Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kingdom Hearts: Death by Spin-offs

You know, I think I'm done with Kingdom Hearts.

No, not the first game in the series -- I'm not so horribly backlogged as not to have finished that game.  I did that in a fairly timely manner.  I actually enjoyed the game.  I mean the series.  I just can't take it anymore.

What did me in?  Was it the horrible camera that still hasn't been fixed so many games later?  The Disney characters?  The metrosexuals in black leather?  The countless spin-offs?  The fact that the main character looks like a refugee from one of the worst SE releases on the PS2?

I can't be the only one who sees the resemblance Sora has to this guy.
A little of each, honestly, but the game which finally put the nail in the coffin was the latest entry on the PSP:  Kingdom Hearts - Birth By Sleep.  Before I incur the ire of the countless Kingdom Hearts fans out there, allow me to clarify some things:  Birth By Sleep is not a bad game.  In fact, it is one of the more respectable entries in the series (particularly after dealing with 358/2 days).  Combat is smooth and fun, it provides a unique variety in characters, giving an incentive for multiple playthroughs.  It is rife with enough minigames to pass the time.  Most importantly, it fills in some important blanks in the Kingdom Hearts mythos, thus providing some explanation for what happened in the previous installments.  Any avid and invested Kingdom Hearts fan should be able to find something to take away from this.

Unfortunately, the only thing I was able to take away from the end was a headache, and a nervous tick that activates whenever someone mentions the words "heart" and "friendship".


While I played the first Kingdom Hearts and enjoyed it, I didn't buy the second one upon its release despite that, mostly due to being a graduate student at the time:  That has a way of limiting both time and money.  I delayed my purchase long enough not only for the game to reach a $20 price tag, but also long enough for Square Enix to produce the slew of spin offs to cash in on the popularity of the series

Pictured above:  Tetsuya Nomura
It got to the point where Jared (an occasional poster here) suggested that if I wanted to experience the story chronologically, then I should play the games in the following sequence:  Birth By Sleep, 358/2 Days, Chain of Memories, and finally Kingdom Hearts 2.  Unfortunately, this didn't quite work out.  I tried to play 358/2 days, but the mission-based format wasn't my cup of tea.  That, and the endless scenes of Axel and Roxas talking about friendship, or eating ice cream on top of the clock tower.

Seriously.  Let's take a moment to reflect on this.  The characters in 358/2 Days are supposed to be the "Nobodies" of the KH universe belonging to Organization XIII -- beings without hearts, who are supposedly unable to feel, and ruthless  villains.  While Roxas is admittedly a special exception, the rest of the crew shows a shocking amount of emotion for a bunch of unemotional people.  It didn't humanize them or give them depth -- it made them seem absolutely idiotic.

They undoubtedly have nefarious plans for those popsicles.
Needless to say, that one was a bust.

As for Birth By Sleep?  I started off liking it.  Really, I did.  The Enabler can attest to this, as she had to suffer watching me excitedly show her a fight as I faced off against Zack of Final Fantasy fame in the coliseum, in a futile attempt to convince her that "really, it's a good game and series!  The Disney isn't that bad!".  She remained unconvinced, and wisely so.

So what happened?

After setting the game aside for awhile, I decided to pick it up again.  Much of it was as I remembered:  I still enjoyed the gameplay.  I liked the character designs of the non-disney characters.  The graphics were pretty.

But then, I got to the story.


Birth By Sleep follows the story of Terra, Ventus, and Aqua (which technically, is the order you're supposed to play them in, though you can follow any path you wish), 3 youths who are Keyblade Masters in training.  More specifically:  Terra is the biggest idiot in the entire Kingdom Hearts universe, Ventus is the red-haired stepchild, and the only thing I know about Aqua is that she has a cool character design because I didn't care enough to actually play through her story after dealing with Terra and Ventus.

Let's get down to some specifics here, starting with Terra.


The story begins with Terra and Aqua taking their Keyblade SAT Exams.  Their master, Eraqus, gives them some spiel about the exam not being about winning or losing, but performance.  Sure, whatever.  Watching this exam is another Keyblade Master named Xehanort (more on him later).  The exam climaxes with Terra and Aqua facing off against each other in single combat and fighting to a draw.  At the end of it, Eraqus deems that they both did swell, but only Aqua gets the Mark of Mastery because Terra couldn't control the darkness in his heart.

Terra's understandably upset at this.  He sulks off, and at some point, Master Xehanort comes along to comfort Terra, saying he doesn't understand Eraqus's decision, and that Terra really does have what it takes to be a master. Oh, also some bit about the darkness not being such a bad thing, as long as you can control it.

