Friday, January 27, 2012

Alright, so maybe I haven't given up all hope.

Well, that happened.

But you know what?  I finally get it.

I finally get why fans of the Kingdom Hearts franchise keep gobbling up spin off, after spin off, after spin off, even when they're dreadfully dull.

No, I haven't hit my head.  No, I'm not suddenly back on the train of ardent support of Kingdom Hearts (I suspect the Enabler would hit me until I wasn't, as she should).  However, after recently finishing Kingdom Hearts II, I'm finally understanding why fans get excited with each new entry into the series that is produced. What I don't understand, however, is that given the frequent teasers and glacial progress in moving the story forward, what I don't understand is why fans haven't crucified Tetsuya Nomura by this point.

Kingdom Hearts II isn't a perfect game by any means.  Furthermore, after hearing a lot of negativity around the game, I went in with low expectations, especially after playing two of the last three spin-offs.  However, my experience was more enjoyable than I anticipated:  Due in part to actually being able to make sense of the convoluted story (playing the aforementioned spin offs helped), but also because, by comparison, the cast was a lot more likeable.

This isn't a post that's about me reviewing the gameplay aspects of Kingdom Hearts II.  Instead, I'd like to first talk about what connected me more to the second game than any of the spin-offs.  Following that, we'll be examining the game through the perspective of someone who's played the prequels and spin-offs, as well as surfacing a few of the questions that would have inevitably arisen if you played the game when it first came out (i.e. before most of the spin-offs came out), or just decided to play it out of chronological order.  Be warned:  Spoilers lie ahead.

But along with those, a whole lot of confusion.

The Importance of the Cast

In my post about Shadow Hearts:  To the New World, I noted that while, on a technical level, the game was much improved from its predecessor, the lack of Yuri Hyuga, the main character from the previous installments left it lacking.  I didn't realize it as much until I booted up Kingdom Hearts II, but that's precisely what I was missing from many of the spin offs I played in depth:
This guy.
It's hard to put my finger on it exactly, but overall, there's just something more likable about Sora.  Birth By Sleep cast you in the roles of The Idiot (Terra), the Red-headed Stepchild (Ventus) and the Token Female (Aqua):  While each of them had their likable qualities, I spent much of the game being annoyed at Terra's idiocy, feeling pity for Ventus, and not really caring much about Aqua since I didn't finish her chapter (it's not being sexist:  I had hoped to play them in canonical order -- unfortunately, I tired of the game by then).

Look at these losers.
358/2 Days cast you in the role of Roxas (who makes an appearance in KH2) and shed more light on the enigmatic Organization XIII.  While I didn't know much about KH2 when I played the DS entry, I was looking forward to seeing the story from the perspective of the villains, as well as what prompted Roxas to leave the group.  About halfway through, however, I gave up.  Frankly, for a bunch of people that claim to have no hearts (and therefore, no emotions), they sure spent a lot of time being emo, sulky, and eating popsicles.

Get used to seeing scenes like these.  A lot.
Fast forward to Kingdom Hearts II, when you're back on Sora's (oversized) shoes.  It had been so long since I had played the first game that I practically forgot much of Sora's personality.  I mean, he's not exactly a character of Shakespearean depth.  In fact, he's rather simple:  He spends most of the game just wanting to find his friend again, he's honest, sometimes hotheaded, not always bright (but thankfully, not to Terra-esque levels), and has a bit of a playful side.  He's just a more believable character, and comes across (in addition to the previously mentioned traits) as a kid having one heck of an adventure.

It's not just Sora alone, however.  It's how he interacts with the other characters in the series.  While I can take or leave Donald and Goofy (though I did love Goof Troop, as well as Quackshot), they oddly click with Sora.  Furthermore, I enjoyed watching him interact with the other Square-Enix characters (a group that was sadly absent from the more recent portable incarnations), and even the Disney characters:  This component was mostly absent in 358/2 Days (though in the context of that story, it did make sense as to why Roxas didn't interact with them) and was fleeting in Birth By Sleep.

Like Zack's life.
Really, between the first two games (and perhaps the GBA spin-off, but we'll get to that later), a fairly likable cast of characters had already been established.  Unfortunately, since so much happened between the first and the second game, and because the second game sort of throws you in the middle of things without much explanation, the spin-offs were a necessary plot point to understand the entirety of the second game, which is perhaps why I enjoyed the second entry more than I may have normally:

Convolution Galore:  Unpacking the Story's Complexity

There are a few points in Kingdom Hearts II that will either cause you to nod knowingly if you played the various spin-offs and sidestories, or leave you completely baffled if you've played none of them (yet overall less confusing than the above picture).  Let's cover a few of these, though be warned:  If you haven't played through the second game or any of the spin offs, there will be spoilers.

Case #1:  Roxas

Perhaps one of the larger criticisms I've heard from friends who played it before me is that you spend the first part of the game playing as Roxas, rather than Sora.  Not a lot is explained about Roxas in that first menial hour that you play as him.  At best, you know that he wields a keyblade and has some vague tie to Sora, before disappearing for a better part of the game.  This tie becomes a little more evident, yet also confusing as you proceed through the game, as numerous villains mistake Sora upon first meeting him and say "Roxas".

I see the resemblance.

Even by the end of the game the connection isn't 100% clear.  You learn that Roxas is Sora's "nobody" (a being created when a person becomes  a Heartless, which Sora did briefly in the first game), but in most cases, the nobody tends to look a little more similar to the original it was created after.  Roxas does little to explain it himself, as by the end, he has a quick clash with Sora, before smiling and resigning himself to his fate of disappearing (supposedly, this scene was extended in the "Final Mix" edition of the game).

The Japanese on the side stands for "LOL you're not getting this one Gaijin"

 This leads us to our first overarching question:

 Question #1:  Where WAS Sora anyway?

A.K.A. "why the heck was I stuck as Roxas"?  When you finally get to control Sora again, you first see him emerge from some sort of sleeping pod.  Now, this one's a bit jarring, as the end of the first game had our 3 heroes, Sora, Donald, and Goofy, traipsing off down some nameless road on the path to their next adventure.  Which, for some reason, lead them to a cryogenic sleep pod, or such.  Now, if you actually read the instruction manual to the second game, a mysterious "Organization XIII" is mentioned, along with something to the effect of "but their numbers were effectively reduced to half by Sora and his companions"

..Wait, that didn't happen in the first game, which leads us to:

Case #2:  Organization XIII

Who ARE these guys?  A few hours into the game, you're met with these mysterious masked figures who, at every turn, seem to cause no end of trouble for Sora.  It's baffling at first, because on one hand, they summon the mysterious "nobodies" to fight Sora.  On the other hand,  both the Organization and Sora seem to have a mutual goal in eradicating the Heartless, albeit for different reasons.

The differences stem from marketing and creative fashion differences
This goal becomes clearer later on in the goal of the Organization:  To gather hearts and build "Kingdom Hearts" so that these beings, who possess no "hearts" can somehow become complete rather than individuals that exist as shadows of their former selves.  But the whole concept of Nobodies, an individual's Heartless' and so forth become more confusing, particularly when confronted with the leader of Organization XIII:  Xemnas.

Question #2:  Xemnas--no wait Ansem--no wait Xehanort?

So just who IS the leader of this enigmatic group of black robed individuals?  Well. . that's a more complex question than you'd think.

The names of Organization XIII members follow a specific pattern:  They're all anagrams of the individuals they once were.  Thus "Roxas" is an anagram of "Sora" and "Xemnas" is an anagram of Ansem:  The villain you defeated in the first game (supposedly).  Yes, imagine the shock of the protagonists as the big bad is revealed to be the person supposedly dead in the first game!

But wait:  Midway through the game, when Mickey sees a portrait of Ansem in Hollow Bastion, it's revealed that this guy isn't "Ansem" at all.  Turns out the real Ansem was a swell guy who did some of the original research on the "heart" as well as the "heartless", then realized he was treading dangerous ground.  "Xemnas" is really the nobody of Ansem's former apprentice, Xehanort, who's more of a power hungry dick (again, his name ends in "ort") who hijacked his master's project and turned the other pupils against him.

..Confused yet?

Closing Thoughts

The answers to the questions and cases are something I'll detail in the following post.  Kingdom Hearts II wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be.  While it certainly has some elements that makes it pale to its predecessor (namely in the worlds feeling less robust), in many ways, it is a better game overall.  The flaw with the game  does not come in the gameplay so much as it comes in the story:  Even the story itself isn't terrible, but it is perhaps one too massive to contain in a single numbered entry, and one needing a few spin-offs to understand fully.

That in itself is problematic, and perhaps ironically, is something that will need to be covered in a follow up post.

..But I promise you, not 5 different spin off posts.

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