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June 16, 2016

Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue Colon Trailer Analysis for Blogging

The back half of this post’s title is mine, albeit one that’s a spin on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie.  The front half is actually the name of an upcoming game…and it makes my soul hurt.

Admittedly -- and I know this isn’t fair, but work with me here -- the mere existence of this game makes my soul hurt.  Oh, look, it’s an HD uptick for Dream Drop Distance.  I’ll say upfront that I haven’t played that one or watched a full LP, mostly because of a sore lack of interest.  But maybe once this new edition comes out, I’ll give it a try.  The problem is that if I do, it’d mean getting into the rest of what the package offers.  That is to say, it means more nonsense strapped onto a franchise long since brought to its knees by nonsense, drivel, and Tetsuya Nomura’s machinations.

It’s like…I remember Kingdom Hearts 1, and I enjoyed it when I first played it (long after its release, but whatever).  It made me a fan of the franchise.  And when I replayed the game a few years ago, I realized that not only does it hold up, but it’s also probably one of the strongest entries in the whole thing -- or at least my favorite of the bunch.  Just like the infamous theme song says, it was simple and clean.  Well, relatively speaking, but it still told a mostly-concise, mostly-direct story worthy of both the Disney and Final Fantasy names.

But that was a long time ago.  And what do we have now?  Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue.  So let’s talk about the trailer before I just go “fuck everything”, wither into a husk, and drift away on the wind.

Well, I guess there’s only one way to start picking away at this trailer.  If it’s going to show off multiple installments in one disc, then the only logical course of action is to view and judge each one individually.  And then pull it all together for a conclusion, presumably, because that’s the key to a good essay.  That, and a thesis statement, but let’s not play overachiever here.  We’ve got video games to nitpick (even without substantial evidence)!  Ready?  Here we goooooooooooooooooooooo!

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance!!
Okay, so like I said, I haven’t played KH3D yet.  Maybe that’ll change down the line, whether it’s with this HD rerelease or if I decide to snatch up an old copy of the original version before release day.  But I have a vague understanding of what happens in it.  Sora and Riku are out to take some big test and become full-fledged Keyblade Masters --

STOP.  Stop, stop, stop, stop, STOP.  Now, I’m sure this is explained in-game, or there’s a certain payoff in the end, but I have to ask: what about Kairi?  She got a Keyblade at the tail end of KH2, and even though she didn’t get to do much, surely she at least had the option -- the choice -- to fight alongside Sora and crew.  Couldn’t hurt having another weapon against the soul-harvesting hordes of darkness, right?  So, uh, she gets her due time in this game, right?  She’s not just shuffled off to the side so the boys can have their adventures, right?  Right?

Then again, this is Squeenix we’re talking about, and -- as you know -- Squeenix hates women.

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this already, but I’ll go ahead and say it again: whenever Sora’s not in the game (or a key player in it), it seems to invite disaster.  Obviously I’m overreaching here, given that my expertise is in the now-ancient PS2 installments; people that like any of the other KH games aren’t wrong for it.  Honestly, even though I have problems with KH2 -- which is indicative of the problems with the series, if not the company as a whole -- it’s still fine overall.  But let’s take a moment to remember what made the series special.  Different.

It was a merger of Disney and Final Fantasy, mixing colorful worlds with sprawling adventures -- a story meant to endear and excite, and help players believe in magic all over again.  KH1 had charm, and even if it wasn’t the most sensible of games, it made up for that with its heart.  KH2, for all its faults, also managed that on a regular basis.  Why?  Easy.  It’s because video game or otherwise, the main character defines a story.  And that’s why Sora’s so critical to the story -- because the franchise needs a smiling, friendly dimwit like him to lead the way.

There’s probably evidence to suggest otherwise, but as far as I can tell?  Every time KH steps away from Sora, everything turns to shit.

There’s still space in my heart for KH3D, because Sora’s back in action.  Presumably, that means that I’ll have a better chance of seeing the story’s original essence in full form -- i.e. our giant-footed hero meeting familiar faces as he traverses the Disney universe, crossing paths with nasty villains and engaging in the world-appropriate minigame/gimmick.  I don’t want to heap hate on this franchise, and I don’t want to feel like every new entry is dead on arrival because Nomura and crew can’t chill out.  It’s not impossible.

