Last Time On – Kingdom Hearts
When last we left off the main story of Kingdom Hearts, a lot of questions were raised which were left unanswered. This is a fact that rings particularly true if one experienced the final mix version of Kingdom Hearts II, which was filled with several cryptic tidbits regarding past Keyblade wielders. The hidden boss fight with the Lingering Will and the secret end cinematic which depicts Keyblade wielders doing battle only further add to the mystery, especially when considering that one of those wielders looks exactly like Roxas. One might be fooled into thinking that this was all hinting towards Kingdom Hearts 3, but the subsequently released prequel title Birth by Sleep somehow ended up in the position of spin-off.
Though it is a prequel title, Birth by Sleep does feel like the natural next step in this franchise’s story. Across the four games that we’ve gone over so far, there are a fair amount of plot hooks that point towards past events. Things like whenever the various worlds, which were once one, were split apart by darkness. Smaller points like Triton’s prior knowledge of Keyblade wielders further adds to this. With Xemnas’ mysterious armor friend and all the Birth by Sleep foreshadowing added to this, we have the potential for a great prequel story. One that solidifies the series’ worldbuilding and answers things that the series has left vague for all this time.
I will make the statement that Birth by Sleep should be THE prequel story for the Kingdom Hearts franchise. This should cover everything from before Sora became a Keyblade wielder and wrap it up in a consumable and accessible fashion. One of the big reasons why Kingdom Hearts is so difficult for people to get into is because its story is split up across so many spin-offs now. Entries like Coded and Union X should not exist because they’re essentially curtains which hide plot points that may or may not be relevant. It’s impossible for people to know what’s important or where to start because key elements of the plot are left vague just so they can be revealed in the next side-game.
It’s a trashy and consumer-unfriendly way of handling things, which is why I’m going to ignore those games. There’s nothing important contained on those throwaway titles that can’t be put into Birth by Sleep or Dream Drop Distance, so keep that in mind for this and the next Kingdom Hearts rewrite post. I’m absolutely of the mentality that Birth by Sleep should be Kingdom Hearts III, so I’m not going to limit myself to just what the PSP could handle. Before that, though, we still have to analyze what’s already there. So, let’s skip any further premise setting and get into the fifth Kingdom Hearts narrative amendment.
What I Enjoyed
- The concept of light and dark being in balance – Light and darkness being in balance is a core theme throughout this game and, while it is lost a bit in the second half, I do think it’s an important idea to explore. All of the previous games have kind of sold darkness as being a force of evil, though that isn’t necessarily true. Darkness was the enemy in those games because the balance had shifted in its favor rather than because it bore malice as an abstract force. The darkness hasn’t grown to an overwhelming state in Birth by Sleep, which makes sense seeing as this is a pre-Ansem story, therefore it’s important to keep both light and dark in check.
The idea of this balance adds a lot to two characters in particular, Terra and Master Xehanort. Throughout the game, Terra struggles with the inner-conflict of darkness welling up within him. He’s been led to believe that this makes him unworthy of being a Keyblade master, then through Xehanort we’re introduced to the idea that darkness doesn’t necessarily equal evil. The darkness won’t make Terra evil or force him to do evil things, it will just allow him to maintain the balance from the other side of the spectrum. This allows the character to enter an interesting moral grey area where he has the choice to take on this perceived evil force and use it for a greater good.
The biggest problem with this whole concept is that the narrative doesn’t really do anything to justify darkness as a concept. We’ve determined from previous posts that darkness is a force which rejects while light is what brings together. More often than not, this leads to darkness just being self-destructive in nature. It doesn’t really offer any kind of obvious benefit, which makes it difficult to believe that it’s necessary to attain some kind of balance. Especially seeing as the progenitor world was supposedly prosperous before the darkness started to awaken in people’s hearts.
The closest thing we get to any kind of justification is the fact that light casts shadows, therefore more light means more darkness. That still means that darkness is a bad thing, just that there needs to be less light so that there isn’t too much darkness. I suppose you could spin this in a way which regards the split worlds and say that if they were one again all that would do is make a bigger darkness but I don’t like the concept that darkness is all around bad. My proposal would be to say that too much light blinds people of the flaws of those that they’re connected to, therefore it stunts things like growth and change if there’s too much of it. That way darkness has a more proper reason to exist as a counterpart and it becomes easier to sell users of darkness as being not just corrupted.
- We finally learn about the Keyblade! – After five games we finally learn about what is perhaps the most important element of the entire story. The Keyblade, the whimsical plot device which, up until now, just kinda seemed to show up however it wanted. We didn’t know why Sora got a Keyblade or why Riku could wield a Keyblade or any of that nonsense. It just showed up and could do a lot of things. Here, we finally get a couple of answers! Turns out, it’s sort of a legacy deal where wielders of the Keyblade can sanction new wielders by allowing them to hold it. Through this act, they have the potential to one day go into their own Dive to the Heart and become their own Keyblade wielders.
