Sunday, June 11, 2017

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts (PS2)

Note: Please excuse the imbalance of quality for screenshots here; for whatever reason, viable screenshots of earlier PS2 game are especially hard to find. 

Dear readers not familiar with Kingdom Hearts, I implore you to look, just look, at the cover above. Yes, that is Goofy and Donald Duck of Disney fame chilling in the moody, moonlit sky alongside three anime teenagers. Their normally-cheery faces are now solemn, decorated with such wistful melancholy that does away with their kid-friendly personas, evoking an aura of maturity never before displayed to the public eye.

Needless to say, Kingdom Hearts was one of the most bizarre debuts of the PS2/GC/Xbox era, and yet somehow it ended up being one of the most beloved. A collaboration between Disney and famed RPG developer Squaresoft (now Square-Enix), the 2002 action-RPG's outlandish concept of pitting Disney icons and zipper-laden, key-wielding adolescents against Disney villains in command of heart-harvesting shadows--a tale bookended by Hikaru Utada pop songs, mind--is so uniquely ludicrous that it demands your attention. But why?

My theory? By framing itself as a "darker" take on Disney, Kingdom Hearts ropes in the nostalgic RPG player who once associated with their films in early youth. I am no exception to this: the game was responsible for restarting my fervent following in Disney animation, the soundtrack never left my CD player and I clocked out the "Hours Played" stat in the course of a year. Since then, my association with Kingdom Hearts has floundered over the years: it birthed as an obsession that required a near-intervention, followed by a burning hate that wanted nothing more to do with the series, and am now settled as a casual fan who partakes in it like the finest of junk food.

And yet throughout all three phases, it's never ceased in fascinating me. While presented with the prestige of a typical Square title, what's stunning about the original Kingdom Hearts is despite being in possession of highs unique to the series, it consists of a shockingly embarrassing balance between being a professional AAA product and sloppy, freshman-effort design. This imbalance provides an ever-shifting sense of quality, from irredeemably awful lapses in gameplay (most anything involving the Gummi Ship) to moments that achieve the masterpiece status it desperately wants to be (Yoko Shimomura's score, tied with Super Mario RPG as her absolute finest work).

Needless to say, these flaws undermine any pretentious ambitions Kingdom Hearts prides itself on accomplishing, right down to the menu trailer being accompanied by an orchestrated Utada cover. However, they don't necessarily undermine that it's fun to play; actually, just playing it reveals a pretty great game underneath all its flubs. At its core, Kingdom Hearts is a competent work that's in a constant tug-and-pull to prove its own worth: where one element fails, something else is almost guaranteed to instantly pick it up.

What better place to start than the world design? In that case, the Alice in Wonderland segment is absolutely the finest example; like, what's going on with the Queen's Castle courtroom? Are technical limitations are what's behind it literally being shaped like a box, or are the castle and its courtyard being painted on a wall a stylistic choice much like her painted roses? I mean, I'd have to guess it's the former, considering it didn't look anything like that in the movie. And that's hardly the end of it: what's behind the Mad Hatter and the March Hare pantomiming from a painting? Last I checked, they were alive and well, yet their ghastly 2D expressions are needlessly confusing and creepy.

It's something of a contextual mess even by the standards of the source material, and yet gameplay-wise, it is absolutely deep. Echoing the absurdity of the 1951 classic, characters grow in size, furniture pops out of walls, and even falling down that hole can reverse all sense of direction. Likely the first world players will encounter, it's impressive just how much there is to uncover within such a relatively confined area, especially when considering the gradual acquisition of new abilities (can you say, gliding?).

 One of the aforementioned unique highs of the original Kingdom Hearts is a vital touch the sequels sadly dropped: coming to life via interaction. The individual Disney worlds aren't merely levels to be cleared, but can poked around to one's pleasure. There's a veritable amount of little touches, be it Jane's camp experiments in Tarzan's Deep Jungle, the 1:1 recreation of Winnie the Pooh's house in the 100 Acre Wood, or the gift-granting clocks of Peter Pan's Big Ben. Make no mistake: the weird de-emphasis on NPCs outside the films' casts has the eerie side-effect of portraying the worlds as deserted Disney theme parks (a problem that'll only continue to grow, as we'll eventually learn in later entries), but in terms of gameplay, they never feel more alive than here.