Ok seriously, this should have been a red flag already, but I could almost give Terra a pass.  Xehanort is a respected Keyblade Master and an equal to Eraqus, after all.  Certainly someone you can place your faith in!  Oh, also, he looks like this:

Absolutely no way this guy could betray me.
The guy has ominously tanned skin, gold eyes, a Sephiroth-esque coat, and a douchebag goatee.  Nothing about him screams trustworthiness.  Furthermore, look at his name.  Xehanort.  Say it.  Hell, even if you can't say it, his name ends in "ort".  Nothing, absolutely nothing about this guy screams trustworthy.  In spite of this, I could almost forgive Terra's lapse here because Xehanort, like any good villain, is simply preying on Terra's emotional state at a bad time.  Fair enough.

That sounds like it'll work out swell.
Terra, sadly, continues to demonstrate horrible choices in character judgment all throughout the story.  As he travels to different worlds, he comes across all the respective Disney villains in the world, and ends up inadvertently helping them, rarely, if ever, showing any suspicion about it.  Malificent from Sleeping Beauty convinces him to steal away the Princess's 'light'.  Captain Hook convinces Terra that Peter Pan is a villain -- mind you, this is after ol' Hook is a complete tool to Terra.  Heck, he even ends up being convinced by the queen in Snow White that Snow White is the villain.

Look at this asshole.
Fortunately, Terra's friends aren't as stupid as he is, but still no less painful to play through:


Ventus's story is all about him chasing after Terra, because some random masked boy reminiscent of Kamen Rider tells him that Terra's going away, and before he knows it, Terra will be a different person and they won't be super special awesome friends anymore.  So what does Ventus do?  Does he defiantly tell this strange masked boy who he has never seen before yet mysteriously pops up in his room that he's full of it?

Actually, yes.

Oh, he also runs away from home, essentially, and chases Terra just to be sure they'll still be super special awesome friends.


I mentioned that Ventus was the red-haired stepchild, right?  Most of Ventus's story is spent with people either telling him that he's either too young, or that he can't come with them because they don't want to see him get hurt, that he's useless, or any other number of things.  Frankly, the first two (which come from Terra and Aqua) make absolutely no sense, because the kid has just traveled across DIMENSIONS to find them and held up just fine.  Doesn't matter, no one still wants Ventus around.

That's Japanese for "seat's taken".
Ventus's story also serves as a bit of a nod to the later installments:  You see a few cameos of characters that, in some shape or form, will return later.  It provides quite a bit of foreshadowing, which I might have liked if it wasn't drowned by yet another silly friendship speech.

I am thankful every day that Disney does not own the rights to Yugioh.

By the end of it all, I didn't even care enough to go through Aqua's story -- I was scared of what it might hold.  So if the story was so tiresome for me, why did I keep playing?


This is normally the part where I spend a great deal of time talking about the fine mechanics of the gameplay, what stood out to me, and so forth.  Instead, I'll keep this brief and touch on a few points:

The game has a cool item synthesis system which is addicting and allows for some cool combinations, but let's be honest:  It's Kingdom Hearts.  Press X to win, unless you hit Triangle to win.  Birth By Sleep tries to mix this up by occasionally requiring you to hit square.  Hell, I beat the final boss of Terra's story solely by counter-cheesing him with the square button.

In case you forgot.
The camera still sucks.  5 damn games later and this still can't get it right.  It's like watching an episode of Cops.

There are no interdimensional Gummi Ship battles.  However, there -are- interdimensional battles at times.  Only they take place on Keyblades.  See, Birth By Sleep adds an important fact to the KH universe:  Keyblade Masters and Keyblade Masters in training have the ability to summon Power Ranger armor suits and turn their Keyblades into Jet Bikes (or in the case of Ventus, Jet Boards)

It's morphin' time.
I'm honestly fearful for the day where they combine the card system from Chain of Memories with this idea:

Then again, card games on motorcycles.

Concluding Thoughts

When Kingdom Hearts was first released in Japan, I thought the marriage of Disney and Square-Enix characters was one of the most ridiculous ideas ever.  When I actually played through the first one, I saw that in spite of the silly premise, it worked in some strange ways to create an enjoyable experience.  The Disney characters didn't seem quite as annoying as they could be.  The original story elements added in were fairly interesting.  While the mention of "hearts" and concepts of friendship seemed a bit cheesy, I could accept it for what it was.

However, after so many spin offs and ridiculous names (c'mon, seriously?  Dream Drop Distance?), the story has strayed to the point where I find myself caring less and less about the characters.  Perhaps if I had simply played Kingdom Hearts 2 and stayed away from the spin offs, I might have continued to carry a torch for the series.

One could argue that I didn't truly 'finish' Birth By Sleep, as I didn't complete Aqua's story.  As far as I'm concerned, however, seeing the credits roll at the end of the other two stories is completion enough.

Let's face it.  I don't have the heart to continue.

No comments: