Playing Kingdom Hearts For the First Time in 2020: Why Did I Do This To Myself?

No Caption Provided

Here We Go...

I’ve been with my partner for six years. She is a stone-cold brilliant, beautiful woman with a wonderful sense of humor, an endless supply of artistic creativity, and the talent to match. She is the love of my life and I’m thankful every day that we are together. I bring this up because I am very glad I played Kingdom Hearts now. You see, it’s one of her favorite childhood games, and if I had played it back at the beginning of our relationship, her love of this…thing may very well have split us apart. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a little bit, but goddam, what the hell was this? I don’t know if I exactly regret playing Kingdom Hearts, but I do feel like a worse person for having played it.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve written a blog post, on Giant Bomb or any other website. I don’t particularly care to put my long-form thoughts on the internet because I don’t think the world really needs another rando gamer shouting into the void. That, and I’m also lazy. But Kingdom Hearts broke me. I need to speak my truth. I need to confess what I have done.

It is my own fault, of course. I entered this willingly. I could have stopped at any time. When I saw that the 1.5 + 2.5 Remix bundle was free on Game Pass in the midst of These Unprecedented Times, it seemed as good an opportunity as any to tick another one off the list of my SO’s favorites (as it currently stands: Kingdom Hearts, Psychonauts, Metal Gear Solid 3 and Resident Evil 4 down, Bioshock 2 and The Suffering to go). I genuinely, truly wanted to give this thing a good faith shake, to take it on its own terms in spite of all the internet baggage it’s accumulated over the years, all the memes, the dunks, the corpses of failed Giant Bomb video features. But sometimes it turns out that the naysayers are onto something. Maybe it was good back in the early ‘00s (I’ve got my doubts), but playing Kingdom Hearts for the first time in 2020, The Hell Year, is largely an infuriating and baffling experience. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s outright irredeemably terrible, but it’s not not irredeemably terrible either.

The Good Stuff

I’ll start with What I Liked. Not a long list, but a list nonetheless. From a bird’s eye view, the whackadoodle premise is just plain fun and I’m here for it. I’m a sucker for weird crossovers, the kind of person who gets really deep into the implications of St. Elsewhere’s finale at two in the morning after a few too many drinks. The anecdote of the game being birthed from an elevator conversation between Disney and Square execs is probably my favorite bit of video game errata. The promise of a tour de force of Disney sightseeing facilitated by action RPG hijinks is a fun pitch on paper, and some of that pitch admittedly bore fruit. Seeing the title card of a new world pop up never failed to give me a bit of a thrill, the summons are delightful, and the attention to detail in the deep cuts and character choices mostly demonstrates a clear understanding and appreciation of the House of Mouse’s catalog. It’s a shame about all that anime getting in the way, but I really can’t fairly complain about that…it is Square game, after all, and Aerith and Sephiroth and Yuffie and all their chums needed to make their perfunctory appearances or it could hardly be called a crossover, now could it? That said, I was actually surprised how minimal the Final Fantasy representation was. I was expecting at least, like, a Shinra Electric Power Company world or something, but apart from character and boss cameos there was pretty much nothing. I’m not a Final Fantasy person beyond that one time I accidentally played all of Crisis Core with no context, so I’m not exactly complaining, but it’s kinda weird? Then again, Sora’s whole look north of his Krusty the Klown shoes couldn’t be a better distillation of post-polygonal Final Fantasy vibes if he tried, so I guess that’s where it all got concentrated.

Where was I? Oh right. The Good Stuff.

