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May 17, 2018

RE: Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue HD

So I finished Kingdom Hearts 2.8, and to say that I have mixed feelings would be an understatement the size of a blue whale on steroids.

For those unaware, that means that I’ve pushed through the content of all of the latest games -- well, with an asterisk.  Dream Drop Distance has been beaten.  0.2: Birth By Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage has been cleared.  X Back Cover has been…watched.  I know that it’s part of a bigger project, but right now I’m in no mood to touch it.  I’ve put in enough time for now.

It’s going to be a bit before I get in deep with any of those games, though it’s a safe bet that 3D -- being the first I played and finished, and the fullest game of the bundle -- will come up first.  I can think of many things I can say about it.  Some of those things are actually good!  Why, it’s almost as if Squeenix is capable of moments of genuine competence!  But there are things I can say that aren’t exactly material I’d use within earshot of any discerning adults.  

I’ll say this much, though: there was a moment in 3D -- a certain “reveal” -- that left me so stunned, offended, and outright butthurt that I paused the cutscene in mid-villain rant, set the pad down, got up, left the room, and went outside to breathe deeply for a few minutes as I stared at the sky.  Credit where credit’s due: no other game I’ve played has ever gotten that reaction out of me.

If you want a quick “power ranking” out of me?  I would say that of the three items in the bundle, 0.2 is my favorite of the bunch.  Maybe that’s my bias flaring up, because it stars Aqua and I’m committed to the belief that she’s the only good thing to come out of Birth By Sleep.  But there are things that that game -- which I respectfully call KH: Ground Zeroes -- does that at least put in effort to elevate the franchise.  There’s stuff in there I can’t help but respect.  Is it perfect?  HELL NO.  But as I said to my brother?  “If you’re looking for hope for KHIII, there it is.”   

3D is decent…ish.  I’m conflicted about it.  The fun I had with the game is undeniable, and not even my arch-rivalry with Squeenix is enough to take that away from me.  At a base level, the gameplay is there.  Simple, as other KH games have been, but still enjoyable nonetheless.  The thrills of combat are there -- though as a disclaimer, I’m committed to playing every KH game, past, present, and future, on Proud/Hard mode.  Either way, the fun is real.  Or it was.  It’ll take a full post to go into detail, but the farther in I went, the more the cracks started to show.  And believe you me, there are plenty of cracks.

What really lets the game down, though, is its story.  Or lack thereof.  My playthrough weighed in at about 28 hours, and I spent most of those searching desperately for the plot.  And then when I finally found the plot, it was the dumbest thing ever.  Well, maybe not ever, given that BBS exists, but certainly the dumbest thing I’d seen in a while, and yet another reason to resent the canon, the creators, and the company behind it.  I won’t claim to know every last detail of the KH story intimately, but I would assume that it had a clear direction set up by KHII.  Then it was as if Nomura and crew decided to make a massive, hairpin turn in their Maserati with BBS, and now it’s like there’s another swerve with 3D finished.

Actually, it seems like that’s a recurring event with this story.  I remember when it was just about the Heartless plunging worlds into the dark depths, and the boy who had to stop them.  But the secret ending of that game said NOPE!  Then the next games were like “Now it’s about Organization XIII!”  And then the next game was like “Now it’s about the Keyblade War!”  And then the next game was like “Now it’s about [REDACTED]!”  Again, credit where credit’s due: these guys know how to pile on the questions with their canon.  Now if only A) some of those questions weren’t actively terrible, and B) they could give answers that weren’t stupid as hell.

And then there’s Back Cover.


…I don’t want to talk about Back Cover.  Not now, at least.

Well, I guess in the interest of completion, I’ll spare a few words.  I don’t hate it.  I don’t love it, either.  There’s a part of me that feels like I can’t properly talk about it, for fear of the possibility that, in order to get the “full story” I need to play the actual iterations of X.  Even so, there’s an element of intrigue in the movie that is worth giving a nod of muted respect.  But I almost want to retract that nod because the conclusion, such as it is, is unsatisfying.  Also, I can’t shake the feeling that the story itself would be utterly inconsequential if not for the fact that more canon-shaping junk was crammed inside.

It’s the sort of thing -- a thing across all three of these games -- that really exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the franchise.  Especially the weaknesses.  I’m optimistic about, and hopeful for, KHIII; that’s not going to change anytime soon despite Squeenix’s best attempts to poison its golden goose.  (I’d be surprised if we didn’t get intrusive DLC and/or extra monetization practices shoved in somehow.)  Yet having gone through these games back to back with nothing in between besides a few quick sessions of BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, it’s all been laid out in front of me.

So I’ll start with a positive.  The key to whatever success Kingdom Hearts as a whole has enjoyed is tied directly to money.

Look.  I’m a proponent of good storytelling, effort, and creative vision in any art form.  It’s the key to making something truly incredible, and we’ve seen time and again how just throwing fat stacks of cash isn’t a guarantor of quality.  But when it comes to games -- especially these games -- they’ve got to have money.  Kingdom Hearts is half-built on Disney, which means that it needs to have the production values to pay tribute to some of the most beloved properties in the world.  Strong visuals.  Strong music.  Strong animation.  Past games have done what they could at the time, but we’re on the eighth console generation now.  Money talks.

Playing through 0.2 highlighted what a difference it makes when you can feature top of the line AV touches.  It didn’t run at 60fps, granted, but everything else blew me away.  While the environments are pretty linear -- doubly so, coming off of 3D -- the art design and rendering make every single area a sight to behold.  The special effects have jumped in quality by about 20 notches.  And with the resources at play, the devs did what they could to push the spectacle to sub-Platinum levels…which to be fair was an ambition they’ve held since KHII.  But now we have Platinum Games, so yeah.