The aforementioned theme of balance also gives a bit of context as to what the Keyblade’s function is. We knew already that it’s something that can be wielded for the sake of both light and darkness, that was proven in the first game whenever Riku took hold of the Keyblade. It isn’t solely an object of light as one might assume. It’s an object of balance that is able to tune the light and darkness and bring them to order. All of this theming of balance, leading up to the final area of the game, has been hinting towards this nature I feel like. It isn’t an object of light or darkness, it’s a neutral force! Makes a whole dang load of sense.
This idea of the Keyblade being indiscriminate of light and darkness also works when considering how Xehanort plans to create the X-Blade. Just to clarify, the X-Blade is a powerful Keyblade which has the power to open the way to Kingdom Hearts and therefore connect all the worlds. To form this mythical Keyblade, a being of pure light and one of pure darkness must clash and merge together to become one. However, darkness naturally rejects, therefore it would be impossible to make such a thing happen normally. That’s why Xehanort makes both the light and dark sides from the same entity, Ven, so that they would naturally be drawn together to become whole again. For as weird as it is, I do like the X-Blade and would consider it to be one of the times in the series where convoluted is good.
- The initial character arcs – This game comes off to a rocky start with its opening in the Land of Departure but after that it fairly quickly picks up. The concepts behind the arcs for the three main characters aren’t bad and the execution could absolutely be worse. As prior mentioned, Terra’s arc revolves around him learning about the darkness that recently awakened in him and determining whether or not to suppress or try to control it. He’s very quickly forced into some very difficult situations, such a meeting with Maleficent wherein she manipulates him into taking the heart of Aurora, one of the seven princesses of heart.
This happens in his very first world and it sets the stakes high for his personal quest, which is great for actually getting us invested in the plot. We already know from the first game how big of a deal the princesses of heart are so using them here as a recognizable plot element is great. Especially since they kinda took a back seat after the events of KHI. Shortly after, he’s faced with the decision of whether or not to take Snow White’s heart, and impressively enough it isn’t just a no-brainer. He was influenced the first time but the choice is then put into his hands and he has to decide between his own goal of finding Master Xehanort and fighting against his own darkness. These types of tough decisions are great for building the character and, while he does choose the less spicy option of not taking Snow White’s heart, it still sets a precedent for him going forward.
Unfortunately, Terra’s arc takes a bit of a stumble after this and never really develops much further. There is one other good point but I’ll wait on that for a second. In Cinderella’s world, Terra talks with the Fairy Godmother and gets very vague talk about believing in his dreams. Given the vague nature of the scene it was difficult for me to process but I believe I figured it out. So, the idea is that Terra failed the mark of mastery exam to become a Keyblade Master, which is in his own words the only thing he’s dreamed about. Now, still dejected after having failed that exam and with darkness in his heart, darkness which has proven itself an issue through his taking of Aurora’s heart, he most likely believes that his dream isn’t in reach any more. That doubt only further feeds his darkness and creates a vicious cycle wherein he progressively falls even further away from his dream. It’s a decent inner-conflict but a majority of players aren’t going to read that deep into things, this is something which has to be made more clear.
Terra asks Aqua in the same world if she still has the same dream of becoming a Keyblade Master even though she is now a Keyblade Master. Worse yet, she replies that she does? I don’t think that tracks but alright. After this point, Terra meets with Master Xehanort and is given an actually quite decent lie regarding how Vanitas was created. Xehanort, despite everything, gains Terra’s trust and Terra is given the quest to defeat Vanitas. This could be seen as the ultimate way for Terra to prove himself worthy of the title ‘Master’, if he can defeat such a being of darkness then he should certainly be able to overcome his own. This is his test, therefore making it a good drive for him.
I even like Xehanort’s plan of being ‘captured’ by Braig to force a desperate situation in which Terra can further awaken his inner-darkness. When Terra accepts the goal as being victory above all else, even the safety of one of the Masters, the darkness wells up and it makes for a cool moment. It isn’t even totally out there for Xehanort to be caught, using Yen Sid as an example we know that Keyblade Masters can retire so one could assume that Xehanort is also reaching such an age. Having come to accept the darkness more, Terra’s Radiant Garden segment ends with him not allowing Ven to tag along, which is consistent with the idea that darkness is a force which rejects.
Ventus’ arc is arguably the laziest of the three for the entirety of the game, which is disappointing seeing as he’s the character with the most mystery surrounding him. The initial worlds mostly see him just following the basic Disney plots or at least something close to them. There are some neat points, such as a brief misunderstanding with Snow White and his meeting with Maleficent, where he is given reason to believe that Terra might be changing as Vanitas claimed. This does make his goal of finding Terra more meaningful but I would argue it’s still rather weak overall. Especially when you have looming questions like how he’s connected to Vanitas and Xehanort. These questions do get answered but the conflicts surrounding them are kept from Ventus himself all the way until the very end, which just leads to an overall less interesting story.
