Kingdom Hearts 1 – Adventures in Flatland

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The flat-painted “forest” walls of Wonderland are far from typical, for KH1 or the era.

Searching the Lotus Forest for evidence is probably going to rub your nose into an element of level design that I’ve been trying to avoid. Remember when I said that there are 2D elements on the walls of the Bizarre Room? Well that was a bit of a lie. There are 2D elements everywhere in Wonderland. I can’t imagine why. There was nothing of this papercraft construction in the original film, and it extends even to the odd dividing walls in the area, which are sometimes pixel-thin, as though I walked into a Build game. And no, that’s not the way the rest of the game is designed! Here in the lotus forest, there is a small pond painted into a corner, but full 3D flowers poking out from the flat, painted lotus-leaf walls. Perhaps this is all matter of continuing the theme of the Card Soldiers painting the flowers in the film, but a bit extreme if that’s the case. All the Disney worlds carry over something of the original film’s art style, but Wonderland chooses to go in this odd direction.

Those 3D flowers are important, while we’re on the subject. You have to interact with one to find the infamous fourth piece of evidence. The other three pieces of evidence are easier to find, like the Cat said. Each piece of evidence has been giftwrapped for you, honest-to-god, in pink boxes for reasons that can only be explained with a shrug. Wonderland magic? The boxes contain abstract concepts as well, like “footprints.” It’s a good gag, but one you’re not going to appreciate as you try to work out how to find the darn fourth piece.

kh1-2015-06-08-17h01m51s452To find the fourth piece, you have to talk to the flowers and find one who offers to make you “grow” in exchange for a Potion. This is not as easy as it sounds. To give the flower a potion, you have to fight with the game’s interface to even get started.  Kingdom Hearts is built around a menu-based interface that sits in the corner. This menu almost makes sense on paper. Imagine someone who was instructed to create Action-RPG, but has never heard the term “Action-RPG” before in their life. Instead, they take an RPG and add free motion until it seems satisfactory. That’s what Kingdom Hearts feels like. As a result, Kingdom Hearts has a command menu that sits in the corner, reminiscent of the command menu you’ll see in a Final Fantasy battle: Attack, Magic, Items, they’re all here. And it’s really, really awkward in motion.

To attack, Sora must first have the menu pointed to “attack” using the D-pad. To use an item or spell, he must either use a shortcut (for spells) or meticulously navigate the menu with the D-pad until he’s found the one he wants, and then selected the target in case of healing items, like the Potion you’re trying to trade. All this while the action goes on around you, making item use dangerous in combat.  Though hopefully you’ll have the common sense to clear out any Heartless before you talk to the flower!

It’s all just a little too much, and some of that frustration seems to have been by design! The trouble of using this damned menu discourages the use of items altogether, and that’s frustrated even further by the fact that you have to pause the game outside of fights to put items back in Sora’s inventory. And did I mention how close you have to stand almost under the Flower before the game will even register you’re trying to give it a Potion?

Shit, I’m talking about mechanics again.

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SORA SMASH!

So the flower makes you grow. Now what? Well, there’s a tree nearby you can whack to cause it to spin around, like a top (oh, Wonderland). This gets you two things: it will move a particular branch on the tree to a new position for jumping, and you’ll find a fruit on the branch to shrink you down again. You’ll want to explore the tree both before and after spinning it to get everything in the area, and if you screw up, you’re going to have to do a lot of futzing around to get the fruit and the tree in the right position again.  You can also jump on a nearby tree stump to cause it to flatten into the ground, and cause a lotus to rise up, forming a bridge to a door!

kh1-2015-06-08-17h00m24s868That part’s okay. I can’t really blame the segment itself for interface problems that tax the entire game. The trouble comes once the fourth piece of evidence is just within your line of sight. To find the evidence, you have to leave the Lotus Forest through a door, only for it to drop you into the Bizarre Room. You’re still shrunk down, and now you’re on top of a faucet that’s sticking out of the wall. The evidence is right over there on a nearby ledge, but to get it, you have to make a jump with Donald or Goofy blocking your path. There’s nowhere to move on the faucet, and while Donald and Goofy don’t generally block your movement at any other point in the game, here in this narrow space they seem to mess up my jump, either as part of the code or a mental hiccup, causing me to fall to the ground and walk allll the way back through the Lotus Forest. How nice of these two to join up with us and then immediately screw up our platforming! Thankfully I have a time-tested solution to this problem: shove them their deaths! I am afraid I’m serious: nudge them off the faucet so you have a clear jump. Good thing there isn’t really any fall damage in this game, right?

