Eleven Years Of Xbox - Part One - Grand Theft Auto IV

Hey there folks, and welcome to the first instalment in a series of blogs I'm calling 'Eleven Years of Xbox'. It's intended to be a celebration of the time I've spent within the Microsoft gaming ecosystem, having decided earlier this year to part ways with my Xbox consoles and streamline my video game collection. You can read more about it in the introduction to this series by following this link.

One thing I didn't explain in the introduction is that I'll be reminiscing on these games in the order that I played them, starting with the furthest back and working my way up to the present day. There is no hierarchy or ranking inherent in the order of these posts, it's simply a chronological recap of my time with the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. With that minor point out of the way, let's begin. And where better to begin than where it all began? The first game of Eleven Years of Xbox is none other than Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Fresh Off the Boat, Fresh Out the Box

To begin this series, I'm turning the clock back just over eleven years, to the spring of 2008. I'd not long turned eighteen, I was on a gap year between secondary school and university, and was working a part-time administration job at my local doctor's surgery - the same doctor's surgery where I now work full-time as a dispenser, as it happens. Back then I was working fifteen hours a week doing data entry, spending my mornings in an office adding information to patient records from hospital letters, and passing my afternoons at home playing a ton of video games. At this point I was still entrenched in what was then the outgoing generation of consoles, splitting my time between the PlayStation 2, GameCube and Nintendo DS. I was itching to make the leap to current-gen hardware, and had been saving some of the disposable income from my job towards that very goal.

I had initially intended to remain firmly within the Sony wheelhouse and pick up a PlayStation 3, but the exorbitant price they were still charging for their hardware a year after its European launch meant I'd need to keep saving for quite some time before that could become a reality. My alternative choice was picking up Microsoft's Xbox 360, a console I felt a natural bias against due to my previous loyalty to Sony and Nintendo, but which promised to be significantly kinder to my wallet. When Microsoft announced a £50 price drop for its 20GB model in March 2008, bringing its price down to £199 (a full £100 less than the cheapest PS3 on the market at that time), I finally decided to pull the trigger and earmarked the 360 for purchase with my end-of-April paycheck. I ordered my console through Amazon on Wednesday 30th April, and came home from work to receive the parcel containing it on Friday 2nd May.

Initial impressions were, I'll be honest, a little underwhelming. The console itself was the stock white model with the grey 20GB hard drive bundled in, and I have to admit I was a little bit put out that this ivory monolith was going to spoil my gaming set-up, as it looked very out of place next to the sleek black aesthetics of the PS2 slim and GameCube. I was still in possession of a fourteen-inch CRT TV back then, so high-definition gaming was a distant dream at this point - my Xbox 360 started its life hooked up with a SCART cable, outputting a mere 480p to a minuscule screen. Even so, it was immediately apparent that the graphical fidelity was a major step up from the capabilities of my PS2 and GameCube. I quite liked the simplicity of the original 'blades' interface, something I came to miss as subsequent updates like the New Xbox Experience and the next generation of consoles started flooding their UIs with advertisements and links to their respective digital stores. While my Xbox 360 was connected to the internet through WiFi, I didn't have an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription, and therefore wasn't able to sample online multiplayer for quite some time.

But I didn't buy an Xbox 360 to critique its appearance and interface. I bought it to play video games. And one video game in particular...

The Rise of a Criminal Empire

My history with the Grand Theft Auto franchise goes back a very long way. Back to before the series found its third dimension, when Rockstar North was still known as DMA Design, and way before I was actually old enough to be playing those sorts of games. I got my first taste of the series when I was around eight years old, when a friend of mine brought his dad's copy of the original Grand Theft Auto over to my house after school. We can't have played more than twenty minutes, but that was enough time to cause a serious amount of chaos in that top-down original render of Liberty City. Presumably attracted by our hysterical laughter, my mum came to investigate. She turned off the PlayStation in horror, confiscated the disc and forbade us from playing anything else for the rest of the afternoon. I didn't stay in touch with that school friend, but I forged a strong relationship with the GTA series from that day onward.

About a year and a half later, with my mother's blessing (although I'm not sure what caused her stance to soften), I received a copy of Grand Theft Auto 2 for Christmas. I spent hours playing this with my younger sisters, never seriously engaging with the missions or story, but instead entering every crazy cheat code we could find and causing unprecedented levels of mayhem with maximum ammo on all weapons and almost infinite lives. To this day, GTA2 remains the only entry in the series that I've never played to completion - something I hope to rectify one day.

When Grand Theft Auto III launched in the autumn of 2001, I didn't yet own a PlayStation 2. Instead, my first taste of the series in three dimensions came at a (different) friend's house. He invited a group of boys from my class over to his place about a week after the game came out, and we all took it in turns to play it on his brother's PS2. He loaded up his brother's saved game, punched in the All Weapons cheat, and we spent about two hours terrorising the streets of Liberty City, passing the controller whenever one of us got Busted or Wasted.

Vice City came a year later, and by then I'd acquired a PS2 of my very own. Unfortunately I didn't have enough disposable income to pick up a copy of Rockstar's latest, but the same friend was kind enough to loan me his copy for about a week and a half at the start of 2003. This was my first experience of actually engaging with the mission-based content of a GTA game, and I loved every minute of it, becoming totally absorbed in that sun-drenched approximation of Miami and the characters that inhabited it. I didn't manage to finish the game in those ten days (I'm pretty sure I got stuck on that mission where you have to save Lance from the scrapyard), but it was an experience that elevated my relationship with the series from respect to pure admiration.

Later that year I picked up second-hand copies of both GTA III and Vice City and played through their stories back-to-back. When the hotly-anticipated San Andreas released in the autumn of 2004, I convinced my mum to accompany me to our nearest Argos and pick it up for me on launch day. I was blown away by its size and scope, not to mention the technical feat it represented with its seamless open world devoid of load times (something neither III nor Vice City could manage on the PS2 hardware despite having substantially smaller game worlds). By this point I'd fallen in with a different (and much nicer) group of kids at school, and we would meet up on weekends to play San Andreas's limited but still fantastic two-player mode. It was our go-to game for the best part of three years, and provided some of the best moments of my gaming adolescence.

All this history with the franchise conspired to make Grand Theft Auto IV my most-hyped video game release of 2008. In all the time since, I don't think I've ever been as excited for the release of a game as I was about the launch of Rockstar's next open-world offering. In my eyes, it was a guaranteed system seller. And when it launched on 29th April 2008, it sold me on the Xbox 360 and began a relationship with Microsoft consoles that would last the next eleven years...

Taking It To the Next Level

The last nine paragraphs have been my incredibly convoluted way of saying that Grand Theft Auto IV on the Xbox 360 was my first experience of a 'seventh-generation' console. I'm sure for a great many people here, that wasn't the case. A lot of you probably cut your teeth on other major titles that released earlier. Perhaps 2006's Gears of War had already provided you with your first taste of high-definition graphical fidelity. Maybe 2007's Assassin's Creed had already redefined your expectations of what open worlds in video games could be. But I'm also sure that there are others out there like me, who waited for Rockstar to grace the next generation of consoles with something other than a table tennis simulation before taking the leap themselves. And for those of us who did, I think I speak for almost all of us when I say that Grand Theft Auto IV blew my fucking mind.

The first thing to strike me on launching the game was its incredible visual presentation. As someone who'd spent the last six years playing PS2 and GameCube games, the level of detail present in absolutely everything in the game was earth-shattering to me. The fidelity of the character models and their facial animations, the meticulously detailed interiors of the vehicles and the way they realistically deformed on impact, the individual bricks in the textures on each building, the windswept detritus on every sidewalk - everything I saw on screen almost defied belief because I had never seen anything like it before. And not just the graphical detail, but the quality of the animations as well - the way protagonist Niko Bellic's feet fell realistically on the steps of every staircase, or how shooting different parts of an enemy's body yielded different reactions, all thanks to the complex Euphoria physics supporting Rockstar's own RAGE engine. This was all stuff that would have been categorically impossible on the previous generation's hardware, and helped me to feel justified in my purchase of an Xbox 360.

This visual upgrade was supported by a multitude of enhancements to the series' gameplay. Combat got a major overhaul, adopting cover-based mechanics and shoulder-button controls akin to third-person shooters like the aforementioned Gears of War. The new physics engine and increased weight of vehicles contributed to a more realistic driving model, again supported by a more modern shoulder-button control scheme for acceleration and braking. At the other end of the spectrum, an insane amount of attention to detail was incorporated into the gameplay on a micro level. It was possible to hail a taxi cab and have it take you to a preset destination, an equivalent to fast-travel that didn't break the player's immersion within the game world. Mini-games ranging from darts and pool to bowling and arcade games were sprinkled throughout the map. The televisions in Niko's various apartments broadcasted a wide variety of TV shows and adverts created specifically for the game. It even featured its own version of the internet which could be accessed and browsed in a number of internet cafés. All these touches, big and small, helped to make GTA IV feel like a significant step up from anything I'd played on the PS2, and further vindicated my decision to upgrade.

This shift towards realism and attention to detail was also echoed in the game's story and tone, both of which eschewed the overblown action movie pastiches of the PS2 trilogy in favour of an original narrative supported by satirical social commentary rather than overt parody. Niko's story wasn't one of a meteoric rise to the top of a criminal empire akin to Tommy Vercetti's, but instead a much more grounded tale rooted in a bastardised version of the American dream. "From rags to slightly better rags" is how I believe one Rockstar figurehead put it (unfortunately a quick Google search doesn't reveal exactly who), and I think that best sums it up. Grand Theft Auto some growing up in the three-and-a-half years between San Andreas and IV, and while a lot of people came to view that as being to the game's detriment, for me personally it was a huge step forward - another indication that I'd truly taken a bold leap into a new generation of video games.

While I wasn't willing to pony up for an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription to play the online multiplayer, Grand Theft Auto IV did serve as my introduction to another online phenomenon of the seventh console generation - downloadable content. Released in the spring and autumn of 2009, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony (later marketed collectively under the title 'Episodes from Liberty City') gave players the chance to revisit Liberty City from a different perspective. The Lost and Damned was my personal favourite of the two, mainly because its grittier tone and grounded characters and story felt more in keeping with the whole GTA IV package. The Ballad of Gay Tony, while enjoyable in its own right, seemed to be trying too hard to appease the vocal part of the player base clamouring for another dose of San Andreas's kitchen-sink craziness. Nonetheless, Episodes from Liberty City served as a pretty incredible introduction for me to what DLC could be, and set a precedent for size, scope and quality that very few games have managed to reach with their downloadable offerings in the years since.

Finally, although it's not exactly in keeping with this blog's theme of making a generational leap, I'd like to reference the soundtrack in a little more detail. While licensed soundtracks were par for the course in the Grand Theft Auto franchise by this point, GTA IV was the game where the music got its hooks into me more than any other. The synth-drenched 80s soundtrack of Vice City and the hip-hop-driven radio stations of San Andreas did a fantastic job of creating a sense of time and place in their respective games, but they didn't resonate with me on a personal level, being a nineties child whose tastes lie firmly within the boundaries of rock, indie and blues. Vice City's V-Rock was alright, but more hair-metal than out-and-out rock, and San Andreas's K-DST had some great tracks but didn't feel in keeping with the early-90s California atmosphere the game was trying to portray. In GTA IV's Liberty Rock Radio, however, I finally found a home in the in-game radio of a GTA game - especially when The Lost and Damned expansion virtually doubled the station's track list. Most notably, it introduced me to The Black Crowes, a band who went on to become one of my all-time favourite artists, through their track Remedy. The moment when that track came on the radio and I was able to use the in-game phone's Shazam-style 'ZiT' service to identify it was the starting point of an ongoing love affair with the music of the Robinson brothers, and I'm sure it will stick with me forever.

I'm aware that time has not been kind to Grand Theft Auto IV's reputation as a video game. Where it was met with universal acclaim upon its release, public opinion has soured on it significantly over the last decade. People deride it for its more serious tone, its drab colour palette, its archaic gameplay and mission structure, and its problems with ludo-narrative dissonance. It very much occupies the black sheep role in the GTA family, an awkward cousin sandwiched between its zanier forebears and its more refined successor, the immeasurably successful Grand Theft Auto V. And yet, eleven years since its original release, it remains my personal favourite game in the franchise, and without a doubt the most memorable and important in terms of its impact on my gaming history. It was the game that ushered me away from the PS2 and into the next generation. It was the perfect vehicle for demonstrating what the new hardware was capable of. And it was the catalyst for an eleven-year relationship with Microsoft and Xbox that has brought me thousands of hours of joy and entertainment.

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If you've made it this far, thanks very much for sticking around to the end of this blog post. Next time I'll be jumping forward a couple of months to the end of 2008, when I'll be talking about a collection of games that helped define my interpretation of the phrase "value for money", and taught me the inherent value of first-person gaming experiences. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled (PS4)

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Eleven Years Of Xbox - An Introduction

Hey there folks. It's been a while since I last put anything up here. I hope this blog finds everyone well (if, indeed, it finds anyone at all). I had originally hoped to start up something away from Giant Bomb, for reasons I outlined in my last proper blog post way back in October. Unfortunately that hasn't come to fruition yet, with various other life-related commitments getting in the way, but I still hope to launch something new and exciting once real life calms down and stops getting in the way. Until then, as unsuitable as it might be, Giant Bomb remains my best avenue for pouring out my thoughts on the world of video games. And boy, have I been thinking about video games a lot recently.

This was my gaming mainstay for about a third of my life. But alas, no longer...
This was my gaming mainstay for about a third of my life. But alas, no longer...

Last month I made a tough decision to step out of the Microsoft gaming ecosystem, and part ways with my Xbox consoles. It's a decision made after a great many weeks of deliberation. It's not a decision I've taken lightly either, because the Xbox 360 in particular has served as an exceptionally loyal gaming workhorse for me for over a decade. I've invested thousands of pounds in consoles, accessories and software, a significant amount of which is digital and which I'll never be able to recoup any costs on, so trust me, I've thought long and hard in the run-up to this point. Ultimately it boils down to the standard reasons of getting older. I'll be thirty in a little over half a year, and don't have the time to dedicate to this hobby that I did ten years ago. I'll also be moving into a flat with my girlfriend within the next few months, which means combining our worldly possessions under one roof, and consequently making the compromises that come with that kind of commitment. My man-child dream of accumulating my own personal video games museum, an Aladdin's cave of consoles and games from through the years telling the story of my history with my favourite pastime, has had to face up to reality.

In terms of deciding what to stick with and what to say goodbye to, it was tough deliberating, but looking back on it the solution seems pretty obvious. The PlayStation 4 is where I do almost all of my current-gen gaming. It's a fantastic console, and Sony has been completely knocking it out of the park in terms of first-party exclusives over the last few years. I remain very much in love with my Switch as well, and given the resounding success of Nintendo's recent Direct over the E3 period, I imagine I'll be playing that for a long time to come as well. Even my PS3, for years my most neglected console, has been seeing more action in recent years. That leaves my Xbox 360 - the console that defined the previous generation of video games for me - and my more recently acquired Xbox One gathering dust on the bottom shelf of my TV stand. I'm just not playing them like I used to. And if I'm not getting any use out of them, then it makes sense for those consoles to be the ones to go.

Some Xbox-exclusive games are bound to feature in this series. Not this one, though...
Some Xbox-exclusive games are bound to feature in this series. Not this one, though...

But I didn't want those sleek black consoles and their neon green games cases to go quietly into the night without any kind of send-off. That's why I'm back here, in the Giant Bomb blogosphere, to launch a little blog series I'm dubbing 'Eleven Years of Xbox'. It'll be an eleven-part series where I look back on the eleven most important and influential games I've played on Microsoft systems over the last decade and change. A celebration of what the Xbox 360 and Xbox One have meant to me ever since I first bought into the Microsoft gaming ecosystem back in the spring of 2008. Some of these eleven games will be Xbox-exclusive, while others will be multi-platform games that I chose to play on Microsoft consoles and therefore will forever associate with those machines. They will all be important titles that have shaped my tastes in video games and who I am as a person over the last eleven years.

I don't intend to announce any kind of regular schedule for the subsequent entries to go up, since I've accrued something of a reputation for missing deadlines and falling behind on things over the years. I'll write as and when I find the time, and post each entry when it's done. I will say that the first entry, at least, will be up in the coming days, since I've already started writing it and will likely be finishing it before the weekend is through. Until then, thanks very much for reading folks. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled (PS4)

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Conquering Kingdom Hearts For The Kids!

Hey there folks. Daniel here, breaking my blogging silence to make a special announcement.

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As some of you will know, the Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run is almost upon us once again. Now in its ninth year, the GBCER sees members of the Giant Bomb community taking on incredible video game challenges and livestreaming them in a bid to raise money for charity. Once again this year, the charity in question is Pencils of Promise, an organisation dedicated to providing kids in developing countries with access to education. This year we’re hoping to raise $10,000 for the cause – enough to build a school classroom. Livestreams will be running from Friday 12th to Sunday 14th April, and can be viewed collectively at the Giant Bomb community livestreaming hub, ExplosiveRuns.

This year will be my third taking part in the GBCER, following the Pokémon Gold Randomizer Nuzlocke in 2017 and last year’s inFamous 2 ‘Karma by Committee’ playthrough. This year I’ll be turning my attention to one of the most impactful games of my adolescence – Kingdom Hearts. I’ve played through Sora’s original adventure many times over the years, completing my most recent playthrough only a couple of months ago. Across those countless playthroughs I’ve hit the level cap, completed all the side quests, synthesised every special item and taken down every optional super-boss. However, there’s one challenge that I’ve never attempted before – a Zero EXP run.

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For anyone not in the know, the Final Mix version of Kingdom Hearts from the HD I.5 ReMIX collections on PS3 and PS4 includes an optional ability called Zero EXP. Only available in Proud Mode, the game’s highest difficulty, it’s available from the start of the game and while it’s equipped, Sora and his party won’t earn any experience at all. That means no levelling up, which has a huge impact on Sora’s growth throughout the game, locking him out of learning many abilities and limiting stat boosts only to those given by equipment and items.

I’m not going to lie – this is going to be fucking hard. Although I’ve gained a fair amount of knowledge of Kingdom Hearts’ combat system over the years, I still have a tendency to favour brute-forcing my way through difficult challenges with grinding and over-levelling. That won’t be an option here – every combat encounter will become a tense, gruelling affair, and some of the game’s toughest bosses are going to force me to strategise in ways I never have before. Given that this is also a marathon playthrough, I’m also going to be combating the physical and mental effects of fatigue as the stream progresses. Basically, as the game gets harder, I’m going to get more tired, making me exponentially more likely to screw up the further I get.

My goal for this Zero EXP run is to play until either I defeat the final boss, or twenty-four hours have passed, whichever comes first. To that end, I won’t actively be engaging in any side quests or optional content (unless my donation incentives dictate otherwise – see below for more details). I’ll be commencing the playthrough at 3:00pm BST (that’s 10:00am EDT) on Saturday 13th April, and will be livestreaming the whole thing via YouTube.

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If you’re interested in donating, you can do so by following this link to my Pencils of Promise fundraising page. Last year I was able to raise $225 for Pencils of Promise – enough to send three kids to school for a whole year. This year I’ll be aiming for a similar amount with a goal of $200, funding for 2% of the classroom we’re collectively hoping to pay for. To encourage folks to donate, I’ll be offering a number of donation incentives linked to the playthrough:

  • The donor with the highest unique donation prior to the start of the stream will earn the right to name the raft/Gummi Ship near the start of the game. Simply leave your chosen name within a comment alongside your donation on the Pencils of Promise page – maximum ten characters!
  • For each individual donation of $25 or more, I will perform an acoustic rendition of Kingdom Hearts’ iconic theme, Simple and Clean, live on the stream. Be warned that I am a bad guitarist and a terrible singer, so donate at your own risk!
  • In terms of the overall donation total, I’ll be attempting optional combat challenges when we hit certain milestones. These will begin from the $100 mark, with new challenges being introduced for every additional $25 raised. Please note that so as not to interfere too much with the main goal of finishing the game within twenty-four hours, I’m promising only to attempt these challenges, spending no more than an hour on each one, with no guarantee of completing them.
    • $100Phil Cup at Olympus Coliseum
    • $125Pegasus Cup at Olympus Coliseum
    • $150Hercules Cup at Olympus Coliseum
    • $175Kurt Zisa at Agrabah
    • $200Phantom at Neverland
    • $225 (STRETCH GOAL)Sephiroth at Olympus Coliseum
    • $250 (STRETCH GOAL)Mysterious Figure at Hollow Bastion

I think that covers everything. Thanks very much for taking the time to read this blog. I hope you’ll consider giving generously in support of the cause. And hey, if Kingdom Hearts isn’t your thing, then please check out the official Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run IX forum thread – someone there is bound to be doing something that you can get behind. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the GBCER is only four weeks away, I have a lot of preparation to do. Take care folks, and I’ll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - ICO (PS3)

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My End Of 2018 Awards

Hey there folks, Daniel here. I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas had a great one, and that everybody has had a joyous and peaceful holiday season. Now that the end of the year is upon us, it’s once again time for me to welcome you to another slew of Game of the Year-style content in the form of My End of 2018 Awards. I know I said I’d be taking a step back from blogging here on Giant Bomb a couple of months back, but it would be remiss of me not to suspend that hiatus in order to talk about some of the games have defined the last twelve months for me personally. Looking back over my list of games played this year, my grand total comes to thirty-three titles – a pretty respectable total, and slightly over my projected target of thirty (although nowhere near last year’s monstrous achievement of fifty beaten games). Of those thirty-three, it’s now time to separate the wheat from the chaff and curate a final list of the ten titles that best defined my experience as a player of video games in 2018.

These awards have varied greatly over the years, and 2018 brings with it some more changes to the established formats of years past. For a start, I won’t be dispensing individual awards for every game I played this year. My reasoning for doing so is similar to the one that saw the format change back in 2014 – I’ve played a lot of games within certain franchises this year, to the point where offering up individual awards for some of those games would definitely enter hair-splitting territory. Consequently, the format of this year’s awards is going to be very pared back in comparison – just a single blog post honouring my top ten gaming experiences from this year.

What haven’t changed are my eligibility criteria for these awards. Perhaps controversially, games are eligible for these accolades regardless of their year of release, provided I played them within the last twelve months. Being as I’m someone who plays quite a lot of old games, and rarely gets around to checking titles out within their release years, limiting myself to just 2018 releases would result in a very short list indeed. Opening up the playing field like this allows me to populate my awards with a much wider variety of game experiences and (hopefully) makes for a more unique and entertaining piece of writing. One thing I will say, however, is that games I’ve played before are much less likely to appear within these blogs than ones I’ve experienced for the first time – the former have likely had their chance to shine in previous awards already, whereas the latter are more likely to leave a lasting impression by virtue of their novelty.

It’s also worth noting that none of these games are in any kind of hierarchical order. I don’t like ranking these sorts of lists, partly down to the aforementioned hair-splitting issue, and partly because directly comparing some of the wildly different games on this list in the pursuit of a definitive ranking would be a futile exercise. For that reason, as with previous years, I’ll be sticking with an alphabetical format for this year’s list.

Honourable Mentions

Before I get properly underway, I’d quickly like to acknowledge a couple of honourable mentions – games that, under different circumstances, would have made their way onto this list without incident. As it stands, however, I can’t in good conscience place them above my top ten:

inFamous 2inFamous 2 warrants a mention for being the featured game for my contribution to this year’s Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run. My “Karma By Committee” playthrough saw Cole’s moral compass dictated by the donations I received, resulting in a thoroughly evil seventeen-hour romp across the rooftops of New Marais. Thanks to all who contributed to the cause, enabling my stream to send three kids to school for a year through Pencils of Promise.

Life Is StrangeLife Is Strange earns its honourable mention by being the most notable game that I played through alongside my girlfriend Alice this year. While I enjoyed the experience overall, and appreciated the novelty of being able to rewind and do over some of the major decisions, it didn’t quite hit the heights of other Telltale-style games we’ve played together, relegating it to sub-list status.

Red Dead Redemption IIRed Dead Redemption II is the sequel I never expected to one of my favourite video games of all time. It would have undoubtedly been on this list this year, if I’d only been able to finish the darned thing. I’m currently on Chapter Six, and while I feel like I’m making good steady progress through it, there’s no way I’m going to be completely done with the story by the end of the year. It’s definitely going to be on the list for My End of 2019 Awards, though!

Now, with my piece said about those excellent also-rans, let’s get down to brass tacks and reveal the ten most memorable gaming experiences I had in 2018!

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

SEGA – Master System – 1986

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I think this marks only the second time I’ve ever included a game on one of these lists that is older than I am. Released over thirty years ago, Alex Kidd in Miracle World holds a very special place in my heart, it being the first video game I ever played. When I was around four years of age, my parents brought a Master System into the house, with SEGA’s original answer to Super Mario Bros. built into the console. To this day I hold vivid memories of the bright colour palette, simple but effective sprite art and rudimentary level layouts. But for all the time I spent with this platforming classic in my childhood, I never saw the whole adventure through, always coming unstuck around seven or eight levels in.

Fast forward to the late spring and early summer of 2018. Inspired by the exploits of Messrs Caravella and Ryckert and their fantastic ‘This Is the Run’ video series, I decided to take that mentality and apply it to the biggest white whale in my gaming catalogue. I downloaded the PlayStation 3 port of Alex Kidd in Miracle World and, over the course of about four weeks, uploaded a series of daily runs to YouTube with the goal of beating the game fair and square – no save states or cheats, just gradual improvement born from trial and error. Along the way there were rock-paper-scissors patterns memorised, lives lost to cheap deaths that would later be avoided, and some inspired lateral thinking to get around a seemingly impossible late-game maze puzzle. One of the most rewarding aspects of this endeavour was how it forced me to deconstruct my own learning processes, an experience which has stuck with me and made me feel more present in the act of playing games.

After gradual progress through seventeen failed runs, I finally completed Alex Kidd in Miracle World on my eighteenth attempt, on Saturday 9th June. But it wasn’t just an achievement in the sense of finally getting one over on the first game I’d ever played. It was also an achievement in the sense of learning more about who I am as a player of games. It was an experience similar to the one I had playing the Android version of the original Dragon Quest back in 2016 – one that I’d be hard pressed to recommend to anybody else, but which was essential in shaping how I will look back on 2018, and will undoubtedly affect my game-playing habits and choices going forward.

Dark Souls

FromSoftware – Xbox 360 – 2011

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After playing through Demon’s Souls for the first time two years ago and falling in love with its unique approaches to world-building and player challenge, I knew I needed to make its spiritual successor a priority. Even then, it took me nearly two years to get around to checking out Dark Souls, and I really wish I’d succumbed sooner. FromSoftware’s part sequel, part reimagining of their PS3 cult classic stands head and shoulders above its forebear, providing an experience that is brutally enchanting and steeped in mystery.

One of Dark Souls’ biggest strengths is in its shift from Demon’s Souls’ hub-world approach to a seamless, interconnected world more in keeping with the design sensibilities of Metroidvania titles. This design choice makes Lordran feel expansive and authentic in a way that Boletaria never quite did, allowing players to catch recognisable glimpses on the horizon of places they explored several hours previously, to loop back on themselves in interesting ways, and to tackle objectives in multiple orders or even out of sequence. The world is by no means its only star, either, as the game plays host to some of the most memorable and challenging boss encounters I’ve ever witnessed. The likes of the Gaping Dragon, Ornstein and Smough, the Great Grey Wolf Sif, and the Four Kings are battles that I won’t forget any time soon, in terms of their designs, the level of challenge they presented, and the thrilling sense of achievement upon their eventual defeat.

Dark Souls is an experience that begs to be unpacked on its own terms. In the seventy-something hours it took me to dissect its campaign and reach its conclusion, at no point did I feel compelled to cheese my way through any of its challenges, or look up any of the solutions to its myriad mysteries. Furthermore, thanks to my transferable working knowledge of the mechanics of Demon’s Souls, I didn’t feel the need to resort to online crib-sheets. I took my time, gradually moving further from Firelink Shrine and towards each new bonfire with only ambiguous hints left by other players to guide my hand. That’s what makes it one of my most memorable gaming experiences of the last twelve months, and why it deserves its spot on this list.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

Square-Enix – PlayStation 4 – 2017

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Considering I used to be known in some corners of this website as “the Final Fantasy guy” (a result of a lengthy series of Let’s Play-style blogs covering one of my all-time favourite games), my track record with the franchise has been pretty spotty over the last decade or so. I played Final Fantasy XIII when it came out, forced my way through the sequel some time later, put off checking out Lightning Returns and still haven’t even popped Final Fantasy XV into my PlayStation 4 over two years after release. The origins of that poor form can probably be traced back to 2007, when Final Fantasy XII launched on the PlayStation 2 in the UK. I joyously picked up the game at launch, and spent the week running up to my seventeenth birthday getting lost in the gorgeously rendered world of Ivalice.

Unfortunately a number of factors conspired to halt my progress – an imperfect storm of social commitments, beginning to learn to play drums, and the pressure of revising for looming A-Level exams all took their toll on my available free time. The game itself was also partly to blame, in hindsight, with a plodding narrative accompanied by methodically-paced gameplay and a combat system whose nuances I struggled to understand. Consequently, I never finished the original release of Final Fantasy XII, and now I probably never will. Returning to Ivalice over a decade later has confirmed to me that the Zodiac Age re-release on PlayStation 4 is the definitive way to play Final Fantasy XII in 2018. Thanks to some essential quality-of-life improvements, most notably the ability to double or even quadruple the game speed at the press of a button, navigating its over-large environments and grinding for loot drops or experience gain no longer feels like the arduous slog it once was. This, in turn, makes the game’s narrative flow at a much better pace, since it isn’t being constantly interrupted with hours of slow-moving tedium.

And at the risk of getting controversial, this remains one of my favourite stories in the franchise. Final Fantasy XII’s insistence on prioritising the political machinations of Ivalice over the development of its characters has long been a divisive talking point, but given that the game’s world is its best character, I feel that was the right decision. And while a third of the playable cast might as well have not been there (looking at you, Vaan and Penelo), the characters who do matter are well-developed enough to care about, with interesting character arcs and just enough personal stakes in the greater scheme of things to justify their starring roles. The fact the story is essentially Star Wars with a fresh coat of paint is undeniable, but that fact didn’t stop me from getting caught up in its myriad twists and turns.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age earns its spot on this list because it trimmed exactly the right amount of fat from the original experience to see me through its seventy-hour story without losing focus or interest, finally enabling me to tick another core Final Fantasy game off my backlog. Final Fantasy XV, I’m coming for you in 2019.

God of War

Sony Santa Monica Studios – PlayStation 4 – 2018

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I’ve been a fan of God of War ever since the original game appeared on the PlayStation 2 in all its bloody glory in 2005. In all the games that have come since, critics have lauded improvements made to the series’ tight action gameplay, but have also derided Kratos as a joke character who knows nothing but how to get his rage on. I don’t necessarily disagree, but within all that discussion through the intervening years, I feel that the original God of War gets unfairly overlooked from a story standpoint. Sure, it’s no masterpiece, but it features Kratos at his most human and relatable across the original canon. It’s the main reason that to this day I still prefer the original God of War over its bigger, better and more varied sequels.

Having written themselves into that rage-fuelled corner, the easiest route for Santa Monica Studios would have been to hard reboot their intellectual property and start with a blank canvas. Instead, Cory Barlog’s team embraced the history they’d created, acknowledged it, and used it as a foundation for something very special. It’s not new for Kratos to be caught up in the petty squabbles of the gods, but by framing him as older, wiser, and way more self-aware, he’s able to bring something more than just blood and vitriol to the table. It’s not new for Kratos to be a father, but by placing Atreus alongside him in the present rather than making him a memory of his past like Calliope, we get to actually see him being a father instead of just being reminded that he used to be. By shifting the action from Greek to Norse mythology, Kratos is rendered vulnerable by his lack of knowledge, making him as reliant upon Atreus as his son is upon him. God of War is the first game in over a decade to portray Kratos as something more than just a murderous player avatar, and I love that.

From start to end, God of War is an intensely intimate experience, and I’m not just talking about the story. A big part of that is down to the shift to an over-the-shoulder camera perspective that never cuts away, ensuring the player is always close to Kratos and what he is experiencing. This is a far cry from previous God of War games, whose static cameras would often pan up or out to reveal enormous temples or gigantic Titans (or indeed, enormous temples on gigantic Titans), revelling in scale in a way that often compromised the gameplay experience. God of War retains a sense of scale by casting it from a different angle, without sacrificing the experience of actually playing it. Combat is visceral and hectic, with a focus on crowd control and mixing up tactics and weapons to deal with different kinds of enemies – thematically not that dissimilar to the old games, but again, that in-close camera makes you feel part of the experience, rather than divorced from it.

God of War gets its spot on this list because it takes everything I loved about the original series – its reverence for mythology, its sense of scale and spectacle, and its incredible action combat – and marries it with characters, worlds, and a story that I actually care about and finally feel invested in. After thirteen years, God of War finally grew up with me.

Gran Turismo Sport

Polyphony Digital – PlayStation 4 – 2017

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When a racing game shows up on one of my end-of-year top ten lists, it’s not usually because of their overall quality, but because of their ongoing impact on my gaming habits within the given year. Such was the case with Forza Motorsport 4 some years back, and such is once again the case with Gran Turismo Sport in 2018. It’s certainly not one of the very best games I’ve played this year. In fact, on multiple levels, it was quite a disappointing experience. As a predominantly solo player of games, I found the scant single-player content in the launch version of the game to be way below par, especially for a game born from the same franchise as the impossibly enormous Gran Turismo 4.

Thankfully, it didn’t stay that way. 2018 saw Polyphony Digital delivering on a lot of the promise shown in last year’s base release of Gran Turismo Sport. Over the last twelve months they’ve shown an incredible amount of support for the latest entry in their long-running franchise, consistently adding new cars, tracks and events by way of regular free updates. Every major overhaul has brought me back to the game to purchase new cars, whizz around new Circuit Experience tracks, and participate in new events in the GT League, a single-player mode added post-launch that channels the spirit of GT games of old.

Not every change Polyphony has made has been for the better. In the context of the increasingly aggressive monetisation practices of the AAA game industry, their decision to allow purchasing in-game cars with real-world currency leaves a particularly sour taste in my mouth. By and large though, I feel like they’re doing right by their product, populating the relatively blank canvas they released just over a year ago with a bevy of worthwhile content. With every passing month, Gran Turismo Sport gets a little bit closer to delivering the experience that I want out of a current-generation racing game. I can’t wait to see what improvements and additions 2019 will bring.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Nintendo – Switch – 2017

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When I bought myself a Switch at the start of 2018, it was for the express purpose of playing the new Legend of Zelda. Well, that and future-proofing my personal investment in the core Pokémon franchise, but mainly for the Zelda thing. It was a decision fuelled by the reception it garnered in last year’s Game of the Year awards, a level of universal acclaim that confirmed I needed to pick up Nintendo’s new bit of hardware to experience it. After investing three-hundred English pounds of my money and one-hundred hours of my time, and having ten months to distance myself from the experience, I still feel that Breath of the Wild is one of the finest open-world adventure games I have ever played.

Breath of the Wild achieves this by pushing back against so many of the conventions that have become ubiquitous in open-world game design, rebuking each one with an inspired alternative that puts exploration, discovery and fun at the centre of the experience. Instead of an in-game map littered with “icon barf”, the waypoints on the map in Link’s Sheikah Slate are set by the player, and can be placed without interrupting gameplay should anything on the horizon pique their interest. Instead of rigid quest design that limits player freedom, the Divine Beasts and Shrines are constructed in a way that encourages players to be creative in their approach to environmental navigation and puzzle-solving. Rather than equipping players with an inventory full of items and abilities that have very specific uses, Link is bestowed with a handful of Runes that have a multitude of in-game applications to support player experimentation.

All of this is situated within a vast game world which is governed by systems that support and enhance the gameplay at every turn. Breath of the Wild’s physics engine, weather systems, elemental properties and behavioural AI are all intrinsically linked, such that pushing up against one or more of these systems is often what yields its most memorable moments. Using metal weaponry to conduct electricity for a Shrine puzzle, or re-purposing the updraft from a bush fire to quickly gain altitude with Link’s sailcloth, or hunting wolves on the slopes of the Hebra Mountains and watching their meat freeze if left on the ground too long, or rolling an explosive barrel downhill into a group of unsuspecting Bokoblins – these incidents represent a minuscule fraction of the systemic interactions I experienced while playing Breath of the Wild. Simply put, its version of Hyrule is one of the most enrapturing places I have ever had the privilege of travelling to via a game controller. My only regret is that I’ll never be able to play it for the very first time again.

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-7

TT Games – Steam – 2010/11

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I played through five of TT GamesLEGO titles this year, which is roughly four-and-a-half more than the recommended annual quota for anyone who plays video games on anything more than a casual basis. The games are almost painfully similar to one another, usually with just aesthetics and one or two simple mechanics serving to differentiate each instalment from the rest of the herd. Despite the over-saturation, though, I had a lot of fun losing myself in brick-based versions of various beloved media franchises. LEGO The Lord of the Rings was perhaps my favourite, being very closely tied to the Peter Jackson films I loved so much growing up. LEGO Jurassic World was probably the most enjoyable game of the bunch, with the pursuit of 100% completion somehow feeling a little less monotonous than its brethren.

It’s perhaps a surprise, then, that the games I’ve picked to hold the torch for the LEGO franchise in this top ten list are the two LEGO Harry Potter titles. While they weren’t my favourite or the most enjoyable experiences I had with the franchise this year, they were without a doubt the most memorable. LEGO Harry Potter brought me closer to my youngest sister this year, through a shared love of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world that I’d recently rekindled as I started to revisit the books (I’m currently up to Order of the Phoenix, which I keep putting off starting because it’s my least favourite). At weekends through the spring and into the summer we would camp in front of my laptop or her TV screen and play LEGO Harry Potter together. My sister isn’t big into video games so although the option to play co-operatively was there, she was much happier taking a back seat, steering me through each level and around the hub of Hogwarts in search of more Gold Bricks, Character Studs and Crest Pieces, eventually reaching 100% completion in both games. That experience stands as proof that Dumbledore was right – love is indeed the most powerful magic of all.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate

Capcom – 3DS – 2015

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While everyone else was getting excited over a brand new console-based Monster Hunter game this year, I was predictably living in the past by playing an older version of that new hotness. In this particular case, the game was Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on my Nintendo 3DS. This wasn’t my first corral as far as Monster Hunter was concerned – I played a significant chunk of Freedom Unite on my PSP back in the spring of 2015 – but it was my first time feeling comfortable with the series. And I’m not just talking about from a gameplay perspective, either – having access to a New 3DS with a built-in C-stick meant that MH4U was thankfully not an experience defined by claw-grips and hand cramps.

4 Ultimate succeeds in a lot of places where Freedom Unite failed for me, and that’s not just limited to the controls. Its single-player content is structured in a much less confusing way, surfacing more of its gameplay idiosyncrasy for new players and tying together its hunts with a cohesive story that guides players admirably along its still-steep difficulty curve. Although I came into MH4U with some dormant knowledge of Monster Hunter’s gameplay loop, I still feel like it taught me more in its opening quests than Freedom Unite did in the entirety of the fifty-plus hours I spent with it. It’s also worth mentioning that this iteration of the franchise features some much-appreciated improvements to gameplay, such as the ability to mount certain monsters and the added verticality that brings to both exploration and combat.

My only regret with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is that I never got a chance to experience it the way it was truly intended to be played – namely co-operatively, with friends. While I have a couple of friends with 3DSes, none of them have yet been bitten by the Monster Hunter bug. Consequently, a large amount of the game’s content remains unexplored, and I suspect it always will. However, that doesn’t diminish the amount of fun I had Switch-Axe-ing my way through its single-player content. Perhaps in the new year I’ll take the plunge on Monster Hunter: World and finally get to join other players on more demanding hunts. Until then, what I did play of MH4U more than justifies its inclusion on this list.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy

Toys for Bob – PlayStation 4 – 2018

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I am a nineties kid. I grew up watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, listening to S Club 7, and playing mascot platformers on the original PlayStation. While last year’s excellent Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy did a lot to recapture my misspent youth by updating an essential piece of my formative gaming history for modern hardware, it wasn’t quite the game I was hoping for. Why, you ask? Simple – I was hoping for Spyro. Insomniac’s little purple dragon always held more sway than Naughty Dog’s fuzzy orange marsupial in our household, probably because my mum loved playing Ripto’s Rage (subtitled Gateway to Glimmer here in the UK) and Year of the Dragon so much. This year, I actually got the game I was hoping for, in the form of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy.

Reignited succeeds in basically all the same ways as N. Sane did before it. It faithfully reproduces a trio of much-loved mascot platformers for the current generation, preserving their core gameplay while cranking the aesthetics up to eleven. It unifies the presentation of those games with consistent controls, UI and functionality across all three titles. It introduces Trophy support, plus a number of quality-of-life improvements, such as right-stick camera control, modernising the games without sacrificing the classic feel of the originals. It retrofits additional iterative improvements from the later games into the older ones, namely Skill Points and the ability to have Sparx point to any missing treasure within a given level. All of this was to be expected.

What I wasn’t expecting was for the games to play so damned perfectly. As someone who has played the originals to 100+% completion so many times that I’ve genuinely lost count, I still have an innate muscle memory for these games. In the N. Sane Trilogy, that muscle memory failed me due to the changes they made to the physics of Crash’s jump. In Reignited, I don’t feel like my muscle memory failed me once. Everything felt exactly how I expected it to feel, making all three of these games instant winners in my eyes. Last year I said that the N. Sane Trilogy was the definitive way to play Crash Bandicoot in 2017. This year, I say that the Reignited Trilogy is the definitive way to play Spyro the Dragon in 2018. Here’s hoping that next year’s impending release of Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled can make it three out of three for Activision on the retro-remake front.

Super Mario Odyssey

Nintendo – Switch – 2017

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Whenever the question of why we play games comes up, the almost universal answer is to have fun. We play for those little hits of dopamine that stimulate the pleasure centres of our brain each time we reach a new area, defeat a challenging enemy, or overcome a complex puzzle. Super Mario Odyssey is a game that understands this perfectly, because it is purpose-built to keep those dopamine hits coming at frequent and regular intervals. Its main collectibles, the Moons that power the game’s eponymous spaceship, are overwhelmingly ubiquitous. You’re rarely more than a few minutes away from your next one at any given moment, and the “one more Moon” mentality this instils in the player makes it incredibly difficult to put Odyssey down.

But it’s not just quantity that sets Super Mario Odyssey apart from its peers. After all, having hundreds upon hundreds of collectable Moons on offer would mean nothing if they weren’t rewarding to acquire. Thankfully, the tasks and challenges standing between Mario and those Moons are wildly varied, as are the eclectic collection of Worlds he explores along the way. Odyssey’s other big strength lies in its simplicity and accessibility. Mario’s moveset is fairly limited, essentially boiling down to a series of jumps and the ability to throw his anthropomorphic cap around. However, each tool in Mario’s belt has a huge number of applications, allowing players to overcome complex challenges through mastering just a handful of basics. The novel capture mechanic is very well thought-out too, with each potential capture having one or two clearly defined abilities that allow players to explore old environments in new ways, yielding even more Moons along the way.

It’s worth mentioning that Super Mario Odyssey was also the game that ignited my brief fling with streaming this year, as I broadcast my forays into its post-game challenges for the enjoyment of a live internet audience. For just over a month, Super Mario Saturdays encouraged me to keep coming back to the game in the hopes of wringing more joy out of it, and thanks to the multitude of post-game Moons available to unlock, that well never dried up. In fact, I still have the Dark Side of the Moon challenge to complete, something I’ll likely try and overcome at some point in 2019. Knowing that there are almost five-hundred Moons still waiting to be grabbed, even after everything I’ve done already, makes me feel excited to jump back in. That’s why I play video games, and that’s why Super Mario Odyssey is on this list.

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There you have it – the ten games that best define my game-playing habits over the course of 2018. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on any of the titles listed above, as well as your own picks for the best games you played this year. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of Game of the Year content to catch up on, a ton of community blogs and user lists to peruse, and more Red Dead Redemption II to play. After that, I’ll be heading back into whatever the blogging equivalent of hibernation is. Thanks very much for reading folks. Here’s wishing a very happy and prosperous New Year to each and every one of you. Take care, and I’ll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing – Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4)

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Taking A Step Back

Hey there folks. Daniel here, with a bit of slightly sombre news. After a few weeks of deliberation, I've decided to take a step back from this space and cut down on my Giant Bomb blogging activity.

I have a few reasons for reaching this decision. First and foremost, I'm getting old, folks. Ten years ago, when this site first launched, I was eighteen, between the end of my part-time job and the start of my university course. I had bucket-loads of free time, with no major commitments or responsibilities outside of my own education. Now, I'm twenty-eight. I work full-time hours in a stressful job. I have a family - parents, grandparents, sisters, nieces and nephews - who have their own health and social problems, who I feel the need to support in ways that I couldn't before. I have a wonderful girlfriend whose family I'm now just as much a part of as my own. I captain a local darts team. I play in and pseudo-manage a band. All of these commitments and responsibilities eat up time in ways I never had to worry about ten, or even five years ago, and it makes it harder to justify spending what little remaining time I do have typing up scattered thoughts on the video games that I've been playing recently.

On a less personal level, I've come to realise that Giant Bomb is not an appropriate platform for the content I wish to produce. This is in no way intended as criticism of Giant Bomb itself. I love this site. I love its staff, who work tirelessly to create what I (and many others) believe to be the most entertaining games-based video content on the whole internet. But Giant Bomb has, and I think always will have, an identity crisis. When it launched back in the summer of 2008, it was a site trying to be all things to all people - it was a Wiki, a news outlet, an entertainment channel, a community forum, an Achievement tracker, an FAQ and guide repository, all rolled into one ambitious, hulking beast of a website.

As time has passed, the site has become more focused in the kind of content it seeks to deliver - predominantly Quick Looks, casual live-streams, and pseudo-Let's Plays. Consequently, all the things outside of that focus have been hugely neglected, but (with the exception of the Achievement tracker) never completely excised. God of War, one of the biggest video game releases of this year, has a total of six lines of text on its Wiki page. A more recent PS4 exclusive, Marvel's Spider-Man, is totally empty. Forum activity is through the floor, with (as of the time of writing) only twenty-nine threads showing any comments in the last twenty-four hours. Guides are still an active feature on the site, for some reason, but I genuinely can't recall seeing one being highlighted or even worked on in the last five years.

And blogs, once the centre of a beautifully networked community experience, have been rendered almost invisible by a combination of profile redesigns, broken notification systems, and the general downplaying of cultivating a community in favour of highlighting the personalities of the staff. With a couple of notable exceptions, such as the peerless productivity of @mento and the insightful writings of @gamer_152, most of the bloggers I used to follow here have either cut down their output drastically, or simply moved on altogether. As I said, none of this is meant with any ill will. I don't blame Giant Bomb for identifying and subsequently carving out its place in the world of video game coverage. If anything, I blame myself for spending so long willing this website to be something that it was never going to be.

To those of you who were enjoying the Keyblade Chronicles and awaiting the next instalment, I apologise for not following the concept through to its true potential. It has done wonders for my productivity, getting me to write an average of around 8,000 words per week. But as much as I enjoyed writing what I did of that series, I couldn't shake the niggling voice at the back of my head, telling me that my energy would be much better spent on other, less frivolous creative pursuits. I have an unfinished novel that I need to pick back up, and lyrical ideas that I need to develop into full-blown songs. Both of those feel like worthier outlets for my creativity right now than a weekly blog series about a games franchise I haven't felt properly invested in for over a decade.

I'm not saying I'll never blog here again. Like I said at the start, this is a step back, not a departure. If the mood takes me one day in the future, I'm not ruling out the possibility of sitting down at the keyboard and bashing out a few paragraphs on what I've been playing recently. Nor am I saying goodbye to the site as a whole. I still love playing, watching and reading about video games. I still love the content that Jeff, Brad, Vinny, Dan, Alex, Ben, Abby, Jason, Jan, Rorie and the rest of the GB crew create. I'm still going to watch the videos, lurk on the forums, and read the blogs still being written by the people I've grown attached to over the last decade. But for now, that's all I'll be doing. As a final point, I'd like to thank each and every one of you who has engaged with my writing over the last ten years. Your input is what's kept me going this long, and is ultimately what will see me over the line with whatever creative project I shift my focus towards next.

Take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (3DS)

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The Keyblade Chronicles - Episode Four (Kingdom Hearts Final Mix - Parts 14-17)

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What do you get if you cross a key, a sword, and a blog that's far longer than it has any right to be? Why, the Keyblade Chronicles, of course!

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As always, a quick preamble to remind you that this is the latest episode in a series chronicling my efforts to play through the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise before the release of Kingdom Hearts III in January 2019. We're still pretty close to the start of our adventure, but if you intend to follow along, it's best to start from the beginning. There are handy navigation links at the top of this blog to take you either to the previous episode, or to the main episode hub (which also contains a more in-depth explanation of what this series is and why I'm writing it). If you're all caught up, then by all means read on!

In this week's episode we'll finally be taking a look at the Gummi Ship building mechanics and constructing a new ride that will take us to new, uncharted worlds including Agrabah from Aladdin. We'll then briefly zip back to Traverse Town to open up the Synthesis Shop, before an unexpected encounter derails our journey to the next world.

Part 14 - Becoming a Master Builder

When we last left our intrepid trio, they were about to hop on board their Gummi Ship and use the newly-installed Navigation Gummi to find and explore new worlds. However, things are about to ramp up a little difficulty-wise, making this the perfect opportunity to finally dive deep on the game's Gummi Ship building mechanics. After the Traverse Town Keyhole is sealed, Cid leaves the Accessory Shop and starts hawking Gummi blocks on the streets of the First District. This new storefront gives the player access to previously inaccessible Gummis, including sturdier cockpits, faster engines and more powerful weapons. After purchasing some of these upgrades and adding them to the handful of new pieces we've found across the worlds, we're ready to go and build a new Gummi Ship! Time to return to the World Select Screen and take a look at that Gummi Garage menu we've been avoiding until now.

First-time visitors to this screen are greeted by a tutorial, and I implore anyone new to Kingdom Hearts to read the whole thing. Heck, I've played this game five times before, and even I sat through the tutorial again to refresh my memory. The tutorial isn't the best I've ever seen - it explains all the features of the ship editor well enough, but the wording used and its passive nature mean it's difficult to equate what's happening on screen with the buttons the player needs to press. A more active tutorial, giving the player some agency in building a basic Gummi Ship, or even an on-screen controller depicting which buttons are responsible for which actions, might go some way to better acclimatising the player to using the ship editor.

As for the editor itself? If you've ever played Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, it's pretty similar to the vehicle-building component in that, only about a hundred times worse. The ship editor has three distinct modes - Select mode, which lets you scroll through the many Gummi blocks in your collection; Build mode, which lets you place and arrange those blocks into something resembling a spacecraft; and a viewing mode, which lets you see your ship as it will appear in flight. Players can toggle between these modes using the R1 and R2 buttons.

The selection mode is fairly straightforward - you can cycle left and right between different groups of Gummis, and up and down within groups to find specific kinds or shapes of Gummi. Gummi blocks are grouped by their function (cockpits, engines, armour, wings, weapons, etc) and are named after Final Fantasy spells which help to identify their purpose (engines are named after the Fire/Fira/Firaga spells, cannons after the Thunder/Thundara/Thundaga spells, wings after the Aero/Aerora/Aeroga spells, etc.). When you find the Gummi you want, you can press either X or R1 to enter Build mode. Ship construction takes place within a cubed grid, which can be increased in size with the appropriate upgrades from Cid, and every Gummi block takes up a specific number of spaces within that grid. You can move your selected Gummi around the grid with the D-pad, rotate it with the left stick, and move up and down levels using the L1 and L2 buttons. When you're done placing that type of Gummi and wish to select another, pressing R1 will return from Build mode to Select mode. Inspect mode can be accessed by pressing R2 at any time while in Build mode.

If this all sounds confusing, that's because it is. Building a Gummi Ship is not an intuitive process. It's the painful experience of constantly forgetting which buttons do what. It's the heart-breaking agony of accidentally highlighting and deleting an entire ship when it's almost complete, and having to start over from scratch. It's the soul-crushing reality that you've spent twenty minutes sticking glorified Lego blocks together for the sake of a two-minute on-rails shooter sequence. That's not to say it can't be rewarding. Building a strong, fast Gummi Ship that can tear apart Heartless ships and look cool doing it does feel good. It's just a very, very steep learning curve to get to that point. For the most part, it's just as viable (and much less of a slog) to keep upgrading the default Kingdom Gummi Ship with better armour and new doodads as you gain access to them.

It is theoretically possible to bypass most of this nightmarish process by building a replica Heartless Gummi Ship using blueprints picked up from destroyed enemy ships. This is not a method I would advocate, however. Most of the default Gummi Ship blueprints come devoid of weaponry, forcing you into the editor anyway to chuck a few cannons and lasers on top of the pre-determined design. Far more infuriating for me personally, however, is the fact that these blueprints are largely useless without the correct Gummi blocks in your inventory. Attempting to build a ship without all the necessary parts will result in the ship being built, but with all the parts you don't own simply absent from its structure. On top of this, there's no in-game way to find out which blocks you need to complete a specific design, so I couldn't actively seek them out even if I wanted to. All these things conspire to make me never want to engage with the preset blueprints, and this playthrough is no different. Doesn't stop me from wanting to collect them all, though.

For all the negativity I've spewed on the subject of Gummi Ship creation, I do have to applaud the level of depth and freedom within the ship editor, especially considering it exists in a game that's over fifteen years old at this point. All a ship needs to function is a cockpit and an engine, so slap a Fire-G or two on the back of a Cure-G and you literally have a working Gummi Ship. There are also interconnected weight, power and speed ratios at play, too - using more armour-type Gummis will give your ship more health, but the extra weight will also slow it down, meaning you'll need more and/or bigger engines to keep it moving at a decent clip. Each weapon type has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, forcing you to weigh up their pros and cons during the building process. There is a neat little engine under the hood of this part of the game, and one that was way ahead of its time, even if it is incredibly confusing to use and get the most out of.

For now I'm keen to build a ship that will see us comfortably around the next set of worlds. I use the Curaga cockpit and Firaga engine that I've earned from saving the dalmatian puppies as my base. From there I bulk out the body with Shell and Dispel armour blocks, slap a pair of Aeroga wings on the sides for manoeuvrability, and attach a Thunder cannon and Comet laser to the undercarriage. When I'm done it looks a bit like a flying saucer with very square edges - not especially glamorous, but it'll get the job done.

Part 15 - Arabian Nights

With our new Gummi Ship ready to go, it's time to set off in search of new worlds. A pair of suspicious, black hole-looking portals have opened up, and they're just begging to be investigated. One is placed between Traverse Town and Wonderland, and the other between Olympus Coliseum and Deep Jungle - smart positioning which means you can access a portal regardless of your current location. Both routes are pretty comparable from a content perspective, and both wind up in exactly the same location, bringing the crew out near a desert world with a huge palace. This is, of course, Agrabah, taken from one of the most popular films of the Disney Renaissance, Aladdin. Let's disembark and see what awaits us.

Down on the surface, resident villain Jafar is speaking with Maleficent about their plans. The Heartless are currently swarming over the world, looking for its Keyhole. Of less concern to Jafar are the whereabouts of Princess Jasmine, but he soon changes his tune when Maleficent explains that she is one of seven "Princesses of Heart", needed to open the "final door". These nebulous terms will likely be fully explained in due course, but for now, Jafar summons a group of Heartless to search for her. Maleficent offers some advisory words about the dangers of becoming over-reliant on darkness and the Heartless, but Jafar brushes them off with a laugh and walks away. Jasmine, hiding behind a market stall nearby, hears the whole exchange.

The cutscene abruptly shifts to active gameplay, and if Deep Jungle had the slowest build-up, Agrabah easily has the fastest - we're immediately beset by Heartless. I notice two things here. On the positive side of the equation, the Heartless designs here are just as good as those in Deep Jungle. The Bandits and Fat Bandits that litter the city streets are very world-appropriate in their design, adorned with turbans, vests and curled-toe shoes, and carrying deadly scimitars as weapons. The downside is that the plaza in which we're currently fighting is not designed for combat. In fact, all of the zones that make up the city portion of Agrabah feel very hemmed in, making it difficult to create breathing space while fighting, and also making things difficult for the camera, which invariably ends up too close to the action and ruins the player's situational awareness.

Fighting their way through the narrow city streets, Sora, Donald and Goofy are funnelled by a series of roadblocks into a nearby alleyway, where they meet Jasmine for the first time. She gives us the full backstory, explaining that Jafar has overthrown her father, the Sultan, and seized control of Agrabah in his search for the Keyhole. She had been imprisoned in the palace, but was helped to escape by someone named Aladdin. As she finishes her story, Jafar shows up and sets his Heartless on the group. Sora and co. manage to buy Jasmine enough time to escape, but lose both her and Jafar in the process. With no indication of where to go next, I guess we're reduced to wandering around in search of the next story beat. I wasn't expecting to have Deep Jungle flashbacks this soon...

There's a surprising amount of verticality to the design of Agrabah's city zones, with multiple paths leading between the different areas at various heights. While I've complained about the jumping and platforming in Kingdom Hearts already, Agrabah manages to mitigate a lot of potential frustration through its level design. Unlike Deep Jungle, where a misstep could put you back multiple screens, it's quicker and easier to regain the high ground in Agrabah thanks to the multitude of ledges and market stall canopies that can be reached from ground level. This verticality ties into some light puzzle-solving and item-hunting, and while it's nothing particularly strenuous, it's an appreciated change.

The place we should be, as it turns out, is a hideaway inside an old abandoned building. Along with a couple of treasure chests, the crew encounter something out of the ordinary, even by their standards - a flying carpet, pinned to the ground by heavy furniture. Moving the furniture will release it and cause it to fly off towards the desert, giving a slight clue as to our next destination. The desert can be accessed by leaving through the city gates, where Carpet will be waiting to take Sora, Donald and Goofy across the sea of sand.

Carpet takes the crew to a far corner of the desert, where a young man is trapped in quicksand and in desperate need of help. Another combat challenge ensues, tasking the player with taking down a large number of Bandit Heartless. These new enemies are much easier to deal with and keep track of in this open space, giving the player more opportunities to read and react to their attacks. That's a luxury I intend to make the most of here, since we're starting to enter territory where standard enemies will regularly outspeed Sora, making his default combo feel more sluggish than ever. Bandits are also the first non-boss enemy type we've encountered who can parry Sora's physical attacks, encouraging me to mix some Fire and Blizzard magic in amongst my Keyblade swings.

When a certain number of Bandits have been defeated, a cutscene plays showing the young man hoisting himself out of the quicksand, rubbing an old oil lamp, and wishing for the Heartless to disappear. A huge blue genie erupts from the spout of the lamp, rolls up his invisible sleeves, and dismisses the remaining Heartless with a single click of the fingers. Based on that display, I guess he didn't really need our help after all. The young man introduces himself as Aladdin, thanks Sora for coming to his rescue, and explains what he was doing out in the desert. He came all the way out here to explore the Cave of Wonders in search of the magic lamp he now holds. Whoever holds the lamp becomes the master of the genie inside, granting him three wishes. Aladdin intends to use his wishes to become a prince and win the heart of a princess named Jasmine. The mention of her name suddenly jogs Sora's memory, prompting him to tell Aladdin that his prospective girlfriend is in trouble. With no time to lose, everyone bundles onto Carpet, who sets off back towards Agrabah. En route, Aladdin promises to free Genie from his servitude to the lamp when Jasmine is saved.

Now that we've met all the key players in Agrabah, it might be a good time to talk about this world's voice acting. On the whole it's pretty darn good, with almost all the film's actors reprising their roles here - Scott Weinger voices Aladdin, Linda Larkin is Jasmine, Jonathan Freeman reprises Jafar's memorable drawl, and even Gilbert Gottfried comes back as the wise-cracking parrot Iago. The major noticeable omission here is Robin Williams as the Genie, and although Dan Castellaneta (who voiced Genie in the direct-to-video sequel Return of Jafar, but is probably best known as the voice of Homer Simpson) does an admirable job as understudy, Williams' absence is felt. The voice acting is a little more consistent here as well, with only a couple of lines coming off as rushed due to odd intonation. More than any other world so far, Agrabah has nailed the feel of its film origins with its voice acting.

Since this is also the point at which he becomes selectable as a world-specific ally, let's quickly talk about Aladdin from a gameplay standpoint. Much like Tarzan, his active combat abilities are very combat-oriented, using his limited MP to deal additional damage to enemies with his scimitar. In that respect, also like Tarzan, he's best suited as a replacement for Goofy in the party. What I only noticed on this playthrough is that Aladdin's support abilities play extremely well into his status as a "street rat" in the film. They're almost exclusively centred around money and treasure, including abilities like Jackpot (earn more Munny from battles), Lucky Strike (increase the drop rate of rare items) and Treasure Magnet (pull in orbs and items dropped by defeated enemies from further away). It's a very clever allusion to his status as a thief through the abilities he possesses.

On returning to Agrabah, a different set of paths have been blocked, impeding the group's progress towards the palace. If you didn't get acquainted with the rooftops of Agrabah before, it's now mandatory. The aim here is to explore the city above ground and find keyhole-shaped switches. Using these switches will open various locked gates, allowing the party to access old areas from new perspectives, as well as different areas altogether. It's a little reminiscent of the Bizarre Room from Wonderland, except not quite as confusing since there's a logical progression to everything, and at no point does the orientation of the city completely shift.

Eventually Sora will unlock a gate which leads to the front of the palace. There he meets Jafar, who has found Jasmine and his holding her captive. Using his second wish, Aladdin wishes for Genie to save her. As Genie swoops in and tries to carry her away, Jafar has his parrot Iago steal the lamp from Aladdin and bring it over to him. No longer under Aladdin's control, Genie drops Jasmine into an empty pot, which becomes a Pot Spider. Summoning a Heartless to keep Sora and Aladdin busy, Jafar disappears, the lamp now in his possession.

Mini-Boss - Pot Centipede - Agrabah is filled with bosses and mini-bosses, and here is our first - a giant centipede whose body is comprised of the Pot Spiders we've already been fighting up to this point. The head and tail are its primary weak points, and each end of the Centipede is adorned with a pair of whip-like antennae which serve as its main weapon. These antennae will glow when an attack is inbound, giving the player a brief window to get out of range before being hit. As for strategy, the trick is to try and break the Centipede into its constituent parts, since it's much less mobile when it's in pieces. The most reliable method for achieving this seems to be a critical hit to the head, which will send the Pot Spiders that make up its body flying in all directions. For this reason, it might be worth giving up the Jungle King (which does more damage, but lowers Sora's critical hit chance) and equipping the classic Kingdom Key instead. I also found the Ripple Drive ability very effective in this fight, since its area-of-effect properties helped me to take out multiple Pot Spiders with single combos. Your reward for beating the Pot Centipede is a Ray of Light accessory.

After the battle, Jasmine is nowhere to be found. A maniacal disembodied laugh from Jafar is apparently enough to tell Aladdin that their next destination is the desert. Carpet carries the team back to where we first encountered Aladdin, and a new threat rises from the sand. Anyone who grew up watching Aladdin is likely to be hit pretty hard by this next cutscene, as Sora, Donald, Goofy and Aladdin watch the entrance to the Cave of Wonders emerge right in front of them. All is not as it should be, however, and we have another battle on our hands before we can enter.

Mini-Boss - Tiger Head - Another interesting mini-boss fight, we have to knock the power of darkness out of the Cave of Wonders' eyes before it will allow us to pass through its mouth into the caverns below. Its weak points, therefore, are its purple glowing eyes. Although initially out of reach, the Tiger Head will lower its mouth into the sand periodically, bringing its eyes into range. In terms of attacks to watch out for, the Tiger Head only really has one - it shoots homing balls of dark energy from its eyes at regular intervals. The real threat here comes from the numerous Bandits, Air Soldiers and Fat Bandits that spawn throughout the battle. Donald, Goofy and/or Aladdin will minimise the amount of time these additional Heartless spend focusing on Sora for as long as they can stay alive, but it still pays to be aware of your surroundings at all times during this fight.

It's a good idea to have Sora equipped with the Hurricane Blast ability at this stage if you have it, plus an Aerial Combo Plus to prolong the amount of time Sora can stay airborne and attacking the eyes. If timed well, it's also possible to catch a lift on the Tiger Head's nose as it rises out of the sand, giving Sora plenty of time to wail on those eyes while perched on the bridge of its snout. Another viable alternative is to summon Simba when the Tiger Head's nose is down in the sand - this will bring both of its eyes (as well as a bunch of the minion Heartless) within range of his Proud Roar, letting you deal some decent damage. When both eyes have been subdued, the battle ends, and the team are at last able to pass into the Cave of Wonders.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Cave of Wonders is one of the best level environments from any of Kingdom Hearts' Disney-inspired worlds. Not only is it visually consistent with the environments seen in the film, but the level design is some of the most adventurous in the game up to this point. There are two distinct areas within the cave, a linear upper level, and a more maze-like lower level. These two levels have different colour palettes (reds and blues, respectively) making it easy to tell at a glance which level you're on. The upper level is more combat oriented, throwing lots of Heartless at you, while the lower level is quieter and more puzzle-oriented, asking the player to hit switches to open doors and reveal secrets. While there are numerous different paths to take between the two levels, it's never a chore to switch between them, since there's usually a hole nearby to jump down or a staircase nearby to head up. There's a minor level of persistent progression between the two levels as well, with Sora needing to damage a pillar on the lower level to lower it and open a path on the upper level. It's a real step forward in level design, with the only real shame being that the developers didn't do more with the concept.

While progressing through the cave, a cutscene plays showing Jafar in the lamp chamber, using his first wish to make Genie reveal the world's Keyhole. The team arrive on the scene as Jafar is talking with Maleficent about Sora interfering with their plan, mentioning Riku's name in the process. Maleficent disappears before Sora can speak with her, leaving Jafar to deal with the intruders. He explains what the audience already know, but Sora doesn't - that Jasmine is one of seven princesses whose hearts hold the key to opening a door of some kind. There's no opportunity to ask questions, as Jafar makes his second wish and commands Genie to crush them all.

BOSS - Jafar - After the great exploration-based gameplay to reach this point, Jafar is a bit of a let-down as a boss. You fight him in the lamp chamber, a large circular arena with three raised platforms around its perimeter. Jafar will float between these three platforms and periodically attack with one of a number of spells from his staff - either a Blizzard-style spell that fills the centre of the arena, a Fire-element melee attack, or a laser-like beam. All the while, Genie will move around the arena and attack with a slam (pre-empted with a lengthy apology that telegraphs his intentions long before the attack lands).

Provided you keep the aerial combat abilities equipped following the Tiger Head fight, Jafar shouldn't be too tough to take down. Simply jump onto whichever platform he stops near and launch an aerial combo, concluding with Hurricane Blast for maximum damage. After taking a few hits, Jafar will start to transform into a glowing ball of darkness while he floats around. He's impossible to damage in this state, but it's worth sticking close to him to land some attacks when he reverts to his human form. Honestly, this fight is more of a chore than a challenge, with significant periods of waiting around for Jafar to move into position for a good attacking opportunity. Patience will prevail, earning Sora his first magic upgrade (Blizzard to Blizzara, increasing the spell's spread and damage output) in the process.

As Aladdin and Sora rush over to help Jasmine, a desperate Jafar makes his final wish - to become an all-powerful genie himself. Genie obliges, and Jafar's writhing body sinks into a newly-opened crater in the floor of the lamp chamber. Sora quickly follows after him. We should have known this was too easy...

BOSS - Genie-Jafar - The fourth and final boss of Agrabah (for now) is Jafar in his genie form, but he's not our target in this fight. Instead, we're shooting for Iago, who's flying around the arena carrying Jafar's own genie lamp. Honestly, if the previous fight was a chore, this is one is just plain disappointing. Iago is completely defenceless, making the lamp a sitting duck (or should that be sitting parrot?) of a target. Jafar's genie form has a couple of attacks including a close-range arm sweep and the ability to throw balls of volcanic rock over a distance, but since you're rarely close enough to him to trigger the former and the latter is telegraphed several seconds in advance by a voice clip, neither of these attacks should trouble anyone who's already played the game up to this point. As a final hindrance, some areas of the ground in this arena will raise and lower, occasionally putting Iago out of reach. Just be patient, wait for him to change course, and start attacking when he's back in range. For maximum efficiency, keep those aerial combo abilities equipped to really lay the smack down on Jafar's lamp.

Acting as Jafar's master with lamp in hand, Sora returns the villain to his new home. His reward for doing so is another spell upgrade - Fire becomes Fira, increasing its damage output - and the first part of Ansem's Report, the document that the Final Fantasy crew have been referring to, hoping it might hold the secret to getting rid of the Heartless. By the time the team return to the lamp chamber, Jasmine is nowhere to be seen - like Alice in Wonderland, it seems she's been kidnapped by the Heartless. Sora uses his Keyblade to seal the world's Keyhole, just as the entire Cave of Wonders begins to collapse.

What follows is a brief playable carpet-riding sequence that pays homage to one of Aladdin's most iconic scenes, giving the player a small amount of agency as the team escape from the crumbling cave. It doesn't really amount to anything, and the controls are pretty unresponsive which makes it difficult to avoid any of the obstacles in Sora's path, but it's still a really impressive spectacle, especially when you consider this was originally running on the humble PS2. It's actually slightly surprising this wasn't fleshed out more into a full-on mini-game in the same vein as Jungle Slider or Vine Swinging back in Deep Jungle, since it would probably lend itself well to that kind of treatment.

Back in Agrabah, Sora breaks the bad news to Aladdin that he can't come with them on their journey to find Jasmine. To do so would be "meddling" with the world order. Genie urges Aladdin to use his last wish to find Jasmine, but true to his word, Aladdin uses it to free Genie instead. Now no longer a slave to his lamp, Genie decides to go along with Sora of his own volition. Quite why it's alright for Genie to travel with Sora when it isn't okay for Aladdin to do the same isn't really explained, but nobody questions it, so I guess it's okay? Genie thus becomes our second available Summon. Another offensive Summon, he uses a variety of magical spells including Thunder, Gravity and Stop to damage and disable foes as part of his Showtime ability. I don't foresee myself making much use of Genie over the course of the game, since I could use most of these spells more reliably through my own Magic menu.

Alongside a new Summon, Aladdin gifts Sora a new keychain from his Keyblade. Named Three Wishes, it offers a slight attack boost from Jungle King without sacrificing critical hit chance, albeit with a slightly shorter reach. It's a trade-off that's worth it in my opinion, so I waste no time equipping it. Our final reward for clearing Agrabah is the ability to activate green Trinity marks. These marks allow the team to use Trinity Ladder, sitting on each other's shoulders to reach high-up objects. I've seen the green Trinity mark in a few places already, most notably the one on the floor of the Accessory Shop in Traverse Town. Perhaps we should head back and check that out...

Meanwhile, back at Villain HQ, Hades and Maleficent have witnessed the events that occurred in Agrabah. It's revealed that Jasmine was kidnapped not by the Heartless, but by Riku, who's now working in league with Maleficent and the other villains, having been promised that they will help him find what he's searching for. Apparently true to her word, Maleficent seems to suggest that she's located Kairi, and tells Riku to travel with Captain Hook on his ship to find her. Riku senses there's a catch to all this, but Maleficent plays innocent, saying that she only cares about his happiness. Reluctantly, Riku does as he's told...

AGRABAH Thoughts - Much like Deep Jungle did with Tarzan, the events of Agrabah sync up pretty well with the plot of Aladdin. Aladdin meeting Jasmine on the streets of Agrabah, Jafar seizing control of the city, Aladdin acquiring the lamp, befriending the Genie, losing the lamp to Jafar and ultimately defeating him are all story beats from the film that are represented within Kingdom Hearts, albeit with some artistic licence to accommodate the Heartless and the Keyhole as plot points. Agrabah might also be the best instance of character representation in the game so far, with almost all the film's main characters represented and the only notable omission being Jasmine's father, the Sultan.

Aesthetically, Agrabah matches up brilliantly with the feel of the film it's been taken from. The city streets, while cramped and confined, are visually faithful. The stars of the show, though, are Aladdin's House and the Tiger Head that forms the entrance to the Cave of Wonders. Once again Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack is brilliantly on-point, with eastern influences aplenty in both the exploration and battle music that conjure up the feel of Aladdin without directly cribbing from any of the film's big musical numbers. I've also spoken about how most of the Heartless here feel thematically appropriate for the world thanks to their attire and weaponry, but it bears repeating here. All in all, I'd be hard pressed to call Agrabah anything other than the high point of Kingdom Hearts up to this point. It's just a shame about those underwhelming boss fights.

Part 16 - This Band Needs Synthesisers

Back on the World Select screen, two new paths have opened up on the far side of Agrabah, leading to worlds with battle levels of five and six stars. Before heading to either of those, though, Goofy points out it would probably be a good idea to return to Traverse Town and check out that green Trinity mark in the Accessory Shop. Thanks to the addition of the Warp Gummi enabling instant travel to previously visited worlds, backtracking becomes much less of a chore from here on out.

Inside the Accessory Shop, I meet a new face, and it's not the guy who's taken over shop-keeping duties since Cid went back to dealing Gummi blocks. It's Pinocchio, the living puppet who Jiminy Cricket used to look out for on their own world, and he seems to have been helping himself to the shop's stock. He's quick to lie when Jiminy confronts him about it, causing the nose on his face to grow. Jiminy gives him a lecture about telling the truth and listening to his conscience, and Pinocchio promises not to lie again, shrinking his nose back to normal size. It's an interesting little cameo that doesn't really amount to much, but it does remind the player that Jiminy Cricket is actually travelling with them, and also serves to subtly set up the next "world" we'll be visiting.

With Pinocchio dealt with, it's time to activate the green Trinity mark on the floor. This lowers a ladder granting access to the first floor of the shop, which as it turns out is home to a bunch of Moogles, the lovable cat-bear creatures from the Final Fantasy series. They've served many roles in those games, from voodoo doll weaponry and postal workers to actual playable characters, but here in Kingdom Hearts, they're master craftsmen. These Moogles run the Synthesis Shop, a special outlet where the team can hand in loot dropped by enemies in exchange for rare items, accessories and weapons. The more items the Moogles synthesise for Sora, the longer their list of available recipes will become. It's a neat little side quest that rewards exploration and combat with some incredibly useful bits and bobs, although some of the rarest items can be a real pain to get hold of. I'll be engaging with (and writing about) item synthesis once we hit the end-game content in a few weeks' time. For now, I have enough gubbins to craft a handful of healing items and a couple of new accessories.

While we're here in Traverse Town, we may as well check in on some old faces for new items. The first port of call is the Dalmatians' House, where we're gifted another Gummi block for rescuing more puppies (33 down, 66 to go!). The other place worth visiting is the Item Shop, which is now carrying new weapons for Donald and Goofy. In the interest of keeping them within their mage and tank roles respectively, I decide to pick up the Magus Staff for Donald and the Golem Shield for Goofy. After quickly re-tooling my party with their new gear, I head back out to the World Select screen and set off for the world with a five-star battle level.

Part 17 - Sora and the Whale

Flying from Agrabah to the next world is the first time I've noticed a substantial step up in difficulty on these Gummi routes. From here on out, enemy ships and obstacles start taking a lot more damage to destroy, and with our ship's pretty limited arsenal, it proves more effective to try and avoid incoming ships and asteroids than obliterate them. As I near the end of this Gummi route, the HUD clears from the screen and a huge grey bulk appears in the distance. What might initially be mistaken for another asteroid turns out to be (of all things) a giant whale, identified by Jiminy as Monstro. Swimming through space. A quick note to anyone who might have been holding out hope for this game to start making some kind of sense - this is your first and best chance get off the ride. Sora tries to pilot the ship out of its path (allegedly, since he spends a lot of time doing sweet nothing while the whale approaches), but it's too late. Monstro approaches, mouth open, and swallows the Gummi Ship whole.

We're treated to a flashback at this point, depicting Sora and Riku as young children on the Destiny Islands. Sora is convinced there's a monster inside the Secret Place, and gets Riku to come with him to take it out. As it happens, the growling sound heard by Sora is just the wind rumbling around in the cave. Myth debunked, the pair spot the mysterious door at the back of the cavern. They try to open it, but it won't budge. As they leave the cave to check on the new girl at the Mayor's house (presumably Kairi), Riku vows that when they're older, they will leave the island and go on real adventures instead of make-believe ones like their monster hunt...

Sora, Donald and Goofy awaken inside the mouth of Monstro, and it seems they're not the only ones here. Donald spots Pinocchio carrying a Gummi block, and Jiminy insists the team follow him to find out what he's up to. It's never actually explained how Pinocchio came to be inside Monstro only moments after we saw him in Traverse Town. My assumption has always been that he stowed away on the team's Gummi Ship somehow. It turns out Monstro is hosting quite the party on his tongue - alongside everyone else, Pinocchio's father Geppetto is here as well. Pinocchio presents him with the Gummi block, saying they can use it to escape from Monstro. Geppetto explains to Sora that he's been hunting for Pinocchio since their world disappeared, and he ended up swallowed by Monstro in the process. While telling his story, he doesn't notice Pinocchio wander deeper into Monstro, apparently in pursuit of someone else...

Sora and the others give chase, meeting Pinocchio inside the first of many "chambers" that constitute the innards of Monstro. They try to talk him back to Geppetto, but Pinocchio isn't budging and it quickly becomes apparent why. Riku is also inside Monstro (I'm beginning to wonder if there's anyone who isn't inside Monstro at this point), and says he's playing with Pinocchio. When Sora asks about Kairi, Riku challenges him to catch them before he'll reveal what he knows. It's an interesting shift in roles between the two characters here, with Sora taking on the serious tone juxtaposed with Riku's playful mockery. When Sora tries to talk him down, Riku grabs Pinocchio by the arm and retreats even deeper into Monstro.

Visually, I think the inside of Monstro is the most mixed bag the game has presented us up to this point. The Mouth area is rendered in a very realistic style, true to the visuals of Pinocchio, but the "chambers" that make up his innards are rendered in a much more stylised, cartoon-like fashion, with vibrant spots and blobs of colour adorning the walls and floors. I appreciate this stylised approach is more kid-friendly than a realistic, fleshy rendition might be, but it still seems very at odds with the design of his mouth. An unfortunate by-product of this design choice is that navigating inside Monstro is on a hellish par with getting around Deep Jungle. The chambers are numbered from 1 to 6, but there's very little in the sense of a logical progression from one chamber to the next. There are multiple paths and routes to chambers from other chambers, and they don't even run in numeric sequence - our goal here is to get to Chamber 4, but in order to do so we have to pass through Chambers 5 and 6 to reach it. Add to this the fact that all of these chambers look identical thanks to their Mr Blobby-esque interior decor, and players are in for a very perplexing exploration segment here.

Eventually Sora will catch up to Riku, who's once again being manipulated by Maleficent into believing that Sora has abandoned him in favour of the Keyblade and his new friends. Riku questions Sora's loyalty to Kairi, suggesting that if he was serious about saving her, he wouldn't be gallivanting from world to world and showing off his Keyblade at every opportunity. While Sora and Riku argue, a scream off-screen alerts them to the fact that Pinocchio is in trouble. Following the scream into Monstro's Bowels, the pair are met by a monstrous-looking Heartless that has ensnared Pinocchio within its cage-like stomach. Putting aside their differences, Sora and Riku agree to work together to rescue the puppet.

Mini-Boss - Parasite Cage - This is the first of two battles against the Parasite Cage, and since it's notably easier than the second, I'm reducing this one to mini-boss status. In what is a rarity in Kingdom Hearts, this battle sees the three-piece party augmented with a fourth character in the form of Riku. While his actions can't be controlled in any way, he also doesn't have any visible HP bar and (unlike Donald and Goofy) can't be knocked out. This, coupled with the decent damage dealt by his bat-wing sword Soul Eater, makes him a far superior combat ally to Sora's usual accomplices. In terms of strategy, this first encounter with Parasite Cage doesn't demand too much of the player. Its only attacks involve swinging its tentacles back and forth, and these are easily deflected with the correct timing. Chipping down its short health bar shouldn't take too long at all.

Once defeated, Parasite Cage will drop Pinocchio through a hole in the ground and retreat. Riku follows down the hole, and once I regain control of Sora, I do the same. Something that I feel we need to talk about here is that after leaving a zone named Bowels, through a hole in the bottom of the zone, Sora and co. somehow end up back in Monstro's mouth, and are visibly seen falling from above. Now, I'm no marine biologist, but I do know enough to know that the bowels of an animal don't connect directly to the roof of its mouth. Either the level designers on Kingdom Hearts need to learn the basics of biology, or there's something incredibly screwed up about this whale's anatomy.

It seems that the truce between Sora and Riku was short-lived, because the latter is now working on a fresh attempt to kidnap Pinocchio. He claims that a puppet with a heart might hold the key to helping someone who's lost theirs, prompting Sora to ask if he's talking about Kairi. Riku shrugs off his answer and leaves Monstro's mouth via his throat. Desperate for his son to be saved, Geppetto gifts the player a new ability so they can pursue Riku - the ability to High Jump. This marks the first appearance of a shared ability in Kingdom Hearts. These abilities are linked directly to traversal, and although they need to be equipped like individual character abilities, doing so does not cost any AP. High Jump, as its name suggests, adds extra height and distance to Sora's default jump, allowing him to reach previously inaccessible areas. While it doesn't improve the feel of the game's cumbersome platforming, it does make things slightly more forgiving by giving the player that extra bit of air-time to play with. Once equipped, it's very unlikely you'll ever turn it off.

