The soundtrack to Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is one of the biggest surprises I’ve had so far this year. Not because it’s good– I expected that much. What surprises me most about this album is instead how fresh and different it sounds while still retaining the essence of the series.
Yoko Shimomura, Tsuyoshi Sekito, and Takeharu Ishimoto proved to be an excellent team-up for Birth by Sleep’s soundtrack, and that certainly applies here as well. As per the usual, there are a number of arrangements of tracks from previous games in the series this time, but what will truly excite the listener is that, rather than the more conservative arrangements seen in earlier games, many liberties have been taken to freshen up some tracks. The sound design incorporates a good deal more synth than in the past, and this helps to perpetuate a sense of otherworldliness.
Another surprise is that, in general, the amount of original material here greatly outpaces the arranged material. Additionally, especially with regards to the Disney worlds, it seems the composing team had a greater deal of freedom to try different things and experiment with new sounds. Compare the tracks that accompany Traverse Town, Tron’s The Grid, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s La Cité des Cloches, and you hear some drastically different sounds that really go a long way toward giving each locale its own identity.
“Traverse in Trance” is a rather liberal arrangement of the original track that will give longtime fans of these games chills. Taking an already-relaxed tune and slowing it down further gives it a dreamlike quality that makes it seem almost as if the music is welcoming you back with nostalgia-laden arms to the town that hasn’t been physically visited since the original Kingdom Hearts. The instrumentation is top notch, and as a fan of the series, it was hard for me not to crack a smile at just how respectfully the source material was handled.
“Le Sanctuaire” is the track that accompanies The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s world. Simply put, I was floored when I first heard this song. Much like “Hau’oli, Hau’oli” from Birth by Sleep, this track isn’t based on any music from the Disney film, and is instead a dark, brooding original composition that really gives weight to the world it accompanies. Featuring ponderous organ and a choir performance, this track makes the world feel thematically integrated with the rest of the game, something I believe this series occasionally struggles with.
“Access the Grid,” the field theme for Tron Legacy’s world (called The Grid), is drastically different from the other world themes. While Daft Punk’s fantastic score for the film is sadly not used, this piece of music is a catchy and evocative track that captures the essence of the world.
As mentioned previously, the arranged music in the game does a great job of retaining the spirit of the original material while venturing into fresh new territory. A trio of tracks from the fantastic The World Ends With You make an appearance here, and all three sound great in their new incarnations. A favorite of mine in particular is “CALLING – KINGDOM MIX,” which opens with the same hook as the original track, but quickly expands into a synthy reinterpretation with a fantastic vocal performance. This type of music has never been seen before in the Kingdom Hearts series, but it fits in well and provides a greater sense of variety.
“Sacred Distance,” an arrangement of the KHII track “Sacred Moon,” turns the tempo down a notch yet again, evoking the same sense of mystery and darkness that the original track did while keeping the feelings of “been there, heard that” at bay. On the subject of arranged music, many of the major boss battle themes in the game follow what has become tradition for this series and combine arrangements of several character themes into one track. I’ve always been a supporter of this practice, as it gives the tracks a real sense of narrative and emotional weight for players that have followed the admittedly-convoluted plot of the series since the beginning. As you stare down a major foe, you can hear the associated themes of all the major characters whose paths have crossed with him or her, and it really gives a great feeling of continuity.
One of the final battle tracks, “My Heart’s Descent” is an incredible piece of music that eschews the series’ tradition of up-tempo boss themes in the vein of Roxas’ “The Other Promise” from Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix. It’s a somber rendition of Kingdom Hearts’ “Dive Into the Heart -Destati-.” I can’t speak for how this track is informed by the plot, but I can say that it ties the music together from a narrative standpoint in expert fashion.
There are a number of great original tracks here, too. “Wild Blue” is a bouncy and adventurous battle theme that manages to maintain an upbeat tone while carrying a dramatic weight that puts it at home in the series. “All For One” is a furiously happy track that seems as though it could accompany a mini-game or side event, but unlike some of the ancillary tracks in previous Kingdom Hearts titles, this one manages to really keep the listener’s attention with some addictive hooks and an outstanding demonstration of Shimomura’s signature violin sounds.
Lastly, there are some arrangements of the legendary music found in Disney’s Fantasia. “A Night on the Bare Mountain” was last heard in the original Kingdom Hearts, but the version here features a much better arrangement and vastly higher quality synths. “L’Apprenti Sorcier” is a track I grew up associating with my favorite movement in Fantasia, the Mickey Mouse-starring Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Nobuko Toda’s rendition here, while perhaps not as seminal as the one featured in the original film, is still handled with care and respect, maintaining much of its whimsy and power.
There’s a lot of music here – three entire discs, in fact. And I am happy to say that the ratio of quality to forgettable is higher than it ever has been for the series. Even as it jumps from J-pop to choirs to techno-synth to classical, the overarching Kingdom Hearts essence is never lost in this album, and neither is a sense of care and quality. The original tracks are some of the strongest compositions yet seen in the series, and the arrangements are adventurous yet respectful of the source. For a series that was coming dangerously close to becoming stale with rehashes, this album bodes of great things to come.