Furthermore, whenever he does catch up to Terra in Radiant Garden he doesn’t really say anything to him in particular, which makes the initial part of his journey feel a bit weaker. Even if he did just want to know if Terra was the same person, he should at least say something of note. The silver lining here is that this could be spun in a way where the meeting actually only furthers his doubts as his other best friend, Aqua, also questions Terra’s actions. This plants the idea in Ventus’ head that maybe Terra is a changed person and, in that moment, he’s too afraid to say anything about it. That’s kind of a stretch though, at least how things currently stand.
I wasn’t certain what Aqua’s arc would be at first, past just the task she was given to defeat the Unversed and watch over Terra. However, as things went along I started to feel like there’s a lot of potential depth in her story. Her most unique aspect is the fact that she’s the Keyblade Master of the three protagonists and with that she should have more responsibilities to keep in mind. Throughout her arc, we should come to understand what being a Master truly means and see her struggle to become truly worthy of the title. Given the trashy nature of the mark of mastery exam and the fact that she presumably has never left the Land of Departure before, perhaps she feels that her worldview is too shortsighted and that she isn’t yet worthy of being called a Master. Especially when Terra, someone who she believes to be a worthy master, failed.
We do get a couple of cool moments where she has to take responsibility, such as when she’s tasked with having the final, decisive battle with Maleficent after her two friends encountered the witch. However, otherwise her arc really just comes down to finding ways to believe that Terra will push through and that they’ll be able to come together again. She definitely gets put in front of two prince-kissing-princess-and-causing-miracle scenes which I’m sure represents something like the light shared between people being able to push through any darkness or whatever. The idea for what her arc should be is kinda there but it’s a lot worse than it could be.
She absolutely gets her best moment of development in the middle of the game, when the three protags meet in Radiant Garden. She loses the trust of Terra and Ventus due to her choosing to follow Eraqus’ orders rather than making her own decisions as a Keyblade Master. If she had acted to her own discretion then she most likely wouldn’t have pushed away her friends. Ven says that she let being a Keyblade Master go to her head but the reality is opposite. She isn’t fully taking on the role, she’s just doing what she’s told as if she’s still a student. This is the push she needs to really grow as her own master and sets the stage well for the second half of the game.
- What this story adds to the previous installments – I already talked in my Kingdom Hearts II post about how much this game adds to Xemnas’ character in particular. That’s one of the more major points, though there are some other minor things in this game that add to the experience of the other games in hindsight. Details like seeing Organization XIII before they were Nobodies, finding out how Maleficent learned about the seven pure lights and other worlds and seeing Aqua cast two particular spells, the first of which is the one that sends Kairi to Destiny Isles and the other is when she creates Castle Oblivion. Then there’s obviously the stuff regarding the Keyblade but I’ve been over that already. The details here range from answering some important questions to just being plain nice to see and either way it makes the experience more enjoyable.
- The ending sequence & the story going forward – This point isn’t going to be extremely substantial, I honestly just want an excuse to say that the final string of fights are rad as hell. For as weak as the game might have been up until this point, when it casts away the bullshit and gets to the fighting I would say it pays off. There are some weird things going on, like it never really being touched upon why there’s a Kingdom Hearts above the Keyblade Graveyard, whether it was summoned there by Xehanort or drawn there by something else. I assume it has to be there so that Ventus and Vanitas can unlock it once they forge the X-Blade but it for sure just feels like plot convenience.
Also, I don’t like at all that Vanitas looks like Sora. It doesn’t track even taking into consideration that Sora was the one who healed Ventus’ broken heart. Since, y’know, that happened after Vanitas was pulled out. This resemblance is only done for the shock value and offers absolutely nothing, there is zero reason why Vanitas doesn’t just look like Ventus. The logistics of Xehanort taking over Terra’s body are also pretty weird when we perceive darkness as a rejecting force but I can buy him abusing the darkness in Terra’s heart, sure. I’ll give the plot that freebie. There might exist a better reason, like Xehanort abusing the fact that all hearts are connected, but it doesn’t really mean a whole lot either way.
I would also explain the Lingering Will fighting after Terra’s body is taken as being Terra’s ejected light rather than being his mind, because I don’t think Terra’s mind not still being in his body fully tracks? Again, weird logistics going on here.
What really makes the ending sequence, though, is the fact that the endings for our protagonists are genuinely pretty sad. Ventus wins the internal struggle between himself and Vanitas but his heart is left broken again as a result. Terra is able to suppress Xehanort’s influence with Aqua’s aid but he pays the price of his own memories. Aqua gets Ventus to a safe place and promised to return to him, only to end up plunging into the realm of darkness to save the body of her other friend. She had to choose between saving one friend and being there for the other and it’s the first time in the game where I came close to feeling an emotion.
