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July 3, 2012

Kingdom Hearts: Eraqus, This is Your Story

I’m a little wary about watching Birth by Sleep to its conclusion.

It’s on my to-do list, but it just feels like BBS is sliding farther and farther down that list.  I started watching Aqua’s story a while back, but I haven’t found the drive to see it through to the end (and of course, the same applies for the final story/ending).  Really, what do I have to look forward to?  Aqua faffing about in Disney dimensions for eighty percent of her story, only to have about ten percent of it actually matter?  And for what?  A final showdown featuring more cryptic, sequel-begging dialogue?  More abuse of The Big Four Words of the series (light, darkness, hearts, friends)?  Setup for the rest of the franchise that’s ultimately inconsequential? 

I view BBS as a story that, at the end of the day, didn’t need to be told.  It’s like if someone wrote a book about the origin of the guy who made Abraham Lincoln’s hat -- sure, it’s interesting, but does it really change anything?  Hell no.  I’d rather read a book about Abraham Lincoln, because he’s the one doing all the legwork as one of the presidents (figuratively speaking, of course).  I don’t want to read about the emotional turmoil of a hat-maker -- doubly so if said turmoil comes from one character that’s nigh-inconsequential, and another character that doesn’t know his foot from a bottle of sarsaparilla. 

But I’ve been thinking about the game for a while.  I’ve been thinking about why the game intrigued me in the first place.  I can tell you right now it wasn’t Ven, and certainly not Terra; I placed a fair portion of my hope in Aqua, as per my gut instincts.  But there was another character that caught my eye, and even got me to like him by virtue of his potential high-level-badassery. 

And it’s at this point I have to wonder: why wasn’t this game about Master Eraqus?


All right, before I get too ahead of myself, I want to stress that (based on what I’ve seen of him), Eraqus isn’t automatically perfect because I think he’s awesome.  To give him a free pass would not only be unfair, but fallacious; like everyone else, he makes his fair share of stupid decisions.  Knowing that Terra’s been inflicted with a case of the darkness flu, he still sends him out instead of telling him to sit at home and meditate on why he sucks so much.  He keeps Ven in the dark about his true nature and origins, and the moment the kid finds out Eraqus decides the only logical course of action is to blow him to pieces (though to be fair, I DO approve).  

He has Aqua go out on a mission on his behalf, but why he’d send an untested, untaught Master instead of giving her some training on protocols -- or more importantly, go out there himself -- is a mystery.  But the biggest problem is that Eraqus lets Master Xehanort within a hundred thousand miles of Keyblade HQ, his students, and the samurai himself.  Note that this is LONG AFTER Mr. X puts a slew of scars on his face using the darkness, and LONG AFTER Mr. X reveals his intention to muck about with the Keyblade War and cause...well...

That aside, I still like Eraqus.  Like Roxas before him, I feel like the old master is completely underutilized; however, unlike Roxas, he has a few flashes of brilliance.  He makes his fair share of mistakes, but overall he’s certainly wise and deserving of his title as master.  He provides a presence that’s been severely missing in the KH universe: he’s a leader and a pillar of support for the good guys.  Yeah, there’s still King Mickey, but consider how he was MIA for all but about five minutes of KH1, and in spite of a more active role in KH2 he still didn’t do too much (and I can only imagine the sort of disarray he left the Disney Kingdom in).

Eraqus was primed to deliver in several respects.  He was old, mature, wise, dependable, capable of delegation and commanding respect; he was tough, but compassionate; he might have gone a little overboard on siding with the light, but that was nothing a little character development couldn’t fix.  I know that’s a lot of “could haves” (and more on that in a bit), but in the game proper Eraqus actually has some touching moments.  Maybe it’s just the fact that I like Mark Hamill’s job with the voice acting, but I felt more for Eraqus than I ever could for Ven or Terra.

Maybe I’m a little biased.  I tend to like the cool old guys in video games (with a slew of characters from the Tales series chief among them); they seem to be a precious resource that can and have been tapped in games past and present, but more often than not they aren’t.  JRPGs are a prime suspect; the stereotype of JRPGs filled with androgynous pretty boys with spiky hair holds an uncomfortably high amount of water.  To hear characters in a JRPG make fun of a character’s age -- a character who’s only 28 -- is more than a little distressing.  It’s to be expected given the climate over there (as I mentioned in #7 here), but it still leaves me a little worried. 