No, I don't know why I made this either
No, I don't know why I made this either

The Disney tourism is nice, but it gets muddled, first by the aforementioned anime but then even more so by the tech. Wait, don’t go anywhere, this is actually a good thing! Graphically, the 1.5 Remix update throws all the strengths and flaws of the original art direction and world design into sharp and strange relief. From a technical perspective it’s understandable, the chunky textures and shoebox zones a product of the limitations of the Playstation 2 technology. But playing it in crisp, clear HD on an Xbox One X makes the whole thing seem distinctly off, in a way I actually really enjoy. The diorama-like worlds evoke less the dynamic and sumptuous settings of the movies they purport to represent and more a creepy surreal claustrophobia, Disneyland by way of a dying child’s dream. I had a friend half-jokingly describe Kingdom Hearts as the Twin Peaks of video games, and in some ways that really doesn’t feel too far off. I don’t think I agree with their assertion that this Power of Friendship schlock is an effective exploration of the “realm of existence that lies within the psyche using Jungian psychology,” but it’s hard to deny Kingdom Hearts’ pervasive sense of baffling, Lynchian unreality. Weird cartoon people standing in eerily empty pop-up environments spouting melodramatic platitudes through poorly-dubbed lips is just The Red Room feat. Donald Duck. And that’s great! The more Kingdom Hearts feels like some sort of weird existential horror creepypasta, the closer it gets to being actually enjoyable. Finding my way into the Hundred Acre Wood and hearing my precious good time boy Pooh Bear trying to figure out how to say goodbye to himself in case he disappears like all his missing friends? That’s the good shit right there. Give me way more of that, way less of everything else and baby, you got yourself a stew going.

But alas, that is the entirety of the good shit.

Everything Else

Let’s start with the story. The Kingdom Hearts franchise, of course, has the reputation for having a convoluted nonsense quagmire of a narrative. I dunno how the series goes from here, but up until the tail end (more on that later) the first game is not especially complex. It’s mostly just a bunch of DARKNESS and LIGHT and POWER OF FRIENDSHIP pablum with a heart fetish. It smacks of a plot hastily thrown together to facilitate the Disney + Final Fantasy = $$$ equation, and understandably so. A bit boring, but mostly legible—until the very end, the warning signs that this franchise is going to eventually break down into a confusing meme morass are mostly confined to the edges. They manifest as vagaries and missing details, things that don’t outright hide the big picture but rather start to blur it, like a slow creeping cataract. Sometimes they add to that fun sense of unreality, but usually they just kinda makes things unclear and difficult to fully engage with, raising a lot of questions that were either wholly unanswered or whose answers were so buried in collectibles or codexes that I never encountered them in a pretty thorough 30 hour playthrough. For example: what’s up with Sora’s whole family that he clearly had on Destiny Islands that are never mentioned ever again after the Heartless invade? What’s the Hundred Acre Wood’s whole deal? Why is Monstro just chilling in Gummi Space? Why are some Heartless friendly Toad knockoffs? How did Riku wind up in Hollow Bastion and not in Traverse Town like all the other random castaways?

Fuck. This. Dude. Seriously.
Fuck. This. Dude. Seriously.

Speaking of Riku, my biggest question about the whole enterprise is why the game keeps insisting that he’s a way cool dude worthy of redemption, when he’s clearly established to be a total dick even before Maleficent and Ansem step in? He sucks! He’s the worst! Two flashbacks of vaguely good times and trying his very best to close a door before Mickey Mouse bails his ass out does not a redemption arc make! Riku takes up a lot of angry space in my head, but he’s just the most obvious example of a larger problem: the characterizations and the tone in this game are completely baffling and all over the place. People repeatedly make bizarre decisions that seem solely to exist to execute on particular tropes or gags, obliterating any sense of character consistency. Another glaring example that really stuck in my craw was the way that Donald and Goofy have approximately zero concern about Mickey or where he is or what he’s up to after the first few hours until they suddenly need an excuse to take a big shit on Sora for about five minutes in Hollow Bastion before Power of Friendship kicks in again. Sure, it did let my man Beast show up and be a fuckin savage MVP, but why on earth would they do that in the first place?

And then there’s Kairi. I won’t spend too much time plodding through the obvious problematics of her whole deal, but one thing in particular really squicked me out. Granted, I could never tell if it was a weird camera glitch or an intentional choice, but boy howdy there are a lot of cutscene moments where the camera frames Kairi like the cover of Tomb Raider: Underworld, which is just a real cool thing to do to an apparent 12-year-old. I guess That’s Anime For You™ but also…yuck! I hate it!

What's your deal, girl????
What's your deal, girl????

A final story nitpick that disproportionately bugged me that I’m now going to force you to read about: why is Alice one of the Pure Heart Princesses or whatever they’re called? Ariel is literally RIGHT THERE and they chose Alice to be one of the princesses instead? What Disney canon or marketing manifesto has ever had Alice categorized as a princess? Anyway, not that important, but for something that otherwise does a pretty good job of handling the Disney stuff, it’s very weird! But I have now complained about it and can move on. I am free. It can no longer hurt me.

Gameplay! What the hell! The combat system is an indecisive gumbo, a heaping pile of clashing ingredients that combine into some kind of quasi-edible sludge. For the uninitiated, the moment-to-moment combat is a braindead-basic one button affair, a dreary slog of a system made incrementally better far too slowly by random ability and combo upgrades. If you were able to, oh I don’t know, actually pick skills from a talent tree or something to customize your playstyle your way instead of grinding your ass off in hopes that something useful drops on the next level up, that might make things a tad better. But alas, that is not the world we live in. On top of the combat is a weirdly animation- and menu-heavy item and spell system that is far too reliant on precise timing compared to the mushy combos. On top of that is what resembles a party-based RPG if you squint hard enough, but with so little party member control apart from broad AI directives that the system seems squarely focused on the novelty of Goofy and Donald Duck fighting the forces of evil than on any serious player utility beyond their role as item vending machines (which, I’ll grant, was often a very useful function). Even fully kitted out and set to “aggressive,” they may as well have been hitting enemies with flyswatters compared to Sora’s damage output.

By themselves, these systems are all worthy of critique. Taken together, it’s so much worse, an ill-advised, rickety contraption, each component at war with each other component with no victor in sight. All of this could have been avoided by adding some sort of active time battle system or other flavor of take-a-breath tactical system. It feels 90% of the way there already…just slap a pause-and-play layer on top of everything else and you’re good to go. The UI especially feels like it was designed to be leisurely navigated instead of thumbed through in a blind panic during boss fights, composed as it is of submenus on submenus that makes accessing it with anything short of precise muscle memory a recipe for disaster in hectic battles. If this design was a deliberate choice to up the difficulty, it’s a bad way to do that. Unless you’re playing some weird avant garde metagame, the UI should not be your enemy. It also doesn’t help that I had some sort of issue with the spell shortcut buttons where seemingly one time in 10 the wrong spell would get cast. Not sure if it’s a specific glitch with the Xbox version, my controller or if I just had an unnaturally consistent mispress, but boy it sucks to hammer on what I’m goddam positive is the heal shortcut only for Sora to joyously shout “Wind!” before getting stomped into the ground by Cerberus.

The Bad Place: This Is It
The Bad Place: This Is It

I am also absolutely convinced that the combat designers never, ever talked to the encounter designers. Kingdom Hearts is afflicted with as severe a case of Unprepared Dungeon Master Syndrome as I’ve ever seen in a video game. For those of you who don’t play tabletop games, UDMS occurs when the DM forgot to prepare and compensates by throwing the players into a room with a massive horde of random monsters to make up for it, without bothering to even try making it “fun” or “interesting” or “properly balanced for the players’ abilities so it’s not a thankless slog that makes everyone wonder why they’re playing this stupid campaign anyway.” No, this has definitely never happened to me and I’m not bitter in the slightest, why do you ask? Anyway, Kingdom Hearts is plagued by this mentality, most apparently and excruciatingly in Hollow Bastion where you’re forced to clear waves of enemies before you can activate various contraptions that let you climb the tower and rescue a pile of princesses. The problem is that most of the enemies are aerial enemies, and by that point all the useful combos and combat moves are aerial combos, so you wind up spending a lot of time flying off the edge of the level just trying to kill this last fucking winged Heartless asshole so I can progress oh my godddddd. Of course, if you ever fall off the edge, Phil Connors wakes up, “I Got You Babe” kicks in and you gotta do it allllll over again to get another shot at pressing the stupid garbage elevator button. Just an absolute joy.

At this point, you may find yourself asking “well, BaneFireLord, what did you think of the Gummi Ships?” Well, dear reader, in the immortal words of Vinny Caravella channeling Reggie Fils-Aime: fuck ‘em. I shall waste no more words on them.

Lord, there are so many other things to kvetch about: the maddeningly inconsistent checkpointing and enemy respawns, the wild difficulty spikes, the horrendous parrying system, the terribly designed boss fights, the atrocious platforming…but even in the midst of the purgatorial time loop of These Unprecedented Times, none of us have time for a dissertation. So in the interest of not boring everyone to death anymore than I already have, I’ll skip ahead and end this complaint at the end, about a final act so odious that it prompted me to write this screed in the first place.

The Final Rant

Up until the last few hours, I had certainly disliked Kingdom Hearts, but it was a mellow dislike, more bored and annoyed than outright angry. But then came End of the World. Without exaggeration, End of the World and its progression of boss encounters is the worst and most infuriating sequence I have ever played in a big budget video game, making such stinkers as The Fade in Dragon Age and the RC missions in San Andreas feel downright pleasant in comparison. End of the World indulges every sin of manufactured difficulty and presents them as virtues. Wave battles to gate progress and pad out the length by another half hour? Check. Damage sponge enemies with two hit kills? Check. Excruciatingly long multitier bossfights with no checkpoints between phases? Check. Designing encounters that the camera just fuckin’ hates looking at? Check. Taking away abilities and party-members you’ve spent the whole game building strategies around during climactic boss fights because reasons? Oh you damn betcha that’s a check. And by all accounts, this is still an improvement over the original release! I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to play with unskippable cutscenes.

General RAAM, eat your heart out
General RAAM, eat your heart out

There’s nothing I abhor more in a game than a poorly paced finale, and Kingdom Hearts’ is as well paced as a dead fish thanks to these stellar design choices. But then, after an uninspired button mash of a final fight against Ansem and his Locust-ass airship, the final cutscenes kick in and make everything even worse, the storytelling teetering all the way into the stereotype of random batshit nonsense that has dogged the series ever since. Why is Kingdom Hearts (hey, that’s the name of the game!) light, but also infected with darkness and Heartless? How did Mickey Mouse get there? Why is Kairi standing on this weird floating beach and disappearing? What the hell has Pluto been doing this whole time anyway? Why, why, why do they keep insisting Riku is this cool misunderstood guy instead of Eternal King of the Douchebags? To top that all off, there’s the final “Simple and Clean” needledrop, tearing apart a moment of would-be pathos like sulfuric acid through flesh. It is, bar-none, the dumbest cheeseball thing I have ever seen in a video game. What an apotheosis of what the fuck.

Before Kingdom Hearts, I never really quite grasped the notion of consuming something because you hate it (a hate-watch, a hate-read, a hate-play, etc.). I’m infamous among my friends and family for being quick to abandon media I’m not enjoying, because life’s too damn short. And yet despite presuming this was one of my bedrock principles, I continued to beat my head against Kingdom Hearts until the bitter end, long after it became clear there was nothing for me here beyond a sick, pointless compulsion to continue. A hate-play, by any definition. But surely, isn’t masochism supposed to have some sort of release? Because at the end of Kingdom Hearts, I got no sense of accomplishment, no reward, no explosion of dopamine. Watching the credits roll struck me with the feeling of gingerly getting out of bed for the first time after the fever breaks during a bad flu. No catharsis awaits at the end of Kingdom Hearts, just empty exhaustion and anemic relief.

Yet, in spite of that void, in spite of all the hours lost, in spite of these 3,000+ words of bloviating bullshit, I’m really not sorry for what I did. After all, it’s given me some (perhaps rather horrific) insight into my partner and her childhood tastes, if nothing else. But I’d be lying if it wasn’t more than that. Something’s wormed its way into me, a little niggling voice in the back of my head. It comes in waves, sometimes speaking in Donald Duck’s voice, sometimes in Goofy’s, sometimes a horrific amalgamation of the two. Don’t ya want ta know where this garbage nonsense goes from here? Don’t ya want ta see how crazy this gets? You do, don’t ya? Don’t deny it! Hyuk, hyuk!

Hell, I can’t lie. The voice is right. God help me…I’m probably going to play the rest of them.

No Caption Provided

4 Comments