The sour nature of this ending also sets up well for how the plot is going to continue after Kingdom Hearts II. Aqua needs to be saved from the realm of darkness and Ventus needs to be awoken. The Lingering Will yet moves and a line said by Xehanort implies that he isn’t done, even though we know that Ansem and Xemnas have been defeated. “You are just one of many roads that I might choose to take” is a very ominous claim. We don’t know exactly how Ventus and Sora are connected and Sora is still the Keyblade wielder. So long as he bears that title he has a duty to fulfill, there’re still things left undone and he has no time to rest. I think it’s good build-up for the plot moving onward, even if KHII did end on a good note.
Hey super weird how Aqua meets DiZ in the world of darkness, though. Wouldn’t Sora and Riku have seen him whenever they went to that exact same beach AFTER he got blown up? That character should be dead.
- Exactly two moments of foreshadowing – An extremely small couple of points to top things off but these two foreshadowing moments are real hot stuff. The first one is whenever Lea takes a hold of Ventus’ wooden Keyblade and the second comes with an exchange between Ven and Zack in Olympus Coliseum. Zack tells Ven to come back once both he and Hercules are heroes and Ven replies something along the lines of “so never?”. If you know what happens to Zack in his game of origin and what ends up happening to Ven in the end then you know how messed up this is. I like it.
What Needs Changed
- The intro sequence – It’s almost impressive how consistently this series manages to have weak intro sequences. The very first scene we see with Ventus isn’t hideously bad on its own, though the mysterious voice that he talks to raises a lot of questions right away. We’re pretty clearly given the message to brace ourselves for convoluted nonsense right off the bat, which isn’t a fun sign. I’ll cover this scene more below but simply the act of raising these questions in our mind isn’t great, especially when it gets in the way of the subsequent introduction of our protagonists.
Several times throughout these amendments I’ve brought up a certain thing, most prominently in my Kingdom Hearts I post, regarding how weak Destiny Isles is as a world and how Sora would be a much better character if we knew more about his life there. Apparently, the writers of this series didn’t learn from their mistakes because the exact same thing happens here. As we’re introduced to Terra and Aqua it feels like we’ve skipped over several cutscenes of backstory as they converse as if we know anything about them. We know nothing about these characters or the world they live in, the society they’ve lived in, the people they know, how they grew up, anything. Yet, I get the feeling that we’re expected to just automatically be invested in these characters as they drop the line “That would be the last night we ever spent beneath the same stars”. The plot twist is that I’m not, because these characters are just thrown at us and we’re given the instruction to like them. Without any emotional ties at all, we’re supposed to care about these three friends and their apparent tragedy.
To top this all off, we have to believe that Terra and Aqua are worthy of becoming Keyblade Masters. We also have to believe that one of the trials that proves their worth is whacking some relatively harmless spheres. Something I’m quite certain that literally anyone holding a long, solid object could do. The second part of the trial isn’t much better, it’s just a duel between the two examinees. It’s spun like some ‘equal forces clashing’ garbage but it still makes no sense, neither of them are Keyblade Masters at this point so what are they proving by matching each other’s skills? The one thing we’ve managed to learn about these characters so far is the fact that they’ve probably sparred with each other a lot, so what’s different here? Shouldn’t they duel the examiner instead, someone who is already on the level of master and can theoretically measure their skill personally? It just doesn’t add up.
Aqua passes the exam and is told that she’s entitled to knowledge that only Keyblade Masters are allowed to know. It would be great if we, the audience, got to know what that knowledge is but this is a lesser gripe. This knowledge is the kind of thing that could be shown throughout Aqua’s story rather than just info-dumped here, so I can forgive the fact that we aren’t just told. Especially when there’s so much that we are just told that we shouldn’t be. That’s a major problem throughout this game, how much stuff is told to us rather than shown. One of the basic guidelines of writing is to show and not tell, which should be even easier done in a visual and interactive medium like a game.
The most immediate examples lie with Xehanort and the Unversed. There’s a lot to unpack with these two points so I want to give them their own sections, but here’s a primer before I get into that. Xehanort, despite immediately being the most obviously evil character possible, claims that he has to keep up appearances around Eraqus. He says that instead of, y’know, it being something actually demonstrated through his words and actions. The Unversed, despite being a new and mostly unknown threat, just get fully explained to us by Eraqus at the very beginning. There’s no fanfare or attempt to build them up as a big threat, we’re pretty much just told that they’re around and when the protags see them for the first time they’re just like “oh I guess these are the Unversed”. That’s not the image that the game’s primary enemy type should have!
The rushed aspects of this intro become prevalent with Vanitas’ first contact with Ventus. We learn early on that Ventus has dreams of Destiny Isles, the place where Xehanort nearly dumped him off. He gazes at the stars and we can infer that Ventus does want to go and see that world and others like it. This in itself is fine, it puts things into perspective and sends the message to not take your home for granted. What is your every day may be someplace new and exciting for someone else. What’s missing here is drive, Ventus doesn’t really give off the vibe of being dissatisfied with his life in the Land of Departure. Therefore, Vanitas’ coaxing about how small the world is doesn’t really land with us.
Ventus then has some flashes of memories with Terra which are weak for the same reason. Since everything up to this point has pretty much just been rushed through, we don’t feel for the connection between these characters. We haven’t had the time to get invested in them, which is something I’d say an intro sequence should achieve. Or at least try to.
- The character arcs post-Radiant Garden – When I said that Terra’s arc doesn’t really recover after its stumble, I wasn’t exaggerating. Although it seems after the events of Radiant Garden that Terra might be more willing to open up to the powers of darkness, pretty much everything that happens afterward leads him to reject it. It’s like the plot doubles back on the idea it initially put forward for this character, even going to far as to have Xehanort say that it wasn’t actually Terra who extracted the heart from Aurora. The fact that it’s never elaborated on who actually possessed him, if it was Xehanort or Maleficent, just tells me that the writers were unwilling to commit to the more morally grey Terra plot.
Hades’ influence only ends up pushing him farther away from the darkness and Terra goes on to just be the most gullible loser in Neverland. He is immediately tricked by Captain Hook claiming that he has a box full of light. Like, c’mon man, that does not track in the slightest. Light isn’t something you can put in a box! Not even in the Kingdom Hearts sense! I mean, I guess Terra would be pretty short-sighted on account of having lived in the Land of Departure his whole life but still. He should know about the light and how it works at the vert least. Maybe that’s forbidden Keyblade Master tech. His fight with Pan would be good if the conditions surrounding the fight weren’t so entirely ridiculous. The fight doesn’t even have any consequences, right after the misunderstanding is cleared and the two become friends. Because, y’know, we need to be convinced that Terra is a good guy I guess.
Hey, it’s cool whenever he takes hold of the power of darkness to clash with Eraqus, at least. Even if Eraqus totally deserves it for being an entire asshole. Like, he keeps things from his students and he makes the decision to try and kill Ventus rather than seeking out Vanitas instead. Doing that would equally solve the whole X-Blade problem but I guess killing his student just works too! Though the narrative doesn’t at all explore the relationship between Eraqus and his students, this battle does still manage to have some weight behind it. In clashing with his master, Terra does in a way prove that he is worthy of the Keyblade Master title. The dream he always strove for, achieved only with a mountain of regrets. The impact of Eraqus’ death is certainly lessened by the fact that it’s definitely his own fault but it’s one of the higher points in this story so I’ll take it.
Ventus’ arc in the second half becomes entirely based around him making friends. Yes, it is literally that simple. I wasn’t a fan of this at first for the same reasons I wasn’t a fan of the initial half of his arc, it avoids all of the actually interesting things surrounding the character. However, after thinking about it a bit I do think Ventus’ little friend journey has some merit. Making friends is honestly not an awful motivation for a character who’s had such little exposure to people and the various worlds they live in. Connecting with those people and actually opening up does feel like an important part of Ventus’ arc. If the narrative actually committed to Terra being more inclined towards darkness then Ventus could even act as contrast to him, connecting with people while Terra pushes them away. Given the fact that there are two other characters to explore the crazy plot elements with, I could see it not being the worst idea to have Ventus’ be relatively more mundane. It’s a unique way to play out his story and at the very least that makes it a little more memorable.
Aqua’s given a couple more chances to be proactive using her position as a master, such as when she’s asked to apprehend Stitch and Jumba and when she gets into a clash with Hades himself. Though, all-in-all it’s more of the same as what the first half of her arc was. Only now, the stakes are actually lowered because everywhere she goes she’s being told that Terra’s actually great and a hero. It’s just her coming across more reasons to believe in Terra before the news that he killed Eraqus is dropped on her. If the stakes weren’t set to this lower level and Terra was still being questionable in his morals then Aqua would have had to deal with the split between her duties as a Keyblade Master and searching for her friend to try and help him. It would lead to more conflict, which is good in a story. She finds herself having to fight Vanitas, which makes sense with regards to her being a Keyblade Master but it’s still a little disappointing since, of all three protags, she has the weakest reason to clash with the masked boy. Again, the idea is there but the execution is very lacking.
- Master Xehanort – It feels like the writers of this game thought about how to write Master Xehanort and came to the conclusion ‘well, we already revealed that he’s evil in the KHII secret ending cinematic so why bother trying to hide it?’. I shouldn’t have to state that isn’t a good reason to just make the writing for this character extremely lazy. From the very first cutscene it’s obvious to the audience that Xehanort is evil, there’s no mystery to it in the slightest. We aren’t left wondering about the character and all that’s left is a huge disconnect between us and the protagonists, Terra in particular. Given how blatantly a-bad-guy Xehanort is, it’s comical to see any scene where the characters believe that he’s anything but, and not in a good way.
