Kingdom Hearts CoM – Frame-Up

com-2015-10-09-21h15m13s855The fifth floor begins with another brief cinematic of the blonde artist and her sketchbook. In the 3D versions, we even see the sketch. We’ll see a few of her sketches before the game is over in this version, and they’re all very rough, pencil crayon work, but you can make out the image of Sora, Kairi and Riku, and also the artist, all standing hand in hand.

Parallel to this drawing, Sora finally hits on it. “There was another girl!” Goofy starts looking around for a girl in their immediate vicinity, which is hilarious, but Sora explains that he’s referring to his days back on the Destiny Islands. He says had a third close friend alongside Riku and Kairi, well before the start of KH1. Jiminy asks why he didn’t remember her. The way he says it varies by version: he seems more excited for Sora in the GBA, and wary at the Castle’s magical power in the 3D. Sora says: “I think she went away when I was still little.” Sora says he’s just piecing it together as he goes, and Haley Joel Osmet drags this reading out a little to match, it’s nicely done.

com-2015-10-09-21h15m50s805Sora’s ashamed to have forgotten a friend when he and the others had all promised not to. That’s what I’ve been saying. But of course, this is the “finding” half of losing and finding: in losing his memories, Sora seems to have gained forgotten memories. He also seems to have gained a bit of energy off of this revelation, so even though he can’t remember his friend’s name, he’s eager to press on through the castle to learn more.

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Here we are, at the beginning again.

I wish I could share Sora’s enthusiasm about pressing ahead. I’m not eager to go to Wonderland, thanks to the boss I’ve been cautioning you about. There’s not much to say about the intro: the White Rabbit runs past and that’s about it. Most players would probably come to this world first, so perhaps the intro is short on purpose?

Wonderland’s overworld consists largely of the Lotus Forest, with its other rooms only appearing behind Key doors. In the 3D version, the overworld is home to angry flowers that can only be killed with a combo, but also to large purple flowers that block doors with their roots. The purple flowers are an interesting mechanic, since they forces you to get out of your doldrums and actually interact with the overworld. It’s a shame we never had something like them on other worlds, and it’s a surprise we don’t see a straight-up reskin of this mechanic, since the game is usually happy to reuse mechanics like this! The overworld also includes lotuses like some sort of irregular see-saw, and there are suspect gift boxes everywhere, which don’t make any sense, but it’s one of the better Disney worlds in the game as a result of all these details. One last interesting detail is the use of an elaborate hedge maze in the background of the 3D version’s battlefields!

com-2015-10-09-21h20m17s488Because the original Wonderland in KH1 was an intro world, it only featured basic KH1 enemies and didn’t really have any “local” enemies of its own. CoM sets to rectify this. The Creeper Plant appears here and seems just as home here as in Halloween Town, but even better is the third and last new Heartless in CoM, the Crescendo. Sometimes called a “Loudmouth” (the Japanese name literally translates to “Loudness”), the Crescendo seems to be designed after an incidental creature from Alice in Wonderland, the “horn duck,” if the horn duck were crossed with a musical eighth note. Crescendos also have a prominent use of red around their neck that makes them fit in Wonderland’s checkerboard décor. The various recolours of Loudnesses have behaved differently in different games, but in CoM Crescendos they can heal other Heartless or call for reinforcements. KH2: Final Mix+ recoloured them deep blue, with blue scarf and a bright red horn, making them looking something like a cartoon penguin.

I don’t like Final Mix+’s colour schemes.

Naturally, the Key to Beginnings room is the Queen’s garden throne room from KH1, where of she’s got Alice on trial again. I’m sure you get the basic rhythm of CoM’s Disney plots at this point, right? The Queen is acting a little strangely, even for the Queen of Hearts: she claims she can’t remember the evidence for the trial, and that her forgetting is, in and of itself, evidence, because Alice is being accused of stealing the Queen’s memories.

com-2015-10-09-21h19m01s372Sora charges forward, but apparently not because this is a false trial, but because the Queen used the word “brazen”? …Wait, what’s going on? I think the localization may have missed a note. He honestly taking issue with the word “brazen,” even to the exclusion of the trial, and not explaining why. Did you bite your thumb at me, sir?  I assume this makes more sense in Japanese, but it makes no sense at all in English, and they didn’t correct it in Re:CoM.

In spite of the way Wonderland has been following every note from KH1 down to the stage direction, Sora suddenly breaks script, and instead of offering to be Alice’s lawyer, he confesses to the crime himself! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Sora doesn’t… think about things, sometimes. The Queen orders her Card Guards to arrest you, and this turns into a midboss.

com-2015-10-09-21h24m10s545This is the first fight we’ve had in a Room of Beginnings (excusing the tutorial with Leon), but considering Monstro threw us against the actual boss in the Room of Guidance just a floor ago, I like to think we can cope. (Indeed if you came to Wonderland first as I imagine many did, the Parasite Cage wouldn’t have come as quite as much a surprise). The Card Soldiers aren’t that dangerous in-and-of themselves, but they have a numerical advantage, coming in wave after wave. If you waste using your special attacks early, you’re going to be in trouble later on. On the other hand, if you hold on to your powerful attacks, they can mow down the later waves with no trouble. I’m sure you can imagine how Summons can work here, but I’d like to recommend Blizzard especially, as its piercing powers are more lethal in this game of slow enemy action and strict formations than they ever were in free-form KH1.

Ultimately, Sora and the others realize that Alice has escaped in the fracas, and bolt after her as the Card Soldiers keep on coming. You get the Card Soldiers’ Enemy Card for this, but all it does is speed up your attacks a bit. It’s not worth the fuss of equipping and using an Enemy Card, which is true of far too many Enemy Cards.

Since I just cautioned you against misusing special attacks, maybe it’s time. *drags up a heavy, metal chair* It’s time to talk about combo attacks and sleights.

com-2015-10-09-21h25m44s550I’ve already said that CoM’s biggest problem is its tutorial, and one of the biggest problems with that is that it all comes at once. The mechanics I’ve dragged out over a hefty portion of the past ~25 000 words, CoM throws at you in the first five minutes or not at all. I’ll take an estimate and say we’re talking about something like 10 000 Retrospective words of gameplay info that the game shoves down your throat the moment you start the game. The stuff I’m about to tell you about special attacks? The game throws that at you ten minutes after the rest, during your first meeting with Leon, before you’ve had a chance to process anything. And people don’t like this game, you say?

What I’ve been calling “special attacks” so far is actually an umbrella term for two related concepts: Combo Attacks and “Sleights,” and you need to understand one to understand the other. Combo Attacks are made by “stocking” one or more cards to the top of the screen (the Japanese term for Sleights is “stock technique,” to make sure the two concepts are connected). By pressing the stock button a fourth time, you can release all three cards together in a Combo Attack. In each version of the game, there’s also a way (kind of obscure in the GBA) to release the cards when there are less than 3.  Granted: there’s no reason to use a “combo” of 1, but a combo of 2 can be helpful in certain situations.

com-2015-10-09-21h27m11s562Now, here’s problem number one. Yes! The game counts a single card as a “combo!” Why? Because fuck me! Not only is the tutorial too much information at one time, it’s also highly misleading. A 1-card combo will have none of the advantages and all of the costs of a regular combo, but the game is so busy explaining ten million things at once that it’s hard to pick up on these sorts of nuances. Is it just me, or is this game is starting to veer away from “complicated” and into “hostile?”

Back to the mechanics. Pretend it’s the start of the game. If you release the three cards early on, Sora will perform all three actions in order, but here’s the bonus: the value of those three cards are totalled to determine the value of the entire “combo.” So if you stock a 2, 2 and a 2 card, the entire combo acts like an unusual 6 card. And yes, you’ve got it: stock more than 9, and the game will treat it as more than 9, all the way up to 27. Want to trump all the Heartless on the board with a 22 “card” when they can only play 9s? You’ll be unstoppable. Giant bosses have the same weakness as Heartless in that they can also only play single cards with values up to nine, so they’re just as vulnerable to combos.

The downside to Combo Attacks is this: the first card you put into the combo is lost for the rest of the battle, in the same manner as Premium card. The most reliable way to get them back is with high-level Item cards (Hi-Potions, Megalixirs), but for most of the game these lost cards are simply lost, and you’re going to have to cope with it (and there’s nothing you can do to regenerate a lost Item card). The best way to cope is to let one system cancel out the other. Item or Premium cards can’t be restored by any means, eh? Stick them at the front of the Combo! Not only will you not lose anything you wouldn’t have lost in the first place, but in the case of Items, the extra cards boost the strength of your Item so you guarantee a refresh!

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No! No I don’t!

But that leads us to problem two: this simply isn’t easy to do in a panic! It’s another thing I recommend you do “lazy,” by setting up the deck so the trick is ready and waiting, but the game teaches you nothing of the sort. Teaching you how to play the game is one thing, but teaching a player to play the game well is another trick entirely. The tutorial covers the systems, but completely fails at teaching you to use these systems in a real gameplay situation, and most players won’t learn all the best tricks without at least some outside help. How do you build a good deck? How do you face down an end-game boss? The game started you off with a wooden club and nudged you off into a land of machine guns.

After making that analogy, I find myself reminded of Portal, where the game indirectly taught you how to deal with Turrets by teaching you the basics one step at a time. A great tutorial like Portal’s is a rare treasure, but let’s be clear: if you can’t arrange a perfect tutorial, there are other routes the game could have taken. The early Final Fantasies had whole Beginner’s Centres full of good advice for new players!

Because CoM doesn’t explain its systems very well, lot of the strategy I’m trying to relay here in this Retrospective is the experience of large parts of the Kingdom Hearts community working together over a long period of time to beat a weird, opaque system into submission. These guiding principles will carry one through most of the early game. Set up your deck so you don’t have to think about it. Make it so your Hi-Potion is always followed by a pair of Keyblade cards, so that you can boost its strength. And we’ll talk about advanced combo tactics once we get into Sleights. Sure, sure, you’ll still panic. Panic is part of the game. One day a Creeper Plant will play one of its 7-cards and you’ll jam three random cards into a combo just to flip it off. Just make sure you don’t lose anything precious on card #1!

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Sora plays a Combo Attack on a Red Nocturne (which has been “browned out” to indicate its stunlock).

Related subject while we’re here. Since you are losing cards each time you use a combo, there’s another threat you’ve got to watch out for. What happens if you start running out of cards you can actually reload? Well… that’s honestly a sign of your impending death. Remember when I said CP had more to do with your survival than HP? I meant that. With a good deck, you can stop taking HP damage entirely. With a deck that’s been drained by combo attacks, you’re screwed.

Well, I suppose you might remember that you can run away.

In 3D versions running out of cards isn’t a guaranteed death knell, though you’re still in a downright awful state. Once you’re really, really, really low on cards, the Pluto Friend Card might make an appearance. Pluto’s job is to “dig up” your lost cards. Most players will never need him (hell, even finding him can be a pain, because he’s still random and Friend cards seem to show up less and less as a fight goes on, aka the time it takes you to run out of cards!), but if things are going terribly, he’s a sight for sore eyes.

I still haven’t talked about Sleights proper, but that’s enough for one day. I feel like I’ve talked my fingers off here. How about we wrap up in Wonderland and get back to this in Agrabah?

Prev: Kingdom Hearts CoM – Sora plays Mega Man with your Card-Bound Soul
Next: Kingdom Hearts CoM – 2spooky


This retrospective’s 2D screenshots come from RickyC’s longplay of the GBA version of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories at World of Longplays (YouTube), while 3D screenshots come from BlueGator’s longplay of the 1.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts: Re: Chain of Memories at Temple of the Azure Flame (segmented version).

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