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January 10, 2019

Kingdom Hearts Voltimania: Dream Drop Distance (Part 2)

Before I do anything else, I’m going to say some nice things about the story in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance.  Because despite everything else in summation rivaling a Class 5 Shitstorm, there are some nice things I can say.  And I can’t let this post get too negative.

Before that, though, let’s have another wrestler theme.  Who have we got today?  Hmmmmmmmmmmm…

The irony of embedding a song titled “No More Words” is not lost on me.

Now then.  Let me say this to start: thanks to this game, I think Riku is my favorite character in the whole series.  It was Sora, and Aqua was a contender at one point, but yeah.  Until further notice -- we’ll see how KHIII turns out -- Riku’s my favorite.  As such, I feel compelled to explain (however erroneously, from a point of pure, subjective bias) why he’s the best character in the whole franchise.  Even though I’ve called him a douchebag on this very blog, but whatever.  I’m not quite ready to retract the claim.

To sum it up, Riku is probably KH’s most complete character.  He may not get as much screen time as Sora from game to game (for myriad reasons), but he still makes his appearances count.  More importantly, those moments taken across the entire series give him that magical thing we call a character arc.  I remember back in the days of KHI when he was a 15-year-old hungry to leave his island behind -- and with it, the life he saw as dreary and insignificant.  As it so happened, he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals.  It wouldn’t be as big a problem if not for the franchise he’s a part of, but…well…

Riku’s ambitions get the better of him, and lead to him jumping into waters he’s got no business wading in.  Admittedly the “ambition is evil” trope is one that personally irks me, but at the very least KHI tried to imply that the methodology is the problem, not the ideal.  He messed around with darkness, getting more and more tainted for the sake of his goals.  It’s kind of hard to blame him; he was in an impossible situation, ripped from home with the girl of his dreams comatose -- and his only hope was a doofus in zeppelin-sized shoes who couldn’t even beat him in a mock fight.  Hard to have faith in any circumstances or options besides “work with a sketchy witch whilst doping on primordial chaotic energies”.  Not surprisingly, Riku ends up paying for it dearly, but not without striving for redemption (and earning a sliver of it) by resisting Ansem SoD and helping Sora shut the door in the World of Chaos.

“Redemption” ends up becoming a big part of Riku’s character.  Of course, it shares space in his brain alongside “protection”.  He went as far as he did in KHI because he wanted to protect and save Kairi, to the point where it…ended poorly.  After that?  He wanted to protect Sora as well, as both a testament to their friendship and tribute to the friend who saved him from the darkness.  And himself.  He still took it WAY too far post-KHI by way of turning into a clone of Ansem SoD and subsequently shredding his youthful overconfidence thanks to realizing how tainted he’d become, but…wait, he’s still one of the heroes, right?  Somebody remind me.

Getting over that shit takes time.  You can make the argument that Riku went emo -- which is a complaint that’s all too easy to lob at Squeenix fare -- but given the traumas he went through, there’s no way Riku could be the same person in 2012 (our time) that he was in 2002.  Doubly so, because in the canon’s timeline, there’s (I assume) VERY little space between the end of KHII and the start of 3D.  Suddenly you’ve got a powerful wizard telling him to become a warrior for the forces of good, even though he’s spent a huge chunk of the canon getting high on the dankest of darkness.

Riku doubts himself more than he ever has, but more importantly, 3D takes his character in a crucial direction: he not only has to redeem himself, and he not only has to justify his status as a warrior of light -- as a guardian worthy of wielding the a Keyblade -- but also has to reclaim his lost innocence.  For good or ill (mostly ill), he got his wish of seeing what lied beyond Destiny Islands, and was tainted by the experience.  He’s not a dumb kid anymore.  He was a co-conspirator in a slew of interdimensional crimes, whose recklessness nearly cost him his body and identity, and willingly exposed himself to abyssal horrors.  Living and non-living.

And yet he’s best friends with Mickey Mouse.

No matter what, KH as a whole is a trip through some of the world’s most nostalgic, colorful properties, oft rendered in full 3D with the hardware of the time.  It’s the one thing that guarantees no canon character can stay a sadsack forever, including Riku.  I’d like to think that there was some therapeutic element to his journey across the sleeping worlds; rather than let the darkness haunt him, he ventured into realms of light and faced characters and challenges alike that reaffirmed his sense of self.  And with it?  Each assertion of his virtues and beliefs reminded him that he’s more than just a pawn of the darkness.  He’s a wielder of it, for the sake of protecting what’s precious to him.

It all really culminates in 3D -- highlights the graphed-out point of his character arc with a bullet.  Riku starts by wondering if he’s worthy of being a Keyblade Master; over the course of his adventure, he reaffirms his appreciation of Sora (or hell, let’s just call it love at this point), faces his darkness quite literally by besting Ansem SoD, and ends up becoming a Keyblade Master in place of Sora, the hero.  I’m actually, honestly impressed with how he’s been handled over the course of this franchise.  Including 3D.