The initial scene where we see him in the enigma cloak isn’t great but the problem really starts when the game makes it obvious that he awakens the dark power in Terra and that he’s allied with Vanitas. Even though he says he has to keep up appearances he makes absolutely no attempt to actually do so, which is where the disconnect begins in full force. Here’s the thing, Master Xehanort could be an interesting character if this story wasn’t trying to push the whole DARKNESS=EVIL idea. I’ve already talked about how balance between light and darkness is a theme throughout this game and how that’s a good thing, so play into that and use it to justify Xehanort being a user of darkness. It’s not such a stretch to have a good Keyblade Master who’s open about their wielding darkness given the fact that Riku was able to wield it without turning evil. Around the mid-game they do start to explore this idea a bit but it’s far too late, the whole idea becomes a waste when we just know that Xehanort’s an asshole.
I wish he was pushed more towards being a moral grey rather than just being an antagonist straight up from the get-go. By extension, this would also make Vanitas more interesting because he could come off as more than just a part of Xehanort’s plan. It would be so easy to deflect us into thinking that Vanitas is the primary antagonist so why not take that easy narrative option? In the end, I don’t really understand what his motive is in starting another Keyblade war either. He doesn’t want Kingdom Hearts itself or the power within it, he’s just looking for some vague light that was apparently born as a result of the first Keyblade war. Why doesn’t he just want the light of Kingdom Hearts? Gotta say, I’m failing to really follow this character.
The only really cool thing we get to learn about Xehanort is the hint that he’s originally from Destiny Isles. There is other talk of his past but it turns out to be a relatively recent and unexciting event. There’s a scene where Yen Sid talks about how Xehanort’s heart has led him astray before so we can assume that it’s something he struggled with and overcame, presumably thanks to the help of Yen Sid and Eraqus. Then, later on, it turns out that it was just a moment where he revealed all his plans to Eraqus’ face and then attacked him. What could have been some interesting character building and backstory turns out to be something dumb and underwhelming, though I guess Kingdom Hearts isn’t new to that.
- The Unversed – As I already mentioned, it sucks that the Unversed just get info-dumped on us at the very start of the game. From the perspective of the player, they’re a threat that hasn’t been seen before in the series. They should be enigmatic and intimidating through a lack of knowledge, yet Yen Sid immediately looks up the wiki page and finds out everything I guess. This steals from us any potential moments of confusion or questioning from both the players and the characters in the story. What’s left are just token fodder enemies to be used in promotional material and serve no other unique purpose.
How they actually function isn’t even anything particularly interesting. They feed off of negativity, which is just such a broad idea and doesn’t play at all into any of the narrative’s unique plot aspects. In fact, from what has been established in the previous installments, emotions (negative ones included) would theoretically be stored in the heart. Nobodies are the proof of this, the previous games tried really hard to sell us the fact that they have no emotions because they have no hearts. Therefore, the Unversed are just taking advantage of the weaknesses of the heart, which is just what the Heartless do. That just bears the question, why, then, are they their own species at all and not just another type of Heartless? There’s no objective reason, none that I can discern at least.
- Yen Sid – I feel like this character had a lot of room to be expanded upon in this game and we do get the lore of him being connected to Eraqus and Xehanort as a former Keyblade Master. However, the role he serves in this narrative feels way too plot device-y. It feels like he can just know anything at any time, which begs the question of why no other characters can do that. I believe it’s meant to be some divining the stars nonsense but it’s pretty unapologetically just plot convenience to get the protagonists where they need to be. I would have preferred to see Yen Sid in his Keyblade Master days or at the very least more of how he trains Mickey, his own Keyblade wielder student. I just can’t believe that Yen Sid was a Keyblade Master unless it’s shown to me, I need that image in my mind.
- Ventus’ background – This game starts out with a scene revolving around Ventus, which is a good start since he’s the character most people are going to be wondering about going into this. This is obviously due to his sharing an appearance with Roxas. We find out that he has a broken heart, symbolized by a broken Dive to the Heart, which is a really cool image. Then, the piece of him that’s missing is restored by an enigmatic voice that I guess merges with his heart in a way? The owner of this voice remains a mystery until the very end of the game where it’s revealed that it belongs to Sora, though what actually leads to this initial connection is as of yet completely unknown. You’d think the game would fully answer at least the first big mystery it introduces but that is entirely not the case. The only connection that can be drawn is the fact that Ventus was in Destiny Isles when this happened but that doesn’t exactly feel like a satisfying link. Also, the voice Ventus speaks to at the start is entirely not the voice of a young child boy Sora, I will not take that sell.
