In-Depth Thoughts On Kingdom Hearts (the first one)

Kingdom Hearts

I did it. It took me a fair few weeks and nearly 80 hours of gameplay but I did it. I recieved my copy of KINGDOM HEARTS -HD 1.5 ReMIX- on the day of release, Friday 13th September and I got my Platinum Trophy on the first game in the collection, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, at about 25 past 4 in the morning on Saturday 5th October. Here’s the obligatory photo I upload to Twitter to rub it in:

Would be more ‘rubby-inny’ if I was actually in the photo but when you have seconds to take the photo when the Trophy pops you don’t have time to work on the mise-en-scene and the posing

So, after all this I think I’m pretty qualified to go in-depth with my thoughts on the original game; hows it held up over the years, the Final Mix content, the HD remastering and the series as a whole.  I mean, I have a Kingdom Hearts crown necklace I proudly wear all the time.

I’m going to break this up sub-sections: Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, Final Mix Additions and 10+ Years On before not rounding up how much of a success I think the whole endeavour has been.

-Graphics-

This is usually the easiest area to start with because its the gaming equivalent of judging a book by its cover. A lot of gaming fans obsess over graphics rather than content, which is always annoying in a debate. That’s a whole other blog post in waiting (I’m starting to get a list now) so I’ll keep this focused. Squaresoft/Square Enix games have often prided themselves on their appearance, especially their flagship franchises. Not just on a technical level, but the art design, direction of cutscenes, pioneering the FMV and miscellaneous things like menu and HUD layout. But as a fast-moving medium, games can age very quickly so let’s take a look at how the first Kingdom Hearts holds up and what Square did and didn’t do with this HD remastering.

Kingdom Hearts was (is) character designer and artists Tetsuya Nomura‘s first foray into directing and this game has his directorial style stamped all over it; something that would only go on to evolve throughout this series and the creep into the Final Fantasy franchise with Advent Children and Dissidia. The cut scenes contain lots of well-timed use of motion blur as well as gravity defying physics and camera work. There are plenty of really awesome looking particle effects and the camera work in cut scenes is very cinematic.There are lots of visual motifs, especially in the outfits and accessories like jewellery the characters wear to the first appearance of Sephiroth’s one angel wing.

The physical wing in Sephiroth’s ‘normal’ form reappeared in FFVII: Advent Children, and in Crisis Core they took the symbolism and ran with it to the moon. I loved it, of course.

Speaking of Sephiroth, PSone era Final Fantasy characters like Cloud, Aerith and Squall make the transition to more realistically proportioned, PS2 character models – the first time we’ve got to see them in such detail. For me as a twelve year old (or however old I was when I first played the game) this was the thing that really got me into the series. The costume redesigns go from subtle (Aerith loses her jacket) to cool (Squall gets longer hair and swaps fur for buckles whilst Cloud wears fellow FFVII hero Vincent’s vampiric outfit coupled with a bandaged Buster Sword) to terrible (Yuffie doesn’t look right in Rikku’s outfit and I understand Cid swapping his cigs for a stick but his outfit is plain). Obviously this is to fit in with the ‘Final Fantasy meets Disney‘ aethestic, which neatly leads us onto:

Kingdom Hearts Pooh

The simple and clean (reference!) style of Disney animation was really brought to life by the game’s graphics engine. So many of the characters make the jump from animation to 3D video game perfectly, and the settings based on different films allows a range of different worlds and art styles to mesh. The blanket of fog and cross-hatching textures in the world based off The Nightmare Before Christmas benefit especially well from the HD remaster. Whilst I played this game for the Final Fantasy, it was the Disney worlds that really are the meat of this game, and the art style of the House of Mouse influences the original character designs and the Final Fantasy re-designs, giving the whole game a coherent feel, despite the disparate elements thrown into this pot.

So, there’s a lot to like about the game’s graphics, on an artistic and technical level. Thankfully much of it holds up now. The HD remaster really brings out the vibrant use of colour and those aforementioned particle effects. Playing through again though, and having experienced more games in the series since, you notice how small and sometimes empty the worlds actually are. Neverland is a just a series of similar looking rooms and corridors, the ship’s deck and the clock tower – although it is awesome to fly around a digital recreation of Big Ben, and fight one of the secret bosses there too. Apart from the film’s characters, there are no NPCs to talk to or interact with in most of the worlds, something that gets more noticeable in games like Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance where crowds witnessing the event of a monster attack are implied by audio of gasps and whatnot, rather than having anyone in the background. Luckily, most of the worlds are well designed, containing lots of collectables and secrets: Wonderland‘s Bizarre Room can be entered from different doors and each time a different wall is your floor (if that makes sense).

The biggest problem facing the game, if you’ll pardon the pun, are the faces. To save memory, in the original game the characters in cut scenes would switch from high-resolution full moving faces to what I like to call ‘derp face’.

Kingdom Hearts derp face

Multiple times, in the same scene and sometimes even from one camera cut to another, a character’s face can go from looking like a normal person (in a game with cartoony graphics) to flat and very creepy. It’s a problem that plagued Sqaure’s games at the time, including Final Fantasy X and X-2. Although screenshots and trailers seemed to promise us that the character models had all been upscaled and in some cases, replaced with the ones from last year’s 3DS entry, this graphical problem remains and is more noticeable than ever. There have been comparisons of official screenshots released by Square and screencaps from in-game footage from the remaster where ‘derp face’ still exists in game and the screenshots have the higher-resolution models. It does make me feel slightly cheated and I’m a little bit apprehensive about the upcoming FFX/X-2 HD Remaster pulling the same stunt. I know they cut a few corners – heck, the DS game 358/2 Days was only included as a collection of cutscenes as opposed to a full game which the developers cited reduces the wait for Kingdom Hearts III – but you’d think they take more care, especially considering the effort put into…

– Sound –

Whilst never being as special to me as the music of the FF series, composer Yoko Shimomura wrote some excellent pieces for the Kingdom Hearts franchise. The Disney worlds are all represented by themes either lifted from the films themselves or sounding just right for where you are: the Deep Jungle music is suitably jungle-y whilst ‘Under the Sea’ plays in instrumental form in Atlantica, for example – try not humming along, its impossible.  Much of, if not all the music has been re-recorded with proper instrumentation as opposed to synthesised instruments limited by the PS2’s sound capabilities. To be honest, a lot of tracks I couldn’t tell a massive different just listening through TV speakers but no track has been massively altered. I noticed there is some added electric guitar during the music for the sparring matches against the Destiny Islands kids, and there’s a short but sweet ‘click click’ sound from the Monstro world track that’s missing in this new version but it’s all good. There’s a great sense of nostalgia from hearing these tracks again, especially my favourites which are the themes for Hollow Bastion and End of the World.

The voice acting hasn’t been touched and on the whole that’s a good thing. Many Disney voices from the films, or their official stand-ins lend their voices to the game and it really adds to the authenticity. You get to beat up Brian Blessed, James Woods and Gilbert Gottfried (who I cannot hear again without thinking of his Fifty Shades of Grey spoof), what’s better than that? The original characters are also well-cast, especially Billy Zane (of Titanic fame) providing one of the best evil villain voices EVER as Ansem. Seriously his voice is so dark and sexy I’m just going to link you to a clip now:

(The first 2 minutes contains a fantastic villain speech expertly delivered and an example of the ‘derp face’ back and forth-ing)

The Final Fantasy characters are more of a mixed bag. Being able to hear Cloud and Sephiroth speak for the first time was another massive draw to the series for me and the game even promoted it, with celebrities like Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s Angel himself doing the voice of Squall from FFVIII. Contrary to popular belief, I think Lance Bass (from *NSYNC) does a REALLY good voicing Sephiroth. Sure he sounds like a much younger incarnation, but his voice (with some echo effects and possibly other studio trickery) has that overconfidence that is perfectly for easily the hardest boss battle in the game. Just listen to the arrogance as he taunts you with his whirlwind slash attack: “Dodge this!” he yells as he leaps at you with an attack that is pretty impossible to dodge (blocking, however…). Steve Burton has carried on voicing Cloud in every English appearance since this and he really gets the character right, even if he’s a little stiff and his ‘HURGH’ as he continually uses Sonic Blade can get a bit annoying. I really hate the voices of Selphie and especially Wakka, however. I know they are really small roles and Selphie is THE stock perky-girl character but her voice grates me whilst normally excellent voice actor Dee Bradley Baker does a terrible Indian sounding accent and delivers his lines with the weirdest pauses this…

sideofWilliamShatner.

– Gamplay –

Over ten years and many entries in the franchise later, the gameplay is probably what has aged the most. Playing the original after Birth By Sleep the battle system feels clunky, a bit stiff and lacking in options. But that’s not to say it isn’t fun. Because it really is, after all this time. In fact after getting my Platinum Trophy I moved onto re:Chain of Memories and couldn’t get to grips with that game’s card system. It was too slow, I wanted to button bash!

Yep, Kingdom Hearts is a button basher, but on higher difficulties and with some of the challenges the trophies present its much more than that. It’s about knowing when to button bash, when to block and dodge and when to use the right magic or items for healing, upping your defence or hitting a weak spot. When I was younger I never bothered with spells like Gravity or Aero, but loved to spam Fire and Thunder. Now I’ve realised how useless the latter two spells are and how much of a life-saver it is having a shield up to save you from nasty attacks and being able to pick the largest enemy in the crowd and knock off a large percent of their health right away. I even found out Gravity was useful in a certain boss battle to drag the platform your opponent stands on in the middle of them casting a spell, therefore interrupting the attack and making them audibly exclaim their surprise. It’s the little things like that make the battles more intelligent than a brainless button basher.

Bosses range in being very good to really dull. Some giant ones like Cerberus and Rock Titan from Hercules, and Behemoths from Final Fantasy should be really imposing encounters but you just jump up to their weak points hack away endlessly. Yawn. Sword fights in small, contained areas are a lot more thrilling and one infamous story boss in particular requires mastering blocking at the right time. Only Wonderland and Monstro have you fight themed Heartless bosses instead of Disney villains to beat the world, which becomes more of a common occurrence later on in the series. The Disney bosses are a highlight and being able to do things like knock Captain Hook into the water, where the Crocodile with the ticking clock awaits, makes him go berserk and jump high into the air, crying “You’ll not get me other hand!!”. Its this sense of whimsical fun that really makes me appreciate having the Disney worlds there, even if they can be a case of just ‘go here, see this cutscene, go do this, see another cutscene, boss battle, cutscene’. Nostalgia made me think that the Disney worlds were a lot longer and more engrossing when I played them before, but maybe I spent so much time trying to finish them because I sucked. Doing a speedrun really makes you realise how short some of them can be.

At least you are fun in the sequel…

There are a few mini games dotted about, things like a Super Fun Happy Slide in the Jungle level and the Gummi Ship (more on that later) which are pretty fun. Then there’s the 10 Acre Wood. Its horrible. I totally suck at nearly all of these mini games, which I will blame on silly controls. Getting the required scores to unlock Sora’s ability Cheer (which is useless anyway) and items for bouncing these rare enemies called Rare Truffles 50 and 100 times are the only things I haven’t done. And I have mastered being able to beat Sephiroth. Like, I know how to counter and defend against each of his moves inside out. But the Tigger’s Giant Pot minigame? Never again.

It’s not really a mini-game as opposed to a series of fights, but I love the Colosseum. I’m glad its a recurring feature in the games, letting you fight Heartless bosses, Hercules and Final Fantasy characters at you whim. The solo and time trial modes are also a good test of your combat skills, though not as much as the secret bosses such as the Phantom, who takes a lot of thinking and preparation (or a good guide) to work out what to do.

So, the gameplay has aged and isn’t as smooth or fast as later games but its still a lot of fun. The clunkiness is part of the challenge you could say. The Final Mix version and HD remaster add a few changes to make things easier, which is what I’m covering next.

– Final Mix changes- 

I’m lumping in the gameplay changes added in the HD version here, since they’re too small for their own section despite being quite significant. Let’s get them out of the way. First of all the camera controls are moved from L2 and R2 to the right analogue stick. Thank God. This is a staple of modern game design and makes controlling the camera – which likes to get stuck behind things, especially in platforming sections – a lot easier to manage. The second change is another one retroactively added from Kingdom Hearts II (infinity) and beyond (see what I did there?); Reaction commands. Well, not really the way they are used in latter games, as a QTE event function but only using button, but for talking to people, opening chests and performing special moves like Ragnarok and Strike Raid (my personal favourite and godsend). Rather than having to move the menu to the bottom option and tap X, then X again to follow up the move with further strikes, you can just mash triangle. One gameplay element in this game never used in the series again is the ‘call’ function, where pressing triangle makes Donald and Goofy do stuff, usually attack and come to your position. This feature isn’t removed so when doing your special moves, they attack as well. This has caused a bit of controversy amongst fans when it comes to trying to perform a 100-hit combo solo on an enemy for a special prize since your teammates decrease the count. Naturally people have found workarounds so its all good.

This enemy with the special prize is one of the Final Mix additions, one of nearly a dozen new rare Heartless. Seeking them out is one thing, but figuring out how to beat them and gain their rewards can be more difficult than the final boss, especially if you encounter one just after the difficulty spike after Hollow Bastion. First time I encountered one of the Sniperwild enemies, I rushed in and attacked, not realising I had triggered an alarm which meant an infinite amount of them spawned and battered me with really powerful targeted attacks. Their rare rewards are necessary for the synthesis quest, which has been expanded and made a lot more involving than the original version. It definitely adds a lot of extra hours playtime to this package.

Bane of my life.

Another time-consuming aspect on the road to the Platinum trophy are the Gummi Missions. In the original I did tinker around with building my own awesome ship once I had the collection from the Dalmatians but mostly just did the Gummi routes once to get to each world and used the Warp function from then on in. But now, each world had 3 missions with strict challenges to pass them. Whether its collecting an amount of a certain collectable, not hitting anything, not taking damage or building a ship with a certain amount of parts and trying to one or more of these other requirements. A lot of people wrote the Gummi segments off as pointless and dull but the Missions really unlock the potential of the mini-game. I actually really enjoyed tinkering with different ship types and memorising the courses to master the missions, despite me looking at the trophy list and initially thinking “I’m never going to do those, I don’t play Kingdom Hearts 
for the GUMMI SHIP!”

Trophies are obviously a requirement for PS3 games and they really make you get the most out of this game for Platinum. Not only must you do all the original content, but experience all the Final Mix extras such as the Heartless, Gummi missions, new weapons and collectables but you must always play through the game on the Final Mix hard difficulty: Proud Mode. Finishing the game on Proud was my last trophy and there were many close calls. Luckily, a new Final Mix ability (that I first saw in the normal version of KHII) makes it that much less nightmarish. Leaf Bracer is a move that makes you invincible during the casting of a Cure spell and by GOD did I need it. There are many other useful abilities such as Encounter Plus to help find the rare Heartless (see how it all ties in? I like that.) and things like Zantetsuken, Ripple Drive and Hurricane Blast to add more spice to combat.  Other trophies include playing the game in less than 15 hours, not changing equipment ONCE and never using a continue. This can make even the Beginner mode a challenge, which is why on Final Mix you get some EXP and defense boosting accessories pre-equipped and some stat boosting items at the start to help you along.

The new Final Mix secret boss, Unknown, and story sequences involving Riku add to the overall narrative and lay threads for the sequels. Like films that have special editions with added scenes, I always like revisiting things and seeing more of the world added in (why I’m one of the few supporters of Lucas adding in extra bits to his Star Wars films). Sadly, the new cutscenes aren’t voice which is weird since most focus on Riku and his actors voice hasn’t changed much at all, unlike Sora. The cutscene before the Unknown fight just splices earlier sound clips of Sora’s dialogue together, which is amusing. Overall, there was enough Final Mix new content to make the game feel fresh, and took up a good amount of my playtime. I’m chomping at the bit for the next HD collection, because Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix has a bucketload more new content that will finally be translated from Japanese.

Kingdom Hearts Unknown

I know what lurks under that Black Coat. A large ham…

Oh, and a lot of the Heartless have been re-coloured. Some of them look great, and it’s nice to playthrough the game again with a variety in enemy colour from the typical blues and reds but the spray-paint flame designs of the Behemoths were disgusting.

– 10+ Years On –

Its safe to say after all this time, I still really enjoy the first Kingdom Hearts. It’s probably the best paced of the games, easing you in and raising the difficulty enough to test you but never overwhelm you if you learnt all the mechanics. The story is quite self-contained, and the Disney villains are the main focus right until the last few hours whereas they seemed like padding in other entries. Moreso, the story is focused and it hasn’t yet let the crazy mythology spiral out of control into a convoluted mess of time travel, alternate universes, Nobodies, Unversed, mistaken identities, silly acronyms and everything else. The worlds feel a bit sparse, but you can put that down to limitations of the time and they are probably the most packed full of secrets and things to find with the Dalmatians and Trinities. The combat is similarly simpler, but not in the same ‘less is more’ way as the plot yet its never not fun. The incredible art style and graphics hold up really well today, except for the hugely disappointing ‘derp face’ problem not being rectified but highlighted by HD remaster. The music and voice acting is still mostly fantastic, I could listen to the Traverse Town theme or Billy Zane’s speeches for ages. The value of this package makes it worth a pick up alone. The trophies, Final Mix and HD reMIX changes refresh the game enough to warrant spending a lot of time in the magical world of this crazy Disney and Final Fantasy mashup called Kingdom Hearts. If you’ve never experience it before, I really recommend you do. Maybe it won’t be as precious to you as it has been to me and many others, because it was a part of our formative years but hopefully you’ll never be bored.

I doubt that’ll be in issue though.

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New Music Video! ‘Work Bxxch’ by Britney Spears.

I’m not going to lie, I’ve been feeling pretty run-down, constantly tired and therefore uninspired to write the last two week and a half weeks. New Miley Cyrus video? meh. It’s all been said. Kingdom Hearts HD? Too busy playing it. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD? Seems a bit of a touchy subject amongst people I know, not sure I want to fan flames further (:P). Breaking Bad finale? I’ve never watched an episode, please don’t hurt me.

But anyone who knows me AT ALL knows how much I absolutely loathe ‘Scream & Shout’ by will.i.am and Britney Spears. The production sounded like an unfinished demo, will.i.am’s auto-tuned lyrics are typically dreadful, there hooks are weak and I don’t even know what Britney was doing with that accent. The worst thing was is that the song was (and still is) massive. I hear it in work all the time, and whilst flicking through the music channels last week, Conor Maynard listed it as number 2 (or 3, I forget) on his ‘greatest collaborations ever’ show.

The all-time great collaborations: Sonny and Cher. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Queen and David Bowie. Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. and finally: will.i.am and Britney (bitch). Yeah, no.

EVER. Are you serious?!? Not that I care much for anything Conor Maynard does anyway but I don’t understand why everyone was/is mad about it.

OK, well I have a clue: will.i.am. He’s a really big deal over here. It probably would have sold massively whether it was Britney wailing (keyword) over the chorus or any other female singer – just look at ‘This Is Love’, the only reason people know Eva Simons is that song a few years ago everyone thought was Lady Gaga and Rihanna teaming up. So naturally, the ‘Do Somethin” star enlisted will.i.am to executive produce her newest studio album, because she’s onto her 8th now and she wants it to be very emotional.

Seems like the natural choice.

If you haven’t heard lead single ‘Work Bitch’ before, then it’s basically a sequel to ‘Scream & Shout’ but with only Britney on vocals. So: godawful lyrics, that stupid faux-British accent, droning beat and the sound of me crying in the corner singing ‘Everytime’ to myself, thinking about the better days.

But this post is about the music video, which literally debuted about 20 minutes ago online and combined with the song, riled me into writing my first post in weeks. I’ve written this before watching the video so I’m going to leave my cynicism behind (and I’m being a massive keyboard warrior tonight, it’s a bit unlike me – back with a vengeance!). The ‘Femme Fatale’ era (her last album) might have sounded like Spears had no input whatsoever, but 3 out of the 4 music videos were really, really, really good. So there’s hope for this one. Britney may not really care about the music (I don’t know her so I honestly couldn’t say) but her team around her surely must know what they’re doing at least some of the time and disguise a turgid song with a good video, right?!?

See you on the other side…

Oh dear.

Let’s get the good out the way: 1) the desert sequences remind me of Spice Girls ‘Say You’ll Be There’ and Sugababes ‘About A Girl’ so that’s something. 2) She wears a nice dress in the pool sequence. 3) will.i.am doesn’t appear. 4) It’s not got a #toteshipster Instagram filter over the top of it (looking at you, MKS).

That’s about it.

The dancing is just… really stifled and awkward. I wasn’t expecting incredible moves but it’s like the ‘Til The World Ends’ video all over again (the one bad video out of the four from her last album campaign) but it just looks a bit rubbish. The whole S&M/bondage/Fifty Shades stuff feels even more forced, not to mention something that just feels out of date now (kind of like the song with the EDM). It’s trying to be ‘sexy’ and ‘edgy’ without any real point, except maybe ‘I’M STILL RELEVANT!’

Britney sits in front of a mirror with her perfume beside her, again. It was annoying the first however many times so stop now please. The rest of the product placement isn’t so blatant; there’s an ad in the background for her Vegas shows and one of the bound and gagged men has some sort of beats thingy in his mouth. So it’s not frequent, but in the latter case, its still stupid.

How did I forget to mention the product placement of the 'Boo-gar-tee' and 'Lam-boo-geenie'?

How did I forget to mention the product placement of the ‘Boo-gar-tee’ and ‘Lam-boo-geenie’?

But my favourite (and by that, I mean laughably bad) bit is when Britney proves her cultural relevance by getting the dodgy CGI-rendered sharks from Sharknado to… swim around Britney in the pool unconvincingly. Well, done everyone.

These sharks are most definitely in there with her, there can be no mistake...

These sharks are most definitely in there with her, there can be no mistake…

So, dodgy dance routines, out-of-place looking aquatic killers, out-of-place popstar, over-the-top bondage all brought together in a package I don’t think is technically edited and framed very well either. My verdict: everyone involved in this video needs to go back to class, learn what to do and how to do it properly and THEN get back to work.

Bitches.