside him, but he never takes it as seriously. Sora just treats the exam as an adventure: helping others and recognizing when they need help. It’s ultimately this attitude which allows the main villains to corrupt Sora at the end of the game (and why he fails the exam,) but that this happens at all is an interesting arc for Sora.
His character isn’t so much being challenged as it being acknowledged for what it is. Sora will go out of his way to help others, but often thoughtlessly without considering the consequences. All the same, this attitude towards life is what connects others to Sora. Even should he fall, the people he connected with along the way will be there to save him. It’s why Riku has his most important role in the franchise. If anything, he’s arguably the true protagonist of Dream Drop Distance. This is Riku’s Mark of Mastery exam, and his arc is far more defined than Sora’s.
Riku takes the time to muse not just on the philosophies of light and dark, but his relationship with it. From World to World, Riku is forced to acknowledge the fact he succumbed to darkness. He’s forced to confront his own insecurities, his need to put walls around him. Even after proving himself as a warrior of light at the end of Kingdom Hearts II, literally saving the world from Xemnas, Riku doesn’t feel worthy of the Keyblade. He still feels tethered to his past mistakes. But it doesn’t agnoize him. Instead, he maturely acknowledges where he went wrong and where he needs to go to make things right within himself. Riku takes his exam seriously, and takes saving Sora at the end of the game even more serious.
It’s Riku who fights the final boss, it’s Riku who fully develops as a character, and it’s Riku who drives the heart of the story forward. At the same time, Riku doesn’t overshadow Sora or his arc. Sora’s behavior makes since– he is a master in his own right. That Sora fails where Riku succeeds ends up being one of the best things to happen to both of their character arcs. Dream Drop Distance does so much good for its main characters in the last act, but it’s overshadowed by Xehanort hijacking things. Xehanort’s plan isn’t particularly impressive either as it’s quite literally just a retread of Organization XIII, but “better” this time. If nothing else, DDD makes the right call in recognizing that Xehanort should not close out the story, instead keeping the finale intimate between Riku and Sora.
With Sora still asleep, Riku dives into his best friend’s heart, seeing their memories together before landing on the Dive to the Heart: the very first playable area in the entire franchise. The final boss is against a corrupted Sora, a fitting conclusion to a game that should have been all about Sora and Riku. But it wasn’t, which kind of sours the experience at the end of the day. The ending is emotional and well earned in the context of the series, but Dream Drop Distance having dedicated the last hour to Xehanort shenanigans stays fresher in the mind than fighting Sora deep within his own heart. Which is a shame because the latter is undeniably the more interesting set-piece; but it isn’t as narratively important or given as much weight.
Between Flowmotion and Spirits, there are times where Dream Drop Distance doesn’t feel like a Kingdom Hearts game. But neither do Chain of Memories, Days, or Re:coded half the time. This is a series that’s always loved experimenting when roman numerals are out of the occasion. In the case of Dream Drop Distance, it’s clear the franchise got a bit overeager during its hour of celebration. DDD carries a lot on its shoulders, and quite a bit falls through the crack. By the time the credits roll, it’s entirely likely The World That Never Was will have pushed Worlds like Country of the Musketeers and Symphony of Sorcery out of mind, which is a huge problem. For as memorable as the game’s finale is, it’s not exemplary of DDD– or Kingdom Hearts– at its best.
This isn’t to say Dream Drop Distance is a bad game, however. While very flawed, DDD highlights why the series works as well as it does. Between a willingness to innovate and consistently strong character writing, Kingdom Hearts is never boring. The plot can derail itself off the tracks completely, but there’s still substance within the main cast. Gameplay can be unrecognizable from title to title, but that’s exactly what keeps each entry worth revisiting. DDD is better than just another KH title. It has a strong identity and knows exactly what kind of game it is, for better or worse. Dream Drop Distance didn’t have to derail Kingdom Hearts as hard as it did, but doing resulted in an unforgettable experience– a bridge to Kingdom Hearts III that’s as essential as it is eclectic.