The problem with Ventus is one that he shares with pretty much every character in this story. It feels like they didn’t exist before the plot of this game starts. What I mean by that is there’s practically no hints of any of these characters having much of a past. All of the memories and flashbacks that we see depict the characters exactly the way we see them in the present time, like none of them were ever any younger. Ventus is arguably the character who gets the most exploration of his past in this game as we see a time when he was being trained by Master Xehanort and when Vanitas was extracted from him. Even though the narrative goes through the effort of showing us that, it never tells us things like where Ventus actually came from. How did he come under Xehanort’s tutelage, was he someone special from the start or did Xehanort have to groom him or was he maybe even an artificial being of sorts? None of this gets answered and it makes the character less believable, therefore less engaging.
Every other character suffers from this as well, most notably Terra, Aqua and Xehanort. I’ve already been over the latter but it’s worth noting why this hurts our other two protagonists. When we’re introduced to them, they’re already at the point where they’re arguably Keyblade Master level. This is at the very start of the game and we have to swallow that they’re on a level that not even Sora has reached, even after defeating the likes of Ansem and Xemnas. We don’t see them perform any impressive feats nor do we ever really get any hint of the struggles and training they went through to get to that point. This makes it more difficult for us to connect to and root for these characters while also feeding into why the intro feels so lame. There is one line that really got me in how spot-on of an example for this point it is. Whenever Ventus has a flashback of Terra saying “Being a Keyblade Master is all I’ve dreamed about!”. It’s awful because it’s meant to be taken seriously but all it does is assert that these characters didn’t exist before the plot for this game began, they only exist to be the Keyblade wielders in this prequel.
I don’t even fully understand the timeline of Ventus’ past as it’s given to us. The initial scene where we see him is presumably after Vanitas was extracted from him since that’s what broke his heart. However, when he summons a Keyblade in that scene, Master Xehanort seems surprised to see it. Even though we see later that Ventus could wield a Keyblade at the point in time when the extraction happened. You think with so few events to keep track of that the writers could keep things consistent but they manage to fail even that it seems.
- The vagueness of the Keyblade war – When I talked about plot elements that are left vague so they can be revealed in the next side-game, the Keyblade war was one I had in mind. It’s a major event which is revealed in this game and yet not really expanded on at all. Literally, the description of it that we get from Xehanort is that it was “only the beginning”. The beginning of what, I couldn’t tell you. The best I can think is that it was the beginning of the darkness which took over the progenitor world. If it is something like that, then expanding on it could also tell us more about that world which we’ve only heard about in Grandma’s tale. It would be a great way to make this story the definitive prequel that I want it to be rather than saving the information to be stuffed into some convoluted and pointless mobile game.
Let’s start out by jumping right into the intro, which I would revamp entirely. When I say I want Birth by Sleep to be THE prequel game, I mean that. With respects to that, I would start this game with a narrated intro that discusses the Keyblade war. Confirming whether or not it took place in the progenitor world and how it was brought about in the first place. Once that scene is set, I would show some of the Keyblade war in action, leading up to the big miraculous thing that Xehanort alluded to. I don’t want any of this left vague, this stuff needs to be in the minds of the players. It will help us connect to Xehanort’s motive more on top of providing foreshadowing for the final battles in the Keyblade Graveyard. It’s also a pretty huge deal in terms of worldbuilding and helps to give us a scale of how many Keyblade wielders there were in that war. Moreover, it would show us whether or not the gateway to Kingdom Hearts is just always above the Keyblade Graveyard or if it was later drawn there by Xehanort.
After that, I would have a brief narration talking about the history of the Keyblade from then onward, leading up to the births of Terra, Aqua and Ventus. I do want to preserve the image of Ventus’ broken heart being healed so I would likely insert that scene around here while electing to not reveal Xehanort’s involvement in it. After that, I would reveal the narrator to be either Eraqus or Xehanort. Both have their benefits; Eraqus because he could be telling the story to a young Terra and Aqua, thus displaying his fatherly connection to them and Xehanort because the Keyblade war is quite literally his obsession. The knowledge of what happened in that war is what drives him and he could be humanized a bit if he were to be telling the story to a young Ven.
Video game pacing would dictate skipping to just before the mark of mastery exam at this point but if I was given the space in a different medium I would totally slice-of-life things up a bit to show more of the main three protagonists growing up. Terra and Aqua in particular, they have a lot to prove to us if they want us to believe that they’re worthy of being called Keyblade Masters. This would also give more time to expand upon the Land of Departure and explore things like how small is it exactly and are there others living there apart from the primary characters. Just give us a scale so we can empathize more with Ventus when he’s driven to leave the place.
The mark of mastery exam itself has to be something a bit more exciting than spheres of light and a duel. Wouldn’t it be sick if Terra and Aqua had to fight against the living Keyblade armor of an ancient Master which is released only to test the worth of upstart wielders. Nicks and dents all over it caused by the Masters who defeated it, including Eraqus and Xehanort. Add some lore and legacy to it, the process of becoming a Keyblade Master should be a big deal! Terra would briefly wield the darkness during the fight but I wouldn’t make it clear that Xehanort is the source. If it isn’t clear already, I want to get rid of everything that immediately tells the audience that Xehanort’s evil. Remove that disconnect and make a three-dimensional character rather than a scarecrow but with EVIL instead of straw. He needs to be the one to introduce darkness as a force that isn’t necessarily evil and I want there to be some kind of merit to him saying that.
