Wow, it has been a long time since posting and for that I am sorry. I had to take a break from life and just chill, you know? This has been the first time in my life where I haven't had to deal with external pressure from an institution or projects or anything. My time has been put towards pretty simple things; working to pay bills, gaming, lots of reading, spending time with the ladyfriend. I haven't been completely slack though; I've managed to crank out a significant amount of work for SWSTS which I'm still going to keep under wraps for the time being. I can trust my players not to look at stuff if I put it up here but it's that feeling of not wanting to show something off until it's finished. Dumb, I know, but it's my project and I'll indulge myself that much.
Anyways, in preparation to the fabled coming of Kingdom Hearts III I went and bought a PS4 and got the master collection of all the games prior. To keep things fresh I decided to join the KH community elite and complete the three main titles at level 1. For those that don't know, Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix + and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep came with the difficulty option of "Critical Mode", which is hard enough on its own but also comes with the quirky little ability to turn off XP gain. What this means is you do not level up when you beat enemies and do not receive the gradual increase in stats that the game intended you to gain as you progress through the story. It is not, however, a complete lock on your growth as a character.
So how is it possible to beat a game at level 1 when the average player finishes somewhere around the 50 mark? When the developers added the "Zero Experience" ability in the game, it brought with it some buried mechanics. In KH1 having "EXP Zero" equipped triggers a safety net for your hit points where as long as you were on full HP, nothing can kill you in one hit (with the exception of certain fights where nothing can do more than a third of your health in a hit). This is necessary as the combat of KH1 is a lot clunkier than that of its sequels. Sora just isn't as mobile or well equipped to deal with some of the enemies and without the HP catch EXP Zero provides, a lot of players would find themselves dying over and over to cheap hits (I'm looking at you Ursula). This is forgivable in a game with more of a focus on story than gameplay and it was cool to see Square Enix (then Squaresoft) experimenting with the game.
Then along comes KHII and things get crazy. Everything is faster, bigger and more spectacular to the point where they had to increase the distance the camera maintains from Sora just to keep track of it all. Sora is much more agile to account for the increase in scale. He reacts faster, covers more distance and his moves flow into one another more fluidly. Combine that with the reaction commands (one of the extremely rare cases of quick time events integrating smoothly into gameplay) and you have dramatic, fast-paced and engaging action .
But KHII also has much more depth mechanically than its predecessor. KHI has effectively four options in combat; combos, magic, summons and limits. The later can be ignored entirely without significantly altering the player's ability to beat the game. Summons are more of a gimmick than anything and limits are only two-thirds cost-effective, one-third cool points. KHII on the other hand has combos, magic that integrated into combos or formed its own, summons with multiple effects, limits with every ally Sora makes (including summons) and drive forms (each with their own combos, alternative magic and mobility options). It's like the game increased its complexity in an exponential sense.
Much like KHI, players are still more than capable of mashing the attack button through every fight in the game (as I have watched my significant other do). So why does it matter that we have all this extra fluff? The answer is twofold. Firstly it gives players options; room to play around with the different abilities and discover what ones they find fun or effective to use. They can combine different techniques to establish a style of their own.
Secondly, it allows for more complex enemies. As Sora grows in power and gains access to a variety of attack and defence options, the opponents he faces require more attention to deal with. Some have immunities to certain types of attacks and weaknesses to others. Some attacks can be blocked while others should be evaded. In the easier difficulties, players have enough health to tank their way through mistakes and still come out on top. At level 1, however, it is a completely different story, which is the whole point of this article really.
Playing the games at level 1 forced me to appreciate each game in its entirety. When everything kills you in one or two hits you have to understand your own capabilities, how each of your moves work and when best to use them. You have to study your enemies, learn how they telegraph each attack and how to respond. All these options the game provides become integral to your survival. To account for the fact that you would not be increasing your character level with Zero Experience equipped, all the core abilities were tied to alternative forms of progress; such as story completion or drive forms. This meant that there is still a sense of character growth as you fight your way through the game, which is something KHI lacked.
The way the mechanics in KHI work means that most fights follow a simple pattern with slight variations depending on whatever the gimmick of the enemy is. KHII's depth means that each boss fight requires a different approach. Learning when to attack and when to back off, when to dodge and when to counter becomes crucial. Combat feels less like a kid bashing two action figures together and more like a back-and-forth dance to each opponent's unique rhythm.
The fights that best encapsulate this are the members of Organization XIII. Each has a very distinct style and personality that factors into the way their fights are designed. Some are best handled through staying defensive and focussing on counterattacks, others reward aggression and forced openings, while some are battles of attrition where simply trying to stay alive is most important. It is in these fights that the precision with which KHII was built becomes apparent. The timing of enemy attacks coincides extremely well with the invincibility frames granted by Sora's defensive moves. Virtually anything can be evaded if timed well enough and chaining guards or "Reflect" spells together can block entire combos. The openings these bosses have are also timed in such a way that dodging an attack one way may provide a chance for a counterattack where blocking another way may be safer but keep the player on the back foot.
Until I tried beating the game at level 1, I never really studied any of the fights. When a single mistake could get me killed it became necessary to fully understand my opponents to be able to take them down. I started watching videos on Youtube and reading guides on GameFAQ to see how others had managed. I discovered a section of the community that I hadn't been aware of before. People discussing different techniques and odd details about the game; exploits, hidden mechanics, shortcuts. The level of detail I became aware of was substantial. It felt like I was rediscovering my favourite game, experiencing everything for the first time again. Or better yet; discovering how the game was meant to be played. Much in the way the "true" XCOM experience begins with Ironman mode, part of me feels the "true" Kingdom Hearts II experience begins with equipping Zero Experience. This is of course coming from someone who deliberately goes for Faith builds in my first runs of the Dark Souls series and is not to lessen how other people enjoy their games. I'm just happy that these games provide such options as Ironman mode or Zero Experience because the emotional high these experiences provide is incredible. I can still remember how furiously my heart was beating every time I got Lingering Will down to his last few health bars.
One thing I should mention before I wrap this up is Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. I still managed to finish KH:BBS at level 1 but the focus on 'press triangle to win' stagnated the experience somewhat. I'm very much on the side of Bl00dyBizkitz in his video Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep - The Turning Point. What I'm really hoping for is that the upcoming sequel treats progression and enemy design the same way number two did; with variety, tight controls and respect for player ability. If KHIII is going to have the same impact KHII did, where a level 1 run is both viable and fun to play, it will need to have more of a focus on skill and strategy and less of KH:BBS's reliance on cinematic flair. A conclusive and less convoluted storyline would also be nice I guess...