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April 22, 2012

Kingdom Hearts: A Deep Dive

I’m starting to suspect that Square-Enix is the patron saint of faffing about.

Since my PSP fatally overheated a few years back, I haven’t been able to get my hands on Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.  A shame, really, because between me and my brother that was the only game that could convince us the PSP had any games worth buying.  I still had fond memories of the KH series, if a little tainted at that point; the first one was great (in my opinion, of course), and I remember how eagerly I awaited the second game.  And I remember how, by the end of the second game, I was sorely disappointed.

But I was willing to love again.  I remembered the wonder I felt from the first game -- of a simple, lighthearted tale hearkening back to my days as a Disney-watching lad.  Of an honest search for Sora’s friends, combined with the ability to tag-team with Aladdin and Tarzan, and take on Cloud and Yuffie.  It was a crew of Disney villains teaming up, and my best bet was to rely on Goofy and Donald -- and my Keyblade -- to see me to victory.  I could fight.  I could glide.  I could roll and jump, guard and even deflect blows.  I took on enemies as simple as a Shadow, and as monstrous as the titans from Hercules.  Like the theme song suggested, it was “simple and clean.”  Nothing too overwrought, nothing too complex.  It was just a story of a kid visiting strange new worlds, making new friends while searching for old ones.

Such sweet memories.  So much so that, years later, I decided that even if I didn’t have a PSP I’d experience Birth by Sleep the best way I could.  I’d watch every last bit of it online.

Thus far, it has not been a good experience.

"It's morphin' time!"

The earnest search for friends is repeated here, but much more poorly.  In KH1, Sora’s plight came from the fact that he was more or less ejected from Destiny Island -- his hometown, lost to the darkness -- and he was abandoned alone in a new world.  In BBS, Ventus’s plight isn’t nearly as great because a) he’s known about other worlds and can/could have/possibly has travelled to them at any given time, b) his “missing” friends are not only more competent, but they’re arguably not in any danger as much as Riku and Kairi were in the original, and c) the problems he (and his friends, I’d wager) are entirely avoidable if they just talk to each other for five minutes -- doubly so, because they actually regroup unharmed and untested.

Five minutes.  Five minutes to stop and talk and explain themselves, rather than vaguely dance around subjects.  Terra (who I’m convinced is an idiot until otherwise) goes gallivanting through the universe without explaining himself -- not even to the “friends” he’s supposed to trust passionately.  And why?  I’d wager it’s because he’s listening to incredibly, obviously evil characters.  Ventus is less of a thinking human and more of a dog, searching for master Terra without any thought or perception of anything around him…well, except when he forgets about Terra and decides to help out a random stranger or chase some dwarves (and you wonder why you just missed him over and over…).  I have high hopes for Aqua -- if only so she can break the iron grip of bromance that’s strangling the series -- but she’s not without fault.  So you’re spying on your friends?  Yeah, I can see why, but things might go a little better if you justify why you’re spying besides “the master loves you.”  Or better yet, explain to them what’s going on at the home base.  Or better yet, bring some of those other “Keyblade Masters” and bring the idiot boys back by force.

I’ll admit that I’ve only seen about thirteen out of some sixty videos, but thus far the story smacks of idiocy and contrivance.  Nowhere is this more blatant than when Ven, Terra, and Aqua reunite after a boss battle and they have a chance to convince one another that what they’re doing is right.  Terra’s about to head off and be an idiot, giving some vague reason.  Aqua says she’s seen what Terra’s been doing, and suggests that maybe he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd.  Considering that villains in this series tend to look like this…

…You’d think that might cause Terra to give pause.  Unfortunately, he calls her out on spying on him, and decides to blow her off.  Fine.  If we’re going to have a prequel like Star Wars, might as well go all the way and have the Anakin Skywalker clone ass everything up as fast as possible.  But then, Ventus -- rather than listening to Aqua and what she has to say -- decides to blow her off too, acts like she’s in the wrong, and heads off to catch up with Terra.  (It’s at this point where I start to wonder if the Kingdom Hearts writers hate women.)    As if that weren’t bad enough, Ven goes into angst-mode and mopes about the good ol’ days between them…and then you start to suspect that the plot is getting derailed because Ven starts saying things like “I’m just looking to make some friends” and “I wish somebody was looking out for me.”  Ven, you already have friends; it’s just that one of them blew you off for no reason, and then you blew off another one -- one that was trying to help you -- for no reason.  And someone is looking out for you; ignoring the fact that Aqua’s first mission as a newly-minted Keyblade Master is to go corral two idiots, you’ve got the master of an organization of noble knights (at least, I hope there are more than four people in that organization) watching over you and promising you a similar career once you’re older.  Why in fuck’s name are you moping? 

Oh, right.

From what I can gather, Ven’s story is a rehash of the “find your friends” story found in KH1 and…er, let’s call it “revisited” in KH2.  The problem is that it was done better in the first game, and the fact that we have to sit through another take on the power of friendship is no easier than swallowing a pill the size of a medicine ball.  I know it’s an important theme, and valuable and capable of being played in many different respects, but there are other plots that need resolving and exploration.  There’s a masked boy with a keyblade moving about, one that Terra and Ven are both aware of.  Do they discuss it?  Nope.  Do they stop to wonder what he’s after, or who he’s working for?  Nope.  Does Ven decide to talk to Mickey, or tell anyone about Mickey?  Nope.  I get the feeling I know how this’ll play out, because that’s exactly how it went down in KH2: Sora -- I mean Ven -- goes from world-to-world, helping out in isolated incidents with the absolute bare-bones of influence from the villains, other characters, or plot in general.  That is, until the halfway point or so where OMG DRAMABOMB REVEAL (that only slightly changes things); after which, Sora -- I mean Ven -- can go right back to faffing about in Disney universes, barely aware of anything except where Riku -- I mean Terra -- might be, in spite of indirectly telling Sora -- I mean Ven -- to piss off.  Then DRAMABOMB boss fight bromance end.

