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April 26, 2018

I Still Like Kingdom Hearts, Despite Everything (Part 1)


Alternate post title: I Still Like Kingdom Hearts, Despite Itself.

…Part 1.


So.  Kingdom Hearts is…many things.  It’s a franchise that’s been going since the early 2000s.  It’s a mix of disparate companies and characters.  It’s got a reputation as one of the most confusing and convoluted franchises in gaming history.  It’s finally (possibly?) getting the third chapter in its ongoing storyline after more than a decade since Part 2, side games notwithstanding.  And, crucially, it still has plenty of fans eager to pal around with their favorite Disney characters.

I guess after everything I’ve been through, I’m one of those fans.  I made a stop at my local store a few weeks back to grab some stuff, partially with the intention to snag Kirby: Star Allies on the road home.  It wasn’t in stock, but another game was: Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue.  Saying and typing the name alone is enough to make me hot with shame, but I knew that I still owed it to myself to see the franchise through to its “conclusion” -- and I wouldn’t be ready for KHIII without the games in the PS4 bundle.  I crouched down to take a closer look -- at the game whose price had been slashed to a third -- but held back a cringe and a groan as I stared at the cover, with a full third covered in masked characters I couldn’t even begin to identify.  So I left without any games, and bought Kirby digitally the next day.  I wanted to save myself the trouble.

Two weeks later, I bought 2.8.



My brother and I have an arrangement, after all.  As the guy who pre-ordered KHIII with five clicks in less than a minute just because of an offhand conversation, he’s ready for the third chapter as well.  In a sense; he’s neither played a game in the franchise nor read/watched any footage since KHII.  Because he’s so woefully behind, his only hope is to get the HD remixes bundled into 1.5+2.5.  And he will apparently at some point, so the onus is (or was) on me to bridge the gap with 2.8.  So my part of the gentleman’s agreement is fulfilled, and once he pulls through, I’ll have access to Chain of Memories and Re:Coded (the ones I’m missing).  Assuming I don’t rely on LPs and stream archives instead.

I’m at odds with myself here.  I can remember a time when -- prior to KHI -- I looked at the franchise and thought “Man, that’s so stupid!  It’s gonna bomb!”  Then I actually played KHI years after its release, and I was onboard…so much so that I desperately checked the mailbox again and again in anticipation of my copy of KHII, not to mention how I scraped up whatever information I could, watched the trailers over and over again, and generally wouldn’t shut the hell up about it.  I was in that phase, after all, and it’s a wonder my brother didn’t stab me to put an end to his torture.


Like I said, KHII was the last game my brother played.  But the thing is, KHII was the last game I played, too.  Everything else I’ve seen, read, and known comes from online sources -- wiki entries, comments, articles, gameplay footage, LPs, and the like.  I could’ve gotten 358/2 Days, but middling reviews pushed me away like a bulldozer.  My PSP seemingly melted internally, so I tapped out on Birth by Sleep.  I didn’t jump into Dream Drop Distance at launch, and went down the LP route…only to drop off, and then end up in an awkward position where I didn’t want to finish the LP in case I ever got the game, but didn’t want to buy the game because I had an LP to finish.  I don’t even need to tell you that the mobile stuff was an instant miss.

I only have two saving graces: that I have online materials to keep me caught up, and that I did replay the two PS2 games a few years ago.  It really says a lot when I clear a game that’s almost old enough to drink with a smile on my face.  It says even more when its successors make me want to drink.  Even if Birth by Sleep has some of the best gameplay in the whole franchise (which I won’t dispute, since I never played it), I can’t -- I can’t forgive just how bad the story is.  I feel like that’s a contentious opinion, and I’m sorry for it.  But there’s only one word in the dictionary I can use to express my feelings, and you probably know what it is.

Take it away, Nic.


I won’t act like KH is some bastion of quality or artistry.  But in my eyes, BBS embodies everything that’s wrong with the franchise while committing its own dire sins.  Having watched one LP to completion years ago -- and having started watching stream archives as a refresher -- it feels like this is one of the dumbest plots I’ve ever seen.  Almost nobody acts or talks like a human being.  Multiple characters make multiple stupid decisions.  Every conflict could be resolved if the cast stood in one place and took two minutes to talk to each other, clearly and directly.  Events can only happen as long as nobody has any ability to reflect of show awareness, be it with trusting obvious villains or blindly lashing out over concepts that are both over-explained and under-explained.  

Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that every bit of the canon depends on BBS to explain how everything went wrong, and then the explanation I got was the worst.  I remember how KHI -- while dumb for its own reasons -- still managed to be “simple and clean”, true to its theme song.  But with each progressive game, more and more plot threads and concepts and characters got jammed in without the breathing room needed to properly explain -- which you wouldn’t expect from a JRPG franchise, let alone a single entry each go-round.  But every time I think about there being multiple copies of the same character, and every time I remember there’s a χ-Blade that’s pronounced “key-blade” and not like the Greek letter chi, I get another eight months shaved off my lifespan.


But beyond that --

Also, fuck BBS for making sure the only character who at least tried to be competent ended up getting it the worst (which to be fair is a hard race to win).  Bonus fuck-you points for making that character the only female hero thus far who hasn’t been a puppet for the bad guys’ schemes or a MacGuffin.  Because Squeenix hates women, I guess.

Also, while I’m at it, fuck Squeenix in general.  Not for any reason in particular.  Just because they’re holding two heavyweight franchises for ransom with their endless bumbling.  But they’re partially responsible for NieR: Automata, so it slightly tips the scales.

Slightly.


At some point in the near future, my brother’s going to be working through the KH games on the road to III.  I’ve got a leg up on him; not only have I replayed the two main games, but I also watched the cutscenes for Days to completion, and I’m working my way through BBS as I type this.  Even if you step away from the gameplay issues that may plague the series, I’m being forced to stare countless problems in the face.  Just reading summaries of the games (which, thankfully, are unlocked as you play through 3D) and taking the chain of events at face value has led me to a startling conclusion.

Removed from the proverbial stage where execution matters, KH as a whole should have the most gripping, thoughtful, and heart-wrenching story ever told.  The problem is that it can’t walk away from the stage.  Again and again and again, my reaction is that whatever story Nomura and crew are trying to tell is being told poorly.  Now more than ever, I can see the through line -- the story that the devs wanted to tell, coupled with the gameplay to sell it.  There are germs of good ideas and flashes of more than just competence; there is talent at play here.  It’s just that there’s a small problem.

Generally speaking, Kingdom Hearts is its own worst enemy.


It’s getting starker and clearer by the day.  You could probably count on one hand the number of times there’s a cutscene without mentions of darkness, light, hearts, or friendship.  Speaking of friendship, the franchise is choking on it to the point where everything else gets squeezed out.  Again and again we’ve been forced to sit through sequences that drive home just how great it is to have friends; the only rival to it is when all progress grinds to a halt so we can talk in grave detail about the lesson or moral du jour.  As if we’re in the last minutes of an after-school special.

It’s not as if Disney movies/properties have been without morals, of course.  But there was enough forward momentum and kinesis to make it so that there was more to each outing than just “the moral”; the stages and gameplay in KH are supposed to bridge the gap, to be sure, but here in 2018, the franchise is in dire need of evolution.  Frozen, Tangled, Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Moana, and more have come and gone in the days since KHII’s release, and those movies have tackled more complex issues in spite of their seemingly-childish aesthetic.  Having learned nothing about Zootopia until hours before its debut, reading about the undercurrent weaving through it in one review left me bug-eyed.



That’s not to say that earlier Disney movies are missing any thematic heft besides “friendship” and base-level moralizing.  KH3D has a world based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and all that that implies.  Having finished that world yesterday (as of writing), I can confirm that that is not implied, referenced, or even touched.  I haven’t even seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame (a sin in its own right, I know), but even I can sense that there’s something important missing.  Something critical.  Something flavorful.  To the game’s credit, it does skew Frollo closer to being a GOP candidate a self-righteous zealot eager for an ethnic cleansing, but even then it takes a backseat so that Sora and Riku can encourage Quasimodo to follow his heart.  That’s…better?