It’s hard to say how old Eraqus is (or any given Disney character; thanks to BBS, Huey, Dewey, and Louie are pushing into their late twenties in spite of being eternally eight), but he’s old enough to stick out.  He’s not only aesthetically different, but functionally so; he could have played a role that would have turned BBS into the meaningful prequel that it should have been.

“But Voltech!” you cry out, raising a hand in objection.  “The Kingdom Hearts series is about children going on journeys to new worlds and learning valuable lessons!  Surely you, who would espouse that the franchise keeps its western motifs intact, wouldn’t DARE threaten that balance!”  And to that I say…yes, fair reader, you have a good point.  Given past installments, you could easily, easily liken one of the game’s adventures to a vacation in Disneyland -- leaving home to explore bright and colorful worlds, face a bit of danger (because you never know who’s hiding behind that Mickey Mouse costume…), hanging with friends/family, learning something now, and having a merry old time.  There are some key differences -- the stakes and danger being ramped up to eleven well among them -- but I think the point still stands.  However, there are two statements that I want to make.

One: if there was any game that needed to tweak its thematic formula, it was BBS.  Yes, Ven, Terra, and Aqua are all largely-inexperienced youths that have to go on an adventure through the worlds, but they’re a lot different from Sora (yes, even Ven).  Sora was a kid out of his element that didn’t know other worlds and the Keyblade even existed, and had to learn as he went on.  The Keyblade Trio, meanwhile, has spent their entire lives training and learning, preparing themselves to take up an esteemed mantle.  What do you think they’ve been learning?  My guess: VIRTUES.  They don’t need to go on adventures to learn valuable lessons because they’ve been taught that for most of their lives -- and even if they haven’t, then at least for a significant amount of time.  Considering that Terra and Aqua can travel around the universe without comment or shakiness, you’d think that they’ve done some world-hopping as practice, so the whimsy is gone. 

But more importantly, the spirit inherent in Sora is missing in Terra and Aqua -- they’re older and wiser (well, Aqua’s wiser), and they don’t go gaga over the sight of the worlds.  They’re all business; Aqua has to keep an eye on the boys, and Terra has to find Mr. X.  The only one that tries to reclaim that spirit is Ven, but his story (when it actually has a point) is a stale rehash of Sora’s.  Sure, he’s looking for his pal, but he readily de-evolves into angst mode.  And without a strong sense of direction in either his plot or his character -- one gained from adversity, or a rival, or a desire to have his questions answered -- he can’t hit those high notes.  It also has the same general problem as KH2: when so much attention and interaction focuses on original Squeenix characters, it’s like they’re in a loop that locks out all the Disney elements.  That would have been fine (aggravating, but acceptable) if their stories were interesting.  But they aren’t.  They really, really aren’t.  Which brings me to…

Two: Eraqus’ incongruity with the rest of the series could have been used to the series’ advantage.  It would have been a golden opportunity for a game starring Eraqus to shut all the naysayers up; being able to play as a badass old man could appeal to jaded westerners far more than another spiky-haired teen ever could -- if not because of the stigma, then merely because it was different

Imagine this scenario.  Rather than split the game between Ven, Terra, and Aqua, you play solely as Eraqus.  He’s still their leader and authority figure, no question, but he takes on a more active role.  He’ll send his troops out on a mission, of course, but he’ll round them up just as quickly.  Giving them time to meet back up could IMMEDIATELY resolve a lot of BBS’s more…stressing issue.  But more importantly, it forces characters to get together -- not just to trade notes, but to develop their characters further.  The friendship that “defines” the Keyblade Trio could get more evidential material; more showing and less telling.  Moreover (if Squeenix insists on loading its games with cutscenes five minutes apart from one another), It would give Eraqus time to establish himself as their father figure.  

The Trio is made up of three different, distinct characters, and he’d have to tend to them all in different ways.  He’d have to give Ven, in spite of his dark origins, a chance to feel accepted and loved -- but he’d also have to wrestle with the secrets he’s keeping from his pupil.  He’d have to take time out to make sure Terra’s not swaying too far into the darkness…but at the same time, have to come to terms with the idea that darkness isn’t all bad (leading into his own character development).  He’d have to balance letting Aqua have free reign while keeping her on a parental and authoritative leash; loyal as she may be to the cause, she still has a lot to learn and he has a lot to teach her. 

