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May 24, 2012

The Final Mix: A Kingdom Hearts Retrospective (Part 3)

I’m almost done with Kingdom Hearts 2…again.

To say that I have mixed feelings about the game would be an understatement the size of a double-decker bus.  Keeping in mind that I was one of the wide-eyed fans getting mega-hyped about its arrival (probably because I was a part of THE target audience), I have to wonder what state of mind drove me to get so excited.  Was it because of the flashy attacks?  Bashing enemies with pure style?  Going boosh-boosh-boosh and doing flip-de-loops?  If that’s the case, then anyone who needed evidence for their thesis on “How Teenagers Are All Idiots”, I’d make for some fine proof.

Kingdom Hearts 2 is not an awful game by any stretch.  It’s just full of things that make it hover dangerously close to the edge.  Roxas and his pain-inducing prologue, the disorganized Organization XIII, the shift from the east/west hybridization to cookie-cutter anime fare, the segregated plot, the still-piddling minigames, the absurd gameplay decisions, the unevenness of Reaction Commands, the mash-happy nature, the handling of the worlds…there’s a lot to discuss, and I will in due time.  But for everything the game does wrong, there are just a number of things that it does so right.

The same, of course, could be said for Kingdom Hearts 1.  Frankly, I find it funny that a game could be so flawed, yet so fantastic at the same time.

(There’s your alliteration for the day.)

Part 3: Gameplay
I’ve already spoken at length about the worlds, but in the days since writing that I’ve been wondering about why they’re set up the way they are.  Having considered it, I’d argue it has as much to do with planning and map design as it does the abilites available to Sora.

Think of it this way: what could you do in the original Super Mario Bros?  Move and jump.  Jump on stuff for leverage, or enemies to bounce off and get some extra height and distance.  Fair enough.  And then in Super Mario World you could run, spin jump, and (in situational moments) ride on a dinosaur and fly.  Flash forward to Mario Sunshine and you’ve got a water cannon that lets you hover, rocket-boost into the sky, and turbo dash across land and sea.  What determines a level’s structure isn’t just what the engine can produce; it depends on the skill set at hand.

What does Sora have in comparison?  The basic moves you’d expect from a light platformer: walk, run, jump, climb trees, and grab onto ledges.  Pretty simple stuff.  But once Donald and Goofy join up, you gain access to Trinity moves; as long as the three heroes are on the field together, they can act in tandem to affect certain marked areas on the map.  Blue marks expose items, green ones give access to ladders, red ones are for bashing through obstacles, yellow is a team push, and white reveals rare items.  You learn new Trinities as the game progresses (cementing the team’s growing bond), and in doing so can access new parts of the map.  The same can be said for passive abilities like High Jump and Glide…although the latter is used more for reaching distant treasure chests and getting the hell out of the way of Riku’s mega-boosh super attack.

Still, abilities like High Jump only help emphasize the “vertical element” of several levels.  Traverse Town is an early example; you have the basic horizontal plane that encompasses the town’s ground floor, give or take a few inclines.  But in addition to that, you also have rooftops you can climb on and strut across.  There are multiple tiers of walkways, from the ground floor to the multi-store plaza to the gizmo shop, all the way to the bell tower overlooking the town.  Reaching vertical limits is often a major component of an area; even if it’s not, there are still times where the objective is to find a way to the inevitable boss arena, either by swinging across vines or investigating the cabins of Hook’s ship.

So for the most part, even if the levels aren’t as expansive as you’d hope you still get a fair bit of mileage out of them.  The same can’t be said for the…

…All right, let’s see what we’ve got.

I think that the biggest problem with all the minigames (and by extension, the Gummi Ship) is a “lack of speed.”  The Deep Jungle has Sora tree-surfing alongside Tarzan, which was probably one of the most iconic moments in that movie.  Naturally, the KH developers made it so that you can barely move, can walk faster than you can surf, and inexplicably get smacked by tree branches even after you’ve cleared one of them from your path.  Another example: Agrabah has the cave escape while riding Carpet, where you’re given as much agility as a drunken moose, and a quarter of the speed.  Olympus Coliseum can’t be arsed to give you anything fun, so you just fritter away your time by hitting barrels until Phil says you’re ready to fight the hordes of darkness -- in spite of having ended several generations’ worth of the things on your way through the front door.

