Kingdom Hearts: An Observation in Fluctuating Level Design



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Grono

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So, thinking back to my childhood, there was a lot of things I liked about the original Kingdom Hearts. From the Disney themed levels to the voice acting to the graphics, there was a lot to like. And, despite the fact that a lot of people disagree with me on this, I loved the level design most of all. It was full of different platforms for you to jump on, and some areas proved to be inaccessible until the late-game, making it feel like you're legitimately evolving with the game itself. From the trees in the hippo lagoon to the gliding in the expansive End of the World maps to getting all of the trinities and finally being able to lock Olympus Coliseum, this game just felt like it progressed and evolved as you progressed and improved.

Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories was quite an odd game, and, while some maps did include much platforming, I don't really consider it much of a platformer, so I'll leave that one up to the reader. Kingdom Hearts II, as much as I enjoyed it as a kid, really left me bugged when I was traversing a Disney world, or even the organization's world, and I couldn't understand why. As an adult, i realized that Kingdom Hearts II changed a lot of things from the original game that I grew up with; the gummi ship was radically altered to be a on-rail shooter (and a fun one at that), nobodies were added and introduced a new way at looking at the world of Kingdom Hearts, and the level design was significantly streamlined and added an objective bar at the top of the screen to tell you what you were doing. It didn't feel right to me; everything was extremely linear and felt practically gift-wrapped to me as opposed to the generally open-feeling level design of the first game. The objective bar told me exactly what to do in each mission, and that killed exploration for me. Overall, there just wasn't much to this game's level design (barring cavern of remembrance).

And that proved to be a problem for the later games; Re:Coded was generally linear and not all that varied, Days was restrictive and claustrophobic, Kingdom Hearts Unchained X was just as restrictive as Days, and Birth by Sleep had huge maps with absolutely nothing to fill them with.

And that brings the question: what about Dream Drop Distance? Well, I am happy to say that, after making my decision during my playthrough of the Symphony of Sorcery, I have determined that the level design for Kingdom Hearts III is in very, very good hands. Seriously, the maps are absolutely enormous and full of things to do, the music, especially for symphony of sorcery, is atmospheric and delightful, the backgrounds are stunning and interactive, and the environments... do I even have to say more? This game showed me everything I wanted from the maps in Birth by Sleep and amplified it by ten. And I thought to myself "Sure, this is great and all, but flowmotion ruins the platformer aspect for me"... And then I got to play 0.2 Birth by Sleep and I was blown away yet again. The environments are jaw-droppingly gorgeous and filled to the brim with detail, they're wonderfully expansive and packed to the brim with challenging enemies, and the exploration aspect and vertical platforming was a well-received addition to the short prologue that I think we all have needed since Kingdom Hearts II. Overall, I started to realize something; I don't need to kid myself when looking at the Kingdom Hearts III trailers, the platforming really does look that good, and it really will turn out that great in the end.

Overall, I wanted to ask all of you a question; are you excited about this new vertical approach to level design that Kingdom Hearts is taking, or do you prefer the more obvious, streamlined approach to level design previous games have had recently? Comment below, and let me know *v*
 

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the problem with DDD's levels is that they were trivialized from jump; what's the difference between a narrow hallway where you can see every chest (KH2) and a giant room where you have to fly around to get everything (DDD)? The answer is time. Neither process takes any amount of skill and yet people think DDD's got good levels-- they are certainly neat but that wears off after a few playthroughs.

KH1 did it best. Interesting levels, growth abilities for revisits, trinities for revisits, etc. There was an actual reason for KH1 to have bigger levels. DDD doesn't give itself a reason other than tooling around with flowmotion.
 

Grono

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the problem with DDD's levels is that they were trivialized from jump; what's the difference between a narrow hallway where you can see every chest (KH2) and a giant room where you have to fly around to get everything (DDD)? The answer is time. Neither process takes any amount of skill and yet people think DDD's got good levels-- they are certainly neat but that wears off after a few playthroughs.

