Kingdom Hearts – Halfway There

I first became a fan of Kingdom Hearts in 2002 when the original game released on PS2. I still remember the commercial, back when commercials were the main way we learned about new video games. I was already a Disney fan and a Final Fantasy fan, having just played FFX for the first time less than a year before. The idea of playing a game that mixed the two things with real time combat blew my mind. I don’t think I ever could have even imagined such a game on my own. I preordered that game. Been in love with the franchise ever since. Two years later they released a spin off title, Chain of Memories, on the Game Boy Advance. I actually had a GBA at the time but I refused to buy the game. I refused to play into the predatory practice of releasing soft sequels and spinoffs on handheld platforms. So I skipped over Chain of Memories.

A year after Chain of Memories released, Kingdom Hearts II finally released. I of course preordered it even though I hadn’t played Chain of Memories. I assumed that, like most spin off titles of the time, it didn’t matter much. I was wrong. Two years after Kingdom Hearts II released, they ported Chain of Memories to the PS2. Because it was now available on home console and I could get it for $20, I bought, played, and hated Re: Chain of Memories. I should clarify that the gameplay is specifically what I hated about the game. Story wise, it’s really important to the franchise. The stuff that gets explained in that game ends up being key to Kingdom Hearts II.

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While I was angry about the fact that Square Enix had released a spinoff title with key plot information, I had hoped that like with Kingdom Hearts II, I could skip them and still kind of get the gist of what was going on by playing Kingdom Hearts III. In the time since I played Chain of Memories for the first time, it took Square Enix 12 years, four spinoffs, two plot relevant app games, and countless ports to finally release Kingdom Hearts III. And please note that Kingdom Hearts III was originally announced to be a PS3 title. In fact, it’s the main reason I ultimately wanted a PS3. I didn’t play a single Kingdom Hearts game after Re: Chain of Memories until I finally got a hard release date for Kingdom Hearts III.

As if by an act of divine intervention, Square Enix released the Kingdom Hearts All-In-One collection. Basically this is every Kingdom Hearts game ported to PS4 as a single purchase. That’s exactly what I had been asking for since they release 2.5 Remix. So I bought the collection and decided to start back at the beginning and play all the Kingdom Hearts games in order and finally get to play Kingdom Hearts III, and hopefully get a real conclusion to the story. I’m less than 20 hours into Birth by Sleep, meaning I’m about halfway through the series. Plus I’m caught up on Kingdom Hearts Union Cross, the app game which also affects the plot. It’s actually heavily tied to Birth by Sleep. So what I want to do today is not so much summarize the plot of Kingdom Hearts up to this point but rather the experience of playing them all back to back. I’m now somewhere between 130 and 150ish hours into the franchise and I still have a long ways to go. But for some reason I felt like I had kind of reached a milestone point because I’m now playing content that is completely new to me, so I wanted to write a post about it.

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I think it’s fair to say that of all the game franchises I’ve played, Kingdom Hearts is the most convoluted, confusing, and tied together. Many franchises spin far off from their previous games. Assassin’s Creed is one of the best examples of this. Many franchises assume you’ve played previous games. Metal Gear Solid does this in ways that I found excruciatingly annoying even though I played them all in order going back to the MSX titles. But really no other franchise I’ve played is as unplayable as Kingdom Hearts is when you haven’t played all the previous titles. There are so many important details scattered throughout these games that later matter a lot. Like if you play Kingdom Hearts II without having played both Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days, like I did the first time I played it, you go in missing extremely important plot details which make the first several hours of that game quite confusing. Mostly because the game starts you off by playing as a character that didn’t even exist during the events of the first game. You also spend more than three quarters of the game thinking the main villain from the first game has returned only to discover that not only has he not returned but that the person you thought was him was actually the main character’s best friend in disguise.

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Now if you play those two spin off titles first, you know all of this stuff. It all comes together fairly consistently, even though it is still kind of confusing to understand exactly what’s going on. Then when you finish Kingdom Hearts II and log back into the game to do the extras a special boss is introduced. A similar thing was done with Kingdom Hearts I. This special boss leads into the next game. But what you don’t realize if you skip the spin off titles is that the special boss leads into the next spin off title, not core game. So this special boss shows up coupled with an epic ending movie, if you have Final Mix and did everything to unlock it, and shows you a bunch of crazy shit that you cannot begin to guess the meaning of, even if you have played Kingdom Hearts Union Cross, which is directly tied to the next game, Birth by Sleep. I sometimes see people online saying they skipped some of the game or just jumped directly into Kingdom Hearts III and I genuinely feel bad for them. Because I assume trying to piece together that story from a vague opening movie and a bunch of random characters from Final Fantasy, Disney, and original Kingdom Hearts characters is probably more difficult than trying to understand the Arrowverse by starting with Legends of Tomorrow season 3.