The problem that’s lingered since KHII -- if not before that -- is that the Disney stuff is hampered by the OC stuff, and the OC stuff is hampered by the Disney stuff.  Neither one is given the time they need per game to truly reach their full potential because of the imbalanced narratives.  Want to learn more about Roxas?  Fuck you, then!  Watch as we go for dozens of hours without even acknowledging that he exists, no matter how much he was featured in promos and the first three hours of the game!  Want to see the ramifications of Beast and Belle living together?  Too bad, son!  Here’s some asshole in a cloak who’ll almost never get more characterization than his boss fight!


You know what I want to see in KHIII?  I want to see content that matters.  Content contained and completed satisfactorily within a single game, with no more plot threads forcibly woven in to justify more spinoffs.  (III is supposed to be the cap to a story arc, so presumably it’ll be a herculean task beyond anything Metal Gear Solid 4 could ever dream of.)  I want the Disney stuff to hit its zenith -- to not only pay tribute to the movies, but to take the assets and go in places even further than the retreads we’ve gotten.  If we’re going back to Olympus Coliseum again, then use the gods and demigods in ways we haven’t seen before, yet true to the canon.  Make it matter so that it doesn’t come off as more filler between the OC stuff.

And the OC stuff?  Pace it properly.  Have it actually play into the Disney worlds instead of keeping it locked behind a towering steel gate.  Make whatever villains, old and new, pop up be a consistent, persistent threat as Sora and crew travel across the multiverse.  Marluxia’s back?  Fine.  Give him an actual presence and show why he deserves to be a continuous member of the cast.  Don’t throw him in and forget until the last three hours of the game.


And let’s not forget about various quality of life improvements that could (and should) be made.  Watching BBS has made me realize how crucial it is to have other characters in a scene, and a world in general; whether it’s Eraqus and Master Xehanort sitting in two chairs despite the “throne room” accommodating three, or Cinderella’s ball with just over a half dozen guests, the games need to find ways to fill empty space.  More characters, more decor, more activity -- something to make each Disney world feel lived in.  I know that’s a tall order from the company that spent millions of dollars and over four years crafting a virtual hallway, but pretty soon we’ll be talking about PS4 architecture.  I think they can handle an upgrade.

Speaking of upgrades, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe it’d help the cutscens’ presentation if a good 50% of them had music playing in the background.  Nothing says “flaccid moment” quite like seeing Beast and Belle do their ballroom dance with no sound besides a generic whoosh.  Also, make it so that every cutscene has people moving and emoting to their full potential, as we’ve clearly seen them do before; getting rid of generic lip flaps is one thing, but I don’t want to deal with guys just standing around any more than we have to.  Also, also?  Days has shown that these guys can actually act, but it highlights the disparity of scenes where countless characters come off as wooden and amateurish.  Squeenix can do better on that front, I hope, but the real clincher for improvement is simple: WRITE BETTER.


Squeenix has seemingly infinite resources, so the games can be better.  They’re cooperating with Disney, a company who seems to grow stronger and more widespread by the day.  (Once Infinity War takes all the money, it wouldn’t surprise me if they bought the first through fourth dimensions.)  It shouldn’t be this hard to make a game, or series, or franchise that’s worthy of the prestige.  Yes, I acknowledge the complexities and perils of game design.  Wishes and criticisms don’t mean much in the face of developmental realities.  But damn it, it shouldn’t be this hard.

It only took one game for them to derail.  Just one.  We went to “simple and clean” to “complex and dirty”, and the situation’s only gotten worse from when we started.  The groundwork is there for the greatest crossover the world has ever seen, but there are just so many bumbles holding it back that I’m frustrated to even think of calling myself a fan.  My copy of 2.8 was behind a glass door and I had to get an employee to retrieve it -- and I felt my face turn red hot as I muttered “Kingdom Hearts” to tell her which one to grab.  That’s not how things should be, but they are.  And it just kills me inside.

And yet, despite all of that and more, I’m still a fan of Kingdom Hearts.  In case you missed the title.


I guess it’s up to me to explain why.  And I will.  Next time.

*sigh*  So by the time I finish KH3D, how many more clones am I going to have to keep track of?

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