Vas' reviews and other stuff2019-02-19

Spoiler Hearts III

Well over a decade in the making, the conclusion to the Kingdom Hearts story has arrived. The game, the movement, the voice of a generation, it speaks straight to your soul like a bowl of spaghetti served with rice and a loaf of bread—and absolutely nothing else. Sora will journey through many worlds to awaken all the hearts that are using his body like a Trump hotel and leave you with more questions than you arrived with.

Sora dies in the end. 6/10.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Kingdom Hearts III. If you know anything about project management, you’ll know III had all the makings of a colossal failure leading up to it, and if there’s anything genuinely impressive about it, it’s that it ended up moderately enjoyable despite this mismanagement. It was supposed to have launched for PlayStation 3 all those years ago, and then got delayed over and over again until the present day.

Kingdom Hearts, unfortunately, grew too big, too hyped, too ambitious for its own good, trying to involve too many stories and close off too many character arcs while trying to recreate a magic that is but the faintest memory in nostalgic children all grown up. In chasing its mad aspirations it forgot the very basics of what makes games good in the first place.

It is more disappointing in that you can see a lot of effort has been put into it when it’s given the time to shine. The core of the game is button-mashing, shiny combat, and it achieves much of that, though there are pain points in here also. It gives the player far too many gimmicks that mostly enable pressing X more efficiently, to the expense of having separate strategies for different groups of enemies.

In some ways this is the reverse of Deformed Drunken Diarrhoea, where blocking and distance management were kings; this time you can very reasonably run through the entire game with little to no blocking, and melee combat is by far the most rewarding element. I miss the form changes of Kingdom Hearts II; dual wielding keyblades was one of my favourite mechanics, immensely cool while enabling wacky new combinations, though perhaps it would have been too repetitive to include.

What is less understandable is the removal of reaction commands, which helped make the game more dynamic and rewarded player reflexes and pressing more buttons than just X. Triangle is instead used here for various combination attacks and keyblade form changes, which are comically overpowered both in their damage output and how often they come up; reaction commands gave a circumstantial and positioning benefit more often than not, rather than being trump cards in themselves.

The pacing of the combat leans too much in the overpowered direction in general. From the very beginning of the game, you’ll be fighting far too many enemies than in previous games, and this only escalates going forward. As thus it is less striking seeing the transition from mostly ground combat to never having to hit the ground if you play well enough in the late game.

Nevertheless the combat is enjoyable despite its shortcomings, even though you’ll have to refrain from pressing triangle too often in order to give yourself some time to enjoy it. As you might imagine this translates poorly for the game’s difficulty scaling, and even on the maximum difficulty you better actively avoid grinding because it will trivialise the ending.

I also enjoyed that every keyblade has its use, though there is some degree of repetition; it isn’t like other Kingdom Hearts titles, where many keyblades are strict upgrades of others. This is part of an industry transition as a whole to allowing the player to use whichever weapon they prefer without crippling them. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that many of the series’ classics don’t make a return, with Oathkeeper in particular being a mind-boggling omission.

Visually speaking this is the best Kingdom Hearts game yet, and not just because of the better hardware. There are bigger, more open worlds now, rather than a series of tight spaces, and this only helps enhance the combat. This was also seen in the previous titles’ endgame, and it’s nice that it’s included in most stages now rather than saved for last.

Disney worlds are also at their best here in my opinion, almost up to par with the first Kingdom Hearts. The involvement of Disney characters in important plot points, save for a handful ones, is still sorely lacking, but that has been the direction of the series in all but the very first game, so you’ll be used to it by now. Nevertheless, Disney worlds felt much less like filler material than they did previously; improved direction, seeing more of the story, and messages that tie into the central themes of Sora’s character arc make these worlds more relevant than before.

That said, Kingdom Hearts III really needs a midgame. It has horrific pacing, with all its content crammed right at the end, instead a big story event (or more!) happening in the middle that helps propel the story forward. Instead you’ll be grinding one Disney world after another, hoping to reach some sort of conclusion. There are important cutscenes between worlds, but that’s not the same as what the previous titles did.

There are far too few “neutral” worlds or characters where the game can explore its own plot outside the confines of Disney. Only Twilight Town is visitable, and it’s mostly a gimmick, and there are practically no Final Fantasy characters, so there is nothing resembling Traverse Town or Hollow Bastion/Radiant Garden, some of the most memorable locations in the franchise. The story doesn’t feel like it’s going forward organically, it doesn’t feel like developments are earned.

