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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.

 

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Diving into Dream Drop Distance

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So lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD as part of the 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue collection (And that’s a mouthful.) I tried to play it before on the 3DS but something about the strange and unfamiliar mechanics (I had never played Birth By Sleep when I tried it so the Command Board was weird, plus the Dream Eaters) and the smaller screen between the controls seem to just give me an all around hard time getting into the game. So I figured that now I’ve solved some of those issues I could try it again on my TV.  Turns out, it works a lot better.

Learning the Game

I figured since Dream Drop Distance introduces a bunch of weird mechanics that I’d share some tips that I’ve kind of figured out over the course of playing to make it easier.  The first of which would have to be the return of the Command Board.  A familiar installment to those who played through Birth by Sleep on the PSP or as part of the II.5 collection, the Command Board is pretty much all of your special attacks and moves be they special keyblade attacks or spells.  They each have a separate cooldown that is affected by your Attack or Magic Haste stat.  You start with a few slots but the list will expand as you continue through the game. The command board is your bread & butter in combat.  I generally only do normal attacks once I’ve put most of my attack commands on cooldown to fill the gap.  They do WAY more damage and have more Area damage options that your normal attacks. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what attacks work better for your playstyle.  I tend to favor the “dive” attacks because they do area damage which is good for clearing out clusters of enemies which is very helpful when grinding.

The second big mechanic to keep in mind is the Dream Eaters.  Much like Pokemon Amie meets Nintendogs, you create these little spirits and can groom and pet them to your hearts content.  But why you would want to do so was confusing to me for a long time.  See, these little guys are more important than just being your fill in party members since Donald & Goofy are off doing their own thing during the adventure.  These little guys also give you your abilities.  Abilities being things like ‘Attack Haste’ or ‘Second Chance’ or ‘Magic Boost’.  How you get these is from a Dream Eaters’ ability link grid.  You spend Link Points to unlock nodes on the grid that grant Abilities or Commands.  And you get Link Points from leveling your Dream Eaters in combat, playing minigames or yes, petting them.  Petting them is especially important because petting or poking them in certain places can change their ‘Disposition’ (aka what attacks they use in combat) and a new disposition can unlock extra paths on the Link Grid (It’s the only way to 100% their grids.)

The other thing about Dream Eater abilities is which are permanent and which only apply when the Dream Eater is in your party.  Essentially ‘Stat Abilities’ (The blue ones on the ability screen, or the ones with the dream eater logo on the grid) only apply when that Dream Eater is in your party.  The ‘Support Abilities’ (Red abilities or Red Orbs on grid), ‘Spirit Abilities’ (Purple Abilities or Purple Orbs on Grid) and any commands (Wizard Hat & Key icons) you got are permanently unlocked for both Sora and Riku.

Flowmotion is the final mechanic and I don’t think I can really do it justice in text.  It essentially allows you to jump massive distances, up walls, and perform new attacks.  It takes get some used to but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to reach new areas, treasure chests, and skip a bunch of tedious jumping.  Don’t worry if you can’t get the hang of it though.  I’ve yet to encounter anything that you can’t get through normal jumping (or high jumping.)  There’s even some stuff like a friendly animal that you can ride on to reach areas in some worlds.  So you don’t NEED flowmotion, but it can make things easier/quicker.

The Pieces Fall Together

The other thing I’m really enjoying about Dream Drop Distance is that it is taking the time to finally start piecing the story together from all the various spin offs that the series has had since KH2 came out in preparation of well, the final chapter.  Tying in titles like 358/2 Days, Birth By Sleep and Re:Coded to the current going ons with Riku & Sora really helps to make the picture complete and help you to figure out how all of this fits together into a single story.  If you haven’t played one of the games, or you can’t remember, you’ll eventually unlock “Chronicles” which are text summaries of the events of each of the games.

However, the story isn’t flawless.  Mostly when it comes down to the individual worlds.  Of the first three ‘movie inspired’ worlds you go to – La Cites des Cloches (Hunchback of Notre Dame), The Grid (Tron: Legacy) and Prankster’s Paradise (Pinnochio) – two of them don’t put a lot of effort to weave Sora or Riku into the narrative of the ongoing plot like many of the other games did.  In fact, in the Grid it feels like our heroes aren’t even there half the time as the game just reenacts random scenes from the movies without context as Sora & Riku stand in the background.  Oh there’s scenes that advance Sora & Riku’s story as well, but they have little to nothing to do with the events of the world’s story.  Usually it involves Young Xehanort showing up with one of his many incarnations to taunt or mysteriously hint at things at our heroes before departing back to parts unknown.  I’m not going to say it’s a game breaker, but damn if it doesn’t just let the air out of any enthusiasm of going to the various worlds.