This is why we make fun of you, Square-Enix.

There’s an inherent flaw in the way “friendship” works in Kingdom Hearts -- in this game, and in the series as a whole.  In the first game, Donald makes it clear that the worlds aren’t really supposed to interact, and they should keep their shenanigans to a minimum (kind of like the Prime Directive, only for cartoons).  That’s why you didn’t bring Peter Pan to Halloweentown, or try to imperialize Tarzan’s jungle.  What it means is that the party members you meet -- outside of Donald and Goofy -- are only temporary.  You help them out, they fight with you, and then it’s off to the next world to do the same.  The problem, then, is that the bonds you forge are shallow --fleeting things that have little bearing on the plot, and only a vague connection with Sora/Ven as a whole.  You can take on worlds in the order you choose.  The characters you meet in one world are never referenced again in another (unless you’re one of the Princesses of Heart, and even they become pointless by the end of the first game).  They don’t have any impact on things, because you know that the ones running the show are those with absurd Squeenix-approved hairstyles…and THEIR problem is that they have maybe ten minutes of screentime total before their reveal, boss fight, and death.  In other words, we’ve got Disney characters who don’t really matter but get a huge focus, original Squeenix characters who get a minor focus and are supposed to matter, but don’t until the last hour of the game, and protagonists who never engage in the story’s events and underpinnings because they’re too busy pining after their bros.  The end result?

Nothing matters.  Nothing

It probably doesn't help that these guys are literally nobodies.

At least in KH1 the game created the illusion that your faffing about mattered.  Donald and Goofy were there for a reason; they acted as a counterpoint to Sora’s optimism and naiveté, respectively.  They added additional perspectives and voices to the story.  And the Disney worlds, while ultimately inconsequential, were charming and refreshing at the time.  You knew they were on the center stage, compounded by the fact that it was mostly the Disney villains, led by Maleficent, that you were going up against for about ninety percent of the game.  They were the Legion of Doom; you and the Disney heroes were the Superfriends.  Was it a perfect story?  No.  But it was simple and earnest, and gave you a few thrills along the way. 

And now we’re at Birth by Sleep.  No Donald or Goofy following behind.  No Disney character mattering beyond a visit to their world.  Ratcheted-up angst from the original, flighty tale.  Our heroes, practically taking pride in being morons.  Villains who have yet to make any marked impact on the story besides looking creepy and evil.  A plot we’ve seen no less than twice before in the series, and only a few hundred times in other, better RPGs.  Each time they try to make the game deeper and more complex, they end up making it more shallow and contradictory -- they’re missing the point of what made Disney the nostalgic juggernaut it is today.

You can even see the progression into inanity from the titles.  Chain of Memories.  Fine, I’ll take that.  Final Mix.  Well, sure.  coded and Re:Coded.  Er, this isn’t a computer. 

Birth by Sleep.   Dream Drop Distance.  358/2 Days.  That last one is read as “Three Five Eight Over Two Days.”  The subtitle is longer than the name of the actual game -- which would be fine if it didn’t sound utterly moronic when said out loud.

But I digress. 

You could argue that there’s still a lot more to learn and have revealed by virtue of BBS’ three-character storyline.  I’d argue that you shouldn’t make one character’s story -- one third of the game -- suck under the guise that things will be better for the other two.  To take a page from Penny Arcade (incidentally, on the subject of Final Fantasy XIII):

“Imagine my surprise when discovering that the dude with a chocobo literally roosting - roosting, sir - in his afro is the only character I have any affection for.  I don’t understand the thinking behind giving me lead characters, which the narrative can slowly alchemize into gold.  Why don’t you give me gold characters, and then refine them into platinum?  I mean, if we’re absolutely dedicated to transmutation?  God, I hate these fucking people.  I don’t give a shit what happens to Sulky, Twat, Twit, Pip, and Marm.  Sometimes, I kill them on purpose.”

I guess the assumption was that somebody atop Squeenix Mountain thought it would be a good idea to make characters that start off as unlikable, but eventually become tolerable past the twenty-five hour mark.  In which case, methinks it’s time to find that person and shoot a cannonball at his head to satisfy my vendetta.

 So.  That’s about where I stand with the game and the franchise as a whole.  Will things get better?  I don’t know.  Hopefully.  But  with Ven’s story irritating me so quickly, and Terra’s story --

Hold on.  I need to go smoke a factory’s worth of cigarettes.

-- with Terra’s story coming up on the playlist, this doesn’t inspire confidence.  I still hope -- I PRAY -- that Aqua’s story finally puts my fears to rest.  

"Dual X chromosomes, don't fail me now!"

I hope that there’s proof enough that the inevitable Kingdom Hearts 3 will recapture the spirit and joy without all the angst and dilly-dally-shilly-shally.  Because you see, unlike Final Fantasy which has all but destroyed my faith, I still want to believe in Kingdom Hearts.  I want to relive that joy all over again.  I want this story to come to a conclusion with all its plot threads tied up, rather than adding onto the questions and confusion like if The Blob fused with a Rubik’s Cube.  I want to be able to enjoy the things I like, but only if they fulfill the promises and potential they have.

I want to dream again.

“Thinking of you, wherever you are.
 We pray for our sorrows to end,
 and hope that our hearts will blend.
 Now I will step forward to realize this wish.
 And who knows:
 starting a new journey may not so hard
 or maybe it has already begun.
 There are many worlds,
 but they share the same sky-
 one sky, one destiny.”

Never forget, Square-Enix.  Because I sure won't.

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