Day 7: Number XIV
We roll back to Day 7, by which we mean 7 days after Roxas was “born” due to the events in Hollow Bastion in KH1. After an introductory shot of the Castle that Never Was, the game and film shake hands and head off in different directions, the game taking the long road and the film the short road, though they’ll cross paths many times in the future.
In the game, we cut to Roxas in his bedroom at the Castle that Never Was, where he was sleeping in full robes on top of his sheets. I told you. Roxas then walks into a sort of lounge in the Castle that Never Was, which we’ll later learn is called The Grey Area (get it??? It’s a pun!!!). You’ll be seeing a lot of the Grey Area, so I may as well describe it: it has a single exit, wall-to-wall windows, two couches and two chairs flanking some coffee tables. It’s fairly homey in spite of the usual Organization ultra-sterilization! Saïx is standing in front of the windows exactly opposite the entrance, and will remain there for the vast majority of the game. He might as well be described with the furniture.
A few Organization members stop over to say hello to Roxas, each in their own distinct ways: Larxene is rude, Xigbar is weirdly ominous and taunting even when he’s polite, and Axel seems half-interested in making a friendly overture. But we learn that no one seriously expects a response from No. XIII: as we learned on day 255, Roxas is like a zombie at this early period in his career, and isn’t talking to anyone. He does seem to understand what’s being said to him, at least, and Axel passes on news that Xemnas has called a meeting in the Round Room. He’s referring to the room with all the thrones from KH2, also known as “Where Nothing Gathers.” Roxas is so zonked that Axel practically has to lead him by the hand, but one way or another, everyone ends up in the Round Room for Xemnas’ big news.
In the Round Room, the film reunites with the game just in time for Xemnas to make his announcement: a fourteenth member has been selected for the Organization. This is the same lure the game used during the 255 sequence, jiggling in the water as though to say: “something is wrong here, please pay attention to it.” Chronologically, this opening is set before both CoM and KH2, but we’ve never heard of a fourteenth member of the Organization. Suspicions begin to churn. Clearly this person is not going to be with the Organization by the end of the game, so the question prominent in everyone’s mind should be: why? If it sounds like I’m teasing the devs, I’m not, these are perfectly valuable ways to attract the audience’s attention, and it’s important that they do. Days leans very heavily on this mystery. Having talked to a few people, it seems that whether or not you’re interested in the mystery seems to go a long way to determine whether or not you’ll be interested in the entire game. Unfortunately, it goes without saying that that means the game is leaning a little too heavily on this one leg.
Xemnas introduces Number XIV, who is short and slight, and hooded. Xemnas then appears to say: “Let us all welcome one of the Keyblade’s chosen.” I say “appears to say” because Roxas is spacing out, and he remembers the day when he was introduced to the Organization, and it’s not clear whether Xemnas was talking about Number XIV being one of the Keyblade’s chosen, or if Roxas is remembering his own introduction. It’s very cleverly done. Down below and back in the present, XIV seems to smirk at Roxas, which provokes a reaction in him, the first emotional reaction we see from our “zombie” lead. Of course, keep in mind that our “zombie” should also be a Nobody, with no emotional reactions at all. If you didn’t catch that, don’t worry, there’s a lot of game to go, but Days likes slipping these emotions in just past the viewer, to see if they’re paying attention. Days is a game that rewards a second viewing.
Following the cutscene, Roxas Mopes that for the first week of his life, he had no idea what was even going on around him, like what the Organization wanted from him or what they were doing. This mope is the closest thing we have to an “end of chapter” for Day 7, but that’s arguably by design. While CoM and KH2 were divided up into distinct “chapter breaks,” KH:Days divides its gameplay up by days but its narrative up by arcs. Each arc spans multiple days, meaning (among other things) that the game has no particular need to “cap off” every single day of the narrative with a dramatic flourish, cliffhanger or punchline. Once this game’s Directory gets going, you’ll see where I personally divide the arcs. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s move on to…
Day 8: The Icing on the Cake
Day 8 begins with a prompt from the game to check your main menu for “Roxas’ Diary.” This is a feature that will unlock every few days wherein Roxas gives his thoughts on the event of the previous day or block of days. This feature can be kind of unusual. We haven’t gotten into it yet, but sometimes blocks of days will include multiple story sequences, or multiple days without story sequences. This means you often only get Roxas’ thoughts on events long after the events have occurred. Roxas’ diary entries are also rather perfunctory, seeming to exist purely for recap purposes, so I’ll only be touching on them when he has something unusual to say.
1.5 also included Roxas’ diaries, and the film actually offers an achievement for “reading” all the things. Those are scare quotes, by the way. You can simply open the first diary entry and hold R1 for about ten seconds, at which point you’ll have flipped through them all and gotten your stupid Copper trophy. You know, Square Enix, systems like this are why people don’t like Achievements. The fact that you can’t read the diaries alongside the film itself is also a downside. Maybe they could have put a “diary prompt” in the corner and you could press L1 to read it? …Nah, who am I kidding, there was no clean way to integrate these two, but the film still suffers even if I sympathize with the developers’ situation.
While you’re in the game’s menu to look at the diaries, you may also notice that the game has started storing old tutorial data there for future reference. Basically all the Kingdom Hearts games would do this from this point on, and it’s a lot more convenient and handy than any system they’ve had in the past. Most complex games do this sort of thing in the modern age, and for good reason.
Gameplay starts in the Grey Area, as it will in every day to follow. Saïx approaches Roxas at the start of this first session. Saïx serves as something of a middle manager in the Organization, giving you and the other Org members their orders. Today, he wants Roxas to start the tutorial, which will take place over a series of days despite some of the tutorials being seconds long. Apparently he’s not a very good middle manager. You can see what I mean about the game being drawn into narrative arcs (as often happens in games, the tutorial is infringing itself upon the narrative as though it were an arc of the narrative). It’s like h.a.n.d. took one look at reviews for KH2 and said “They think this is a drawn-out tutorial? We can challenge it. We have the technology.”
You’re assigned Axel as your mentor for the day, though are given free reign of the Grey Area if you care to pop around and speak to others. Number XIV is there, but like Roxas, Number XIV does not speak if spoken to. XIV is shorter than Roxas, though it can be hard to tell with Roxas’ hair. Zexion is also present, and he remarks on Number XIV’s name, wondering if it is “significant,” even though he does not tell you what the name is. You won’t have to wait long. When you’re ready to go on your training, we suddenly meet up with the film, as both versions show the same scene. Axel spots Roxas staring at XIV, and will ask Saïx about her name for you. Saïx even answers, which is awfully polite for him! It seems No. XIV’s name is “Xion,” pronounced “shi-ON.” Axel then quizzes Roxas on a few other names, probably meant to be a call-forward to how he quizzed Roxas on Xemnas’ name in KH2.
Your training mission today sends you to Twilight Town, which means it’s time to part ways with the film again. The film shows very little of the game’s gameplay segments, arguably for the reasons I described in the previous post (and to keep from modelling individual Heartless in high def!), so just take it as a given that when the game goes into a mission, the film goes off in another direction, usually skipping the events of the mission outright!
As I was saying, we start our mission in Twilight Town, and Roxas finds himself deep inside the tunnel system that was unlocked at the end of KH2. You’ll be here often in Days – in fact, I used to joke that the tunnels were closed off in KH2 because the Org kept bashing around there in this game.
Axel tries to describe what missions are like, but gives up after a few words, saying: “Talking is dumb.” Amazing. The game tries to introduce the concepts behind missions piecemeal, but for the sake of brevity I’ll describe them in full even though Axel doesn’t. Here’s a rough outline of a typical mission. A mission begins with you touching down in one of the Kingdom Hearts’ many worlds via a dark corridor. This corridor is then shut behind you, leaving a small black circle on the ground. You have to go into the world, accomplish your objective whatever that may be, and then return to the dark corridor, although from time to time the mission will end automatically. As a result of this format, missions can sometimes be quite abrupt, though others will stretch out to an easy quarter hour.
This is not one of the longer missions. Axel introduces the basic movement controls, has you activate a few switches to open some grates, and leads you to your “mission objective”: a chest that the Organization stashed at the back of a tunnel. You then return to the portal. That’s it. You open a box, don’t fight any enemies, and don’t even leave this room of the tunnel complex.
