Firstly, I find it essential to preface that Kingdom Hearts III is currently my favorite entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, a feeling which has only been further strengthened by the release of its DLC episode, Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind. Many of the often pointed out shortcomings of the entry had little to no impact in my experience with it and in no way detracted from its many strengths during my many playthroughs. That being said, upon re-experiencing Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, I found myself noticing a particular flaw in the third main entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, which had not been apparent to me previously: the level design.
For those who are unaware, Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, which I’ll henceforth refer to simply as Kingdom Hearts 0.2, is a mini prologue-esque demo of sorts created to serve as a demonstration (though at that point in development it could be argued that it was more of a tech demo) to Kingdom Hearts III. It was included in the Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue collection, which also featured the remastered Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD and the prequel movie Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover in addition to the already mentioned 0.2.
Despite its short length, taking around 4 hours to beat its main story, Kingdom Hearts 0.2 is a meaty title, packing a relatively large amount of content, which adds a lot of replayability to what’s already an entertaining experience. Regardless of that, upon taking notice of its short length, one could naturally ask themselves how a game of this nature could have better level design than Kingdom Hearts III. After all, the former was a mere demonstration of the latter. Interestingly enough, 0.2’s brevity is the aspect responsible for this.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2 takes ample advantage of its meager runtime by making each of its areas full of stark charm and depth. Comparing it to the later third entry, I can’t help but think that Kingdom Hearts 0.2 set false precedence regarding the world design Kingdom Hearts III would offer, making the latter come across as far weaker by comparison.
Although this might seem obvious, perhaps even uncontested, to veteran players who have come across this argument for years at this point, I am under the distinct impression that 0.2 has been somewhat left in the dust ever since Kingdom Hearts III was released. As such, reflecting on 0.2’s strengths, especially those it has compared to its subsequent full package, is an act I find more warranted than ever.
Let’s first lay down the groundwork we’ll be dealing with. Kingdom Hearts 0.2 features a total of 4 explorable areas, all situated inside the same realm, the Realm of Darkness, but still each with its own characteristics and aesthetic. The first three areas featured in the game were initially featured in the entry Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, but now having been consumed by the darkness and ending up in the Realm of Darkness, they are disfigured and devoid of inhabitants.
Those areas are, in gameplay order:
- Castle Town, from the Castle of Dreams world in Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep.
- The Worth Within, a mirror area directly referencing the Dwarf Woodlands world in Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep.
- Forest of Thorns, from the Enchanted Dominion world in Kingdom Hearts by Sleep.
- Depths of Darkness, an original area simply just a subsection of the Realm of Darkness proper.
Castle Town is the area where the game begins. Right from its outset, after a brief sequence of simple platforming and battles with Heartless designed to teach the players some of the game’s most basic mechanics, the area wastes no time before throwing a non-linear objective at the player. There are “clock gears” scattered around the town area (which adds to the feeling of the world being disfigured), which must be hit and activated to wind back time and rebuild the bridge leading to the castle proper.
With each gear hit by the player, a new gameplay mechanic is taught, providing them with a constant sense of progression divided into small chunks. Despite its brevity, the section stands out by not only acting as a clever, non-intrusive way to teach the player some of its mechanics but also basking in its non-linearity, allowing the player to tackle the gears in any order they see fit. Although initially something that may not come across as noteworthy, it grants the player a sense of agency, avoiding the feeling of hand-holdyness that could easily have been evoked otherwise.
The World Within is also non-linear, yet differently to Castle Town. It starts in a hub area containing a selection of mirrors that serve as portals to different areas. This area’s non-linearity comes in the form of the player being given the freedom to traverse the areas in the mirrors in any order they choose. The differences to Castle Town come in the form of the areas within the mirrors being more puzzle-centric, contrasting with the more exploration-centric structure of the first.
The mirror areas themselves are varied, with some featuring battle gauntlets and others featuring lite puzzles. One of the most memorable puzzles is perhaps the chest puzzle. The game makes clever use of its mechanics by showing the player which of the chests is correct by displaying it and it alone when looked at from the outside world through the mirror. Another notable puzzle has players create mountainous paths to progress, using the mirrors’ reflections as guideposts.
None of those puzzles are truly challenging or mind-boggling, but they don’t need to be. By simply having brief contemplations regarding objectives and overall progression, the gameplay feels consistently fresh, in a way constant combat can’t produce. As a fun addendum, there is a noteworthy placement of a treasure chest in the hub-like area that is legitimately well-conceived, hidden atop a section of pillars, requiring brief, lite, but still stimulating, platforming.