…Is what I would like to say, but something about the new 2.8 trailer bothers me.  Out of the 40-ish seconds used to show off the HD port of the game, only two seconds are used to display anything even close to whimsical.  Sora flies through space (dreams?) and blows through comic panels, complete with goofy sound effects.  As for the rest?  Characters looking angry.  Characters being serious.  Characters getting ready to fight.  Two different Ansems.  Or I guess it’d be two different Xehanorts; either way, the only one to crack a smile -- barring the default models of Donald, Goofy, and Mickey -- is Xemnas 34 seconds in, and even then it’s barely there.  More “smug anime face” than anything.  Well, either that, or he’s pretending to be a weird vampire.  And not the good kind of weird.

Was KH always this serious?  I mean, sure, the original game started off with our hero plunged into a nightmarish world of darkness and then forced to endure the oblivion of his island home, but it still wasn’t quite so stiff.  In fact, I decided to try and find the original trailer for the game.  It turned up this video for a super-early version of the game, complete with the standard-fare Latin chorus (as if they wanted to mask the fact/shame that you’d be summoning Dumbo).  Then I decided to try and find the original opening demo for the game, and you know what?  It highlighted something important.  I talk about whimsy and fun and smiles when it comes to KH, but watching that intro again made me realize something: KH is as much about the adventure as it is the fun.  Ostensibly, the adventure is the fun.

Swimming through Atlantica.  Dropping into Wonderland.  Watching Tarzan clash with Sabre.  Meeting up with Donald and Goofy.  There are all sorts of good moments highlighted in that opening, which all highlight different flavors of the game.  Action, comedy, drama.  Low tension, high tension.  Hope for the future.  Fear in the present.  And to top it all off, the courage to face whatever comes your way.  Sora’s the lynchpin, because back then he was out of his element.  He was on an adventure, just like the player -- and for all the complex and confusing cosmology the story could have, it was still rooted to a basic core.  A set of concepts that were, once again, simple and clean.

Then you look at the 3DHD segment of the 2.8 trailer, and what do you get?  No sprawling shots of the world.  No exploration.  No variance in content or tone.  Yeah, it’s nice that they took time to show off the characters from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tron Legacy, but what’s it in service of?  It’s not really conveying anything except maybe “you’ll be facing trouble”.  How does that make it any more appealing than any other story out there, a good number of which have conflicts and trouble to face by design?  In the grand scheme of things, what does this segment of the trailer do to A) convince fans to keep buying in, B) convince newcomers to take the plunge, or C) repair the damage done to the franchise in the eyes of jaded gamers?  My gut instinct is that there’s no good answer, or at least not one Squeenix is willing to provide.

I’d say I’m frustrated, but I’m as ambivalent (if not more so) as I am angry.  Besides, even if I haven’t played 3D, I have at least an inkling of what happens in it.  Granted I skimmed over some details so I don’t know with 100% accuracy, but as far as I know?

1) One of the Xehanorts reveals that everything was part of his plan, because of course there has to be a just according to keikaku character.
2) Sora fails his quest to become a Keyblade Master or whatever, which seems kind of pointless when he was already flying, teleporting, and cutting through buildings in KH2.
3) Axel becomes a Keyblade wielder, I guess?  Even though he died?  Or is this just more parallelism so Roxas can have his version of Riku?

Christ, I can feel the life getting sucked out of me.  Let’s move on to the next segment.

Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep - A fragmentary passage!!
That game.  That title.  Ow, my soul.

It’s like…just…why?  Does Squeenix just not care what people think?  I guess that’s the case, because otherwise we wouldn’t have had to endure the punishment that was The Lightning Saga.  But seriously, they have to know that their titles and naming conventions have been getting progressively harder to stand.  Who names their game Three Five Eight Over Two Days?  Why do you pronounce your new MacGuffin, the χ-Blade, like “key-blade”, even though you could’ve just pronounced it “kai-blade” like it’s supposed to when you use χ?  Did you think no one would laugh at you or that it would expose your general ineptitude over the past decade by using 2.8 to denote your game, even though you previously release 2.5 and 1.5?

I get it.  Weird titles and names and whatnot will stick out, and draw curiosity to people who would otherwise walk on by.  And I’m not saying that there should be a ban against weird titles.  Just look at my stuff; one project’s called Dead on Prime, but that’s because A) it’s a spin on Queen’s “Dead on Time”, B) it references the superhuman “Primes” that fill the story, and C) it suits the mathematical motif that runs throughout.  Meanwhile, I Hraet You is a corruption of the phrase “I heart you”, and the title has both plotline and thematic significance given that it’s (eventually) written by main character Lloyd.  Strange titles, sure, but they’re at least snappy -- even if their meaning isn’t immediately apparent.  How the hell do you justify Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue?  How the hell do you justify 0.2 Birth by Sleep - A fragmentary passage?

