Happy Christmas, LusiTrees! As all the faithful readers cuddle around their laptops with their mugs of hot cocoa to warm their hands against the glowing Editorial Miscellany, I am myself away from the computer. Today is the day I am celebrating with my family, but thanks to beautiful scheduling technology, I am still able to bring everybody holiday cheer in the form of talking about middling RPGs.
Kingdom Hearts is a very strange series.
When I played through Kingdom Hearts Final Mix via the 1.5 collection earlier in the year, I was struck by just how bad the game was compared to my memory. I had always argued for it being the better of the two console iterations, but the levels are not designed with the game’s gameplay in mind, the gummy ship is a disaster, very few of the Disney worlds are interesting, and the gameplay does not show its true colours until very near the end. Now that I am almost finished Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix via the 2.5 collection, the series admittedly fascinates me. I have new perspective on the original in that I feel its levels were at least aspiring – albeit failing – to be interesting mazes for the player to come to get to know. I realized this because while Kingdom Hearts II‘s level design is far more suited to the physics and style of gameplay, it removes almost any pretense of exploration.
Only in the very final version of Twilight Town does the game show what it could be if it was not held back by its own baffling dichotomy. That is to say that Kingdom Hearts II is both an absolutely terrible, hollow game and a complicated, satisfying one at the same time. Bloated by passable minigames and largely irrelevant Disney worlds, Kingdom Hearts II is rarely allowed to be what it wants to be. When the gameplay is set in original worlds, it is at its most interesting by a long shot.
The Kingdom Hearts series – including the first one – really does a wonderful job of using 3D space as a platform for traditional RPG gameplay. On the easier modes, it is just a button-masher, but on more challenging modes it forces players to use the same conservation tactic-inspiring, risk-taking, on-the-fly strategy-inducing, and stat building management gameplay that are so compelling about the best RPGs. But only on rare occasions is the game nothing more than an area to level up and practice fighting. The long droughts of the Disney levels (especially the first pass of them in KHII) were only entertaining when they were novel and they were only novel when I was younger.
Nomura says that the series is going to grow up with its audience, but as fun as Dream, Drop Distance was, the way its gameplay tied to the rest of the game did not really bring me confidence.
I think I am fascinated by Kingdom Hearts because unlike the largely soulless Dragon Age: Inquisition, it is a series with vision from both a story and gameplay perspective. Sure, the story is largely driven by sentiment and overwrought, undisciplined writing, but Nomura really is trying to say something interesting, although his communication is often poor. Same goes for the gameplay. There is an unique and extraordinarily fun experience to be found in Kingdom Hearts, but I only know about it because I could suffer all the awfulness when I was younger and now I do not have to pretend to like the terrible parts.
I mean, the musical numbers in Atlantica?
I mean, trying and horribly failing to recreate iconic and thrilling scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean?
Kingdom Hearts II is just too large of a game with too unfocused of a director to ever really come into its own. It is very far from a great game, but there is greatness in it. I am just not sure that Nomura himself is aware of his strengths and weaknesses. If Kingdom Hearts III ever gets completed, I have no reason to believe that it will not just be a slightly improved version of Kingdom Hearts II. I say slightly improved because Birth by Sleep and Dream, Drop, Distance show encouraging signs of gameplay possibilities.
What I am really trying to say is that I think in a few years, this generation is going to mark the return of JRPG dominance. The technology moved too fast for such an ambitious genre, but things are leveling out. Not that Kingdom Hearts is going to lead the charge, but I will be very glad to see it amidst the current gaming landscape.
Tales of Steady Improvement
Not including Xillia 2 which seems like more of the same, but slightly worse as a complete package. Tales of Heart R was a self-Christmas present and it is surprising me. Tales is a series I assumed I would have outgrown by now, but it continually surprises me as a series that is actually able to improve and not just iterate. Like with many companies, hiring a good writer or two is the biggest thing keeping it in “middling” territory instead of “good” territory. Story and gameplay pacing has been very good in the last three games I have played in the series, although themes are weak and while the stories tend to be sincere, I would not argue for the same sort of vision that I attribute to Kingdom Hearts. The Tales games are just fun as RPGs. There tend to be the right number and sorts of things to level up that they are worthwhile sinks.
Or I do not know, I am actually quite sick and maybe just want to play a mediocre RPG. I cannot think straight enough to talk properly about Tales. Give me a break, it is Christmas.
On that note, LusiGifts, what did you all get me? Did you pitch in for a car? Because that was a dumb idea, I do not even have my license. Get it together, guys.