Last Time On – Kingdom Hearts
We’re opening the door to darkness again for another installment of this franchise. Last time we talked about Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and, for those who haven’t read that post, it was a narrative tragedy. A classic Kingdom Hearts incomprehensible mess at best and at the level of a bad fanfiction at worst. The proposed changes that I laid out for that story will have a significant impact going into my analysis of 358/2 days, so if you haven’t read that post already then I would recommend it. Just for ease of consumption, here’s a short summary of all the relevant changes from that post;
In this version, organization XIII didn’t send their members to castle oblivion as a means of weeding out traitors. Introducing a villain team with in-fighting is an awful way of making them feel like a real threat. The organization should feel like a cohesive threat to Sora without relying on plot mechanics that make him weaker. Instead, the primary reason for the organization’s presence in castle oblivion is to find their way to Ventus in the chamber of waking. Ventus is a keyblade wielder who was around before the first game and, for reasons that will be explained in a later post, is the reason why Sora can use the keyblade.
Second, we’re using the manga explanation of the affliction which plagues Nobodies. In the games, they continually refer to Nobodies as being emotionless and unable to experience certain feelings, yet that doesn’t track even in the slightest. Instead, we’re just gonna say that they’re plagued with a feeling of emptiness that drives them towards trying to become whole again. We’re also saying that Zexion and Lexaeus weren’t present in castle oblivion during the events of that game, since I don’t believe they added enough to Riku’s story to merit it. Did you know that apparently Lexaeus is meant to be the 3rd strongest member of the organization? Stronger than even Marluxia, word of god states. Would be great if we got to see that.
I toyed with the idea of a version of the story where none of the organization members actually die during the events of chain of memories but for simplicity we’ll say that Vexen, Larxene and Marluxia are taken out. Vexen being dead will be beneficial to 358’s plot, so that has to stick at the very least. Easy to make happen, given Axel was the one to put him down. In the Naminé stays version of the story, that about covers all the relevant changes I made. Sora is put into sleep so she can fix the memories she messed with. However, I also constructed a version of the story in which she doesn’t exist.
In this alternative, Sora is put into sleep because of his lack of body. Sora’s body has been akin to that of a Heartless ever since he became a shadow bug and further exposure to the darkness threatens to return him to that state. It is not his true body, simply a vessel in its shape. His true body is a husk that was swept away and spat out somewhere else; his Nobody. The only way to assure that he would not return to a fully Heartless state would be to return his body to him, though it would be no easy task. DiZ puts Sora into a state of sleep to stall his deterioration as Riku is tasked with finding Sora’s Nobody and bringing him back.
I’ll be attempting to write this amendment with both plot strings in mind, the bottom line either way is that Sora is still inactive by the end of chain of memories. Since I like the explanation of Sora’s form being pseudo-Heartless during chain of memories, we’ll say that plot point is consistent between the Naminé existing and not existing timelines. I feel like it’s a more solid reason for why Roxas has to return to him than what 358/2 days gives.
Speaking of, since this is a post about 358/2 days, here’s a quick summary. It’s the story of Roxas, the Nobody that was created whenever Sora turned into a Heartless during the events of Kingdom Hearts 1. A Nobody is the husk that remains when a heart is taken from a body, still with mind and form but essentially lacking its soul. This results in a maddening feeling of emptiness within all Nobodies. Roxas is recruited by organization XIII as its 13th member and as an individual of utmost importance to the organization’s goal. A keyblade wielder capable of harvesting the hearts the organization needs to form their artificial kingdom hearts.
A good part of the plot of this game is Roxas trying to understand a Nobody’s emptiness, what it actually is and if it even really needs filling. He doesn’t really think too much about his heart collecting mission, instead his primary conflict revolves around Xion. A fourteenth organization member that was introduced a week after he joined. The truth about Xion and the way she’s treated by the other organization members is what makes up the primary intrigue of this plot. Otherwise, it’s the story of an empty vessel trying to create a new sense of self through eating a lot of sea-salt ice cream with his friends. Surprisingly, this plot has more potential than it sounds.
For someone like me, who tends to enjoy the stories of antagonists more than those of heroes, when the idea of a game focused around organization XIII was presented to me I was hyped up. I was looking for an experience that fleshed out the organization as a whole and gave us a better perspective on how insidious and cunning they can be. The aspects that make them interesting and intimidating. For a series like Kingdom Hearts, which has been pretty awful at presenting their villains up until this point, something like this is sorely needed. Ansem was barely there in Kingdom Hearts 1 and chain of memories was just a complete mess. I would hope that a game entirely focused on them would do them at least some justice.
I’m also looking for the fleshing out of other plot elements that have been left vague up until this point. In particular, with regards to the keyblade. The keyblade has always been important to the plot but its never quite been in the spotlight. Even in the first game, where it was the only thing that could save worlds from being swallowed by darkness, other plot elements fought for the focus. However, in 358/2 days, the keyblade is integral in multiple ways. The most obvious of which being the fact that the keyblade is required for the organization to achieve their primary goal. Even past that, though, the ideas of artificially creating keyblade wielders puts an even heavier emphasis on it.
With experiments like this happening, we can imply that the organization has some kind of deeper understanding of the keyblade than what anyone else up until now has shown. This would be a good way of showing off the intelligence of the organization as well as opening for other plot points. E.g. their knowledge of the keyblade could allow them to manipulate it or counteract it such that it couldn’t be used against them. This would make the organization more dangerous to Sora without just making them stronger, since they could effect him at the source of his power. This thought string goes a lot of ways, now we just need to see if the game actually goes in this kind of direction.
Problem is, this is a Kingdom Hearts game. High expectations of narrative will inevitably not be met but we can’t avoid looking at the damage forever. One last quick note, this game was released after Kingdom Hearts 2 but it just makes way more sense to put this story here. Especially with regards to Roxas’ story, which reaches its climax in KH2. That out of the way, it’s time to begin analysis on Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 ways to use the word ‘darkness’.
What I Enjoyed
- The organization as a third-party in the light-and-dark conflict – The story opens with a vague summary of the organization’s goal. The keyblade wielder has to kill Heartless to release their hearts, the hearts are collected into a kingdom hearts, we’ve been over this. It’s a small thing to note but they refer to the Heartless as ‘pitiful’ creatures, which puts us in the mindset of Nobodies being superior entities. Good for the organization’s image but the value of this goes further than that. The fact that the organization aren’t allied with the darkness, which was presented as such a major force in the first game, helps to add some healthy complexity to the story. It can’t just be boiled down to a light vs dark conflict, now there’s a third party with their own agenda who claim superiority over both. In turn, the darkness is still a major threat to the Nobodies as it can still swallow them up. This is why the organization members wear their cloaks, as a counter-measure against it. This means that, while the Nobodies are individually greater in ability, the overwhelming existence that is darkness hasn’t just been made irrelevant. It’s still an imposing force, thus both the Heartless and Nobody factions have been elevated in image. It’s a story dynamic that could lead to interesting things, so I felt it worth noting.
- The character dynamic ideas – Throughout the story, there are multiple interesting character dynamics that don’t necessarily get entirely fleshed out. The most major example of this is Axel acting as something of a mentor to Roxas, helping him to find his footing in the organization and start developing his own personality. Then, when Axel is called away to castle oblivion, Roxas is left to mentor Xion. Roxas is forced to fill the role that Axel was playing for him, which spurs further development and makes Xion think highly of Axel inadvertently. The potential of this dynamic is cut kinda short by Roxas’ coma but I feel like the idea was definitely there.
Then there’s Axel and Saix’s relationship, which at first seems to be just a work relationship until hints of something else emerge. Talk of their lives before becoming Nobodies and a plot to expose Xemnas’ secret regime spark a lot of interest that just isn’t followed through. This becomes even more intriguing as the plot develops and Saix dismissed Xion as an it, which leads to Axel having to choose between his friendship with Roxas and Xion or his loyalty to Saix. There’s so much potential in these character conflicts and I think it’s handled fairly well with regards to Axel, the issue is that just about everyone else falls short. A lot of what’s set up is never followed through, not even in KH2 where the organization is defeated.
- Xion as a memory construct – The reasons why I like this idea tie into what I mentioned above about the organization learning about/having knowledge of the keyblade. Given their goal, it would make sense that they’d go to any length to add more keyblade wielders to their number. I have a couple of issues with Xion, like when in the story she’s initially introduced, but in all I like her concept and arc. A construct made from things extracted from a keyblade wielder in an attempt to find what makes someone qualified. If it’s mind, heart or simply memories; whatever they need to produce a being worthy of the keyblade’s choosing. Yet, she is not made to last and eventually begins to fall apart. Other Nobodies at least have the blessing of creating new selves while she lacks that option. She has a Nobody’s emptiness and a self that’s merely derivative of another. She is fated to fall apart, especially given the death of her creator.
What Needs Changed
- Roxas’ connection to Sora – I don’t like the plot element of Roxas’ mind being connected to Sora’s. This is an issue because it makes for the primary conflict in his character, his struggle to develop his own self. He wants to be his own entity but he’s tied to Sora in such a way that doesn’t allow it, plagued by the vague memories of his original self. I just feel like the persisting mental connection is arbitrary, maybe Roxas does have some echoes of memories but that doesn’t explain why he’s effected when Naminé messes with Sora’s mind. At that point, they’re separate and having their own unique experiences. The element of them still being the same entity just confuses things in a way that doesn’t add to the plot. I can’t possibly justify the idea of how Naminé effecting the memories that are in Sora’s head somehow leads to some of those memories getting stuck in Roxas. Especially not when this happens at a point in the story when the two are already separate. There are ways of making it necessary for Roxas to return to Sora without tying Naminé’s memory nonsense into it. In fact, I’ve already given my solution to it in Sora having a body that’s vulnerable to the effects of darkness. Naminé continues to make a mess of everything even in the game where she isn’t in focus.
- Roxas’ character progression – I talked about how I liked the Roxas is mentored by Axel->is forced to become a mentor himself development. Unfortunately, Roxas falls into a coma before that bears much fruit, so it’s kind of a moot point. Roxas barely actually develops throughout the game, he learns that he likes sea-salt ice cream and friendship and that’s about it. Both of these developments happen early into the story, after that he just becomes a static block who can only react in extremely bare and predictable ways. In a way this makes sense seeing as he starts out without any self at all but it doesn’t make for a great character. Especially when his arc revolves around him fighting so hard to be his own person, when there’s so little personality for him to protect then why should we care. By the end of the game, Roxas still doesn’t even know what a Nobody is. He storms out of the organization because he doesn’t know where he came from or why he can wield the keyblade. Questions that can be very reasonably answered by just explaining to him what a Nobody is. He just doesn’t really go anywhere and, seeing as this is a plot which revolves around him, that’s inexcusable.
- The vast dullness of the plot – As I watched through the plot of 358/2 days I struggled to take meaningful notes as many of the plot beats passed. Of the narrative amendment posts I’ve made so far, this one had the least for me to work from by far. This is because so much of the game’s plot just isn’t interesting or doesn’t matter. A majority of the cutscenes are just any combination of Axel, Roxas and Xion sitting on the twilight town clock tower eating ice cream and talking about nothing. It just feels like “they’re friends because they sit here”, so much of the dialogue is just based on what’s in front of them. Since Roxas ends up being so bland, the dialogue is mostly just low-quality garbage. Sometimes Axel will make some banter but that’s about the extent of it. In three hours of cutscenes, the two most memorable moments out of all these scenes are Axel telling Roxas why the sunset is red and Roxas saying that Demyx would be upset if his sitar were taken away. The latter of these two moments is only memorable because it’s one of the few times they even talk about the other organization members. A major issue is the fact that a lot of these scenes revolve around the idea that Nobodies lack feelings but that’s a bad plot element and we’ve already done away with it.
A potential uprising plot between Axel and Saix is never followed through. Roxas’ relationship with other organization members is never touched upon. In fact, the actions of the other organization members are pushed so far into the background. For a majority of the game, you don’t even know what the other organization members are doing. Sometimes they go to castle oblivion to continue their attempts at reaching Ventus and one time Xigbar mentions trying to recruit new members. Demyx, Xaldin and Luxord practically don’t exist and, other than the ‘replica project’ that produced Xion, the organization as a whole just doesn’t really do anything interesting. It’s just boring, boring, boring.
- The lack of organization XIII development – I said I wanted the organization to be fleshed out. It wasn’t. A game centralized around the organization failed to make them any more interesting. That is sad.
- The lack of exploration of other key story elements – Pretty much the same as the previous point, I mentioned that this would be a good time to go more in-depth as to what the keyblade is all about but there’s no hint of that at all. In fact, by the end of the game, Roxas doesn’t even know why he has a keyblade. We practically get less then nothing on the subject from this game. I guess they didn’t want to put important information into this side game but honestly why not. Even if people don’t play it, the information is going to find its way onto the internet and Square Enix went out of their way to make a cutscene compilation for re-release titles anyways. Don’t know why anyone would want to bother watching it, though. The patience required to sit through the entire three hours is immeasurable.