It goes to show just much love Square put into the worlds, even if the actual platforming is a little clunky. Yes, jumping and poking around nooks and crannies is pretty fun, but not so much when you're forced into most other alternate means of movement, be it swimming or climbing. Some are better than others: as expected, soaring over Captain Hook's Ship and around Big Ben is a blast, whereas the stiff vine-swinging in Deep Jungle do all but fail to undermine the density of Tarzan's home. In this regard, The Little Mermaid's Atlantica ends up the game's one true stinker; no, it's not the commonly-cited swimming controls that are the problem, but rather that it's an in-navigable mess that not even the wall-carved trident markers can solve.

Combat, too, presents an interesting juxtaposition of quality: there's the magic, for one, and how it ranges from the absolutely vital (Cure and Aero) to the absolutely useless (summons, which barring Tinker Bell are either too gimmicky or too weak to be worthwhile). Meanwhile, the aforementioned clunky platforming can't help but intrude upon some of the game's flashier boss setpieces -- namely, the second phases for Jafar and The Nightmare Before Christmas's Oogie Boogie -- and they're never not especially tedious.

It's good thing, then, the physical side of things remain the very best the series has to offer. While Sora's antics with the Keyblade are hardly as flashy as in later entries, the relatively grounded combat grant such weight to every strike, and it's not long until addiction sets in. In enduring through such grit, one will discover everything from the MP feedback to countering for tech points lends to a deep combat system. (And that's not even mentioning the scenic boss fights that do work: the second phase against Ursula the Sea Witch -- a heart-pounding torrent of rampaging thunder and currents -- is by far the game's most thrilling, demanding a constant influx of dodging and healing/defensive spells as you constantly fight against the currents)

And compounding upon that is just how well the animation's held up. Hailing from the early age of the six generation of games, it's amazing how Square nailed the look and feel of Disney, especially when they had be paired with their own Final Fantasy-esque designs. (Or even just straight-out cameos, like when Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife participates in the Hercules scenario) The Disney characters are appropriately fleshy and colorful, whereas the original settings of the ever-nocturnal Traverse Town and the dreamy, stained-glass abyss Sora visits at the game's beginning appeal to our inner nostalgia. (But we'll get into how that works later.)

The Nightmare Before Christmas segment and the Heartless creatures stand out as the visual highlights, albeit for different reasons. The former is obviously the one exception to the "fleshy and colorful" rule above, instead adhering to the film's blend of grimly whimsy. Between its tasks of bringing claymation characters to life, fitting Sora, Donald and Goofy with appropriately spooky outfits (Goofy's claws and screw-to-head lobotomy being the star attraction) and recreating the grimy landscapes from the original film, it's a visual feast that's unique all to its own, even within a premise as bizarre as this. Meanwhile, the Heartless' animal-like animation is a wonder to watch as they fidget about and stalk your party, all the while flailing around with every hit from your Keyblade.

Which is all the more shocking that this is mostly within the confines of gameplay; when actually watching Kingdom Hearts try to tell a story with its cutscenes, it's more than a little technically inept. I mean, what's with the awkward three-second pauses between character dialogue? The clunky transitions between voiced and text sequences, the latter of which gives the scriptwriters an excuse to fill them with base-level prose? The even clunkier shifts between animated faces and pixel mouths, which just...well, look at poor Peter Pan below to see what I mean.

The imbalance of quality here is honestly distressing when considering the highs it reaches; just look at the very first launch of Donald and Goofy's Gummi Ship: the comedic timing, animation and mannerisms all perfectly match that Disney touch, with animatronic gloves plopping a hapless Goofy and a not-too-happy Donald inside their vessel and capping off with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it lift-off. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Terk -- the Rosie O'Donnell gorilla from Tarzan -- dropping a Gummi piece as if she pooped it out, or how it just plain gives up when, due to plot reasons, Donald and Goofy momentarily break away from Sora in a shockingly abrupt, hurried scene that's supposed to be presented as if it's a difficult choice, but it just makes them look like total assholes. (This isn't even getting into how often they just stand there in reaction-demanding developments, a betrayal of their typically-animated hi-jinks)