If you do somehow stick with it and make it to Birth by Sleep, you get thrown for a loop in ways that I can’t even think of another example to compare it to. Like imagine if you watched the first five seasons of Game of Thrones and then the first episode of the sixth season was the first episode of House of Cards. That is what it’s like to start Birth by Sleep as someone who actually played all the previous games in order.

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Birth by Sleep starts with an epic opening movie, as all the Kingdom Hearts games do, but the music is the song used in Kingdom Hearts I and Chain of Memories. This is odd because there’s a different theme song for Kingdom Hearts II. The opening movie features three characters, two male and one female, which is reminiscent of the three main non-Disney characters from the previous game and the first game. But none of these three characters look like those original three characters. But one of them does look like a character from the second spin off and main game that’s sort of a spirit doppelganger of the main character so you think it’s him and that the other two characters are spirit doppelgangers of the other two main characters, which would have kind of made sense at that point in the franchise. Ignoring the fact that the female character already had a spirit doppelganger introduced. But that was an artificial one so it doesn’t count . . .

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So you think you’re about to start a game about the three main characters’ spirit doppelgangers until they start dropping names and you realize you have no idea who any of these characters are. You’ve never heard their names before. You don’t know any of the characters they’re talking to. You’ve never seen the world they live in. The one reference you get early on to the past game(s) is a name drop tied to a character that looks nothing like anyone you’ve seen before. Which is fine because they’ve already introduced the idea of spirit doppelgangers except they also said spirit doppelgangers look similar to their original forms. This guy doesn’t look anything like the previous version(s) of the character with the same name. Then when they finally introduce the enemies, you’ve never heard of them previously. By this point in the franchise, they’ve already introduced two “races” of monsters. Now you’re introduced to a third one. The first four games you’ve played by this point have nothing to do with this game other than the presence of key shaped weapons. Once you get about six hours in you start to realize that this is actually a prequel to Kingdom Hearts I. The main clues to this are you meet the original form of a guy you previously met the spirit doppelganger of and you meet a young Hercules. In Kingdom Hearts I, Hercules is already a grown man. In Birth by Sleep, he’s still a teenager.

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Basically I don’t actually know what’s going on anymore. I have ideas because of the app game and few clues that have allowed me to form theories, but I genuinely can’t say why I’m playing this current game, which has three playable characters with their own storylines, as far as the plot is concerned. I do expect it to all connect by the end of Birth by Sleep, but this is a spin off title so there’s a good chance that won’t happen. And it’s not a fun experience playing Birth by Sleep after Kingdom Hearts II. The other games, including Chain of Memories, centered on the main characters traveling with friends and working together to fight enemies and save the worlds. Birth by Sleep has you play alone. You don’t have a squad. You don’t get healing support. You just fly solo. It’s not impossibly hard but it is a lonely gameplay experience after getting so used to traveling with Donald and Goofy.

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The totally unrelated story isn’t the only problem I have with Birth by Sleep. The gameplay is a noticeable step backwards from Kingdom Hearts II. Which isn’t a surprise considering it’s a spin off title originally released for the PSP. All the spin off titles have garbage gameplay compared to the core games. The leveling and technique development system is better though because it allows the player to develop faster and in ways that suit their own play style and interests.

I hope I haven’t turned off anyone considering playing the Kingdom Hearts franchise, because that honestly wasn’t my intention here. The core titles are great games that truly revolutionized action RPGs in their time. And they really have aged fairly well. But it is definitely a demanding collection of games that many will get bored with or utterly confused by without being diligent. I will continue my journey to Kingdom Hearts III. I have waited more than a decade to play this game and I’m finally getting towards the finish line.

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Can We Be Done With Grinding?

I’ve been playing RPGs for a long time but not the longest time. My first serious RPG that I actually finished was Pokemon Red (1998) on the Gameboy. It’s important to note that as a handheld RPG the experience of playing it is/was much different than that of a home console RPG. It wasn’t until three years later that I beat Final Fantasy X (2001) on the PS2. While this was not the first console RPG I ever played, it was the first one I ever finished. The first one I can remember playing was Digimon World (1999) on the PS1. I put many hours into this game and enjoyed it quite a bit but was ultimately never able to complete it, which I actually blame on design flaws due to the nature of the generation style gameplay. Call me a noob if you want, but that’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. I had been aware of RPGs like the highly prestigious Final Fantasy VII, but I never completed any console RPGs before FFX. I consider this the true start point of my love for RPGs. And I still consider FFX the best FF after having now played FFVII, FFX, FFXII, FFXIII, and some spin off titles.