Following up from that, Terra’s arc should see him go more definitively down the path of darkness. His arc starts out good in the original story but becomes way less interesting in the latter half when he just decides to completely reject it. Terra going down the path of darkness would make for more conflict with Aqua as well as making Xehanort’s take-over feel more like a consequence of that. The darkness shouldn’t just turn on when the plot needs it and be off the rest of the time so Terra can be sold as a definitively good guy. That just makes him more generic protag and it pushes the overall story away from the important theme of balance. Of course, I’d also be justifying darkness by employing the whole ‘light blinds people from each other’s flaws’ idea that I mentioned earlier.
Ventus needs to have more conflict in his story for sure. He pretty much has a casual stroll through the worlds apart from one encounter with Vanitas, which is a shame because I feel like Ventus has a lot of potential as a character. We learn in the regular story that experiencing memories from before his heart was broken does cause him physical pain, so maybe his conflict could be finding out about his lost memories as he goes through the worlds? It would give the chance to tell the story of what he actually is relative to Xehanort and would eventually lead up to the reveal of how Vanitas was extracted from him and his purpose to forge the X-Blade. With a goal like this, we could even retain the whole making friends part of the story and spin it like Ventus making new memories rather than dwelling on a lost past. Becoming something new, even though he was groomed to be a weapon.
I’ve already said what I want to happen in Aqua’s arc. She’s the Keyblade Master of the main three and her narrative should play hard into that fact. Her story should tell of her struggle to carry out the responsibilities of a master and her transition from student to her new role. Through performing the actions of a master, she can truly convince herself that she’s worthy of calling herself one. We already have some definitive battles with the likes of Maleficent and Hades peppered throughout her story so the pieces are there, it’s just a case of actually pushing towards this master idea a little harder.
I would redefine the Unversed as being a different breed of Heartless, similar to the emblem Heartless, rather than being their own type of entity altogether. Seeing as they draw from hearts in the same manner as Heartless, I feel as if they’re too similar to be considered anything totally unique. It would make sense for Vanitas to produce Heartless-like creatures as well seeing as he is an entity of pure darkness. Additionally, if they are more definitively like Heartless then they could add to Terra’s arc by being drawn to the darkness in his heart. Perhaps unknown to him at first, his presence in the worlds only makes the Unversed infestation worse, even though he’s there to defeat them. This would play into his own conflict more, connect the characters in more ways and give him even more reason to hunt down Vanitas directly. Also, have the characters figure out the nature of the Unversed over time rather than just having them exposition dumped at the very start. It makes them more intimidating when we don’t fully understand what they’re capable of.
Xehanort’s past struggle against his darkness should have occurred when he was a lot younger and it should be presented as a far more substantial event. A true struggle in which his friends, Yen Sid and Eraqus, fight to pull him away from the dark forces. This is the chance to show the point when Xehanort becomes obsessed with the darkness and begins down the exact same road that he now sends Terra on. Including Yen Sid here also gives that character some more substantial backstory past just us being told what he was and who his friends were. I also wouldn’t mind seeing more of how he trains Mickey but that may break up the pace of the plot a bit so that’s an optional change for certain.
My final change would probably just be making Vanitas look like Ventus rather than Sora. I don’t see his Sora look being anything but either an inconsistency or forced shock value and either way it’s just no good. Just let him look like Ventus, maybe let him keep the black hair, that’s fine. You don’t need to do any more than that.
I feel like this one was very split down the middle in terms of quality. There’s a lot of good ideas here and we finally get answers for some of the questions that have been hanging since the start, particularly regarding the Keyblade. As a prequel, this story feeds into the chronologically later installments well and it does good in setting up for the series going forward. That all being said, the story suffers a lot from carrying on some of the worst problems displayed by the franchise. Rushed character and worldbuilding are the most immediately prominent and make it very difficult for us to actually connect to the characters we’re being introduced to. This issue is only worsened by narrative disconnects and insubstantial backstories.
There’s a disappointing amount of unrealized potential here and I think this story could be genuinely great with just a bit more time and care invested into it. By the end, I was so close to feeling for these characters when tragedy befell them and I believe that the narrative could have gotten there with just a bit more of a push. If the time and money were put into making this the official Kingdom Hearts III rather than just a spinoff then I think it could have been the best story in the franchise to date. Alas, that wasn’t the case and what we got was a tale painfully bound by its limitations. Hopefully, the actual Kingdom Hearts III will succeed where this game could not, but before then we have one last game to cover. The one which is infamous for taking the word ‘convoluted’ to its absolute extreme. On the next Kingdom Hearts narrative amendment, I will be covering Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance.