It’s no secret the game industry is one that loves a good series. Companies tend to hold on to their successful properties for dear life and shake every last penny out of the things. This sort of development can sometimes lead to interesting experiments in gameplay (see: Assassin’s Creed introducing of multiplayer), but can also lead to fans getting burnt out if the gameplay doesn’t have enough new ideas from game-to-game. And it’s the same case with story. When so much effort is being put into evolving one series, it’s an opportunity to investigate different corners of that universe and seeing it from new perspectives. However, there’s also a giant risk of making the player feel like what he’s doing is merely unimportant filler, especially if you’re trying to tell one major story and treating individual games more like chapters than self-contained stories in their own right.
There’s a definite risk vs. reward aspect when you’re dealing with a series. Just because something starts strong doesn’t necessarily mean it will end strong. With these ideas in mind, I would like you to join me as we look back at a series that’s a personal favorite of mine, and figure out where it has gone right and where it has gone wrong as we get closer to the release of its next installment: Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance.
Let’s look back at the Kingdom Hearts series.
(2002) Kingdom Hearts
For as much as I like the games now, I admittedly didn’t believe this brand experiment was going to work in any way at the time. I liked Disney and I liked some Square stuff at this point, but the whole idea really seemed like a partnership created by lunatics.
Yet, somehow Kingdom Hearts remains probably one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever had as a gamer. It had the problems of clunky combat, awful platforming, and a rather cliche cast of original characters consisting of Sora (the goodie-goodie hero), Riku (The goodie-goodie hero’s best friend but inevitably becomes an evil jerk), and Kairi (the goodie-goodie hero’s bland girlfriend). That being said, the story tackled some interesting, albeit strange ideas, and the Disney worlds and characters served as an excellent vehicle to experience it. There really aren’t any other games that puts you in these memorable settings as well the KH games do and captures the spirit of what you loved about them. And even though the characters are not necessarily the most interesting at this point (the characters do get more interesting as the games continue), you almost have to forgive that as they do adapt well enough to the whimsical settings.
The gameplay also does improve the more you get comfortable with it. Even for as slow as the combat starts out as, it really picks up with the more abilities you get, and by the end there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment in taking the main character Sora from somebody who can barely swing a stick to somebody who is doing some crazy triple-flip slash with a giant key.
Overall, I still give the game a thumbs up. It has its rough edges, and definitely hasn’t aged well in comparison to later titles, but it built a solid foundation for the rest of the games to build off of.
(2004) Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
While the ending to Kingdom Hearts left little doubt that there was going to be a direct sequel, I don’t think anybody was expecting it to be this GBA game. But while it didn’t carry the title Kingdom Hearts II, this game was by no means the portable filler we were all used to. In fact, this is where the series started to shoot itself in the foot in terms of keeping the story accessible (which may not be the best thing for when you’re only two games in). Despite often revisiting old worlds, the setting of Castle Oblivion and what occurs there continue to pop up in the series fairly often, and the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II doesn’t make the most sense if fans didn’t pick this game up.
Frankly, though, they should have picked it up, because Chain of Memories is the under-appreciated gem of the series in my opinion. Its card-based battle system managed to keep the pace of an action RPG, but adds a satisfying level of strategy to it. It required you to manage your deck efficiently and pay attention to each action you take. Even navigating the world required you to consider what cards you were going to use to progress. There’s a whole lot more thought being thrown into the gameplay, but it still feels like a Kingdom Hearts game. The pace wasn’t slowed down too drastically (not including obvious hardware limitations) to accommodate this change, and the result is probably my favorite game from a gameplay perspective. The game also got a PS2 remake, which brought the gameplay to the graphical style of the first and second game, and it was also very good.
But for as much as I love the gameplay, I have to admit that it’s not entirely the best idea to make your portable title practically mandatory-reading if storytelling is one of your priorities. I mean, the game introduced and killed multiple characters, and if you didn’t play it for yourself, you were just given some text in maybe an instruction manual. For the people who missed out on this one, they were already getting confused about the plot this early in the series.
And it won’t be the last that we’ll see of that sort of confusion as this discussion continues.
And with that, tune in next Tuesday for Part 2, where we’ll see what Kingdom Hearts delivers for the actual sequel we’ve been expecting, and where it would all go from there. Will it be onwards and upwards from humble beginnings? Or will we begin to see the franchise start to stumble?Posted in Op Ed by Ben Matlock on July 10, 2012