Day: September 27, 2016

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Backpack Tetrominoes

Day 11: Keyblade

On Day 11, Saïx tells you you’re paired with Larxene, only for her to be missing. Apparently, she was too impatient to wait for you and is already on-site. You’re going to have to make her even angrier, as there’s an additional delay: Saïx explains you have to equip magic panels for today’s tutorial, which makes this a tutorial for the “Panel” system as well.

Your reward for the previous mission was two or three Fire panels (depending on whether or not you got 100%), and you’ll need to equip them to clear the next mission. If you fail to equip them, you’ll have to Withdraw from the mission, which you can do from the pause screen. I personally love the idea that the Organization is rewarding you with new powers in exchange for your services. It quantifies your status and their respect for you in a way that’s very corporate, which works to the game’s advantage. On the other hand, this is the only mission in the entire game that is outright impossible if you’re missing a certain panel, so once again the tutorial is presenting something as normal that isn’t normal at all!

The Panel system is very confusing when you first see it, if not overall. Part of the trouble with the panel system at first glance is that it’s not immediately clear what the challenge of the mechanic is supposed to be. What’s their game? After all, if they had wanted a challenge-free setup, they would have used a typical toggle-switch menu! The game doesn’t try to make the Panel system challenging for a little while, so it remains as a weird question mark lurking in your submenu for the next few missions.

The Panel system is used for all of your character customization in Days. It consists of up to three pages of 5×8 grids of squares, though you only start with one page and a 5×3 grid, with all the other panels greyed out. Any panels you slot into the available grid space will be available to you during a mission, and at first the system seems to be as simple as just dropping in as many as you can carry. One thing to keep in mind about the Panel menu is that you can’t visit it during the mission, so this is all pre-prep. You’ll want to install all your Fire panels at this point, and ideally a number of Potions you picked up in the last mission.

Personally, I don’t think the game should have given you item panels this early in the game, since they work on different mechanics than every other panel. Item panels never come back after you use them! They exist in a weird mechanical space between permanent upgrade – like every other Panel in the game – and “things Roxas should have shoved in his bag, but didn’t.” And yes, Roxas does have a bag, which makes this all the more confusing. He use his bag it to collect things during the mission, but apparently can’t use it to hold stuff he brought with him the Castle. This all makes a certain amount of gameplay sense and you’re sure to get used to it, but it doesn’t make any real-world sense and that makes it counter-intuitive. You can see why I think Item panels could have been put off for a little while!

One other step you’ll want to do before you leave is to assign your Fire spells to a shortcut. This process is unusual for Kingdom Hearts. Unlike in previous games, you don’t go to a submenu to assign your shortcuts. Days actually lets you change your shortcuts on the fly, I believe in an effort to encourage you to use more than four spells at a time. To do so, you open the spell menu and press the shortcut command while hovering over the spell in question. As a result, even though you can’t cast spells in the Grey Area, you’re allowed to navigate the spell menu just to set hotkeys. I’m glad that that occurred to the devs, because changing the shortcuts is unwieldy enough that I’ve never actually done it in the field!

Of course, just navigating the spell menu is a chore in these new controls. Like with the camera but distinct from the camera, you can go to the option menu to pick between two control sets for navigating your command menu… not that the option menu is unlocked yet. The two control styles are 1) the default, which involves holding X and pressing up and down, costing you mobility in favour of flexibility, and 2) a system which involves simply pressing X, but only being able to move down the menu, cycling to the top when you go past the bottom. This costs you spell and item flexibility in favour of mobility and simplicity. Once again, you get to pick your poison in this awful GUI. I prefer the latter, but as a consequence I have long-since given up on using more than four or five spells in a mission to avoid the danger created by my chosen controls. There are downsides, is what I’m saying.

One thing that has to be mentioned about magic shortcuts is that whenever the game gives you an in-mission text prompt, for any reason, the entire command menu and your shortcuts are locked out. This is infuriating and may very well get you killed! I’m not even going to joke about it. It is a complete, out-and-out mistake, the kind I expect from an amateur production, and should have never have made it past testing.

Once you’re ready, you return to Twilight Town for your mission, where Larxene is so irritated at the delay that she forbids you from using the Keyblade until you’ve set Fire to a Dire Plant. Fire in this game behaves identically to KH1: a homing projectile. In fact it’s a lot better at the “homing” part than KH1’s ever was! After you do this, Larxene gets too irritated by you to keep teaching you magic, and allows you to fight as normal. It’s all fairly cut-and-dry, possibly to cushion the blow when you realize with horror that Roxas doesn’t have an MP bar: he has a limited ammunition system ala FF1. Oh dear.

It works this way: if you install two or three Fire panels, that means you get two or three Fire spells, in the entire mission, period. And even once you do have other spell panels, it will eventually occur to you that the panel system will restrict the number you can bring with you. Panic sets in. What will happen if you have a new panel you really want – are you going to be willing to sacrifice your basic performance by tossing out spells? At the moment, you don’t have enough information to judge the whole system, for your benefit or otherwise, and that made things all the worse for me. All you know for certain is that two more Dire Plants just popped up, and if you miss so much as a single spell, you’ll have lost a third of your arsenal for nothing. Many players treat magic as something of a tertiary option in Days as a consequence. This is unfortunate, because magic truly is valuable in the mid and late game. But the terrible beginnings leave such a bad taste in many players’ mouths that they never learn that, and who can blame them?

There are a few chests in this mission – not that you can open them when enemies are nearby, which I suspect was done to discourage you from rushing through missions, since Days generally returns to the explorable world structure of KH1 instead of the corridor structure of KH2. The game keeps track of chests you’ve opened in the current mission via a counter in the corner of the bottom screen.

As I’ve already hinted, the inventory system in this game is more complicated than it might first appear. Supposing you enter into a mission with items in your panel setup, these items will appear in the first page of your Item menu. This is followed by items carried in your “bag,” meaning any items you picked up during the mission, colour-coded white if they were a random drop, or yellow if they’re from a chest. Items that remain in your inventory at the end of a mission will be converted to panels for you to install later. Chests, however, do not restock. A side effect of this is that missions that contain consumables in chests are essentially easier the first time around, as you’ll have extra items! Whoops? Furthermore, missions with consumables as random drops are easier than those that don’t have consumables as random drops, but this is deliberately done, as enemies vary their drop list from mission to mission! It’s a strange, out-of-the-box sort of way the game uses to regulates its difficulty.

(One complaint I have to make about enemy drops varying by mission is that the enemy listings in your journal will happily tell you each enemy’s random drops… but not the missions or days that those drops belong to!)

The chests in this mission contain Ethers. How much does an Ether restore? 1 cast of each spell you have. Yes, that was a one. As in “single.” Recharging 1 cast is useless, even if you have five or six spells equipped, and as a result, Ethers might as well be bottles of water. Hold out for Hi-Ethers!

After you clear up the mission, you learn that Larxene is transparently jealous of your Keyblade, which is never mentioned again. Whatever. Your prize for clearing this mission is the first proper ability panel, Scan. Boy, I’m sure this exuberant “Mission Complete!” musical theme will feel fulfilling once we do something remotely substantial!

Day 12: A Closed World

Mission 04 is with Vexen, who announces this by saying “You’re mine today, Roxas.” I think I’ve read this slash fic! Wow, first you team up with Marluxia, then Zexion and Larxene, now Vexen, it’s almost as though they’re…… oh, god, they’re getting the CoM cast out of the way before they die, aren’t they? And the fact that they’re all being consigned to the tutorial suggests that they’re not going to last much long outside it.

…I’ll talk more about this once it comes to pass.

“While carrying out a reconnaissance mission together, Vexen said some stuff that was inconsequential to the plot of the movie.”

Finally you get to adjust your controls before this mission begins, so after everyone is set, we can get started on the most complicated mission yet. Saïx asks if you’re ready to begin. YES. I AM READY TO GO ON WITH THE REST OF THE GAME NOW. WHY IS THIS TUTORIAL STILL HAPPENING. While this tutorial is shorter than KH2’s prologue overall, it’s worth noting that KH2’s controls and mechanics were spelled out to you by Day 1 and then parcelled out across the game as you unlocked them, not clumped into the intro in a great gob. This too might be the fault of multiplayer – wanting to get the player ready to play as soon as possible – but even a front-loaded tutorial could be faster than this. Worse, by splitting the tutorial into marked segments (and even worse: calling those segments days) it just seems to stretch out into infinity!

