Should I Buy? – Kingdom Hearts II

Tetsuya Nomura has had quite the rags-to-riches story in his career. He’s been working on the Final Fantasy series since IV, and really made his name as the character designer for Final Fantasy VII meaning that he was in part responsible for the radical shift in art direction the series took when it went into 3D.

Since the departure of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshitaka Amano and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy‘s creator, long time character designer and achingly good composer respectively) he’s pretty much the biggest name left in the company and the most prominent remaining guy who helped shape the early Final Fantasy‘s left.

It’s not really where he’s been spending his time though, as he’s the creator, director and lead designer of the new action-JRPG megahit franchise Kingdom Hearts. On paper it’s a silly concept, a gigantic Disney/Final Fantasy crossover in which a young boy wields a magic key across various Disney worlds as he tries to both find Mickey Mouse and hold back the forces of Darkness.

In execution though, it’s worked surprisingly well. See, while the kiddies get to relive their favourite Disney movies in non-terrible videogame form, the more mature players can instead appreciate its solid yet flexible mechanics and increasingly complex metaphysics…as well as being able to relive their favourite Disney movies in non-terrible videogame form.

Kingdom Hearts II is when the series really found firm footing. In it, Sora, Donald and Goofy awaken from a long sleep in Castle Oblivion after the Midquel Chain of Memories to discover that although Ansem’s Heartless has been defeated, the Heartless themselves are still around, and Organization XIII is leading a new kind of monster called the Nobodies in some vaguely sinister plot.

After an overlong and very boring tutorial section and a much more exciting introduction to the new status quo, the game promptly forgets about this for what’s at least a third of its length so Sora and co. can reunite with all their friends from the previous game. This isn’t such a blunder as it sounds, as the inherently nature of multiple small worlds means you get bite sized chunks of action that keep you from noticing this.

They also try to mix things up with the different worlds. Each gives you a character who’ll join your party while you’re there, a few unique Heartless and some mechanic to differentiate it from the others, even if its just a part of the scenery that can cause damage. It doesn’t always work, but it is the better for trying.

Adding Auron to a game is like adding Sean Connery to a film. Awesome, and not enough people do it

All the different locales are well designed and essentially compressed versions of what you remember from the films. Overall, the only place I’d say is ‘bad’ is the Pirates of the Caribbean world. The realistic artstyle is strange enough next to everything else, but the lack of any of the film’s actors makes it near painful.

The combat flows well, with lots of colourful and exciting action filling the screen. This game is easier than the original, though there’s still plenty of challenge to be found on the harder modes. It’s very easy for so much to be going on that you’re not so much fighting as hoping that mashing attack will end in some vague approximation of victory rather than death.

There’s plenty of options to keep things fresh like Limits, your plethora of magical abilities and the new Drive Forms and Reaction Commands which can take some getting used to but are also useful in addition to alleviating the monotony. Still, having to access these from a JRPG style menu on the fly can get more than a little distracting when you’re trying really hard to get turned into mincemeat.

Though the score is fantastic (if not up to Uematsu’s level), the voice actors don’t deliver as well. Whenever the original actor or someone similar enough could be found, like with Hades or Oogie Boogie it’s just as good as their movie versions but none of the other Disney people sound right. The original and Final Fantasy characters sound pretty darn good though.

Aside from the plot and the combat, there’s a plethora of mini-games to be had, mostly originating from Pooh’s Storybook. Nice a distraction as they are, they never rise above being a distraction. They do tend to get weaved into the plot just enough to make sure they don’t outstay their welcome though.

Another thing this entry delivers on is the boss battles. Only a few of them derive their difficulty from unfair gimmicks, the rest are simply really big, really fun enemies to hit with your Keyblade.

Once the game’s plot actually kicks in you might surprised at just how far it goes for a 12+ with its metaphysics and increasingly confusing backstory. Organization XIII are a Rogue’s Gallery of bosses as diverse and entertaining as anything out of Metal Gear Solid.

You might worry that Sora plays like some self-insert designed to be the big hero that makes everything right in the Disney worlds, but instead he plays as a Shonen manga-style kid hero and never really gets annoying. Donald and Goofy also make a nice pair of sidekicks and together they form a trio of heroes that really, really shouldn’t work yet somehow still does.