The addition of High Jump, combined with the water level in Monstro's mouth being lowered, allows me to access a number of platforms and treasure chests that were previously out of reach. Not only that, but it allows me to reach the passage to the throat that Riku took Pinocchio through. Monstro's throat poses a combined platforming and combat challenge, tasking the player with ascending a series of platforms within a cylindrical room, while also throwing several waves of enemies their way with each successive platform reached. The awkward camera makes it incredibly difficult to both ascend and fight, often meaning the best course of action is to stay in place and clear out all the enemies on one platform before attempting to jump to the next. I'd also neglected to mention that Monstro introduces a new minion Heartless in the form of the Search Ghost. They're pretty unremarkable to fight, but I want to acknowledge their ubiquity throughout the next few worlds. Clearly designed with an altogether different world in mind, their overuse in Monstro and other upcoming areas just feels lazy, particularly after the care put into the designs for world-specific Heartless in Deep Jungle and Agrabah.

Reaching the top of the throat puts Sora, Donald and Goofy in Monstro's stomach (seriously, level designers, take a biology class already!). Riku is here with Pinocchio, and he reveals his plan - to sacrifice Pinocchio's heart to the Heartless, in the hope that his twisted experiment will show him how he can help Kairi. Riku offers his hand to Sora as an ally, saying they can save her if they join forces, but Sora takes up his Keyblade in defiance. He knows Riku is on the wrong side in this fight, and isn't prepared to join him. As Riku leaves through a portal of darkness, the Parasite Cage from before descends into the arena, looking for a rematch.

BOSS - Parasite Cage - While the Parasite Cage was a pushover before, it won't go down so easily this time. In addition to a much larger HP bar, Parasite Cage brings a few new moves to table this time around including a full-body swing and an acid breath attack. This breath attack is lethal, since as well as dealing damage on contact, it will also inflict a poison-like status effect on Sora, sapping his health over time for a few seconds after contact. The new location of this second fight is also worth noting, since the outer edges of the floor are covered with stomach acid that can inflict the same poison-style status effect on Sora. Finally, it has a new weak point - a ball of darkness held inside its cage-like stomach, where Pinocchio was trapped before.

In light of Parasite Cage's change of tactics, we're going to have to change ours too. Using raised platforms around the outer edge of the arena, the player needs to target its head with aerial combos and magic attacks. Dealing a sufficient amount of damage to the head will cause its top half to topple back, opening its stomach and exposing the darkness within to Sora's Keyblade for a few precious seconds. After a while the Parasite Cage will recover and it's a case of rinse and repeat. Parasite Cage will become more aggressive as the battle progresses, increasing use of its acid breath attack to try and put the player on the back foot. Staying mobile and using the raised platforms to flank it is the best way to stay safe, attacking little and often between its own onslaughts.

Defeating the Parasite Cage gives Sora and Donald access to the Stop spell. This passive spell will cause enemies to freeze in their tracks, leaving them open to attack. Although enemies cannot be defeated while stopped, they will still accrue damage, which will then be dealt in full once the Stop spell wears off. It's a useful support spell for crowd control, more so at this point than towards the end-game content, and also has some specialist uses which I'll address at the appropriate points in this series. Learning Stop gives the team access to the full set of seven spells present in Kingdom Hearts, meaning all magic learned from here on out will be upgrades to existing spells.

After the fight, the action follows Riku's return to Captain Hook's ship. He's found Kairi, and she has indeed lost her heart. Maleficent believes it was taken by the Heartless, but says there may be a way to recover it. By gathering seven maidens of the purest heart, known as the Princesses of Heart, it will be possible to open a door to the heart of all worlds. Beyond this door, Maleficent says, Riku will likely find the wisdom needed to restore Kairi's heart to her body. She also bestows upon Riku the ability to control the Heartless, giving Riku another weapon to use in his pursuit of the seven princesses.

The battle inside Monstro's stomach causes him a bit of internal discomfort. The huge whale lets loose an enormous sneeze, firing Sora, Donald, Goofy and the Gummi Ship out of his mouth and back into Gummi-space. There's no sign of Geppetto and Pinocchio, although I have a feeling this isn't the last we'll see of the inventor and his walking, talking puppet. The Gummi Ship drifts back towards Agrabah, and puts me back on the World Select screen. Looks like we'll have to set off for that world with the five-star battle level next time.

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Once again, apologies for the delay in bringing this week's episode to you. The delay in processing last week's episode had me playing catch-up, but I'm now all square once again, and should be back to Monday releases from next week's instalment. As always, if you have any thoughts on the sections of the game covered in today's blog, please share them with me by dropping a comment below. I'll be back next week to cover the second Coliseum tournament and visits to both Atlantica and Halloween Town. Until then, thanks very much for reading folks. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (PS4)

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The Keyblade Chronicles - Episode Three (Kingdom Hearts Final Mix - Parts 10-13)

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AUTHOR'S NOTE - Apologies for the delay in getting this blog up folks. Monday ended up being an incredibly busy day as I bought myself my first car, after passing my driving test last month. I got so tied up with reading paperwork and organising insurance that I wasn't able to finish this episode on schedule. I'll be returning to Monday releases going forward.

Hey there folks. It's time for another dose of Square-Enix/Disney crossover madness as a new episode of the Keyblade Chronicles gets underway. Roll title card!

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As always, a quick preamble to remind you that this is the latest episode in a series chronicling my efforts to play through the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise before the release of Kingdom Hearts III in January 2019. We're still pretty close to the start of our adventure, but if you intend to follow along, it's best to start from the beginning. There are handy navigation links at the top of this blog to take you either to the previous episode, or to the main episode hub (which also contains a more in-depth explanation of what this series is and why I'm writing it). If you're all caught up, then by all means read on!

This week's instalment will see us visit the final world in the first group, Tarzan's Deep Jungle, then head back to Traverse Town to move the overall story along. After that we'll tie up a few loose ends and pay another visit to Olympus Coliseum before wrapping up this part of the journey.

Part 10 - In the Jungle, the Terrible Jungle

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Last time we were with Sora, Donald and Goofy, they'd just departed from Olympus Coliseum, having defeated Cerberus in the arena and foiled Hades' plan to eradicate Hercules in the process. That leaves just one unexplored location currently charted on the World Select menu, so that's where the newly-dubbed "junior heroes" will be heading next. Being as the worlds are arranged in a circle, this next destination is accessible from either Wonderland or Olympus Coliseum, and both Gummi Ship routes are pretty comparable - they both feature more obstacles that require manoeuvring to avoid, and for the first time enemy ships are equipped with projectile weapons. Even with these extra hurdles, both these routes can be cleared pretty comfortably with the default Kingdom Gummi Ship, so we won't be building a new one just yet.

The final world of this initial set is Deep Jungle, a beautiful green world full of trees and waterfalls. Sora is keen to land here and look for Riku and Kairi, but Donald wants to keep going, sure that the King would never visit such a backwater world. A fight breaks out in the cockpit, Sora seizes the controls, and the Gummi Ship crash lands in the jungle. This scene (and without foreshadowing too much, this whole world) help to establish and develop the friendship dynamic between Sora and Donald. Both characters clearly have their own agendas and believe their respective quests to be more important than that of the other. Hence this argument breaking out. However, there is also a level of respect and friendship between them, even if they're reluctant to acknowledge it. This dynamic plays perfectly into Donald's hot-headed, but ultimately caring character. It's a shame that Goofy is such a non-entity in this trinity by comparison.

Sora wakes up after the crash landing, separated from Donald and Goofy and alone in a rickety old treehouse. He's thrown almost instantly into a fight against a vicious leopard. Although technically a mini-boss, I won't give this fight its own paragraph for two reasons - first, the fight is so short as to be insignificant, and second, we'll be engaging in a proper mini-boss fight with this creature later in the chapter. All that's really worth remarking here is that once again, Sora doesn't have to win the fight for the story to progress, although losing will forfeit some experience. However the fight ends, the leopard is ultimately chased away by the arrival of a wild man wielding a spear. Sora thanks him, and although there appears to be something of a language barrier between the two of them, they're able to introduce themselves to each other. This fellow's name is Tarzan. Sora asks Tarzan if he's seen his friends - initially referring to Donald and Goofy, he quickly changes his mind and asks about Riku and Kairi instead. Again, the language barrier doesn't help here - Tarzan seems to understand what Sora is asking, but can't reply in English, only in gorilla-speak. Hoping Tarzan will be able to lead him to his friends, Sora leaves the Tree House with him.

Meanwhile, Donald and Goofy are elsewhere in Deep Jungle. A gorilla runs past and drops a Gummi block, which catches Donald's attention - maybe the King is here after all? They don't have time to discuss it though, as the gorilla is followed by an imposing man carrying a shotgun. Before we can find out their fate, the action shifts back to Sora and tasks the player with following Tarzan. There are a couple of ways to leave the Tree House, but in this instance I always opt for the most flamboyant - leaping over the edge into the trees below. The reason for this is simple - tree slidin', baby! Deep Jungle features a playable sequence where Sora can slide along tree branches, similar to how Tarzan does in the Disney movie. While not particularly challenging from a gameplay perspective, it's at least something a little bit different (and preferable to navigating Deep Jungle in the conventional way, as we'll soon discover). Later on this sequence becomes a bona fide mini-game, which I'll cover in due course.

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Deep Jungle is also the first world in Kingdom Hearts where Sora can choose to swap out either Donald or Goofy for a world-specific guest ally - in this case, that's Tarzan. Generally speaking, I don't usually engage with these world-specific allies in Kingdom Hearts. Aside from the fact that they don't usually have any distinguishing combat features to set them apart, there's also the downside that you can't activate any Trinity marks while using them. For this playthrough, however, I'm going to break that personal rule and make use of them, if only to make this series as comprehensive as possible. In Tarzan's case, he's a physically-oriented character with attack moves comparable to Goofy's, plus unique moves which act as equivalents of the Cure and Aero spells - this is magic I haven't learned yet, which could make him pretty useful as a support character in upcoming fights. His support abilities are geared towards damage dealing, including Berserk (which boosts attack power when HP is critically low) and Critical Plus (which increases the chance of landing a critical hit). When the opportunity comes, I'll be swapping him out for Goofy to keep the party reasonably well-rounded.

Completing the tree sliding route puts Sora and Tarzan at the Porters' campsite. Inside the tent, Sora meets Tarzan's friend Jane and is reunited with Donald and Goofy, who've been escorted here by Clayton, the gun-toting gentleman we saw earlier. Sora and Donald are initially thrilled to see each other and run to meet, before remembering that they're supposed to be mad at each other right now. They both announce that they're staying in Deep Jungle - Sora because Tarzan seems to know where his friends are, and Donald and Goofy on account of the Gummi block discovery. Since they're both staying, they reluctantly agree to work together... "for now!".

Jane seems to think that the key to unlocking what Tarzan is saying in gorilla-speak is to show him some pictures, and see if any of them correspond to what he's thinking of. This is the trigger for yet another fetch quest. See, the slides for her projector have all been lost, and are now scattered around the campsite. Guess it's down to me to find them all then, eh? Maybe it's latent memory from my most recent playthroughs, but this fetch quest doesn't seem quite as bad as the others. All the items are in a single zone of the map, for a start. They also subtly animate by spinning on the spot, making it easier to pick them out against the stationary environment. It's still significantly lacking in both fun and challenge, but at least it wasn't downright aggravating. There are six of the slides to find in total, and once Sora has them all, he can return to Jane and have her pop them into the projector.

While exploring the campsite, players may also engage in a couple of minor puzzles (although as in the previous episode, I feel like I'm being generous by using that word) dotted around the campsite. Various items hold instructions for completing a pair of scientific experiments, and if Sora carries them through, he'll be rewarded with an extra Ether and Hi-Potion. While the recipes imply that a Potion is needed as a base ingredient, I'm pretty sure I had run out of Potions at this point but was still able to complete the experiments. It's a minor distraction, but a cool extra bit of detail nonetheless.

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Back in the tent, Jane shows Tarzan her slides. One of them, an image of a castle, stirs up some feelings inside of Sora. Despite having never seen or been to the castle before, it feels familiar to him somehow. For what feels like the thousandth time in this series, all I can say about this is that it's worth remembering, since it ties into something that will happen much later. Sadly, none of the slides have the same effect on Tarzan, and Sora is still none the wiser as to where Riku and Kairi could be. Losing patience, Clayton reasons that if Sora's friends are anywhere, they must be with the gorillas, and demands that Tarzan takes them all to the nesting grounds. Tarzan is reluctant at first, but his trust for Sora wins out and he agrees. (perhaps a little too easily, since we've only been on-world for fifteen minutes?). Sounds like we're going to see the gorillas!

...or at least, we would be if we knew where we were going. If players haven't already found out by now, this is likely the point where they'll realise that Deep Jungle is one of the most poorly-designed levels in all of video games. While each of its individual 'zones' is competently constructed enough to navigate on its own, there's no logical or memorable progression in the way they connect to each other. This means that unless you've memorised the world layout perfectly, it can be difficult to work out which direction to travel in to reach your intended destination. The same was true of Wonderland to an extent, but Wonderland got the other piece of the puzzle right - namely player guidance. The Cheshire Cat was a serviceable guide, his riddles leading the player towards the Lotus Forest or Bizarre Room as appropriate, making sure the next bit of story was never too far out of reach. In Deep Jungle, there is no such guide. Tarzan, the one character who knows the jungle and could have acted in this role, is instead tied up in the party select system and doomed to either follow Sora's aimless wandering or not appear on-screen at all. The final nail in Deep Jungle's navigational coffin is its colour palette, which makes damn sure you're never in a month of Sundays going to spot that one green vine stuck to that equally green backdrop in a completely inconspicuous way, so you can climb it to reach the next area. Moving around Deep Jungle is hell. Even as someone who has played this game five times before and has more than a working knowledge of how this whole world fits together and which transitions trigger which story beats, I recognise that it is a nightmare to traverse. I think that's why this world is so widely cited by players of Kingdom Hearts as their least favourite in the game.

At any rate, our heroes' correct course takes them from the campsite to the Hippos' Lagoon. From there it's up a near-invisible trail of ivy and across a sequence of swinging vines to trigger the next story sequence. Tarzan pleads with Kerchak, the leader of the gorillas, to allow his new friends into their home. Kerchak disapprovingly turns away. At this point the player is expected to return to the Tree House where we started (Donald does suggest as much, in the game's defence), but doesn't give a clear idea of how to get there. Since most players (myself included) will have followed Tarzan in jumping from the Tree House balcony when they first arrived, resulting in what is very much a one-way branch-sliding trip to the campsite, they're essentially being asked to navigate their way back to a landmark they've visited before, but with no frame of reference to do so. In addition to this, after this cutscene, the game respawns the player in a completely different location from where they entered this zone, screwing up their orientation and making navigation even more difficult. Thankfully I'm able to remember that beyond the vines lies more climbable ivy leading to the Climbing Trees, and from there the path to the Tree House can be accessed.

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Sora, Donald, Goofy and Tarzan arrive at the Tree House just in time to stop Clayton from shooting Terk, a member of Tarzan's gorilla family. The sly marksman claims he was aiming for a snake that was about to attack the gorilla, but nobody is buying his excuse. Back at the camp (after yet more aimless wandering, since the game never indicates that's where it wants you to go), Clayton parts ways with Jane, Tarzan and the others. In a cutscene that plays out away from any of the heroes, he gets a traditional villain's monologue, confessing his intention to hunt the gorillas. Having checked up on the game's cast, I was surprised to find out that British national treasure Brian Blessed reprised his role as Clayton for Kingdom Hearts, but given Blessed's usual calibre as an actor, I wouldn't have been surprised to learn this was the work of a sound-alike. His performance is another one of those that feels phoned in, with some unnatural intonation that suggests his lines were read individually and out of context from one another.

His tirade is cut short when he's distracted by something in the trees, causing him to anxiously fire his gun. Sora, Donald, Goofy and Tarzan rush out of the tent to investigate, but there's no sign of Clayton anywhere, only a bunch of Heartless. I think Deep Jungle might be the world with the longest combat down-time in all of Kingdom Hearts. From the opening fight with Sabor to here, it's solely exploration (and cruddy exploration at that) with no combat to be had at all. This contributes to making the world feel slow and boring, and is likely another factor in why so many players turn off after reaching Deep Jungle. Slightly more positive are the designs of the Heartless themselves, which in this world have taken the thematic form of monkeys. The burly, hard-hitting Powerwilds and the super-fast Bouncywilds feel like natural fits for Deep Jungle's environments, and the latter in particular pose a unique challenge in the form of avoiding the banana skins they drop. Stepping on one will cause Sora to comically slip, and not-so-comically drop a large amount of Munny, so you have to watch where you place your feet against these tricksy Heartless.

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Our next challenge sees Sora and co. exploring the whole of Deep Jungle to rescue Tarzan's gorilla family from the attacking Heartless. Every emancipated ape will gift the party with another Gummi block which can be used later for ship-building. While this combat challenge should ramp up the fun factor of Deep Jungle significantly, it doesn't, and here's why I think this is. First, it involves more aimless running around a world that is already a pain in the backside to navigate. Second, there is no clear indication of when the task is over - most players will only likely realise there are no more gorillas to save after performing several sweeps of Deep Jungle, adding to the frustration factor from the first point. And third, once you're sure you've saved all the gorillas, there's no way of knowing where to head to move the story along until you either stumble across the next event trigger or look it up in a guide. These may all sound like little nitpicks but believe me, the frustration they cause adds up.

There are five gorillas to save in total, and once they're all free, Sora has to return to Jane at the campsite to trigger the next story beat. A note to anyone out there who may be stuck in Deep Jungle - if you're not sure where to go, head back to the tent at the campsite, since that's where most of this world's story stuff unfolds. From here, a gunshot and camera pan direct the player (at last, some competent direction!) to the Bamboo Thicket. There they find Clayton's pipe, abandoned, and a nasty surprise. The leopard from before is back, and ready for a rematch.

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Mini-Boss - Sabor - The closest parallel I can draw for the fight with Sabor is the battle against Cloud at Olympus Coliseum. Like Cloud, Sabor is fast, his primary attack is a lunging forward strike, and if it connects you'll feel it. Also like Cloud, his charging pounce leaves him open to attacks from the sides and behind. With a little patience, Sabor can be defeated pretty easily. However, he can also be defeated very easily with almost no patience at all. Players of the Final Mix version who pick the Dream Rod in the opening tutorial should by now have access to Ripple Drive, an area-of-effect combo-finishing move with power tied to Sora's maximum MP. For some reason, this attack triggers a major knockback effect on Sabor, seemingly breaking whatever action he might be in the middle of and sending him hurtling across the Bamboo Thicket. His recovery time from this knockback is, roughly, the amount of time it takes Sora to unleash his standard three-hit combo. This means you can essentially stun-lock Sabor for significant periods of time with a constant barrage of combos ending with Ripple Drive. Using this strategy I had no problems putting the big bad kitty down and claiming my White Fang accessory reward.

After the fight, a brief cutscene from Terk's perspective shows her racing to Jane's tent, past an army of Heartless that have gathered at the campsite. The two characters cower as a dark shadow looms over them. The team arrive to find them missing, and Tarzan senses that they've been taken somewhere near the Tree House (honestly, this little bit of player direction feels like a small mercy after everything that's happened so far). This means another trip via the Hippos' Lagoon and the irksome vines to the Climbing Trees, where Jane and Terk have been trapped behind a plant controlled by the power of darkness. Much like the initial fight with Sabor, this encounter isn't worthy of a mini-boss annotation. The game straight-up tells you that the black fruit hanging from the tree is your target, encouraging you to whack it with your Keyblade from the get-go. The fruit is defended by a team of constantly-spawning Powerwild Heartless, but provided your allies can stay alive long enough to draw their attention, the fruit is easily dealt with.

After being freed, Jane tells Sora and Tarzan that it was Clayton who abducted them and brought them here, and that he must have gone to hunt down the rest of the gorillas. Guess we need to hurry over to where the gorillas are and save them, huh? Except, once again, Kingdom Hearts doesn't tell us where our next destination within Deep Jungle is. Instinctively, players might head back to the vines, up towards the Tree House, or perhaps even the Treetop section, since these are the zones closest to where they saw Tarzan speaking with Kerchak earlier. The actual destination, however, couldn't be further away - the Cliff, past the Bamboo Thicket where we just fought Sabor, at the complete opposite end of the world. Frustrating gameplay logistics aside, this begs the question - how did Jane and Clayton not find the gorillas if they were hiding out just a short walk away, in one of the easiest areas to reach from their campsite? It's certainly something to ponder as I head over there.

On arrival, Clayton has the gorillas hemmed in up against the cliff, pointing his shotgun at them. The arrival of Sora, Donald, Goofy and Tarzan buys them just enough time to escape. Wordlessly, Clayton turns his gun on the team. "Not Clayton!", Tarzan says, repeating his gorilla-speak from before.

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BOSS - Clayton/Stealth Sneak - This fight is split up into two distinct stages. The first pits the party against Clayton and a small entourage of Powerwilds. These support Heartless don't respawn and are fairly quickly dealt with, so it's worth getting them out of the way for a little extra experience. Clayton himself doesn't really boast much in the way of attacks. He can shoot you, dealing a moderate amount of damage, but his gunfire is pretty easy to avoid providing you make use of Dodge Roll. As with Sabor, Clayton seems very susceptible to the knockback power of Ripple Drive, making it a good choice for this fight.

After chipping off about a third of his HP, a brief cutscene will play. The cliff crumbles as an invisible monster enters the arena. Clayton hops on its back, and now the real fight begins. Stealth Sneak is, quite literally, a different beast altogether from any other Heartless fought so far. For a start, it has chameleon-like camouflage, enabling it to turn invisible in battle. Mercifully, you can still use the lock-on feature to target Stealth Sneak while it's invisible. It has a variety of attacks that it will unleash while Clayton unloads his shotgun on you simultaneously. Its primary physical attacks are a forwards lunge, which is obviously telegraphed when visible but nigh-impossible to predict when invisible, and a backwards leg kick, which has a less obvious tell and could easily catch players off guard if they try to flank the Heartless. Stealth Sneak can also fire energy balls from its eyes when they begin to glow - these home in on Sora like Trickmaster's fireballs in Wonderland, but thankfully don't travel anywhere near as quickly. Rounding out its attack moves is a wave of fast-moving energy unleashed when it claps its hands together, but which is telegraphed quite openly by its glowing mitts in advance of the attack. Stealth Sneak is a threat from every conceivable angle, and represents the first time I suffered a Game Over in my own current playthrough.

Landing combos on Stealth Sneak will weaken it, eventually causing it to stagger. At this stage one more successful combo will cause the Heartless to throw Clayton off its back, providing an opportunity to land some hits on our actual target. The principal danger here is having to worry about attacks coming from two different angles, since the limitations of the camera make it very difficult to keep an eye on both enemies at once. Clayton will periodically try to heal himself with Potions, but his healing animation can be broken with an attack to keep his HP in check. When his HP drops down to about a third of its total, he'll hop back on the Stealth Sneak once again - simply adopt the same strategy as before to dislodge Clayton again and chip his health down to nothing. It should be noted that focusing on the Stealth Sneak to take it out first is an equally valid option, with the pro of removing one threat and earning some bonus experience countered by the con of spending extra time doing so.

However you choose to end the battle, a concluding cutscene will play showing Clayton being crushed by the collapsing Stealth Sneak. Sora's reward for this is the Cure spell, providing an alternative means of healing to using Potions and Hi-Potions. It has a pretty lengthy wind-up animation that can be interrupted, cancelling the spell, but this negative can be cancelled out in the Final Mix version of the game by equipping the Leaf Bracer ability. This passive ability actually turns Cure's wind-up into a positive, making it uninterruptible and granting Sora a whole bunch of invincibility frames to play with, which can be a total god-send in stressful combat situations. Cure is a very valuable spell, and I'd wager it spends a significant amount of most people's playthroughs loaded permanently in their L1 quick select menu. I'm guilty of over-reliance on Cure myself, and it's a habit I'm keen to try and break in favour of other strategies for this playthrough. For now though, it's going to take Blizzard's place in the quick select, mapped to the L1+Square combination.

Following the fight, the gorillas return. Kerchak has a slightly bizarre way of thanking Sora, throwing him skywards and up onto a ledge newly created by the Stealth Sneak demolishing the cliff face. This new part of Deep Jungle leads to Tarzan's home, the Waterfall Cavern. This one zone causes more problems for Kingdom Hearts' early-2000s camera than any other location in the game up to this point. A narrow corridor behind a waterfall, with awkwardly spaced ledges that demand as much vertical movement as they do horizontal, I fought more with the camera in here than I have with any enemy in the game thus far. It gets stuck under ledges, it gets stuck on top of ledges, it refuses to pass through the waterfall, it shifts perspective without warning as you attempt to make already-awkward jumps... It is appallingly bad. I found the best way to navigate this abomination of a zone was to make frequent use of the first-person camera to adjust my perspective between jumps.

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At the deepest part of the Waterfall Cavern, Tarzan leads Sora to the Keyhole of Deep Jungle, the heart of this world. It's here that Jane finally decodes Tarzan's gorilla-speak - he's been trying to say "heart", and that Sora's friends are always with him, in his heart. If he loses his heart, like Clayton did to the Heartless, then he will lose his friends as well. Sora is understandably disappointed by this anticlimactic revelation, but it does teach him a lesson. He and Donald apologise to each other for the way they've been acting since they crashed on this world, and Goofy forces the trio together in a hug of camaraderie. It's a moment that serves to further develop and strengthen the bonds between these three new allies, making their growing friendship more believable to the player, and in that respect it's important for the overall story of Kingdom Hearts, too. Sora seals the Deep Jungle Keyhole, and just like in Wonderland, it releases another strange Gummi block. The scene closes with a slightly awkward suggestion that Terk has a crush on Donald, which is perhaps a little bit more inter-species romance than my mind is willing to take in a post-Sonic '06 world.

Back at Villain HQ, we're treated to another story-progressing cutscene. It seems Maleficent and her circle of bad guys have been keeping an eye on Sora's antics in the jungle. Apparently the Heartless were drawn to Tarzan's world by the darkness in Clayton's heart, and his weakness allowed them to consume him. One of the villainous troupe, revealed to be Jafar from Aladdin, expresses some concern about Sora finding the world's Keyhole, but Maleficent doesn't seem too concerned. She's more preoccupied with their "other plan", one involving "the Princesses". A final cut reveals that Wonderland's Alice is now in their custody, before the action cuts back to our protagonists in Deep Jungle.

As is becoming tradition upon completing worlds, the local inhabitants have some parting gifts for Sora and co.. Tarzan bequeaths the Jungle King keychain to Sora, an attachment for his Keyblade that allows it to take on a different form and new properties. Replacing the Kingdom Key with the Jungle King gives Sora's Keyblade a slightly longer reach and a bit more raw attack power, although it comes at the expense of landing less critical hits. For now, the extra strength is a fair enough trade-off for me to equip it right away. The trio also learn a new Trinity move - Trinity Charge, denoted by Red Trinity marks. This move enables Sora, Donald and Goofy to collectively charge their way through weak walls and other obstacles. There aren't many opportunities to use it, but some are story-critical.