Maybe I should stop dwelling on it, because it’ll give me an aneurysm.  I mean, Aqua’s back.

For those unaware (and oh, how I envy you), Aqua is one of the three playable characters in Birth By Sleep, alongside with the Roxas lookalike and perpetual downer Ventus, as well as the unfathomably idiotic Terra.  The former of the two characters spent most of the game moping and blathering about friends, all while being a pawn in Master Xehanort’s plan.  The latter is almost singlehandedly responsible for all of the canon’s problems, or at least guarantees that they can continue unimpeded (until Sora shows up a decade later timeline-wise).  Curiously, it’s Aqua who ends up cleaning up all the problems caused by the boys -- both on a small scale by resolving the Disney worlds’ issues, and on a larger scale by basically brute-forcing the game to have some semblance of a bittersweet ending.  Or any ending where everyone doesn’t immediately die.

The takeaway here is that Aqua is basically the hero of that game, stuck in a thankless role where she has to play babysitter to a pair of dreary morons.  Her reward for trying to do the right thing was essentially getting locked away in the realm of darkness, while Ven and Terra had some semblance of continued (if compromised) existence.  Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I find it hard to swallow that someone who tried to do the right thing from start to finish was punished severely for it.  I guess that’s the price she pays for having two X chromosomes: getting dumped on by her shitty friends and sent to hell for her good deeds.

Maybe this means that the parallels will become reinforced yet again.  If Sora gets to have both Roxas and Ventus, and Riku gets to have Terra and Axel, then that’d mean Kairi would eventually get Aqua and Xio.  Granted that’d mean that Kairi would have to actually become relevant to the plot, and Xion would have to (as far as I know) start existing again, but for now it means Aqua has at least a slight chance of making it back onto the battlefield…wherein she’d resolve the plot in a couple of fell swoops.  Hardly a way to preserve the tension, but hey.  Best to avoid a war of attrition with the emissaries of darkness.

I say that, but I actually think that it’s the best possible situation.  If we can’t play as Sora and go on an adventure, then I’d hope that people will make do with a character that actually gets shit done.  Plus, the pros with Aqua far outweigh the cons; with a clear mind and a kind heart, she’s got everything she needs to offer up something substantial.  And she can do that on her own terms, without being bootstrapped to Ven and Terra.

Well, hopefully.  It’s implied that Terra will show up again; it could end up being a hallucination (or one of the Xehanorts out to troll Aqua), but I tend to have an unpleasant reaction when Terra’s involved in any capacity.

Story-wise, though?  I’m interested in seeing how Aqua’s new story will play out.  I’d think that the core of several KH games -- the flow, if you will -- is that you go to different worlds and meet colorful characters.  The power of friendship takes a lot of heat, but it’s not an inherently awful trope; it just needs to be used effectively, and KH has always at least had the potential to do so.  With that in mind, Aqua’s new story seems primed to strip away core elements of the franchise.  Instead of visiting varied Disney worlds, you’re (presumably) stuck in one location, a pitch black hellscape with no chance of escape.  Instead of teaming up with old allies and new friends, you’re forced to fight on your own against dozens or even hundreds of foes at once. 

The potential is there for an incredibly powerful story -- one that’s as mature as the creators (and no shortage of fans) are probably pining for.  When forced into isolation and tasked with fighting against a neverending army of nightmare creatures, how do you maintain your sanity?  What do you look forward to when every day means suffering?  What do you have to look forward to when you wake up in the morning?  Could you even sleep in the first place?

What I’m getting at here is that forcing Aqua into a realm of darkness might have been a shitty thing to do to one of the only good characters, but it’s possible to make the most of it.  On one hand, it’d justify Aqua’s need to talk about or even obsess over Ven and Terra; if they’re the only things she has left, then I’d welcome moments where she takes time out to reminisce.  I doubt Squeenix would go that far, but they could show her resolve -- and her sanity, more importantly -- start to crumble from the duress of darkness. 

If she can’t handle it, then she could break down and turn into one of the series’ myriad monster species.  Alternatively?  The Unversed are based on negative emotions, so imagine what would happen if she added to the hordes of evil by thinking impure thoughts, thereby forcing some very clumsy and self-destructive mental conditioning.  OR, failing that, the dire situation could be used to give her strength.  Even with such oppressive odds, she stands her ground and presses on to do what’s right, and be with her friends again.  It’d help reaffirm the friendship theme -- just in a different way than what’s expected.  I’d welcome it.  So would others.  Different is good, after all.

I think it was basically a given that the game would look good, since this is Squeenix we’re talking about.  Granted it’s hard to get the perfect picture of the audiovisual aspect from a YouTube video, but for what it’s worth?  The idea of exploring a world that’s frozen in time is interesting (if similar to an early segment in KH2), and the world in question is just as intriguing.  A Disney Castle just out of reach in a world shrouded in everlasting night?  Battling hordes of Heartless in the cobbled streets of an empty castle town?  That ain’t bad.

On some level, this has got to be a test run for KH3, so I suppose you can think of Aqua’s new story as something akin to Ground Zeroes.  If the gameplay holds up, then maybe KH3 will be in good shape; if it doesn’t, then I’d at least assume that playing as Aqua = having a full suite of magical attacks = more twists on the gameplay besides “mash X over and over” or “boosh-boosh-boosh a million hits and particle effects”.  Failing that?  It looks like they’re pulling gameplay aspects from other installments; Aqua can power up into her Spell Weaver style, she’s got some Flowmotion parkour, and it looks like it’s back to the menu-based battle system instead of the Command Deck.  Also, she’ll continue to use Reflect for defense, which was secretly S-tier in KH2.  Once more, that ain’t bad.

I have my hang-ups about the franchise, but seeing Aqua in eighth-gen action -- and potentially getting the respect she deserves -- helps restore my faith.

It’s just a shame that the next segment sucks it all away.

Kingdom Hearts Chi Back Cover!!
I don’t suppose anyone reading this is willing to massage my skull for me?  Anyone?  It’d work wonders for this headache I’m nursing.  No?  No takers?  All right.

*sigh* What the fuck am I even looking at here?

No, really.  Someone explain it to me.  Like…I feel as if whenever people say “KH is confusing” or “there are too many games to follow”, this is the culmination of all of that.  It’s the symbol, laid bare for all to see.  I thought I at least had a handle on the canon, however loose -- but looking at this trailer makes me think “Oh crap, I should’ve kept up with the mobile games and junk.”  Without looking at the wiki/other websites, what does this have to do with KH?

Do me a favor and watch that sequence without the sound.  For a series that’s been around for nearly two decades, look at what’s on display.  No Sora.  No Donald or Goofy.  No Disney.  No whimsy.  No magic.  No showcase of worlds.  Granted that last one isn’t a deal-breaker, given that Back Cover looks like it takes place in Radiant Garden/Hollow Bastion, but still.  There are Keyblades, thankfully, but they continue the tradition of being complex and arabesque…which begs the question of why Sora’s weapon of choice looks so simple, effectively lessening its specialness, but whatever.

But I’m even more frustrated by what’s in the trailer instead of what isn’t.  I can do without the KH iconography as long as what’s replacing it is good.  Based solely on this snippet?  I’m worried, dismayed, and fighting the urge to wash my hands of the series.  What are these masked men and women supposed to be, and why?  Is the fact that they’re masked supposed to build up to some sort of reveal, in the same way that KH2 once tried to hide Roxas’ identity?  Also, don’t you just love that a series so heavily built on its animation and expressiveness would deign to cover up the majority of its characters’ faces?

And just look at the content.  It’s a bunch of people standing around and jabbering in close quarters, being serious and foreshadowing and implying that things are about to get bad.  Assuming that this is basically the precursor to the Keyblade War, that’s a given.  But this “prologue” doesn’t do anything to get me hyped.  I don’t know BBS super-intimately, but I feel like I got enough of it to understand what I needed.  People misused the power of the Keyblade(s) for their own purposes, and end up wiping each other out as a result.  There.  Done.  Plus, BBS was already the revelatory glimpse into the past for the canon, which would’ve presumably made progress into the future -- i.e. Sora and crew putting a cap on the darkness/chaos.  Maybe if that game had actually had a story beyond “Terra ruins everything”, we wouldn’t even need this backstory.

I guess this is supposed to be important, then?  Based on the timestamps, this segment of the trailer is the longest -- clocking in at a little over a full minute.  Yet I feel like I’ve gone through this song and dance before; whenever these games try to play up mysteries that need to be solved or answers that need to be revealed, it doesn’t seem to end well. 

In terms of advancing the overarching plot vis a vis Roxas, the Nobodies, and Organization XIII, only the first three hours and last three hours of KH2 really matter (save for a brief interlude here and there…over the course of a good forty hours).  In terms of advancing the overarching plot vis a vis the Unversed, Master Xehanort, and the Keyblade Masters, most of BBS was spent faffing around.  Nomura and the Squeenix crew aren’t economically using their time, which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep cramming shit into the canon. 

They had it right the first time with KH1, because it managed to strike a good balance between Disney and FF (and original characters/content, by extension).  KH2 was a step backward, but if you view each world as a vignette -- another chapter in Sora’s journey -- then it still fares well overall.  It’s whenever the original characters and content take center stage that things start to fall apart. 

We have to learn what Organization XIII is, and who Namine is, and who Roxas is, and who Ansem is, and who the real Ansem is, and who Xehanort is, and who the Keyblade Masters are, and who the other Xehanort is, and who Eraqus is, and what the χ-Blade is, and who Vanitas is, and who Xion is…and now we have to take time out to watch an hour of cutscenes to learn who -- and I quote from the YT video -- who “the mysterious Foretellers” are supposed to be.  Even though there might already be an answer in the form of a F2P PC browser game that’s only just now seeing a more widespread release, but whatever.  Whatever.

I’m trying to like this franchise.  I’m trying to respect it.  But I’m finding it harder and harder to give a shit about any of it.

Okay, yes.  Stories are allowed to have mysteries and revelations.  But there are at least two points worth considering: first, the payoff had better be worth it in the end, and second, the payoff is often less impressive than whatever fans can conjure in their heads.  Roxas being Sora’s Nobody isn’t some earth-shattering revelation, especially given that after the BHK bows out, he’s gone for the next forty hours.  Seeing Terra’s fall to the darkness added nothing to my understanding of the canon except for an unrelenting hatred of what Nomura hath wrought.  Apparently Xigbar/Braig has gone from being some asshole gunman who talked like a surfer to someone essential to Xehanort’s plan -- which I would question further, but I cannot summon the will to ask why.

But this trailer -- if not the franchise at large -- is more interested in pushing its mystery instead of the stuff that makes KH good.  Scratch that; it’s more interested in pushing stuff that makes KH positively generic.  Bland.  It doesn’t feel like KH when you’ve got a bunch of masked men and women having a chat inside stuffy rooms or around tables; that’s not Disney, and it’s not even FF when you get down to it.  The whinging about the future and impending danger is kinda-sorta FF, but that’s not about to get anyone’s heart pumping.  And neither is the action on display.  Two masked characters we don’t know or care about running on walls and clashing swords?  That’s not worth a raised eyebrow, and it wouldn’t even if KH2 hadn’t done better versions of it a goddamn decade ago.

I mean…look, I know I’ve said some unkind things and implied that the series is basically on life support.  But I won’t pretend like it’s a completely lost cause.  I’ll rail on BBS, but it still manages to capture some of the essence of the franchise -- the stuff that made it so unique and valuable in the past.  I’ve seen at least a few clips from KH3D, and it offers proof that Squeenix hasn’t forgotten how to have a focus on adventure instead of pointless, mishandled revelations.  So the idea that they would treat the quintessence of the franchise, the very elements that make it special, as nothing more than distracting fluff is infuriating

It’s infuriating, and it’s insulting.  It’s insulting to Disney, the company that’s enticed and entertained for almost a century with its spread of cartoons, characters, and creations.  It’s insulting to Final Fantasy, knowing that the ones in the driver’s seat are continuing to perpetuate stereotypes and sullying a name that’s already long since grown dirty.  It’s insulting to gamers, working under the assumption that no one will buy in to an adventure and the chance at fun unless there’s a mystery dangled in front of their faces like a carrot on a stick

But worst of all?  It’s insulting to Kingdom Hearts.  All of the problems with the franchise are problems that didn’t have to exist.  All Nomura and crew had to do was practice a little restraint -- to keep focus and understand why people started liking their games in the first place.  But they couldn’t do that.  They overthought it.  They made it overwrought.  And the idea that KH3 will be the end of the “Xehanort saga”, giving them free reign to spiral off into new abysses of terrible decisions, feels less like a promise of greatness -- of a return to form -- and more like a threat.

Granted it’s still an empty threat, given that it’s taken 10+ years for a new mainline console game, but every time there’s a chance for this franchise to inspire confidence, there’s something else that strips it all away.  I’m ready to explore a frozen world with Aqua, but not if her end game is to reunite with a fuckwit like Terra.  I’m ready to summon weaponized amusement park rides with Sora, but not of it means going through a story that treats every plot beat but the ones focused on its OCs (do not steal!) like an embarrassment.

I’m ready to open my heart to Kingdom Hearts again.  But I’ll lock that door tight if it means stopping the pretentious, go-nowhere garbage from spilling out.

So.  Let’s see what the future holds -- and pray to God that Lightning doesn’t show up.

Oh, who am I kidding?  Of course she’ll show up.  Fuckin’ shit.

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