The Cheshire Cat congratulates you on getting the last piece of evidence, and hands over the Blizzard spell, which fires a spread shot of ice from the Keyblade. Any gamer will tell you that’s great for groups, and it’s even better if you hit hard enough to defeat your opponent because the shots penetrate. Thankfully, the game gives you three quick-fire slots for spells, so you don’t have to dive through the menu during combat. You trigger quick-fire spells by holding the L button and pressing X, Square or Triangle. It makes one wonder why you can’t quick-fire with L and Circle (something that was added to KH2, because its exclusion in KH1 never made a lick of sense), but it will serve.

If you don’t get Blizzard by collecting the evidence, the game will give you the spell after you’ve cleared the world, but it’s worth the trouble, given some of the things you’re going to fight…

kh1-2015-06-08-17h10m15s507Returning to the Queen of Hearts, you present your evidence only to discover why the Queen was willing to let you run around in the first place. It seems she has her own evidence, and shuffles it into the whole set, saying you get to pick one piece at random, and that piece will decide the whole trial. Wonderland is fantastic and horrible. Actually, it’s worse than that: if you have less than four boxes of evidence, the queen adds multiple until you get to five!  While this sequence may look like one, this isn’t quite a shell game: you don’t get to watch the Queen shuffle the boxes, so your choice is purely random. To that end, the more evidence you collect, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to prove the Heartless did it, and not… whatever the Queen is up to.

Unfortunately the Queen isn’t listening to the evidence. If you prove your case, she’ll just have Alice locked up and hoisted in a gibbet. If you pick the wrong evidence, it actually implicates Donald and Goofy, and she locks them up and keeps Alice!  (If you have less than four pieces of evidence, it’s also possible for the box to implicate just Donald or just Goofy – I’m not sure what box #4 does but it’s probably a dupe) This leads to a fight between you and the Card Soldiers to destroy the winch house that controls the gibbet. A winch house that, you guessed it, appears from nowhere. Ohhhh, Wonderland. Oh, video games.

After breaking open Donald and Goofy’s cages if necessary (the Guards don’t patrol here so there’s almost no cost to getting the “trial” wrong!), you can get to work on this weird midboss battle. There are three heavy wheels on the gear house, each of which will drop health orbs once you destroy them. After destroying the wheels, you have to destroy the winch house itself.

kh1-2015-06-08-17h10m47s309Unfortunately the Card Soldiers will defend the winch house, and will even revive after you deplete their HP, which means the fight is against you if you try to play it safe. Blizzard is helpful here since the Card’s AI often forces them into a group, but there is a trick solution: just attack the Queen of Hearts directly to knock her over (a Fire spell works wonders), and the Cards will rush to help her! It puts this whole midboss affair in its place rather quickly.

But bad news to all: once the winch is busted, the gibbet opens to reveal… nothing! Alice has either escaped or been snagged out from under everyone’s noses. The queen orders her guards off in a fury, instantly forgetting (forever) that you just destroyed her property, resisted arrest, and quite possibly personally assaulted her.

But where to search? You’ve been everywhere in the entire world by now… right? You were combing it top to bottom for evidence! The game is going to have to open up a new area if you’re going to chase Alice. Where on earth’s the new door?