Which reminds me: there's also the actual story itself, which...look, I like what it's trying to do. I enjoy partaking in abridged versions of Disney films or the occasional original take, carefully being fitted into its inventions of Heartless and missing friends. I enjoy the absurdity of Disney characters participating in this bizarre new mythos, be it the likes of Donald Duck serving as my mage, Aladdin and Peter Pan joining my party with their unique blend of skills and spells, and waging spectacular boss fights against Maleficent and Captain Hook. What I do not enjoy, however, is watching their respective stories be stumbled not only by clunky cutscenes but to a stumbling script that's clearly not all there. Read the following exchange between the protagonist, Sora, and the mysterious cloaked man he encounters early on and spot where it trips up.

Sora: "Wh-who's there?"
Cloaked Man: "I've come to see the door to this world."
Sora: "Huh?"
Cloaked Man: "This world has been connected."
Sora: "Wh-what are you talking about?"
Cloaked Man: "Tied to the darkness...soon to be completely eclipsed."
Sora: "Well, whoever you are, stop freaking me out like this. Huh? Wh-where did you come from?"

Did you just catch how Sora practically asks him the same question twice, the second instance echoing the first as if he's meeting him for the first time? There is nothing in between each instance to warrant this, and it's woefully clumsy. There are other such instances littered here and there throughout the script, and even if we could chalk one or two of them up to inevitable lapses in localization, that can hardly excuse what happens above.

Let us praise Kingdom Hearts' story for one thing: it doesn't disappear up its own asshole like the convoluted mess the series evolved into, as the lore and heartwarming themes involved present just the right amount of intrigue. The problem, however, is that it fails on various levels of thematic purpose, be they relying on messages far too sugary-sweet for the story it's trying to tell ("Believe in yourself!"), don't really make sense ("With Donald and Goofy at my side, I can do anything! Even though I just beat Hercules by myself."), or really, really don't make any sense (the events surrounding a certain magical door at the end, but we'll get into that when I cover Kingdom Hearts 2).

Really, I could nitpick the cutscenes all day, be it how The Little Mermaid's Flounder is only gifted with one line, or how the opening of the Pinocchio segment hinges entirely on an optional scene players are all too likely to miss, but at least the voice-acting props up any illusions of them actually working. Being such an ambitious project, Disney wasn't about to let the voicework go to waste, and so a special effort was made to nab as many of the original actors possible, right down to Kathryn Beaumont reprising her 1950's roles as Alice and Wendy. Naturally, voicealikes are provided for anyone who's dead or unavailable for whatever reason, and they generally do a fine job, although I confess that I maybe, kinda, sorta prefer Dan "Homer Simpson" Castellenta's take on Aladdin's Genie than Robin Williams. Heresy, I know.

When considering Disney's pull, it's only natural the celebrity voices -- namely for the main cast -- are the star of the show. You have the child stars for the protagonists (Haley Joel Osment, David Gallagher and Hayden Panettiere), and while I'm unnerved by Panettiere's hideous giggling, I remain impressed at how natural they sound even within the unnatural script. The same also applies to Billy Zane's role as the villain, all the more reason why I'm saddened he never signed on for the sequels. The celebrity reach even stretches out to the Final Fantasy cameos, and I'm actually surprised at how spot-on they are.

Well, almost. Celebrity castings being what they are, the Kingdom Hearts series has been plagued with some nasty miscasts, and the original is perhaps the most egregious in this regard. For starters, I'm not quite sure why Tate Donovan couldn't reprise his role as Hercules, and I'm less certain as to why they decided to cast Sean Astin instead, and I'm even less sure why he's channeling Josh Keaton's teenage take on the character when he's supposed to be doing the adult version. Needless to say, it's immensely distracting, and it's actually the one time I'm glad a character has such few lines. Meanwhile, you have...uh, NSYNC singer Lance Bass as Final Fantasy boss cameo Sephiroth, which is vile, vomit-inducing sacrilege to anyone even remotely familiar with those nouns. Even putting the mediocre performance aside, it's just...Christ, really?