But speaking of Platinum…

--KH games are missing that nuance
To be fair, it’s not as if the games are totally mindless button mashers; KHII had a Revenge Value system that could let you gauge when foes would break out of combos, IIRC.  But the franchise certainly skirts the line.  In a vacuum, that wouldn’t be a problem -- yet even if they solely occupied said vacuum, it wouldn’t take long to see that MIA gameplay elements hold it back from being a true tour de force.

And sure, not every game has to be on Platinum’s level.  But playing through 3D exposed the fact that there are gameplay elements that could have prevented a ton of frustration, and those that were added in only increased my blood pressure.  It’s as if they tried to have a combo-heavy game, but purposely held back, and that missing link is a real killer.  To put it a different way?  What should be a straight, honest duel between the player and the game turns into unnecessary guesswork because there’s a damp sponge that’s ten feet high and four feet thick between the player and the game.  The lack of nuances mean that anti-frustration elements are lost in translation.  

Also, some of the bosses are bullshit.  Just gonna throw that out there.

--These games survive by way of their charisma
I feel like I’ve said that before, but I have to repeat it.  The secret to this franchise’s success, at least for me, is its charm.  Sora, Donald, and Goofy are collectively a major reason as to why I’m ready for KHIII; after all, how long has it been since the three of them were the stars of the game together?  Still, even without the core trio assembled, there have been instances where the games have put a smile on my face.  Even these.  Some of the moments sprinkled throughout have been genuinely good.  Shout-outs to Riku for delivering his fair share of them throughout 3D.

When I say “charisma”, I do mean those bits that make me feel warm, or fuzzy, or happy, or ready to laugh.  Still, KH as a whole goes beyond that.  It has charm, but in its best moments it also has that certain quintessence, a je ne sais quoi that sets it apart from others in the genre.  When the games actually manage to focus on meaningful, understandable drama, it’s actually kind of strong.  Roxas’ plight means more to me now than it did at launch, or even a few years ago, for example.  And part of the reason I like 0.2 as much as I do is because it takes Aqua to some interesting places.  Not just location-wise; her side story is so non-KH in its approach, I kind of want to give it a hand based on effort alone.  Or gusto.  Or the sheer size of their proverbial balls.

I mean, I would’ve liked it if they went even further, but that’s just me.  As a writer (of sorts), I know how to make my characters suffer.  As one should.

--Nomura and crew need to stop adding shit in
I had a joking conversation with my brother about where KH could go from here, and he suggested turning the franchise into a police drama/action movie, where Sora is a worn-out cop on the edge.  The sheer absurdity of it made me approve, because…hey, it’s not as if there’s any sense left to lose with the story.  If KHIII really is going to be the end of this saga, then I hope that all of the questions are answered and that the next game starts fresh with a whole new, dramatically-simplified narrative.

I applaud the ambition here.  Really, I do.  But at some point, these guys need to stop trying to cram in as much stuff as they can -- because let’s be real, they’re one reveal away from wringing the franchise’s neck.  And I’m not just talking about how each progressive game seems to layer on the nonsense like a wedding cake aiming for the stratosphere.  Nomura and crew (and yeah, I know it’s silly to always blame Nomura, but he and his “crew” are as easy and understandable a target as any) are positing questions that I really never asked before, and sometimes it feels like they open plot holes instead of fill them.  0.2 loops back to an earlier game in the dumbest way possible, one that makes me give another character the stink-eye from here on.  

It’s like…you didn’t need to add that, guys.  But they did anyway, because they can.  Or, alternatively, because they wanted to weave in elements that almost certainly weren’t thought of until recently.  Or, double-alternatively, because they wanted to cover their collective asses.  But they’re really bad at it.  Every time they do, it shines a glaring spotlight on things that could have simply gone unexplained -- like screaming “LOOK, SEE?  THIS THING YOU NEVER NOTICED WAS ACTUALLY SUPER-IMPORTANT ALL ALONG!  WE PLANNED AHEAD!  SUCK ON THAT FORESHADOWING, BITCHES!  WE OUT!”

And I’m just sitting here going no.  Stop making minor details retroactively important.  First off, I don’t care.  Second, those details are incredibly dumb, and why anyone would treat them as important pillars defies the limits of human decency.  I guess that’s to be expected, though.  It feels like Nomura and crew have been drinking the Kool-Aid so eagerly supplied by J.J. Abrams and his “mystery box” shenanigans.  Now we have to choke on it, too.

In other words?

I guess it’s too late for regrets now.  I’m back in.

And my brother’s back in, too.  With his copy of 1.5 + 2.5 now in his grasp, the contract is complete.  He’s starting from the very beginning to get ready for KHIII.  I’m almost certainly not going to replay I or II because I already did that (and watched a full LP of II just a couple of weeks ago).  I saw Days’ movie compilation as well, so I’ll pass on that.  Really, I have some non-KH games I need to go back to, so this is as good a stopping/pausing point as any.

But I’m ready.  I’m ready to play the third and final-ish game in the franchise.  I don’t expect it to blow me away, but I don’t need it to.  My expectations have been tempered, so if it delivers an even, enjoyable experience?  That’s good.  Given the franchise’s virtues, vices, and other variables, it’s foolish to assume that the third chapter will be the second coming.  All things considered, it’s more likely that it’ll end up being a total shitshow.  But who knows?  Anything could happen.

So that’s about all I’ve got.  More KH posts coming in the future, starting with 3D (probably).  Till then?  Feel free to give your own thoughts about KH in the comments.  That’ll whittle away the seconds between now and the release of the third chapter.

And before you ask, yes, I like calling it the third chapter because it lets me hearken back to Street Fighter III.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.  Feels good man.

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