Sunday, June 20, 2010

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

Since completing Pokemon, I've mostly been playing Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days for the DS.  I actually started playing it back when it came out last year, but it fell by the wayside because, frankly, the game is a chore.

I had a lot of fun with the major console Kingdom Hearts titles.  The original was a very refreshing new spin on the JRPG, crossing over Final Fantasy's menu commands with a 3-D action game.  Mixing Disney with Square may have been unexpected, but it was much more a Disney experience, with the world-hopping Sora character more a story contrivance to guide the player along a tour of all the classic movies.  Kingdom Hearts II then streamlined the gameplay experience, cutting out a lot of the horrendous platforming, while amping up the action with greater combat speed and the sort of gravity-defying battle cinematics that would henceforth become a signature of Tetsuya Nomura's works.  The Square-Disney crossover stuff really started to get weird at this point, however, as Nomura's team started to go nuts developing their original storyline into something incredibly convoluted that had practically nothing to do anymore with Disney.

Between those two major releases, I also played through the original GBA version of Chain of Memories.  Its card-based take on the part-menu, part-real-time combat made random battling more methodical in the most aggravating way, but the boss battles actually got pretty intense.  Honestly, I don't know if my fingers ever moved faster than during those deck shuffles against the final bosses of that game, and developer Jupiter would later experiment further with that idea of multitasking gameplay, doing great things with The World Ends With You.  But Chain of Memories had major story problems, and worse than being an odd fit, the Disney stuff had already grown stale.

The whole "tour of Disney" idea sounded like a great idea for a one-off, but a series is going to very quickly run out of Disney movies in which to viably set an action-oriented video game.  Even Kingdom Hearts II, although it managed to dig up a few random new and interesting worlds to explore, had to rehash a lot from the first game.  The staleness has been considerably worse, however, in the outsourced portable projects, which have thus far apparently not merited Square Enix's effort in producing new assets.  Birth by Sleep for the PSP looks like it will be a legitimate new experience, but Chain of Memories was rehashed art design, reused music, and tired story retreads.  358/2 Days spares us having to experience the plot of Aladdin for a fifth time, but it still forces players to return to Agrabah, which is otherwise the same as ever and overly familiar.  Because 358/2 Days is set before Kingdom Hearts II, players don't even get to visit any of the newer additions from that game.  Instead, it's nearly all stuff that was already in both the original game and Chain of Memories.

Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts problem is actually comparable to the Parasite Eve situation that I discussed in my last post.  The scope of Square Enix's game has clearly exceeded the original concept founded on its licensing agreement with Disney, to the extent that, by Kingdom Hearts II, not only did the Disney elements feel out-of-place within the original story that Nomura and company were going with, but the mad juxtapositions of Mickey Mouse with Nomura's menacing robed figures even began to detract from the experience.  Kingdom Hearts and Sora belong as much to Disney as to Square Enix, however, so there really is no divorcing the series from the Disney elements.  Perhaps Final Fantasy Versus XIII is to be the Kingdom Hearts team's own The 3rd Birthday, allowing deeper exploration of the action gameplay, intense cinematics, and dark story, away from the obligations to Disney.

So, besides the fact that I'm sick of revisiting these Disney worlds, what else is wrong with Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days?  Well, personally, I don't enjoy exploring 3-D space on handhelds.  On consoles, 3-D (polygons, not glasses) is supposed to draw the player into the TV screen, providing an extra dimension of immersion over old 2-D side-scrollers.  For me, that doesn't work with portable systems because the screen is too small, so I cannot help but notice the real world beyond and around it.  That has always been my biggest issue with the PSP.  But the DS is even worse for 3-D because it additionally suffers from a lack of an analog stick.  Playing Kingdom Hearts with the DS Lite's squishy D-pad is a thumb-blistering nightmare.  That said, I'm still excited for the Nintendo 3DS.  The analog slide pad looks promising, the specs seem powerful enough to make polygons look good on a handheld, and maybe the stereoscopic effect will provide a new level of immersion.  (As an aside, I also find it interesting to see that, with Kirby's Epic Yarn, yet another venerable Nintendo franchise is going 2-D for a major console release.  And with sales of New Super Mario Bros. Wii having shown that consumers don't so much care about 2-D vs. 3-D, maybe there no longer needs to be this generational divide between the two, and developers will just go with what is right on a case-by-case basis, without having to use either polygons or "old-school" as selling points.)

Moving on, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days simply isn't a fun game.  The mission-based structure is just poorly designed.  Like the PSP entries in the Metal Gear Solid series, this handheld take on a traditionally triple-A console game breaks up the story into "bite-sized" episodes for easier consumption on, I suppose, the short breaks or bus rides for which portable gaming is ideal.  You choose missions usually from a short list, then get a bit of story upon successful completion, before returning to the hub world to receive your next assignment.  The problem is that these missions, in my opinion, are not short.  For me, 5-10 minutes is short, but some missions in this game have taken me 30 minutes or more.  Maybe I'm slow, but it doesn't help that the vague mission objectives often leave me wandering and wasting a lot of time.

Because the missions do not proceed in a strictly linear sequence, they cannot involve a lot of plot, the story sequences instead taking place between missions.  Furthermore, instead of making progress through a world as in a more linear game, each world is actually fairly small, and the player is required to explore each fully multiple times, each time completing missions with very slightly different objectives.  Usually, you just have to kill everything until you find and kill the right thing, which is always just a thing, never a named villain with any kind of personality.  So the game offers slow combat with poor controls to fight repetitive waves of monsters in a limited number of environments, most of which were already old two games ago, and in which you must effectively replay the same mission over and over again.  And, boy, did they pad the length of this game with a ton of repetitive missions, some optional, most not.

Finally, there is the multiplayer, which could have saved this game, had it only been integrated better.  It's cooperative play for up to four players, and you actually get to play as characters other than Roxas.  Unfortunately, you cannot progress through the story in multiplayer, even though the multiplayer missions are just stripped-down versions of story mode missions.  Also, a player cannot join in on a multiplayer session unless they have already unlocked that mission through the story mode, so you can't realistically play this mode except with other hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans who would independently make steady progress through the story.

If you are one of those hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans, then 358/2 Days, like Chain of Memories, at least does fill in a few holes in a story that is full of them.  In fact, the story chronology actually overlaps slightly with Chain of Memories, and the two games can occasionally fit together in clever ways a la Resident Evil 2 and 3. But I'm about ten hours in, and there hasn't been a lot of story, or at least not much of interest.  And considering that I'm on Day 99 and the game is titled 358/2 Days, I'm guessing I've got a long way to go.  I don't know that I'll have the dedication to see it through this time, and the game so far hasn't made a very convincing argument that I should.

No comments: