After everyone takes off into their respective storylines, the game reveals a number of worlds on the world map. The world map in BBS functions largely like the free-roaming map in KH2, but with several very odd restrictions. The player-character (riding their Keyblade Glider) “sticks” to the edges of the worlds and the Lanes Between them, but by holding down the accelerate button, you can break away and fly freely. Why this arbitrary restriction when KH2 had already illustrated an easier way to do a map screen? It’s impossible to say, unless they were trying to tie the mechanics to the narrative about “Lanes Between” in a way that only hinders the player to no measurable advantage. What a great first impression we’re giving here!
There are five planets visible on the map at the moment. First, naturally, is the Land of Departure, which you can’t return to at the moment. Ven, in fact, can’t return to it for most of the game, since he’s running away and all! There are three planets beyond the Land of Departure in a ring formation, reminiscent of KH1, but only one of the worlds in the ring is accessible, and it’s a different world for each character. Ven’s first world is on the left. One last world can be seen, also inaccessible in the top-left corner.
One funny detail here is that there are three coloured nebulae in the background of the map screen. Each coloured in the signature colour of one of the lead characters: Terra’s nebula sits under the first set of worlds, Aqua’s hovers over the world that will host the traditional KH midgame half-time show, and Ven’s nebulae lines up with the second set of worlds. I suppose each nebulae matches up with narrative “high points” for the three characters (although in Aqua’s case, I’m not talking about the midpoint but another related event that takes place on that same planet), but it’s a little loose and frankly the whole thing was probably just decorative. I’m probably just talking out of my ass.
If it weren’t for the title bar, you might not recognize this new world the moment you set down as Ven. You’ve touched down in a bright-lit quarry, which was only visible for small parts of the source film before moving on to more interesting locations at either end. I associate quarries more with the Power Rangers fighting monsters voiced by our illustrious Kingdom Hearts cast members than with any particular Disney film!
But not to worry: Ven spots the seven dwarfs from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just downhill from him. Roll call: Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Dopey, Jumpy, Twitchy, Fauntleroy and Spock. And Ven is just! so! excited! to see them! Don’t you remember that childish thrill you had when looking at mining equipment, short men, or beards? Ven’s reaction seems intended for something more, shall we say… dramatic than the seven dwarfs. I might not have ever noticed if it weren’t for something that happens mere second later: you gain control and he’s attacked by the Unversed, and he doesn’t react at all.
This seems like a sign that Ven wasn’t supposed to be our first playable character. After all, when Terra has his first encounter with the Unversed, it’s in a setpiece battle with multiple foes. I acknowledge that, but intend to carry on all the same. Better this peculiarity than the deeper narrative costs one pays to play Terra-first!
The first Unversed you encounter as Ven are the Flood, this game’s equivalent to Shadows. Just like Shadows, they’re weak, they sink into the ground, and they also seem to have inherited a few dodging techniques from Dusks, even if they’re not very good at using them. The Flood are cute, but they’re also easily the worst Goomba we’ve seen in the series so far in terms of combat potential, and I don’t even remember how Creepers work!
In the original BBS, most Unversed were coloured deep blue, but in BBS:FM, they were all given distinct colouration, arguably to help you identify them at a glance. The Flood were turned purple. Frankly I think the new colouration takes away from the Unversed’s unity (recoloured Heartless still tended to use black in their colour schemes, where recoloured Unversed abandon the blue) and is often frankly a little garish, but I can respect what they were going for all the same.
Depending on which way you turn, you’ll encounter another Unversed as well. For argument’s sake, let’s say you turn back the wrong way. Doing so will have you cross paths with this game’s soldier-type, the Scrapper, which is green in FM. Despite a bit of personality where Scrapers seem to be shivering when they spawn and hesitate from time to time, they’re otherwise not very notable, but the same could be said of all soldier-types, from KH1, KH2 and beyond. After a wave, you’ll also encounter some Red Hot Chilis. Yes, that’s their name. They’re the Unversed equivalent to the bell wizards, and they’re all named after a spice pot, which is what they resemble. This particular spice pot casts fire magic, and is virtually indistinguishable from a Red Nocturne. In practice, the spice pots do have more contact attacks alongside their projectiles, but they’re ultimately as forgettable as the KH1 bell wizards.
If you turn to go after the dwarfs like you’re supposed to, you’ll encounter a third Unversed: the Bruiser (purple in FM) guarding the entrance to the mine. The Bruiser seems to be a counterpart to KH1’s Large Body Heartless at first glance, what with the big belly (though its belly is marked with a black-banded toothy mouth!), but a few test swings will confirm that it can be hurt in the gut just like any normal enemy.
If you’re paying attention, this means we’re three enemies in and haven’t encountered a single foe with a defensive ability more advanced than “accidentally moving out of your way.” Goodness’ sake, at least Terra encounters a flyer in his first enemy group! Unfortunately, this sort of defensive brainlessness is a maligned signature of BBS. Most BBS enemies “defend” themselves by going full-out into offence, forcing you to stop your button mashing to dodge out of the way. The best defence is a good offence, and all that, even if it has the side effect of making all battles against Unversed functionally similar, with only a variety of attacks to concern yourself with rather than a variety of attacks and defences. On the plus side, nearly every enemy from the Bruiser and better pose a modicum of threat, which in my eyes puts the game above KH2’s non-attempt at difficulty. But if you feel the other way around, hell, I understand.
The Bruiser, for example, has a jump attack and a charge attack borrowed from the KH2 Large Body, which make it impossible for you to aimlessly button mash, since standing on the ground makes you vulnerable no matter where you are, and jump attacking makes you vulnerable to the body slam, or even the default punch. That’s the other thing about BBS foes: they rarely if ever flinch, and that drives a lot players up the wall. The game is essentially cheating for difficulty, as enemies behave almost independently of your strategy. Remember, yet again, when I talked about how KH1 was inspired by the crowd control strategies of 90s beat-em-ups? And how God of War favoured a new kind of crowd control strategy? BBS functionally doesn’t have a crowd control strategy beyond AoE attacks, as your ability to influence enemy placement and movement is virtually nil. It’s simply about you dancing in the middle of an adverse situation.
I’m reminded – and this is definitely a vertical comparison, not a horizontal one – of the Trauma Center games. It’s looking more and more like I’m going to have to cover those games at some point in the future. While not a beat-em-up or brawler in the slightest, the Trauma Center games are also about maintaining a largely insurmountable situation until you can finally pick off the threats one at a time, gradually making the situation more manageable (at which point, just like BBS, they immediately spawn in more). They had little to no way to influence enemy movements (in fact, the only example I can think of where you do influence enemy moves didn’t work very well!). Of course, Trauma Center was designed from the ground up for this kind of experience, and plays excellently. Kingdom Hearts, on the other hand, introduced this system in Days as a necessity of multiplayer and it performed terribly in single player. Since BBS was also designed to have multiplayer (even if it wasn’t nearly as central and now no longer exists in 2.5 HD), we seem to be keeping the problematic enemy system, so the question is: can the Command Deck succeed where Days’ mechanics failed?
Once inside the dwarfs’ gem mine, the dwarfs all stop working as Ven arrives and happily introduces himself, and asks them if they’ve seen Terra. This situation, already comical, explodes when Grumpy decides Ven is a diamond thief and he shouts at the others to bolt. Soon six of the seven dwarfs have escaped deeper into the mines, leaving poor Dopey behind. Unfortunately, Dopey can’t talk and so can’t tell Ven anything, so Ven pursues the others into the cave.
For the record, all six speaking dwarfs are, in fact, voiced, so let’s work our way through the cast before we proceed. Let’s start with a few familiar voices. Doc is voiced by David Ogden Stiers, whom you might remember as Cogsworth in KH2. Sleepy is voiced by Bill Farmer (Goofy). Bashful is voiced by Jeff Bennet (Merlin). Grumpy is Corey Burton (everybody). But we also have two Kingdom Hearts newcomers in the list. First up: Happy is Stephen Stanton, the voice of Sasha Nein from Psychonauts. He’s got a few Disney connections: not only is he a frequent Star Wars voice actor (he’s the voice of Grand Moff Tarkin in many, but not all, of the Star Wars animated products these days), and he was in Epic Mickey 2, The Legend of Jack Sparrow, and an episode of Sofia the First.
Second up: Bob Joles voiced Sneezy, and has been Sneezy’s official voice actor since House of Mouse (Corey Burton as Grumpy is the only other Dwarf that seems to have an “assigned” voice actor, also going back to House of Mouse). Joles played Fuujin in Naruto and Man Ray in Spongebob Squarepants. Joles is also a frequent game voice actor (especially in Lord of the Rings tie-ins, where he often voices another dwarf: Gimli) but in terms of Square, we see the usual Lightning Returns credits, and he was also the voice of Grimoire Valentine in Dirge of Cerberus, and Emperor Iedolas Aldercapt in FFXV (the game, not Kingsglaive). IMDb also mysteriously credits him in an unspecified role in KH2, as I addressed in an update to the KH2 appendices in January 2017.
Ventus is fairly desperate to get information, and is willing to bodily subdue the dwarfs to get it. We’re the heroes, and all that. This means destroying the dwarfs’ hiding places as Unversed try to pick at you. Most of the six dwarfs are hiding under crates, but BBS shows some nice creativity in having each of them behave differently despite their similar hiding places. Grumpy, for example, will become enraged if you find him and will start charging at you (he does serious damage, too, and can easily kill you!). Sneezy can’t hold his sniffles and constantly sneezes himself into the air even before you find him. Doc and Happy are sadly identical, although if I’m honest, I used to confuse them as a kid as well, so for once we might be able to blame a game mechanic on Walt Disney himself. They just run away from you, though sometimes that means running through you and doing some damage. Last of the box-hiders is Sleepy, who has of course fallen asleep under his box and is now snoring, meaning you can find him by keeping an open ear.
Bashful is the major exception: he’s riding on a mine cart that you have to damage as it moves (essentially teleports) between two sections of track. Oh, and he can ram you by accident, turnabout is fair play. This feels a lot like a prop from a Disney park (but with hitting), and you all know me by now: I love it when Kingdom Hearts imitates the parks and this is no exception.
One of my favourite moments in this section is that each dwarf talks to you when you reveal them. “You sure look nice, I wish we could help you.” Happy says, with a look on his face I can only describe as “absolute fury.”
After you’re done hunting Dwarfs, you may want to return to the mine to find a rather rare Unversed called the Monotrucker, a pickaxe-armed Unversed in a tiny unicycle mine cart and a directional lantern on its head. Unfortunate spoiler here: very few of the Unversed are actually styled after specific worlds. Most seem to have been designed to be interchangeable, like the first set of Heartless in KH1, which is fine, but quite a few Disney-styled Unversed ended up world-hopping as well! The Monotrucker is one of the few that only shows up here in its homeworld and also in the game’s arena, and that makes it very hard to find because it only shows up in the mines after you’ve cleared the Dwarf section and never need to come back! Even worse, and please correct me if I’m mistaken about this because it’s so preposterous that I don’t trust myself: I believe that Monotruckers only appear in this room in the entire game outside the arena. This means that Terra and Aqua, who can’t enter this room, will have to go to this game’s arena just to see them! It’s not even a very good design! Furthermore, in my experience, I often confuse the Monotrucker for not just one but two other “arm-heavy” Unversed.
Another thing to do in the mine is to grab a chest containing Ven’s Payback Raid attack, which belongs to a special set of red Command Panels that are equipped to your character instead of your deck per se (unfortunately, the game still considers them part of your deck in certain respects, forcing you to reload all Commands when you mess with the reds, and they all disappear if you switch your current deck to another pre-saved deck!). Payback Raid works in the same manner as Aerial Recovery from KH2, except instead of recovering control, it launches an counterattack at your assailant! In Ven’s case, this is a Strike Raid, making it fairly likely to hit your opponent even if they’ve gotten away from you!
As you might imagine, the dwarfs aren’t very happy about being herded around by a backhanded wooden club. They basically order Ven to leave, which is more than he deserves at this point. Ventus asks the dwarfs where to find other people, and they direct him to the castle nearby, forgetting that their cabin is on that route. Sure enough, once I reach the cabin I immediately break in and steal their stuff, becoming the thief they accused me of being all along. Oh we’re definitely the heroes today. One cleverly hidden chest in this area is just downriver of the dwarf’s house, and I’m glad to see at least a little effort has gone into hiding the chests this time around.
As you’re going through the Dwarf Woodlands, you’ll also encounter your first “Stickers” (assuming you’re playing the International Vanilla release or later). These are a successor to KH2’s puzzle pieces, and have you assembling stickers in a sticker book depicting the current character on a future world (the first world of the second loop). There’s a trick to the sticker book: rewards from the sticker book rely on “points.” Putting the stickers willy-nilly will only get you so many points. You have to be mindful to put objects where they might rightly belong: so balloons should be in the air, characters that are standing should be on the ground, and so on. You can thankfully replace the stickers at any time, and you get a special set of placement sounds and graphical effects if you put the sticker in the right spot, so once you’re aware of the system it’s easy enough to get max points. Of course, becoming aware of the system is step #1, and it might take a few stickers, especially since some players will add stickers as soon as they get them and so might never notice the sound effects are different!
You’ll also encounter recipes in this section (namely in the Dwarf’s Cottage), as well as mythril-looking synthesis stones. These are both used for Command merging, and I had might as well discuss that right away. Don’t worry, this won’t get very crufty, because the system is so deliberately arcane that even if you do understand it, it’s only going to be to a shallow degree.
Essentially, Commands level up by accumulating “CP,” which is given by enemies at the same time as EXP, but at a different and unlisted rate. Gaining CP makes the Commands stronger, but that’s just a step in the process. When a Command has been levelled up enough (how much counts for “enough” varies by command) you can merge it with other Commands, causing them to form a new Command. What do they form? That’s up to the game’s expansive database, and that’s where things get tricky.
There are a few general guidelines: combining a base-level spell with another base-level spell often produces the –ra level spell, and in most cases it’s easy as combining the –ra with the base-level to get the –ga. Likewise, combining the base-level elemental spells with base-level physical techniques often gets you an elementally-charged version of that physical technique, like Fire Raid instead of Strike Raid, or Blizzard Edge instead of Stun Edge. But guidelines will only get you so far as the most complicated spells have to be basically searched out at random, maybe with the assistance of Recipes that appear in the game. Recipes are not lists of commands with ingredients, unfortunately: they simply clarify what will happen in the process of merging, and don’t give you anything to shoot towards. Of course, most impatient players will rush straight to the internet, and I recommend you hold off as long as possible, because that can really break the game’s difficulty… but there’s another factor that makes it all the more frustrating.
You see, if you attach a synthesis item to your merge, the resulting Command will have an Ability attached. This ability is gained “for free” for as long as the Command is equipped to your deck, but your character doesn’t earn the ability permanently until the Command gains enough CP to be “mastered.” Abilities are tied exclusively to certain synthesis materials. For example, Hungry Crystals can produce HP Prize Plus and Treasure Magnet, which no others can. Unfortunately, the actual ability you get is also a part of the game’s arcane and complicated internal database, and so while it technically isn’t random, it feels completely out of your control.
And that’s just the start of the trouble. Gradually you accumulate more and more Abilities, becoming arguably too powerful over time, but that’s not my complaint at the moment. No, my real problem is that this is how all Abilities are learned in this fashion (besides Scan and EXP Zero, and the game still implies that you learned them in this manner), and that means that integral Kingdom Hearts abilities like Second Chance, Once More and Leaf Bracer are essentially given to the player by lottery, even though the game’s difficulty skyrockets without those skills. Kingdom Hearts has, after all, assumed the existence of Second Chance in its late-game difficulty since way back in KH1. Leaf Bracer and Once More have been influencing late-game game balance since KH2, but in a way that was filling a fundamental flaw in the KH1 formula, so they feel equally fundamental. BBS is no exception, which means you either have to luck into these fundamentals… or you have to cheat! And I feel most players will eventually cheat! We’ll talk more about this several worlds from now (indeed, we’ll talk about the game’s difficulty and the troubles introduced by Command Merging quite possibly in their own post, so save your comments till then!), but it’s important to get a rough outline of the issue up front.
Once synthed, you can also buy any commands from the Moogle as a shortcut, though they come at dramatically inflated prices. For example, Fire costs a mere 100 munny, but Fira is 500 and Firaga 1200!