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April 06, 2013

Should I Have Finished... Kingdom Hearts?

I remember being quite excited in 2002 for the arrival of Kingdom Hearts, a partnership between Square and Disney that promised a JRPG which took me to my favorite childhood Disney locales and allowed me to interact with lots of wonderful characters from those classic films. While that's true of the final product, I think there's a fundamental flaw underpinning this game that arises from the choices Square made in melding JRPG and Disney magic.

The story concerns a young boy named Sora, who lives a simple island life with his friends; this life is ultimately threatened by the "Big Bad," which is the gradual destruction of the universe by a spreading darkness. We understand that to be the product of some sort of alliance between Disney villains and a new force not from the films. Before long, in a sort of hub level, Sora meets up with Donald and Goofy, who are on a quest of their own to track down King Mickey, who has gone missing. Having similar goals, and recognizing Sora as the Keyblade Master (don't ask), the three team together and begin visiting various worlds in the Disney universe, such as Wonderland or the inside of the whale Monstro. These locations are gorgeously realized and often incorporate movement and other elements that reflect the setting, such as swimming when "Under the Sea" with Princess Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or sliding down broad vines and swinging in Tarzan's jungle.

KH here promises to do something so very right, to allow you to incorporate special heroic characters from each setting into your party. It's sadly also where it decides to do something so very wrong, by forcing you to choose to swap out either Donald or Goofy, and not Sora, this new character from Square's imagination. I have no real relationship to Sora, and I don't really care to build one when Jack the Pumpkin King or even Simba the Lion are on offer. While he's sympathetic, he lacks the depth and the history I have with these other characters.

Furthermore, I know I'm playing a Square RPG and therefore I know that at the end of the game I'll be using Sora, Donald, and Goofy to fight the big bad enemy... and any experience points gained along the way that go into these other ancillary characters will not only be wasted effort but possibly disastrous to my ability to finish the game, or require soul-crushing hours of grind. Time Donald or Goofy spend outside the party is wasted effort, as the discarded character will gain no experience and thus be unable to help when the final battles approach. So the choice to use these characters isn't one that appeals to me as a gamer, and the character I care least about controlling is the one I'm stuck with throughout the game. It's a failure both of wish-fulfillment and fan service.

The worst part is, it was entirely fixable; there are better choices to be made here. As characters advance in levels, they gain special abilities of various kinds that can be selected as being currently in use², and this is what is potentially lost when Donald or Goofy leave the party. The fixes are straightforward: allow the player to control any character he wants, and make up his party of three however he wants (from a selection of Sora, Donald, Goofy, and the special character for the current world), and simply level the party as a unit, rather than each character individually. This would allow the player to have the Disney experience he'd most like, and yet avoid the consequences from difficulty choices on the part of design team at Square³.

I think this game came out at a point in time where difficulty was very much finding its way as games found a larger, more mainstream audience. And the approach Square took certainly doesn't appear to have hurt sales -- a cursory Internet search turns up that this series has sold more than 17 million copies to date, and recently I've heard that an HD remake may be coming. But I have to wonder how many of those copies have sat unfinished on shelves like mine, their beautiful worlds unexplored owing to lack of wish fulfillment. When you wish upon a star, indeed.

I may have more to say about Kingdom Hearts in another post, we'll see. There are some things I quite liked about the game, but this central tension between what I most wanted from the game and the terrible price I'd pay if I chose it was foremost in my mind throughout the experience.

¹The later films were not part of my childhood, but certainly may have been for some of the target audiences.
²As both a balancing and character customization mechanism, each character has a certain amount of points to spend enabling or disabling these abilities, which have different costs.
³It's fair to say these are extreme. The final boss of the game absolutely trounced me on my first attempt, and I went and ground out a whole bunch of levels to compensate. I think it consisted of something like 8 stages. It was... another poor choice if you're attempting to have crossover appeal.

Posted by Brett Douville at April 6, 2013 07:59 AM


Interesting you mention this... I was thinking about the game recently too. I completed it, and the second one too.

This was my first ever jRPG and I think it was rather straight-forward in gameplay design. I don't think I did much grinding either. I just followed the linear narrative, paired with roaming around for collectibles (basically like a path finding algorithm :P) and I don't think I had to repeat my actions just to level up and defeat enemies/final boss.

I guess the game was designed keeping in mind the new people it would be bringing in to the genre, hence it was rather simple.

I too, hardly ever chose the special character of a world if I remember correctly. The lead trinity of characters transformed into something similar to the local world character, so there was less motivation to choose the other.

However, if you explore the game as this adventure with just Sora and his two teammates, it passes as a good story.

I guess with the Game being close to the console's release and it being rather easier to just have one controllable character, they came up with that choice. I mostly put the other two on auto (defense + magic) actions and only used Sora; was able to succeed with not much troubles.

I'd say, do get the HD Remix and complete the game. It wasn't that difficult for me as a fresher to RPGs in general. The worlds, paired with the super good OST of the game, is an experience worth going through.

As for the character and depth themselves; I found that the characters were more like shells to express the values that the story tried to get across. It was more about friendship and sacrifices and the characters felt like shells that could be replaced easily by real-life counterparts the player can relate to. They do explore some good themes in that, also the repeated questioning of "Why do all this for someone else?".

Posted by: Reetesh at May 17, 2013 01:10 AM

I really didn't feel like it was designed for newcomers; I seem to remember it having a difficulty selector at the beginning of the game, but am I dreaming? I would have played it on the "normal" difficulty. I can only report on my own experience of the game; it sounds like you had a different one.

It's not a universe I care to revisit. I didn't even cover the pointlessness of the "Gummi Ship" inter-level traveling, which I found really obnoxious as well. Not my favorite.

Posted by: Brett Douville at May 18, 2013 06:50 AM

I was as much of a newcomer to the genre as can be. I never played an RPG game by that point and had no idea about magic tricks, MP etc. I don't know how I got the hang of all of it and played it for 40hrs. I guess it was the patience of past. Dunno if I'd be this open to learning new systems now (CKII is sitting installed on PC :P)

Also, haha! You mentioned the Gummi Ship. Something I thought of mentioning but didn't. That is one of the things from the game that actually stuck with me. I was enthralled by the Lego like gameplay of building the Gummi ship and spent considerable time having fun with it. Even though it was not very essential to the game (somewhat essential I feel as it eases up flight combat etc). It is as relevant as character design to a first person RPG or one where you wear armor all the time xD also, I loved the music that played when Gummi Ship building/flying happened.

Posted by: Reetesh at May 18, 2013 10:29 AM