Ho boy. It’s easy to get the events of this world mixed up, I had better keep the longplay open instead of just a script, especially since DJ Firewolf’s script actually follows the official timeline order and it gets a little messy here!
Ventus arrives in the middle of a flower garden in Radiant Garden, where he spots some of the city’s elaborate physical waterworks, perhaps meant to be reminiscent of the fountains and such at the Disney parks? Nearby, he spots both Scrooge McDuck and Mickey Mouse. Neither notices him, and Mickey continues off into another area. Ven resolves to reunite with him, so it’s on to the gardens, where you meet three of this world’s new Unversed.
The first new Unversed you’ll encounter is the Tank Toppler… well, sort of. There’s actually a pre-spawned Unversed in the distance taking pot-shots at you and making this all more complicated than it has to be. But more on that one in a moment. The Tank Toppler is probably BBS’s most obstructive minor enemy, the one that requires the most finesse amid the other Unversed, which demand nothing but button mashing. The Toppler is a balloon-like Unversed with a valve on its back. In Final Mix, its colour scheme was adjusted to (if you ask me) make it better resemble a Large Body. The visual cue is helpful, because like the Large Body you don’t want it to hit it on the front. Should you strike the Tank Toppler anywhere but the valve on its back, the Toppler will begin to inflate, until finally it passes a breaking point and becomes invincible. It will then roll around and eventually explode, giving you no rewards for your trouble. Thankfully you can deflate it by hitting the valve, and can use certain area attacks to hurt them no matter where you’re standing relative to the Toppler. Moves like Zero Gravity or Magnet also make it vulnerable from all sides.
It should be said that while the Large Body made a huge tactical impact in KH1, the Tank Toppler doesn’t fill quite the same niche. Put simply: a monster that defends itself from the front isn’t quite as impactful in a game like BBS where you can easily out-manoeuvre it, and it can’t change the nature of the battlefield when it’s moving around all the time!
Ultimately, I find the Toppler to be more of an irritant than a valuable challenge. This has little to do with BBS’ controls or nuanced matters of finesse, which make an impact (as above), but don’t irritate me as such. No, I’m irritated about how long it takes the damn things to explode! You trigger the countdown, you realize you’ve screwed up, groan, and move on to the next enemy… but the damn Tank Toppler keeps ticking down for seven seconds of little-or-no impact, pro or con! This might not sound like much until you total those seven seconds for every Tank Toppler you screw up against over the course of the game’s three storylines, most made by innocent mistakes like an attack that clipped the Toppler while you were aiming for someone else, or your character lunging at an off-screen Toppler before you can stop them. Once you’ve totalled all those seconds, throw them all in the garbage because the explosion is harmless! Frankly, Tank Topplers should have exploded within the second, which would have been much more likely to harm the player, or at least impacted the battle by forcing the player to dodge!
The second Unversed you might find in this room is the Blue Sea Salt, the next spice pot Unversed in the line of the Red Hot Chilis. They’re ice aligned and almost identical to the Red Hot Chilis, so let’s just move on to the third and most important enemy introduced in this room: hell under earth, it’s the Mandrake. The Mandrake is named after the famous plant and is arguably designed to be a cousin of the FFVII incarnation (you might not agree, but my first reaction to seeing the Crisis Core monster was to nod to Kyle and say: “Hey! BBS!”). Mandrakes are coloured white and green in the original, and recoloured to white and yellow even though it makes them harder to see (until you expose their purple lower half), especially on earthy terrain!
As gameplay goes, Mandrakes have two different phases, the first infinitely worse than the second, but don’t underestimate the latter. The first phase spawns in the dirt, with only the leaves visible, and will remain there until you get close or hit it with a long-distance attack. Until that point, the Mandrake will launch scythe-like attacks across the battlefield, which is why I said you might not actually encounter the Tank Toppler “first.” These attacks hit fast and ruthless, and can easily shred you as you try to fight something else. Mandrakes have to be your #1 priority until they’ve been uprooted, and that sometimes means charging headlong through enemy lines, leaving an army of Unversed at your tail. Believe it or not, I feel that’s still the best strategy!
Once uprooted, the Mandrakes specialize in status effects, dealing both poison and confusion. Like when they were throwing scythes, their second form shows their role as support troops, since you’d be hard pressed to die to either of the forms on their own, but once other enemies are involved things get a lot trickier.
There’s one upside to all this mess: Mandrakes are the first enemies in the game to drop the rare Abounding Crystal used in Command Melding. I usually hit them up with Treasure Raid (or rather, with Snow White’s “Grumpy” attack) to farm a few. The Abounding Crystal can give you a few key abilities, if you dig through some garbage to get them (Link Prize Plus, ugh): EXP Chance and EXP Walker. EXP Chance just boosts your EXP gain while in SOS status, but EXP Walker is so broken it’s going to force me to bring this whole Retrospective to a stop to talk about difficulty.
(While I’m here, I’d like to complain briefly about the Chaos Crystal, the game’s second-rarest synthesis stone, and a complete pile of garbage. The Chaos Crystal gives you a random ability, as if you weren’t already swimming in every other kind of stone by the time you get one. It’s possible that an enemy might drop a Chaos Crystal before you get your first Abounding Crystal, but the low odds of actually getting an Abounding ability from the Chaos Crystal undermine any advantage. Better is the game’s rarest synth stone, the Secret Stone, which gives you a random ability, yes, but also upgrades the resulting Command to max on the spot!)
EXP Walker works like this: every step your character takes gives you a free point of EXP. This breaks the game open like a raw egg. When I was first playing the game, I played each world with each character in the order Terra -> Ventus -> Aqua. After finishing a world, I’d go back and play the next character’s next world. When my Ventus first got EXP Walker, he gained nearly ten levels on Aqua and Terra before I realized what had even happened, certainly within the next few worlds. Most guides recommend you get it immediately, often the same guides that complain the game is too easy.
But EXP Walker is just the tip of the iceberg that is BBS’ easy gameplay. I’ve been putting this off, but BBS’s command melding system is actually so easy to exploit that you can trivialize the entire game within the span of the first world. How? Well, by going through Command Board, you will unlock the basic components of nearly every Command in the game right from the outset, including the powerful top-tier commands, like the game-breaking Mega Flare. And you won’t have to go any further than Radiant Garden and its Abounding Crystals before you can unlock the best Abilities. Of course, you don’t have to. When I was in Radiant Garden for my Retrospective playthrough (for the record: my something in the neighbourhood of fifth time through the game, which makes it something like my thirteenth character playthrough in which to memorize ability combinations), I had attacks like Poison Edge, Strike Raid variants and nothing more powerful than Curaga, which I rush to in my usual way with healing spells. When I glance over at say, Everglow’s LP, I see ultimate attacks like Trinity Limit, Salvation and Fission Firaga! It takes a a little pre-planning, but with just the right command melding (usually by using walkthroughs), you’ll never be challenged again.
If you want the game to be easy, that’s fine, but if you don’t, we have to ask an important question: is this a strike against the BBS’ quality in the same way KH2’s low difficulty was a strike against it? If you’re looking for my opinion, my short and personal answer is “no” but my long answer is actually very complicated and asks a lot of questions about how we rate games in the first place.
Let’s take an aside to a more recent game than BBS: Batman: Arkham Origins. When the original buggy release of Origins hit PC, I used its gallery of horrible glitches to write an article (now lost) asking which sorts of glitches were “worse” in a game. Consider three examples from the Arkham Origins debacle, while focusing on the PC.
- Glitch 1: there was a large subset of users that were dropping through the floor when new areas were loaded. This was functionally random, and in some but not all cases, this glitch stopped progression. The impact of the glitch was wide, affecting a great many players. On the other hand, the damage from the glitch, while certainly bad, we’ll call “moderate” in comparison to the other two glitches below.
- Glitch 2: In the Mad Hatter sidequest, which occurs at exactly mid-game, the player could encounter a glitch involving a teacup raft that refused to return to shore if you fell off. This would trap the player in the Mad Hatter’s Wonderland forever, unable to play the rest of the game until the problem was patched. This glitch was also wholly predictable (it would always happen under the same circumstances), which meant it could be recreated or avoided with information about the glitch. Impact “low” relative to the other two examples, and damage “very high,” as it would always stop progression and after a great deal of progression had been made, too, meaning the player wouldn’t want to start the game over!
- Lastly, Glitch 3: all PC players were locked out of the Burnley Radio Tower thanks to a faulty ventilation duct, a major part of the Riddler side-quest. I say “a major part,” but while the radio towers are a prominent side-quest, the benefits they give you are minimal. Impact total, at least as far as the PC version was concerned, but damage “low” compared to Glitches 1 and 2.
(There are a few other factors here that I’m skimming around. The pass-through-floors glitch impacted all releases, not just the PC, making it clearly the most widely experienced glitch and the natural focus for the developers to patch out. But for academic purposes, let’s focus just on the PC. Furthermore, the Mad Hatter glitch absolutely came off worse than all the others in the end, since WB refused to fix it for weeks. This was ridiculous, because it should have been very, very easy to fix (just reset the raft every time Batman falls in the water – exactly what they had done for every other raft in the game, and ultimately did here as well!) but the glitch nevertheless wasn’t fixed for multiple patches, screwing over hundreds of players for a solid month or more. But that strays a bit too far from the point I’m going to make about BBS.)
Which of those three glitches above sounds “the worst” to you? Perhaps Glitch #2, the one that did the most damage, but to a smaller number of people? Maybe #3, the one that affected the most people (100% of PC players!) as though the developers had never even tested a relatively prominent side-quest? Or did you feel the worst glitch was Glitch # 1, the one that mixes elements of both? This isn’t going to be a universal opinion, but until WB decided to be complete assholes about the Mad Hatter glitch, I felt the “worst” PC glitch was the one that impacted everyone on the PC, #3, even if it did the least damage. I imagine your opinion may vary.
This brings us back to the KH difficulty issue. Let’s compare BBS to another easy Kingdom Hearts game: Vanilla KH2. On difficulties lower than Critical, KH2’s difficulty is often so low that combat against generic enemies feels empty to me. Unfortunately, prior to the release of 2.5 HD in 2014, Kingdom Hearts fans outside of Japan had no way of correcting this issue. KH2’s low difficulty therefore impacted every player of the Vanilla game, plus everyone playing FM+ below Critical. In other words: the vast majority of players. It correlates to the Riddler glitch, #3.
BBS’ low difficulty with the use of guides is like an extreme cousin of the Mad Hatter glitch, #2: unless you’re extremely lucky or unlucky, you have to follow an exact series of actions to ruin this game’s balance, but once it’s ruined, it is ruined. Yes, easy BBS is even easier than easy KH2, and KH2 already has a problem of being so easy that combat may as well not exist at all, so a broken game of BBS is pretty bad. And if one already had a poor opinion of KH2’s difficulty… say if one wrote an extended series of Kingdom Hearts Retrospectives calling 80% of the game vapid and pointless… the problematic difficulty of BBS should seem even worse. But we return to the Batman comparison: is it worse that BBS does more damage… or is it worse that KH2 impacts more people?
For me, I know that if I did play BBS in a way that ruined its difficulty, I would absolutely think of it as the worst game in a series. It’s more than just a matter of ease, in the same way I tried to underline that KH2 being easy wasn’t a bad thing. KH2’s ease ended up making KH2 boring for me, which easy games don’t necessarily have to be. BBS would have been the same, but I don’t think I ever would have ended up in a situation where I’d play it like that? You see, as a rule, I simply prefer to play games with what I perceive to be their fundamentals, and I also like being able to customize gameplay to my own style. When I play Kingdom Hearts, I play the game dodging, blocking and attacking, and I mix in BBS commands that enhance that basic play, like projectiles, mild area attacks and a lot of the combat moves. Attacks that don’t benefit my style of play or even make my play stile irrelevant by being too powerful are either tossed into the trash or saved for puzzle situations where you might need to do a “trick,” like BBS:FM’s Unversed Missions. So BBS’ ease doesn’t really come to mind when thinking about the game, since I easily avoid it by simply not participating in it?
(I do understand why people don’t like BBS’ ease all the same. I really, really don’t like it when a game offers me the ability to customize my play and then punishes me for playing it “wrong,” which BBS arguably does with boredom. Multiplayer games and MMOs where one “build” or playstyle for a character is markedly superior to others drive me up the wall, and go a long way to explaining why I’m genuinely hostile towards multiplayer gaming and MMOs overall. But MMOs punish you for a broad set of playstyles, where BBS is only punishing you for a slice, and I find the latter far more acceptable than the former. I like “forced build” situations slightly more if you’re able to change your build freely, and better still if each situation is treated like a puzzle, like the way the FFIII gives you clues in Saronia that you should switch to the Dragoon job before the boss (even if the DS FFII messed that puzzle up). Even straight-up telling the player to do something is better than nothing, like in FFIII when it comes to Dark Knights and the Cave of Shadows)
I will admit: my advice regarding Lethal Frame in CoM is definitely the kind of advice I’d never take myself until my back was against the wall, and hopefully by the time this post goes live, I’ll have gone back to rephrase it across the CoM Retrospective with a little more Golden Rule this time around. I made the reverse mistake with Leechgrave. Days trained me never to use magic, especially not against large bosses, and I and many other players became frustrated when Leechgrave suddenly broke that pattern. This is an example of me not playing the game right, a time when I should be corrected, but it was a widespread problem and so affected many players thanks to Days’ incredibly poor design. Leechgrave’s section of the Retrospective should also be corrected because of my poor presentation of the issue, and hopefully by the time you get here, it will be.
Long story short: I will rarely play a game in such a way that ruins the way I want to play the game, and since I don’t like playing Days with overpowered abilities, Birth by Sleep’s ease doesn’t affect me, and that’s easy for me to do because most of BBS’ commands aren’t overpowered. And that’s important to this discussion at large, and this is where we stop focusing on me and return to gaming and game criticism in general. In BBS, you have to go to lengths to encounter the difficulty problem, to accomplish what KH2 does by nature. You have to get out a walkthrough, fuse the exact commands, which let you fuse the exact second-tier commands, and so on through upwards of four tiers of fusion. Then you have to commit to using the super-skills even when you discover that they bore you. I know that I personally ditched Mega Flare when I wasn’t doing challenges because I found it boring, but I know that refusal to play “fair” with a game isn’t universal (it’s an attitude that makes the Marathon so remarkable to Kyle and I, since we have the same attitude towards fairness, but in the Marathon we allow ourselves to play unfair and break things!) After a point, you have to admit that you’ve dug your own hole. By taking the easy way out, through our own actions, do we still have the right to call a game “Too easy?” Isn’t abusing BBS’ powerful commands the same as selecting “Beginner Mode” at the outset, and if not: why? There’s a formal distinction involved in difficulty selection, but the end result is the same.
This brings us pretty tidily to the matter of walkthroughs. This has been becoming a more and more important issue in recent years: should games be designed around the fact that walkthroughs exist? Some developers make games recognizing that walkthroughs exist and are beneficial, such as Nintendo’s in-game Hint Guides and Shiekah Stones, which replace walkthroughs to some degree. Other developers, however, treat walkthroughs as a loss of value. A game that can be walked-through is a game with no replay value, and there has been a movement in the industry for the past decade or more to design games that are more dynamic, and are less able to be walked-through.
You can see the seeds of our difficulty discussion in these development styles: the Nintendo style says it is okay to use walkthroughs and this does not change the value of the game, while the latter style says that the ability to use walkthroughs eliminates values from the game, and implies that such games should, put frankly, no longer exist or receive less funding. It is the attitude that kept Adventure games in their graves in the early 2000s (years after their initial death at their own hands). Here, we see publishers refusing to give developers money because their idea is perceived as having less value because they can be beaten with walkthroughs. And publishers aren’t the only ones saying this. The gaming public says it to developers as well.
On Kongregate.com, a site that features site-wide Badges for Flash games, there is (or at least was) a frequent argument that any games that can be easily solved with walkthroughs should not be given Badges, or that they be given only lower-level badges (in the past few years, it seems the staff member responsible for Badges has shut the door for walkthrough-able games receiving anything higher than a Medium badge, unless they are very high quality). Here we see an issue akin to publishers refusing to give developers money for certain genres, as Kongregate’s badges are a major form of site traffic, and so revenue for its game designers. The community has essentially agreed: games that can use walkthroughs do not deserve Badges. And whether they meant it or not, they’re essentially saying: game that can use walkthroughs do not deserve as much money.
Can we treat walkthroughs and guides as being so inevitable that they intrinsically modify the difficulty of the games? That’s one discussion, but it inevitably leads to another. If a game’s relationship to walkthroughs can nullify the content of the game… does that nullify the entire game? And if we mean that, are we prepared to accept the consequences of our argument: that games of this style should no longer exist?
All in all, I find BBS’ combat system easy, but since you have to make it easy, I don’t feel that condemns the entire game. And I certainly don’t want it to change just because it could be “solved”… but maybe I’m in the minority for that? But before we hit the road, some food for thought: in game design, there is a term referred to as a “solved game.” Checkers / English Draughts is a “weakly solved game,” which means that, if you follow the right directions, you will never lose Checkers. Ever! It took years, but it’s been proven. Does the knowledge that Checkers can be trivialized mark Checkers as a valueless game? If not: why Checkers, and not BBS? Complexity?
Personally, I’m not going to condemn a game for being solved. And if I’m not going to condemn a whole solved game, I’m not going to condemn a game like BBS that simply has a solved subsystem – even a critical one.
After that long discussion about solved games and criticism, I will say this about an element of BBS’ difficulty that isn’t tied to the Command system. BBS takes the problems with Days’ “enemies never flinch” system and arguably make them worse now that they’re mostly divorced from a multiplayer mode. We have to concede that the game did have a multiplayer mode on the PSP, even if it wasn’t as central as Days, but you nevertheless continue most battles without enemies responding to your commands, like this was some kind of MMO. I have no respect for this and do look down on the game for it, especially in how it made the superbosses absolutely insufferable. Many enemy and attack combinations do cause flinching, but not enough of them. Not enough for my liking at all.