Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sidequest Corner: The Kingdom Hearts 1-2 Interquels

Don't worry, Animation Deviation will come back eventually. There's only so much you can type about when you're dealing with heat, oncoming carpal tunnel and at least three different projects. Not to mention there are only so many hours in the day.

But for now, let me go back to my thoughts on Kingdom Hearts. A while ago, I wrote about my very first impressions about the first game in Square Enix's official Disney Fanfiction series and found it to be interesting to say the least. The game boasted experimental (at the time) action RPG combat with some familiar ideas and concepts like healing items and level grinding that has become undeniably influential in modern design. The art direction and level design had to represent a world that could contain the exaggerated cartoon antics of Donald Duck, Goofy, Jiminy Cricket, and Pluto as well as the urban fantasy techno sci-fi sensibilities of the more recent Final Fantasy games, and have a commanding original visual identity all its own. All of this coming from artist and game director Tetsuya Nomura, who while famous for his work on Final Fantasy VII, is also guilty of going way too hard into gothic architecture and costume aesthetics.

On the whole, it's the very fact that the first game succeeded so much in these areas that it was able to get away with a pretty straightforward and recognizable JRPG plot. The kind about a naive youth wanting to see the world outside of his home, having it destroyed by some evil force and losing his friends, finding new allies and discovering newfound abilities and skills, starts fighting the bad guys who are trying to take over the world, having a clash with his best friend who fell to the dark side for tragic well-intentioned reasons, and of course having a huge climactic apocalyptic final battle with an evil mastermind who was trying to ascend to godhood.

Except that when the final cutscene played, the game opted for a bittersweet ending where main hero Sora didn't get to go home with his friends but was instead trapped in a sort of netherworld between the rest of the worlds he visited and a lot of loose plot threads regarding the fate of his best friend Riku, and the fate of the titular macguffin of the series, the Kingdom Hearts.

And since my first experience with the game is courtesy of the 1.5 + 2.5 HD Remix, that means I have access to every single game in the franchise, and in chronological order no doubt!

And according to various trusted friends, the following two games, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days are the next installments in the franchise. Billed as direct continuations on the fate of Sora and company between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2.

So, being the kind of person that enjoys sprawling and complex experiences with multiple story branches and paths, I decided to give these supplementary experiences a look.

First is Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories HD, which might just be flat out the worst of the bunch. For the record, this is not the Game Boy Advance version of the game, but a remaster of the PlayStation 2 remake of the game, Re: Chain of Memories. I bring this up because it's a major issue I had with the game.

The plot...sounds like filler arc in an anime or a clip show set-up for a sitcom. Sora and his gang continue to find a way to return home and come across a place called Castle Oblivion. Believing it to be a place where they can find help, they venture inside only to discover that the place actively messes with your memory. Muddling it and rearranging it by its very design due to some secret deep within its depths.

But thankfully, Sora is able to remember chunks of his memories with the greatest force in the world according to LittleKuriboh:

Yes, the entire conceit of Chain of Memories is CCG-based gameplay, where Sora's various abilities, healing items, and even the ability to attack are relegated to various cards he has to use in order to stop the cards played by his enemies. Card-based combat, a form of gameplay that revolves around meticulous thought, strategy, and careful planning, gets Frankensteined together with real-time combat action combat.

And this was on a full 3D remake of what was originally just on a 2D plane. So in addition to frustrations like not being able to attack cuz you ran out of cards or not drawing a heal card to other annoyances like getting ambushed or blindsided because you were too busy staring at your hand!

How about we mix raw fish with white chocolate and ghost peppers while we're at it!?

It just screams of a studio that understood the innate appeal of Kingdom Hearts' combat, then overthought everything. As I said before, the original conceit of it being a GBA game was novel and genre-mixing with 2D combat usually leads to interesting or good results. Another underrated Square Enix JRPG, The World Ends With You comes to mind for example. But when you go out of your way to take that concept and make it indistinguishable from the PS2 original, the card nonsense feels way too much like reinventing the wheel.

This is before I even get into how cards double as resource-management. Every single door you enter can only be unlocked with a certain combination of other cards you pick up, which determine stuff like how many enemies if any will be there, whether or not you'll get a save point, or if it will be a door to another location. Even the pacing is relegated to RNG and convoluted padding!