As to whether you can enjoy this without having played any of the other games, it holds up pretty well as a standalone piece. Sure, there’ll be parts where you scratch your head and wonder what they’re on about but generally enough information to get by and the ending is pretty conclusive if you ignore the vague sequel tease hook that we’re finally getting answers for in Kingdom Hearts 3D.

If you’re looking for a really fun, standalone action-RPG it’s a toss up between this and Birth by Sleep which is mechanically the better game if a bit lacking in content besides the plot and action.

NOTE: The menus are in English, just most of the screen shots easily available are from the Japanese only Final Mix+ version.

Price: (CEX) £15


Blending mechanics, aesthetics and story

My recent forays into Steam’s catalogue of indie games has given me a renewed interest in just how games work, and how developers can blend elements of the design process together to ultimately create something greater than the sum of its parts.

Although before I get started, games have got to stop ripping of Professor Layton style puzzles. Puzzle Agent gets a pass on this for actually being good, the rest of you have no excuse.

Now the narrator as a storytelling technique is hardly new, and the ‘support character over an earpiece’ is a favourite for games trying to include exposition without stopping the flow for cutscenes, and it can also allow for building character through the interaction of two or more people. This is everywhere, from Mercenaries to Mass Effect and other games that don’t start with M.

Another trick is to have the character be narrating the story to someone else, like Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones or Metroid: Other M if you want an example of this done badly.

Now, this is all perfectly serviceable in most cases, but what’s serviceable is merely what’s doing a solid yet thoroughly unspectacular job. As some of my recent purchases have shown me, narration can be used as a potent toll for immersion, storytelling and worldbuilding.

Had I mentioned this game before?

The Stanley Parable and Bastion both feature narrators who provide the sole point of exposition and we gain all we known about the game world through what they tell us. Now in the Stanley Parable the narrator was an active, omniscient presence with an agenda and an Old Testament sense of retribution.

In Bastion the narrator is a character within the world itself, and his narration is him telling the story of the Kid’s exploits while explaining what the hell actually happened to the world. This means a couple of things, the narrator is both fallible and prejudiced. Though he can tell us a great deal about the city of Caelondia and the guilds like the Brushers and Menders, while assuring us all this stuff was wonderful and amazing and fantastic he also balks at the mention of the Gods, is largely ignorant of the Ura and will comment on what actions you actually take.

These ‘dynamic narrators’ that interact with the characters and the plot, or are even integral to them, help to bridge the gap between gameplay and exposition. They also allow the developers to pick and choose the perspective you’re given on the gameworld and influence your decisions while you play.

If these examples are making you think of GlaDos from Portal, that’s probably no coincidence on the developer’s part.

It took me forever to realise I had to take the wheel from the schematics

Another technique I was impressed with was making Tiny Bang Story‘s visuals be its gameplay. This isn’t exactly unique, similar things have been done with games like Rez and Children of Eden, and really it in this case it just feels like the most logical extension of the point-n-click concept. That Roman numeral graffiti isn’t decoration, it’s something you can take to complete a clock. Need a spare wheel for that train? Take it off the diagram.

I’ll be the first to admit that Tiny Bang Story far from perfects this technique. It fails to ever really establish that we can do things like this and the lack of text or speech gives it a certain charm, but also means you have to clue into its logic without any assistance.

Another thing of note was that both Puzzle Agent games include instances where you’re lead to believe that this is a perfectly normal puzzle, only for the real world to intrude on it. One puzzle had an FBI Agent catch you as you were working it out, one had some pieces of the puzzle stolen halfway through and more than once Nelson gives up himself because he doesn’t have the information for the puzzle.

They're not kidding

To set up expectations like this and then drop them with an intrusion of logic that works with the narrative and doesn’t cheat you out of anything is not only a great storytelling method, but could also be a great method of covering up where content had to be cut if used cleverly and creatively.

Another thing designers need to start doing is relearn the old JRPG trick of having a character’s abilities be tied into who they are. Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, IX and X all had good examples of this.

Cthulhu's here to save the day and destroy civilisations, and he's all out of civilisations

I recently saw it to some extent in Cthulhu Saves the World in a way that really left me wishing the game had done more to integrate it. Cthulhu could make enemies insane in battle, which could really help or hinder you. If only the characters had had more differentiated skills rather than just vague archetypes.

A few more things from Bastion, explaining game mechanics with an in-universe reason. To make the game more difficult, you invoke the Gods, who’re pissed at you. The Pike & Revolvers works so well in the wilderness levels because they were used by people who explored and tried to tame those areas. The reason each upgrade level offers you two mutually exclusive options is because they’re alternate forms of the same component. Giving reasons why things are there and how they work might require some extra legwork but it can really enrich what’s otherwise an age old mechanic or story trope.

El-Shaddai looks pwetty

I’ve hardly been able to play every indie game I want, but from my brief foray I can see that this is where the real experimentation is at. Nerds may run comics and Hollywood, but I have a feeling that the business suits and by-the-number developers of the gaming industry will give way to more experimental and visionary people. Look at Catherine or El Shaddai. Hell, look at Kingdom< Hearts‘ complex metaphysics and philosophical aspects.

Should I Buy? – Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep

This was reviewed here before by a friend of mine, and you can find the original by using that pretty little search bar up there if you fancy, but there are things I want to say about this game and so here goes.

Kingdoms Hearts Birth Sleep is the sixth game in the franchise to be created but takes place first canonically. Kingdom Hearts itself at first looked like some cutesy cross between Final Fantasy and Disney but has grown into a surprisingly complex and difficult series of Action-RPGs master-minded by long time Square Enix artist turned writer/director Tetsuya Nomura.

The series has a rich internal mythology mostly concerned with the balance of light and darkness, the intangible power of the ‘heart’ as some spiritual force and the result of losing said heart. By now the series contains creatures that technically don’t exist, and one who now never existed in the first place, causality be damned. Luckily, you’re not required to know any of this to play Birth by Sleep.

The game itself takes place ten years before the first game and is basically an origins story for the series recurring protagonist told through a trio of young Keyblade Wielders, apparently the last heirs to this ancient order. Each one of these wielders gets their own playable storyline, and playing all of them is necessary to understanding what’s really going on.

First is Terra, a quiet and brooding older boy with great strength and will but troubled by darkness in his heart. Next is Ventus, a cheerful and friendly young boy with an incredibly pure heart who’d do anything for his friends. All you Kingdom Hearts fans should be picking up the obvious links by now. Finally, there’s Aqua, the blue-haired magic specialist who, unlike most girls in this franchise so far, doesn’t depend on the protection, love or approval of a man and instead kicks all kind of Unversed ass.

On the franchise’s gender politics, I never felt that there was any real sexism on the part of the developers but when your dramatis personae is drawn mainly from old animated Disney films, and the strength shown by characters like Jasmin and Belle tends to be overshadowed when Sora and Beast are tearing through hordes of Heartless. Luckily, Aqua’s here to show that the woman of this universe kick just as much ass as the men.

Those of you who’ve played a previous Kingdom Hearts game will be familiar with the basic setup here, though there’s been a lot of tweaking and stremaling to make everything faster and better balanced.

Now your menu of all your learned spells and all your items is replaced with the Command Panels. You can equip panels that you buy and find into the limited slots in your menu, and then simply move between them with the D-Pad and cast with Triangle. This may sound limiting, but it’s much more efficient. As you use these abilities, they level up and you can fuse two panels to create a new one, allowing you to explore new attacks and play styles.

Also up is your ability to Shotlock, which can make some bosses pretty much trivial. There’s also the D-Link, where you can fuse your with the memories of characters you encounter to unlock sets of Command Panels based around them and powerful Finisher moves.

Finally are the Command Styles. By using moves of a certain type, like a Fire move, you can enter a Command Style. These are themed around whatever you just used and later in the game you get the ability to use advanced Styles that can entered from a previous style. These are a great addition to the combat, allowing you to change things up on the fly and use powerful attacks to decimate even the toughest of foes. Unfortunately, a boss’ attack patterns can mean that these styles are difficult to enter or maintain just when they’d be most useful.

All of these new options (added with the fact that every single damn Command Panel, Style, Shotlock, D-Link and Finisher is really useful if used right) mean that the combat is much more varied than all the previous incarnations of the series, which is a good thing because there’s bugger all besides.

