Last Time On – Kingdom Hearts
In our last venture into the tale of Kingdom Hearts we found ourselves introduced to three new protagonists. Three who would, by the end of the game, find themselves in their own unique misfortunes. Terra’s heart was subjugated by the series’ central antagonist, Ventus’ heart was left broken and Aqua got stuck in the realm of darkness with no light to guide her out. Things didn’t turn out so well for them, but that gives us a pretty good idea of where the series is going to go from here.
While Kingdom Hearts II could have been a reasonable stopping point to the series, I can say that I’m satisfied with the direction that Birth by Sleep took. It gave us the idea that Sora still has duties to fulfil and hearts to connect as a Keyblade wielder. His ties to Ventus in particular leave him with a major personal quest that is yet unfinished. Even disregarding the fact that Xehanort is definitely still a problem, there’s plenty of reason for us to go back to Sora and see him tie these loose ends.
Another thing we saw become prevalent in Birth by Sleep is the idea of light and darkness existing in balance, a balance kept by Keyblade wielders. In Dream Drop, I want to see these themes being further highlighted and built upon. In both of Sora’s previous journeys, darkness has overwhelmed the light and been the cause for unbalance. Here I want to see the setting back in a more balanced state. I want to see Sora learn of these intricacies as he truly builds his understanding of what it means to be a Keyblade wielder. Birth by Sleep demonstrated to us that it is a more complex role than it may have previously seemed and Sora hasn’t even really scratched the surface, which is reflected in the fact that he isn’t considered a master even after his heroic triumphs. We should also see exactly how Xehanort is still a threat, though that much is a given since the game needs conflict.
What I Enjoyed
- The initial premise – So I said that I wanted this game to have more of Sora learning what it means to be a Keyblade wielder and pretty much immediately Yen Sid introduces that as one of the core ideas. Having the events of this game double as Sora and Riku’s mark of mastery exam also feels pertinent given the feats we’ve seen them perform. Compare what we’ve seen of them to what we saw Aqua and Terra do before their exam. Yeah.
- Keyblade war lore – The lore regarding the Keyblade war should, in my opinion, have all been revealed as a part of Birth by Sleep’s story. The fact that we get a piece of it here really is a ‘better late than never’ situation and we still don’t even really get the full picture. What I do like is the information we get about the X-blade and Keyblades, though. Basically, the X-blade existed naturally alongside the real Kingdom Hearts as its protector but people really wanted the light in that heart. So, they made Keyblades in the X-blade’s image in an attempt to conquer and control the light. The Keyblade war happens and the X-blade is split into 20 pieces, 7 of light and 13 of darkness.
While I don’t necessarily have an issue with this specific way the X-blade split, it does retroactively make the plot to Birth by Sleep worse. If it’s comprised of 7 lights and 13 darknesses then what was the deal with Ventus and the whole merging of pure light and darkness thing? Master Xehanort appears close to the end of this game and reveals that he just forgot the proper way to forge the X-blade but Ventus and Vanitas did it, the blade was forged. Unless that was just a fake it’s hard for me to see why that was a failure. If there’s going to be a retcon like this then the writers should try harder to cover their tracks.
Moreover, now that we know the X-blade is made specifically of 7 lights and 13 darknesses then I would like some more information on how they actually manifested. We can assume that the 7 lights are the children who remade the worlds after the progenitor world was lost to darkness but how did the 13 darknesses originally manifest? They can’t have all originally been Xehanort, a man who wasn’t even born at that time. Unless that’s going to be the plot hook for Kingdom Hearts IV.
We also get our first piece of concrete information as to the location of the real Kingdom Hearts, which is lost to darkness. So it’s somewhere out there in the abyss between worlds but again that raises questions that should have been answered in BBS. Was the one that showed up in that game the real one, did it just so happen to drift over the Keyblade graveyard or did Xehanort draw it there? If he managed to do so then how and why does he have an ability like that? Seems like a pretty big deal that’s just being glossed over there.
Going back to the positives though, I do like the idea of the Keyblade initially being made to subjugate light and then later being repurposed as a tool of balance. It’s some interesting lore, that its later wielders would atone for the war by using its weapons for for good. Being initially used for such a purpose makes the Keyblade itself feel a more neutral force, which is what I’ve been pushing for personally.
- Sora and Riku’s characterisation & arcs – For everything the game gets wrong, I would say that its script is the best that this franchise has had so far. The characters actually feel alive and Sora and Riku benefit a lot from this. I feel like they’re portrayed in exactly the way I’d want them to be and how their personalities effect the outcome of this journey is handled well. Riku demonstrates confidence when Xehanort and Ansem attempt to manipulate him, overcoming several trials that would have made him falter in the past. He returns to the inside of Monstro where he first truly turned on Sora, he battles manifestations of darkness the likes of Chernabog and he even puts Ansem down another time.
One line I really like is when Riku’s darkness is explained as being trapped inside his heart. It hasn’t been rejected or cast out or replaced with light, it’s still there as a part of him. He accepts that and has control of it, demonstrating an understanding of the heart as something which has both light and darkness. It is this acceptance that makes him a truly worthy Keyblade wielder, having seen both perspectives makes him an optimal candidate to maintain balance. Additionally, throughout his adventure the people Riku meets are constantly reaffirming him to open up and have faith in the people close to him.
Sora, on the other hand, is the same he’s always been and the flaws in his character are finally put into the spotlight. While Riku’s bonds are being affirmed, Sora is constantly being alienated by the images of people he considers his close friends. This starts with Tron, who has been altered to fight towards a corrupt cause. Sora’s inability to get through to Tron makes him doubt the integrity of his own heart and bonds, the things that give him strength. It exposes weakness in him, which Xehanort takes advantage of as he introduces the idea of Sora’s memories not being his own. Given Sora has actually three other people inside of him, this makes for a very justified inner-conflict for the character.
Sora attempts to reject all of this by holding onto his comforting belief of the light. He refers to the Keyblade as ‘a light in the darkness’, which shows that he’s still stuck in the mentality that he’s cultivated throughout his past adventures. Even though Yen Sid told him that the Keyblade was originally made to conquer the light, Sora still doesn’t understand the true nature of what he wields. It’s a demonstration of his immaturity, the shortcoming that keeps him from being called a master.
At the end of the game, when Sora is at his most desperate to reconfirm the bonds he shares with his friends, he is easily led into Xehanort’s clutches by a string of illusions. In his final encounter he states that hearts are what bring people together, another example of him denying the heart’s true nature. Light brings people together certainly, but the heart has both light and darkness within it. Sora is, again, blinded by the light within him and that’s what allows Xehanort to so easily manipulate him.
At the same time, he does show some maturity when he accepts that he was never meant to be the Keyblade’s wielder. He only became one and continues to be one because of the people and happenings around him. He’s aware of that, he accepts that, and he fights nonetheless. This shows us that Sora isn’t entirely mentally immature, just that he’s bound to his own biases regarding light and the heart. This scene where he faces down Xemnas and Xigbar shows, I would say, perhaps Sora’s best characterisation in the whole series to date.
While I don’t fully understand what turns Sora into a vessel after the Xemnas fight, the fragment of Ventus’ heart protecting him is one last very neat touch. After the scene earlier where Xehanort tells Sora that his heart is a prison, this moment of protection casts away that doubt and proves that the ones in Sora’s heart support him.
- Axel – Axel (or Lea, I’m uncertain what he’s going by now) continues to be the best character in the series despite an extremely questionable revival. After not worrying about the fact that he’s the only one still in an organization hood after reawakening, Axel moves to keep his promise to Roxas even after he actually faded into nothing. He doesn’t do a whole lot as of yet but the moment when he rescues Sora in the final sequence is arguably the most hype in the game.
Axel manifesting a Keyblade is the source of a lot of memes but I don’t actually think it’s all that out there. They do some fun foreshadowing towards it in the middle of the game so it isn’t completely out of left field by the end even just within the bounds of this one game. Taking the whole franchise into account, Axel’s heart is connected to multiple Keyblade wielders including Ventus, Sora, Roxas and most recently Mickey and Riku. He’s even technically taken a Keyblade into his hand before when he picked up Ventus’ wooden replica. By all accounts, he’s one of the most justified characters in the series to manifest a Keyblade. He has the heart for it too, as proven by that aforementioned dedication to his friends.