Too bad the rest of 3D is a dumpster fire.

I haven’t felt this disrespected by a story since I played Final Fantasy 15.  I mean, I don’t understand how you can make a game like this (unless you’re under the Squeenix umbrella).  How do you make games that last for upwards of 30 hours yet have so little actual content and narrative in them?  At this point I’m legitimately curious.  I actually want to learn the process behind crafting a story, JRPG or otherwise, at Squeenix Keep.  Clearly it’s not a problem with other games, genres, or companies.  Even in the confines of the JRPG branch, the Tales games have been killing it for years.  The best I’ve played from this company in recent memory, meanwhile, is NieR: Automata, which might as well be (and is) a Squeenix game in name only.

One of the core problems with 3D is that by and large, only the beginning and very end matter.  The devs a ton of relevant plot developments into The World That Never Was back in KHII, then decided to top themselves with this version of The World That Never Was by dumping even more plot into what’s probably the last hour or two of the game.  It goes as poorly as you’d expect, but it doesn’t stop there.  What little content there is is so absurd, baffling, and infuriating that I swear to God Nomura put together a Z-team to work on the game and slapped his real crew’s names in the credits.  That has to be the explanation.  I refuse to believe that anyone can torpedo a franchise this hard.

*twitches as memories of BBS resurface*

I...I honestly don’t even know where to begin (besides the bullshit Recusant’s Sigil).  But we have to start somewhere, and it might as well be with the first question of many.  So here’s…

1) What happened to Sora?

Sora’s never been the brightest bulb in the chandelier.  That much is true.  But -- maybe I’m remembering events wrongly, or letting my nostalgia taint things, but I thought there was more to Sora than just “dumb but good kid”.  Right?  He had more going on than just thinking about friendship and going starry-eyed at the next Disney world attraction or new friend to make, didn’t he?  Like when he visits the Tron: Legacy world he runs into Rinzler, and mistakenly believes that he can overcome his programming (Rinzler being Tron and all), but that’s patently impossible because that version of Rinzler is from a dimension far-removed from the Tron Sora met.  That doesn’t stop Sora from trying to get Rinzler from remembering, because…friends…?

To be honest, I have an easier time remembering KHI Sora’s character than his 3D incarnation.  I think part of that has to do with him being more than just a walking ball of sunshine.  Back then, he showed a range of emotions and traits -- things like anger, jealousy, inadequacy, impulsiveness, naivete, overconfidence, and more.  While not the deepest character, he still left an impression because he wasn’t just going “friends and adventures, wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!”  He wasn’t just sleepwalking through the game.

Maybe it’s because 3D is one of the first entries in years to have Sora in a starring role -- meaning that, against all odds, the devs forgot how to write him.  Or just a different team tried and failed to pen him, given the divide between the supposed Osaka Team and Tokyo Team (the former of which handled 3D and BBS).  Either way, the fact that Sora’s become so bland and unsatisfying -- and outright dumb, given that he skips merrily into an enemy trap -- is a problem I pray to God has been sorted out for KHIII.

What’s personally irksome is Sora’s shift in roles, canon-wise.  I’m thankful that 3D skewed toward this by having him fail his Mark of Mastery test, but I always liked the idea of Sora being a failure/stand-in for the real hero, Riku.  Remember, the a Keyblade chose Riku and only jumped to Sora when Ol’ Silver-Hair couldn’t take up arms; when he could, Riku ripped it right out of Sora’s hands.  (There’s even a scene in KHI that foreshadows Riku’s rightful ownership.)  Sora had to earn the right, because he was never truly chosen to become a warrior, let alone a Master.  

So how did we reach a point where he’s the most important person in the franchise, capable of retaining so many hearts in himself and being the one person everyone looks to as their savior?  It’s hard to swallow.  But, as with this franchise in general, I guess I have no choice.

2) Why is the Mark of Mastery exam such a fat load?
So the central premise behind this game’s story is that Yen Sid, in the hopes of properly arming Sora and Riku with formal Keyblade training and getting them ready to awaken the sleeping hearts of past KH characters, has them take the Mark of Mastery exam.  I guess the exam is whatever you want it to be, given that the BBS crew just had to smack around some giant balls (phrasing!), but screw it.  This is more relevant to the times.

As I’ve said before, I thought that -- prior to playing 3D -- the exam actually took place inside dreams.  That is, Sora and Riku went to sleep in a nearby room of the Mysterious Tower and used a form of astral projection to reach the game’s other worlds.  I still thought that for a while during my playthrough of the game.  It makes some semblance of sense; that’s why Donald and Goofy couldn’t come along, and the boys could undergo their training/test in the cover of a safe haven.  Unfortunately, protecting the multiverse’s best hopes for survival would simply be too helpful.