Looks like we got another stinker here. Guess we should be starting to expect this but I like to be hopeful. Especially with this particular title, which I recall having some pretty good memories with. Demonstrably, it wasn’t for the story-telling. It’s kind of hard to mount a rewrite for something like this just because of how little is there to work from. In the barest sense, the plot does what it has to, which is get Roxas to where he starts in Kingdom Hearts 2 and tell Xion’s story. That isn’t good enough, though, so we’re going to try and pretty this story up a little.
Let’s start out by just removing the mental ties between Roxas and Sora. I don’t think that Naminé’s abilities should effect Roxas when they’re being used on Sora and nothing is lost from taking this interaction away. In fact, we get back the time that Roxas spends in a coma early on into the story. In this time, the mentor role that Roxas is forced to take on with Xion can be further fleshed out and lead to him adding on a couple of personality traits. It’s also pertinent to state that a lot less time can be spent on the main three characters talking on the clock tower. While the development of their friendship is important, more scenes of Roxas interacting with other organization member wouldn’t be amiss.
What I would want out of Roxas’ character is for him to do his best to emulate what he sees. The main idea of his character is him trying to find a unique self, a personality to call his own. Perhaps he thinks, if he can do this then the emptiness he feels as a Nobody will go away. Most of it ends up being Axel rubbing off on him but elements of the other organization members effect him as well. Maybe he picks up Xaldin’s serious approach to battle or Xigbar’s teasing use of nicknames. I just want him to become an absolute mesh of the quirks of those around him. It opens up for the other organization members to be in the spotlight as well as creating a more interesting main character.
Though these interactions with the other organization members, Roxas’ confidence and inquisitiveness grows and he starts to ask more about the keyblade and Nobodies. Seeing as Zexion is still alive in my rewritten timeline, maybe he helps Roxas to learn more of what the organization knows without revealing what Xemnas wishes to keep hidden. As Roxas grows and realizes that the emptiness remains, this could lead to emotional scenes of Axel telling him that it’s not just something that can be filled. This would make Roxas more committed to the organization’s goal as well as making him more tragic. He wants to be his own self, away from Sora, yet he can’t dispel the emptiness if he doesn’t.
Getting deeper into the organization would also make it possible for Roxas to find out about Axel and Saix’s plans to overthrow Xemnas. Interactions with Roxas could help us determine which of the organization members do what they do out of necessity and which of them are truly mean-spirited. This creates two factions; one which would loyally follow Xemnas and another that might stand against him if some true intentions were revealed. The problem is, those who would be reasonable enough to see the evil in Xemnas’ intentions are either too fearful or too desperate to stand against him. Some believe they would be crushed and the rest prioritize attaining new hearts over any ideas of betrayal. This is what could lead into Roxas’ leaving the organization at the end of the game instead of some lack of communication.
With this, the individual organization members have been built upon and an interesting dynamic has been forged among them. They aren’t necessarily aligned in morals or ideology, simply in their goal to attain hearts. Then, when they’re fought in Kingdom Hearts 2, they’re more than just a group of strong folks. A viewer might actually be sad to see one of them die or happy to see another get what they deserve. This is the kind of investment I’m looking for here. The organization members, even without keyblades, do everything they can to dispel the emptiness.
For a moment here, let’s just lay out what the other organization members actually do. They seem pretty worthless on account of not being able to use the keyblade but what other roles can they fill? Well, we already have two, one being to search castle oblivion for Ventus and the other being the recruitment of more members. This recruitment becomes especially important after the deaths of Marluxia, Larxene and Vexen; so the other members can justifiably be busy with that. Otherwise, I’d like to give them another reason to go around the other worlds. I like the idea of the organization members going to analyze the keyholes of the worlds as a way to find out more about the keyblade. The keyblade and the keyholes are evidently tied, so it would be a good way of explaining their knowledge.
I also think it’s important to actually expand a bit on the Nobody lore here, given this is a story all about them. We know that they’re the husks of bodies that have had their hearts removed but other than that, we get nothing. I had this thought upon seeing Xemnas recruiting Roxas in Twilight Town, because how in the heck did Sora’s body get there after he lost it in Hollow Bastion? Just a simple explanation would suffice, like mentioning that the darkness swallows a being whole and spits out what it doesn’t want. It takes away not just the heart but the mind as well, it’s a greedy force that leaves the remaining Nobody barren. Even if a Nobody manages to attain a new semblance of self, the dark could take away everything that they’ve built up and return them to nothing.
This gives us a decent enough explanation, Sora’s entire being was taken into the darkness and his body drifted off until it landed in Twilight Town. It also adds a more clear reason as to why the organization members, who already had their hearts taken, still need to protect themselves from the darkness. Building upon this, I would explain the featureless Nobodies like the Dusks to be those who could not stand the feeling of emptiness and who lost the last vestiges of their minds to escape the maddening void. Their lack of faces is a representation of the fact that they gave up all hope of constructing new selves.
Let’s move on to Xion, who I believe should be an oddity when compared to Roxas. Given that we’re having Roxas develop his personality from taking the traits of those around him, one might expect Xion to follow a similar route. However, over the course of the story, she begins to show traits unlike anyone in the organization. She is a clone constructed by Vexen using Sora’s memories, thus she begins to take on his personality. Roxas begins to realize this but in a more subconscious way, like he’s familiar with the way Xion comes to be. This could spark lingering memories within himself of his time as Sora and lead him to try and find out more about Xion.
Since I actually kinda like Xion’s deal, there won’t be much different past that. The organization members who know of how Xion was constructed are oddly dismissive of her and don’t even see her as a person. Saix in particular, which leads to conflict between he and the main three. Eventually, though, Xion figures out what she is and becomes fearful that she’ll eventually no longer be herself. She’s taken Sora’s traits but it’s only a matter of time before she completely becomes him. She can’t stand the thought of losing the experiences she’s gained with Roxas and Axel like that, so she runs to try and find a solution.
Whether or not her existence effects Sora’s memory reconstruction doesn’t really matter. She could force Roxas to fight and slay her just because she wants to die while she’s still herself. I feel like this would make her dying way more sad than just returning to Sora but it works either way. Unless, of course, we’re in the timeline where Naminé doesn’t exist. Xion could still exist as she does since Vexen could still create a construct from Sora’s memories but there’s another path open for this character at this point. After all, with Naminé out of the picture, the matter of Kairi’s Nobody is left on the table.
Xion as Kairi’s Nobody is interesting because it could be used as foreshadowing for Kairi’s own potential to wield the keyblade. It isn’t worth losing the plot aspect of the organization trying to create an artificial Keyblade wielder, though. My solution is thus, Kairi isn’t capable of wielding the keyblade upon Xion’s conception so Xion isn’t initially able to do it either. However, Xemnas is able to sense a similar power within her as what exists in Roxas. Queue experiments to try and force out her potential as a keyblade wielder, which leads to her having the memories of a current keyblade wielder spliced into her mind. The theory is that they can make the keyblade manifest through the memories of another summoning it countless times.
The experiment succeeds but it leaves Xion’s mind unstable. Memories of her as Kairi and her as Sora mix with her own personal experiences with Roxas and Axel, leading to a crisis over her identity. Her mind breaks and she goes into a coma for some time, at which point Xemnas and the others involved in the experiment consider her a failure. When she awakens, she finds herself no longer welcome as several organization members begin to look down on her. Shortly after, her execution is called and she is forced to run. She meets with Roxas on the clock tower and has one last heart-to-heart with him, talking about how her existence is all pain and emptiness. Her only happiness came from her time with him and Axel, so she asks him to kill her while her mind still remembers those times. She forces Roxas to comply and is killed in the battle. In disappearing, she returns to Kairi and Xion’s existence remains in the depths of her original’s mind.
In my eyes, this is the worst type of story. It’s pretty bad but what makes it far worse is the fact that it’s just a slog to sit through. It’s so dull, the writing’s bad and it adds a fat load of nothing to the overarching story of Kingdom Hearts. Nothing is added to the organization, nothing is added to Roxas’ character and no other key elements are explored at all. Roxas at the start of the story and Roxas at the end are barely different, he learns so little and barely properly interacts with anyone outside of Axel and Xion. There’s little you can say about it because there’s little there. It’s just unsatisfying, especially for a story that had so many ways to go. So many characters that could have been developed and so many dynamics that begged to be explored.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 days filled the barest requirements for what it had to be and, for such a big series, that just can’t pass. It’s only means of justification is the fact that it’s a side-game but that excuse won’t work again. This game and chain of memories were busts in terms of storytelling but next up is Kingdom Hearts 2. The much anticipated sequel to the first game and the second game in the series to have no excuse to not matter. It’s sure to be another behemoth of a post so be on the lookout for that in the next Kingdom Hearts narrative amendment.