Mission 04 is a recon mission, one of the less frequent mission types, with only half a dozen or so missions to the name. Vexen takes you to the Tram Common in Twilight Town, and asks you to draw a few rudimentary conclusions about the town from the world around you. Roxas does not take well to this assignment.

It doesn’t help that the assignment isn’t very well spelled out to begin, with your asshole mentor giving you so few instructions that you really don’t know what to do. This is a flaw that runs through the whole tutorial: all the Org members but Axel are hostile to Roxas, generally for no reason, and Vexen is outright damaging his own tutorial with this hostility. With his pretentiousness and intelligence, he also makes recon sound far more complicated than it is. The devs are so determined to get across that the Org members are jackasses that they’re screwing up your ability to understand their game!

If the game can’t explain what recon is about, then perhaps I should. During a recon mission, you search the environment for unusual sights and sounds, which Roxas sees as green crosshairs when he gets near certain objects. Many of these observations are not required for your mission: while they do add to the general picture, it’s your job to find all the truly valuable clues one red herring at a time.  Completed clues are marked off on your map after you find them. After collecting enough mandatory clues, you’ll be quizzed by your partner on your conclusions as a way of advancing the plot, although your answers are just for colour as the game proceeds either way. In short: find the right hidden spots and you win!

If you’ve played KH2 in the past, you may have already noticed one of the key problems with this “introduction” mission: you’re in the Tram Common, one of the largest and most complex rooms from that original game. While most of the rooms that Days has borrowed from previous games are actually downscaled, they retain their general complexity even if the walking distances are reduced.

Vexen does tell you to stay in the nearby area at first, but then you’re set loose, which is bad enough, but then it gets worse. Investigation missions are divided by “breakthroughs,” which cause old clues to close up and new ones to open. This sounds natural but here’s the problem: it forces you search one of the most complicated areas in the game from top to bottom, twice. Oh, and as a general problem: obvious elements in the game world often “don’t count” on the first part of an investigation mission, because they just-so-happen to belong to the second!

And to make matters even worse than that, Twilight Town has nothing suspicious going on in the first place! Every other world you’ll visit has odd occurrences for you to look at, Heartless activity to check out, and Disney plots for you to experience, but here, one of the areas you have to search for is a mildly unusual patch of wall. This is an awful introduction to recon missions. In fact it is probably the worst recon mission in the entire game, especially if you include its faults as a bad tutorial.  At least it’s a nice character moment for Vexen… except in how that characterization makes it a bad tutorial.

You’ll run into a sort-of-new enemy as you run around: Possessors, which showed up in KH2, where they possessed the Gargoyle enemies and the Thresholder boss. Ironically, in Days they won’t possess anything, which seems odd from a game that loves recolouring enemies. You’d think Days would be thrilled to recolour a Gargoyle Warrior, but nope! Instead, you now fight Possessors directly. These new Purebloods will try to latch on to you, at which point they”ll suck your health out at an astonishing rate. It can be hard to even attack them without them latching to you, and the only way to shake them is to jump off the ground, and I mean that specifically: you can’t use various mid-air techniques to shake them, you have to land and then hop, which can disrupt your whole strategy. Possessors are probably the only minor Heartless that I prioritize in a larger fight, since it can be hazardous to ignore them.

As the investigation goes on, Vexen seems to be trying to give Roxas some credit, like acknowledging his previous findings on at least one occasion (“What about this path you pointed out?”), but he ultimately makes things worse as they go along. At one point he claims to have figured something out while Roxas has not, confusing the player who has no way of knowing what conclusion he’s talking about! At another point Vexen declares the junkyard from KH2 to be a gathering place, which makes him sound like he’s full of shit even though the writing doesn’t seem aware of that, and even he draws attention to the lack of people in the Tram Common. Is it… is it supposed to be night? Is this just Twilight Town’s version of “night?”