The worlds feel empty, even moreso than before. Only plot essential characters show up, and a good deal of them disappear when there’s not a cutscene for them to be in. Take Cinderella’s Ball, there’s only her, the Prince, a servant the wicked stepmother and the ugly stepsisters there. I understand that UMD isn’t the best format for large crowds, but come on Squeenix, really?

This also means a lack of sidequests. There’s exactly four minigames, one set of collectible items and once non-storyline location. And even that’s just an arena used for multiplayer. I want to forgive the game this because the plot and combat work so well, but I can’t help but feel that this game is pretty damn bare-bones. Birth By Sleep would need to include at least a special Boss fight mode for this problem to be addressed.

As for the characters themselves, a few will be familiar to fans of the franchise. Mickey, Yen Sid, Pete, Maleficent and others return. The Final Fantasy trappings have been further demoted to the character of Zack and the Moogle shopkeepers. The Disney worlds seen here are based mainly on the earlier works of Disney, and these don’t really lend themselves well to great characters. Fortunately, the original characters and returning players bring enough to cancel this out.

Terra plays as a slow moving bruiser, and is essentially the game’s easy mode as he can take most hits in his stride and his high strength means you don’t have to worry much about all the different types of magic. Ventus is the fragile speedster type, though unfortunately so much so that his basic combo can’t kill the very first enemy. Aqua’s the most difficult to use, but by far the most rewarding. Magic is incredibly useful in this game, and she outstrips everyone with it.

Oh! I forgot to mention the Command Board! This monopoly like minigame is strictly optional, and can be played against friends or the computer and lets you gain and level up all sorts of different Command Panels, including a few only found here.

I’d also like to give a special mention to the villain being played by Leonard Nimoy and your Master having Mark Hammil as an actor. That is awesome.

But ultimately, should you buy it? Yes, fans of the franchise should. If you’re looking for an entry point, this is probably your best shot outside of the original. But if you’re just looking for a really good PSP game, this certainly fits that criteria, though you might object to the price.

Price: (CEX) £18

Guest Review – Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep

This is a special guest review by user suzukiwillow of Square’s PSP exclusive, Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep. You can see the original at:

If anybody’s interested, I’ll do a counter-review that talks more about the gameplay and other such points that were kinda glossed over here. Hell, I might do that anyway.

The version shown here has been slightly edited for profanity, length and to keep it more in line with what I’m trying to do here.

It’s 3:15AM. Why am I awake, you ask? Well, I have just played two hours of Birth By Sleep (BBS) for the PSP. There are no spoilers in this.

Now, Let me first state before I go any further, I am not an avid Kingdom Hearts (KH) fan; but I have seriously been trying to like it for the past however many years. If you’re a fan, know this entry will end positively, if you’re not, enjoy my reasons for KH-hate.

I have tried to play KH1. I tried, honest to God, I tried; in fact, I’m still trying to play it. Every so often I’ll feel a bought of zeal like, ‘yeah let’s love this game!’ but omg. The battle system is horrid. The gummie-ship is a joke. The travelling-between-worlds-experience is the shittiest navigation system since Star Fox 64/Lylat Wars (except Star Fox was fun). The levels are stupidly, stupidly hard for simpletons like me who play RPGs for the, you know, role-playing and not constant hack and slash. And last but not least, I could not give a flying frack about any of the characters. Well, except Riku, but he’s not in it enough for me to want to keep playing.

Therein lies the biggest fault. Riku, Squall (his name is not Leon) and Cloud are the only ones I care about in KH1 – Cloud and Squall slightly redundant because I know and love them from Final Fantasy (FF) VII and VIII (here be the FF nerd). Also, Squall has hysterically dirty lines in KH if you read them wrong.

So moving on…

KH2, again, I’ve watched some gameplay because I thought: at least I personally won’t have to deal with the crappy battlesystem. Nah, I didn’t have a clue what was going on and I still didn’t care.

Which brings me to Birth By Sleep (cause let’s be honest. There’s no way I was going to, or ever will, touch Chain of Memories or 358/2 Days). I saw the trailers and thought, ‘well, it’s definitely pretty and the producers/animators have been watching gmvs for scene transitions, but there is no way I’m attempting to play it,’ when – hold on – ‘did I just see Zack Fair?’

