Day 27: The Dark Margin
Day 27 sees Roxas flashing back to his conversation with Xemnas at The Dark Margin from KH2 (the version where we can actually hear Roxas’ voice, if you were worried about that). This flashback calls some of Days’ narrative decisions are called to task: like the fact that this conversation supposedly takes place during Roxas’ first six “zombie days,” but he’s able to form many full sentences and even speak with accusation in his voice. This won’t be the last time Days’ treatment of Roxas is out of line with the portrayal in KH2 and FM+. To make matters worse, you’ll never get a proper explanation for why Roxas and Xemnas were even doing at the Dark Margin, essentially letting a mystery from KH2 die. At the end of the KH2 version of the scene – wherein Roxas was unable to give his true name – the scene continues, and Xemnas (suddenly unhooded) walks past Roxas, mouthing the name “Sora.”
In the present, we see that this may not have been Roxas’ flashback after all. Roxas has been brought to his room, where he is in a coma. Xemnas is looking over him, raising the possibility that the flashback to the Dark Margin was actually his flashback!
Xemnas asks Saïx if Roxas is likely to wake. Saïx says it’s likely. …Actually, he says “I am told,” but who told him? It’s not like the Organization has a staff doctor! As you may have suspected given the timeline and Roxas’ vision of Naminé, Saïx explains that Roxas has fainted because Sora has been put into hibernation during CoM. He implies that Roxas won’t recover until Naminé has finished stripping Sora of his memories before she begins the process of reconstructing them. They’re not sure how long that’s going to take, since she’s not exactly sending them Christmas cards.
Saïx tries to give some good news: “Xion has gained power over the Keyblade, just as we intended. She can fill Roxas’ shoes for the time being.”
The film cuts out here, but the game continues: Xemnas asks Saïx if the Castle Oblivion crew or the scouts that followed have found the Chamber. In the west, this was the first time we had heard about any “Chamber” and it was intriguing. Unfortunately, it was also incomprehensible, as the game seems to assume you already know what it’s talking about from KH2:FM+, and won’t fill in the details! Nowadays, we know that Xemnas is talking about the Chamber of Awakening, counterpart to the Chamber of Repose he constructed in Hollow Bastion. Saïx says there has been no progress, and leaves. Xemnas remains by Roxas’ bedside, saying “So, sleep has taken you yet again.” But what could he possibly mean? Prior to now, neither Roxas nor Sora has been “asleep” in any notable way. I didn’t actually catch his meaning until I was writing this very sentence, this game can be pretty subtle at times! If you’re new to the series, I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to work it out at all!
With that, Roxas’ coma continues, and we watch in astonishment as the current day counter appears and rolls past an entire month, coming to a stop on Day 49.
This scene is short, and the day unusually has no subtitle. It shows Xion visiting Roxas and talking to him as he continues to sleep. She tells him she went to a new, beautiful world today, and promises to visit him tomorrow, leaving a seashell by his pillow, next to more than twenty others placed in a tidy square, one for each day he’s been asleep.
(HEAVY SPOILERS but I have nowhere else to put them: It might be logical to assume that Xion just went to visit Destiny Islands, and it’s later implied that she has been sent there in the past, but speaking logically, if she’s been giving Roxas shells for 20 days, she must have been there for a while! Hm, given Xion’s resemblance to Kairi and Kairi’s connection to Sora, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were sending her to be near Kairi on purpose. The fact that we’re about to see a glimpse of Kairi should have made that obvious to me years ago.)
During this scene, we first hear Xion’s theme, “Musique pour la tristesse de Xion.” Yoko Shimomura started naming a lot of her tracks in other languages around this point, which would become a major thing on the DDD soundtrack. The name means “Music for the Sadness of Xion,” and the track is exactly 3:58 on the BBS OST bonus disc. It’s a great track reminiscent of Roxas’ theme / “The Other Promise.” The track itself is lovely and sad, a piano theme meant as companion to Roxas’ theme, and it’s one of the series’ best. But enough about the music, let’s talk conspiracy: I’m convinced that “Musique pour la tristesse de Xion” wasn’t the track’s original name! You see, the name first appears on Piano Collections: Kingdom Hearts Field & Battle in 2010, attached to a medley that just happens to include Xion’s theme. When it said “Music for the Sadness of Xion,” it meant “Music” in the plural, referring to all the songs in the medley, of which Xion’s theme was only a part! Oh well. The name has since been canonized as the name of Xion’s theme alone by the BBS/Days/coded OST, so I might as well suck it up.