I would now consider myself a high level RPG enthusiast. I have and continue to play both Western and JRPGs such as SoulsBorne, Nioh, Elder Scrolls, The Division (I’d say it counts), Xenoblade Chronicles, Pokemon, Dragon Age, and of course Kingdom Hearts. This genre has evolved considerably since I first started playing it. Gameplay has changed from turn based to active and real time combat. The level of customization has evolved from a single weapon and armor to countless pieces of gear, accessories, skill trees, and even aesthetic appearance. Dialog has become dynamic and consequential. In a lot of ways we are kind of living through the golden age of RPGs. But one thing has remained consistent over all these generations of consoles and games. I’m of course talking about grinding.

FFX

Grinding, or training as we called it in my youth, is the process of battling enemies over and over again with no relevance to plot progression. It is merely a way to strengthen your character(s) in order to make combat easier. Often this occurs when you’re stuck on a boss or area and can’t progress forward in the plot. But often it’s just for the vanity of reaching the level cap. In any case, it’s the most mindless part of playing any RPG but is required to complete just about all of them, in some form.

Some games handle grinding better than others. The Division 2 did a great job of handling baseline grinding to the level 30 cap, in my opinion. It’s organic, as in you just play through the base game and by the time you clear all the missions and side activities you’re at or above level 30. You don’t have to really grind because you never have to replay any content to reach maximum level. But as this is a loot shooter, you will then spend an exorbitant amount of time replaying missions for better gear, which yes does count as grinding in its own way, but I won’t include it for the purposes of argument in the point I’m trying to make in this particular post.

Tom Clancy's The Division 2 Screenshot 2019.03.18 - 01.39.53.91

Some games meet you in the middle with grinding, where it’s not required, ignoring trophies, but can be used as a tool. Final Fantasy X is like this. You can grind to pretty much unlimited levels, amassing unnecessarily high strength stats, making all bosses a cake walk. But you aren’t required to do this. You can challenge whatever boss you’re at whenever you want. If you’re good enough, by implementing strategy, you can progress without grinding. You will almost certainly have to do at least a bit of grinding though as the bosses get progressively harder and you need better magic spells. In general though, the model used for grinding in the game is very balanced. You don’t have to do it, but you can, and when you do there’s no reason to try to fully max out your characters. You just do it enough to get to the strength level that makes you happy/comfortable.

Finally, some games just shit on the players by forcing them to grind. That doesn’t necessarily mean the game sucks as a whole. It just means that the implementation of grinding within the game is predatory in nature because it acts as a time sink to artificially lengthen the game. This is most often done in games with either level minimums to progress past a certain point in the plot or stat requirements for gear. You see this a lot in Soulsborne games. You find a piece of gear and it’s better than what you currently have equipped but you can’t use it till you reach a higher specific stat. But raising stats is tied to leveling. So you then have to spend a bunch of time grinding out levels just so you can equip a new piece of gear. This is burdensome and honestly pointless. It’s not a level threshold that defines any sort of skill level or ability to move forward in the game. It’s just a wall from content placed behind time played vs dollars spent. Such a system may have been passable back in the days where there were few RPGs and kids needed games to last longer because of cost issues. But the mechanic was never really a good thing as far as objective game design criticism.

Souls series

Making games arbitrarily longer with no ties/relevance to story is simply bad design. The saving grace of Soulsborne games in this instance is that you technically can progress forward without needing to use that piece of gear. Because of mechanics things like summoning help, you don’t actually have to take any time to grind in Soulsborne games if you don’t want to. So From Software took the time to balance their grinding system out, which is why I wouldn’t criticize those games overall on the issue of grinding, even though I’ve used them here to exemplify this predatory grinding mechanic.

As I said, I’ve been playing RPGs for many years and still do. Recently I finished Kingdom Hearts II on Proud Mode. It took me 55 hours including all the bonus stuff I could be asked to do.  I maxed out all the drive forms, defeated Sephiroth, beat all the Organization XIII members/Absent Silhouettes, defeated Lingering Will, grabbed all the puzzle pieces, and solved all the puzzles. So it’s finally time to move on to the next game in the collection as I make my way to Kingdom Hearts III. One of the things I did was reach level 99. I always do this in main Kingdom Hearts games for a few reasons. Part of it is the trophy, part of it is that the amount of time it takes me to get all the materials to fully finish the synthesis list gets me close enough to make it worth going the rest of the way, and part of it is the difficulty of the Sephiroth battle. In the case of KHII, I spent an unnecessary amount of time grinding. Not a preposterous amount like I have in other RPGs, but more time than should have been wasted on mindless grinding. And if you count farming for materials as part of grinding then that amount of wasted hours balloons even more. But I did it because it’s just what you (I) do in these games.

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As I was finishing up the climb to level 99, I asked myself, “why is this still a thing?” Why are we still being asked to grind in RPGs? For some games, such as the aforementioned Soulsborne titles, you’re not really grinding because death is a key mechanic to the gameplay. So while grinding does happen, you’re never really able to say that you’re mindlessly grinding. And since there isn’t really a level cap, you don’t have any reason to grind other than the need to get stronger. So I don’t really include games like that in the discussion. But in normal xp focused RPGs I don’t see any practical reason for grinding to be a thing in 2019. If I’ve already killed an enemy 100 times, clearly I’ve mastered fighting that enemy. So at that point why not just allow me to automatically level up to wherever I want to be rather that making me refight the same enemies over and over and over again? I know what level I want to get to. I know why I’m leveling up. I’m not looking for any specific items. I just want/need xp to reach my level goals.

It seems preposterous in 2019 to have to waste time mindlessly killing enemies for experience points that you don’t need to progress forward in the game. The fact is that I didn’t need to hit level 99 to finish the game. I probably didn’t even need to hit level 99 to beat Sephiroth. So what is the actual value in taking the time to reach level 99? Or more to the point, why is getting to level 99 such a time sink? It’s just making the game take longer unnecessarily. Now KHII is a game from 14 years ago, so obviously it’s not fair to cast a blanket shadow over the RPGs of today based on that game. But has much about grinding really changed in 14 years? Not really. Some has been done to make the grinding seem more justified like trying to tie it a bit more into the story or gear in order to give it the appearance of legitimacy. But it doesn’t change the fact that in the bulk of RPGs players are still forced to mindlessly battle the same foes over and over for xp, past any point of actual learning. It’s referred to as grinding because it’s a real grind as opposed to an entertaining, educational, or relevant experience. So at that point, why are we still doing it? And note that I’m not asking why as in we as players should stop hitting the level cap. I’m asking why as in developers should remove or streamline this mechanic in games.

FF7 Level Up

I never played Final Fantasy VII as a kid. I played the PS4 HD port last year. And you know what, I’m fairly certain it was way better than the original. The PS4 port has cheats built into it. Not cheats that make the game easier. Just cheats that make the game faster. You can increase the speed of the game as far as how fast everything moves including battles, walking, and text. You can increase the accumulation of xp so you can grind less but level up faster. And you can increase the speed of special move/overdrive accumulation so that special moves don’t require you to go do a bunch of random battles to fill them up. And the best part is you can toggle these on and off at literally any time. This is not an easy mode. These are quality of life changes that the player has full autonomy over at all times. What used to take a hundred or more hours now can be done in under 50. The story isn’t affected. The gameplay isn’t affected. And unless you count the hours spent grinding as part of the difficulty, the challenge of the game isn’t affected. This was a great modern port and I’m glad I got to finally finish FFVII because of it. Which leaves me asking the question, why aren’t more RPGs like this?

I don’t mind farming for materials. It’s annoying but it’s a legitimate part of the challenge of the game. I don’t mind having a level up mechanic. That’s what an RPG is. But in 2019 with a huge backlog of games, many of them being RPGs, I just don’t want to spend tons of hours grinding. I don’t want to do it because it’s not fun and it’s not legitimately challenging. Grinding is not difficulty. It’s a waste of my time. Once I’ve killed an enemy x number of times, just let me pick the level I want to upgrade to so I can move on. Even if it just became an endgame mechanic in RPGs, that would be fine. Like once you hit that open world backtracking portion of the game and a certain minimum level or number of kills has been done, the game should just let you choose what level to upgrade to. Or at the very least let you increase the xp multiplier by a considerable amount. That was one of the things I didn’t know about KHII while playing the bulk of it. You can triple your xp accumulation if you’re using a certain keyblade, which I didn’t get until I was already in the high 80’s but could have gotten back at like level 50. That would have made the endgame way more efficient.

FFX Sphere Grid

As long as it’s fun, I don’t mind. Like if there are new enemies to tackle and rewards to find, then I’m fine with leveling up manually. But if I’m reengaging the same enemies in the same areas countless times for items I absolutely don’t need, like in the case of KHII, then what’s the point? When you don’t have any other games to play and no money, it’s fine. As a kid, spending more than a hundred hours on FFX, Kingdom Hearts I, and The Elder Scroll IV: Oblivion was great. It gave me something to do. But as an adult with The Witcher 2, The Witcher 3, The Surge, Dark Souls 3, Final Fantasy XV, World of Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts III all on my “short” list with countless other games on my backlog in total, I don’t need to waste a single minute on throwaway gameplay. And I shouldn’t have to. I don’t want games to be easier. I don’t even want them to be shorter. I just want them to be meaningful for every minute of the game. If it’s not a meaningful experience or at the very least something I haven’t done before, then I shouldn’t be forced to do it more than a handful of times to reach my goal. This is not a discussion about making Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice easier. That shouldn’t happen. This is a discussion about how a Final Fantasy VII HD Remake won’t be a better game than the original if you still have to pour in countless hours to level up just to fight a bonus boss for a trophy. I guess what I’m saying is can we just be done with grinding?

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.