By now, anybody reading this should understand how avid a fan I am of the Kingdom Hearts series. So much so, in fact, that I still feel the need to begin all my writing on these games with an insecure disclaimer that announces my love for them. But that doesn’t mean I’m above criticizing their shortcomings. In fact, I had to wrestle with such thoughts while playing Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, the most recent entry in the series. It’s a game that feels caught in an uncomfortable place, only able to half recognize its own potential. Unfortunately, halfway just isn’t enough. Halfway leaves the game stumbling between brilliance and normality.
In some ways, this sort of middle existence feels all too appropriate for what the game is doing. The story follows both Sora and Riku (the two main heroes throughout the series) as they dive into the realm of dreams to restore various worlds from their slumbers. However, I’m not as interested in the immediate plot as I am in what the game does with it from there. Dream Drop Distance possesses a keen awareness for how disconnected dreams are from reality, which is why it exerts all its effort to make the game’s reality as uncertain as it possibly can.
For example, a lot of the story’s events shake the characters’ perceptions of reality. Parts of the world disappear for no reason and stories cut off without any immediate resolution. While Sora and Riku both rationalize it as their partner helping them in a parallel reality (the pair is split up at the beginning), neither one has any way of knowing what’s happening on the other side. They can’t contact the other person, and they certainly have no way of communicating with the outside world, so reality remains uncertain. This is only compounded by their relation to time, as the story’s pseudo-non-linear progression makes for a very uneven experience. Even the player/avatar relationship is uncertain, because you can never be sure who you’re playing as, even when they’re standing right before your eyes.
The only thing we can ever be certain of is this: in some way, these settings reflect Sora’s and Riku’s psychological make-up. This is where Dream Drop Distance really begins to shine. All that ambiguity, all those muddled layers bouncing off each other…they’re not there for nothing. Every last one gives the game the right opportunity it needs to ask some really important questions about these characters, and with them, all the major assumptions we’d held about the series until now. In fact, it goes much further than that. It cuts right to the core of the series and dismantles some of its most vital ideas.
So it would make sense that the game would begin this deconstruction with Sora, the central hero throughout the franchise. (Or maybe it’s Riku’s perception of (himself through) Sora. This is a dream world, after all.) In previous Kingdom Hearts games, we’d received faint hints that Sora was suffering some kind of severe identity crisis, whether it was Ven’s fragmented self, Xion’s unstable identity, or Roxas’ dual existence. The only reason Sora himself didn’t succumb to a similar fate was that he had his friends to ground him in a more certain reality. So what happens when you remove them from the equation entirely and create a world where only Sora exists? Does that reality remain certain? Apparently, no. It turns out Sora is no different from his counterparts. The game ends up characterizing him as a fundamentally empty person who uses these fantastic opportunities to distract from the cloying nothingness inside him. Bleak that stance may be, but in light of everything the game does, it’s hard to argue against it.
Although that’s not to say the whole game holds that dreary outlook. Indeed, the gameplay is more open to exploring the possibilities a world like this opens up. While it doesn’t change any of the basic underlying structures that Birth by Sleep solidified, it does introduce two new systems to work the story: Flowmotion and Drop. The former is a new mode of travel where instead of simply walking from point A to B, you go out of your way to avoid such mundane modes of transportation altogether. You can bounce off walls, grind off rails, dash through the air, and so much more. With these abilities at your disposal, the world takes on a dreamlike, almost artistic quality. The levels now bend to your every desire, their major architectural features only holding as much meaning as you want them to. Everything feels like one big trapeze act.
There is a catch, though. For tempering the power that Flowmotion brings is Drop, the game’s way of switching control between Sora and Riku. Therein lies the rub: it’s the game’s way, not yours. You have very little influence over when you switch between them, and absolutely none over whether or not you do. Naturally, this induces a state of anxiety. The moment you see the Logan’s Run-esque timer start to tick down, you know that you have to rush to complete your latest task as quickly as possible, lest the game rob you of your hard-earned progress. So in practice, Flowmotion and Drop come together to represent both the unbridled freedom and newfound uncertainty a world like this would bring. There a few other features worth mentioning, like Dives and Reality Shifts, but the ones I’ve mentioned here give a good enough idea of the things Dream Drop Distance does with its dream imagery.
That said, I feel that I have to step back and ask myself an important question: how much of what I’ve observed can I actually attribute to the game? I know that sounds like a silly question to ask, but it gains traction when you recognize everything the game does outside the dream premise. For running parallel to that is a desire to explain; to unravel all the little mysteries and unanswered plot threads that previous games in the series had left hanging. It’s an understandable goal, albeit one the game doesn’t execute on particularly well. Some of its explanations are clumsily conveyed, and I picked up on quite a bit of accidental meta–commentary on the franchise. Plus the game’s insistence on sticking to friendship as the ultimate ideal doesn’t hold as much water when it does so much to discredit the concept.
But all that is beside the point. The point is that the game’s insistence on explaining away details like these directly contradicts the ambiguity the game thrives on. What makes the dream motif work is that invites inquiry. You know that the game has to be saying something (since dreams, in spite of their random nature, still operate on some kind of logic), but in the absence of any clear answers, you’re not sure what it is. So you search for the answers yourself. You become an active participant in the narrative, conjuring up interpretations and testing them against the story as you play. Obviously, that process becomes more difficult to maintain when the game is eager to give you clear answers. While they might offer greater insight into the story, they still come at a steep price.
Even the gameplay isn’t immune to this waffling. As heavily as Flowmotion relies on a surreal, dreamlike environment, in truth, only about half the game’s environments can accommodate it. The other half are more realistic. It’s clear what they’re supposed to represent, and all their pieces relate to each other in a logical manner. These types of levels make perfect sense in a game with a more grounded reality, but in something as ethereal as Dream Drop Distance, it feels like they’re missing the point. They don’t work in tandem with the game’s other features to create a more unified experience. Rather, they’re content letting anything outside their immediate vicinity exist.
I guess that speaks to the biggest issue I have with Dream Drop Distance: the game only half realizes what it’s capable of. Unfortunately, half realizations won’t suffice. They leave the game in an awkward position where it ends up a perfectly serviceable game, but also one full of so much untapped potential. Imagine what the game could have been if tapped into that potential. Or don’t, because I can think of at least one moment toward the end of the game where it does. The gameplay, the story beats, and the set design all come together to form a chaotic world to reflect Sora’s rapidly deteriorating mind. This is the game at its apex. I just wish it had more moments like this.
Ultimately, my relationship with the game is ambiguous. I find myself fascinated with all the ways Dream Drop Distance handles its own dream motif, but I don’t know how much of that I can attribute to the game and how much of it is me inserting my own readings into the game. And for as much credit as I want to give the game, this wouldn’t be an honest evaluation if I credited the game with what I wanted to read out of it. So I tried my best to put all that aside, and the results are somewhat divisive. As a Kingdom Hearts fan, the game gives me everything I want (it’s re:coded if re:coded worked!). Yet fandom aside, there’s some part of me that wanted a little more than I got.