In fact, there’s very few things that actually happen in the game, full stop. Most of the game’s time is wasted in retrospective masturbation, explaining its own banal plot to us. It is very telling that the Organisation XIII gimmick is recycled for yet another game after it was supposedly resolved in the previous title. Alas, it retains none of its magic or mystery, because if you’ve played Dynamic Defecation Drone, you already know pretty much everything there is to know about what’s going to happen.

The game really lacks a strong antagonist. Xehanort and his many clones that make up the majority of the villains are mostly evil for the sake of it, and while that was acceptable for the very first game and fit well with its simpler themes overall, the story has become more intricate than that, and more explanation is warranted than just “I want Kingdom Hearts cause I’m eeeeeeevil.”

It feels like a step backward for the series, when Kingdom Hearts II (and Chain of Memories) were about a group of people trying to make themselves whole, trying to be human again, and now reverting to idolising darkness for the sake of it. I was underwhelmed by Xehanort in Birth By Sleep also, but I was hoping there was more to the character than meets the eye, some truth left unsaid, some grand cosmological narrative that would make his actions more relatable, some hint that darkness isn’t just an expy for Satan, but there’s none of that. Even Klonoa 2 managed better than that with its “sorrow.”

One of the most pivotal aspects of the franchise is missingness. You set out to rescue Kairi. You climb a tower to remember Naminé. You try to reunite with your old friend, Riku. There is a palpable sense that something is absent, you’re setting out to regain it. None of that exists in Kingdom Hearts III; the reason you’re travelling across worlds is because nobody knows how the fuck they can defeat Xehanort so you’re literally grinding until they figure it out. I wish I was kidding.

The closest thing to it is trying to rescue Aqua, and everything about how it was executed is why Kingdom Hearts III will forever be a disappointment on par with the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Another cornerstone of the franchise is its surreal aesthetic, a combination of characters, plot points, visuals, and soundtrack blending together to give a sense of magic and intrigue that is difficult to capture in other media.

The game tries very valiantly to pull this off, and hints of it are noticeable even in Disney worlds, which is part of what makes them more enjoyable in isolation, but it can only really sink it when it allows itself to do it. You don’t explore the Dark World in any capacity, unlike Kingdom Hearts 0.2; it is there only for a couple of boss fights and cutscenes. Boy, are those impressive, and I feel that if more had been done with worlds like these, the Dark World could have been another Hollow Bastion.

Reawakening Aqua and Ventus ought to have been its own dedicated arc, but it’s crammed right at the very end alongside the rest of the story and there is very little payoff to the arc. Even minor additions, like Aqua emoting a little more than just saying “Good morning” to her dear friend after 10 years of separation would have improved it, but no, the series’ notoriously cringeworthy writing and bipolar direction strikes back at the most important points, making them fall flat.

What I was most impressed by was The Final World (the afterlife), where everything I like about the franchise’s themes is embodied. It is surreal, and it is mysterious. Finally, at the very end of the game, you start learning about things you didn’t know about, and this information is fragmentary and requires effort from the reader to piece together so that it’s coherent. This mystery element is elsewhere as well—who is Axel and Saïx’s dear old friend?—but here the game proves that when it allows itself the time to shine, when it brings new material to the table rather than rehashing old, boring crap, it can be the masterpiece we want, the game we’ll never play.

Like Luxu’s box, which we never got to learn anything about, even though it was referenced right in the first few minutes of the game.

It’s almost insulting how hard it sequel baits for a story so blatantly superior. If only the entire plot hadn’t been foretold in the 3DS abomination right before it. If only Kairi wasn’t an one-dimensional punching bag. If only the protagonist wasn’t killed off in the most contrived fashion as a cheap way at tear jerking. It reduces its own recurring villain, Maleficent, into a meme who does nothing all game but wax on about a box she never finds.

Kingdom Hearts III wasn’t the send-off the series deserved for its longest-running arc, but it was predictable. Square Enix hasn’t made a genuinely impressive video game in forever, Final Fantasy X to be exact, in 2001. Once the masters of their genre, now but hollow puppets struggling to make ends meet. This game feels like a poor fanfic, from people who’ve lost their hearts so long ago they can’t remember being anything but Nobodies.

But at least it’s fun to play, for a while.