As Xion leaves, we get the first of Days’ interesting use of the top and bottoms screen dynamic, as, even though the action has been in the top screen for the entire game so far, a video of the end of CoM plays at the bottom. In this shot, Sora is sealed in the strange white bulb, clutching something in his hand – presumably the Oathkeeper pendant, implying this memory was provoked by the shells Xion brought to Roxas. The game makes careful use of the screens to convey which visuals are “real” and which are from the mind: the dream of Sora is on the lower screen, since Sora is on the other side of Roxas’ heart. The game is very consistent about this in scenes to come, and I feel it’s a very clever use of the dual screen system that’s sadly lost on the film, though the film does an admirable job to make up for its absence.
Day 50: Familiar Sound
Roxas is woken by a memory of Kairi waking Sora at the start of KH1, and despite a month asleep, doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting up and waltzing around. It must be late in the day, as he finds no one at the Grey Area, and he goes instead to the tower in Twilight Town, where he finds Xion sitting alone.
Roxas understandably has questions, so Xion fills him in. “You were sleeping, a long, long time.” Maybe you shouldn’t be sitting on that ledge, in fact! In the game, she has a confusing line where she says Saïx told them you might never wake up despite his telling Xemnas in private that you would. It’s not clear what Saïx would have gained from saying this to the other members of the Organization (except to be a dick), so the film scrubbed it, and Saïx instead told the whole Organization that they didn’t know when he would wake up, just like he did Xemnas.
Xion hands Roxas this day’s seashell, and tells you to hold it up to your ear. Hearing the sound of the sea provokes another memory for Roxas, of Sora and Kairi on the docks on the bottom screen. This is shot in a way that seems to imply Roxas is having a nostalgic flashback to one of Sora’s memories all of a sudden, so let’s set aside the fact that this screenshot comes from the scene where Kairi used her princess-powers and sensed that Riku would become evil during the events of KH1 and maybe they should run away from one of their best friends. Good… good choice of happy memory. The day fades out.
Day 51: Missing and Days 52-54: Solitude
The other Organization members seem relatively pleased to see Roxas up on his feet the next day, in their own unique ways. Even the Moogle, who says he was worried he wouldn’t be able to swindle you anymore! Aren’t you a nice little fuzztop.
The game gets a wobbly here if you don’t go straight to Saïx: if you talk to Xigbar, he’ll announce that while you were asleep, they learned everyone at Castle Oblivion has died – it seems that Axel has not returned and the Organization thinks he’s dead too! If you talk to Saïx, Roxas still asks about the others, and is told that they don’t know how many people have died! The film’s text-only summary of this section favours Saïx’s explanation, but what a weird inconsistency!
Naturally, Saïx is keen to throw you back into work. He’s got a block of missions for you, which lead to our strange header today. The first day is treated as “Day 51: Missing,” but after you complete it, you move on to “Day 52: Solitude,” even though you’re still in the middle of the same mission block! The game does this a handful of times in the future. My best guess? I suspect that it’s an artificial coding limitation designed to facilitate two separate features. Firstly, it allows Roxas’ diary to be updated twice, and secondly, it allows the devs to shuffle around the occupants of the Grey Area, and to change their dialogue. This is the kind of solution that programmers call a “hack” or “kludge”: it’s clearly not the right way to do things, and may bite you in the ass long run, but it works, so who cares? Could they have programmed this some other way? Yes, in fact in this case I’d even say “easily,” but they clearly didn’t, and all I can do to explain it is this short lesson in kludges and other poor-form computer science techniques. Now, don’t get me wrong, kludges are so common that they’re in every large project that has ever existed, and probably most of the small projects too. They’re certainly no great evil, just an everyday reality of the programming industry, but they’re typically kept below surface level. Not this one! This one’s on the surface for everyone to see!
Because this is purely a narrative level hack, the missions in this block and others like it are still collected together in the Holo-Mission menu.
Speaking of things being rearranged in the Grey Area: while things are normal on Day 51, Saïx will give you a phenomenal prize when you talk to him on Day 52 (the second day of this mission block). This prize is a Level Doubler. This linked panel is meant to be plugged with Level Ups, each of which will count as 2 instead of just 1. A considerable upgrade! A little known fact about the Level Doublers (and later Level Triplers) is that they’re all designed to fit together on a single panel card, so if you ever get a new one and can’t seem to fit it anywhere, consider dumping everything out temporarily, and putting the Level multiplier panels together in one big Tetris block.