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The only thing left to talk about before we re-board the Gummi Ship and leave Deep Jungle behind are the two mini-games located here. The first, which I've already alluded to, is the Jungle Slider mini-game. Once the Keyhole has been locked, it's possible to attempt tree-sliding runs which task you with picking up a number of pieces of fruit along the way. Picking up all the pieces of fruit on one route unlocks the next, and so on, up to a total of five routes. Each of these routes is also timed, and although there's no limit, it does add the optional challenge of trying to beat your best times. Finally there's the Vine Swinging mini-game, which (unsurprisingly) tasks Sora with making it from one end of the vine-filled canopy to the other in the quickest time possible. There are four different "courses" here, although I use the term loosely since all four take place in the same space. What differs is the configuration of vines, with some being replaced by snakes that you can only hold onto for a few seconds before they fall out of the trees, taking you with them. It's a frustrating fail state that forces you to climb all the way back up to the vines for another attempt. While I enjoy the Jungle Slider mini-game for its different approach and moderate challenge, the Vine Swinging isn't worth engaging with beyond adding entries to Jiminy's Journal.

Having exhausted all possibilities here for now, I head for the nearest save point and return to the Gummi Ship. Goofy and Donald have no idea what these strange Gummi blocks might be used for, but they seem to think Leon might know more. Back to Traverse Town we go!

DEEP JUNGLE Thoughts - In terms of fidelity to its source material, I think Deep Jungle is the most successful example of a Disney world being integrated into Kingdom Hearts thus far. Having recently re-watched Tarzan, the first clear indication of this is the visuals. Deep Jungle's environments and vistas are strikingly faithful to the film, with the standout example of this being the gorgeously detailed Tree House environment. The colour palettes are great too, mixing vivid greens, earthy yellows and browns, and brilliant blue skies and waters to evoke the same visual style as the film. The soundtrack is less on-point with that of the film, although that might be for the best given most of Tarzan's original music consists of 80s-sounding pop rock with Phil Collins on singing duties. Yoko Shimomura's original music fits the jungle aesthetic well, with plenty of tribal drums and pan-pipe melodies driving things along. Deep Jungle is without a doubt one of the best worlds in Kingdom Hearts aesthetically, which makes it all the more heartbreaking that it's one of the worst to play.

Tarzan is also a pretty great fit story-wise for the Kingdom Hearts canon, since the film's core themes overlap strongly with those of the game. Both explore themes of identity and friendship, and those parallels are used to drive the world's story, particularly in reference to the growing friendship between Sora, Donald and Goofy. The film also features a touching monologue from mother gorilla Kala about how our hearts are what make us similar, a speech semi-echoed by Tarzan when he talks about the friends in our hearts near the end of the world's storyline. It's a shame more of the film's characters aren't present here - while the core trinity of Tarzan, Jane and Clayton are here, it would have been nice to see Professor Porter too. While I understand the reasoning behind it, since none of the animal characters in Deep Jungle are heard to speak, it's a real shame that Rosie O'Donnell wasn't on hand to provide some VO for Terk.

Deep Jungle marks the first instance of a world having tailor-made Heartless to suit its theme. I pointed this out earlier so I won't regurgitate the specifics, but I do appreciate that extra bit of effort on the designers' part to commit to the theme of the world they're recreating. As a final note, I do think it's a shame that Deep Jungle has never been revisited over the course of the franchise since its appearance in the first game. I understand there are licensing issues between Disney and the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the book on which the Tarzan film and Deep Jungle world are based. I just feel like there was a lot of potential in this world that was never fully realised, and it's unfortunate the developers never got another crack at the whip. Deep Jungle is rightly remembered as a pretty terrible world, but that doesn't mean it didn't have the potential to be something much more.

Part 11 - Old Town, New Horizons

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Returning to Traverse Town, the team begin their search for Leon. A quick chat with Yuffie, who's standing by the postbox in the town square, reveals that he sometimes likes to train in a secret waterway underneath the town. This cryptic message doesn't tell us exactly where to find him, but it is a start and gives us an excuse to re-explore the town. The spawning Heartless have changed slightly, with the introduction of both Large Bodies and several of the mage-type Heartless, including the Thunder-wielding Yellow Opera and the enemy-healing Green Requiem (which need to be prioritised to stop fights becoming drawn-out Cure-fests). While exploring, I decide to pay a quick visit to Pongo and Perdita in the Second District. We've managed to rescue twenty-four of their ninety-nine pups, earning us two generous rewards that turn out to be additional parts for building Gummi Ships.

This latest pass of Traverse Town gives the team their first chances to use their new Trinity Charge ability. There are three Red Trinities up for grabs in town, with one of them being required to open up the Secret Waterway and progress the story. The Trinity mark is situated in some shallow water next to a grate in the Alleyway behind the Dalmatians' House, one of the few bodies of water in Traverse Town and sure to pique the player's curiosity given Yuffie's clue as to Leon's whereabouts. While most of the game swings wildly between explicitly directing the player and leaving them completely stranded, this strikes a rare middle ground between the two, giving the player some helpful clues and allowing them to intuit the solution.

Inside the Secret Waterway the team find not only Leon, but Aerith too. Sora talks to them about the keyholes he encountered in Wonderland and Deep Jungle. Turns out these Keyholes are important enough to warrant proper noun status - every world has one, and it leads to the heart of that world. It's these Keyholes that the Heartless are seeking in each world - by entering the Keyholes, they can penetrate to the core of each world and corrupt it with darkness, just like what happened with Destiny Islands at the start of the game. Leon and Aerith both stress to Sora the importance of sealing these Keyholes while travelling to other worlds. On the subject of the Gummi blocks, however, they're less talkative. Aerith suggests speaking with Cid over at the Accessory Shop in the First District. Before Sora leaves, Leon gifts him Earthshine, a mysterious stone. He's not sure what it's for, but hopefully its purpose will become clear soon enough.

Back at the Accessory Shop, the team show Cid the Gummi blocks they've found. He identifies them almost immediately as Navigation Gummis, special Gummi blocks which will enable their ship to travel to new worlds beyond even Deep Jungle. I've always appreciated the way Kingdom Hearts accommodates Cid's existing history as an airship pilot in Final Fantasy VII by making him an expert on Gummi ships in this alternate universe. It lends a consistency to his character, making him even more recognisable to Final Fantasy fans. Cid offers to install them on the ship in exchange for a favour. Cid has recently finished restoring a tattered old book for one of the Traverse Town residents, and wants us to deliver it. His directions point us towards a door with a red flame on it, somewhere in the Third District. Sora is only too happy to oblige. From fetch quests to delivery boy - at last, we're moving up in the world!

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The flame-adorned door in the Third District won't budge at first, but using a Fire spell on it will grease the hinges and allow Sora to pass through. Behind the door is a cave filled with water, and on an island in the centre stands an odd little cottage. Presumably this is where we're supposed to deliver the book, but there's nobody home right now. Sora starts hearing Kairi's voice, saying the empty room reminds her of the Secret Place back on Destiny Islands. Goofy snaps him out of his hallucination, just in time to see a blue-robed wizard arrive. This is Merlin, and it sounds like he's been expecting us. It turns out Merlin has been in contact with the King, who asked him to train the Key Bearer in the art of magic. Before any training can begin, however, the cottage needs furnishing! In a knowing nod to The Sword in the Stone, a cutscene plays showing Merlin conjuring all of his furniture out of his travel bag. In no time at all, the once-empty room is fully furnished. It turns out Merlin's not the only one here, either - the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella is also residing in Traverse Town, and offers to help the team on their journey as well. Quite what she's doing hiding in Merlin's travel bag disguised as a model carriage is anyone's guess.

With the niceties out of the way, Sora hands over the book to Merlin, who accepts it gratefully and places it on a lectern at the edge of the room. He explains that he doesn't know where the book came from, or what it's about, but he's sure that it holds a great secret. Unfortunately, nobody knows what that secret is, because most of its pages are missing (clearly Cid's restoration work wasn't comprehensive). Maybe if we can find all the missing pages, we'll be able to unlock the secret of the book? I smell a side quest!

Merlin directs us over to the Fairy Godmother, who seems to know something about the Earthshine stone that Leon gave to us earlier. It turns out it's a Summon Gem - the residual spirit of a strong-hearted individual whose world was consumed by darkness. The inconsistencies here have bothered me in recent playthroughs - if this is the fate of strong-hearted people whose worlds are swallowed by darkness, then why didn't Sora become a Summon Gem? Why isn't anyone else in Traverse Town a Summon Gem? How did all of these people escape their worlds with their physical forms intact? One of many questions I'll likely never learn the answer to. With a wave of her wand, the Fairy Godmother releases the spirit trapped inside the stone, giving the team access to their first Summon spell - The Lion King's Simba.

I'll admit up-front that I've never really engaged much with the Summons in Kingdom Hearts. They've always felt more like a novelty to me, an expensive waste of valuable MP to achieve something I could otherwise do much quicker with an attack, spell or item. The fact you have to sacrifice having other allies on the field to make use of them is a major turn-off for me, and since most of the game's biggest combat challenges happen in an environment where you're not allowed to use them, they're never really viable as a crutch either. As with alternative allies, though, I'm determined to immerse myself in every mechanic of the game this time around, and so I'll be making a conscious effort to use Summons more often. Simba is an offensive Summon, costing 2MP to activate and dealing area-of-effect damage with his Proud Roar attack. The damage dealt is determined by a Charge gauge which fills while the Triangle button is held down and empties when Simba roars. It's a useful attack that I could see being useful for crowd control in confined spaces.

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As the team leave Merlin's house and return to the Third District, they're beset by another Heartless attack. Before Sora can even think about attacking, the enemies are wiped out in a flurry of swordplay, and standing in their place is none other than Riku! Sora is thrilled beyond belief to see his old friend from home, and Riku seems pretty pleased too. Sadly there's still no sign of Kairi, but Riku seems optimistic that she made it off the island too and is probably looking for both of them as they speak. Riku is clearly keen to re-establish himself as more senior than Sora, but there's too much going against him in this situation - not only is Sora travelling with new friends, he has also been chosen by the Keyblade to be its bearer. When a genuinely thrilled Sora invites Riku to join them on their world-hopping quest, Donald is quick to shoot the idea down. In the argument that ensues, Riku disappears. Sora is disappointed that his friend took off without joining them, but is also glad to know that he's doing okay.

This cutscene is another of my personal favourites as it displays a lot of shifting character dynamics - first Sora's disbelief at being reunited with his friend, followed by more of the established rivalry between them, and the first traces of jealousy forming in Riku after seeing Sora wielding the Keyblade. This seems like the perfect time to mention that although I don't dislike Sora as a character, I do vastly prefer Riku's character arc in this game, and this is the first hint as to why. His position within the narrative, and consequently his feelings and his development as a character, are much more complex than those of Sora. It's these flaws - his jealousy, his pride - that ultimately send him down a very different path from Sora, and while I don't want to get too deep into it right now, I at least want to acknowledge it for the time being. I'll certainly be referring to it again in future episodes.

With nothing else to do, Sora heads to the previously vacant house in the Third District where he agreed to meet Cid after delivering the book. On Sora's arrival, Cid asks if he's ever heard of Maleficent. She's a witch, and apparently the one responsible for the current crop of Heartless attacking Traverse Town, as well as the Heartless invasion that destroyed the Final Fantasy characters' home world nine years ago. Cid reveals that he managed to escape with Leon, Yuffie and Aerith on his Gummi Ship before their world was completely consumed. Leon explains that the ruler of their world, a man named Ansem, had been studying the Heartless and compiled a report from his findings (this, of course, is nothing new - Aerith revealed this on our first visit to Traverse Town). Cid theorises that the report might contain information on how to stop the Heartless for good, but fears that most of its pages are in the clutches of Maleficent.

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Meanwhile, the camera cuts outside, where Riku is looking in through the window at Sora. At his side is Maleficent, the very witch we've just been warned about, whispering corrupting ideas into Riku's ear. She tells him that Sora has abandoned him in favour of new friends and invites him to join her, promising that she'll help him to find what he's looking for. As an extension of the previous cutscene, this moment is instrumental in the path Riku is going to take from here on out - full of jealousy and frustration towards Sora and desperate to find Kairi, Maleficent's offer appeals to the weaker part of his heart. Couple this with Riku's willingness to be consumed back on Destiny Islands and it doesn't take a genius to work out that perhaps our silver-haired friend isn't going to prove quite as resilient as Sora in the face of the allure of darkness.

Back indoors, Cid tells the team that the Navigation Gummi is installed and ready to go. He's also installed a Warp Gummi, permitting fast-travel to any previously visited world without needing to re-complete the Gummi Ship route. Before he leaves, Aerith and Yuffie ask Sora to check out the bell on top of the Gizmo Shop - there's supposedly a legend related to ringing the bell three times. Since we're here, we may as well investigate. The Gizmo Shop is located in the Second District - a brightly-coloured indoor environment filled to the brim with waves of Heartless, it's another location in which the camera does not perform well. There are a lot of alcoves and ledges that it can get caught in, on and around, making clearing the enemies within a pretty frustrating exercise (but also a very lucrative one in terms of experience).

Through the other side of the Gizmo Shop is a ladder that leads to the roof. The bell is boarded up, but can be accessed with a Trinity Charge. Ringing the bell will cause the mosaic behind the water feature in the Second District to rotate, and doing so three times will reveal the Keyhole for Traverse Town. Sora hops down from the roof of the Gizmo Shop and prepares to seal the Keyhole, but a nearby Heartless has other ideas...

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BOSS - Opposite Armor - After an initial fake-out battle which makes you think you're fighting Guard Armor again, its hands and feet switch places and change shape, creating something altogether more terrifying. While Opposite Armor looks like nothing more than a reconfigured Guard Armor and the concept of the fight is very similar, the specifics are changed up just enough to make this feel like a whole different fight. Opposite Armor's movements are much more unpredictable than Guard Armor's, with much shorter wind-up animations and much more damage output. New to its arsenal for this fight is a devastating flying charge attack, which can quickly turn things sour if it connects with our fragile Sora.

As I said, the basic concept of this fight is very similar to the Guard Armor battle - each individual part of the Armor has its own HP gauge, with the most important one being attached to the torso. As before, it's best to go for the "hands" first, since they have the lowest HP reserves. Once they're out of the way, the "feet" can be focused on. After losing some of its parts, the Opposite Armor will adopt a new strategy - turning its torso into an energy cannon and firing huge homing balls of darkness at Sora and co.. These are difficult to dodge but won't travel through cover, so the two-tiered environment of the Second District can be used to your advantage (one of the few instances in Kingdom Hearts where the environment plays a meaningful role in combat). Flanking the cannon-torso will enable you to wail on it and finish the fight in relative safety.

Our reward for defeating this pile of rust is a new spell - Aero. As a kid, this was a spell I never used, likely because my familiarity with Final Fantasy spells probably led me to expect offensive magic. Instead, the Aero spells in Kingdom Hearts are more akin to Protect, Shell and Reflect, putting up a barrier around Sora which reduces the damage he takes from enemy attacks. Now, as an adult with a much better understanding of strategy in Japanese RPGs, I can see the merits of the Aero spell. Being able to take more punishment from hard-hitting opponents will be a major factor in improving my survivability in this Proud difficulty playthrough. It still kind of sucks that it costs a whopping 2MP to use, though.

With nothing else to stand in his way, Sora seals the Traverse Town Keyhole. Another piece of a Navigation Gummi lands at his feet, and... we're kind of done here for now, I guess? There's no real come-down from this, no world-concluding cutscene in the style that the player has probably come to expect by now. We're just dropped back in Traverse Town to either run around or leave. The Final Fantasy crew don't even have anything nice to give us for all the trouble we just went through. Given we have that new Navigation Gummi installed, we should probably head back to the World Select screen. Before that though, I've got a spot of light reading to do.

Part 12 - In Which Sora Meets a New Friend

Instead of leaving Traverse Town right away, I head back to Merlin's Study in the Third District. My objective is the repaired book that we delivered earlier. On opening the book, Sora finds himself shrunk down and transported onto its very pages! I'm now in a world that's very unique in the context of Kingdom Hearts - the Hundred Acre Wood. It plays very differently from other worlds, in that the gameplay is centred much more on mini-games than conventional exploration, and there's no combat at all. Sora is free to run across the book's pages, although right now most points of interest are completely blank - these represent the missing pages that we're probably going to end up finding at some point. There is one place we can go to right away, however - a clearing, with a log right in the middle of it.

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It's here that Sora meets a stuffed toy bear, who's sitting on the log and thinking hard about something. When Sora asks him what he's thinking about, the bear says that he's trying to work out how to say goodbye to Pooh. It of course turns out that Pooh is the bear and the bear is Pooh - Winnie the Pooh, or Pooh for short. He explains that all of his friends who live in the Hundred Acre Wood have disappeared, and are nowhere to be found. This leads Pooh to believe that he will likely disappear as well, and before he does, he needs to work out how to say goodbye to himself. Still thinking, he wanders off in the direction of his house, looking for a small smackerel of honey to eat.

Following Pooh to his house, I have the opportunity to pick up a few useful healing items. Unfortunately I don't have the opportunity to move the story along here any further right now - Pooh's friend Owl arrives on the scene to explain that in order to read what happens next, Sora will need to recover the book's missing pages. Much like the ninety-nine dalmatian puppies, these have been scattered across multiple worlds, and it's going to take a bit of leg-work to find them. Since I don't currently have any of these Torn Pages, it looks like I won't be returning to the Hundred Acre Wood any time soon. Back on the open pages, I use the nearby save point to leap out of the book and return to Merlin's Study.

I realise there isn't a great deal to say about the content of the Hundred Acre Wood world at this point, but I wanted to include it in this week's blog all the same. There's a real aesthetic charm and authenticity to everything about it which I can't help but love. It stays remarkably true to Disney's adaptation of Winnie the Pooh, with the world being accessed through a book in much the same way that the Disney films use books to frame and accentuate the presentation of their stories. Pooh is written with the same child-like charm and innocence of his on-screen counterpart, and the world's music is a bespoke arrangement of the classic Winnie the Pooh theme song (from the 1977 film, not from the Saturday morning cartoon series, although that would be equally fantastic). This world is so beautifully curated that I couldn't wait another three or four weeks to acknowledge it.

Now having truly exhausted all the possibilities open to us in Traverse Town, it's time to move on to new worlds...

Part 13 - Trials of the Hero, Pt. I

...or at least, it would be if Chip and Dale didn't pop up over the World Select screen to announce the start of a tournament being held at Olympus Coliseum. This gives us a perfect opportunity to test out the new Warp Gummi from Cid, bypassing the Gummi Ship route between Traverse Town and our next destination.

Over the course of Kingdom Hearts, Sora and co. will be summoned back to the Coliseum at regular intervals to participate in various tournaments. These tournaments make up a significant chunk of Kingdom Hearts' side content and are pure combat challenges, pitting the team against successive groups of enemies in arena-based fights. The vast majority of these will take place in a featureless square zone, although a couple of fights against larger enemies will utilise the whole arena including the seating on either side. While use of magic and items is permitted, no Summons can be called within the Coliseum. If Sora gets knocked out at any point then the challenge ends prematurely, and the player must start over from the beginning, although there is no Game Over or any other penalty imposed. Winning the tournaments rewards the player with useful items and new abilities, so it's worth returning to Olympus Coliseum whenever a new tournament begins to pick these rewards up. That's the approach I'll be taking with this playthrough.

The first tournament is the Phil Cup, an entry-level challenge consisting of nine consecutive fights against various groups of Heartless. Their rosters consist of familiar types of enemies from the worlds we've already been to - mainstay Shadows, armoured Soldiers, rotund Large Bodies, unpredictable Powerwilds, and the four main types of mage Heartless, all in various configurations. In some of these fights, Sora will also have to face off against different parts of the Guard Armor - Hammerlegs (the feet), Gauntlets (the hands), and in the final battle of the cup, Armored Torso (the head and body). Ultimately none of these enemies pose any great threat, partly because I'm familiar with them all by now, and partly because I've levelled to a point where most of these early Heartless are fairly quick to fall.

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My reward for beating the Phil Cup is a new spell, Gravity. Similar to the Demi and Gravity spells from the Final Fantasy series, the damage dealt by this offensive spell isn't determined by Sora's magical strength, but as a percentage of the total HP of the targeted enemy. Simply put, the more HP an enemy has, the more damage it will deal. This makes it particularly effective against Heartless with sizeable HP bars like Large Bodies. In Proud difficulty, where Sora's attacks do less damage per hit, being able to score a reliable chunk of damage on these kinds of enemies is going to prove invaluable, especially when we move on to the next world. Sadly the spell doesn't have any effect on bosses or boss-like enemies, whose mammoth HP bars must be whittled down fair and square.

Beating a tournament at the Coliseum isn't the end of the challenge. Clearing a cup for the first time will unlock a solo challenge, tasking Sora with battling through the same sequence of fights alone, without the support of Donald and Goofy. Most of the extra difficulty in this mode comes from a greater barrage of enemy attacks, since Donald and Goofy aren't present to draw the attention of the Heartless away from Sora. It takes me a couple of attempts, but I'm able to beat the Phil Cup solo and earn a Combo Plus ability (which extends my basic combo from three hits to four) for my trouble. Those who master the solo challenge will unlock a time trial challenge, which reintroduces Donald and Goofy to the mix but places a three-minute timer on screen and tasks the player with winning all nine battles of the cup before it runs out. This proves too much for me at this relatively early stage in the game, and I step away from it after three failed attempts. Something to attempt the next time we come back, I suppose. It's worth noting that once the time trial challenge is beaten, players can choose to re-battle any individual group of enemies from the tournament's nine rounds.

With the Phil Cup cleared, it's time to load up the Gummi Ship with our spoils and finally set off to one of the new destinations revealed by the newly-installed Navigation Gummi. What lies beyond the swirling portals that have appeared on the World Select screen? There's only one way to find out...

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And so another episode of the Keyblade Chronicles comes to an end. Once again, apologies for the delay in bringing this one to you, and as always, thanks very much to those of you who are reading this series. Putting together Episode Two last week caused me to have some serious doubts about the sustainability of this feature going forward, but the positive feedback left me feeling a lot better about it and I'm looking forward to continue sharing my experiences of this crazy franchise with all of you. If you have any thoughts of your own to share on this part of the game, or indeed about Kingdom Hearts in general, please sound off in the comments below. The Keyblade Chronicles will be back to its regular schedule next Monday with trips to a desert city, a wondrous cave, and even the belly of a whale. Until then, take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (PS4)

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The Keyblade Chronicles - Episode Two (Kingdom Hearts Final Mix - Parts 06-09)

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Hey there folks and welcome to another episode of the Keyblade Chronicles, a weekly blog series documenting and deconstructing my attempts to play the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise in a bid to get all caught up in time for Kingdom Hearts III's January 2019 release. If you're new to this series then I'd recommend starting from the very first blog here, and then working your way through the episodes in order - this is going to be confusing enough without trying to pick up the story halfway through. If you're one episode behind then there's a link to the previous episode above, while the introductory blog also hosts an episode list for each game in the series. If you're all up to date and ready to continue the adventures of Sora and company, keep scrolling past the title card:

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In today's episode we'll be taking an in-depth look at Kingdom Hearts' opening worlds. We'll be starting off in the original hub-world of Traverse Town, before setting off on our Gummi Ship to the first two Disney-inspired worlds - Wonderland (from Alice in Wonderland), and Olympus Coliseum (from Hercules). Along the way we'll be learning a whole lot more about the tide of darkness spreading across the worlds, the mysterious Keyblade that Sora has acquired, and start to put some of these many disparate pieces together.

When we last left Sora, he had been swallowed up by an enormous ball of darkness, along with his friends Riku and Kairi, and their entire homeworld of Destiny Islands. What awaits him on the other side of the void? Read on to find out...

Part 06 - A Whole New World

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I know what some of you are thinking - shouldn't I have saved this subtitle for when I get to Agrabah? I thought about it, but honestly, I think it's more fitting here. With Sora swallowed in darkness, our perspective shifts back to Donald and Goofy, who have ditched their respective mage and knight outfits in favour of ones slightly closer to their traditional Disney garb (albeit adorned with the requisite Tetsuya Nomura belts and zippers). They're walking through the streets of a town when they look up to witness a star going out, just like King Mickey said they were in his letter. I'm almost positive the assumption to be made here is that the star being extinguished is actually the Destiny Islands, given the timing of events. Unsure which way to go, Goofy's suggestion to follow Pluto is overridden by Donald, delivering one of my favourite lines of the whole game - "Ah, what do you know, you big palooka?". I can't explain why, but something about the way that line is delivered makes me chuckle every time I hear it. The pair of Disney characters set off in a different direction, while it's revealed that had they followed Pluto, they would have run straight into... Sora!

Pluto wakes Sora by pouncing on him before running off and leaving him to explore this strange new town on his own. His first port of call is the nearby Accessory Shop, where he runs into none other than Cid Highwind. As a kid whose introduction to the Japanese RPG genre came in the form of Final Fantasy VII, seeing him rendered in gorgeous 3D blew me away when I played this game for the first time. In a brief conversation in which Sora and Cid both manage to insult each other, Cid reveals that Sora is now in Traverse Town, a refuge for those whose worlds have been lost to darkness. Sora resolves to start looking for Riku and Kairi, and leaves the shop to explore the town further. As he moves from the First District into the Second, he witnesses one of the townspeople collapse and turn into a shadowy creature similar to the ones that attacked his island. Maybe this safe haven isn't so safe after all.

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While this is the only scene to trigger that's mandatory for moving the story along, there are some benefits to exploring the Second and Third Districts a little more thoroughly. One of these is that it gets the player used to the pacing of how Kingdom Hearts mixes its exploration and combat - up until now the game has focused on providing either one experience or the other, with combat opportunities being pre-defined and almost all exploration being risk-free. Moving through Traverse Town, on the other hand, attunes players to the mindset that enemies can literally pop out of nowhere to interrupt the flow of exploring. Players also start to intuit things like enemy spawn points and safe zones through this process. Another reason for wanting to get into every nook and cranny of Traverse Town is that doing so will treat you to a number of humorous "near-miss" moments when Sora leaves an area through one door, only for Donald and Goofy to arrive through another. It's a small thing, and quite silly, but I still appreciate it for what it's trying to do. Finally, there's the classic RPG incentive of experience gain - a quick lap of Traverse Town will earn Sora a decent amount of experience and even some Munny (the game's main currency) for his trouble.

After exhausting all open avenues, I head back to Cid at the Accessory Shop. This is a necessary stop to move the story along, although it's not telegraphed especially well by the game. In fact, story telegraphing through level design and character dialogue is one of the most hit-and-miss things about Kingdom Hearts as a whole, as I'll explain further in future parts and episodes. Back outside, Sora is approached by a man wearing black, who warns him that the shadows will keep coming after him as long as he carries the Keyblade, and tries to relieve him of his burden. The camera works hard to deliver some well-choreographed fan-service here, showing parts of the man's outfit like his lion-shaped necklace and the red wings on the back of his black jacket, to tease knowledgeable Final Fantasy fans as to his identity. It's only when Sora refuses to hand over his weapon that the camera pans up far enough to reveal the scarred face of Final Fantasy VIII's protagonist, Squall Leonhart.

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Mini-Boss - Leon - Leon is without a doubt the toughest enemy up to this point. He's fast, he's got a mix of short- and long-range attacks thanks to his gunblade and Fire magic, it's difficult to read when it's safe to attack him, and comparatively, Sora just doesn't have a wide enough moveset to effectively counter him at this early stage in the game. I honestly don't think I ever beat him when playing the original version of Kingdom Hearts on PS2. My saving grace here is Stun Impact, an ability that was added as part of the Final Mix content. Stun Impact carries a 30% chance of finishing any combo with a special attack that inflicts the Stun status on enemies, locking them in place and rendering them unable to attack until either they are attacked again or it wears off. With RNG on my side, I'm able to Stun Leon a number of times, giving me extra windows of time to land additional attacks. As with Darkside previously, losing to Leon in this fight won't result in a Game Over, but you will forgo some experience.

However the fight ends, whether through defeat or exhaustion, Sora wipes out and collapses. We're treated to another Final Fantasy cameo as Yuffie Kisaragi, the cocky ninja from Final Fantasy VII, arrives on the scene. Squall, who's going by the name Leon in this canon, says to her that things are a lot worse than they thought, which is the first inkling the player gets that someone other than King Mickey has been expecting Sora to show up. While our protagonist is in recovery, some more exposition takes place. In the first scene, Donald and Goofy are walking through a deserted part of Traverse Town when someone places a hand on Donald's shoulder and asks if the King sent them. In yet another piece of Final Fantasy fan-service (how my twelve-year-old mind didn't explode from all this excitement, I'll never know), the hand belongs to Aerith Gainsborough, another character from Final Fantasy VII. The second scene, new and exclusive to the Final Mix version, depicts Riku waking up in a strange new world - one which we'll eventually be visiting, although not for some time. He calls for Kairi and Sora and gets no answer, but as the camera pans away from him, it reveals the hem of a dark cloak, belonging to someone looking down at him. The inclusion of this scene feels both unnecessary and jarring, since it retcons an event that didn't really need explaining, and due to the time elapsed between the original game and the English Final Mix version, it features no voice-acting, only subtitles.

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When Sora awakens in a room in the Traverse Town hotel, he's met with what he thinks is a familiar face - Kairi. Unfortunately the excitement is short-lived - he's hallucinating, and the girl standing in front of him is actually Yuffie. What follows is a lengthy story exposition scene that cuts back and forth between Sora, Leon and Yuffie in one room, and Donald, Goofy and Aerith in the room next door. While this plot dump is relatively tame by the standards the franchise has become known for, there's still a lot of ground covered in a short space of time, so I'll do my very best to summarise here. Sora has been chosen by the Keyblade, a weapon with the power to defeat the Heartless. The Heartless, incidentally, are the shadowy figures Sora has been fighting up to now - they're born from, and hunger for, the darkness in people's hearts. The Heartless fear the Keyblade, but desire the heart of its Bearer, which is what's causing them to spawn and attack Sora so relentlessly. We also learn that before coming to Traverse Town, all of these Final Fantasy characters used to live together under the rule of a wise fellow named Ansem. He was researching the Heartless and the powers of darkness, but all of his research was lost and scattered when their world was consumed by darkness several years ago. Donald and Goofy surmise that King Mickey may be looking for Ansem's Report, hoping it will contain information on how to stop the Heartless from destroying all worlds, a view that Aerith shares.

Sora's history lesson is cut short by a Heartless spawning within the hotel room. Leon and Sora send it crashing through the window and follow it down into the street below. Meanwhile, Yuffie escapes through the door into the next room, where Aerith, Donald and Goofy have been chatting. Poor Donald can't get out of the way in time and gets trapped behind the door as Yuffie bursts through, resulting in another humorous visual gag as he's flattened cartoon-style behind the door. Back in control of Sora, I do as Leon says and avoid getting too bogged down battling the minion Heartless. My destination is the Third District, where Sora finally meets up with Donald and Goofy after a spell backfires and causes them to crash down on top of him. I really admire Kingdom Hearts' dedication to these moments of light-hearted visual comedy. The pacing doesn't always land quite as it should, perhaps as a result of the translation process, but the fact the game puts so much heart and effort into trying to amuse the player goes a long way towards winning me over.

Before anyone can introduce themselves, our newly established trio are thrown headlong into an arena-style battle against a wave of Heartless. Alongside the bog-standard Shadow enemies are slightly stronger and more aggressive Soldiers, whose spinning kick attacks catch me unawares a couple of times before I start to read their tells and react accordingly. There's a lot that I could say about having Donald and Goofy joining Sora in combat, and I'm sure over the course of this series I'll get most of it out there, but for now I just want to focus on the basics. For a start, their presence helps because it gives enemies other targets to focus on, reducing enemy attention on Sora and giving the player a bit more time to think and plan ahead in fights. They're also pretty reliable in terms of doing chip-damage to enemies in the process. Sadly, that's about as far as the positives go at this stage. They're terrible resource guzzlers, using their held items far too liberally even on the lowest manual setting. The last two times I played the game in 2015, I would only give them items to hold immediately before boss battles, because I found that doing otherwise was draining my stock of Potions and Ethers far too quickly, and I suspect this playthrough will be no different. They also have very little sense of self-preservation - while they can and do heal themselves with items and spells, they lack the AI required to distance themselves from danger when it's overwhelming them. Donald and Goofy certainly have their uses, and I'll get to those later on at the appropriate time, but right now, that's all I can say about them.

No sooner do the trio dispatch this wave of smaller enemies than their leader chooses to reveal his disembodied floating head. With a series of metallic clangs as its parts fall from the sky, Sora, Donald and Goofy come face to face with:

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BOSS - Guard Armor - Guard Armor is definitely a step up from Darkside. His limbless body is comprised of five distinct targets - two hands, two feet, and a head and torso which share an HP pool (the extremities all have their own health bars). Each body part moves independently, has its own attack patterns, and can detach from the core unit to zero in on its chosen target. This means the player has to try and keep track of what each part is doing at all times, look for tells and evade accordingly, attacking only when it's safe to do so. My tried and tested strategy involves clearing the hands first - given these have the least HP, they're the quickest targets to eliminate, and the less targets on the field means the less individual components there are to try and attack Sora and crew. The hands can spin and also drive down into the ground, but these attacks can be parried with a well-timed attack, inflicting Stun and buying some valuable time to wail on the downed appendage. Once the hands are gone, it becomes easier to focus on the feet. These also have two distinct attacks - a forward march which can be parried, and a shockwave-emitting stomp that must be dodged. Each time a hand or foot is defeated, it will drop HP balls, giving the player an opportunity to heal up before attacking the next body part. When only the torso and head are left, they will begin using a deadly tornado-style spin attack - again, this can be parried with a well-timed attack. When the torso's HP reserves are depleted, the battle is over.

With Guard Armor defeated, Sora, Donald and Goofy finally introduce themselves to each other. Donald and Goofy explain that they're on an interstellar mission to find the Key Bearer on the instructions of their King. They invite Sora to join them on their journey, travelling to different worlds to try and pick up the King's trail. While Sora initially seems reluctant, some gentle encouragement from Leon - reminding him that getting out there is the best way to try and find his missing friends - convinces him to go along. It's here that one of Kingdom Hearts' most memorable scenes plays out - the "happy faces" scene. "You can't come along looking like that, understand?" Donald says to Sora. "No frowning, no sad face. This boat runs on happy faces!" And what's Sora's response to this? Well:

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This is one of the few situations where I think I like something in Kingdom Hearts more now than I did as a kid. Back when I was twelve I just thought this scene was stupid and out of place, something that got drastically lost in translation from the original Japanese script. Now, with over fifteen years of distance from that first playthrough, I actually think it's one of my favourite moments in the game. Sora's lack of inhibition in this moment goes a long way towards breaking the ice between the three characters. It also serves to distinguish him from the stereotypical brooding, moody protagonists that had come to define the Japanese RPG genre at the time of its release, and to establish Kingdom Hearts as a game where, just like Square-Enix and Disney, the serious and light-hearted can co-exist.

Sora still looks dumb, though. No getting around that.

With our trinity formed, the action shifts perspectives once more, this time to a round table in a very dark room which, for the purposes of avoiding story spoilers, I'm just going to call 'Villain HQ' for now. As ominous music plays, a number of characters with familiar, sinister voices are gathered round the table discussing Sora and his Keyblade. Some seem quite concerned by his meddling, while others question what threat a young boy could pose. Their bickering is halted by a black-cloaked female figure who through a camera pan is revealed to be Maleficent, the antagonist from Sleeping Beauty and apparent leader of this troupe of ne'er-do-wells. She poses the question - will he conquer the darkness, or be swallowed by it? Time will tell, I suppose.

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With Sora in tow, Donald and Goofy say their goodbyes and prepare to board their ship. As a going away present, the Final Fantasy characters gift our newly-formed party with a handful of Munny to spend on items, weapons and accessories in Traverse Town's shops. As a welcome present, Donald teaches Sora his first magic spell - Fire, a modest offensive spell allowing him to shoot a ball of flame from the tip of his Keyblade. Fire has decent range, homing properties and deals reasonable damage at this early stage in the game, making for a good introduction to Kingdom Hearts' magic system. The default magic menu can be quite cumbersome to navigate as it requires the player to use the D-pad instead of the left analog stick, stopping Sora from moving and making him a sitting duck while spells and targets are selected. Thankfully, there's a customisable shortcut menu implemented, allowing the player to rattle off a quick spell with the touch of a face button while holding down L1.

Goofy's welcome present for Sora is the Dodge Roll ability. Kingdom Hearts' ability system is one of the most important components of its gameplay, since it allows the player to customise Sora's combat loadout to fit their playing style. There are many different kinds of abilities in Kingdom Hearts, from active combat abilities that trigger special attacks, to passive abilities that affect what spoils enemies drop after a battle, and everything between. These abilities need to be equipped in order to be used or activated, but there's a limit to what can be equipped. Each ability has a corresponding point value from 1 to 5, indicating how many ability points (or AP) it will cost to equip, and a character can't equip more abilities than their current total AP will allow. More AP can be earned by levelling up, equipping certain accessories, or using certain items. Dodge Roll, as its name suggests, maps an evasive roll manoeuvre to the Square button - a welcome addition to Sora's battle repertoire, and a steal with an equip cost of only 1AP. I equip it immediately, knowing that I'll be making liberal use of it in the worlds to come.

Before we hop onto the Gummi Ship, there are a few more things I want to do in Traverse Town before leaving. The first is to use the Munny I've accrued to pick up some slightly better weapons for Donald and Goofy. Given I'm planning to keep them in line with their combat roles of mage and defender respectively, I decide to opt for the magic-boosting Morning Star for Donald, and the larger Stout Shield for Goofy. One thing that bears mentioning here is that the shop prices have been drastically increased in the Final Mix version of the game, with these weapons costing almost double what they did in the original PS2 release. I assume this was done for balance reasons, but it's still pretty frustrating for my Munny not to go as far as it used to. That's inflation for you, I guess.

Also worth mentioning here are Trinity marks. These are coloured symbols resembling three hearts linked by a circle, and can be triggered when Sora, Donald and Goofy are all together. Each colour corresponds to a different ability, with more being unlocked as the game progresses. Right now we can only activate blue Trinity marks, corresponding to the Trinity Jump ability, but it's worth doing to access some extra items and Munny before moving on. Finally, I feel obliged to mention the 99 Puppies side quest. Anyone who's seen 101 Dalmatians will be familiar with Pongo and Perdita, whose family have made it into Kingdom Hearts as glorified collectibles. The story justification for this is that their ninety-nine puppies were lost and scattered across the worlds when their own world was consumed by darkness. Since Sora, Donald and Goofy are world-hopping anyway, Pongo and Perdy request that they return any puppies they find on their travels, back to their new home in Traverse Town's Second District.

This section has already gone on a lot longer than I anticipated, so let's move on from Traverse Town to pastures new. The team finally leave through the big town gates, and out into the unknown...

Part 07 - Gummis for Dummies

The unknown, as it turns out, is Kingdom Hearts' World Select menu, a screen showing the game's various worlds and the routes that connect them. Or at least, it will once it's been fleshed out. Right now it depicts two worlds - our current location of Traverse Town, and the unreachable Disney Castle - and two branching paths leading to unknown destinations. Helpfully, the game assigns each world a 'battle level' - a star rating out of ten, indicating its combat difficulty. This is visible even if the world isn't, so while there's a degree of flexibility to the order in which you approach worlds, there's also a helping hand built into the game to tell you where to go next if you're not sure or can't decide. A smart decision for a game that can, at times, be very obtuse about directing the player. For the purposes of this blog series, I'll be tackling worlds in the order recommended by their battle level.

There are a couple of things that are worth noting here, even though I can't really dive too deeply into them until later in the series. The first is the Gummi Garage, a separate menu interface where you can build Gummi Ships, either using pre-designed blueprints or from scratch in the Gummi block editor. Since we only have one blueprint and hardly any Gummi blocks, I'll come back to explain this one in more detail later. For now, just know that it's there. I also quickly take this opportunity to customise my Gummi Ship controls so the main cannons are on the L1 button, because as anyone who's ever played Cuphead will tell you, firing should never be on a face button.

Also worth mentioning are the Gummi Ship missions. These weren't present in the original release of Kingdom Hearts, but were added later in the Final Mix version of the game, I believe as a response to journalistic criticism. They give the player scores to beat and tasks to accomplish while flying between worlds, adding an extra layer of depth and purpose to what is, as I'll eventually explain, a pretty mundane portion of the overall gameplay. Each world has three missions associated with it, with later missions unlocking once earlier ones have been completed and the requisite flight paths have been opened and travelled at least once. As with the Gummi Garage, it's not something we can engage with right now, but I think it's worth acknowledging at least.

Out of the two available paths, I select the one leading to the world with a battle level of one star, and set off. These flight sections between worlds play like Star Fox (or at least, how I imagine Star Fox plays as someone who's never played it themselves but has seen plenty of gameplay footage over the years). It's a semi-on-rails shooting sequence where your ship travels constantly forwards, while you have the freedom to move around the screen in two dimensions to avoid obstacles and enemy attacks, and launching your own attacks using on-board weapons like cannons and lasers.

Although it's light on extra features, the default 'Kingdom' Gummi Ship is a pretty good ship for getting to grips with the controls and mechanics of these flight sections. It's light and manoeuvres round the screen reasonably well, and it also has a cannon for taking down any enemy ships, which are apparently piloted by Heartless - a fact that poses some conundrums I may bring up later, if I can recall it when it becomes relevant. Damn it, there's a lot of stuff I need to try and remember to revisit later on. Destroying these ships leaves behind goodies to pick up - usually Gummi blocks, sometimes blueprints, all of which get added to your Gummi Garage for future use.

One criticism I will level at the Gummi Ship sequences, even at this early stage, is the fact that you have to move the Gummi Ship to move the weapon crosshair. This means that trying to line up shots on enemies or obstacles will move your ship, potentially into the path of other oncoming hazards. While it's not a deal-breaker on this route, I can already foresee the problems it's going to cause me down the line, both on busier routes and should I attempt any of those aforementioned missions. Independent control of both the Ship and crosshair using an industry-standard two-stick control system would have worked much better. Some might say I should give the game a pass considering its release predates a lot of modern control standards, but it's hard to feel that way knowing that they made quality-of-life improvements to other aspects of the game's controls without addressing this one.

The path to the first world is pretty unremarkable, not really a surprise given it's the first time a player will have piloted a Gummi Ship. None of the enemy ships have weapons attached, so there aren't any projectiles to dodge, and most of the obstacles can easily be avoided or destroyed with some well-placed cannon fire. After a couple of minutes of relatively uneventful travel, Sora, Donald and Goofy arrive on the edge of a brand new world and prepare to disembark.

Part 08 - When Wonder Ain't So Wonderful

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If you weren't able to work it out from the title of this section, our first port of call in our search for Riku, Kairi and King Mickey is Wonderland, the nonsense realm from Disney's 1951 animated classic, Alice in Wonderland. While that film took great liberties with its source material, Kingdom Hearts' fidelity to the Disney interpretation is impressive, at least initially. It begins almost exactly as the film does, with Sora, Donald and Goofy falling down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland. Not wanting to miss a prime opportunity for slapstick comedy, we see Sora and Donald land gently on their feet, before Goofy is dropped from a few feet onto his stomach. Meanwhile, a White Rabbit runs by, prompting the team to give chase.

I must say that in preparation for this blog, I rewatched the Disney films that these worlds are taken from, and in the case of Wonderland, I was pleasantly surprised by how faithful this opening environment is to its cinematic counterpart. The colours and surreal proportions of the rabbit hole and the objects within it go a long way towards making me feel like I've genuinely stepped into the world of the film. They even have the multiple doors in ever-decreasing sizes that lead into the next room. Unfortunately the same can't be said of the Bizarre Room itself. While the film's iconic Doorknob character is present, along with the table and the bottles on it marked 'Drink Me', the rest of the room is filled with furnishings - a far cry from its near-empty state in the film. It almost feels like at one stage the developers might have had two separate scenes planned - one in the Bizarre Room, and one in the White Rabbit's house - but decided to cut the latter and move some of its contents into the former. That's purely speculation on my part, though.

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To progress from here, I need to solve a... Well, I've written the word 'puzzle' in my notes, but that seems generous in retrospect. Since the Doorknob goes to sleep and won't grant Sora passage, I need to push a bed into the wall while fully sized, revealing a small exit that I can get through after using the bottle to shrink down to size. Simple I know, but I promise things get a little more involved down the line. From here, their next destination is the Queen of Hearts' Castle. While those words might summon up images of grandeur, the reality is quite disappointing - a single square room, with distant landscapes painted on the surface of each wall to try and give the illusion of open space. Which would be fine, were it not for the fact you can run directly up to these walls and shatter the already-cracked facade the game is putting on. Honestly, I know it's still early days, but I think the Queen's Castle might be my most disappointing zone from any world in the whole game.

Sora, Donald and Goofy arrive to find the Queen of Hearts presiding over a trial, in which a young girl named Alice is accused of trying to steal her heart. Donald and Goofy remind Sora that it's not appropriate to meddle in the affairs of other worlds, but that doesn't stop Sora's friendly side getting the better of him, and he rushes in to help. Naturally the Queen doesn't take too kindly to this interruption and places Alice in custody, demanding that the trio bring her evidence of Alice's innocence before she will set her free. That means - yep, you guessed it - another fetch quest! It seems like this game just can't get enough of them in its first few hours.

Our next destination is the Lotus Forest, a natural environment that takes most of its visual cues from the scenes in the film involving the Caterpillar, although he's sadly nowhere to be seen. Instead we're greeted by the Cheshire Cat, who speaks to us in poorly-written riddles that suggest there are four pieces of evidence to be found in Wonderland - Footprints, Antenna, Stench, and Claw Marks. Two of these are here in the Lotus Forest, while the other two are back in the Bizarre Room, although they must be reached by using specific exits from the Lotus Forest to access previously unreachable areas. You only need to find one box to take back to the Queen to trigger the next story beat, but finding all four comes with its own reward - early access to the Blizzard spell. Another piece of offensive magic, Blizzard emits from the Keyblade in a wave rather than a single projectile, giving it a wider spread but shorter range than Fire. It's particularly useful in close quarters against groups of enemies, and is very effective against the new enemy types in Wonderland - taking out the Fire-casting Red Nocturnes using Blizzard will earn Sora extra 'tech' experience points.

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With all four pieces of evidence in hand, I return to the Queen to present them. Not particularly satisfied with the results of my treasure hunt, she presents a box of her own evidence and shuffles them all before asking Sora to pick a box at random, upon which she will base her judgement. Your chances of success here will depend directly on how many pieces of evidence you collected, but even at best, there's a twenty percent chance of picking the wrong box. Doing so will incriminate Donald and Goofy, while picking one of your own pieces of evidence will make the Heartless the prime suspects. Either way, the end result is the same - the Queen will lose her temper, hoist Alice out of reach, and set her card guards on you.

Mini-Boss - Guard Tower - This fight can start in one of two ways. If you presented evidence suggesting the Heartless were to blame, you'll have Donald and Goofy by your side. However, if you pick the Queen's evidence and implicate your buddies in the crime, they'll be detained in makeshift cages and Sora will be on his own. This is easily remedied - just attack their cages to release them and they'll join you in combat. The target here isn't actually an enemy but a stationary guard tower used by the guards to hoist Alice's cage off the ground. That's not to say there aren't enemies to deal with, mind - the Queen's card guards are on the offensive, and will try to stop you from taking down the tower with attacks of their own. This is where it pays to have Donald and Goofy along for the ride, since they can draw the attention of the card guards and leave Sora relatively unimpeded as he slaps the tower with his Keyblade. Should your buddies faint and the guards turn their attention to you, Blizzard can be useful (if you've unlocked it) for its crowd control properties. Like the Guard Armor, destroying parts of the tower will release HP orbs, providing a mid-battle healing opportunity. Make the most of this, as it won't be long before the game stops being this generous.

Once the tower is fully destroyed, the battle is over. Alice's cage returns to the ground and swings open to reveal - nothing! It appears Alice was kidnapped by someone (or something) while everyone was busy duking it out. The Queen, apparently quick to forgive, tasks Sora, Donald and Goofy with finding her - there can be no trial without a defendant, after all. Heading back to the Lotus Forest, the Cheshire Cat appears once again to riddle us towards our next destination - in order to reveal the shadows, we need to "light the lamps in the upside-down room". It's here that the Bizarre Room starts truly living up to its name, as entering it from different angles will cause the perspective to shift, allowing Sora to walk on the walls and even the ceiling. It's this last option we need, accessible through a newly-opened exit in the Lotus Forest that leads through the Tea Party Garden. This is another of my big disappointments within this world - the fact that the film's iconic tea party scene, bursting with creative potential for the developers to exploit, is reduced to nothing more than a cameo environmental appearance.

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Once on the ceiling of the Bizarre Room, we can light the lamps as per the Cheshire Cat's instruction. These lights are guarded by several Heartless including a new type called Large Bodies. These huge round Heartless introduce another element of strategy to combat since they can't be damaged from the front by physical attacks - Sora must either employ magic, or get around behind them to hit their exposed backs. Very few regular enemies demand this level of planning and strategy in Kingdom Hearts, so I commend the Large Bodies and their kin (who we'll meet in future episodes) for mixing things up a bit. Once the enemies are wiped out, Sora can light the lamps with a tap of the Triangle button. It's slightly disappointing for the game not to make use of the Fire spell here, but I can understand why - making them magically flammable could cause them to be lit during combat, which I guess could cause scripting issues for the next cutscene.

With the lamps lit, the Cheshire Cat tells Sora that the enemies will appear here, but also in another place - a not-so-subtle hint to return to the Bizarre Room with a different orientation. Specifically, we're looking to re-enter the right way up. A quick bit of backtracking is all that's required here, and when Sora joins the Cheshire Cat on the big glass table, Alice's kidnapper finally reveals itself.

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BOSS - Trickmaster - The Trickmaster is another step up in the boss fight department. Unlike previous bosses, it only has one strikeable target, that being its weird, multi-faced head. Given the enemy's stature, this target is out of reach of Sora's regular attacks, forcing the player to use the chair and table in the middle of the Bizarre Room to gain some height and ensure their attacks find their mark. Landing a few hits on the head in this way will cause the Trickmaster to slump, bringing its weak point within range of ground-based attacks for a short time and releasing a smattering of health-restoring HP balls in the process.

If this sounds more straightforward than the fight with Guard Armor, it's because I haven't talked about Trickmaster's skill-set yet. It carries a pair of batons which it can twirl and swing to prevent you from reaching its weak point by knocking you out of the air. These batons are also flammable, making it inadvisable to use Fire magic against Trickmaster (although successfully casting Blizzard on a lit baton will put it out and earn you some 'tech' experience). It can also sing to make the table spin, making it even more difficult to line up a jump towards its weak point, and can even slam the table and chair down into the ground for a time, temporarily removing your only way to meet it on its own level.

When Trickmaster's health drops below a certain point it will change tactics, heading over to the corner of the Bizarre Room and using the stove to light its batons. It will now use its lit batons to shoot homing fire balls at Sora, which are incredibly fast and difficult to evade even with Dodge Roll. I found the best tactic at this point was to put the table and chair between Sora and the Trickmaster, causing its attacks to fizzle out when they hit the glass, then leap up onto the table and resume my aerial attack strategy once the barrage of fireballs had ceased. Eventually the Trickmaster's HP bar will deplete and earn you the victory. Additionally, if you didn't earn it while collecting evidence before, defeating the Trickmaster will reward you with the Blizzard spell. It's certainly more a battle of attrition than anything else up to now, and I appreciate its attempts to introduce more verticality into the game's combat system. All in all, it's a solid boss fight.

The ruckus from the fight causes the Doorknob to wake up. He yawns, revealing a mysterious Keyhole deep within his own lock-shaped mouth. Sora's Keyblade reacts with this Keyhole, emitting a beam of light that seals it and releases a strangely-shaped Gummi block. As with a great many other things, the significance of this action won't be revealed until a little later on, so for now I'll just ask you to pop it in your memory bank, alongside all the other things that aren't relevant just yet, but will be soon. Unfortunately, although they beat the Trickmaster, they're too late to save Alice - the Cheshire Cat tells them that she's been taken away by the shadows into darkness. Sora is disappointed, but Donald remains optimistic that they'll find Alice on one of the other worlds they travel to. While the game glosses over this pretty quickly, I feel like it's worth pointing out that Sora's first grand mission to another world is actually a pretty consummate failure. For all his bravado, he is unable to clear Alice's name in the eyes of the Queen of Hearts, and is then unable to save her when she's kidnapped by the Heartless. All of this feeds into a narrative that Kingdom Hearts has been weaving since its opening - Sora is not a natural hero. He's a kid with a huge burden placed unexpectedly on his shoulders, and he's doing the best he can with what little experience he's got. Since, once again, this is something that's going to link up with future story events, I'll try to remember to tie up this thread when we reach the other end of it.

With nothing left to do in Wonderland right now, Sora, Donald and Goofy return to their Gummi Ship and set off in search of other worlds.

WONDERLAND Thoughts - Given I've prepped for this series by re-watching the Disney films that these worlds are based on, I felt it might be worth adding some final thoughts about each world as I play it, and how successful I think Kingdom Hearts is at replicating the experience of the film. In Wonderland's case, I've always thought it was very out-of-place compared with other worlds in the Kingdom Hearts universe. It's a weird choice as the first world since its nonsensical inspiration lends itself to mechanics that never appear again in any other part of the game - namely the puzzles around size manipulation and reorientation of the Bizarre Room. Introduced later in the game these might be better received for what they are - world-inspired gimmicks. But to put them in the very first world that our heroes travel to creates a certain sense of expectation within the player that the rest of the game then doesn't meet. I don't think it's intentionally misleading, but that doesn't make it forgivable.

Aesthetically I think the world does a great job of creating a sense of place, although I'm left feeling a little bit disappointed that it didn't try to do more. Rewatching Alice in Wonderland, I was struck by how the film is composed of a number of episodic vignettes rather than a continuous narrative. Alice visits a wide variety of places on her trip through Wonderland, and it's a shame that we don't get to see a wider variety of them re-created in 3D. I feel the same about the characters chosen to feature within the world, too. When the film's cast features such iconic characters as the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, Tweedles Dee and Dum and the Caterpillar, it feels like wasted potential to then only meet the White Rabbit, the Doorknob, the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. Of course, I realise I'm being vastly unfair to the game here - since Wonderland is itself merely a single episode in the wider context of Kingdom Hearts, it makes sense for the developers to pick one of those vignettes from the film and develop the world around that, rather than trying to cram in everything but the kitchen sink. I just feel like some of those iconic characters would have made very welcome additions to the world's cast.

One area I'm less willing to concede ground to the developers is in the design of the Heartless for this world. Wonderland is full of weird and wondrous creatures, perhaps best driven home by the film's Tulgey Wood scene - the glasses on legs, the mirror-faced and shovel-beaked birds, the horn-like ducks, and who could forget the dog with brushes for its face and tail that sweeps away the path beneath Alice's feet? All of these could have made exciting and interesting base designs from which to build some world-specific Heartless. Instead we get a batch of generic humanoids - Shadows, Soldiers and Large Bodies - and the mage-inspired Red Nocturnes. In defence of the game, however, I do like the Trickmaster's chaotic design and feel that it's a good fit for this world.

Part 09 - We Could Be Heroes

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Our next destination is the unknown world with a battle level of two stars, situated on the other side of Traverse Town. That means I have to fly my Gummi Ship back to Traverse Town, completing the previous flight route in reverse before setting out in the opposite direction. It's pretty similar to the route to Wonderland, as none of the enemy ships have weapons. There are significantly more obstacles on this route, however, including a few walls of Gummi blocks which must be shot in order to pass through. Successfully reaching the end of this route puts Sora, Donald and Goofy in front of their next destination - Olympus Coliseum.

Immediately upon arrival, the aesthetics of Olympus Coliseum do a great job of transporting you to the world of Disney's Hercules. The light colours, the juxtaposition of swirls and straight lines in the architecture, and that sweeping score with its blaring horns, evoking shades of the movie's theme, Go the Distance. It's the perfect introduction to this new world and sets an appropriate tone for the story we're about to experience. Passing through the Coliseum doors into the lobby, the team meet Philoctetes for the first time. While the game's budget clearly didn't extend to hiring Danny DeVito, stand-in Robert Costanzo (who voiced the character in the TV series and straight-to-DVD prequel) does a fine job of aping his style, even if his New York drawl does go on a little too long as he declares he's "preparin' for the gaaammeesss".

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I realise I haven't spoken about Kingdom Hearts' voice acting before now, despite there having been quite a lot of it so far. I guess the reason for that is that for the most part, it's serviceable, but unremarkable. The original characters have appropriate child-actor voices - Sora is voiced by Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), Kairi by Hayden Panettiere (Heroes and Nashville), and Riku by David Gallagher (whose credits are less impressive, but include 2007's The Picture of Dorian Gray). With the exception of one notable character, all the Final Fantasy VII characters with spoken dialogue are voiced by the actors who would go on to portray them in the Advent Children movie. On investigation, several big-name actors actually reprised their roles for the Disney characters in this game. Although we haven't yet encountered him, Hades carries the unmistakable charismatic fast-talk of James Woods. Perhaps even more shockingly, Alice was voiced by the same Kathryn Beaumont who provided her voice in the original movie, some fifty years apart. It's therefore all the more surprising that given the level of talent involved, so many of the Disney characters' lines sound so throwaway. I'm not sure what specifically is at fault here, whether it's sub-par voice direction, or a lack of recording time, but a lot of the lines sound like first takes that were deemed "good enough". In light of the talent involved, these serviceable performances actually end up feeling a little disappointing.

Sora is keen to enter the games but Phil's not having any of it. Instead he sets Sora a couple of time-trial barrel-busting challenges to prove himself. These two challenges are unlike anything else in the game up to this point, combining combat mechanics with physics-based puzzle-solving as you try to launch stacks of barrels into other stacks of barrels to chain your destruction and shave valuable seconds off your time. It's not exactly difficult, but the process of working things out is rewarding enough, especially on the tougher second course. Unless you're like me and use the Ripple Drive ability to destroy the stacks of barrels in no time at all, removing the strategic element altogether. Phil is impressed by Sora's performance, but still doesn't think he's "hero enough" to compete in the gaaammeesss. While he's not prepared to hand over an Entry Pass, he does teach Sora how to use the Thunder spell. Like Fire and Blizzard, this is an offensive spell, but instead of being emitted from the tip of the Keyblade, it originates above an enemy before striking down on them and their surrounding area. It's useful for dealing with groups of enemies at range, and because Sora doesn't need to be facing a locked-on target to use it, it's very useful when trying to move away from enemies and keep them at a distance. However, it consumes more MP than Fire or Blizzard, and doesn't seem to do as much damage.

While trying to leave Olympus Coliseum, Sora and friends are intercepted by a new character - the lord of the Underworld, Hades. It just so happens he's carrying a spare Entry Pass for the games, and wants Sora to take it. There's definitely more going on here than meets the eye, but Sora's oblivious to this and happy purely to have a route into the Coliseum. He runs back to Phil and presents him with the pass, who reluctantly grants him access to participate.

What follows are a sequence of battles pitting Sora, Donald and Goofy against groups of Heartless, restricted to a featureless square arena. Defeating each group of Heartless earns passage to the next round of the tournament, and every other round is punctuated by a story-progressing cutscene. There's nothing remarkable about the fights themselves - they're all against familiar enemies with the exception of the new Blue Rhapsody, another mage-type Heartless who uses Blizzard magic. After two rounds, Phil calls the guys over for a pep talk. He tells them that if they keep it up, they might end up fighting against a real hero, like his own protegé, Hercules. It's here that one of the most iconic moments from my childhood playthroughs of this game unfolds. A caped figure walks past Sora, catching his eye. The camera pans up (this game sure likes its pan-up reveals, huh?) to reveal the familiar armour, face and hair of Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife. For anyone who might not be able to comprehend the significance of this moment, let me remind you that Kingdom Hearts predates Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children by almost three years. This was the first time I'd seen the protagonist of my then-favourite video game rendered in such detailed 3D. This was a big deal.

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A couple of fights later, the motivation for Hades offering Sora a pass for the games becomes clear. We see him standing underneath the bleachers with Cloud, discussing the fact that the swordsman is likely to end up fighting against the Key Bearer in an upcoming round. Cloud isn't keen, remarking that the deal he struck with Hades was just to kill Hercules, and not some kid. Trying not to lose his cool, Hades explains that Sora is just collateral - a stepping stone on the way to fighting Herc - but Cloud walks away unconvinced. Still, it seems like Hades has a contingency plan in place, if the growling coming from beneath the bleachers is any indication.

Sure enough, it's not long before Sora is staring down Cloud in the arena. This fight bears a lot of similarities to the one against Leon in Traverse Town - a single sword-wielding opponent who outclasses Sora in terms of combat ability, but who can be overcome with the right strategy. It's a tough fight, requiring the player to listen out for Cloud's spoken tells in order to get out of the way of his incredibly fast charge attacks. His quick recovery also means that getting greedy and trying to steal too many hits will result in Sora getting acquainted with the business end of the Buster Sword. There are openings, though, and exploiting them with well-timed combos will bring a slow but assured victory. In another parallel to the Leon fight, you don't have to win this battle to move the story forward, but losing will forfeit any experience gain.

Whether Cloud is defeated or wins and refuses to finish Sora off, the end result is the same - Hades counters his disobedience by releasing his three-headed dog Cerberus into the arena. Hercules arrives just in time to hold the beast back, giving Sora, Donald, Goofy and Phil a window to escape. Back in the Coliseum lobby, Phil expresses some concern that Herc might not be able to hold Cerberus off for very long. Sounds like a job for a hero! After a brief moment to recharge at the save point and restock Sora's inventory with healing items, I charge back into the arena to give Hercules and Cloud a hand against the guardian of the Underworld. Unfortunately the hero doesn't feel like hanging around. He grabs Cloud and flees the arena, leaving our three heroes to face the monster alone.

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BOSS - Cerberus - Cerberus is easily the toughest challenge that Sora, Donald and Goofy have faced up to this point. His three heads are all targets with a shared HP pool, but they are seldom within reach of Sora's Keyblade and all three attack in relentless waves. They breathe homing balls of fiery energy which can be deflected for 'tech' experience, however this is difficult without the Guard ability equipped. After this Cerberus changes stance, bringing its heads lower to the ground. This invites players in to take a swing, but the apparent opening is actually a lure, bringing an unsuspecting Sora within range of some devastatingly painful bite attacks. As with Cloud, the trick here is not to get too greedy and limit your attacks to one or two at a time, before rolling out of range and avoiding any incoming bites. I also found Thunder pretty useful in this fight, since it allowed me to attack from a distance and hit multiple heads at once.

When Cerberus' HP dips below a certain level, it will add another phase to its attack pattern - after rearing its heads up to the sky, it will lower them, spewing darkness into the ground which re-emerges in the form of dark geysers of energy beneath Sora's feet. Now more than ever, the trick is to keep moving, especially when Cerberus starts combining this attack with its fireball breath. The windows of opportunity may not be as frequent now, but the strategy remains the same. With time and patience, the three-headed dog will eventually fall, bagging Sora and co. another accessory, the Inferno Band.

The team's victory in the battle against Cerberus is enough for Phil to dub them 'junior heroes'. Donald isn't happy about this, but Hercules explains that there's a lot more to being a hero than brute strength, a lesson he had to learn before earning his own hero status (which I guess puts this canon after the events of Disney's Hercules movie?). Phil also gives the team full rights to participate in any future gaaammeesss at the Coliseum, although there's a lot of cleaning up to be done before any more tournaments can take place. I guess that's some subtle foreshadowing that we'll be returning later?

On their way back to the Gummi Ship, Sora stops to chat to a pretty moody-looking Cloud. The swordsman explains that he made his deal with Hades because he promised to help find someone dear to him. Cloud allowed himself to be lured by the power of darkness, and lost sight of the light keeping him going. Sora spots the parallel with his own journey to find Riku and Kairi, and offers Cloud some words of comfort. In return, Cloud teaches Sora the useful Sonic Blade ability, an equivalent of the charging attack he used in their previous battle. Sora challenges Cloud to a rematch somewhere down the line, and although he turns the offer down, you can't help but get the feeling that this isn't the last we'll see of the ex-SOLDIER.

As Sora, Donald and Goofy leave Olympus Coliseum, Hades reappears. He's not happy about what happened with Cerberus in the Coliseum, and vows to eliminate both Hercules and Sora in the next games. Sensing a presence behind him, he turns to see Maleficent. Telling her to stay out of his business, she obliges, parting with a cutting remark before disappearing and leaving Hades to plot his revenge...

OLYMPUS COLISEUM Thoughts - This is a difficult one, since I've already talked a little bit about how Kingdom Hearts' rendition of Olympus Coliseum relates to 1997's Hercules, and since this won't be the last time we visit, I don't want to say anything that will spoil the content still to come. As I mentioned, I think the visuals and music are fantastic, and they're supported by some excellent voice work, particularly from James Woods reprising his role as Hades. Maybe it's my inner fanboy breaking through, but I also love the incorporation of Cloud Strife into Olympus Coliseum's storyline. As a mercenary and swordsman, he's a great fit for this gladiatorial setting, and the parallels drawn between his and Sora's situations make for a really nice moment towards the end of this section, particularly for fans of Final Fantasy VII who know Cloud's background.

It's a slight disappointment that this level of presentation belies a world that is, when all is said and done, an arena for most of the game's optional combat challenges. While I can't deny it's a logical fit, it would have been nice to see this world fleshed out a little more, especially given how well the message of the film ties in with the core themes of Kingdom Hearts (lthough that's something I'll be getting into in more detail when we come back to Olympus Coliseum to wrap up its storyline). Similar to Wonderland, it also feels like a slightly missed opportunity for the developers to conjure up some awesome Heartless designs based on Greek mythology. While it's undeniably cool to face off against Cerberus, I think it could have been even more interesting to do battle with a giant minotaur or chimaera-inspired Heartless as this world's boss battle. Nomura-san, if you're reading this and it's not too late to implement, you can have that idea for Kingdom Hearts III for nothing.

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That's going to do it for this episode of the Keyblade Chronicles. I had hoped to cover a little more ground and get as far as the next world, Deep Jungle, but being as this blog is already longer than the last one, I'm going to have to draw the line prematurely and save that for next week. I think going forward I'm going to have to cover less sections of the game per blog, which likely means this series is going to go on for longer than I'd initially anticipated. Continuing at this pace, it's very unlikely we're going to make it through the whole franchise before Kingdom Hearts III releases in January, and I think I'm okay with that provided my audience is too. If you guys aren't, then my other option is to make these things longer, which I'm happy to attempt, but I'm also aware that doing so could put off potential readers. I'd appreciate feedback on this matter so I can start tailoring this series better to those who are reading it. Until next time, when I'll be covering Deep Jungle and the first return to Traverse Town at the very least, thanks very much for reading. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (PS4)

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The Keyblade Chronicles - Episode One (Kingdom Hearts Final Mix - Parts 01-05)

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Ladies and gentlemen, the moment they thought would never come is finally upon us. Get comfortable, put on your biggest shoes, dig out your replica cosplay Kingdom Key and start rehearsing the words to Simple and Clean. It's time to play some Kingdom Hearts.

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Yes folks, it's time for the first proper episode of the Keyblade Chronicles, the projected weekly blog series in which I'll be attempting to get fully caught up on the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise before the third (but actually tenth) and final instalment releases in January 2019. For those of you who missed my introductory blog, which outlines the specifics of what I'm aiming to do with this series, I'd recommending reading that before the rest of this entry. Once you're all caught up, feel free to read on.

Our journey begins, as any good journey should, at the start. The original Kingdom Hearts holds a special place in the hearts of a whole generation of players, myself included. Its fusion of Final Fantasy-style RPG mechanics and Disney-inspired characters and locales gave players an experience unlike anything else that had come before it, and laid the foundations upon which Square Enix and Disney Interactive would build an entire franchise. In the first set of instalments of the Keyblade Chronicles, I'll be dissecting this charming oddity of a game, juxtaposing a contemporary playthrough with my own historic remembrances to determine how well it holds up, both as a stand-alone video game and as the progenitor of a vast and confusing lineage. No stone will be left unturned - I'll be exploring every world, sealing every Keyhole, finding every last important item and taking on every single optional activity as I push to complete both Sora's quest and Jiminy's extensive Journal. I'll be sharing my thoughts on the game's plot developments, gameplay mechanics, aesthetics, level design and use of source material, assessing how each piece of the puzzle contributes to the overall melting pot of Kingdom Hearts.

What I'm trying to say is - this is going to be a long blog. So as I said at the beginning, make sure you're comfortable. We might be here a little while...

Part 01 - A Distant History

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Before we begin, I feel it may be relevant to establish my personal history with Kingdom Hearts. It's also probably worth establishing that from here on out and until further notice, I'll be using the term 'Kingdom Hearts' to refer to the first game in the series. If I want to acknowledge the Kingdom Hearts series as a whole, I'll use phrases such as 'the series' or 'the franchise'. Since the first game doesn't have a subtitle of any kind, this is the best way I can think of handling it.

Kingdom Hearts launched in the late autumn of 2002 here in the UK. At the time I was twelve years old, and had developed a taste for Japanese RPGs off the back of discovering Final Fantasy VII two years previously. Back then I didn't have my finger on the pulse of the industry in quite the same way as I do today, probably due to having no internet in the family home at the time and most of my video game information coming either from magazines or from the word of mouth of friends. Consequently, I wasn't even aware of Kingdom Hearts' existence before my first encounter with a shelf of boxed copies in my local GAME store. I recall being drawn to that display like a moth to a flame, most likely due to the striking holographic cover which I can vividly recall to this day. Despite not knowing anything about the game, one close look at the box was all it took to assure me it was a product of quality. As a kid who grew up through the "Disney Renaissance" of the nineties, I was very familiar with films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and Tarzan. Equally, my formative interest in JRPGs told me that any product bearing the Squaresoft logo was one I could trust. Throwing caution to the wind, I spent my limited games allowance on a copy of Kingdom Hearts and took it home that very day.

This was over fifteen years ago, and my memories are sketchy, but I'm fairly certain that it took me around three months to work my way through Kingdom Hearts, beating it for the first time around (if not on) my thirteenth birthday. What I recall more clearly than the actual act of completion, however, was the fun I had playing it. Coming off the back of the Final Fantasy series' more static turn-based battles, being able to move, jump and attack in real time was an appreciated novelty. I found the core trio of original characters pretty relatable - they were around the same age as me, and on a fundamental level shared some of the same anxieties I had about feeling out of place in the world and yearning for something beyond the norm. I loved being able to act out scenes and explore locations from films that I'd seen dozens of times in my formative years. Equally, it was a thrill to see some of my favourite Final Fantasy characters rendered in such high-quality 3D for the first time - bear in mind that Kingdom Hearts predates Advent Children by some years and you may begin to understand just how exciting it was to see a faithfully recreated 3D Cloud Strife turn up in Olympus Coliseum. The Disney-inspired content was on-point graphically and faithful to its source material, the soundtrack was fantastic, and the story kept me invested right up until the final boss battle. To twelve-year-old me, it was the perfect game.

If my memory serves me correctly, I beat Kingdom Hearts no less than three times between its release in November 2002 and the launch of Giant Bomb in July 2008 - the point at which I started keeping a catalogue of the games I'd beaten, initially in blog form, then using the List feature from January 2009 onwards. One of those was a comprehensive 100% playthrough, the save file for which remains on my PlayStation 2 memory card to this very day. Those three playthroughs put the game high enough in my regard that I positioned it at number 14 in a list of my Top 30 Games published here on Giant Bomb in March 2009 (a list I intend to revisit next spring for a tenth anniversary update). In the past ten years I've beaten the game a further two times, both of those playthroughs being through the Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 ReMIX collection in the opening months of 2015. While I didn't feel as attached to the game then as I did in my adolescence, I still found a lot to like about the experience - enough to play the game twice over in a very short space of time, at least. Now, with another three years of distance between the child I was and the man I am now, I'm set to embark on what will be my sixth full playthrough of Kingdom Hearts, and it's sure to be my most thorough and most critical exploration of the game to date.

Part 02 - The Version Aversion

There are a few different versions of Kingdom Hearts available, so it's probably a good idea for me to clarify which one I'll be playing for the Keyblade Chronicles and why. Kingdom Hearts originally released for the PlayStation 2 in March 2002 in Japan, followed by a US release in September 2002 and a European release in November 2002. The delayed release for America and Europe meant the developers were able to add a bunch of additional side-content to those versions of the game - content that Japanese players wouldn't get to experience until they received a new version of the game, subtitled Final Mix, in December 2002. Ironically, that version also contained additional content that American and European players missed out on, including new cut-scenes, new enemy types, and a new secret boss battle. All these version differences were rendered irrelevant in 2013 when a standardised version of Kingdom Hearts Final Mix was released across all territories as part of the Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 ReMIX collection for the PlayStation 3, unifying the experience for players all over the globe.

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Despite the original UK PS2 release being pretty feature-packed in its own right, I've instead opted to play the Final Mix version of the game for the Keyblade Chronicles - specifically, the one bundled in as part of the Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX collection on PlayStation 4. The simplest reason for this is that, regrettably, I no longer own my original PS2 copy, but even if I did, there are still plenty of reasons to choose one of the two more recent releases. As well as boasting extra story and gameplay content, these versions offer some significant quality-of-life improvements over the PS2 original. Most notably, camera control has been mapped to the right analog stick instead of the trigger buttons. Additionally, several context-sensitive actions have been moved from the fourth slot of the action menu to a dedicated Triangle button prompt, similar to Reaction Commands from Kingdom Hearts II. Plus there are all the expected bells and whistles of a current-generation remaster, with silky-smooth sixty frames-per-second gameplay and high definition 1080p visuals as standard. Finally, there's the simple fact that these are the most readily accessible versions of the game available today, packaged in collections purpose-built to help players get caught up in time for Kingdom Hearts III. Since that's the whole point of this feature, it makes most sense to play this version over any other.

With that said and done, let's boot up the PS4 and launch into some Kingdom Hearts!

Part 03 - What Have You Done Today to Make You Feel Proud?

As I start this playthrough of Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, I'm prompted to make a few decisions. We won't worry about the ones pertaining to the camera movement and target lock, since they can be toggled during gameplay. The one decision that will have a permanent impact on my adventure is my choice of difficulty level, which is locked in from the get-go and can't be changed at any point once the game begins.

There are three options - Beginner, Final Mix, and Proud. Beginner, as the name suggests, is intended for people who've never played a Kingdom Hearts game before. It gives the player some valuable items to help them along on their journey and boosts their damage output, but at a cost - players won't be able to unlock either of the game's secret endings by playing in this mode. Final Mix is the standard, most balanced difficulty and is the way the game was meant to be played. Diligent players who explore everything the game has to offer will be able to witness its secret endings. Finally, there's Proud, the equivalent of a hard difficulty setting. This mode reduces the player's damage output and makes them more vulnerable, but its requirements for unlocking the secret endings are a little more lenient to compensate. It also offers the option to turn off all experience gain, for players who wish to challenge themselves by attempting a "Level-1 run".

While there's no doubt an argument to be made for playing on the default difficulty for this series, I've decided to opt for Proud instead. The main reason for this is that I've played a LOT of the original Kingdom Hearts at this point, and I feel like playing in Proud is the best way to guarantee a reasonable level of challenge and keep me entertained while playing. The added difficulty will hopefully encourage me to approach fights more tactically rather than simply mashing on X non-stop, which should help when it comes to putting together detailed write-ups for boss battles. Since there are no story ramifications for selecting a higher difficulty (beyond the accessibility of secret endings, which I was planning to do everything required to unlock anyway), my decision to play on Proud shouldn't have any pronounced impact on the content of the Keyblade Chronicles.

Part 04 - "Is Any of This For Real, or Not?"

Upon hitting New Game and choosing a difficulty level, Kingdom Hearts opens with a CGI cinematic scene. It's not a surprising choice, given developers Squaresoft (now part of the Square-Enix family) established themselves as the undisputed kings of computer-generated FMV on the original PlayStation. The scene depicts a spiky-haired youth in what seems to be a dream sequence. "I've been having these weird thoughts lately," he declares. "Like, is any of this for real, or not?" A statement of uncertainty that's going to echo the player's thought process as the scene unfolds over the next three minutes. There are three characters featured, along with a lot of falling and a lot of water - things which open themselves up to metaphoric interpretation, but which I won't be exploring in great detail here for fear of going too deep down the rabbit hole before we've even begun. For now, I'll leave you with an embedded version of the opening cutscene to watch for yourselves:

Considering it's over fifteen years old at this point, I think the quality of the cinematic holds up surprisingly well - the colours are bright and the characters all animate well. But let's be honest, what we really need to talk about here is the score. Assuming players haven't sat at the start screen and allowed the idle cutscene to trigger, this is the first time they'll have heard an arrangement of Kingdom Hearts' main theme, Simple and Clean. This specific version, dubbed the 'PlanitB Remix', stands out for me personally as one of the most iconic pieces of music in the franchise. It's very up-tempo and fits well with the on-screen action, and the simplicity of the lyrics combined with the driving beat ensure it'll be a lasting earworm for the vast majority of players.

The cutscene segues seamlessly into gameplay, placing the player in control of our pointy-headed protagonist (whose name as yet remains a mystery) in a strange realm of darkness, punctuated by stained-glass platforms featuring the likenesses of various Disney princesses. In a twist I've found humorous ever since I noticed it back in 2015, Kingdom Hearts manages to contradict itself in its first piece of in-game dialogue - "So much to do... So little time..." declares a disembodied voice, before immediately telling the player to "Take your time...". In a franchise that I know is going to trip up over the hem of its own lore multiple times in the games to come, it's almost comforting to see the contradictory tone established this early.

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This zone, officially named 'Dive into the Heart', serves as a tutorial area, teaching the player the fundamentals of controls and gameplay and also presenting them with some choices that have a slight impact on character development. The first of these choices comes immediately, as the disembodied voice presents me with a sword, a shield, and a staff and tasks me with choosing one and forsaking another. The first choice determines the order in which I'll learn abilities through levelling up, with the three options representing attack-focused abilities, defence-focused abilities, and magic-focused abilities respectively. Together with the second choice, it also impacts my initial MP, Strength and Defence. I decide to take up the staff and forsake the sword for this playthrough - this will give me early access to magic-focused abilities, but more crucially, it will ensure I have a healthy reserve of MP throughout the whole game. Ditching the sword is preferable to the shield since Strength boosts from weapons and accessories will be plentiful, and I'm going to need all the Defence I can get in Proud mode.

Over the course of this tutorial, I notice a few things which are worth documenting. First up, let's talk about those Final Mix quality of life improvements. The mapping of camera control to the right analog stick gives the game a much more contemporary feel than the draconian shoulder button method used in the original PS2 release, especially as you can now move the camera on the Y axis, although if I'm being nitpicky I would have preferred some sensitivity adjustment options as it's just a little sluggish for my liking. The context-sensitive Triangle button mapping works nicely too - even though it's only cutting out one button press, it's also eliminating the need to remove a thumb from the left analog stick to use the D-pad, making everything feel more seamless and fluid. Something I have less praise for, however, is the constant switching between high-poly and low-poly faces on the player character's model. I don't remember it being this jarring when I played the game on PS2 - possibly because the lower screen resolution made it less obvious, or maybe I'm just less forgiving of such things these days. Whatever the reason, it's something I foresee breaking the immersion for me throughout this playthrough.

The primary focus of the next section is teaching the player how to fight by introducing them to attacks and the target lock-on feature during battles with several shadowy creatures. It's obviously very early on in the game to be passing judgement on the battle system, since we're a long way off having anything resembling a variety of moves at our disposal. That being said, it's impossible to deny that Sora's basic combo feels a little... off. There's a pronounced delay between the start of the animation and the attack actually connecting, so while the action on screen looks great, it never feels totally one-to-one with the buttons I'm pressing. I get that he's not a competent fighter at this stage, and I know that a lot of the additional bells and whistles that will come to feature in combat will go a long way towards mitigating this, but that doesn't do anything to make Sora's standard three-hit combo any more fun to use.

After being taken through the basics of movement, combat, exploring and interacting with the environment, I'm whisked out of the darkness and onto an island that looks a lot like the one in the opening cinematic. Three characters surround me, characters who veteran Final Fantasy nuts (as I was back then) will recognise as Selphie from Final Fantasy VIII, and Tidus and Wakka from Final Fantasy X. They've got some questions to ask me, and once again, how I answer will have a subtle impact on character development - specifically, how much experience is required to level up. Most combinations of answers will result in a standard growth rate, but certain combinations can yield rates that favour either early or late growth. While the latter may be preferable in the long-term, since it requires less overall experience to reach max level, the answers I give result in the standard growth rate, which I'm fine dealing with.

With all this information gathered, Kingdom Hearts kicks me back to the Dive into the Heart and finally gives me access to the menu, where I can do all sorts of RPG-ish things like check character stats and modify equipment, item and ability loadouts. It also presents me with my first save point, a ring of light which fully heals on contact and (unsurprisingly) allows me to save my progress. I do so, knowing that the game's first boss battle awaits...

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BOSS - Darkside - Having been taught the basic mechanics of fighting, this first major encounter teaches players about the basic ebb and flow of Kingdom Hearts' unique brand of action combat. Darkside is a giant, twisted, humanoid creature born out of our protagonist's shadow. It has three weak points which can be attacked to deal damage - its two hands, and its head. In this battle, it has two main attacks - a fist attack which strikes the ground and creates a shockwave before releasing smaller shadows, and an energy ball attack which is released from its chest cavity while kneeling. Both of these attacks have long wind-up animations, giving the player very obvious tells as to when an attack is inbound. Players can then instinctively read the battle situation and work out when to attack and when to retreat. By far the hardest part of this fight is dealing with the energy balls - they home in on the player, and since none of the tutorials mention parrying or deflecting attacks, novice players are unlikely to be aware that a well-timed attack can send them hurtling back towards Darkside for additional damage and bonus "tech" experience points. This is one of the few fights in the game where losing will not cause a Game Over state, meaning there's no real penalty for not winning besides missing out on some early experience.

After the fight, our spiky-haired protagonist finds himself overwhelmed and sinking into darkness. The disembodied voice tells him not to be afraid, and to remember that he is the one who will open the door, before the entire screen fades to black...

Part 05 - Your Destiny Awaits

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...and our protagonist wakes up on the same beach that we saw in the opening cinematic. It's here that we're finally properly introduced to Sora (yep, unless you were paying attention in the menu earlier on, this is the first time Sora is referred to by his name), as well as his two closest friends, Riku and Kairi. The trio live on Destiny Islands, a remote and idyllic world where it appears very little ever happens. It transpires that the three are working together to build a raft, with the intention of leaving their island home and exploring other worlds. For all the stick I'm likely to give Kingdom Hearts in the storytelling department over the course of this series, I can't deny that this scene works incredibly well. It sets up the scenario, establishes the quirks of each character and the relationships between them, and all within a compact time-frame. It sets up Sora as something of a lazy daydreamer, while Riku is more hard-working and determined, and illustrates the friendly competitive rivalry between them as their differing personalities compete for the attention (and possibly the affections) of the plucky Kairi. It's a really neat bit of indirect storytelling and character-building, sealed with a late title card that signifies the start of the game proper.

Unfortunately the playable portion of Destiny Islands goes a long way towards diminishing any good will the introductory cutscene builds up. The first bit of non-tutorial gameplay is a glorified scavenger hunt, with Kairi sending Sora out to search the Islands for materials for their raft. Specifically, she's after two logs, a cloth, and some rope. While this menial fetch quest might seem like an inoffensive, standard start to an RPG, I haven't yet talked about how difficult some of these items are to find. The two logs are easy enough, since their brown colouration sticks out clearly enough from the near-white sand of the beach. The problems arise when looking for the cloth and rope, both of which blend so seamlessly into the environment that you'd be forgiven for thinking they were merely part of the scenery. It's possible to ask Kairi for some clues as to their whereabouts, but doing so will remove the possibility of earning a bonus item at the end of the scavenger hunt. All in all, it's not the best way to start the first "proper" portion of your video game.

While exploring the islands in search of these items, I run into the familiar faces of Selphie, Tidus and Wakka once again. This time, they only have one question to ask me - do I want to fight? These play-fights serve as yet more practice for the player, allowing them to further get to grips with the feel of Kingdom Hearts' combat system, with each character posing a different kind of threat. Selphie's skipping rope allows her to attack from mid-range, but it has a long wind-up animation that begs to be interrupted by the player. Tidus is a close-range attacker and has speed on his side, but tires easily which leaves him open to combo attacks. Wakka's blitzball lets him attack from range, but can be deflected and even ricocheted back into him to temporarily stun him. All three offer decent, unique challenges in Proud difficulty and a chance to accrue some bonus experience too. Beating them all individually unlocks a further option to take on all three of them at once, a very difficult fight which teaches the importance of spatial awareness and crowd control - a lesson I wish the slow-moving manual camera was better equipped to deal with.

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Along with Selphie, Tidus and Wakka, it's also possible to challenge Riku to a fight at this stage. He's significantly tougher than the other three, combining quick close-quarters swordplay with the ability to guard and a dangerous countering kick attack. The trick to besting Riku is to memorise his tells and attack patterns - move in to steal quick hits between his own attacking swings, and if he falls onto his back with his legs in the air, then move swiftly out of the way to avoid that lethal counter kick. Fighting Riku teaches the value of caution, patience and opportunism, three things that will come into play in the vast majority of Kingdom Hearts' many combat challenges. In a nice touch, Sora will also keep track of his record against Riku, remembering his wins and losses as a running tally. This subtle contribution to character development serves to strengthen the competitive streak that lies beneath their friendly rivalry, and helps make the otherwise infallible Sora feel that little bit more human.

Thanks to dormant memories from my playthrough three years ago, it doesn't take me very long to find the required items for the raft - although I do spend a little bit of time battling the other islanders to earn some experience and refamiliarise myself with the to-and-fro of combat. Upon taking all the requested items back to Kairi, she rewards me with the gift of a healing item and asks if I want to call it a day. While I could say no and continue to explore the island for fun and experience, I agree to finish up for the day and surrender control for another cutscene exploring the motivations for each character to leave the islands. Kairi, not a native of the Destiny Islands, wants to see her homeworld again. Riku, thinking more existentially, wants to explore the myriad worlds out there in an attempt to find out why he ended up on this one. And Sora, being the lazy daydreamer that he is, concedes that he just wants to see new places with his friends. The day's events end with Riku taunting Sora with a paopu fruit, a star-shaped fruit said to intertwine the destinies of any two people who share one. This is the first clear indication that Sora might feel something more than friendship for Kairi, as he becomes very flustered at the suggestion. Riku runs off before Sora can explain himself, and the action fades as the sun sets on another day on Destiny Islands...

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Meanwhile, on a far-off world known as Disney Castle, the Kingdom's grand wizard Donald Duck arrives in court to wish King Mickey a good morning. He's met with an empty throne, and Pluto carrying an envelope bearing the King's seal. Donald reads the content of the letter and immediately runs into the castle gardens to find Goofy, leader of the royal knights. While trying to explain the top secret contents of the letter to his friend, Donald ends up inadvertently attracting the attention of Queen Minnie and his significant other Daisy, leaving him with a lot of explaining to do. The scene doesn't do anything to directly move the story along (that will come later), but it does serve to introduce us to the characters of the short-tempered Donald and the more relaxed, bumbling Goofy. It's also an opportunity for some light-hearted visual comedy, with the door into the King's throne room being a lot smaller than it initially appears, and Donald not realising the Queen and Daisy are behind him until it's too late.

Leaving Donald in a very precarious situation, the action shifts back to Destiny Islands as Sora, Riku and Kairi make further preparations for their raft trip the following day. Initially it seems like this preparation is going to be slightly more interesting than the previous day's fetch-questing - upon entering a new zone of the islands named the Cove, Sora meets Riku and the two start discussing potential names for their raft. Unable to come to an agreement, the boys agree to settle their dispute in "the usual way". Turns out this is a race to a star-shaped tree at the other end of the Cove and back again. There are multiple paths to take to the objective, ranging from the tops of trees to a ladder and zip-line. While this does introduce a new platforming element to the game, it also brings a very quick realisation that the platforming mechanics in Kingdom Hearts aren't very good. Sora's jump is noticeably delayed following the button input, and he hangs awkwardly in the air before sinking like a stone. His in-air manoeuvrability is also poor, meaning it's difficult to course-correct any jump that might be off-target on account of his delay in leaving the ground.

Something else I find slightly bizarre is the short cutscene immediately before the race, where Sora starts unnecessarily adding extra stakes to the competition as if there wasn't anything already riding on it. "If I win, I'm captain," he says, confidently thumbing his own chest. But I thought the whole point of this race was to decide what the raft was going to be called? Why are we raising the stakes? For the sake of competition? Anyway, he's put in his place by Riku who ups the ante even further by saying that the winner of the race gets to share a paopu fruit with Kairi. This is another piece of dialogue that builds a lot of character in very few words, even if it is delivered in a slightly sinister tone that's not altogether comfortable, given the established implications of sharing a paopu fruit and Kairi's complete lack of knowledge or consent.

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Despite some wrestling with the poor platforming controls, I'm able to win the race thanks to the zip-wire. The result of the race feeds back into the aforementioned tally system too, further reinforcing the competitive undertones of Sora and Riku's friendship. The race can be re-run multiple times, with each victory yielding a Pretty Stone, but instead I opt to move the story along by seeking out Kairi. She's down on the beach by the newly-finished raft, and tasks us with our next objective, which is... Another fetch quest. This one is even worse than the first, on account of there being almost three times the number of objectives, and all of them being even harder to locate than the ones from the previous day. This time we're hunting for provisions for the trip - three fish, three mushrooms, two coconuts, a seagull egg, and some drinking water. What makes this scavenger hunt particularly frustrating is how small some of the items are, making them very difficult to spot amongst the environment. Thankfully my memory of this portion of the game leads me to all the objectives without too much delay - the fish are swimming in the shallows just off the beach, mushrooms can be found tucked away in dark places away from direct sunlight, the coconuts can be obtained by whacking trees with Sora's wooden sword, the seagull egg is sitting on top of one of these coconut trees, and drinking water can be gathered from the freshwater spring near the wooden shack in the middle of the island.

Our hunt for mushrooms takes us into a new area known as the Secret Place, a hidden cave with scribbled drawings all over the walls and a mysterious locked door at its deepest point. While picking mushrooms, Sora spots a pair of drawings he and Kairi made of each other when they were both younger. His reminiscing causes him to take up a piece of chalk and add a new element to the piece - an outstretched hand from his face to hers, holding a paopu fruit. It's a beautifully understated moment that demonstrates Sora's feelings for Kairi may extend beyond friendship, accompanied by a gentle musical motif and using no voice-acting to ensure that Sora's actions speak for themselves. It's one of my favourite moments of storytelling in Kingdom Hearts.

Unfortunately it's all undone as quickly as it's built up. Sora's private moment is interrupted by the arrival of a cloaked, hooded figure who tells him that his world has been tied to the darkness and will soon be swallowed whole by it. The awkwardness of his vague dialogue is matched by Sora's false bravado, completely shifting the scene from something beautiful into something almost laughably cringe-worthy. After the nebulous figure finishes his speech he disappears, leaving Sora wondering if he simply imagined the whole thing. No point dwelling on any of that now, though - I need to get these provisions back to Kairi!

Back at the raft, Sora finds Kairi making a charm out of thalassa shells to bring them good luck on their voyage to other worlds. I think this dialogue might be new to the Final Mix version, as I don't recall it from any of my childhood playthroughs of the game, but unfortunately I don't have the original PS2 version to corroborate that claim. Without spoiling too much, it nicely foreshadows events surrounding the same good luck charm later in the game. After handing over the provisions, control is rescinded for another character-developing cutscene, this one solely between Sora and Kairi. It's a more honest and raw moment between the two characters as they let their cheery guards down, accompanied by the same musical motif as the previous scene in the Secret Place. It's yet another example of why the relationship between Sora and Kairi is one of my favourite things about this game.

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With the sun setting on another day on Destiny Islands, action shifts back to Disney Castle. We get to read the content of the letter left for Donald by King Mickey - several of the stars in the sky have been going out one by one, and he's left the kingdom on a journey to try and find out why. He can't be certain, but he suspects something sinister is afoot. He's tasked Donald and Goofy with finding someone with a special "key", the "key" to everyone's survival, and sticking with them on their quest. With the Queen's blessing, Donald and Goofy join up with the royal chronicler, Pinocchio's Jiminy Cricket, and head to the castle's Gummi Ship... Hangar? I guess you'd call it a hangar. On their way, they discuss the need to avoid muddling-- er, meddling in the affairs of other worlds while they travel. As the duo prepare for blast off, we're treated to one final visual gag - rather than shooting forwards out of the open hangar doors, royal engineers Chip and Dale open a trap door beneath the ship and send it plummeting out of the bottom of the world. I have to admit, this one still gets a little chuckle out of me even now, probably because of that trademark Goofy laugh as they descend. The ship regains its bearings, and Donald and Goofy set off through Gummi-space to the first stop on their journey...

As the action shifts back to Destiny Islands for the final time, Sora is sitting in his bedroom. He glances out of the window to see that a storm has struck the island. Fearing for the safety of the raft, Sora makes a break for the island to check on things, leaving his mother announcing "Dinner's ready!" to an empty room. I remember finding this scene really jarring the first time I played through the game, since my original impression of Destiny Islands was that it was an island paradise full of orphaned kids surviving Castaway-style, and suddenly here's Sora's mum calling him down for dinner. it makes perfect sense, of course - the island itself is just off the coast of a seaside town, and it's where Sora, Riku, Kairi and their friends go to play. It was just a little weird having those expectations built up in the game's opening hour or so, and then having them dashed with such a menial, ordinary occurrence.

Sora arrives on the island to find Riku's and Kairi's boats already docked (begging the question, why did they need to build a raft if they all have their own boats?), a huge glowing orb of darkness hanging in the sky, and the strange, shadow-like creatures from his dream swarming all over the island. His wooden sword is completely ineffective here, forcing me to run through the hordes of enemies spawning up out of the ground until I reach Riku. Looking up at the menacing ball of darkness, he announces that the door has opened and the darkness has come to take all three of them off the island. He offers a hand to Sora in much the same way as he did in the opening cinematic, except this time it's not water he's surrounded by, but darkness instead. Sora tries to take Riku's hand, but the pull of the darkness overwhelms them both. When Sora comes to, Riku is nowhere to be seen, and in his hand is a strange weapon - a sword shaped like a key. A Keyblade, as announced by the disembodied voices implied by the words all over the screen at this point.

Now equipped with a proper weapon, Sora can deal damage to the shadows popping up from under his feet. It makes for good practice, but the fact the enemies keep spawning infinitely means I eventually need to stop fighting and make a beeline for the next destination - the Secret Place, now sealed behind the same ornate door from Sora's dream. Inside the Secret Place, Sora meets up with Kairi, but something is wrong - she seems unresponsive, almost zombified. Before Sora can say or do anything, the door behind Kairi flings open, sending out a fresh wave of darkness that sweeps her up and carries her towards him. Sora tries to catch her, but as he wraps his arms around her, she vanishes. Now, I can't go into specifics here for fear of spoiling things before we've really begun, but I need to communicate the fact that this moment is very significant. We'll be referring back to it in future episodes, so don't forget about it.

Unable to withstand the torrent of darkness, Sora is carried out of the Secret Place and back onto the beach, where he witnesses the destruction that the darkness has wrought on his homeworld. Huge chunks of Destiny Islands have been sucked up into the glowing orb hanging above, and what little remains of the island is corrupted by the darkness. Getting to his feet, Sora turns to see the huge shadow from his dream standing behind him. Only this time, it's definitely not a dream...

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BOSS - Darkside - There isn't much to differentiate this Darkside fight from the previous one. It brings all its obviously-telegraphed moves from the previous fight, plus a couple of new ones too. It can now reach deep into the ground, a move which creates a shockwave similar to its fist attack, but with the added benefit of bringing its head closer to the ground and making it a much more viable target for Sora's attacks. The other new addition to its armoury is a charged attack which rains down slow-moving energy balls from above - these don't home in, don't deal much damage and are easy to dodge, making them more of a nuisance than anything else. As with its previous attack cycles, everything has a lengthy wind-up that gives Sora plenty of time to get a combo or two in before retreating to a safe distance. Once again, a loss here does not cause a Game Over state, but winning the battle is preferable for the experience points it yields.

Whether defeated or victorious, Darkside returns to the glowing ball of darkness from whence it came. Sora tries desperately to cling on, but the pull of the darkness is too much and he loses his grip, ascending into the menacing orb and disappearing along with Riku, Kairi, and the rest of the Destiny Islands, into the black void above...

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Here ends the first proper part of the Keyblade Chronicles. I was originally hoping for this initial entry to cover more of the game, but I decided to cut it short after seeing how lengthy it was becoming. I realise this is a very long blog and I apologise for that - I'll do my best to condense future entries into shorter entries. Despite the mixed tone of this blog covering the game's opening hours, I'm feeling optimistic about the series going forward. Join me again next Monday when I'll start digging deep into the next batch of worlds - Traverse Town, Wonderland, Olympus Coliseum and Deep Jungle. I'll also be taking a look at the early Gummi Ship portions of the game, including the missions exclusive to the Final Mix version. Until then, thanks very much for reading folks. Take care and I'll catch you next Monday for more of the Keyblade Chronicles.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (PS4)

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The Keyblade Chronicles: Final Mix

...well, that planned return to the blogosphere went swimmingly, didn't it?

Hey there folks. I know I said that I'd be returning to regular blogging in earnest from last month, and that was initially my intention, but I ended up getting diverted from that plan for a couple of reasons. One of them was family related, and while I can't go into any great detail on that front, I can at least say that everyone is okay and things have calmed down a little. The other reason for my silence is that I've been cooking up a very special something for all of you...

If you read my previous blog - and given the resounding indifference it was met with, I'm guessing that very few (if any) of you fall into that category - you may recall that one of my intentions was to dip my toes back into the serial blogging format that I came to be known for following such lengthy endeavours as Enduring Final Fantasy VII and A Month in Skyrim. For the last couple of months I've been toying with potential concepts for a new series. I had a few half-developed ideas, but nothing I felt like I could really commit to in a way that would entertain an audience.

Then, last month, everything fell into place.

The spark struck as I was watching one of the multiple trailers for Kingdom Hearts III released during E3. I have a complicated relationship with Tetsuya Nomura's Disney-fied action RPG franchise, one that I've previously documented in blog form here. The bottom line is, it's a series that I still have a lot of reverence for, and would like to further my experience with. To that end, I've picked up copies of both Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX and Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue on PlayStation 4, with the intention of playing through the whole series in the run-up to the release of Kingdom Hearts III. I figured I was going to have plenty of time to work my way through the whole saga, but while watching the aforementioned trailer, I was hit by something very unexpected - a concrete release date.

That's right folks - Kingdom Hearts III is scheduled for release on January 29th 2019. That gives me just under seven months to get to grips with the whole franchise in preparation for the end of Sora's epic adventure. So, I thought, why not document the whole journey in blog form for folks on the internet to read about? Ladies and gentlemen of Giant Bomb, I give you:

Since there's going to be more content now than there would have been if I'd done this back in 2015, let's just slap a Final Mix subtitle on this series for good measure, shall we?
Since there's going to be more content now than there would have been if I'd done this back in 2015, let's just slap a Final Mix subtitle on this series for good measure, shall we?

The Keyblade Chronicles is a project that I originally conceived back in 2015, but ended up postponing after burning out attempting three back-to-back playthroughs of the original Kingdom Hearts that year. Now that I've had some distance from it I feel ready to jump back in and experience the entire series. While three years may have passed, and the prospective journey has become a little longer, my intention remains the same - to play (almost) every game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise in release order, within the six-and-a-half months standing between the present day and the proposed release date of Kingdom Hearts III. Every week, most likely on a Monday, given the way my work and social schedules are aligned, I'll post a blog summarising my thoughts and feelings on various aspects of the games and the series as a whole up to that point. I'll be diving deep on gameplay, mechanics, characters, worlds, music and story in a way that's likely to be comparable to my previous blognum opus, Enduring Final Fantasy VII.

The order of play will be as follows:

1. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix

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The game that started it all, and the one that I have fondest enduring memories of. Kingdom Hearts follows Sora, an unassuming boy from a backwater island, who is thrust into an epic battle between Light and Darkness. Wielding the mysterious Keyblade, Sora journeys to many worlds in search of his lost friends Riku and Kairi, accompanied by Donald and Goofy as they seek their missing King. Unsurprisingly, the first game in the series establishes many of the franchise's mainstay features including real-time action combat, world-hopping exploration, and an overarching story centred on themes of friendship and strength of heart. While I'm most familiar with the original PlayStation 2 release, for the purpose of this series I'll be playing the Final Mix version included as part of HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX on the PS4.

Episode List:

  1. Parts 01-05 (Intro to Destiny Islands)
  2. Parts 06-09 (Traverse Town to Olympus Coliseum)
  3. Parts 10-13 (Deep Jungle to Phil Cup)
  4. Parts 14-17 (Agrabah to Monstro)
  5. Parts 18-?? (Coming soon...)

2. Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories

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Considered by many to be a spin-off game at the time of its release, Chain of Memories is very much a full-fledged Kingdom Hearts adventure that serves to bridge the story between the original game and its numbered sequel. Utilising a card-based combat system unique to this instalment, Chain of Memories follows Sora as he ventures deep into Castle Oblivion and confronts the mysterious Organization XIII for the first time. Originally released for the Game Boy Advance in 2004, the game was remade entirely in the Kingdom Hearts II engine and released on the PS2 with the new 'Re:Chain of Memories' subtitle in 2008. Unfortunately that release was exclusive to Japan and America, meaning this 3D remake didn't come to Europe until 2013, when it was jazzed up to high definition and included in the HD I.5 ReMIX collection. While I own the GBA original, I'll be playing Re:Chain of Memories as part of HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX on PS4 for this feature.

3. Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix

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This is where things are going to start getting interesting. Originally released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006, Kingdom Hearts II documents Sora's continued battle against the Heartless and Organization XIII. I've played through Kingdom Hearts II a grand total of once, largely due to never being able to bring myself to slog through that intro sequence again. Consequently, my memories of it aren't as vivid as those I have of the first game. I do recall this game feeling a lot more fluid and fun to play thanks to a myriad of refinements and new mechanics, but I also recall the story being kind of a jumbled mess - probably not helped by the fact I didn't play Chain of Memories before leaping in. The Keyblade Chronicles will mark my first full playthrough of the Final Mix version of the game, included within HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX on the PS4, and I'm looking forward to experiencing all the extra content added to this definitive version.

4. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

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Released in 2009 for the Nintendo DS, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (pronounced "three-five-eight-days-over-two") is the fourth game in the series, the third to release on a different platform, and the first to bear one of those unwieldy subtitles that the series has become so well known for. Another interquel, 358/2 Days begins near the end of the original Kingdom Hearts and runs right up to the start of Kingdom Hearts II. It explores the full backstory of Roxas, the protagonist of KHII's much-maligned Prologue chapter, and sheds a bit more light on the motives and machinations of Organization XIII. This is the first of many games on this list that I've never played before, and so represents the start of my incredibly deep planned descent into the full Kingdom Hearts canon. Since the HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX collection on PS4 only represents 358/2 Days as a cut-scene movie, I'll be dusting off my old DS to experience this one in a playable format.

5. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Final Mix

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Perhaps the game I'm most looking forward to playing as part of this endeavour. Birth by Sleep is another misrepresented "spin-off" title that actually serves to further flesh out the franchise's extended universe. Released in 2010 on the PlayStation Portable (taking the series to five different games across four different platforms), Birth by Sleep is set ten years before the events of the original Kingdom Hearts and follows the exploits of three young Keyblade masters named Ventus, Terra and Aqua as they set the wheels in motion for the events of the entire franchise. Held in the same high esteem as the two main console instalments by many of the series' most devoted fans, this feels like the piece of the puzzle that I most regret missing on its original release. Thankfully the HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX collection on PS4 gives me a chance to experience it in glorious high definition on my first go round, not to mention including a bunch of Final Mix content previously unreleased for a Western audience.

6. Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded

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Originally released as a Japan-only mobile phone game in 2008 under the name Kingdom Hearts: Coded, this black sheep of the Kingdom Hearts franchise was remade from the ground up for the Nintendo DS and released as Re:Coded in 2011. My knowledge of this game is sketchy at best, but I believe it's set shortly after the events of Kingdom Hearts II and features a digital version of Sora trying to recover fragments of Jiminy's lost journals. Not the most highly-revered entry in the series by any means, even many purists would argue that the cut-scene movie included with the HD I.5 & II.5 ReMIX collection on PS4 provides you with everything you need to know without subjecting you to the frustration of actually playing it. To those people, I say they're missing the point of this feature - much like 358/2 Days, I'll be playing the DS release of this one in order to report back on the full experience.

7. Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD

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Here is where my journey would have ended had I pursued it all the way to completion back in 2015. Originally released for the Nintendo 3DS in 2012, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is comparable to Chain of Memories - an interquel released on a handheld with the intention of bridging the gap between two main-line console entries (in this case, Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts III). I've done my best to avoid spoilers while researching for this series, but I gather that Dream Drop Distance focuses on both Sora and Riku as they prepare for some kind of Keyblade mastery exam, and features a much-praised FlowMotion traversal system that makes exploration and combat even more fast-paced and exciting. Since originally conceiving the Keyblade Chronicles, Dream Drop Distance has seen an HD release (dropping the '3D' from its moniker in the process) as part of the HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue collection on PS4, and it's that version I'll be playing for this feature.

8. Kingdom Hearts Χ Back Cover

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The release of HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue also brings two whole new pieces of Kingdom Hearts content to consume in preparation for Kingdom Hearts III, the first being Χ Back Cover. Based on events from the mobile game Kingdom Hearts: Unchained Key, or Union Cross, or KHUX, whatever they're calling it at the moment, Χ Back Cover is a cut-scene movie that serves to fill in more gaps in the overarching Kingdom Hearts lore by backpedalling over a hundred years into the past. Persistent mobile games really aren't my thing, so while I have zero intention of playing KHUX, for this feature I'm hoping that this movie will tell me all I need to know in preparation for the final chapter in Sora's story.

9. Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage

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The final piece of HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue's confusingly-named puzzle is the even more confusingly named Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage. As the name seems to suggest, I believe this is a bite-sized chunk of Kingdom Hearts content that serves two purposes. First, to wrap up some perceived loose ends in the story of the original release of Birth by Sleep in preparation for Kingdom Hearts III. And second, to give all of us eager beavers a taste of the gameplay we can expect from Kingdom Hearts III when it releases. I guess I'll find out exactly what it is when I eventually get around to playing it.

And finally...

10. Kingdom Hearts III

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The game that all of this is leading up to. The game that should (and hopefully will) bring Sora's lengthy journey to its intended conclusion. Given this entire endeavour is born from the intention of being ready to play Kingdom Hearts III when it finally releases, it would be remiss of me not to include it here. I'll be playing the PlayStation 4 version of Kingdom Hearts III when it comes out, and you can be sure that I'll be documenting every single facet of my playthrough to provide the Keyblade Chronicles with the dénouement it will no doubt deserve. Recent trailers suggest Sora, Donald and Goofy will be exploring new worlds based on Tangled, Frozen, Toy Story and Monsters Inc., as well as returning to established franchise mainstays including Olympus Coliseum, Port Royal, and Twilight Town. This is what it's all leading up to, and I am pretty darn excited about it. Whether I'll still be excited on January 29th remains to be seen...

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And thus, the Keyblade Chronicles is born anew. It's going to be a really interesting and exciting journey, in some cases revisiting games that I haven't played for a long time, and in many cases experiencing titles that I've never played before, all in service of being ready for a thing that I'm not even sure is for me any more. I hope you'll bundle into my Gummi ship and come along for the ride - I promise I'll do my utmost to make it as entertaining as possible. You can expect the first entry, covering the first sections of the original Kingdom Hearts, to arrive a week on Monday, on the 23rd July. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (PS4)

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