My major introduction to JRPGs was Baten Kaitos on the Gamecube, a JRPG that was nothing but card-based combat! I know eclectic combat systems that work and this isn't one of them!

But what's especially depressing is the plot is a blatant retread of the events of the first Kingdom Hearts but with an Unreliable Narrator twist. As Sora continues through the castle and has his memories shifted around, things play out differently or in different order. So with the exception of the game's final moments and a secondary unlockable story mode, everything that happens is basically filler.

Once again, for a game released on the GBA, a far cry from the first game's home, this wasn't a bad call. In a way, it could be seen as Square Enix's team trying to basically do a remake of KH1 in everything but plot, similar to the Game Boy Color demake of Metal Gear Solid. But for a crucial experience that has been bundled with a collection touted as “the games you need to play to understand this great story” you could have easily skipped most of what happens.

Which is exactly what I did. I did not finish Chain of Memories, I simply looked up the final cutscenes on YouTube and I have no shame in writing that out!

What was this all building up to? Sora's mind being completely turned to scrambled egg due to him desperately wanting to hold on to the memories of his loved ones, causing him to slip into a coma, all while fighting several members of the new big bads of the series, Organization XIII, as they were trying to unravel the secrets of the Castle. That secret? The cause of all the memory altering stuff? A girl named Namine. And she feels super bad about what happened to Sora due to power of friendship or some nonsense about his destiny, and so puts him into a protective cocoon and starts working to reassemble his entire memory.

There is also a secondary story of Sora's childhood friend Riku, fighting in the depths of the castle against the forces of Darkness, trying to break out of the prison he was left in at the end of Kingdom Hearts 1, including a Jekyll/Hyde scenario where the original game's big bad, Ansem, keeps trying to take over his body.

It's amazing how if you strip out all of the fantasy elements and Disney characters, this whole thing reads like a cheap soap opera.

Next comes the next installment, the sequel to Chain of Memories known as Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.

Alright that name is terrible so I'm going to refer to it now as Kingdom Hearts: The Ice Cream Monologues! Why? Because it makes more sense than what looks like the first half of a math problem!

The original game was actually released on the Nintendo DS, yes another handheld, and was basically a fully realized translation of the real-time action combat of the Kingdom Hearts games. All with a new story, a brand new protagonist, and a deliberate continuation of the big old dangling plot threads left behind at the end of Chain of Memories.

The biggest issue with the game however was the badge system. Basically you didn't level up traditionally in ICM, but got badges that you would put into a loadout on the DS's touch screen. This would include stuff like spells, special attacks, and your health bar...and your level... and your ability to block or dodge roll...and your ability to talk and chew gum at the same time. It also had multiplayer where other players could come in and help you. It's like Monster Hunter, but the Hunters are multiple amputees with wooden sticks.

But I am only going off of reputation. Because the entire combat system was so detested by the fan base that for the definitive representation of the experience, Square Enix instead devoted development time to take the text-heavy dialogue and plain presentation of the handheld version and make full 3D cutscenes out of the entire story and turn the rest of the gameplay into a visual novel.

I am not joking, they replaced the gameplay with giant text crawls basically saying “the hero killed some baddies and had a boss fight, then this happened” followed by a cutscene.

As such, I have to judge this game entirely on the narrative presentation, and it's here that I think I found the breaking point where Tetsuya Nomura started becoming a parody of himself.

The new protagonist of the game is Roxas, who is identified as a Nobody. The game takes way too long to explain it but the idea is that a Nobody is a hollow shadow of a person with no Heart; and with it the ability to feel powerful emotion or have strong powerful memories. They are brought into existence whenever someone of considerable willpower loses their Heart, usually by the cosmic horrors of the series, the Heartless. Thankfully he finds brotherhood with an entire community of Nobodys, the evil Organization XIII, who have brought him in as their thirteenth member.

That's right, this game is an inside look at the villain's perspective.

At least it would be if it didn't get bogged down in its own worldbuilding and navel-gazing. Which I've noticed is a problem with Tetsuya Nomura's direction and presentation. Aside from his love of belts and chains and zippers.

Way back when he made his name in Final Fantasy VII, the standards of game narrative in the mainstream were low, so when the game took time to mix together tender character moments with big sci-fi ideas it was hailed as truly revolutionary. But those very sci-fi ideas were basically remixed tropes easily recognized by the audience. The evil corrupt company, the science experiment gone wrong looking for purpose, the vulgar bad ass with a tragic backstory, etc.. All easily recognized terms in the collective lexicon of story telling themes. Their elegance didn't detract from the character drama, and the drama made the events happening around the cast more vibrant and interesting.