Forest of Thorns is more linear than the previous 2 areas but still features its own moments of brilliance. Aside from featuring side paths straying from the main objective, it uses its linearity to enhance its atmosphere. It is a truly claustrophobic world, threatening throughout its entire duration, with giant thorns constantly blocking the way forward. As the player progresses, they see many Darksides, one of the strongest variants of the Heartless enemies, simply staring at them, as if waiting for their chance to attack. And attack they do, notably in a memorable sequence where the player rides through a rail, narrowly avoiding their attacks at every turn.
There are normal green ones among the vines, which the player can hit to destroy and proceed. However, there is also another variant, the red vines, which hurt the player not only when touched but also when attacked. To destroy them and proceed unscathed, the player must use the fire spell, which hits from afar. Admittedly an uncomplicated manner of a puzzle, it employs magic in its world traversal in a way that has been rarely done in the series, most notably since the first Kingdom Hearts, released 15 years prior. This, in turn, adds to magic a further feeling than just a tool to be used in combat and promptly forgotten right afterward, but rather, something that affects the world at large.
Forest of Thorns proves then that linearity is not automatically a detractor to interesting world design, being successfully justified by, and an enhancer to its atmosphere. It’s there for a reason, with a purpose. It has layers of depth woven within its non-exploratory nature.
Depths of Darkness is not as fully a fleshed out area as the prior 3. It is quite short and does not have much going for it, though I can excuse this due to its role as the penultimate area to the final boss of this short experience. Besides being where Mickey finally joins your party, it is also the first area in the game to truly feel like the Realm of Darkness proper, the purest distillation of the concept.
While all the other areas coated the worlds of Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep in a darkened, more ominous state, Depths of Darkness comes across as the core of the dark realm the player makes their way through. Though admittedly my least favorite area, that by no means signifies that it’s bad or even weak, as it is not only super short but also a fitting final area to the journey thus far.
And with that, we finally make our way to Kingdom Hearts III. Unfortunately, after thorough observation and subsequent analysis of the level design in this game, I have concluded that this title does not feature any of the intricate level design its prologue did. I won’t be talking about every world in the game as it would make this piece extremely long, but I will be talking about the ones that relate to my points the most.
Rest assured, all of them, to different extents, have this level design issue I’d like to refer to as “false openness.” The worlds I’ll be talking about regarding this critique are the Kingdom of Corona, Arendelle, Olympus, and San Fransokyo. As a brief aside, despite being a hub of sorts, Twilight Town’s level design will not be explored in this piece since it does not have any.
Starting with the Kingdom of Corona, the world never takes full advantage of its forestry setting, guiding the player down roads that offer nothing individually unique from a level design standpoint. At most, there are the occasional split paths. Still, those only do so much on their own since the paths quickly conjoin again, offering nothing substantially different to separate them from the main path and amongst themselves.
The areas do not feel claustrophobic, but each screen feels merely feels largely spaced out with nothing guiding players in different directions. It feels linear, which does not fit the world’s context, and compared to the previously explored Forest of Thorns from Kingdom Hearts 0.2, it also is without purpose, offering no layered depth to its linearity.
The one point of uniqueness the world has is the brief requests by Rapunzel when she is in the party as you explore the world, fueled by her own curiosity towards the landmarks and landscapes and the things contained within that she’s seeing for the first time in her life up-close. Her requests are not complicated nor sidetrack the player too much, but they serve to enhance the dichotomy between her and Sora, and resultantly, her and the player.
They act as a strong, compelling conduit to make Rapunzel a more sympathetic character. However, the requests do very little to actually make the world itself feel more alive. The most that occur is being led to a treasure chest by some thankful animals, which, quite frankly, I find to be barely serviceable. While the town of Corona is lively and hearty, the surrounding forestry feels half-baked, even more so when compared and contrasted with how the bite-sized areas of Kingdom Hearts 0.2 were handled. Needless to say, bigger areas do not automatically correlate to higher degrees of quality.
Arendelle is the most criticized world in the game by the community, voraciously hated even. While I personally do not consider it an unredeemable world with nothing to offer, I do find it to be the one world to suffer the most from the false openness I mentioned. In a perhaps ironic twist, I find myself unable to come up with many words to describe it, as the entire world feels the same throughout almost its entire duration. The areas are vast in scope and yet don’t have anything visually or mechanically unique to offer and look identical. All of these characteristics go a long way to making the world not memorable in the slightest.
The labyrinth of ice explored at the beginning of the world does fare better than the latter parts, with different paths and even some lite puzzles to solve. The rest of the world does not follow suit with the mini-dungeons philosophy, however. Like the Kingdom of Corona, the areas all feel samey, and despite being set in nature, untouched by man, they feel strangely constricted and unopen.