While we’re here, it’s also very reasonable for Kairi to begin Keyblade training. We literally saw her use a Keyblade in Kingdom Hearts II and she has a fleeting bond with Aqua which helps to justify her capacity to wield it. She’s also, y’know, the other primary main character. The events of Kingdom Hearts II also proved that she has a strong heart, even if she did get dumpstered a bunch for trying to be selfless. I very much hope she’s hype in Kingdom Hearts III and doesn’t even up being damsel princess who needs rescued constantly.
- Mickey in the sleeping worlds – While it is largely inconsequential, I do like that we get to see Mickey show up in multiple of these worlds. It gives us some insight into his past adventures before becoming the master he is in the current day. I almost wish this was played into more and that we got to see the echoes of other Keyblade wielders like Xehanort or Eraqus. I feel like there’s a version of the story where making the sleeping keyhole worlds all ones that Xehanort once personally visited is extremely interesting. Would give us more insight into the character, maybe back when he was still a wide-eyed adventurer and not yet some darkness-obsessed madman.
What Needs Changed
- Far too many new and convoluted concepts – The story wasn’t even past the first world before I decided how much I absolutely despised the sleeping keyhole and dream ideas and it only got worse as the game progressed. Right off the bat, the premise doesn’t even really make sense because Yen Sid claims that the sleeping worlds are ones which are still partially locked in darkness after the events of Kingdom Hearts I. Except, they aren’t in darkness because the Heartless aren’t able to reach them. Instead they’re in an abstract state of dreaming, which is only introduced to the narrative as a means of forcing multiple garbage plot points.
We’re at a point in the franchise where we don’t need any more vague and abstract terms kicking around. Between the true nature of the heart and Keyblades and such there’s already plenty there to work with, adding more does nothing but make the story more messy and convoluted. The Dream Eaters are essentially just Heartless but replace the word ‘heart’ with ‘dreams’ because, like the Unversed, they exist to be the game’s token new enemy type. They are made of dreams but the bad ones also eat dreams and the good ones eat the bad ones. They exist as a game mechanic and that does not do the narrative any favors.
Traverse Town is a massive travesty in itself but the reasons why tie deeply into the dream concept. It really feels as if they tried really hard to make this world align with The World Ends With You lore but the problem is that it just doesn’t work with the sleeping worlds concept. Traverse Town is meant to manifest as a haven for people who have lost their worlds except this iteration of it was dreamt up by Joshua so is it not actually a piece of the world that’s still trapped in darkness or is Joshua’s dream a part of the main Traverse Town? He also says that he dreamt up Sora and Riku which doesn’t track at all given that we know they’re outsiders, unless the Sora and Riku in this Traverse Town aren’t the real ones or the proper dream ones. Furthermore, spoilers, it’s revealed to us near the end of the game that this iteration of Riku is a Dream Eater in Sora’s dreams so in this case he would be the world’s dream, Sora’s dream AND Joshua’s dream all at the same time. You see why this is a problem?
We also get introduced to the concept of the sleeping worlds each having multiple separate iterations, which is an idea I warmed up to later on but here it’s just a mess. In Traverse Town, there are portals that can allow people to go between the different versions of the worlds except Sora and Riku never utilize this because that would be weird because Riku is in Sora’s dreams. It’s just another unnecessary layer of complexity that doesn’t need to be present given how obtuse the narrative already is.
Also throughout this world Sora and Riku just randomly fall asleep for no discernible reason. The way I interpreted it was as being game mechanics to force the switches between the two protags except we see that they’re both clearly active at the same time so why even do it in the first place?
Oh and then we get the fun tidbit that the reason Sora and Riku look younger in this game is because, to enter the sleeping worlds, they had to go back in time to when Destiny Isles was swallowed by darkness. Apparently that was the point when the worlds first fell to darkness but that doesn’t wholly track because Traverse Town didn’t fall during the events of the first game. Furthermore, if the sleeping worlds are fragments that are still resting in darkness, wouldn’t they have been left behind at the end of Kingdom Hearts I when the worlds were restored? Putting all that to the side, I don’t even see why they should specifically have to go to that point to enter the worlds. Are the sleeping fragments just gone in the current day? That seems weird seeing as we learn that time is convoluted between the worlds, to the point that we’re unsure whether or not the version of Space Paranoids we visit comes before or after the events of KHII. You’d think it has to be after because Tron supposedly recognizes Sora and yet Xehanort calls it the original version of the world, which is completely contrary to that fact. Tron recognizing Sora is an inconsistency either way because the versions of characters who are in the sleeping worlds are just parts of the dream and shouldn’t have memories of Sora anyways, as demonstrated multiple times in later worlds.