But it seems like Nomura got the wrong idea of how to handle this. Rather than keep the elegance, he applied more complicated layers to the narrative and his world while trying to keep character interaction organic and light for a similar effect. The problem with that approach is after a while you start to lose people in the details and alienate them further when they expect the dialogue to throw them a bone. And if you're not exactly one for concise worldbuilding or terse exposition, it will take forever for you to express your narrative and the character drama.

Case in point, Tetsuya Nomura's latest opus, Final Fantasy XV. A game that has an anime and an entire big budget two hour movie prequel you have to watch to FULLY UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING in this gigantic sprawling world full of imagination and possibility...only for the game itself on a very basic level just be a character-focused road trip with the occasional high-octane action set piece.

I bring this up because to summarize the plot of Ice Cream Monologues is an exercise in frustration. In its high concept, the motives of Organization XIII is a neat idea, a collection of people that by the laws of their own world should not exist attempt to pull down the very heavens themselves to obtain a soul, which paints them in a sympathetic light. In fact, it's the one area where my joke title about talking philosophy over ice cream actually means something. Every major exchange in the game is bookended by Roxas eating a popsicle with his friends talking about the meaning behind having a heart and stuff, and when the dialogue doesn't become too maudlin or angsty, plays with interesting themes.

Then the second and third acts happen...hang on to your butts. Turns out due to events in Kingdom Hearts 1 where Sora willingly ripped out his own heart to save his childhood friend Kairi, he created Roxas. Seriously, Roxas' name is an anagram for Sora with an X thrown in. And no I didn't figure that out on my own, the game bludgeoned me over the head with the revelation. Since they are spiritually connected, it grants Roxas access to the Keyblade, the only weapon that can be used to permanently destroy the Heartless. This forwards the agenda of Organization XIII since they are using his power to destroy the Heartless and recover the Hearts they have taken in order to gain access to source of all Hearts – the literal spiritual ground zero for the idea of existing as a genuine person, Kingdom Hearts.

But of course that's too simple, we can go further than that! There's also another major character that Roxas slowly befriends over the adventure named Xion, who is actually an artificial being created by the leader of the Organization, Xemnas, Apparently her very being was created from the positive memories Sora had of Kairi, she even kind of looks like her with a slightly different hair color. How does Xemnas have this power? Bullshit dark magic, shut up. The plan with her was to have her interact with Roxas and syphon off his memories of Sora into herself, including the ability to wield the Keyblade. All of this so they can harvest Heartless with another character they can actively control, every major character even just calls her a puppet, and prevent Sora from ever fully awakening in the Castle of Oblivion, killing two birds with one stone.

Why all of this? As far as I can tell, so Xion can suddenly become self-aware and have an emotional self-sacrifice moment by removing herself from existence to fully restore Sora's memory while erasing everyone else's memory of her existence, Roxas to yell about how “she's actually a person dammit” about five times too many, and then leave the Organization but not before having a completely out of left field final battle with Riku who has been overtaken by Ansem's influence. Why was Riku there? He was trying to protect Sora and went about it by infiltrating Organization XIII to bring Xion to Namine do keep up already! Then he wakes up the next morning with complete amnesia about his time with the organization or what he did, then goes on with his life, probably to start off the events of Kingdom Hearts 2.

Holy freaking crap how do you even logic? The Xion stuff was a step way too far, if you wanted to harvest Heartless and keep Sora comatose, keep Roxas around! What if he leaves? He has friends there! He is literally part of a clique where he feels like he's making a difference! You literally have all of the psychological pressure you need to keep him around! You don't need an artifical homunculus who might malfunction and become self-aware to fill this roll! Sloppy Xemnas, sloppy as hell!

Also, while the idea of humanizing certain antagonists with mundane things like chilling out over frozen dessert is great in concept, you need sharp and concise dialogue to go with it and...this doesn't. The game's entire theme is about identity and memory, and if you think that's an excuse to repeat various ideas ad nauseum because “they might forget” you may need a better editor.

It's an interesting side story to say the least, but it really does read as more filler.

Here's hoping when I get around to actually finishing Kingdom Hearts 2 and give my thoughts on that as well!

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