Thursday, December 9, 2010

Playing Kingdom Hearts (Again)

Well, I am a little over seven (game play) hours into Kingdom Hearts now.  I have finally beaten the boss in Wonderland and just dropped into the Deep Jungle to play with Tarzan for a while.  To be clear, I beat the Trickster (Wonderland boss) on my first attempt.  I just had to spend an hour running around a heartless infested level trying to figure out what bloody little step I had missed that was crucial to triggering the boss fight to actually start.  Sigh.

Already I am starting to remember some of the things that I love about this game.  I am also starting to remember some of the things that I absolutely loathe as well. Then, there are the truly bizarre aspects of this game that I had completely forgotten all about.  Guys, this is a seriously weird game.  Every time I don't play it for a while, I totally forget that fact, and then I start it back up

Okay, let me backtrack a second.  First off.  This post is probably going to contain spoilers for the game if you have never played it before.  But, considering that it is around ten years old, well, I feel that spoilers are kind of moot at this point.  Also, bear in mind that I have never actually finished the game, so if there's any big huge reveal toward the end, then I can't spoil it for you because I haven't gotten there yet.  So, there's that.

Kingdom Hearts (henceforth to be known as KH) is a crazy blend of Final Fantasy-style characters (including a few actual FF characters) and random Disney franchises.  I have never played any FF (I know, I know, shocking, but way before my time, gaming-wise), but from what I can tell the game engine and game play are set up pretty much like a FF game.  I am still noob enough that I don't really know how to talk about that stuff in technical terms, so I am gonna mostly just leave it at that.

The story is this:  You play Sora, a 14 year-old boy who, along with his friends Riku (15) and Kairi (14, and his fervent crush), longs to explore worlds beyond his own.  One day, Sora gets his wish, though nothing like he had hoped or imagined it.  His world is overrun by a kind of foe known as the heartless and pretty much destroyed.  Sora somehow manages to wind up on another world, Traverse Town, after his own is destroyed.  He thinks Riku and Kairi got out too, but they are nowhere to be found.  So he decides to embark on a quest to find Riku and Kairi.  He also ends up with a weapon called the Keyblade (which actually is a giant key.  Yeah).  There is a lot of mumbo jumbo "You are The One" exposition.  Apparently the Keyblade is crucial to defeating the heartless and it has chosen Sora to carry out that work.  When Sora sets out, he teams up with Donald Duck (a magician) and Goofy (a knight).  They come from from the Disney Castle world and are looking for King Mickey, who has gone missing.  He left a note saying something strange was going on and they should find the one with the "key."  So, your party is formed.

The villains from various Disney films are the major villains throughout the game.  I'm talking about Ursula, Jafar, Hades, Captain Hook, and, of course, the biggest and baddest, Maleficent.  She is my favorite Disney villain of all time, so I love that she is the Big Bad of this game.  Anyway, the evil league of evil bad guys, for reasons I haven't quite determined yet, are kidnapping "princesses" from various worlds to do something with their hearts.  So along the way, part of your quest is to collect clues about what that is all about.  Since Donald and Goofy are looking for Mickey, so are you--and we learn early on that Mickey is looking for the research someone called Ansem did on the heartless, which has been scattered throughout all of the worlds, so you're also looking for that research.  And the final major plot-related quest (that I've stumbled across thus far) is that you are working to stop the heartless from getting to and destroying any more worlds.  So, with each world you go to, after you defeat the boss for that level, you have to use the Keyblade to lock off that world, closing off the heatless' avenue of access.  Phew.  That's a lot going on.

The first time I played this game, my husband (then boyfriend) and I rented it one New Year's weekend when his youngest brother (at the time still in high school) was spending the weekend with us.  The three of us played it together.  It is a single-player game, but we took turns on the different levels and stayed up all night for a few nights in a row playing.  We didn't get very far and then had to return the game, but I was hooked.  After my husband and I got married and had our own place, we used some of our wedding present cash to buy ourselves a Playstation 2 (that is the format on which I am playing this game, by the way).  We actually bought it on our wedding night--had an early morning wedding and didn't leave for our honeymoon 'till the next day so we opened gifts and went on a random shopping spree that evening, it was awesome.  I digress.  Anyhoo,, after we had the PS2, we bought a few games for it, including KH.  So then I started my first epic play through.  I played fairly steadily for a while and actually got pretty far in the game--I think I had cleared all of the worlds except for the final showdown on Maleficent's turf and was just running around trying to complete all of the side quests (I will find all 99 dalmatian puppies, dangit).  But then I got stuck trying to clear a tournament on the Coliseum level and walked away for a few days that turned into years.  There was no way I was going to pick it back up again and be able to remember enough to keep going against the Big Bad.  So last year I started playing again and got stuck in the Monstro level (yes, there is indeed a level where you get swallowed up by Monstro the whale.  It is frakkin' trippy because it looks like the inside of no whale I have ever seen, that's for dang sure) and walked away again.  