It’s a long, lazy tradition of games to “gate” progress to later areas by sealing them with completely arbitrary, nonsensical barriers. Sometimes, lazy gating is done with some NPC who won’t move or “every bridge in the entire kingdom is broken, what a coincidence.”  This kind of laziness is sometimes called a “Broken Bridge.” This one’s a doozy, but not all bad.  Frankly, you might not notice it was a gating technique at all! The answer lies in a boulder lodged in the wall in Lotus Forest, but it blocks the exit so thoroughly you might not notice that an exit is even there.

kh1-2015-06-08-17h11m22s533But as soon as you step into the Forest after Alice’s disappearance, the boulder is flung at you. And I’m not entirely sure why it happens to this day. Wonderland again? The Cheshire Cat uses it as a platform immediately after it lands, so maybe he’s responsible. After you’re done talking to the cat, you’ll be able to use the new door… presuming you realized it was there! Keep in mind everything I just said: the boulder just looks like part of the scenery. You have no way of knowing the boulder that just landed at your feet was the one from the wall! Wonderland is so determined to be quirky that it’s starting to approach a good-old fashioned confusion.  That’s the second time KH1 has gotten confusing in its mad grab for catchy aesthetics (aka, its mad grab to make a memorable first impression), and we’re only three worlds in!

Even though moving the boulder here might seem arbitrary, the devs did do it for a reason: if you grow big again and push the boulder into the 2D pond nearby, it will sink in and a secret area will be opened! But clever as that is, it leads to a whole new problem. If you’ve been doing the minimum demanded of you by the game, Wonderland up until this point has been fairly straightforward, but as soon as the Cheshire Cat asked you to find that fourth piece of evidence, it all went straight to hell. This is a world with 2D and 3D elements fighting one another for relevance and tons of secret passages. There are flowers asking for items you don’t have (there isn’t a nearby shop and you just started the game!), passageways that don’t lead in any logical layout just because “it’s Wonderland,” and numerous passages that lead to walls of the Bizarre Room, with gravity rotated! All the nice ideas become confusing in practice. In fact, even after all these years, Wonderland is so confusing that it’s the only world in the entire series I can’t keep straight in my head.

To make matters worse: a good number of secrets in Wonderland are locked up until you come back with later abilities, Metroid-style. That’s normally a good thing, something I’d be happy to compliment at any other point in the game, but Metroidvanias typically indicate to you which areas you can access now and which ones will force you to come back later, to avoid frustration.  Unfortunately, Wonderland is so illogical that you can’t tell which elements are locking you out because you don’t have the right ability, and which elements are locking you out because you haven’t solved a puzzle!

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The ceiling of the Bizarre Room, to be visited just a few rooms down.

And I haven’t even come to the biggest problem: this is the first world with no training wheels! Destiny Islands was a post-tutorial playground, and Traverse Town was a crisp, blocky level with clear divisions and (generally) clear directions from NPCs, which had Metroid secrets but ones that were clearly marked (typically by their height). After carefully grooming you for all the game’s important lessons, the developers decide to let you try those lessons out in non-Euclidean space. Imagine taking one step out of Twinleaf Town in Pokemon Platinum and plunging into Distortion World! You’d almost be better off not finding the boulder-pond secret, just to keep Wonderland from leading you off the beaten track!  Suffice to say, I would have preferred Wonderland showing up later in the game – but if you prefer a game make a memorable first impression over a good mechanical impression, here you go!

Unfortunately, as nice as Destiny Islands and Traverse Town were, most of the Kingdom Hearts 1 worlds have some sort of fundamental failing. Curiously, it’s always a different failing! This is become each world has its own gimmick, and very few of them succeed 100%, or even 50%. Like the Metroid-style progression, this variety should have been a good thing, but KH1 drops nearly every ball it was juggling. I can’t help but feel Square was experimenting with 3D platforming/action-adventuring and it just wasn’t working out. Square seems to have recognized they made a few mistakes, but their response was to never experiment again, which makes a few of the forthcoming games boring! But I am way, way ahead of myself.

kh1-2015-06-08-17h40m04s429After the Cheshire Cat bails, you’ll be introduced to a new enemy: the Large Body. This rotund Heartless is immune to frontal attack, but since we’re still at the start of the game, it’s still an “easy” sort of enemy and not as aggressive as it could have been. The Shadows dawdled, the Soldiers bumbled, and our new friend the Large Body and often stands perfectly still, scratching its head. On the downside, this means that Large Bodies are often an immobile wall!  Large Bodies won’t make it easy to get behind them if they can help it, but all it takes is a moment’s help from from one party member for another to get behind. Even better in a pinch: magic ignores their frontal defences entirely.

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Spazbo4 attacked the White Mushrooms when they appeared, perhaps out of confusion. This gave me limited opportunity to take screenshots. Here you can see the absolutely useless pantomime for “Thunder.”

At any point after this encounter, you might also be lucky to encounter strange, mushroom-shaped Heartless in this room. These White Mushrooms aren’t hostile.  Instead, they appear randomly on multiple worlds to play charades with Sora. The charades can be hard to work out if you don’t already know what they’re for, but in short: the Mushrooms want you to cast magic on them, or to be more specific, they want a certain spell based on their pantomime. If you cast the wrong magic or attack them, they’ll bail, but if you cast three spells correctly and they’ll drop off some prizes. Do the same spell three times in a row, you’ll get better prizes, like special “Arts” items used in a hidden side quest, and also the rare “Mystery Goo,” which we’ll talk about later. Frankly, I think the “cast three spells in a row” idea ruins what could have been a nice mini-game. It’s cute that the devs hid a bonus like that, something someone might work out one day for fun, but it essentially turns what should have been a simple three-round game of charades into a twenty-round game of attrition, as you wait for the White Mushroom to randomly re-use a charade you’ve already seen. And did I mention they’ll bail after a while, through no fault of your own? Jerks!

Speaking of jerks, did I mention that Donald and Goofy constantly block your view of the charades? Guys, after the faucet incident, I’m starting to doubt your commitment to this operation.

kh1-2015-06-08-17h41m12s732Through the mysterious boulder cave at the far end of the Lotus Forest, Sora and his probationary allies pop at the tea party of the Mad Hatter and March Hare, both absent. (Actually, the Mad Hatter seems to be running a shop in Traverse Town based on a small cameo in the decor, but it’s not clear how he got there if Wonderland is still intact.) Disney’s favourite revellers have left a note for party crashers, inviting guests to take any seat they wish at the party. This secret is really easy to miss, since you can’t sit in the chairs until you read the invitation twice, and it’s very easy to miss the sign on the wall altogether and conclude the room is nothing but set dressing. If you do sit in the chairs, the room will spawn unbirthday presents for you depending on your seat (and you can try each seat in turn): there’s Munny, items, or of course, Heartless, which I suppose the Hatter and Hare have boxed up somehow and set among the decorations. That sounds like something they would do.

If you try to enter the Hatter and Hare’s house, it turns out the door leads to the Bizarre Room, this time on the ceiling! The Cheshire Cat appears and draws your attention to the chandeliers, where Sora can light the gas lights by touching them with his Keyblade (actually trying to cast Fire on the lamps will fail!). Once you’ve lit one light, the Cat re-appears to direct you to the second chandelier, even though it’s five feet away. Why the separate in-game cutscene? Maybe it’s an amenity for new players, but I find that hard to believe after an entire world where the level design is hostile to new players. I can’t help but suspect that the chandeliers used to be further apart, or divided by some form of obstacle or fight. Once you’ve lit both lights, the Cat appears yet again, tells you that the lights will “chase out the shadows,” and implies that you should go back to the Bizarre Room floor. Good thing there’s a one-way hatch nearby that leads to the Queen’s courtyard, just in case you needed to destroy your frame of spatial reference one more time before we wrap up!

The Cheshire Cat is waiting in the Bizarre Room, and drops a great line before the boss shows: “Are you ready? If not, too bad!” The boss drops in soon after… and with no connection to the lights on the ceiling, might I add. Wonderland’s parting cut of nonsense.

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Another recolour I don’t like, as the original had a red and black pattern to match the Wonderland playing card theme.

The boss, the Trickmaster, carries on Wonderland’s 2D/3D theme with paper-thin arms that unfold when he arrives, which look like they were cut with scrapbooking scissors. Above the 2D body is a big canister head, and in the 2D arms are two juggling pins being used as weapons. It also has two legs made of two parts that bend in opposite directions, almost making it look like it has four legs. It’s the sort of thing you need to see to believe.

Unfortunately for the player, the Trickmaster has very tall legs and is only vulnerable at its very tiny torso. To land a hit, you have to swing at the apex of your jump, and part of the difficulty in this fight comes from the fact that Donald and Goofy aren’t likely to do that, meaning the Trickmaster is fought nearly solo. You can make your life easier by jumping from the table with the “Drink Me” jar and attacking the boss from there (be mindful that Sora is bad at grabbing onto edges while locked on to a target, not unlike poor N64 Link from Zelda.  It pays to unlock yourself from the boss before trying to climb the table). Even though using the table makes the fight a chore (climb, jump, attack, climb, jump, attack…) I feel this is the intended strategy, for two reasons.

kh1-2015-06-08-22h34m08s803The first reason is on Sora. There’s a nuance to Sora’s combos: the final hit of Sora’s combo, the “finisher,” lands extra damage. Sora starts with a three-hit combo, and if he misses with any of his attacks, the combo ends. Thanks to the Trickmaster’s teeny torso, you’ll usually miss with the final blow if you jump off the ground, costing you a lot of damage. The best way to ensure you land the finisher is to jump from the table! It helps that the Trickmaster will keel over stunned under certain circumstances, falling low enough to the ground that even Donald and Goofy can hit it.  It even drops health balls as it crumbles! It’s not clear to me what triggers this collapse: it may be fully random, though if it is, I suspect it’s increased by finishing attacks. One way or another, a full aerial combo seems to trigger the collapse more often than attempts made from the ground.

The other hint that you’re supposed to use the table comes from the Trickmaster itself: the boss can actually destroy the table and its adjoining chair, squashing them into 2D features on the floor. That’s about as good a sign as any that you’re supposed to use them while they’re there, wouldn’t you say? The table and chair will come back with time, but while you’re on the ground, your options are limited – climbing to the counter in the corner, for instance. While this is all very interesting, I find it doesn’t work in practice. Losing the table can leave you almost without options. If you mess up, it’s a lot of running around praying for the table to come back so that the fight will go back to “normal.”

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I tried to get a shot of the Trickmaster lighting its clubs, but Sora ruined it with this Potion.  If he snacks before dinner, how is he going to have room for his juggling kebab?

Things get a little more interesting at about half-health, when the Trickmaster goes to the stove top in one side of the Bizarre Room to light its juggling pins on fire (you can also set them off yourself with the Fire spell. Sorry if you thought the homing spell would make this an easy fight!). The lit pins give the Trickmaster a fireball attack, which puts the boss at a major advantage if you haven’t learned Guard yet, and you almost certainly will not have Guard in Final Mix. It’s possible to extinguish the pins with Blizzard, but keep in mind that Blizzard doesn’t home in on its target like Fire, and spreads out as it flies, making the technique impractical, even though you have no other options!

One way or another, you and Sora will pull through, but there’s still no sign of Alice. Instead, the Doorknob wakes up and yawns, reveals a sparkling keyhole in his mouth. Sora and friends are checking this out when the Keyblade takes on a life of its own and fires a beam into the keyhole. This beam causes the keyhole to disappear with a locking sound. Just then, a small gummi falls out of the former keyhole, cleanly cut in two and missing its other half.

kh1-2015-06-08-22h46m08s026That really is all there is to this world, I can’t even justify a Wrap-Up section. The Cheshire Cat appears to tell you that Alice is gone and you’re out of luck. While it doesn’t make much sense for Sora to take the Nonsense Cat at his literal word, it just so happens that the Cheshire Cat is telling the truth, so off you go. It’s on to the next world… the question is, which one?

If you return to Traverse Town, Cid will fill you in about the Gummi you got from the keyhole, saying it’s a “Navi Gummi” that will help you reach new worlds. Naturally, you’ll need its other half before it can be of any use. That leaves you with the two worlds you haven’t visited yet: the two-star world and the three-star world. The two-star world is closer to Traverse Town, and there’s an early prize for going there, but what if you never went back to Cid? The three-star world is closer to Wonderland, so you could fly there right away, the difficulty’s not that much higher than the two-star world, there’s a fantastic prize for completing it, and most importantly: the two-star world is a mess.

And the retrospective is going to the two-start world, whether I want to or not.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 1 – I’ll Never Eat Another Jujube Again, I Swear
Next: Kingdom Hearts 1 – Employee Evaluation, and Vomit


This retrospective’s screenshots come from Spazbo4’s longplay of the PS3, 1.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix at World of Longplays (YouTube).

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