All right, let me see if I have this right.  The sleeping worlds are physical locations reachable by Gummi Ship, just like all the rest -- and Yen Sid had them go alone, knowing full well that the forces of darkness were steadily gathering?  Nobody went along to even monitor them and their progress?  And Yen Sid wanted them to get some formal training, only to leave the boys alone to develop their own informal fighting styles anyway, again?  How were they even supposed to learn the means to awaken sleeping hearts?  Except…I guess it’s as easy as pointing a Keyblade at where you want to go, given that I guess Riku does it to save Sora in the end.  So what the fuck was the point of the test if it’s just that easy?  

What really gets to me is that the big reveal, the mic dropper of the entire game -- Sora failing the exam and Riku passing -- hits with the impact of a fumbled slice of bologna.  The entire exam was tainted and botched by way of Xehanort and Organization XIII intervening.  It ended up being made illegitimate, especially with one of its two test-takers placed in mortal peril.  So why is Sora being branded a failure when his loss was miles out of his control?  Is it because he should have known better?  How could he?  Sora’s an idiot, and you put him in a situation where his life was in mortal peril and didn’t bother to put any safeguards in place.

Can he at least retake the test?  Is that possible?  Is KHIII going to start with that?  Because awakening sleeping hearts seems like a pretty useful skill to have on tap.  Hello?  Anyone there?

*headdesk* This fucking franchise, man.

3) Why are we dealing with time travel now?
The original version of 3D came out in 2012, which is roughly the same time frame as FF13-2’s release.  One of the key aspects of that godawful game was time travel, the particulars of which were not only infuriating and confusing (*twitches nervously over the “if you change the future you change the past” line*), but only served to demonstrate that certain people shouldn’t add time travel to their stories unless they’re damn sure they have it on lockdown.

They didn’t have it on lockdown for 3D.  And it shows.

There’s actually a Reddit post that explains it more directly and accurately than I ever could, but for the post’s sake I’ll give it a shot.  Because this franchise refuses to be understood, the rules of time travel are as follows: you can only travel to a time where a version of you exists.  In order to time travel at all, you have to discard your body and become a heart -- though you can give other versions of yourself the power to do the same because fuck you I guess.  In any case, you lose your memories of the time travel experience when you return home, though said experience still etches something into your heart that impacts actions to come.  Also, you can’t change the future because it’s already destined to happen.

This is what happens when somebody at Squeenix gets their hands on a box set of Back to the Future movies.

Let’s ignore the fact that this franchise is complicated enough without adding time travel into the mix.  Now, maybe I’m just being an idiot -- the pounding headache I get whenever it comes to KH’s time travel knocks off some IQ points -- but doesn’t it seem as if the established rules here directly contradict each other?  So you can’t change the future, but you can influence people so that they can decide the future?  Isn’t that, you know, changing the future?  And even if it is just conforming to the path set in stone, aren’t you still inherently changing the past with what might as well be passive brainwashing so that then the future changes anyway?  Why are the rules so needlessly complex and over-explained yet under-explained and left obscured?  Either you can change the future or you can’t.  Back to the Future or Terminator.  Pick a lane.

The smart choice would be to just not include time travel at all -- especially not cram in/infodump it in the last 5-10% of the game -- but that would make too much sense.  So from what I can gather, there’s been an attempt to keep time travel from being broken and OP, but it’s still broken and OP.  If, at a bare minimum, only Young Xehanort can time travel (and others can too, but work with me here), then he’s automatically won.  Period.  

Even in the context of KH’s “rules”, what’s stopping the Xehanorts -- any version of them -- from pulling an infinite number of Xehanorts into one location for a zerg rush?  I mean, all YX has to do is have versions of him from a minute in the future jump to where he is, like the middle of a battle, and overwhelm with sheer numbers.  Like, there’s no reason to even bother with assembling 13 Seekers of Darkness when you just have to summon yourself 12 times in a row -- and you can’t use the excuse of “oh, it has to be 13 different people” because most of the people in the new Organization are still Xehanort.  All of them are in some capacity, when you get down to it.  But the important thing is that Xehanort is invincible because he can spawn an army in an instant -- which is a possibility supported by the canon because of boss fights where (if not for the hardware limitations of handheld devices) he brings in multiple versions of himself to butcher you.  How is there even a franchise at this point?  

4) Why is Young Xehanort so boring?
This is another remnant of FF13-2.  That game had Caius Ballad, a bland pretty boy villain with time powers who won even when he lost.  This game has Young Xehanort, a bland pretty boy villain with time powers who won even when he lost.  

