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Kingdom Hearts III: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

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Like many people, I’d waited almost thirteen years to play Kingdom Hearts 3.

Technically, you could say that I’ve been waiting since 2012, when I beat Dream Drop Distance. But thirteen sounds more impressive, and it’s been that long since Kingdom Hearts 2 came out in Japan. And ever since then, we’ve all hoped to hear Square-Enix announce development on Part 3. Instead, we got hit with a number of smaller titles on different consoles. All have proven to be important to the story to varying degrees and I enjoyed playing all of them. (Well, except Coded. Sorry, Coded.)

But now, here we are. I can say that I beat Kingdom Hearts 3 at long last. Many have asked, and many more have their own opinions regarding this one question: was it worth the wait?

My answer: yes and no.

Kingdom Hearts 3 was an emotional rollercoaster for me, a lot of ups and downs. When it’s good, it’s phenomenal. It surpassed some of my wildest hopes and dreams. But when it’s bad…yikes. It’s worse than I could have imagined. I’m not even really trying to be dramatic here. That’s really how I felt as I played this game.

Let’s start with the high points.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy are back! These characters are the best that they’ve ever been. Their friendship is so strong in every scene, whether they’re teasing each other, reminiscing about past adventures, or having each other’s backs in battle. Donald and Goofy love Sora and they’re prepared to go anywhere with him to the bitter end. And while Sora is the hero of the story, his two companions got to have plenty of “awesome” moments all on their own. That was a pleasant surprise. 

The Disney worlds look, sound, and feel fantastic. They’re enormous in size compared to previous games and they’re all beautiful. Each location presents a unique environment to explore, from the lush forests in Tangled to the wide, open ocean from Pirates of the Caribbean.  The attention to detail is just wonderful and I keep finding new things to appreciate.

And best of all: the game has NPCs! Sora no longer runs through empty streets! You can actually see people in the cities and towns!

Unfortunately, while I adore all of Yoko Shimomura’s work in the Kingdom Hearts series, I have to admit that I came away with mixed feelings about the soundtrack this time. Kingdom Hearts 3 recycles and remixes a lot of music from the previous games, when I would have liked to have heard more new tracks.

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But I can’t complain too much because both the new and old music sound just as good as they always have. And I was extremely impressed by the new field and battle arrangements for each world. They each reflect the style of the scores from the original Disney films. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn that Alan Menken composed the music for Corona.

Now, you’ve probably heard that Kingdom Hearts 3 is too easy. Speaking as someone who’s not a very skilled gamer, I can confirm that these fans are correct. Most of the game is a breeze, even on the hardest difficulty level. Usually, I need to put in some level grinding at various points in a Kingdom Hearts game. Not this time.

Why is it so easy this time around? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the number of options at your disposal when you’re fighting. As you attack with your Keyblade, you fill up a gauge that allows your Keyblade to change form and unleash more powerful attacks. Then, after a certain period of time spent fighting, you can trigger a joint attack with one of your party members, i.e. throwing Mike Wazowski at the enemy like a bowling ball. You also acquire Links, which are characters you can summon into battle using magic, i.e. Ariel and Wreck-It Ralph.

But wait- there’s more! On top of everything else, attacking certain enemies will trigger a type of attack called Attraction Flow. These attacks are designed to mimic popular rides at the Disney theme parks: a swinging pirate ship, the spinning tea cups, Prince Charming’s Carousel, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, etc. They are a lot of fun to unleash…the first couple of times. And they can be great for crowd control. But after a while, I got tired of using them.

And wait- there’s more! If you’re low on health, you might trigger an attack called Rage Form. Similar to Anti-Form, this turns Sora into a humanoid Heartless with faster, powerful attacks. His Rage attacks do significant damage at the cost of his own health.

Add it all up, and you can see why it’s not so easy to die in this game. I’d come close, only to trigger a slew of special attacks that allowed Sora to stay alive until the fight ended. Although you do not have to use any of these commands, you can’t disable them either, so they will keep popping up as you play.