Despite the general lack of NPCs in this game, I really do love the depiction of the Organization as an external force, machinating behind the scenes. Sadly we rarely get to meddle in the good guy’s affairs to much of a degree, only to ooze through the cracks. Ah well, a true villain sim some other day, I guess.

Once this chore is finally done, you unlock Dodge Roll for your rapidly calcifying panel layout. It’s going to be harder and harder to put spells in here if the game doesn’t start unlocking panels in the grid…

By the way, what did the day’s subtitle, “A Closed World,” have to do with anything? The word “closed” didn’t occur in the entire mission! In fact, if I search for “closed” in DJ Firewolf’s script, I get to watch the scroll bar plunge down half the game’s script before it even occurs!

Day 13: Deeds to Be Done

Day 13. This should be significant, don’t you think?

You’re assigned to Lexaeus today, who takes you to the Sandlot in Twilight Town and… doesn’t speak. When Roxas finally asks him what they’re doing, Lexaeus just says “Do you know what a Limit Break is?”

He explains it’s a special technique you can only use when you’re at low HP. Specifically, your character has a yellow band on their HP bar, called the “Alarm Zone” because that’s when the game starts playing a warning alarm. Once your HP is in this range, you can use a Limit Break by holding the attack button, although this does run afoul of accidentally triggering abilities tied to the attack button. Better be careful when you start to press A, because an accidental Sliding Dash (which moves you towards enemies!) could be a real problem when you’re on low health! After triggering a Limit Break, the size of the Alarm Zone decreases until it is ultimately only available for characters sitting on exactly 1 HP. Roxas’ Limit Break, Event Horizon, is really just a button-mashing series of attacks with barely larger than short range, but many of the other Org members have some unusual and sophisticated Limit Breaks.

One minor complaint about Limit Breaks is that it’s the first time in the game where you’ll hear Roxas’ voice clips (there aren’t many, but here they are), and those voice clips are arguably intended for a stage in the game when he’s a lot less lethargic than he is now. Oh well, a little break with the narrative like that won’t hurt us very much.

Just then, a Mega-Shadow appears in front of Roxas and Lexaeus, which is exactly what you’re thinking it is: a giant Shadow with barely modified AI. A lazy enemy design pattern reaching back to the 80s. Lexaeus then looks at Roxas and sucker-punches him so hard he collapses in a heap. Pffffttt…. hahahahaa! It’s so cruel but I don’t care! That makes up for this whole extended tutorial! “There. Now you are on your last legs.” I’m dying.  I’m dyin’!

And the best part? That’s it, that was the whole mission! You use your depleted HP to Limit Break, you kill the Shadow,  and you RTC! Which makes this all so much funnier!  Even better: this is basically the end of the tutorial! Hallelujah!

Okay, the two characters do talk after the mission. Lexaeus reminds Roxas of the importance of him doing his work, since Roxas is the only member of the Organization who can collect hearts, to complete Kingdom Hearts and give them hearts of their own. When Roxas asks why it’s so important for the Nobodies to have hearts of their own, Lexaeus outright refuses to answer, saying Roxas will understand when he has a heart. That seems like a long time to put off telling Roxas why he should do his job, don’t you think? We can immediately see a narrative problem: in the Organization’s hurry to get Roxas up to speed, Roxas doesn’t know what Kingdom Hearts is, what hearts are, and many other fundamentals. And I think that would be okay if the problem were ever resolved later in the game, but the thing is: they aren’t! Roxas (nor in some cases, a newcomer player!) will never really get answers to his questions, so you have to start wondering even at the start of the game if everyone is being a dick or if everyone is just incompetent. Remember: we already know that Roxas is going to leave the Organization to find answers to questions! The fact that no one answers his questions – answers which (at least at this stage?) would not hurt the Organization’s plans in the slightest – ends up hurting the Organization’s plans immeasurably. Morons! Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s the idiot ball off-season?

In a closing Mope, Roxas decides that since everyone else in the Organization wants to be whole, then he will too. That’s… good initiative there Roxas.

I guess Day 13 didn’t turn out that significant after all!

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Moping Zombie
Next: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Ha-Ha Noises

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).