I can understand what they were trying to do here.  Disney movies -- lots of movies -- put their characters through a slew of wild moments.  Aladdin doesn’t just pine after a princess; he escapes some guards (in song!), explores the Cave of Wonders, escapes, meets a genie, spearheads a parade, goes on a ride with Jasmine, nearly gets crushed by a tower, fights a giant snake, and outwits another genie who probably should have known better.  KH1 tries to have that same level of variety, but it consistently mucks it up.  There’s little to no excitement to be had.  While they’re not broken, they’re something almost as bad: they’re boring.

Oh well.  At least that’s the least of the game’s problems, right?

The Gummi Ship
Well, shit.

You know, it’s been a while since I’ve played Star Fox 64.  I never owned it, but I rented it enough times to have some pretty fond memories.  That said, I know instinctively that any given level from that game is light-years ahead of this game.

It’s slow.  It’s clumsy.  The visuals are bland.  It’s a slog shooting and shooting and shooting again.  Upgrading your ship (which you’ll have to do if you’re on Expert/have some shoddy reflexes) is time-consuming and clunky.  If you screw up, you have to start all over again.  Even if you don’t -- even after you’ve cleared the rote and unlocked the next world -- for the first part of the game you can’t skip the Gummi levels.  So if you’re starved for items and need to go to the only place in the universe that cares about medical attention, guess what?  Get ready for a long-ass trip!

To be fair, once you upgrade the Gummi Ship it’s actually…not as bad.  You can plaster multiple weapons on there, although some of them seem kind of useless (why do I need a laser that shoots in three directions?).   And once you get the shield, you can practically fly on auto-pilot, making an already dull segment even duller.  So to call this part of the game a wash would be too kind; the mode is just as bad as you’ve heard, and DEFINITELY hasn’t aged well.

On the other hand, in my first playthrough I made a ship that could transform into a flying Optimus Prime.  So I imagine that there are more than a few players who made Gummi schlongs to pass the time.

You know, I’ll never understand the naysayers who claim that turn-based RPGs are awful.  It gives you plenty of time to think out your next move -- to plan a strategy and act upon it, changing up your plas only in accordance with your enemies’ attacks.  Okay, you could argue that it just boils down to mashing attack and then mashing heal in and endless cycle, but there are still plenty of nuances in the game that make blind mashing only a small sample of what the game has to offer.  Give the game a chance and explore its systems, and you can find combos that make mashing utterly bourgeois.

Given that, you’d think that I’d laugh at KH1 while sipping tea and extending my pinky finger.  Well the joke’s on you; I lost both my pinkies in a tragic poodle accident.

Just because a game progresses in real time doesn’t mean it’s inherently stupider.  Nor does having one attack button.  Much like the levels, it’s how you use your tools that makes your game.

Right at the start, you’re given a choice that’ll shape your experience.  See, Sora stands before three pedestals: one with a sword, one with a shield, and one with a staff.  Jump up and touch one, and you’ll get a boost to that particular stat…as well as decide the order in which you learn skills.  Sounds pretty cool, right?  In my recent playthrough, I decided to go all in as a mage, so I could put the spells through their paces.  The catch is that while you get to boost your standing in one area, you ALSO have to give up a stat.  In my case, I gave up the sword, meaning that physical offense and skills would be in short supply for my Sora.  It’s a minor yet effective move that really makes you think about your in-game destiny -- and given the foreboding nature of the Dive into the Heart,

Admittedly, at the start of the game you can’t do much else besides jump, run, attack, and use items.  (This makes the first real boss an utter pain in the ass on Expert.)  But once -- IF -- you clear it, the game starts to open up.  Donald teaches you how to use magic, which you can use via hotkeys accessed via L1.  You can use them in the middle of Keyblade combos, too, meaning you can bash an opponent and finish them off with a thunderbolt.  Or you can do the standard three-hit combo and shoot a fireball to finish an enemy while holding your position.  I call ‘em “Magicombos.”

Meanwhile, Goofy gives you the most important skill in the entire damn game: Dodge Roll.  It’s just your basic tuck and roll on the surface, but it proves indispensible almost immediately after getting it.  Dodge Roll is central to the game’s theme: you are a weak little kid who will get mauled if you can’t defend yourself, so always get the hell out of the way when you can.  Cerberus summoning pillars of darkness?  Dodge Roll!  Guard Armor sweeping its arms around the field?  Dodge Roll!  Captain Hook going on a slashing frenzy?  Dodge Roll!  Need to back off from a fight to heal up?  Dodge Roll!  And if you can’t solve a problem with Dodge Roll, you use Guard!

If anything, Guard is even more important to the combat than Dodge Roll; I’d argue it changes the face of the entire game.  In the same sense that blocking is the most basic yet most vital skill in Street Fighter, using Guard is a great way to turn the tide of battle.  It reflects most, if not all projectiles.  It lets you parry enemy attacks, leaving them wide open for a counterattack (especially if you’ve got the MP-restoring Counterattack skill equipped).  But most importantly, it gets you to stop swinging wildly for a moment and pay attention; in order to block attacks, you have to perceive them first.  You need to watch the enemy’s movements carefully, and when the time is right, hit that square button and pull up your Keyblade.  Sometimes blocking is the best way to deal with enemies; other times, it’s the use of magic.  Still others, wild swings from your metal club of a weapon.  Use the options therein and you can pull off a win.

And you certainly have your options.  In the fight against one boss, I was struggling.  He had me on the ropes, and I was running low on MP and items.  He started charging up for an attack I was pretty sure would tear a new ass onto my face, so out of sheer desperation I started Dodge Rolling while searching for an answer.  Suddenly, I had it; I rolled behind a wall and took cover, saving myself from a lethal blast.  This is a feature that, in some thirty hours I’ve yet to see reproduced in KH2; whereas the sequel has fights occurring in mostly-flat areas and boss arenas being little more than empty squares, KH1 made the terrain a part of the equation.  Use a few platforms to launch an attack against a too-high foe.  Use the stands to nullify Cerberus’ ground pound.  Don’t jump into the acid moat.  Take cover from Jafar’s magma attacks by using the rising and falling tiles, making sure to move in and out of hiding to hit his lamp.  Granted, this would come with the risk of making the finicky camera sputter out of control, but the fact that you could apply some tactics to the field was a welcome addition.        

Speaking of welcome additions, Donald and Goofy.  They’ll give you help when you need it, healing you and blocking attacks and peppering enemies with magic and shield bashes.  While it’s great to have them around, and the bond you forge with them grows as you take to the battlefield, they come with two major problems.

One: they have no idea how to hold onto items.  Even if you tell them to use items sparingly, it’s not uncommon to give Goofy eight potions to hold onto as you head to the boss, only to stare at his empty pockets the next time you open the menu.  It’s doubly-frustrating if you entrust a rare or expensive item to them, only to have them blow that item first…like when only Donald’s hurt, so Goofy will toss out a Mega-Potion.

The second, and much bigger problem, is the cause of the first.  See, surviving in KH1 depends on the player’s ability to move and defend.  Putting yourself in a position where you’re safe from enemy attacks -- or reverse them entirely -- is tantamount.  You learn and understand that very quickly.

Goofy and Donald don’t.  Goofy and Donald will stand right in front of Cerberus and let him chomp them to pieces.  They’ll take hits from Heartless and get smacked off the edge of a castle.  When Hades spins around in a circle with flames a-spewing, they’ll take those hits and burn to cinders, while you’re running in a circle without so much as a singed hair.  They have no preservation instincts and no common sense; Goofy CAN defend, but I’m convinced he does it on accident rather than consciously. 

This can be problematic in a game like Kingdom Hearts. 

For what it’s worth, it’s still a surprisingly enjoyable battle system.  Yes, you have to do some X-mashing every now and then, but the game isn’t mashing alone.  Mobility, positioning, defense, combos -- all things you’d expect to see in a fighting game are entwined within the decade-old RPG.  Does it work?  When you’re not fighting the camera and Donald and Goofy aren’t just on decoy duty, yes.  Yes, far more than you would have guessed.  Is it fun?  You know it.  Is it complex?  Not at all; you have your basic skill set, but it’s your wits and gambits that win you battles just as often as the taps of your thumb. 

And that’s all I ask for, really.  Simple, but effective.  A shame that KH2 would jettison that lesson into the sun…no, I’m just kidding.

(But only a little bit.) 

Well, that’ll wrap up this section of the retrospective.  Next time, I’ll talk about the only part of this series that I’m qualified to comment on: the story.  Till next time, then, don’t give in to the darkness…unless you want to get possessed by shirtless black guys who junction their bodies to demon ships.

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