Published on September 26th, 2012 | by CB0
Teeming with Theming! Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND. If you haven’t played the game yet, I suggest you do so first! If you don’t care, by all means continue. Also, special thanks to good friend Cameron Sherrill for the PSP and copy of the game!
Recently, a friend of mine has been letting me borrow an extra PSP of his to play Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (in case the title wasn’t obvious). Now, I normally stick to retro games when it comes to filling up my free time, but there are still a few current game series I like to keep up with, one of which just happens to be the Kingdom Hearts games. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what draws me to the series: maybe it’s because despite the ridiculous concept that the games are based on, it still manages to pull the player in with a deep and cohesive narrative along with some fantastic gameplay. Whatever the reason, I’m not here to do a review of Birth by Sleep, but rather analyze how well one of the final battles in the game was done and how strongly a theme was rooted into it.
So, to set up the scene, I’ve been playing the Terra story mode for a couple of weeks. Without getting too into story detail, let’s just say that out of the three main characters (Terra, Ventus and Aqua), Terra is the Mighty Glacier of the bunch: physically powerful and can take a ton of hits, but is offset by his slow attacks and movement speed. With many powerful Deck Commands at the hands of the player and tons of HP, it is pretty much expected that the player will be mostly attacking without worrying too much about their health. This of course means that certain commands, such as Blocking and Countering, go into disuse.
What’s interesting is that the basic premise of Terra’s story sort of lines up with this game play style. Throughout the game, Terra’s main goal is to become stronger so he can channel the darkness within him and become worthy of being a Keyblade Master. Of course, becoming stronger means defeating more enemies and gaining better powers, right?
By the end of the game, Terra is pretty decked out, wielding the powerful Chaos Ripper keyblade and a brutal command style, Dark Impulse (both of which use darkness). Yet when a fight breaks out between primary antagonist Xehanort, Terra loses due to the darkness in his heart fully consuming him when he flies into a flailing rage. Xehanort then claims Terra’s body as his own and plans to use it to give his own heart a more youthful body.
Although his body is taken and his heart destroyed, in a turn of events, Terra’s mind survives and brings his old armor to life as the Lingering Will, now wielding the Ends of the Earth keyblade (obtained when Terra thought about protecting his friends). The final battle begins, with both the younger Xehanort and Lingering Will after Terra’s body.
However, I found myself having more trouble than I expected when it came to beating the boss. Even with all of my new command styles, one of Terra’s best keyblades and powerful abilities such as Windcutter and Mega Flare at my disposal, I was getting my ass handed to me. Why? After hours of playing and even a bit of level grinding I thought I would be more prepared for the final battle. What was I doing wrong?
It was after a few tries that I started to realize that if I blocked against Xehanort, I could then counter and deal a good deal of damage to him. In addition, it turned out that I had a special kind of block that would heal me when attacked with projectiles, which Xehanort had plenty of. After eventually resorting to only blocking and countering the entire fight, I was able to easily win the final confrontation with nearly a full health bar.
So what does all this have to do with themes? Well, before taking it back to the final battle, take a look at Terra’s story- not just the narrative, but also the story told by his game play style. In the beginning of the game, Terra’s underlying goal is to become stronger to control his darkness. During the game, of course, Terra does get stronger in the form of the abilities and levels gained by battling the Unversed, the game’s main enemies. Though the player does not realize it until later, the strength that Terra gains through battling the Unversed is actually solely for the purpose of building Xehanort a stronger capsule for his heart: thus, all the efforts of the player to make Terra stronger by decking him out with new attacks are actually benefitting the darkness by the end. This build up peaks near the end of the game, around the same time that the Chaos Ripper keyblade and Dark Impulse command style can be used. Both of these, as mentioned earlier, are attributed to the darkness and are the playable representations of the climax of Terra’s darkness.
The final confrontation between Terra’s Lingering Will and the new Xehanort is the strongest example of theming in Terra’s entire story line. First of all, this battle happens after Terra’s darkness consumes him, letting the character learn his lesson about falling to evil. The Lingering Will is not only a last chance for Terra to take back his body, but also to redeem himself for letting himself become a pawn in Xehanort’s plan and distrusting his friends and master. The Chaos Ripper is replaced with the Ends of the Earth to represent the change from fighting for darkness and power to fighting “to protect the things that matter” (a quote previously used by young Riku before the Ends of the Earth is obtained). The reason I failed to defeat Xehanort the first few times is because, as a player, I was still succumbing to the habits I learned while Terra was fighting for darkness: obviously, these kinds of tactics would not work in a battle for redemption. Blocking and countering become the greatest aid in this battle because they are the gameplay equivalent of “protecting the things that matter.” This all adds up to a battle of redemption: a character finally seeing the true way to accomplish the things he wanted all along; and only through changing his ways and guarding his dignity can he truly win the fight against darkness. Although his body is lost in the end, what’s left of Terra seems to enter a place between the dark and the light, letting his friends Aqua and Ventus know that “One day I will set this right.” And thus, a story of the rise, fall and redemption of a man is told not only through the narrative that encompasses the character, but also the game that encompasses the narrative. ~CB