On that note, I’m not sure Square Enix quite understood the plot of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Because the random aspects they chose to focus on – and they are random.  Like the one scene with Pheobus & Esmerelda’s spontaneous romance with zero development that only makes sense if you’ve seen the movie – seems to imply that the writers were unsure of what the story was about.  Is it about Frollo hating “G–sies” for being ‘Free’?  Or Quasimodo overcoming his crippling fear of going outside not because of his visage but just because Frolo told him not to.  Heck, they have one scene about Frolo looking for the Court of Miracles that explicitly conveys the opposite intention of the original film (He WANTS to crush them ‘one by one’ instead of crushing them all).  It was just a weird world over all and nothing was given context.  It was like reading a cliff notes version of the Disney movie with half the pages missing.  Just weird.

Should You Get It?

If you’re a Kingdom Hearts fan and plan on playing the whenever-it-gets-done KH3?  Definitely.  Unless you already played it on the 3DS, because this version doesn’t add anything.  It removes some non-essential stuff like AR Codes and Photo Taking of the Dream Eaters (there IS a photo mode but it just removes the UI for screen shotting) but this isn’t a “Final Mix” incarnation, just a HD remaster of the graphics and ported to a console.  The follow up in the 2.8 collection, ‘Birth By Sleep 0.2 -A Fragmentary Passage-‘, also picks up literally right at the end of Dream Drop Distance’s Secret Ending, which might be spoilery if you haven’t played Dream Drop yet.

Making Sense of the Kingdom Hearts Timeline

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I LOVE Kingdom Hearts.  Love it to pieces.  Ever since I picked up the first one way back in college, I’ve done my best to try and play every single one.  But that’s not easy with the insane cross platform releases.  Some on the Game Boy, some on the PSP, and hey what about the one that was only available on Japanese mobile phones? That’s got to be an easy one to nab right? (Well, actually yea.) But even if you got them all, what order do all these go in?  It’s clear they’re not chronological right?  Well, with the announcement of Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue (A weird and long title that is at least more descriptive than Ground Zeroes) set to be released on the Playstation 4 sometime in 2016, I figured I’d do a quick little handy right up for folks like me who are trying to figure out what order all these things come in.

0: Kingdom Hearts χ & Back Cover – Set before the events of the Keyblade War, the Chi games tell the story of the events that lead up to the War and the beginnings of the struggle between Light and Dark.

0.1: Birth by Sleep – Surrounding the adventures of three Keyblade Knights, the generation of wielders before Sora.  Their adventures set the stage for the main games and explain the backstory for several series main characters & villains.

0.2: Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage – A short episode that takes places immediately following the events of the Birth By Sleep Secret Ending.  Told through the framing device of Mickey telling the tale post-Dream Drop Distance.

1: Kingdom Hearts – The first game in the main ‘numbered’ series.  The story of Sora, Donald, and Goofy trying to defeat the Heartless and find their friends.

1.5 – Chain of Memories & 358/2 Days – These two are occurring roughly simultaneously as the events of Chain of Memories are referenced as happening at the moment in 358/2 Days.  Chain of Memories follows Sora & Riku and sets up the situation for Kingdom Hearts II, while 358/2 Days does the same but for the villains of that story: Organization XIII.

2: Kingdom Hearts II – Sora’s second grand adventure introduces us properly to the concept of the Nobodies and the battle against Organization XIII.

2.25: Re:Coded – Explores and is connected to several of the concepts from throughout the series: The fates of the characters from Birth By Sleep and their relationship to Sora, the Book of Prophecies from Chi, and sets up the beginning of Sora and Riku’s journey to become Keyblade Masters.  It’s recommended to view the KH2.5 HD ReMix version of Re:Coded as it includes several important story scenes that are only available in this version.

2.5: Dream Drop Distance – Details the trials of Sora and Riku trying to earn their Master’s Marks to become Keyblade Masters, and dives more into Ansem’s plans and the true purpose of the Organization.

3: Kingdom Hearts III – Set to be released some day, this has been quoted by Nomura as the final chapter of Sora’s story in the Kingdom Hearts universe.

Now I’m just going to say that playing all of these games in chronological order may not be the best idea for new comers to the series.  There’s a lot of these titles that will reference concepts or characters introduced in other games that technically take place later in the series.  For example, Birth By Sleep was originally released after Kingdom Hearts II.  So it is written and presented in a way that assumes some level of familiarity with Kingdoms Hearts 1, 2, Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days.  However for those who are familiar with the series and want to see how the story unfolds in order, or don’t mind being confused for a couple of games as things start to snap together, this should prove to be about as interesting as coming to the Star Wars Saga fresh and watching them in order. In short: enlightening if nothing else.

Unfortunately such a grand experiment will have to wait until Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue comes out next year. Hopefully it will be released with enough time between it and Kingdom Hearts III that we can play all 9 other installments in order before then.

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