Moving on to Olympus, the first world featured in the game, we have a rather entertaining one, one which I think possesses a stronger overall design than the Kingdom of Corona and Arendelle. However, it oddly still feels like a continuous set of hallways. Not to belabor the priorly stated points, but as the players progress through the world, there is barely anything mechanically unique that differentiates the areas from one another aside from aesthetic differences.
The most that occur here are brief required bits of wall-running and the tutorial for the Air-Stepping mechanic. Compared to the worlds we discussed previously, I do not find this world as guilty of the same flaws since it has its own moments of brilliance – a notably memorable one being the Hidden Forge area, which is completely optional and, well, hidden. Still, as a whole, the world never feels like it truly opens up, a feeling not befitting of the so-called Realm of the Gods. Once again, returning to Forest of Thorns, that area tackled linearity in a far more mechanically dynamic manner and handled its gameplay obstacles likewise.
San Fransokyo is another world I find filled with false openness, though for different reasons. Its narrative’s progression is one of the most linear out of all the Disney worlds in the game, but its environment is composed of one city area immense in its size and scope. It is an odd world, almost feeling like a contradiction at points, as there is a fair degree of exploration present in it but no actual focus on that aspect.
The player must beat the story of the world first to gain access to fully-fledged exploration embedded in the world. Also, even though there is an explorative aspect, that aspect has no depth. Aside from treasure chests and hidden mickey emblems, there is nothing else to motivate the player to truly go out and explore the city to their heart’s content. The entire city feels the same to explore, and nothing mechanically unique sticks out as players do so. It is a large, open square with some nice goodies and beautiful visuals, but mechanically it works identically throughout.
Monstropolis is the last world I will discuss, as it acts as a direct contrast to every one of the areas I have talked about thus far.
Monstropolis does not have anything truly unique with its mechanics, and it is hyper-linear with its progression. It lacks exploration, and the world feels like one long straight line. In a sense, though, I find it admirable. While not as uninteresting as the worlds in Kingdom Hearts II, Monstropolis does not lie about appeasing the player.
It knows it is linear and does not try to mask it. Rather than providing a large and open world with nothing diverse and mechanically interesting for its duration, it is upfront about its linearity and is not ashamed of it. That is partially why I find it more genuine than the prior discussed worlds because it is not open merely for the sake of it. In a sense, you could say the factory setting means that similarly to Forest of Thorns, though not to the same extent, its linearity is justified and complements its atmosphere.
One thing about Kingdom Hearts 0.2 I forgot to mention (don’t worry, it’s a good one) is that it has a unique, exclusive objective system. The player is rewarded with cosmetic items for exploring the areas and catching glimpses of hidden things around the world. For Kingdom Hearts standards, this to me was a brilliant, heck, even groundbreaking addition, since a good chunk of these objectives pushed me towards finding out the depth that lay within the designs of the areas and the varied mechanics throughout. As a complement, it also gave me more reasons to play and replay the game as a whole.
Kingdom Hearts III has two systems similar in concept to the objective system of Kingdom Hearts 0.2, but they are wildly different in practice. Kingdom Hearts III has Moogle photo missions and lucky emblems. Both of these systems require photos to be taken of select enemies and other scenarios.
While these goals do incentivize exploring prior areas, they also feel incredibly superficial compared to the objective system present in Kingdom Hearts 0.2. Rather than actively partaking in unique and rewarding tasks across the myriad of worlds, you take glorified screenshots. This made me feel like more of an observer than a player, which made completing these objectives more of a chore than a genuinely fulfilling experience.
As a whole, I find Kingdom Hearts III a more enjoyable game to play than Kingdom Hearts 0.2 due to its larger variety of visuals, better combat, and several other reasons. But looking back on it, the worlds of Kingdom Hearts III generally come off as if they are hiding in the shadows of the precedence that Kingdom Hearts 0.2 set. This does undeniably worsen my perception of Kingdom Hearts III as a whole since I find it sad that we could not get worlds as intricately and thoughtfully designed as the areas in Kingdom Hearts 0.2, especially considering the long development time the game underwent.
At the very least, it’s not all doom and gloom. In a more positive angle, this does make Kingdom Hearts 0.2 stand out far more to me now, rather than a quickly forgotten prologue title that many fans seem to overlook. My only wish, for now, is that the next main entry in the franchise, be it Kingdom Hearts IV, Verum Rex, or whatever else, takes cues from the intricate and delightful world design of Kingdom Hearts 0.2 while taking the many positive aspects of Kingdom Hearts III had to offer.
In Quadratum, we trust.
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