Good. Heavens. Don’t get me started on how much I love Zack Fair, from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. I would travel the world, steal the Enterprise, defeat the Cylons and heal all the Nobodies just meet Zack-freakin-Fair. My heart; it’s throbbing.

When I found out that not only is Zack Fair in BBS but that BBS is the prequel to the series (so I don’t have to know the KH plots) I bought it as soon as I could.

It’s amazing.

The scenes draw great parallels from the original games (mind-screw) and the artwork is super smooth. I guess this is even more enjoyable to die-hard fans because I can tell the game makes a lot of hints at Sora, Roxas and Riku, but I don’t know enough to appreciate these moments. Meh. Roxas: who? Ansem: never met the first one let alone the alleged others! But I digress.

As pointed out by my cousin (a die-hard fan), who watched me play the first 25 minutes over my shoulder, the music is slightly jazzed up but very nostalgic, which works well. My cousin left before the music got super good, but believe me, it has a bouncy, enrapturing quality. The boss battle music, so far, is hilariously J-Pop. J’adore.

The main characters themselves are, at first glance, an imitation of the original three; but! they are thankfully not the same after all. Sure, the same archetypes have been churned out and Terra is wanking on about the same tripe as Riku – but you know what, I care about him – and that’s all I’ve ever wanted from KH in the first place. I know there’s a good story to be told (somewhere) but who is Sora and why should I care? >_O

Aqua. Damn. Not only is she hot but she is A GREAT, NOT IRRITATING, FEMALE LEAD – OMGWHUT? Her voice actress, Willa Holland, is also fantastic. She has a real earthy, mature voice, which definitely helps.

Terra, on the other hand, geeeh… His voice actor, Jason Dohring, is not bad but I personally know amateur voice actors who could do a better job. Dohring has potential, that’s for sure. Ven, however…

Jesse McCartney voices Ventus. Well, I guess I got used to it. At first, I was concerned because his diction was so poor, but either I got used to it quick or McCartney improved between recording the prologue and the opening chapter. I’d like to think it was the latter.

The set-up is divided into three chunks so far, but I’m guessing it will eventually be four. You play each character from the beginning of their story to the end, no swapping in between, and then figure out the plot holes by slotting all three storylines together; which I personally love the idea of and am keen to amalgamate. I’ve started with Terra’s story because I hate, well, no, dislikeVentus and adore Aqua, so I’m saving her for last. Despite the familiar Riku-characteristics, I am becoming quite fond of Terra in his own right.

Onto gameplay: super fun. Enough said. I enjoy it, and that’s a first. Also, save points restore all health – YES! One thing though, I’m still confused as to how you are meant to level up, equip and ‘meld’ abilities. I feel they looked at Final Fantasy X and thought, “we can do that; but sleeker!” Well, it’s definitely shiny but the simplicity of the design was lost somewhere… Maybe I’m just a moron.

Travelling between worlds: freaking bliss. I gasped with glee at how clean, simple, wooshy and fun space travel is in this instalment. Good God, it’s wonderful. You can whizz around space storms for as long or as little as you like, and not get lost.

So to wrap this up: the battle system, like any game, requires a little getting used to but certainly works. Space travel no longer makes me stressed. The new enemy designs are familiar but nicely redone. The voice acting is as balanced with good and bad actors/lines as it ever was. The music is wonderful and the plot actually progresses. But best of all, I love the new characters; Aqua still at the top.

It looks like I’m not just playing this for baby-Zack anymore. Well done, Squeenix. It’s now 4:30AM.

Come back next time to see Willow kick herself in the mouth for everything she said in this amateur review! *thumbs up*

So there you have it, my new editor’s grand entrance. It is, however up to me to finish this review off by answering the question, should I buy this? Yes. If you have a PSP this is one of the richest games available on the tragically under-served system. You don’t have to be a Kingdom Hearts fan to enjoy this game, but it certainly helps and its my personal favourite of the series. This is an action-RPG that’s a bit on the pricey side, but definitely worth it as the story is very replayable and caps out at anywhere from 30-40 hours. And considering the amount of people that’ll pay full price for a shooter with an 8 hour campaign, I’d say the price is definitely worth it.

Price: £15-£20 (multiple sources)

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