No, the reason why this time travel element is ‘necessary’ is to force this idiotic plot thread where Xehanort also enters the sleeping worlds through Ansem. See, the way time travel works in this game is you can only go back if there was already an iteration of you there at the point you want to go. Due to this fact, multiple iterations of Xehanort are able to travel to the point when Ansem was on Destiny Isles and immediately begin manipulating Sora and Riku’s journey. I don’t even think that concept for time travel is all that bad but goddamn if it isn’t extremely forced here. The concepts surrounding dreams were dense enough without tying time travel into it.
- Organization XIII revival & Xehanort – At the very start of the game we get to see the moment when Xehanort first takes on the name Ansem. It’s nothing new to us but it sets the scene for later when the characters we see incapacitated in that moment come back later. It makes for a cool moment and I was initially genuinely intrigued as to how the Organization members came back and where Braig, the one we saw get directly stabbed, was. I would say the foreshadowing here is handled well, the problem is that the justification is lacking. Once we get to the big reveal of how they came back it essentially comes down to ‘it happened because bodies really want their heart back’, which just feels very lazy and unsatisfying for how big a plot point it is. The revival itself I’m fine with, I think it’s a neat way to make Xehanort a threat again, but the way it happens is not at all impressive. I also have to call into question why the Nobodies who were slain during Chain of Memories are reawakening at the same time as those who died much later in KHII.
Xehanort himself, while his dialogue and that of his counterparts isn’t awful for a good part of the game, feels like he has way too much control over its events. I get that it’s trying to build up just how cunning he is but it just comes off as being bullshit to make the plot progress. Multiple characters including Xigbar and Yen Sid even comment on the fact that it’s impossible for Xehanort to plan ahead as much as he supposedly did, because it is. The moment Sora enters the first sleeping world he’s already marked by an X that allows Xehanort to track him. If this instead happened discreetly in the second or third world after a grace period where Xehanort did have to actively track him down then I feel it would have been a lot more believable while maintaining his feeling of control. It would also be more satisfying for the player to notice exactly when Sora was marked.
Xehanort reveals to Sora in the final world that he was guiding our protagonist’s adventure this whole time. Like, he let Sora awaken the sleeping keyholes but believe us he was totally manipulating him to do that. It was all part of the plan, I guess? This is why Xehanort having so much control is a problem, it feels like the events of the game happen as they should and then at the end Xehanort is like “ha I totally pranked you bro!” rather than actually effecting anything.
The addition of time travel elements to his backstory also does Xehanort no favors. I do not like that Xehanort’s descent into darkness was guided by a future iteration of himself at all. I have huge problems with backwards time travel plots generally and this paradoxical interaction is one of the big pitfalls. Ansem being able to go back and send Xehanort down the path where he ends up becoming Ansem means that all time has already happened, beginning and end are set from the start. It isn’t something that’s moving forward from a current point because if that were the case then young Xehanort would have lived a different life where he never met Ansem, therefore possibly never causing the timeline where Ansem came to be. If he did go down that path on his own, which would make for a more interesting story, it would make Ansem’s intervention pointless. I despise the concept of pre-written timelines and forcing them to introduce this type of uninnovative, unengaging plot is the worst.
- Nobodies having hearts – So it turns out that Nobodies weren’t just faking emotion after all, what a big shock. In actuality, they were developing replacement hearts because bodies really want to have hearts. I do not like this at all because at that point they’re just normal again, there’s no point in them being Nobodies. Kinda kills the motivation they had in KHII. There were others ways to write this so the Organization members would yearn for hearts without resorting to something like this.
At the very least, I can say that I’m fine with the idea of putting the same heart into every Organization member. For one reason or another they were desperate to have hearts again, so Xemnas abused that fact and devised a plot wherein they would all end up with the same one. I think this is genuinely quite interesting and would absolutely work better if they didn’t shovel in this throwaway ‘developing replacement hearts’ plot point.
- DiZ – They brought DiZ back again at the end of this game so he could say actually nothing of consequence. There’s no explanation for why he’s here other than I guess to explain that he hid some data in Sora? He’s boring and confusing and needs to not appear again because he blew up in Kingdom Hearts II.
Given my issues with the dream and time travel elements of this plot, I’m going to say that it needs a massive overhaul. To streamline things a bit, let’s begin with the thing that should have been handled in Birth by Sleep. In my amendment of that game, I proposed that the intro sequence should essentially give us everything about the Keyblade war that we would ever need to know. That would, of course, include the nature of the X-blade and how it broke. I would clarify that the seven lights manifested as the seven princesses of heart but, thinking about it, I think I would leave the thirteen darknesses part vague. In all honesty, I think the true darknesses of the X-blade would be the best villains to replace Xehanort after Kingdom Hearts III so just unceremoniously tossing them out here would be a waste. Past that, we need a proper explanation as to how master Xehanort drew Kingdom Hearts to the Keyblade Graveyard. The true Kingdom Hearts has been so elusive for the whole series and I won’t accept the idea that he can just make it pop up whenever.
Back to Dream Drop, extracting the good elements of this plot and working them into something passable is like performing surgery. I’m going to say now that, despite the name of the game, we are throwing all of the dream elements out of the window. Maybe the worlds can be described as being dream-like but I will not allow them to be straight up dreams, that just opens the door for too much convoluted confusion. What I did like was the concept of this game’s worlds being those which are still partially locked in darkness. I think there’s a lot that can be done with this and I want to play into it as much as possible.
The way I’m interpreting it is as the darkness desperately gripping to these pieces, yearning to take back at least a piece of the world’s heart that it lost. Given that, Heartless should still be the enemy in this game, though again perhaps a different breed. The most desperate of the species who clamber for even fragments of hearts, some of them ravenous to the point of slaughtering their own in an attempt to devour the hearts of other Heartless. The Dream Eaters, cutesy wastes of time implemented only to push sales, would be removed in favor of these hungering foes. If we have to retain fodders-as-allies mechanic then I would spin it like the light in Sora and Riku’s hearts can make the starving Heartless whole again and pacify them to the point of gaining their allegiance. Since the concept of these Heartless cannibalising each other is in place it isn’t much of a stretch to get them to fight each other.
The worlds constantly replay the same segments of time so as to reach a conclusion that allows it to be freed from the darkness. This retains the multiple versions of worlds concept, turning it into a desperate yet fruitless struggle to save itself. Since time is convoluted we can use that to handwave and say that multiple attempts are happening simultaneously, which is why Sora and Riku can be in two different versions at once. Heck, if that’s too much of a push then we could just have Sora and Riku not go to the same worlds until the final one. I don’t think the minor inter-world interactions would be that huge of a loss honestly.
Now you might be wondering, but how do Sora and Riku get there in the first place? Because the answer definitely isn’t shoddily implemented time travel I can tell you that. In previous instalments of the series, Sora has been limited to going to worlds that aren’t shrouded in darkness. In this case, he has to find worlds that are still lost in it. Just take the whole diving into dreams idea and turn it into diving into darkness. By all accounts it achieves the same thing and we could swing it like the ability could allow Sora to find the true Kingdom Hearts, which is also lost in darkness. I don’t see why we couldn’t just say that doing this doesn’t also allow one to dive into one’s heart either. Again, the whole dream concept is just convoluted and unnecessary.
I would also very much like unlocking the sleeping keyholes to actually do something rather than just being practice for Sora and Riku. The two of them unlock a sleeping part of Yen Sid’s world and nothing changes afterwards. Wouldn’t that locked part come back to the main world? Yen Sid’s world is pretty small so it would be cool to see it undergo a Radiant Garden-like transformation. Let us see the fruits of our labor!
I feel like I have to comment on how to implement the TWEWY characters now given these changes but I don’t know how much of how they’re currently handled is based on their original game. I would have to play that game myself to really do them justice so I’m going to leave them in limbo for now. They aren’t really all that consequential in the grand scheme anyways but I did want to pass them some mention.
I mentioned earlier about the idea of the sleeping worlds being places that Xehanort visited back during his younger days as a Keyblade wielder. I do think that this would be the best way to implement him into this plot as it would allow us to see a more humanized and likeable version of him from the past. The value of seeing him would be far higher than seeing Mickey, which amounts to little more than just being a nice touch. We could even say that the worlds are attempting to use the echoes of Keyblade wielders to free themselves since the Keyblade has the power to do so. We could also say that Xehanort personally ensured that these world fragments would end up trapped in darkness such that Keyblade wielders like Sora and Riku would come trying to restore them. Each world leading them deeper into darkness until they end up in the deepest abyss, where awaits The World That Never Was.
Since we’re using darkness instead of dreams here, it becomes a lot easier to understand why Sora falls prone under the weight of such a place. Letting the restored Heartless into his heart would also make him more vulnerable to it, essentially becoming a wide opening for Xehanort to force his way into. Feeling alienated from the echoes of his friends, Sora would bond with the Heartless of all things and that reckless opening up would be his weakness. I feel this would push the plot arc he already has a little further while making Xehanort’s plan feel more believable and understandable.
Now, I said earlier that I don’t think the method of time travel that this game introduces is all that bad. Time travel is always better when it has limitations and I do like the rules that are stated for it here. First, you can only go to where another iteration of you already is. Second, if you go to the past you cannot make any major changes to the events which occur. Third, if you go to the future you will forget all that you learned once you go back. I don’t like it Xehanort’s backstory primarily because it feels to me like it makes his progression as a character weaker, more forced. I think the use of it to bring all of the iterations of Xehanort to the same place is alright, so I believe I would keep it for that exact purpose. I think time travel should be a discovery that only Xehanort has made so as to make him feel more powerful, like he truly has more control over the situation. It’s terrifying to think that, if you encounter one of the Xehanorts, the others could potentially just come to them from any temporal point. Even iterations that have been defeated in the past may emerge again, making Xehanort feel practically invincible.
Nobodies shouldn’t have hearts. Not having hearts is what makes them unique entities. Not having hearts should mean that they suffer a consistent, torturous feeling of emptiness rather than not having emotions. I went other this in a past amendment. Lastly, DiZ shouldn’t show up again. I gave him props for his arc back in KHII and I think his hand in the plot should have ended there. Him hiding data in Sora’s body, fine, I can accept that. He did have free reign over Sora’s body for the good part of a year. Just get the character himself out of here, he’s overstaying his welcome.
I can safely say that I haven’t been this baffled by Kingdom Hearts since the end sequence of the first game. I knew Dream Drop was convoluted going into this but I never could have imagined the extent of it. The first Traverse Town visit was, from beginning to end, a constant string of new and exciting ways to make the plot all the most dense. From there, more and more was piled on until we were left with an inconsistent, self-contradicting mess of plot elements. Pretty much every new thing I learned about dreams felt like it raised three or more questions and by the end I still wasn’t even really sure what they were going for. Sora dreamed too hard and that make him a viable body for Xehanort, that’s the best way I can describe it.
I said it earlier and I’ll say it again, by this point Kingdom Hearts has enough plot elements to ride on. Adding more without fully exploring what’s already there is bad storytelling, not only is it difficult to consume but it makes the elements before it harder to enjoy. Xehanort feels too omnipresent throughout this game, which results in him feeling like token evil force rather than an actually threatening bad guy. Just letting him do and know anything whenever doesn’t make him intimidating, it makes him infuriating. Not enough effort has gone into making him a character, starting with the poor presentation of him in Birth by Sleep.
That’s not to see all of the characters were a complete waste in this game. I found the writing genuinely enjoyable at times, certainly more frequently than I have in previous titles. Sora and Riku, our focal duo, are presented well and I like most everything about their progression through this game. Unlike Xehanort, I’m actually excited to see them again and find out where they go in Kingdom Hearts III. That sentiment is shared with Axel and Kairi as well, two who I have high hopes for. Overall, this game was a sour appetiser for what’s to come, but with the third main instalment on the horizon I can say that my hype hasn’t been killed.