That alone should cement the game's status as a rough product, yet believe it or not, there is one thing absolutely, undeniably perfect about Kingdom Hearts, and that is Yoko Shimomura. Her familiar selections of violins, xylophones, pianos and the like are the glue that keeps it together, and I fail to think of any game composer more suited to channeling the numerous venues of Disney nostalgia than her, be they the wistful, misty reflections on our youth or the warmth that envelops our hearts when we remember that one summer night watching Pinnochio.

I mean, is it possible not to stop and listen to Dearly Beloved play on any one Kingdom Hearts title screen? It's what I'll always point to as the series' real theme in representing what the series wants to be: the crossroads between childhood and adolescence, whereupon we realize our youth will inevitably shape who we become in the future. No matter how much Hikaru Utada's works frame the games' presentation, this one piano piece is Kingdom Hearts, to my mind. (Complete with the accompanying ocean waves)

But the real magic of Shimomura's score lies within how it picks up where the game slacks off; as in, anything that should be objectively garbage is rendered tolerable by virtue of the music alone. Case in point: the Gummi Ship shooting sequences, which exists only to serve its context (each world lies separate in space, so you use it to travel in-between) and nothing more. Operating with the grace of a 1996 PlayStation shoot-'em-up, they're slow, plodding, clunky, ugly and just downright not fun. In a lesser game, they would be emblematic of its quality; in Kingdom Hearts, they are an insult to its very ambition.

And then I hear this, and suddenly all is forgiven, because I'm right there at my first trip to Disney World as a wee lad. Yes, the Gummi Ship still sucks, but I don't mind that it sucks; indeed, what should be aggressively terrible is smothered by nostalgia, and now it's something merely tolerable that also happens to have amazing music. Meanwhile, clunky boss fights? No problem, because the likes of Destiny's Force, Shrouding Dark Cloud, and The Deep End all render them the huge battles they should be, particularly with how Destiny's Force recalls the towering nightmares of Disney villains we had in our youth.

It's all the better when it's not covering for a weak link, thereby building upon what already works with impeccable music. In terms of representing the aforementioned nostalgic venues of Disney, Traverse Town and Treasured Memories are the perfect candidates: the former a nightly stroll through our warmest memories, the latter not only accompanying one of the game's only successful cutscenes (I imagine it's no coincidence it's silent) but in itself touching upon we've lost to the sands of time: friends, homes and playthings gone by in the blink of an eye.

It should come as no surprise how well Shimomura expresses Disney within their respective scenarios as well, although I'm most intrigued whenever she chooses to take on an actual song from the source material. Her takes on Winnie the Pooh and even the Mickey Mouse Club March are perhaps the funnest, but my favorite lies in her arrangement for This is Halloween, wherein just like the world itself applies just the right amount of mischievous darkness to be the game's catchiest song.

As you may've figured out, I probably could up talking about the music forever, so I'll cap it off with one final note: what really makes Kingdom Hearts seem as "big" as it does is how well it pulls off choirs or big orchestral pieces, be it the chanting of Dive into the Heart -Destati- accompanying Sora's introspective, nebulous dream at the beginning or the grand Scherzo di Notte complementing the battles of Hollow Bastion.

The former is especially important as that "dream" sequence is the one and only moment that successfully conveying that aforementioned purpose of Kingdom Hearts. There's no voicework, instead silently linking Sora to the player through our choices, our hopes and dreams deciding the game's difficulty and progression. All this happens upon stained-glass podiums of Snow White and Beauty and the Beast within the lonely abyss, presenting an air of mystique that frames our judgements and preferences through youth as sacred as our memories of Disney.

Which leads me to my final point of Kingdom Hearts: when you're playing it, it's mostly fine. When you're watching it or even just really thinking about it (like, say, that moment you realize Neverland features everything from Hook's Pirate Ship to London and yet not the actual Neverland itself), you're practically dying of second-hand embarrassment. And yet I keep returning to it time and time again, as if its goal of speaking so deeply to me is actually working.

Kingdom Hearts is an obvious freshmen effort, but for as much as it stumbles, it's an awfully sincere one that I don't have the heart to write off. When considering the ambitions it reaches, I consider it something of an accident that it's rendered as humble as it is, and that's why I always approach not as the genesis of an epic, but as an individualized, unique tale. I mean, can I really get mad at a game that has Winnie the Pooh in it?

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