Last of all, Kingdom Hearts 3 adds a very welcome option when you do fail at a battle or similar objective: “Prepare and Retry.” This allows you to access the menu before restarting a boss fight, so you can restock items you might’ve forgotten to equip, change your abilities or customize your spells differently. I hope that’s an option that’s here to stay for future Kingdom Hearts games.

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So, what didn’t I like about this game, besides the difficulty?  On paper, it doesn’t look like much.  However, the story has some problems and some of them bothered me so much that they almost tainted my feelings about the whole experience.

Granted, there’s actually a lot to like about the story of Kingdom Hearts III. The Disney characters get so many opportunities to shine. There’s a nice balance between worlds that strictly follow the plot of the movie and worlds that follow an original story that ties into the central conflict between Sora and Organization XIII. The Organization members have actual conversations with one another about their personal goals, their motivations, and their opinions of one another. One member gets a whole subplot that I won’t spoil, but it’s fantastic.

But, I reiterate: when this game goes bad, it goes bad. The biggest problem lies in the treatment of the female characters. It’s not a new problem for Kingdom Hearts, given that the games introduced us to dozens of engaging male characters and a handful of ladies. Yet many fans hoped that this would get rectified, especially for poor Kairi- the girl who is supposed to be one of Sora’s two best friends, but constantly gets pushed aside in favor of giving Riku more character development.

Kairi gets a couple of good moments in this game, but by and large, what Tetsuya Nomura decided to do with her was abysmal. I won’t spoil anything, but something important happens to her that left me feeling shocked, disgusted, and angry.  It’s not so much that I want Kairi to become a Strong Female Character who fights with a sword and doesn’t need a man in her life.  I just want Nomura to write her the way that he writes the male cast: as a person with her own goals and character growth, not an accessory to Sora.

To a lesser extent, there are twists in the game that seem to exist just for the sake of confusing/shocking us and getting the fans talking, not because they contribute to the story or characters. I know that some of this comes down to personal preference, and that if I want to continue with this series, I need to accept that this is how Tetsuya Nomura likes to tell stories. Still, I wish he’d stop pulling things like, “THIS character is secretly connected to THIS thing or person ALL ALONG!” When he just lets the characters play off of each other, Kingdom Hearts III shines. When he starts to go into the Lore, that’s when I begin to tune out.

I recommend Kingdom Hearts III to people who have stuck with this series for all of its installments. I would even recommend it to people who have never played a Kingdom Hearts game before. If you are willing to embrace the odd story and you think running around beautifully recreated Disney worlds sounds appealing, you should have a great time.

However, I do not recommend this game to anyone who has only played Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. Weird as it sounds, I think you’ll have a harder time enjoying it than people who have never picked up a Kingdom Hearts game in their lives.

Why? Because you know just enough about the world and its characters to find certain ret-cons and new characters/information all the more confusing. The game doesn’t offer a clear, concise explanation for why some characters have returned from the dead, like Axel. Whereas, if you’ve never played one of the games before, you don’t know that they’re supposed to be dead.

Overall, I rate Kingdom Hearts 3 a 7/10. It’s not a perfect experience. The treatment of Kairi and certain parts of the ending left a bitter taste in my mouth. Yet the game also provided a lot of joy and I don’t want to throw that away. Sora, Donald, and Goofy: thanks for the ride. I look forward to playing future installments.

Review: Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

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By Iris the Keyblade Master

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is one of those games that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does.  The first game in the series was this big, epic adventure, involving Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy traveling all over the universe to stop Maleficent and meeting all kinds of Disney characters along the way.  Kingdom Hearts II was another a big, epic adventure that continued Sora’s quest.   He searched for his lost friends, befriended more popular characters like Captain Jack Sparrow and Tron, and fought an evil organization.

Chain of Memories limits the adventure to one castle made of illusions.  Every floor that Sora visits is designed to look like a Disney world from his memories.  So almost all of the levels that you complete are areas that you’ve already explored from the first game.  (Little did we know that this would be a recurring problem in future games.)  It’s not necessarily what a person would have in mind if you told them to check out the sequel to Kingdom Hearts.

However, I love the story of Chain of Memories, so it’s probably the entry in the series that I replay the most apart from the first game.  It picks up where the first game left off, with Sora, Donald, and Goofy on the trail of their lost friends, Riku and Mickey.  They come across a castle inhabited by a mysterious organization that claims to have something- or someone- that Sora wants.  Sora takes the bait, only to find as he progresses through the castle that he’s losing his memories.

First, the story’s fantastic.  It’s one of two games in the series that involve a group of villains trying to trick Sora into working for them, and this one executes the idea much better.  The other game more or less saves the mind-bending shenanigans for the final level.  In Chain of Memories, it’s a steady progression of Sora forgetting his previous adventures and becoming increasingly obsessed with rescuing Naminé and Riku from the Organization.  Sora’s been previously established as somebody who cares deeply about his friends and the promises that he makes to them, so his change in personality makes complete sense.  The new characters are also well-written.  It’s the game that kicked off Axel’s popularity, and it’s easy to see why.  Naminé is wonderful too and a good example of a well-written “damsel in distress.”

I thought I would hate the battle system when I learned that it would be card-based.  Every attack that you make and magic spell that you cast is limited to the number of cards that Sora has in his deck.  However, I found that it was very manageable and does force you to strategize a little.  You can only carry so many cards in your deck, and the powerful ones are more expensive than the weaker ones.  You can also create special attacks called “sleights,” where you load three cards and use them together.  But the first card that you load for the sleight will not reappear for the rest of the battle.  So spamming sleight attacks will only take you so far.

Oh, and Donald gets to be just as useless in this game as he is in every Kingdom Hearts game.  Only this time, he doesn’t just fail to heal you.  If you don’t watch it, he can heal your enemies.  Yeah.  You read that right.  You’ll be desperately fighting Axel or Hades, who both use Fire spells, and he’ll happily hit them with Fire spells that bring their health back up.  Try to avoid using him in a fight with a magic-based enemy.

I also find it interesting how the difficulty level of the bosses and the usefulness of certain cards did change in the GameBoy Advanced version and the PlayStation 2 version.  See, the GBA obviously has a small screen, so big enemies aren’t hard to fight and Summon cards have a wider reach.  Cloud Strife was my favorite card in the GBA game.  All I had to do was summon him and he’d wipe out enemies with two slashes of the Buster Sword.  But the PlayStation 2 remake puts you in a bigger, three-dimensional area, so it’s a matter of getting close to an enemy, hoping that enemy stays put as you summon Cloud, and hope that Cloud moves in the right direction to slash said enemies.  If you’re in the wrong place or facing the wrong way, he’s completely useless.

All in all, I think this game was much better suited for the GameBoy Advanced over the PlayStation 2.  It has a smaller story and the levels are mostly the same as the first game.  In a way, it’s kind of impressive.  In terms of world design, it plays like a GBA remake of the first game.  Yet it has its own unique story, which supplies a reason for why you’re playing through the same locations again.  If you play the PlayStation 2 remake without that context, it comes off like a cheap, lazy sequel.

Nonetheless, I love playing the PS2 remake due to the improved graphics and voice acting.  Sora’s character arc and his relationships with his friends go to interesting places.  The series got two new fabulous female characters.  The soundtrack mostly rehashes the first game, but Yoko Shimomura composed some beautiful new tracks, i.e. “Naminé” and the final boss battle theme, “Lord of the Castle.”

Although it’s not an entry in the series that you absolutely must play to understand the rest of the plot, I highly recommend Chain of Memories.