So.  Here I am now, on my fourth go through, and this time I am determined to finish it.   The obsession kicks in pretty quickly, and now that I've got a structured approach to playing video games, I find it a lot easier to break through those barriers that used to cause me to just walk away.  I am really not going for one hundred percent completion of all of the side quests or anything.  I just want to finish the main story line (and fine those darn dalmatians).  Then, finally, I can play the sequel that I bought ages ago and still haven't touched....and then I'll be done with KH and probably will be making a trip to Gamestop to trade them in, truth be told.  But still.  It is an unfinished chapter in my life, and I have really been motivated this year to clear some of those up.  I don't think I will finish the game before the year is out, sadly, but I do think I will finish it.

So, some of the things I love about the game:

The Disney Worlds:  As I said, each level is basically the world from a different Disney movie.  In the first KH you get to play through Wonderland, the Deep Jungle (Tarzan), the Coliseum (Hercules), Agrabah (Aladdin), Monstro (Pinocchio), Neverland, Halloween Town (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Atlantica (The Little Mermaid), and Hollow Bastion (Sleeping Beauty).  You do get to pick up a couple of characters from these worlds to join your party too (like Tarzan), though not a lot.  Mostly it's just you, Donald, and Goofy.  But it is really cool getting to run around in these worlds.  You are not by any means playing through the stories of the movies, though there are some elements from those that shape the goals of each level.  They are a lot of fun though, mostly.  I have to admit, both Wonderland and Atlantica annoyed the crap out of me.

Merlin and The Fairy Godmother:  They are your magic instructors.  How awesome is that?

The progression is not completely linear.  You get some wiggle-room in what order you get to do things, which I think is nice, especially for this type of game.  While there is kind of a story unfolding, it is hardly Mass Effect, so while there are some levels that are definitely easier than others, and some you should wait to do until you've done other specific levels (because of the loot or XP you pick up there), you still mostly get to have a say in where you go next.  Also, you can go back and revisit most worlds.  They are, in fact, set up so that you have to do this in some cases, if only to get all of the loot or fulfill all of the side quests, but that's okay.  It allows you (most of the time) to go back and check stuff out that you might have missed as well, or to hone skills you need to improve.

The puzzle-solving element:  Most of the console games I really enjoy all have a bit of a puzzle-solving element to them, and this is definitely no exception.   In order to get through some levels, or to find certain objects you need to examine everything around you and sometimes think outside of the box. 

I think really the big thing is the Disney characters and settings though.  I grew up on that stuff.  The release of The Little Mermaid was an epic life-changing event for me.  This takes those worlds and makes them interactive, which is really just cool.  Also, it gives you a variety of environments to play in, so there is a bit less monotony as well.

Before I get to the things I loathe section, I want to talk about some of the flat-out bizarre aspects of the game.

Monstro.  Okay, I mentioned earlier that I got stuck on Monstro during my third playing of this game.  At some point, you are traveling between worlds (in a spaceship, so presumably in space) and a big ol' whale comes along and swallows you up, a la Pinocchio.  There you run into the wooden boy himself, along with Geppetto, of course.  You get to rescue them from the whale, thankfully, but the doing so is...complicated.  The first part of the level, where Geppetto's got his ship, looks perfectly fine, it's what you'd expect the mouth of a whale to look like.  But then, to get out, you have to go run around in his innards (yeah, that's strange enough), which look like the inside of a black-lite riddled rave.  I am not kidding.  At all.  This is the part of the game where I always start to question the recreational habits of the art team, if you know what I mean.  It gives me a headache. 

Here is an image (found here) to demonstrate what I am talking about:

The whole frikkin' level looks like that.  It's freaky.