KH1 did it best. Interesting levels, growth abilities for revisits, trinities for revisits, etc. There was an actual reason for KH1 to have bigger levels. DDD doesn't give itself a reason other than tooling around with flowmotion.
I'll give you that, Kingdom Hearts certainly gives you reason to use your own abilities. Flowmotion can be used for practically everything, there is almost no reason Sora needs to jump in the game whatsoever. That's an issue for it, but I'll still defend that it's a step in the right direction. So is 0.2 Birth by Sleep. It may never be quite as electric or interesting as the Kingdom Hearts levels, but it's certainly one of the more interesting games in level design that the series has had in its fifteen years as an entity.
 

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Mh... good question that deserves a good answer. I'm gonna do like you did and take it game by game first.
Gonna stick only to the gameplay aspects since a full-scale answer would be even longer and more complicated.
Needless to say, this is MY take on the series. I don't speak for anyone else here.

First KH - I love it. By far the best in the saga, has a lot of cool stuff never seen again in the series. Or in general, as the unique blend of great representation of Disney worlds united to the great platforming and all the secrets in almost every world are something I still have yet to see elsewhere.
The combat gets its crap by people, especially (matter of fact) late bloomers who got close to the franchise with later games, but it's hardly as bad as people make it out to be. And some stuff, like the countless hidden moves or reaction the bosses have, to me it's still above the flashy Reaction commands of KH II, merely because of replay value. You can go years without knowing that Riku-Ansem can use Dark Firaga on you; a Reaction command, you see it the first time, and that's it forever.

CoM - best writing in a KH game ever, especially considering everything happens in one place. It's totally not a platformer and I'm not good at card games. Having a card based gameplay it's not a crime, but I do think it made more people unhappy than happy.
So that's that. It suffers from lack of exploration, but once you look at the plot and the lore it's at least understandable.

KH II - I also changed my mind a lot over the years. I used to like this more than KH. Then, when my hormones eased off and fancy backflips didn't matter so much I started seeing the flaws. The worlds are the worst. BbS did it better, because BbS at least made platforming a thing and didn't try to use minigames to cover that going from point A to point B is all that there is to it.
"But KH II wins it back with the fights" it's the argument used. Well, kind of. I'd say KH II Sora is the best Sora and the best KH character to control, but bosses still suffer from the way everything was dumbed down to being cool for the sake of cool and zero thinking or the kids won't like it.
Most post-game stuff was added in the final mix and man it shows. KH II is still arguably one of the best games ps2 made and that's saying a lot imo, but it's also the very incarnation of overestimated.

Days - no one ever praised Days level design as far as I remember and that's how it should be.

BbS - Worlds were fine, considering the tripartion of the story mode. I used to think they were KH II level of disappointing, but recently I started to notice at least some interactions in it, which is better than nothing.
BbS' gameplay as many other problems to worry about than level design, namely Team Osaka and their approach to bosses.

Re:Coded - Coded gave us fun, little variations in gameplay style with each worlds, which I found adorable. It was the right game to do that: nothing was new, it wasn't the big game of the saga, so those experiments were fine and helped making everything not the retelling of the first KH people (wrongly) believe Coded is.
You could go to the Coliseum, decide to take the 50 floors dungeon ,and you almost had an OG turn-based game, with items to save and though battles ahead.
That was great.

DDD - Launchpad said it best. DDD looks pretty, it really does, but the Worlds are kinda empty. Instead of minigames, we had time-comsuming mechanics to try and fool us that you couldn't just book it and finish each world's story in a flash.
Flowmotion has its fans and I don't really hate it, but it kills off any kind of level dseign challenge and fooling around with it it's short fun.
Shoutout to Symphony of Sorcery though, even most DDD haters recognize how good that world was.

0.2 - I welcomed the puzzles. They're not exactly KH1's "mazes", it's a different kind of puzzle but finally I can't just locate the big red string on the minimap in order to proceed, I have to actually look around me. It's definitely an improvement, plus Sora climing the mountain vertically was the only part of the KH III trialers I liked, along the Titan bit.
Everything that shows worlds won't be just background, basically.

So, answering the question... I regained hope with 0.2 in the level design department. I'm not expecting to go back to KH1's glory, not anymore, but a better solution that the current one is possible.
And if not, I will just do what I always do: pop up the first KH and lose myself in Hollow Bastion and how it's one of the greatest videogame worlds ever.
 

Grono

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I agree with you, Dream Drop Distance's platforming is made moot by the fact that you literally start with every single flowmotion ability you can learn right out the gate. If the game started with just the wall jump and then slowly evolved to let us use other flowmotion moves, I feel like that would have fixed that issue a bit. I'm glad it's being dumbed down in 0.2 and Kingdom Hearts III, it's a little much for a mainstream KH title in my opinion.

And right?! Isn't symphony of sorcery gorgeous?! (also I'm a musician so when the music is playing I'm just like *UUU*)
 

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I was initially impressed with how big and open 3D's levels were (considering it's a handheld game), but then I came to the realization that they were just giant spaces of nothing with 2-3 chests peppered in on opposite ends.

0.2's platforming is utter trash thanks to the broken physics and restrictive movement. As well as it's longer and seamless areas being brought down by having to redo everything if you die in them.
 

Grono

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I was initially impressed with how big and open 3D's levels were (considering it's a handheld game), but then I came to the realization that they were just giant spaces of nothing with 2-3 chests peppered in on opposite ends.

0.2's platforming is utter trash thanks to the broken physics and restrictive movement. As well as it's longer and seamless areas being brought down by having to redo everything if you die in them.
At least there was more chests than in Birth by Sleep. I felt like I was walking through a ghost town in that game. Of course, DDD has no NPC's, but worlds like symphony of sorcery are so atmospheric I hardly even notice it.
 

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At least there was more chests than in Birth by Sleep. I felt like I was walking through a ghost town in that game. Of course, DDD has no NPC's, but worlds like symphony of sorcery are so atmospheric I hardly even notice it.
Problem with "worlds like symphony of sorcery": There is no other world like symphony of sorcery in the game. Yes, this world was outstanding and nice, especially for how different it was for Sora and Riku, but let's be real: La Cité des Cloches and Monstro, to name just two of them, are a joke.
 

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What I liked about Monstro: it opens up with a poster of Prankster's Paradise to give birth to the World title but is in fact on a plank inside the whale.
That's it.

Prankster's Paradise in Sora's version was nice, the water area seemed a useless addition.
 

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They just need to stop being so lazy and include NPCs. We're on the PS4 now, I'm sure it's not even hard.
 

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they dont want npcs to get in the way of teh battlesssssss
 

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ideally there would even be a way for NPCs to play a part in battles

(like a resident dropping a pot out of their window or something in a town setting)
 

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It's just frustrating to know that the only NPCs ever have always been in save/safe rooms (most of the time, anyway) and those were 80% shop owners. It's just really boring to me and quite obvious they just don't wanna move their butts and do something about it

Excluding Party Members, of course.
 

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someone should bring it up in an interview. i can't recall if nomura has every really been asked about the lack of npcs or not.
 

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someone should bring it up in an interview. i can't recall if nomura has every really been asked about the lack of npcs or not.
Yup.

—Please tell us how the action in KHIII will have evolved. Nomura: Right now there’s a demo version that works on our existing equipment… and it’s an absolute storm (laughs). It goes even beyond ‘bold action’. In KHIII you will have a three person party, but depending on the world NPCs will also join in fighting, basically, we’re developing some very flashy action. You’ll be flying through the sky unfolding into air battles without landing.
I hope that's still the case and they haven't forgotten or given up on that
 

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Yup.

—Please tell us how the action in KHIII will have evolved.
Nomura: Right now there’s a demo version that works on our existing equipment… and it’s an absolute storm (laughs). It goes even beyond ‘bold action’. In KHIII you will have a three person party, but depending on the world NPCs will also join in fighting, basically, we’re developing some very flashy action. You’ll be flying through the sky unfolding into air battles without landing.[/QUOTE]
I hope that's still the case and they haven't forgotten or given up on that
Yeah I remember that one. Though the usage of NPC there makes me think more like "FF chars joining you in battle in the Heartless War" than "worlds now actually have populated areas"

But I meant more someone directly asking Nomura why worlds are so bare.
 

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Yeah I remember that one. Though the usage of NPC there makes me think more like "FF chars joining you in battle in the Heartless War" than "worlds now actually have populated areas"
Guess so.. but hey, it's better than nothing, I guess?

But to be honest I rather have a world populated by NPCs than them joining in the fight. I dunno, maybe both at the same time. But if I had to choose, I'd choose the former
 
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