After a certain point in my playthrough, every time he showed up in a scene I would actively groan.  He adds nothing to the plot.  He’s part of the reason why I hate the Recusant’s Sigil; even though he’s got Sora marked, it’s not like he ever does anything meaningful with the knowledge of his location.  He only shows up to spout some cryptic nonsense and then leave.  In world, after world, after world.  Despite being the central villain, he’s filler just like everything else.  Sleepwalking through his scenes, and only showing signs of life when Sora’s at risk of falling into Riku’s hands instead of YX’s arms.  Because of course that’s when he shows a personality: when there’s a chance to throw some red meat to rabid fangirls.

I’m not going to say that any of the (OC) villains are amazing or sterling examples of storytelling, because they’re not.  But up until YX, none of them actively tried to piss me off -- though I guess you could amend that to say none of them pissed me off before the rambling, meandering mess that is 3D.  Regardless, YX is my least favorite of the bunch because he heralds the era of Xehanort being some all-knowing mastermind who can win even when he loses.  Who succeeds just ‘cause…with “the cause” being that he’s lucky everyone around him has amoebas for brains.

Retroactively -- between games, off-camera, whatever the hell -- YX and his alternate selves ended up becoming “just according to keikaku” types even when they did nothing to earn it.  Honestly, I’m inclined to believe that at this point, each progressive game contradicts or invalidates one (at least) that came before it.  Like, what happened to the Nobodies of Organization XIII wanting hearts?  Had the question been explored properly, it could have invited meaningful thematic heft and philosophically explored the foundations of humanity.  Now 3D is here and it turns out Nobodies can have hearts, so KHII is moot.  

Also, what the hell would the Xehanorts -- YX especially -- have done if at any point Sora failed to make it to The World That Never Was?  What would they have done if they succeeded in making him a Seeker of Darkness?  In order for there to be a second Keyblade War, they need seven hearts of light…and they’re going to reduce that count because…?  I mean, I guess that the idea behind KHIII is that they’ll take the hearts of the new princesses, but still.  Every time they try to add complexity to this franchise, it never goes well.  Ever.

But I have a more important question to ask.


5) Why?
Why does it not feel like there’s no cohesion in this franchise?  Why does it feel like characters, events, plots, and concepts are rewritten on a whim to suit the needs of one particular moment?  Why can’t anything ever be straightforward?  Why can’t we go back to the days where everything was simple and clean, where character arcs and progression weren’t just merry little accidents?

I get it.  Writing a story is hard.  There’s so much you have to consider, and even more if you want that story to be good.  But two things are worth keeping in mind.  First?  It’s not impossible.  It’s doable with a sharp mind and a steady hand.  Second?  You don’t have to constantly make things harder on yourself unless you’re me by needlessly making the story more complex -- loading it down with whatever random-ass bullshit you can cull from other, better stories.  Squeenix is never going to top Chrono Trigger at the rate they’re going, and I’d prefer it if they stopped trying.

There are still plenty of complaints I could lob at both this franchise and 3D by itself.  The worst part is that, in a lot of cases, there are easy fixes.  Edits you could make to streamline and enhance the experience.  Well, I say “easy”, but what I envision would basically amount to massive rewrites.  Frankly, that would be the best route to take -- or second-best, at least.  The real best route would be to avoid writing yourself into corners like this in the first place.

If I had to guess, I’d say that one of the franchise’s deepest, most enduring problems is that it refuses to let anyone or anything die.  That, and the bizarre tendency to over/underexplain things, tying things together no matter how intense the strain.  (You could probably make a lethal drinking game out of the number of times the canon says “Well, actually…” or “It turns out that…” to explain a yet-unexplained element.)  But yeah, we wouldn’t be in this situation if Nomura and crew could just get over their OCs.  Someone needs to drop dead, and fast.  And permanently.

Axel/Lea is good, but by no means is he good enough to justify becoming a central hero and manifesting his own Keyblade in the span of a few scenes.  I don’t care enough about any Xehanort to justify having half a dozen of them running around.  The same goes for Organization XIII.  Luxord was my favorite back in the day, but seeing him return for KHIII doesn’t get much more than a shrug out of me.  Why?  Because he was never a character.  Just a design with powers I thought were cool.

There have been plenty of times where I’ve wondered why I even like this franchise.  I’m pretty sure it’s because, despite the high horse I’m prone to riding on, I’m just as chained by my nostalgia as everyone else.  I rant, rave, and rage because I care.  Because if I don’t -- if I do anything else for long -- it means breaking down in tears.  It means acknowledging that KHI, and the franchise as a whole in its early, promise-filled years, was lightning in a bottle.  Potential, wasted.  Skill, squandered.  Nothing more than a happy little accident.

But every so often?  Accidents happen twice.

See you next time.

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