Kingdom Hearts III.1 – Feeling the Power of Progression
So it’s been a crazy few weeks. I’ve been trying to get back into streaming in my spare time. Got sick, got better. Been taking care of my family and myself and our weird annoying emotional disorder problems. Uh… tried out those Super Duper Mega Stuff Oreos? And uh…
Okay. Okay okay okay. Fine. /sigh. It’s time to talk about Kingdom Hearts.
When Kingdom Hearts III came out a few weeks back, I took the entire week off of work so I could just soak it in and enjoy the culmination of a ten-game-long story. I imagined what I was feeling was similar to what people felt when they finally gripped Ultima IX in their hands for the first time. This was it. The end of the story arc. I wasn’t expecting it to be the finale of the whole series. No, I was in the loop enough to know that this was the end of the “Dark Seeker” or Master Xehanort’s story, not Sora’s or the franchise as a whole. I was trying to manage my expectations somewhat.
The good news is that it was WAAAY better than Ultima IX.
I devoured the game. No, seriously. By the time I went back to work, I was level 99, had 100% everything I could on the Gummi Phone and gotten every Gummi Treasure, completed every Gummi mission, and defeated both the normal and gummiship super-bosses. Got the Platinum Trophy for it too. All in all, took about 60 hours. Which is about on par for my attempts to 100% the other Kingdom Hearts games.
I still felt hollow.
It wasn’t like the game itself was bad, but in so many ways it seemed like we were getting more and at the same time we got less. The worlds are huge, the action is fun, the visuals are amazing – BUT I felt like character progression is non-existent, the over-arching plot was continuously delayed, and that ultimately I only saw maybe a third of the story that actually happened. I’ll get to that last point eventually in a following post because that’s the one I really want to dive in on but I feel it would be unfair to just handwave over the character progression point without explaining what I mean.
In terms of character progression, I hold both Kingdom Hearts II and Birth By Sleep as the star examples in the series. In Kingdom Hearts II, you gained drive forms. Each of which required a different objective to power up and unlock new abilities to use while in those forms and outside of them. The striking difference in combat prowess between say Level 1 Master Form and Level 7 Master Form FEELS significant. You do a number of new combo moves, you gain abilities to deal with crowds of enemies, and the animations get flashier and flashier. You felt like there was increase in power. Outside of your drive forms you unlock and enhance exploratory abilities like high jump, aerial dodge and ultimately glide. These abilities allow you access more and more areas that you weren’t able to before and reach new treasure chests or collectibles. It’s a steady and tangible feeling of growth throughout the game that culminates with the gaining the ability to unlock Final Form after a major story point in the final world of the game.
In Birth by Sleep, you fuse together your abilities to create stronger abilities, allowing you to grind out things like Firaga before you leave the first world. You can use special catalysts with those fusions to create passive abilities that are linked to the active ones until you master the spell or action, at which time you permanently unlock the passive ability. The fun in Birth By Sleep and indeed the level of progression is figuring out which combinations create what abilities. You can create “Mega Tier” abilities that are capable of destroying entire screens worth of enemies with a single cast by the end, but it takes time, knowledge, and effort to create them. It feels really rewarding to reach the point where you can cast MegaFlare repeatedly and just lay waste to those around you or the completely upgrade your passive abilities to where a single enemy rains down health and other power ups that restore you instantly to full after each battle.
In Kingdom Hearts III, there are two aspects of progression: Your abilities that you get from leveling up or defeating scripted encounters and upgrading your keyblades. The first is almost entirely passive and barely able to notice since the majority of your passive abilities are things like damage boosts, combo extenders or things that lengthen the time of your situational commands. You get glide at a similar point as the other games – toward the end – but it doesn’t really open up anything. There’s no reason you can’t 100% the treasures, the lucky emblems, and all the other things well before you get glide. All it does is speed things up somewhat if you choose to do some back-tracking and a bit handy (but not necessary) in the final boss fights. The only ability that I remember getting that really opened up a few new areas was being able to double jump through flowmotion by kicking off a wall (a massively nerfed version of the flowmotion we had in Dream Drop Distance, but I suppose there’s narrative and balance explanations for that). You get a legitimate double jump later on but by that point the flowmotion and high jump got you 99% of the places you needed to. So the abilities are honestly so very forgettable by the end of the game.
As for the keyblade upgrades? Well, it just ended up being you boosting their stats. Maybe grant them a passive ability or two that are tied to that specific keyblade like the ones in the previous games had. Other than that? Nothing. Your keyblade determines which of Kingdom Hearts III’s equivalent to drive forms you get – dubbed ‘Formchanges’ – that actual shift the keyblade into a different weapon to use new abilities and attacks. Formchanges are awesome and I always had fun with them. But in terms of progression? There isn’t one. Your formchanges are the same when you get the keyblade as it is when you finish maxing them out upgrade wise. They don’t affect you outside of when your transformed at all. Your exploratory abilities are just handed out at the appropriate story juncture through the game. They shake up combat for about 30 seconds to a few minutes tops but that’s about it. Even the final upgrade to the keyblade – which is shown to have a different icon than the others – just bumps up stats. The keyblade doesn’t evolve in appearance, your formchanges don’t well… change at all, and you don’t really feel like you got that much stronger for all the effort you will put in to craft 1-10 upgrades for these keyblades.
That’s what I mean by progression feeling lackluster. You technically get stronger in a sheer mathematical sense, but so do the enemies, with the worlds upscaling in level as you get further in the game. You never FEEL like you are getting stronger and that’s in a game that starts out with a whole thing about the protagonist trying to recover his lost strength (To the point where even the villains comment on how weak Sora looks now) which in fact isn’t lost – you just haven’t been shown the tutorial screen for it yet.
At this point, I would really like to reiterate that I really did love the game. I wouldn’t have bothered to 100% the thing if I didn’t. I mean, I’m a fan and all but even I have my limits on what I’ll go full completionist on (I am looking at you Chain of Memories and 358/2… You *expletives deleted*) but this and the next post were really just the low points of the game for me and as someone trying to reconcile his cognitive dissonance with loving the game and its weirdly non-sensical plot and criticizing the game as BOTH being acceptable ways to love a game (I know this is possible because I love plenty of terrible movies and generally crappy music but its just harder when your a big fan of something), I just wanted to write about here.
Please do not take this as me calling the game bad. It’s not. It’s just not perfect. I know we all wish it was. I’m not the games harshest critic right now either I know. I’ve heard other people’s complaints and my general reaction was just “Okay, I can see that. But that didn’t bother me.” But hey, hopefully with this and the next few posts – the healing can begin.
Because Yensid knows that damn duck isn’t going to heal us.