It’s here where the game finally brings you to character selection. The characters appear in a pseudo Dive to the Heart, in the recommended order Terra -> Ventus -> Aqua. But like I said, we’re going to be taking Ventus -> Terra -> Aqua, and we’ll be starting with the events that start the story off by combining the three introductions, as there’s so much overlap that I feel we’re better off filling in the small holes.
The next day, Aqua and Terra are standing at attention in the room from the opening sequence, with the elaborate stained glass window. They are standing in front of three thrones, two of which are occupied. A new character sits in the throne to the left. The chair on the right is occupied by the old man from “Birth by sleep” and the Destiny Islands sequence. The chair in the centre is empty. Ven is standing to one side of the room and he and the old man exchange looks, Ven’s one of curiosity and the old man’s inscrutable. Just then, the man on the left stands to address the two Keyblade wielders.
This is Master Eraqus, and yes, his name is “Square” spelled in reverse with a modification to keep ‘q’ and ‘u’ in the proper order for English spelling. Final Fantasy Marathon readers will recognize that Square pulled this trick in the 90s, avoiding the U-switch, for a “password” in FFLIII, “ERAUQS.” Eraqus here is voiced by my favourite Joker, and Regular Show regular, Mark Hamill. Hamill has a Disney connection in voicing Turtle in My Friends Tigger & Pooh (and their musical spinoff), and of course, Disney now owns Star Wars! The “Star Trek vs Star Wars” joke this game seems to be chasing by putting both Hamil and Nimoy in the same production seems fully deliberate, and it’s a shame (actually more than a shame, I feel a little teary) that we’ll never get to see them have another go together.
Eraqus, a constantly formal samurai-type, is marked with a scar across one eye, and strikes an imposing figure as he makes his introductory speeches. His explanation seems to imply, and we later confirm, that the Mark of Mastery exam is here to determine if Terra and Aqua are ready to become Keyblade Masters. We also get the name of the older gentleman from the intro: Master Xehanort.
…Wait, hold on.
It seems the old man from “Birth by sleep” is known as “Master Xehanort,” and he’s clearly too old to be the young apprentice of Ansem the Wise, neverminding the fact that that the “Xehanort” were familiar with looks like Terra and doesn’t look like this fellow at all. Like with Xion in Days, BBS is opening with an impossibility and asking you to guess just how we could possibly get from Point A to Point B.
Eraqus implies that Master Xehanort doesn’t normally live with them but is still a part of their order. He then reminds Terra and Aqua that they’re not in a contest, they’re just being tested simultaneously. He then summons a line of orbs of light, presumably for some opening trial. But behind his back, Master Xehanort uses his own magic to cause the balls to be animated by darkness. And in the first opening motion of this year’s Idiot Ball World Series (featuring bright, glowing idiot balls!), Eraqus does not question this, intervene into this, or investigate this in any way, shape or form.
And we’re here in the finals of the next World Series of Idiot Ball! It’s a beautiful day for a game, the crowd is cheering and the players are all looking at their feet instead of the ball! BBS is a game with a respectable, emotionally moving story anchored at key point after key point by absolute moronic behaviour, and that is one of its greatest failings. I don’t even feel the need to build up to it like I did in KH2, at least not if the game is going to nearly open the narrative by spiking the idiot ball into my face! It’s like my “broken building” metaphor in Days: BBS’ problems are right there for everyone to see, and I can’t stave off discussion! It may be possible that this plot element didn’t originally involve darkness possessing the orbs and maybe they just went haywire, but I’m going to run out of excuses over the next forty hours of gameplay, because this is going to get messy.
Terra and Aqua move to attack the orbs, only for one of them to come after Ven, bringing him in as well. The player is then given their first live-fire combat against these orbs as the other two player characters run around as AI companions. The orbs are harmless outside of Critical Mode. They can only hurt you by contact or by firing off long-range laser attacks in multiple directions. Best to save any Shotlocks for the second or (better) third wave of orbs, but it’s not so hard to win no matter how you strategize.
Clearing this fight earns you your first “Command Style,” the default for your character, which I’ll explain at a later point.
After the battle, Eraqus says that he didn’t interfere because he wanted to see how they’d deal with a real surprise, and wow, an early idiot ball lead for Master Eraqus with the “I meant to do that” bluff! The man knows he’s not a playable character and he’s determined to get as many points in his limited screen time as possible! That’s the kind of determination we expect to see from a veteran!
The next trial is a duel between the two competitors, “for when equal powers clash, their nature is revealed.” This is not an interactive segment. The two duel, and Aqua gets an early advantage, nearly taking Terra’s head clean off with a blow to the chin that he escapes just outside the curve of her Keyblade. This shock leaves Terra desperate, and when she tries to follow up, we see a flash of darkness overtake his entire left arm. He sees it and stifles it, but so does Master Xehanort. The duel continues, though the rest of it is irrelevant and skipped. Presumably, this was the first duel we saw in the abstract opening cinematic, but you’re more than welcome to read more into that metaphor if you wish.
After the duel, Eraqus says that he and Master Xehanort have decided: Aqua is to be named a Master, but not Terra, due to his allowing the darkness to overtake him. He tells Terra to try again “next time.” He then says that Aqua is now “entitled to certain knowledge” and says he’ll explain in a moment, though for the time being he leaves to allow the ceremony to formally end. The young wielders go to console Terra, but he leaves to be alone, Master Xehanort leaving around the same time.
On a lower staircase, Master Xehanort meets up with the masked boy from “Birth by sleep,” the one in dark armour and the bike helmet. The boy seems to be hiding down here, though it’s a little early to make that kind of judgment (hell, we know so little about this group that maybe he belongs here), but we’ll soon learn that, sure enough, he’s trying not to be seen. The boy and Xehanort seem confident that no one is listening in, as they talk in normal speaking voices. The boy is not wearing his helmet at first, but the camera is arranged to hide his face, and he soon puts on his mask. Because our masked friend’s identity is in question, I’m going to have to give a partial spoiler by saying I can’t reveal his voice actor. It’s the voice of a young man, and may not seem familiar at first… though I suppose that depends on the listener!
(Fun fact: behind-the-scenes, the boy actually isn’t unmasked in this scene to begin with, and hacking the game reveals the surreal sight of the masked boy holding a second copy of his own mask!)
Master Xehanort asks the young man “What do you make of Ventus?” The young man is not impressed, and implies he wants to fight Ven, though Master Xehanort growls at him to do no such thing. “I have to keep up appearances.” Nevertheless, the masked figure implies he’s going to goad Ven to leave home so he can fight him elsewhere. And sure enough, he will.
The game now breaks into different scenes depending on your current character, and many of them are simultaneous. To get us used to our order for our Retrospective, we’ll start with Ventus. Ven is in his room, swinging a wooden practice Keyblade around like he’s going to bash in the window. The blade has Terra’s name written on the guard. Just then, he hears a bell that seems to have him worried, but he’s cut off in leaving the room by the Masked Boy (that’s the game’s official name for him at this point, so I might as well get used to it). The boy taunts him, saying he’d better hurry or “you’ll never see Terra again,” implying that Terra is going away and “by the time you catch up… he’ll be a different person.” Ven defies him, but in a very Riku-like fashion, the Masked Boy says, “You’ll never know the truth unless you go out and look for it yourself. Come on, what could you possibly know when you’re stuck here, looking at nothing but what’s in your tiny world?”
The masked boy then leaves through a dark portal. And our second point of the Idiot Ball World Series goes to Ventus, for being so egocentric that he doesn’t question the strange armoured teenager that appeared in his room and left in a swirling portal of evil! Ever!
Ven then thinks back on his relationship with Terra in a few flashback, and hurries off to find his friend. While he was having this conversation with the Masked Boy, the others were having their own scenes. We’ll continue with Terra, who will be the second character in our playthrough. Terra is pouting and musing on the stairs leading out of the castle, wondering why it matters so much that he has darkness if he’s “strong enough to hold it back.” It seems he really is talking out loud, as Master Xehanort arrives and comments on what he was saying. Master Xehanort addresses Terra in a fatherly way (indeed despite the suspicious way Master Xehanort has been acting, this scene seems almost genuine), and tells Terra that he’s fine. Master Xehanort feels that the problem is Eraqus, who treats the darkness like anathema. Xehanort implies, in a way that goes just a little too far into creepy admiration, that darkness cannot be destroyed, “only channelled.”
Terra – and you’re going to learn quickly in Terra’s story that Terra’s heroic flaw is that he’s loyal to authority to a fatal fault – thanks the Keyblade Master for this dubious advice, and might have said more if not for that bell Ven that heard at the start of his scene. It seems this is some sort of alarm bell or rallying cry, as Terra rushes back into the building, not noticing Master Xehanort leaving through a portal of darkness.
Aqua only has a few exclusive scenes at the start of her sequence. She and Eraqus have just finished discussing that “certain knowledge” without our seeing it, so you just know it will come up later. Just then, the bell rings for them as well, which raises the question: if Eraqus didn’t sound it, and everyone else we’ve seen didn’t sound it, who on earth did? Eraqus seems just as confused as us, and goes to the back of his throne room where a large crystal is glowing. Terra arrives, and here the scenes merge briefly. If you’re coming to Aqua’s after Terra’s, you won’t want to skip the scene because Aqua gets a little extra at the end, but if you go the other way around, everything you see as Terra from here on out is old news. Seriously, “Terra-last” Players could skip all your way to the map screen from here, since he’s done and ready to go!
The two friends watch Eraqus chatting with his wall for a while, like a one-sided phone conversation. When he comes back, he tells them he’s been talking to Yen Sid, who is finally using his supposedly massive powers to ring a bell somewhere across the solar system. You know, I was going to joke, but that actually is impressive now that I’ve spelled it out. It seems Yen Sid is calling to tell us the plot has started. Because it will be some time before Apprentice Xehanort unleashes the Heartless, the game needs a new minor enemy, and Yen Sid has learned of “the Unversed,” a new minor enemy species! Yen Sid says that if you could go out and swat those, it would be appreciated.
The Unversed are also possibly the worst-defined of the three minor enemy species so far. While Heartless and Nobodies got whole piles of worldbuilding, Unversed are called “fledgling emotions that have taken monster form” and we’re told they “[feed] on negativity” and that’s… it. That’s it until virtually the end of the game. It’s not a bad reason to go charging out into the metaverse, but it’s not a very substantial one, either. You have to go a developer interview just to get an explanation for their name. According to Nomura, they’re called “Unversed” because they’re “unversed in their own existence.” It’s a marked improvement over his original planned name… “Unbirths.” Presumably someone told him what that actually sounds like it means in English some time after he announced it. I can think of about two ways to interpret “Unbirths” and neither is something you’d expect in a Disney product. You’ve got to love how somehow every few years a major corporation will name something with a word that means the entirely wrong thing in another language, don’t you? It doesn’t take a very long time on the internet to learn about soft drinks named after urine or cars named after vulvas.
Still, tossing out a bad name doesn’t meant tossing out the concept, so why is the nature of Unversed so barely explored over the course of the game? Some early interviews seemed to imply that the Unversed were somehow related to the Soul/Mind part of the Heart-Body-Soul trinity, which makes even more sense considering one of the outcomes of this plot, but it ultimately hasn’t held and the Soul/Mind remains almost as unexplained by the end of the game as it was when we began. Master Spockanort at KHI discusses this naming and concept history here, though be mindful of spoilers. What little I can say is that the Unversed are the “first enemy” implied when the Deep Dive trailer. Remember when it called Nobodies the “third enemy” ages ago? Unversed were first, Heartless second, Nobodies third. (Although apparently the original intent was Disney Villains first, Heartless second, Nobodies third.)
To top off this uninteresting prompt, the game throws in a second uninteresting prompt: Eraqus notes that Master Xehanort seems to be missing. This will only be surprising if you came to Aqua before Terra, since we already saw the guy leave in Terra’s storyline. Terra doesn’t even mention he just talked to the master, which is a good forward pass with the idiot ball, but you’re going to have to try a little harder to shoot for the goal.
Eraqus tells the duo that they should go defeat the Unversed (given his phrasing, he seems to think this is a simple mop-up job. He doesn’t realize they’re infinitely respawning) and also to find Master Xehanort. Oh, and Aqua very nearly never concerns herself with Xehanort’s location from this point on, which allows her to intercept the Idiot Ball in a great early play. Eraqus adds that he’s “unlocked the Lanes Between” and that they’ll need to wear their “armour” to be safe in the darkness between worlds. With that, Eraqus is finished giving orders, but comes to Terra and tells him this can be his second chance at masterhood, if he can keep his darkness under control while he’s on this extended mission. Eraqus doesn’t exactly couch this in the most comforting language: he calls Terra obsessed with power, which doesn’t… seem to match any behaviour we see from this point on? I mean, maybe a little? But I have a feeling this line is just Eraqus being judgmental. Trust me: that is in character. It’s mostly just an excuse to get Luke Skywalker to pseudo-quote Star Wars: “Fear leads to obsession with power, and obsession beckons the darkness.” C’mon, we all know the reference is the real reason he said that.
Eraqus stopped Terra as he was leaving to say that, but in Aqua’s scenario, we learn that’s something of a bad habit for him, as he waits for Aqua to leave before stopping her as well! Eraqus asks Aqua a favour, and asks her to keep an eye on Terra. At the time, Eraqus probably intended them to go off on their journey together, but the very existence of the character selection screen at the start of the game tells us that won’t happen. He says that if Terra’s darkness resurfaces and gets the better of him, Aqua should take him back home. Aqua accepts her orders like a good soldier, but sneaks in a jab at her master that, “Only this time, you’ll see he has what it takes to be a Master.” Once she’s out of earshot, she’s less polite, muttering, “He’s not as weak as you think.” This is the first time we hear Aqua’s theme.
One thing to keep in mind about this game, especially coming off of Days, is that Days was about a new friendship and BBS is about an old one. That’s going to be relevant as we go along, but I feel the two games are in many ways meant to be viewed in comparison, and coded to boot.
We rejoin Terra and Ven’s stories outside, where they share most of a cutscene (you can catch Ven running past in the background behind Aqua in her previous cutscene). Ven just manages to catch up with Terra before he leaves, but Terra mistakes his concern for just wanting to say goodbye, so he just pats Ven on the head and moves to leave. Ven, scoring a goal on an empty Idiot Net, does nothing to rectify or protest this, not even to shout “Hey!” It’s worse because the game makes a huge production about Terra leaving, giving Ven plenty of time. Terra slaps his pauldron, causing his entire suit of armour to magically appear… sans cape. The PSP wasn’t capable of the fabric physics required to add one, at least not with the rest of the game going on around it. He then throws his Keyblade into the air, causing it to become that weird jet-bike thing he used as the Lingering Will in KH2. Using it, he leaves through a greyish portal in the sky, heading off on his own journey. This means he misses the events that follow, but he’ll catch up in good time. For now, we’ll stick around.
What happens is seen mostly in Ven’s cutscene: Ven resolves to run away from home to follow Terra and so not lose him like the Masked Boy implied. He slaps his own pauldron, turning his Keyblade into a sort of jet-skateboard, and escapes just as Eraqus and Aqua arrive and before they can stop him. In Aqua’s cutscene, Eraqus tells her to go after Ven as well. Okay, I can get behind these plots. Personally, I find these interpersonal dramas a lot more engaging than the generic stuff about the Unversed, and that’s as much to their credit as it is to the Unversed plot’s fault. Aqua summons her own Keyblade Glider, which is some kind of stupid-looking ballista with a riding platform, and gives chase.
If you were paying close attention and are already familiar with BBS, you may have noticed that plot hole I talked about in Ven’s story: namely, that he doesn’t know squat about the Unversed, and as we go along he will not respond to them in any way! It seems he thinks being attacked by armies of blueish monsters is just part of the experience of the big wide world, and while that’s not unbelievable, it’s still pretty damn weird. Oh, and he later pulls the word “Unversed” out of thin air, though it takes a whole six worlds. In any event, a new idiot ball world series point scored directly by the writers!
(Ed. Hirokey123 pointed out that Ven’s explanation for the Unversed was probably supposed to come from the upcoming Report he’s going to get down the page, although it’s worth noting that the Unversed aren’t described in that report, just named, so I still don’t know about Ven attacking them straight-up. Still, after six worlds, I can see Ven having put two and two together, so I think I’ll retract my complaint about him knowing the name!)
Clearing this opening sequence unlocks two D-Links for every player-character. D-Links, powered by your Wayfinder, represent your characters’ connections to other people, and to draw power from that connection. Naturally, the starting D-Links are the ones connecting each character to their fellow leads! Terra gets D-Links for Aqua and Ven, but not himself, and so on. The D-Link mechanics are relatively simple to explain, so I’ll give it a shot. So long as your D-Link bar is full (by collecting blue crystals from enemies), you can tap Right on the D-pad to connect to one of your character’s friends. Your friends’ Commands temporarily replace your own for the duration of the D-Link bar, and you also get fully healed, which is frankly one of the biggest advantages to D-Links at the start of the game. You gain that character’s Finish attack, though for Terra, Aqua and Ven’s links, the Finish command is just the boring ones you saw in the Tutorial. Funnily enough, you don’t need D-Links to complete the in-game report per se… but you do need their Finish commands for the report’s Hit Count records!
But D-Links don’t stop there: they can also be levelled up twice by collecting special star icons that drop from enemies, wholly at random (it’s possible, though extremely rare, to see two enemies drop two stars at the same time!). The starting level for each D-Link is 0, and it rises up to 2. Each star adds to the D-Link’s command list and gives the D-Link a special, passive ability that can only be used while the D-Link is active. Gathering two stars will also transform the D-Link to a new form with a new Finish Attack, though you can toggle the D-Link to its old form and Finish Attack in the menu, or even disable it altogether to trim the D-Link menu. Very handy! The odds for a D-Link upgrade aren’t bad, but as I mentioned in the Marathon Journal for Crisis Core, I despise game progression through RNG. A predictable system – any predictable system – would have been preferred. Hell, a predictable system would have been more in line with all of Kingdom Hearts’ progression systems in the past, the only major exception being CoM’s random distribution of cards, and I’ve already expressed my dislike of the entire Collectible Card Game genre while talking about the Kingdom Hearts TCG, so…
Terra’s upgraded D-Link has a powerful area attack as its finisher, and also has an Auto-Block ability at that same level. Ven’s D-Link has Auto-Counter at level 2, but also a truly impressive Haste ability at level 1. Last off, Aqua gains CoM Vexen’s Auto-Life ability, but her real advantage is the fact that she’s the only source of the Cure spell at the start of the game! Lucky for Terra and Ven, since Aqua doesn’t get access to her own D-Link!
The biggest problem with D-Links is a problem we’re already familiar with from the last game in the KH2.5 HD collection for the PS3: loading times. On the PSP, loading issues could be mitigated by installing data to your memory card, but on the PS3 this is impossible. At the time I post this, we’re still waiting on the PS4 release of 1.5 + 2.5 HD to see if it will have install data (it should) and if that fixes the problem (which is the real question). As it stands, PS3 players will see the game all-but-lock in place, only able to control the camera as their character “channels power” to launch D-Links, Command Styles, or to learn a new Finish Attack mid-battle! It’s thankfully harmless, unlike the delay on using Drive Forms in KH2:FM+ on the PS3, since enemies can’t move while you’re loading, but it is very disruptive.
In Ven’s story, completing the length intro actually gives you the first of this game’s “Xehanort’s Report.” The Xehanort’s Reports are collected by all three characters, but to collect them all and read the full report you’ll need to do so in all three folders, and you will need to get them all… but that’s another story. This first report is the only one that isn’t numbered. Instead of a number, this report is called “Xehanort’s Letter,” and is the contents of what seems to be an actual, physical letter sent from Master Xehanort to Eraqus, which Ven has no reason to possess. I’ve talked about how KH1’s reports appeared to be actual physical documents that Sora found on his adventures, while KH2’s sometimes tried to appear to be physical but sometimes didn’t, but BBS is hardly trying at all (Ed. except, as I noted above, for Ven knowing the word “Unversed,” seemingly from this letter! Other than this letter, it takes a lot out of the narrative immersion to have these reports pop up out of thin air for no damned reason.)
In the letter, we learn that Xehanort and Eraqus haven’t spoken in many years, though they were raised like brothers by an unnamed Master. Despite being the younger of the two, Eraqus was named the Master’s “Successor.” This may imply that Eraqus is in charge of their little group, and may explain why he’s still giving orders to Aqua even though she’s a Master, but that could also be explained by years of old power dynamics? You know: Aqua isn’t yet used to being a Master, Eraqus not used to Aqua being his equal or near-equal, that sort of thing.
Xehanort implies that the reason he and Eraqus haven’t been in contact is because “I did you a great harm […] over a petty difference in opinion.” They’ve only spoken once since, when Master Xehanort “selfishly thrust my own burdens upon you.” It seems Eraqus broke the silence between them by inviting Xehanort to the Mark of Mastery exams, and after a mention of the Unversed (wait, if Eraqus knew about the Unversed from this letter, why did he seem so surprised when Yen Sid mentioned them?), he discusses Terra. It seems during this “thrust my own burdens upon you” incident, Xehanort saw Terra, and claims to have noticed darkness within him of some concern. Xehanort then implies that Eraqus was going to let Terra and Aqua be named Masters without any exam, until Xehanort recommended they hold one, secretly just to test Terra. With that, the letter closes.