Now that I’ve told you about the Level Doubler, this tempting prize might make you consider taking one of this mission block’s weaker missions first, just so you can get your doubled level ups right away, but hold your horses! There are more new things to consider. While you were asleep, the Organization decided to implement a number of new features, with some special ones designed specifically for optional mission blocks like this one. We’re still missing the stupid Challenge mode, but everything else is here.
The first of these long-lost features are Unity Badges. These are small, red badges you’ll find hidden in most missions from here on out. Essentially: these Badges unlock the missions in Mission Mode. All the missions before this one were unlocked by default, and all missions after this point require the Badge. Fortunately, you get to keep the Unity Badge should you withdraw from a mission (similar to a chest) so if you missed the Badge during your first attempt, it won’t take long to grab it on a second. While it’s a little hard to tell, thanks to the way Roxas has been unconscious for a month, you might notice that this new feature has arrived just one mission into Novice Rank, and that’s not a coincidence: the previous mission in Agrabah (Mission 15) wasn’t available in Mission Mode at all, so in a manner of speaking, every mission from Novice and above has a Unity Badge! Typically, the Unity Badge is easy to find and won’t require any mobility upgrades, but unless my memory’s gone foul, they do require mobility upgrades from time to time… and I have to wonder why. I don’t mind unlocking features in a game, but by delaying certain missions until you get a mobility upgrade, all you do is give the player and their friends underlevelled mission that won’t be a challenge by the time they’ve finally unlocked it!
The second regular feature you’ll meet here is your first proper sidequest… or at least that’s what I’m gonna call them. They’re not exactly like the sidequests you’d imagine from other video games. Sidequests in Days are unlocked by talking to Org members in the Grey Area, and they’re completely missable, so it pays to be attentive: if you aren’t done them by the time you’re done the current mission block (and they can appear attached to single missions as well!) you’ll miss the chance entirely. The rewards aren’t always worth it, but they’re something to do and they’re also usually low-effort. The sidequests often aren’t even trying: a lot of them just exist to remind you that certain features exist, like the previous mission block’s half-hearted: “Go equip a Gear you lazy bum.”
For this sidequest, Demyx charges you to collect all the chests in Mission 14 in exchange for a Shining Shard (on top of the prizes you’ll get from the chests in Mission 14, of course!). Judging from his dialogue, Demyx seems to be sending you on one of his assignments so that he can slack off, though it’s not clear why he was assigned to one of your missions in the first place. Best not to think about it. This is one of those places where I wish you could have played one of the other Org members during the main storyline. Demyx was supposed to do this mission, so why not let us control Demyx for the duration of the sidequest?
The third new feature you’ll see during this mission block is the Bonus Gauge, which takes a little getting used to. The Bonus Gauge only appears during optional mission blocks – you’ll never find it attached to single, mandatory missions. You can see it in the corner of the mission select screen, made up of several boxes of different heights: first small boxes (marked “x1”), then medium (“x2”), and usually a third tall section (“x3”). As you hover over a mission, a certain number of boxes will be highlighted: this tells you that clearing that mission will fill that much of the Bonus Gauge. After you’ve cleared the mission, the game checks the updated Gauge: if you’re still in the x1 section after the mission is cleared, things behave as normal, but if you are in the medium section, you’ll get double your mission rewards, which includes the two prizes you get for clearing the mission, the prize for getting 100% if you earned it, and the Random Completion Bonus if you’re lucky enough to get one. If you’re in the tall section of the Bonus Gauge, your prizes are tripled. Now, some rewards aren’t meant to be multiplied, like unique items and Lv Doubler panels, but generic prizes like items, recipes and even spell panels are. Once you’ve placed a mission on the Bonus Gauge, it’s thankfully locked there. Should you come back to the mission as a Holo-Mission and earn a forgotten 100% prize, the prize will still be duplicated or tripled, as appropriate.
The Bonus Gauge isn’t just an incentive to complete missions, but to plan the order in which you complete them. As a result, I’ll try to touch on some advice every time we come to a mission block from here on out.
There are four missions in this block, and the Bonus Gauge only goes up to double here, not triple. Even though the missions increase the Bonus Gauge by different amounts, the game is misleading you this time around: no matter what combination you attempt, you’ll get a 1x multiplier that first mission, and a double for every time that follows. The most prominent prize attached to any of these missions is an Elixir Recipe attached to Mission 16 as the 100% prize. But this is a trap. While you can and should put Mission 16 into the 2x section of the Bonus Bar so that you’ll get double Elixir Recipes later in the game, you can’t 100% Mission 16 during your first trip, and can only double the Elixir Recipe as a Holo-Mission!
Regardless of the order I may have played the missions myself, we’re going to be covering them in numerical order here in the Retrospective. That means it’s time for our false friend, Mission 16, which is in Agrabah. For the first time in the game, you’ll be running a mission solo, with no AI teammate. Mission 16 is the only mandatory mission in this mission block, and as is often the case in mission blocks, it’s also the only one with any narrative content. As the mission begins, Roxas overhears Aladdin and Jasmine talking, and it seems they’ve clued into the fact that the Heartless are connected to the sandstorms, though what can they do about it? Roxas decides that this is none of his concern, so he heads off on his mission: to hunt Dire Plant recolours called “Fire Plants.”
Despite being recolours, all Fire Plants have in common with Dire Plants is immobility, as their attacks and stats are entirely different. Fire Plants are capable of spitting bowling ball fireballs just like Scarlet Tangos, as a result, you can’t deflect their shots like the Dire and Poison Plants of yesterday. Instead, it’s best to catch them from the side or behind, and rely on their very, very slow rotating speed to trip them up.
If you keep your eyes open, you can find a Loaded Gear+ in this mission. This gives the Pain of Solitude a single upgrade slot, which isn’t much but is better than you have. These are the trifles of the early game. That said, this upgrade slot can be used to give Roxas Fire Finish, a powerful ability that turns your finisher attack into a Fire attack, potentially causing Ignite! You might remember that the Sign of Innocence had Thunder Finish with Jolt, but I suspect the two status effects don’t have equal chance of being inflicted.
There’s an additional complication waiting for you at the City Gates. There, a Barrier Master Heartless is waiting with a crop of Fire Plants. The Barrier Master is a recolour of the Bookmaster from KH2, but it doesn’t share any tactics in common with its original. Instead, the Barrier Master casts impenetrable barriers over every other Heartless in the room. The Barrier Master itself does not benefit from this shield, but it is protected by its book. In concept, this not unlike the Runemaster from KH2:FM+, but in practice, the book is easily overcome by close-hand attacks, so that’s what you want to do. If you can peg the Barrier Master it often ends up stunned, dropping its book, at which point you can attack either the Master or its book to separate the two via knockback. Once the Barrier Master recovers, it will try to reunite with its book, and until it does so, the barriers will remain down. The Barrier Master has quite a bit of HP. I think the devs expected many players to separate it from its book and then attempt to destroy the other Heartless while the Bookmaster and book were apart, but it’s far easier to just grind away at the Barrier Master itself even in spite of its HP, especially if you’re willing to spend a few casts of magic, because it’s particularly vulnerable to magic once you’ve separated it from its book-shield.
After you destroy one of the Fire Plants on the upper level, the game yanks the parking brake, interrupting the entire combat to show you a cutscene. I can’t believe the game interrupted you mid-combat like this! Its just… I feel silly saying this but… it’s rude! In the cutscene we see Aladdin and Abu. When Roxas sees Abu, he suddenly gets a flashback to Sora, and we see Sora on the bottom screen surrounded in static. Because this happens so often, I’m going to refer to these as “Statics,” similar to our beloved but forgotten Mopes of yore. In the present-day cutscene, Aladdin chastises Abu for stealing, as it seems Aladdin has turned over a new leaf, as he no longer needs to steal to survive.
After this cutscene, you’ll discover the fact that you can’t 100% the mission during your first attempt, just like I said when we were discussing the Bonus Gauge: without the crate in the marketplace, there’s no way up on the nearby scaffold, and sure enough there are Fire Plants up there. Dejected, you RTC and Roxas returns to Twilight Town, where he’s surprised to find no one waiting for him at the Tower. This is a sad reminder that Axel may have been killed, but is surprising that there’s no sign of Xion, after she spent the last twenty days making regular visits to Roxas’ bedside!
In the diary entry for Days 51 and 52 (though technically, the entry for Day 52 won’t show up until after the mission block clears), Roxas remarks on feeling “choked up” about Axel, and in the entry for Day 52, he adds that “[t]hat weird lump in my throat won’t go away.” Roxas also remarks on seeing the memories of Sora, so it that it’s clear that these static-shots aren’t simply just a gameplay artifice.
Mission 17 sees you returning to Twilight Town, where Roxas is sent after a Heartless called a “Tailbunker.” Tailbunkers are based on the Wyverns of KH1, but they are, in fact, remodelled: now featuring a giant, ankylosaur-like club tails. This isn’t the last such Wyvern remodel we’ll see in Days, and I’m going to refer to this “family” of Heartless as the Tailbunker family. While the Wyverns may have been minor enemies in KH1 and CoM, the Tailbunker line are midbosses here in Days. Roxas finds his target lording over the Tram Common, stomping and screaming from a high perch – the Organization is lucky this town is perpetually vacant!
While most of this game’s midbossses have been oversized normal enemies with the same simple AI as their lesser cousins, most but not all of the Tailbunker family follow a two-staged battle. First, you have to ground the monster by attacking its wings and tail, each of which counts as separate lock-on target if you have a preference. This will cause the thing to fall to the ground stunned, after which it will attempt low-flying techniques and rams for a while before returning to the glides and fireballs from stage 1. Once the Tailbunker is grounded, it becomes possible to target its head (you can still attack its head prior to grounding the Tailbunker, but as you’ll learn to your dismay, you can’t target the head until it’s grounded, which makes things much more complicated than they might sound). Hitting the head with Blizzard is the best way to cause damage, though the fight is still going to drag out a bit. This isn’t going to be quite as rapid as the Guardian midboss fight from earlier, though with a little luck with Freeze, it can be!
Mission 18 takes place in Agrabah and introduces a new mission format, and it’s a weird one. Nominally, this is another of the Organization’s attempts to “determine your fitness for future missions” but I’m not sure how this determines your fitness for anything. It just seems like the devs has a weird idea and put it in whether it made sense or not. The name of the game is “Collect the Emblems,” and the mission has you running around an environment collecting floating Organization emblems that have been scattered by another member. Let’s try to focus on using a lower-case “e” at the start of the word “emblem,” so we don’t get them confused with Emblem Heartless in a game focused on Emblem Heartless. Look, it’s not my fault the localizers didn’t have a thesaurus.
These Organization emblems appear with a large ring around them. The rings are at full size at the start of the mission and gradually shrink. Grab an emblem while the ring is present, and you’ll get full points on the mission gauge, and the rings on all other emblems will restore to full size. Should you pick up an Organization emblem after the ring has shrunk away, however, you’ll get less points, and I’m afraid to say that you’ll no longer be able to get 100% on the mission gauge during this attempt. That’s bad news, but there is a silver lining, in that the rings around other emblems restore as normal to help you clear the mission at base level just to go about your business. To restore the rings around without collecting a dud emblem, simply defeat a Heartless, but don’t get cocky! The Heartless are always sparse during an Org emblem mission. Thankfully, you can hit the minimum mission score in every emblem mission without keeping up with the rings, but even if you don’t plan to get 100%, the rings do make things a lot faster.
One thing that annoys me about Org emblem missions is that, if you get a close call, you have no way of telling if you grabbed the emblem in time or not, and the game sure isn’t telling you. There’s no visible or audible difference between an emblem collected in time or not (a different chime would have more than sufficed!), so unless you’re carefully watching the mission gauge instead of the top screen, there’s always going to be a sense of unease.
Returning to the subject of Mission 18 in particular: while you can clear this particular mission 100% on your first attempt, none of the emblem missions are very easy before you get mobility upgrades. Your prize for getting 100% is a boring old Blizzard panel (or two, with of the Bonus Gauge was in x2), so you could do worse than to pass on this mission with less than 100% for the time being.
The last mission in the set, Mission 19, is simply a Deserter mission. Or at least, it’s “simply” a Deserter mission in story mode. This mission is different in multiplayer, featuring only a small number of Deserters at a time, which is infinitely more frustrating than a huge crowd of Deserters. The fact that the story version of Mission 19 is essentially a duplicate of the Twilight Town Deserter mission suggests to me that they planned to use the small number of Deserters in both the Mission and Story mode versions of 19, but decided it was just too irritating for a single player-character!
Even though this is our second block of optional missions, I wanted to discuss the fact that optional missions essentially have no “ending.” The way things work now is adequate, but things could have been better. The next cutscene you see after a block of optional missions will always be the first custscene of the next part of the story, not a finale to the block you just finished. While I’ve already mentioned the game’s narrative arc structure, which I think is fine, I think the lack of a payoff at the end of an optional mission block hurts the end product from a gameplay perspective. With no reward, your actions feel empty, and they only add to the sense of repetition that permeates Days, not unlike CoM. In most other KH there was always a sense of gameplay progression, you were at least in new areas with each battle, solving new puzzles when available and seeing new plot. The repetition in Days and CoM is built into their very gameplay structure. You move through a stage, then RTC back across the exact same stage with usually no variance, and then you go to another mission, which just happens to be on the exact same stage again, moving through the exact same stage with just a little variance, then you RTC back across that…
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).