The Gummi Ship:  Okay, this, I not get.  To travel from world to world (to start out) you have to use the Gummi Ship, which is piloted by Chip and Dale, of all people.  First off, I don't understand the name of the darn thing.  There is no reference or explanation.  Then, there is the artwork of the ship.  This whole game (even the Monstro section) is full of beautiful detailed graphics.  But the Gummi Ship?  Looks like a bunch of hastily assembled children's blocks.

Plus, you have to fight off rival Gummi Ships and wade through obstacle courses when you fly between worlds.  And you eventually unlock the ability to be able to make upgrades and customizations to the ship, or even build your own.  The ship that is only used to get from point A to point B.  Even more confusing to me is that by the time you learn to unlock the customization ability, you already have access to Warping, which allows you to avoid all of those in-between flight sequences in most cases.  I just don't get this.

The Magic System:  Oftentimes, it seems as if this game was designed so that your character has to be extremely proficient at magic.  But the system for using magic is clunky and inconvenient at best.  It's like the designers said, "Let's make magic the key to beating this game!" and then followed that up with, "But we don't want it to be too easy, so let's make it crazy difficult to actually use the magic."  You don't even start to learn how to use magic until just before you're off to your first quest world.  There are a lot of cool ideas in the magic system--you learn to summon various characters (Bambi, Simba, Dumbo, etc.) who will attack your enemies for you, for example--but they are just such a pain in the butt to use.  And your magic power runs out ridiculously quickly even if you make magic your character's focused strength, and doesn't replenish automatically over time.  You have to physically take a potion or collect dropped MP balls or go find a save point.  Grr. 

Okay then, now moving on to things I loathe about this game.

There is no exit.  The menu for this game contains no option to exit.  You have to save and then just turn the console off.  Not only is that annoying as heck, but it also makes me incredibly nervous that something will go wrong.  This...this was a horrible idea.  Whoever decided on that, or just forgot to build an exit command, needs a good kick in the shins.

The Gummi Ship:  I know, I know, this made two lists!  But here's why.  This is, to me, a primary example of RPG designers thinking that anyone anywhere playing a video game wants to drive something at some point in every game.  Okay, this is just not true.  Apart from Mario Kart I really totally hate driving games. If I am playing an RPG I want to run around with my character hitting stuff with a sword.  I don't want to be flying a space-ship through an obstacle course.

It is kind of too complicated.  Maybe convoluted would be a better term.  While I enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect of things, stuff is really not clearly spelled out and often hard to figure out.  And I'm not talking stuff for side quests.  I'm talking about key actions you need to take in order to trigger the next part of the plot and move the story (and game) forward.  I had initially thought that on this run-through I would try it without using a Walkthrough, because I have actually gotten pretty good at figuring stuff out, only needing to look up hints every now and again in games.  I quickly had to abandon that notion, however, and now have two Walkthroughs bookmarked on my toolbar.  And I often have to go do extra searches in the middle of playing when I get stuck.  And I am on the part of the game I have successfully played through four times already.  Come on folks.  Sadly, there is no easy setting on KH.  Just expert and normal.

Using items is a huge pain in the butt.  I don't know what else to say about this.  Your stock can hold a large (possibly unlimited, but I haven't tested that) amount of stuff, but you personally can only carry three items at a time, and once those items are used up, you have to stop and go to the menu to give yourself more, and the menu can't be accessed during battles.  You can equip items on the other members of your party, and you can configure their settings so they can use the potions on you during a battle, but that's tricky to find the right balance for.  Actually accessing an item you are carrying is a several step process, which is really freaking inconvenient if you are in the middle of a battle, need to drink a potion, and can't find a quiet corner to hide in while you do so, because there is no stopping the battle to issue commands or select items.  Sigh.

The camera.  Holy mother of God this thing blows big fat chunks.  That is all I am going to say about that.

So, I know that seems like there is a lot about this game that I don't like at all, and you're probably wondering why I am even still trying to play it.  Part of it is sheer stubbornness, I won't lie.  But it really is actually a fun game to play when everything is going smoothly and you aren't wandering around trying to figure out what to do next.  Also, now that I am coming at it with a slightly better understanding of basic game play (like leveling up, buying better equipment and weapons, and upgrading items), I am finding new aspects of it to enjoy.

It's going to be a long haul, but I am looking forward to that feeling of accomplishment once I finally put this sucker to rest.


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