“Now hold on a minute!” you yell, slamming a palm atop your desk.  “You just pointed out that one of the game’s problems is that the ‘travel to a world, learn a lesson’ motif doesn’t work as well in this game.  Now you’re about to suggest that Eraqus -- someone who’d DEFINITELY know better -- should do the same?”  That’s a fair point, but I’m not going to go directly down that path.  Eraqus will still travel to the worlds (with one, two, or even three of his pupils), but he’ll engage with the worlds in a different way.  See, Eraqus is old.  He’s been around the block a few times.  He knows who and what is out there in the universe; heading to, say, Sleeping Beauty Land isn’t so much as a new adventure for him as it is a chance to reminisce.  

He can think back to the days of old, and how he went on adventures -- or maybe how he engaged in a bit of diplomacy.  If he runs into the three fairies, they’ll know who he is (I know that’s playing fast and loose with the Prime Directive, but work with me here…besides, does anyone care at this point?).  If he runs into Maleficent, she could actually flip out at the sight of him and try to kill him.  He’d fight back of course, but in his old age, he might need help from the young ‘uns.  He could even have his D-Links give him power from his students -- more so than the students gain from other Disney characters, or even each other.

What’s important to Eraqus isn’t exactly that he’s learning something new, but changing his perspective -- remembering things that he’d long since forgotten, or giving him a new insight.  If he’s jaded and discounts the adventures his mission takes him on, then going on a galactic road trip (and the presence of children that make him review his opinions) could help him emotionally, and brighten his worldview.  In the same sense that people young and old can enjoy Disney in its myriad forms, so too could Eraqus grow as a character because he’s taking his kids out on a trip -- a magical adventure that neither he nor they will ever forget.  It’s a means to create a deeper, more thoughtful, and perhaps even darker tale, but one that retains the series’ dormant whimsy.  The Keyblade Trio can learn all the lessons they want.  Let Eraqus find something different; let him see that the world is full of magic.

Even with my propositions, there would still be a lot of ways for it to go wrong.  Ostensibly, it’s still the Keyblade Trio’s story; they’re the ones who have to ultimately bring change and precedents to the KH universe, and as little more than a fan that hasn’t played enough games I’m in no position to tie it all together.  There’s also the question of balancing the game’s events with my Eraqus-heavy rewrite; how would an Eraqus-led Ven respond to Vanitas, or Terra in the face of possession by Maleficent?  And would Eraqus let them get into those situations in the first place, or try (and fail) to prevent them?  How would his death be handled?  And really, would anyone want to play a game where you’re essentially a babysitter?  It’s hard to say, but all I can do is propose my ideas.  

It’s a shame Eraqus dies in the main story of BBS.  He didn’t get to do much, but he had a presence that turned a game that irritates me to no end into something almost enjoyable.  Of course, Terra would pretty much stomp on any chances of that happening, but the fact remains: he’s a cool character with lots of potential…the problem is that the potential is wasted.

And that’s pretty much Squeenix in a nutshell right now.  They have good ideas.  They make these worlds that have intrigue and some semblance of depth; they just can’t quite seem to pull it all together.  The stories -- and the company itself -- feel so scatterbrained at times that I wonder if their collection of good ideas is random.  As if for every good idea they have (Sora), they arse it up with three bad ones (Roxas, Terra, Final Fantasy XIII in general).  If they could learn to focus -- on Eraqus, or anything, really -- then they’d be that much closer to reclaiming the glory of days past.

Hmmm…speaking of Eraqus, let’s check the wiki.  I want to see if they’ve got any interesting tidbits.

Master Eraqus is a Keyblade Master featured in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Final Mix. He is the master of Terra and Aqua, and he also serves as the second master of Ventus.

His name is an anagram of ‘Square’, a reference to Square Enix, the developers of the Kingdom Hearts series. Tetsuya Nomura stated in the Birth by Sleep Ultimania that he had actually forgotten the basis of the name, and that the producer had to remind him that it was an anagram.”

...Nomura, you do realize that you and your cohorts made this character based on the FATHER of Final Fantasy, right?  You can't be arsed to remember the man who helped put you and your company on the map?  Or more appropriately, treat your character with a little damn respect?

Nah, man.  You know what?  It's cool.  Just...just keep doing what you're doing.  It's all good.  It's all good. Nothing wrong with being a little scatterbrained.

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