After another time skip, we find Ven now healthy and secure in his own room in a world we’ve never seen. We later learn that Ven has no memory of the events on the island. This appears to be Ven’s bedroom on this new world, and lining his walls are books and what I can only describe as magical homework: a boy’s scribblings of planetary/alchemical signs. A close observer might spot the books “Kingdom Hearts,” “Birth by Sleep” and “Ultimania” on his shelf (Ultimania being the Japanese-only strategy guides released by Square Enix). Oh, you cheeky game, you!
Ven is woken up in the middle of the night, and we discover that yes, he sleeps in full clothes: a black and white Batman Forever Two Face cosplay that I’m sure won’t have any symbolism at all. Like the other two members of our trio, he also has a pauldron – a piece of shoulder armour – but only on one shoulder, which looks like a piece of his armour from the KH2 trailers.
Ven looks outside his window and discovers there is a meteor shower ongoing. This seems like a pretty hammy way to connect the game to KH1, because remember that in any other entry in the series, a meteor shower implies the barrier around the world has fallen and everyone is going to die. Then again, everyone seems to know the words “meteor shower,” so maybe there are a “normal” kind that… you know what? Too much thought about Kingdom Hearts’ cosmology can only lead to trouble.
Ven runs out, as our camera pans past his high-quality telescope as he rushes to get a look at the meteor shower. When we meet up with him outside the large castle or manor he calls home, he has the nerve to say: “I can’t see much from here”! One line of dialogue awake and we’re already off to a bad start with this kid. The game gives us the title card for our world at this point: it’s another rock from the Realm of Obvious Symbolism, the Land of Departure.
Gaining control of a character for the first time, we discover that I will grind your bones into my bread if you don’t give me camera customization at the start of the next game, Kingdom Hearts! BBS features two or three camera controls depending on version, not that you’d know in this point in the game. You can only set them after you’ve been through the entire tutorial and the intro sequence for your chosen character. It’ll be egg bread, Kingdom Hearts. It’ll be good. The two camera controls in the original PSP game are based on Days’ controls, though as I said in the Days review, the PSP needlessly swapped the labels on the A and B-style controls, I can only presume because it preferred a different default, aka “Type A.” BBS HD added a new Type A using the dual stick controller, which is infinitely better than the others, though I respect them for keeping the original PSP controls around for veterans.
Ven runs up the hill outside the castle, discovering what can only be construed as training equipment. There is both a strange golden wheel suspended from a chain, and a spinning merry-go-round of four of the things. Ven decides that he’s got time to do a tutorial for combat controls. Whatever you say, man, you seem pretty determined to miss this meteor shower and I’m not gonna stop you.
BBS has a lot of combat subsystems. BBS is a Lovecraftian abomination of combat subsystems, and it is in a damn hurry to introduce them. The only thing that keeps them from weighting down the entire game is the fact that some of them are bound to be useless to your play style, so you can ignore them. Basic combat is as you’d expect, with a speed somewhere between Days’ and KH2’s. It’s close to the sweet spot I feel Kingdom Hearts should be aiming for in general, which probably goes a long way to explaining my general comfort level with this game. Dodge Rolling and Blocking are now standard and have remained so in all games to date. But the most critical addition to the game is the Command Deck, and I’m going to break tradition and start talking about it right away. We have a lot of combat systems to talk about in BBS. The sooner I start talking about, the sooner they’ll be over.
The Command “Deck” appears in the corner of the GUI, and consists of a series of special Commands that you install manually. At the start of the game, you have three slots in the deck, or five in Critical, and you’ll eventually earn a max of eight slots (Critical gives you the first three upgrades at the same time as other difficulties, and the last two simply disappear). You can cycle through these commands using Up and Down on the D-Pad, with Left jumping to a pre-arranged shortcut, and Right being tied to an entirely different subsystem. You use the chosen command by pressing Triangle, after which it undergoes cooldown. This system essentially replaces both magic and special attacks from previous games, essentially allowing you to use commands “at will” so long as you are mindful of their cooldown.
There are so many commands in the game that I’m not going to be able to detail them all, but I’m going to mention any notables. For example, Ven begins with three commands: Quick Blitz, which allows him to do an overhead strike; Strike Raid, which as you can imagine is no longer as powerful as in KH1 but still makes for a handy side-arm that I like to keep in my deck at all times; and Aero, an pathetic area attack spell in the line of CoM’s version of Aero. The physical moves are marked with little Keyblade symbols, and the magic with a wizard’s hat, and naturally their power derives from your Strength and Magic stats, respectively. For Ven, both options are equally viable.
The devs really enjoyed the Command Deck system, bringing it back for Re:coded and DDD. I like its tactical customization and fluidity, and I respect the devs recognizing that limited MP systems only work with slower, more deliberate games and that faster games should rely more heavily on timing and placement. As a result of this renewed focus on timing and placement, BBS relies fairly heavily on your basic dodging and blocking skills, moreso even than coded and DDD. But the system is not without its faults, not least of all the strangeness of coded and DDD making such a surprising set of fundamental-level change!
Speaking of the GUI, PS3 players will probably notice how the GUI elements have ballooned up in that version. The tiny portable GUI was left basically untouched in the conversion, and it’s a touch too large for the screen, especially the pop-up menus and interface- and tutorial-related dialog boxes. Whoops!
Ven deals with the rings before carrying into a chest tutorial, where we learn that that chests are now opened with X and not Triangle. Kyle just laughed and laughed as we were playing BBS together and there I was, with KH2 on my brain, fireballing every chest in the game with Triangle. We also learn that chests can contain Commands, which I guess are physical objects? Having done this, Ven says, “What am I doing hanging around here? I’m going to miss the meteor shower!” as I smack my hand into my face so hard it leaves a mark.
Ven watches the stars at the top of the hill for a while before falling asleep. When he wakes, no one is particularly surprised to see Aqua peer her head over his in yet another reference to KH1’s opening. You can do this all day, BBS, but I should warn you that it’s coming off at best as “cutesy” and at worst as uninspired. Especially since Aqua looks to be in her early twenties but is acting out Kairi’s 13 year old shtick… though like I said about Organziation members in CoM, a Square Enix character that looks to be in their mid-twenties could easily be 16-18. I personally do get a vibe from Aqua and Terra’s behaviour that they’re supposed to be in their early twenties (especially hints implying an age gap over the definitely 15/16 year-old Ven), but your opinion may vary.
Aqua’s first words to Ven are that he should have brought a blanket, rapidly establishing her as the “mom” of the group. It’s a little blunt as character development goes, but if you’re going to copy from KH1, the rapid character establishment is hardly the worst thing you could have borrowed. Ven is flighty and energetic, Aqua is responsible and relatively calm, and Terra… walks in delivering exposition, which should never be anyone’s primary character trait, ever. And you were doing so well!
Aqua here is played by former The O.C. and Gossip Girl star Willa Holland, who is here in her second voice acting role (after Scarface: The World is Yours) and it sadly shows. She picks up as she goes, even before the end of the game, and is doing so much better in KH0.2. I’ve got similar reservations and hopes for Veronica Mars’ Jason Dohring, who voices Terra. The biggest problem is that old Kingdom Hearts chestnut: voice direction issues. Some have suggested that the issue is that a Japanese voice director is being used to direct these English speakers, but whatever they’re doing for voice directing I hope they’ve stopped. Willa and Jason’s readings just seem sleepy in BBS, and that sleepiness happens to Jesse as well, which is why I’m accusing the director. Jason just suffers the most from this kind of direction because his deeper voice and style of delivery makes it all sound so much… much more… *yawn*… drawn out. In the end, I like all three of their voices, but I feel it takes the actors a while to get into their grooves.
I skipped ahead a bit, so let’s wind back. Before Terra arrives, Ven talks about how stargazing is reminding him of something (we know that it it’s reminding him of when he was on Destiny Island as a near-corpse) but Aqua remarks: “‘Cept you’ve always lived here with us.” This a weird thing to say, because you learn that this isn’t true very early on, and that Aqua knows it, too. We learn it so early, in fact, that I’m not sure why the developers bothered to lie! We later outright see them meeting for the first time, and Aqua looks to be only a few years younger than she is now (same 3D model), so I think it’s unlikely that she’s forgotten. It may be that she’s under orders to lie to him – a later cutscene will explain why I’m suspecting that – but what a poor introduction to one of the more forthright and just characters in the series! Aqua lying like this just feels wrong!
(I have an alternate theory that Terra, Aqua and Ven were meant to have met at much younger ages. If this were true, it would imply that Aqua just plain doesn’t remember meeting Ven when she was younger, which would make this a simply inaccurate statement more in line with her character. But since the developers ultimately chose to imply they met no more than a year or two ago, here we are with a “lie.”)
Terra shows up as the group are talking about stars. He explains how starlight is the light of other worlds (something you’d think Ven would know by now, but the game is clearly pandering to new players), and then he makes a baffling metaphor. He says: “It’s shining down on us like a million lanterns. […] In other words, they’re just like you, Ven.” “What does that mean?” Ven asks, echoing myself. “You’ll find out someday, I’m sure,” says Terra, as I look at him like his face just melted off and slipped down the hill. I think he’s saying that… Ven makes… other… people… happy?
Ven then says “I wanna know now!” in such a childish whine that… oh… oh god, I’m having Days flashbacks. The infantalization of Roxas is flashing before my eyes and—fuck, Terra is saying “You’re too young to know now!” It’s happening! It’s happening again! Why would Terra even say that unless it was a narrative device to make Ven look childish and a decade or two younger than the others! Argggggggh!
At this point I think I just have to accept that there’s a writing problem stringing through the series. Many of you are probably too young to remember, but when Bill Waterson first released Calvin and Hobbes, he got a lot of praise for capturing the actual voice of childhood. It’s hard to write children, and it’s nearly as hard to write teens, and many writers do an embarrassing job of it. We have only two angles at this point: either Ven was supposed to be an even younger character than he appears to be (unlikely, given that his appearance was established in “Birth by sleep”), or someone on the writing staff really thinks that 15/16 year olds sound exactly like six year olds. After two games of this shit, I favour the latter. BBS was where I really solidified my “infantaliziation of Roxas” theory from Days even though this isn’t Roxas or Days: KH is just writing 16 year olds as tiny, whiny, children, and it’s gone past curious and into pathetic. And I add, with a plaintive, even weeping tone in my voice, that’s not gonna stop.
But wait, it gets worse! Aqua looks at the other two fighting and laughs, saying: “You two would make the weirdest brothers.”
Congratulations! We’re three minutes in and we just saw the worst localized line in the game! On the downside: wow. But on the plus side, it’s all uphill from here!
Fun fact: this line isn’t in the Japanese original. This is, in fact, the opposite of the Japanese line, where Aqua was outright comparing them to brothers, and you have no idea what a foolish mistake it was to reverse this. It’s hard enough to believe that they took a line and said, “Nah, let’s localize this to its exact opposite meaning,” but it goes further than that. The original line wasn’t some throwaway line, it was a declaration of theme! I don’t… I just… it’s—it’s just stunning. You can just imagine Aqua strolling through District 9 going “At least it’s not apartheid!” or line-dance with Aslan across Narnia singing “Praise Satan!” If I’m not making myself clear: the fact that these three are like family is the central theme of the game, and the localization just walked in and said “Nope!” How do you do that?
Just then, Aqua says, “Oh yeah! Terra, you and I have our Mark of Mastery exams tomorrow,” as though she had actually forgotten this major event which we later learn they’ve been training for over the course of years. She then produces the three stained glass stars from the intro cinematic, saying she just made them. It seems they’re meant to be good luck charms for whatever a Mark of Mastery exam is, and are modelled after the same good luck charm Kairi would later make in KH1 – the one that became the Oathkeeper pendant. Aqua says she worked some magic into the artifacts, which the game now calls “Wayfinders.” “An unbreakable connection,” she says.
The game later explains that the three Wayfinders are tied to a new mechanic called Dimension Links (D-Links), but as you don’t have any D-Links quite yet, I’m going to put that discussion off. Since the D-Links and Wayfinders are the most narratively important mechanic in the entire game, you’ll be glad to know the devs made sure the mechanic itself was also the least useful combat mechanic in the game.
Since “tomorrow’s the exam,” our new trio decide to get a few more tutorials in via a few sparring matches. This introduces the mechanics of Finish attacks and Shotlocks. Finish Attacks are relatively simple… for now, before they expand on their own and get tangled up with another mechanic we won’t even be learning for an entire world. But don’t worry about that quite yet. On their own, Finish Attacks are simple. Above your Command Deck is an empty bar. You fill it by landing attacks (Commands or regular attacks) and it drains over time. Should you fill the bar, your next standard attack becomes your currently equipped Finish attack, the first of which is simple called “Finish.” Terra’s “Finish” is an overhead swing, Ven launches a flurry of attacks, and Aqua gets an AoE attack. Nice and stylish, good variety, simple. For now.
Shotlocks are a different bag. Shotlocks consume a resource called Focus, which functions much like MP in KH1 in how it recovers gradually when you attack enemies. Unlike the MP from KH1, you also regain Focus when you take damage even without having to equip a “Rage” ability to do so, though you later get a Focus Rage ability to speed it up. To use a Shotlock, you have to hit both shoulder buttons, which causes the game to jump into first person with a large targeting reticule. Position it over one or more enemies and you will “lock on” to them until your currently equipped Shotlock fills its individual quota. You can even lock on to a single enemy multiple times – in fact, that’s where Shotlocks shine. The whole time you are targeting, you risk not only running out of an targeting timer and losing the entire Shotlock, but you also risk getting attacked as you stand there squinting at your enemies, which will cost you the Shotlock and the HP, though you retain the Focus.
Should you let off the Shotlock, you will launch a multi-strike attack against every enemy you targeted, as many times as they were targeted, with bonus, QTE hits available if you land every hit the Shotlock can provide. There are two major kinds of Shotlocks: dash and projectile attacks. The former actually moves you around to attack, ultimately dropping you in a different position than you started. These do more damage per hit, but do less hits overall and are frankly less effective overall to boot. The latter keeps you in one place, does more hits and typically, more damage, but be mindful that even though you’re invincible while shooting, you’ll still be standing in place, and enemies will be waiting for you when you get out.
The real trick to Shotlocks (and any other system in BBS’ giant pile) is remembering that they exist! The game has so much going on that, if you’re like Kyle and I, the few times you remember you have this super-attack, you’re going to remember in the middle of a dogpile where it can’t even help!
While you’re still trying to stew this new information over, the game thankfully offers you the chance to try them out. It’s not like KH1, where you unlocked magic but had to either complete a track from Gummi Mode in order to encounter any Heartless, or solve a sidequest to get the magic training from Merlin. Specifically, BBS allows you to challenge any of the three characters to battle, while you control a different character in each challenge (Ven fights Terra, Terra fights Aqua, Aqua fights Ven). This also gives you an opportunity to get a feel for the three characters to help you decide who you might feel most comfortable playing during your first run.
…And it may be rigged. See, the developers have said in interviews that Terra was intended to be the first character you control in the storyline, and he’s blessed by ease-of-use for beginners that’s apparent during the training matches. Meanwhile, Aqua was intended to be last in the storyline. To discourage you from playing Aqua, I suspect the devs made sure her starting skillset would be terrible. Aqua already has the most humiliating early game of any character in this entire series, and Roxas’ first mission was to open a box! All it took was a few garbage Commands in her initial deck and the magic was complete. The game pairs her off against speedy Ven with one dumbshot Blizzard spell and not enough prayer. If you were playing this tutorial and I told you that I think Aqua is the most powerful of the three characters, you would strike me bodily with your controller.
Once you’re satisfying with your practice, Aqua says an over-prosaic line, apparently quoting “The Master”: “Power is born within the heart. When the time is right, you just need to look inside yourself and you’ll find it there.” I admit: I haven’t provided the exact context, but the line still comes mostly from nowhere, and exists mostly so the game can give you a new tutorial prompt about a… board… game? A board game called “Command Board.” BBS, please stop shoving subsystems down our throats and go cool off somewhere.
You’re then given a save point tutorial. You’re not forced to save, and I recommend you don’t, because if you do, you’ll be left with a bizarre, vestigial, tutorial save file that’s not good for anything. Then the other cast members talk to Ven as though he were just standing, staring off into space while “saving,” just like Roxas in KH2. This has been a really, really weird opening sequence. One for the books.
The trio then decide to go home to make up for as much lost sleep as possible on this exam they’re supposed to be doing. Aqua pauses as they’re leaving to say “Together… always,” just so it will be ironic when the trio suddenly add this simultaneous voiceover: “That would be the last night we ever spent beneath the same stars.”
The tutorial has one last cutscene. We jump to none other than Mickey Mouse, wearing a new set of clothes to show us that he’s younger here. The young King is riding a large book on top of a huge storm, a scene meant to be reminiscent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. While Mickey only voices a few yelps and wails here, he’s now voiced by Bret Iwan, as I said in the Days Retrospective.
Just then, the storm dies and Mickey finds himself in Yen Sid’s Mysterious Tower. Don’t ask what was just happening with that storm, because it was just a nonsense reference to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and you won’t get any further explanation. Yen Sid is here, and tells Mickey he’s worried about something. With that, this needless digression comes to an abrupt end.