Kingdom Hearts and Multi-directional Evolution

March 28, 2017

Casey Moore, Host

*Image courtesy of Tetsuya Nomura

Kingdom Hearts has had no short supply of airtime in the gaming press world lately, between the release of Kingdom Hearts 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue, the re-re-remakes of the original games (as well as Birth by Sleep and Chain of Memories), and the long (so long…) anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3.  Fans are wayward in their opinions on the games, often citing Kingdom Hearts 2 and Birth by Sleep as the series’ peaks, and Chain of Memories and Re:Coded as the weakest entries.  As a n action game following the exploits of a young teen with big hair knocking around creatures in the name of the Disney Gods, it’s no surprise that it developed a strong following that’s persisted for over a decade.

Since the release of the original Kingdom Hearts for PlayStation 2 fifteen years ago, we’ve seen the games take an evolutionary path that twists and turns not unlike Square Enix’s other flagship series Final Fantasy.  The series began as a pretty simple action title with some RPG elements for flavor, primarily being a hack and slash with some magic to boot.  Players explored worlds and puzzle-platformed their way through the Disney pantheon of set pieces, slapping baddies around with the business end of a gigantic key.  Later on, Kingdom Hearts 2 would improve dramatically on all these features.

This wasn’t the direction Kingdom Hearts took originally, however.  Before Kingdom Hearts 2 was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a 2004 Game Boy Advance spinoff in which you fought not by batting enemies with your Keyblade – no, that would be far too simple, and that’s just now how Square rolls.  Instead, you create a Deck filled with cards that represent actions, from Keyblades to potions to spells.  You consume the cards as you use them, and can cycle through them freely (though it’s much more effective to line them up in deliberate orders to quickly allow you to combine them into the powerful Sleight abilities), and when you get low or run out you can select the Reload action in your deck to recharge your deck.  Sound frustrating?  Fans agree, and Square Enix heard them.

The following year, Kingdom Hearts 2 released with fanfare.  To this day, it’s revered as one of the most impressive action games of all time, and by plenty of folks one of the best PS2 games.  Everything is improved across the board, with visuals a league ahead of anything else the PS2 would sport for years, gameplay as smooth as butter, radically improved voice acting, a more intense story, and a much more accessible command menu to do battle with.  Another addition was the Drive Forms, transformations Sora can undergo to emphasize a combat style and unlock potent movement abilities to use in his basic form.  Feelings on the franchise aside, I’ll fight to my last breath flying the standard that Kingdom Hearts 2 is one of the most excellent games ever made.

Japan would get a few mobile titles after that, but the next game available in the US was Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, a title that does its very best to make sense to little avail.  This game was not a sequel, but rather a side story involving the character Roxas, a primary character controlled by the player during the tutorial of Kingdom Hearts 2, providing more insight into his motivations as well as the mechanations of the villainous Organization XIII.  The gameplay changes were as jarring as the title – basic combat was largely similar to Kingdom Hearts original as far as the hacking and slashing is concerned, but your loadout (and level) were determined by your placement of tiles on a grid.  Adjustments to your Keyblade, items, passive skills, levels, and magic are all loaded onto this grid to determine Roxas’s abilities as he goes on missions instead of the usual freeform, open-ish world we’ve been accustomed to.  Magic is notably changed as well: instead of draining from a pool of magic points like in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, your grid loadout determines the number of casts of each spell available to Roxas, much like items.  Also, higher levels of spells aren’t inherently more powerful, but rather perform different functions, such as Cure being a regular heal and Cura being more similar to a Regen spell that heals Roxas over time.  KH358/2 is a radical change for the series, but one that doesn’t represent where Kingdom Hearts would go next, and I hope that trend is becoming more apparent as we go.

In 2010, the game that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the franchise released as Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep for PlayStation Portable.  In this game, there are three protagonists, Ven, Terra, and Aqua, each with a different specialty (speed, power, and magic).  The combat pacing is somewhere between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, but most importantly is the advent of the command system.  In Kingdom Hearts 2, Sora earned spells and skills that upgraded and replaced their older counterparts, and he always had access to them from the command menu.  In Birth by Sleep, you have a set amount of space that you place the skills in to have them appear on your command menu, and these can be occupied by loads of options rather than your normal handful of spells.  Every character could use the basic Blizzard and Cure and such, but each had unique skills as well, such as Terra’s Meteor and Ven’s Salvation.  You had 8 spots to place skills in – including items – and most took up 1 slot, but some would take 2, and a choice handful took 3, though they were dominantly used for multiplayer functions.  Drive Forms make a spiritual comeback in the form of Command Styles, forms that you temporarily take that change your basic combo strings based on what commands were used to fill up a gauge.

Where the series stands with this entry now is a medium-paced action game with tons and tons of customization over what abilities your characters had at any given time, but we’re back to basics with the general flow of combat.  2011 saw the remake of the mobile game Kingdom Hearts: Coded, which while disliked by many fans was actually a somewhat notable evolution of the command style system; instead of 8 slots, there was a percent gauge, and skills would take a wider variety of that percent, which lent to more thorough and thoughtful usage of your skills.  Perhaps it would be better to use Blizzara over Blizzaga if it meant you could use a different powerful move as well, for example.  The leveling system was closer to Final Fantasy X than anything else, with something like a Sphere Grid where you could install upgrades to your stats and level on empty spaces as well as gain the bonuses from predetermined ones.

In 2012, the 3DS Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance was released.  This game returned to the Kingdom Hearts 2 school of ultra-fast and flashy combat, but retained the command system from Birth by Sleep.  With access to both Sora and Riku as playable characters with separate levels, items, and abilities, it evoked a fanciful blend of what many fans to believe the best two games in the franchise thus far.  Now you get all the flair of 2 with the customization and control of Birth by Sleep, supplemented by the new Flow Motion skills that let you freely dash about and cling to walls for more intense movement and combat.  Flow Motion proved to be a bit too potent as many of the attacks that one could do out of the motions were extremely powerful and easy to perform, and players could all but ignore the puzzle platforming element in lieu of just sticking to walls and climbing up the easy way, Mega Man X style.  If nothing else, though, Flow Motion was fun and improved the pace beyond even Kingdom Hearts 2, though perhaps not with as much grace, yet a mechanic that is continually retained in…

This year’s Kingdom Hearts 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue, a bit of a tech demo for the hugely anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3 that shows off what the team’s been cooking.  Players once again control Aqua in a short campaign that interludes in between other titles, clarifying her role in the upcoming finale.  Aqua can use something akin to Flow Motion, and though the command system is back to its KH2 incarnation, the utility of skills have improved.  For example, if there’s water on the screen, a Blizzard spell can freeze it to create a platform.

It appears that Kingdom Hearts 3 is most going to take after 2.8, which makes sense considering it took after Kingdom Hearts 2 more than any of the others.  The gameplay of this franchise has been just about everywhere, but the one constant is that it’s been creative and exciting – unless it involved cards.  It’s an interesting style when developing a franchise, to reinvent how the game is played with each installment and sometimes abandon entire mechanics after single entries, but it’s nothing Square isn’t familiar with.  Is it for the best?  We’ll see when (if) Kingdom Hearts 3 is released, and invariably miss some element of the franchise’s gameplay that doesn’t make it in to the grand finale, but that’s the card you play when you adjust your series so drastically each new title.

At least Square has the Reload command too.

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