Ironically, this means that after three Retrospectives, I can finally talk about gameplay in an early entry, because the game is in nooooo hurry to pile on the story! Let’s start with controls. First off: this is the first game released in the west where the jumping and attack buttons use the Japanese layout. Up until now, the west used the lower face button for Attack and the rightmost face button for jump (X and O on the PS2 controller). In Japan, the buttons have always been the other way around: the lower button was jump and the right button attack. Days brings the Japanese control scheme international. This means that the rightmost button, the DS’s A button, is Attack in all regions, and the lower button, B, is Jump in all regions. This takes some getting used to. If you’re like me, the confusion will only last a short while, but I know that’s not true of everyone and I wish the controls had a customization option, or at least a toggle switch. As an added bonus, you get to feel all tripped up when they switch back for BBS, and then tripped up again when they switch back again in coded! Thank goodness they stuck with the Japanese layout from coded to the 3DS version of DDD, but they’re switching it back for DDD HD and KH3!
It should go without saying, but like nearly every 3D game on the DS, the whole game feels much more natural played with a 3DS using the circle pad than on the DS with the D-Pad. The D-Pad is hardly unworkable, but given the option I know what I’d rather take. Also, like a handful of DS games, Days lets you advance text with the Down button on the D-Pad, which is good for lefties and lazy people like me who hold the system in one hand during text sequences. I’m not mentioning that last feature because it’s important or anything, I just wish every game had the feature because I’m really, really lazy.
The camera controls are a bit more notable, if only because they have a baffling history. You have two camera control schemes to select from: Type A and Type B. The default Type A controls work on an N64 Zelda-style camera system: you press R to cause the camera to turn in whatever direction Roxas is currently facing. Unlike Zelda, this isn’t instantaneous: you have to hold R as the camera gradually swings into position. You have no way of turning the camera without turning Roxas’ body under Type A. The biggest advantage of this system is that it allows you to rapidly access your magic shortcuts by freeing up the L button, which we’ll be discussing in detail in a later entry. Suffice to say: the Type A controls make magic shortcuts work like they did in KH1 and 2 at the cost of a relatively insufficient camera. You’ll have to relearn the camera, but not the magic.
Type B controls, on the other hand, use both shoulder buttons to control the camera, as per KH1’s use of the L2 and R2 buttons. Unfortunately, you’re now forced to press and hold both shoulder buttons to access your magic shortcuts, which many fans will find unintuitive. You’ll have to relearn the magic, but not the camera!
Unfortunately, later games make this decision even harder! BBS on the PSP offers Days’ Type B controls as the default (but does still offer the Type A, they just swapped the labels), and coded on the DS only offers an improved Type A! Thankfully, BBS HD uses a dual-stick control scheme on the PS3.
I’ve got even more bad news on top of that. The wretched game won’t let you change the camera controls until the tutorial is complete, because god forbid the tutorial button prompts be dynamic. And this is a long tutorial. You can also control the camera using the touch screen, but not in any meaningful way: it’s only helpful if you want to take a look around, and at times like that, it’s easier to hit Select and go into first person view.
The game tries to make up for these control failures by implementing a chase cam, and while it’s appreciated, I feel most players will find that they’d rather use the controls than rely on the chase cam. The trouble is that, if you’re fighting a fast-moving enemy, the chase cam can become a hazard as it zips back and forth, trying to keep focus!
After you’ve become as acquainted with your controls as possible, it’s time to find that chest. Part-way down the road, you’ll discover that one of the exits leading to above ground is blocked off by a large, grey-and-white jagged X. Axel explains that these are barricades, nominally put in place by the Organization to keep you out of places you’re not supposed to be, essentially changing the layout of the world on every trip. It’s best not to think about them much. Which member of the Organization set these up? The Dusks? Why didn’t they clear out some of your less important missions while they were at it? How are they already set up for missions that change on the fly? We’ll be complaining about all that and more!
Finally you find the chest, and are introduced to a part of zombie-Roxas’ “personality” that takes a little getting used to: he just doesn’t understand certain things yet. Basic concepts. For example: he sees the chest, then looks blankly at Axel and asks if they’re done now. Axel has to point out word for word that Roxas is supposed to open the chest. After he does open the chest (a Potion), Axel declares the mission complete, and Roxas shows his first sign of personality: “I could have done that blindfolded.” This is hilarious, but as I once said about lampshade hanging: you can hang a lampshade on it, but it’s still in the room. While I agree that most of the information in the finished tutorials should rightly have been presented in the tutorials, Days’ decision to parcel the tutorials to this degree is one of its first big sins.
After the mission is over, Axel says it’s time to “RTC”: “Return to Castle.” This use of pseudo-military jargon is surprising, the game goes so far as to prompt you with “RTC Authorized” on the GUI. You might think the Organization would operate like a military operation, but you’ll soon find Days is going for a different effect overall. Maybe the military jargon was a relic of some older draft, but I feel it actually has its roots in the source of Days’ mechanical structure. That might sound odd – it’s not often a narrative element descends from the mechanics, and never something as small as this – but I’ll explain after we have a broader picture of said mechanical structure. “The Dark Corridor is open,” the GUI prompt adds, as though the Organization wouldn’t have let you come home without you finishing your job!
The purpose of the RTC mechanic is twofold. One is tied up in multiplayer, so we’ll talk about that when we’re talking about multiplayer, but the other is to give you a chance to finish searching the current mission for chests and other prizes even after you clear the objective. The game keeps track of all your prizes, and you’ll be able to revisit old missions to find chests you missed, but I’m glad the game gave you an extra chance to grab them during your first attempt. It’s polite. Unfortunately, the game rarely makes any special use of the RTC phase. From time to time a new baddie might be waiting for you somewhere between you and the portal (oddly, most of these RTC ambushes occur in the early and late portions of the game, with very few in the middle), but generally you’re just walking through rooms that you’ve already emptied!
As you reach the portal, Axel confesses that you don’t have to go straight back to the castle, and he takes Roxas out of the underground for a reward, “the icing on the cake.” Together, they go to the clock tower for some ice cream. There, Axel talks about how he also took Roxas up here the day he was “born,” even though Roxas doesn’t remember.
By the way, this scene is where you’ll first hear “At Dusk, I will Think of You…,” a background track that takes up an unfortunate chunk of the game’s total run-time. This game doesn’t have many new tracks – in fact, the entire soundtrack was sold as a bonus disc for BBS’ soundtrack, and didn’t even fill the disc. That’s not as bad as coded’s soundtrack, though. coded’s soundtrack was used to pad out Days’ bonus disc!
After the mission, a Mope tells us that Roxas doesn’t know what his job is, which is also included in the film. Kiddo, if I had been asked to walk through a tunnel and open a box, I’d be just as confused as you.
By the way, while we’re here I should also say that, as a rule, the film covers most of the game’s clock tower scenes, which are plentiful. But having said that, you might be wondering just what the film was doing before this, if it wasn’t covering the in-gameplay narrative that DS players just went through. Well, it’s not frequent, but the film often summaries things that happen to you during missions via boring-old text. See the image next to this paragraph for an example. Again, these aren’t frequent, but they are front-loaded, as we’re going to see uncomfortably soon. And when you don’t get text summaries, you often don’t get the full picture at all!
While we’re here, there’s something I have to get out of the way as soon as possible: the low-res 3D models used in the DS game are a serious detriment to the kind of story Days is trying to tell. They work okay for the first few days, when Roxas is supposed to be a zombie, but their perpetual fish-faces make Roxas and others look neutral and disinterested in everything that happens to him from here to the end of the game. The game relies on characters portraits for emotions (as well as a few short audio grunts and laughs), but uh-oh: they put the portraits into the wrong corner of the screen! As a western player, I keep looking for his close-up face on the left, where it was for much of the GBA CoM. While CoM did put the face on the right depending on who was talking, the GBA screen was lower resolution, so it wasn’t as much of a problem. Here in Days, the portrait is always on the right and often far from the text. And thanks to an unfortunate burst of realism, Days’ portraits also aren’t very expressive, like their over-expressive anime counterparts in CoM. Unless you train yourself to look at the portraits at all times, you’re going to miss a lot of emotion, and that’s a serious problem.
I can’t overstate the damage done to this emotional story by these low-res zombie models, with the lack of expression and their stiff-gloved hands. It’s catastrophic. I don’t think there’s another single, isolated mechanic responsible for more damage to a Kingdom Hearts game than Square Enix choosing to tell the franchise’s most character-driven story with Punch and Judy marionettes.
Thankfully, the expressive models in the 1.5 “movie” improve the situation dramatically. A new version of Days with higher res models plus the cutscenes from the film would improve the quality of the game by a magnitude, all on its own.
This retrospective’s screenshots come from RickyC’s longplay of the DS version of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube), and from Brian0451’s recording of the 1.5HD cinematics of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube).