Monday, January 31, 2011

Final Thoughts on Kingdom Hearts

I did indeed finish up Kingdom Hearts II on Friday, as I had hoped that I would, yay! The final battle was both more and less ridiculous than the final battle in the first Kingdom Hearts. I wouldn't have thought that was possible, but apparently I was wrong about that. Overall, I think I would give the game a C ++ or a B -. It is really somewhere in between there. Honestly, I think if there hadn't been so many cut scenes, and if they hadn't, all of them, been so long, I would have enjoyed this game a lot more.

The general plot of this game was kind of interesting, actually. A quick refresher of the back story:

In the first game, Sora's world is destroyed by the Heartless, and he is separated from his friends Riku and Kairi, so embarks on a quest to find them. The Powers That Be decided that he is a Chosen One of some sort, and the only person who can stop the darkness, so he is granted the ability to wield the Keyblade, which releases the hearts stolen by the Heartless as they destroy worlds. He teams up with Donald and Goofy, who are searching for King Mickey (who is also trying to stop the Heartless and restore the worlds they have already destroyed). Together, the three seal off many worlds infiltrated by the Heartless (using the Keyblade), saving those worlds from destruction. There are also seven princesses (of which Kairi is one) who are being kidnapped by the Disney villains because their hearts combined can unlock a door which leads to Kingdom Hearts, the heart of all worlds (I think). Possessing Kingdom Hearts means great power, which all villains are after. So, Sora stops the villains, saves Kairi, and finds Riku and Mickey, only to be separated from them at the last moment, in the act of sealing the darkness away.

In Kingdom Hearts II we learn that when a very strong-willed person becomes a Heartless another kind of entity, known as a Nobody, is created from the body left behind by that person. These Nobodies are under the control of Organization XIII, a group of alpha-Nobodies who want to gain control of Kingdom Hearts so that they can be granted hearts of their own and therefore become real people, not shadows. Sora knows that Kairi has been safely returned home, but he is still seeking out Riku (and Mickey). In his search, he keeps running into Nobodies and Organization XIII, who have begun using the Heartless to attract the attention of the wielder of the Keyblade. They are harvesting the hearts released when Sora kills Heartless with the Keyblade, attempting to create their own Kingdom Hearts. So Sora must go from world to world, trying to find a trace of Riku, and fighting off Heartless and Nobodies, and the members of Organization XIII, eventually realizing he must defeat Organization XIII on their own ground--which he does with the help of Riku, Kairi, and Mickey, who he, Donald, and Goofy do find in their travels.

I am probably not explaining it that well, there was a lot going on here. Maleficent and Pete were running around too, but I am still not quite certain what their endgame was. I think they may be leaving that for the next game. As I said, a pretty good basis for the plot, but I am not sure it was executed all that well. I feel like the story and the game play were actually two separate elements. The game play didn't seem to further the story along. It just moved you from point A to point B so you could get to the next cut scene. Even on the world map, when there was something new to do on a world you had already visited, the verbiage they used was "New episode available!" In a truly good story-based video game, the story needs be integrated into the game play itself, not a separate entity, at least in my opinion.

So, that's the story aspect of the game. Now, how about the actual game play? Hmm. I felt like this game was a little schizophrenic. It is as if the game designers were trying out several different ideas that really would have been better suited to be in several different games. Maybe there would have been a better way to get them to work with each other, but if so, they did not nail the formula in KH II, I can tell you that. It was just all over the place.

Some of the ideas were "upgrades" to the gaming system in the first game, tweaks here and there to how you could access items and magic and summons. They also added in "reaction commands" which meant that you pressed a certain button at a specific time when you got the right indicator on the screen. For many enemies, the only way to beat them was using reaction commands, and I feel like that takes some of the fun out of it. There is no developing and playing with your own set of skills, be it certain magical attacks or weapon combos, or limit commands. The limit commands were interesting, you could get skills used in conjunction with the other members of your team. My favorite was Donald's "comet" command, which would allow you to surround your enemy with fireworks that did lots of damage, and was also fun to look at.

There were a few puzzle-solving points in the game, which were okay, but seemed to be awkwardly placed. There was also the Little Mermaid level, which was entirely just about teaching you to hit buttons at the right time. You were helping Sebastian and Ariel put together the musical, and so had to sit through lots of random songs, hitting buttons at the right time in order to get past the level (kind of like Guitar Hero, but nowhere near as fun). It was weird and random and really had no place in this game.

As far as the actual combat goes, I don't even know where to start on that one. As I said, most enemies had specific reaction commands, and that was the only way to defeat them. The actual difficulty level of each enemy seemed to vary widely, and not in a way proportional to your experience level or how far along in the game the enemy appeared. There was, for every non-standard Heartless or Nobody a "trick" for how to defeat them. This was more puzzle-solving I guess, but less overt. Once the trick was figured out, it was usually just a matter of patience to defeat the enemy, but as someone who prefers to just run in an wale on things with my sword, I did not really enjoy this kind of combat at all. Also, the actual in-game reaction time was really skewed by all of the special commands and actions, so it was kind of hard to tell at any given point whether or not I was actually in control of my character. An "information" bar was added at the top of the screen with hints or instructions about your objective scrolling by. When it wasn't as distracting as all get out, it was usually information that was painfully obvious. I know this game was probably designed for a younger demographic than me, but I am pretty sure younger gamers are way better at this stuff than I am. They probably don't like being spoon-fed either.

I think the big problem was that there was just so much stuff on the screen you had to keep an eye on aside from your character and his foe. I never knew where to look. If I was paying attention to the actual fighting, I missed crucial information from the scroll bar, or didn't see when a reaction command became available. If I tried to read the scroll bar, I totally got my butt kicked while I was looking the other way. If I kept my eyes on the command box, then I missed moments when I should have been blocking and got more damage than I would have otherwise taken. It just felt like a no-win situation. In many cases, when the battle ended, I was sitting there looking at the screen with no idea what had just happened. I can only look at so many things at once, and this game wanted me to be looking at two more at least at any given time.

I don't know how much of the engine for this game is based on the Final Fantasy series, but I suspect a lot. I am wondering though, how players of FF would stack this game up against their franchise. I find myself hoping that the problems with KH simply arise from the designers trying to take the FF engine and gear it towards a younger demographic while trying to make multiple Disney stories fit into their already kind of contrived plot line. Maybe when they are making up their own world it feels more cohesive. My husband has asked me to give Final Fantasy VI a try, he says that is considered the definitive entry in the series. So after I play that maybe I'll have a clearer view of what went wrong with KH, or if I am just not cut out to play in that pool.

Either way, my copies of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II will be going along to be traded in the next time I visit my local Gamestop.

I started Star Wars: The Force Unleashed this weekend and already feel much more in my element. Maybe I am just a PC RPG gamer and I needed KH to make me see it. Also, the graphics on this thing are freaking fantastic. Wow.

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