Q. What’s this about “cowardly level design”?

A. A while back, I mentioned that one of Kingdom Hearts’ greatest failings is its “cowardly level design”. This post will illuminate exactly what I meant regarding that statement. As such, while I’m going to be taking a very objective tone, keep in mind that my own hangups and beliefs regarding level design are very subjective, as they inevitably must be. My point? I realize I may have carried myself as something of a Kingdom Hearts “authority” through these posts, but I just want to be clear that this is all just my opinion on matters here, and does not represent the feelings or opinions of Kingdom Hearts, Squaresoft, Square-Enix, Tetsuya Nomura, Xehanort, Gogglebob.com, or the nefarious and entirely fictional Talking Tim.

All that said, let’s actually play some Kingdom Hearts! Wooo! Get excited! Grab that game off your shelf and follow along.

That’s right, no HD remix for this post. I will admit that I have been using the remixed games for this FAQ, but I decided to go back and actually experience the good ol’ days for these captures.

See, opening screen of Kingdom Hearts. They make the bold choice to show you, before even pressing button one, that Sora has normal sized feet, but he chooses to wear gigantic clown shoes as a fashion statement. Sora is a nitwit? Canon.

Woof. I’ve wasted my life.

Let’s talk about Kingdom Hearts 1, which I’ll be referring to as Kingdom Hearts here, but just know that I’m not talking about the franchise as a whole, just Kingdom Hearts 1, until otherwise noted. The one game that could use a subtitle…

Kingdom Hearts is a fun game first and foremost, like every other game in the series, excluding a few outliers that have unbalanced robe-to-fun ratios. Kingdom Hearts also has a lot of problems. First and foremost, it was released back in the day when camera control was a secret technique closely guarded by jealous and vengeful turtles from the heavens. Kingdom Hearts doesn’t even have the ability to control the camera via the right thumbstick in its original incarnation, only L2 and R2. This leads to a lot of “free looking”. And, unfortunately, Goofy ain’t helping.

The magic system of Kingdom Hearts is the dumbest it has ever been in the series, as a clear cut “MP gauge” doesn’t so much work that well in this action setting. And “Aero”, commonly a wind-based offensive spell, is, for some unknown reason, a “Protect” spell that increases defense. That has nothing to do with anything, but has always bothered me. Beyond even that, there are just a number of little interface issues that make the game a little more annoying than it has to be, and the majority of these issues were corrected in later installments.

But when it comes to level design, Kingdom Hearts hit a gold standard that has not been touched since.

We’re going to start in Traverse Town, the first real “level” in Kingdom Hearts. Traverse Town, as you may guess from the name, is a town, though only the first district of TT is a RPG town as they are usually imagined, the other two districts are, essentially, dungeons. Right off the bat, we’re into some neat level design/story telling synergy, as gigantic doors block off the “happy town” from “crawling with monsters town”, which immediately reinforces the a central theme in Kingdom Hearts: darkness is surrounding the light on all sides, and hope is being boxed in. But “Hope” doesn’t make for very interesting level design (remember this when that nerd inevitably cameos in Kingdom Hearts 3), so we’re going to hit 2nd District, home of the heartless.

As a note, I’m kind of assuming anyone reading at this point has a general familiarity with Kingdom Hearts, so I’m not capturing every last inch of the place. Fill in the blanks with your own faulty memory!

2nd District, on first visit, is a pretty straightforward “first dungeon”. You are assaulted by various low level heartless. There aren’t many places to go, and while you can take a look around at the architecture, you simply can’t reach anywhere interesting. If this was all TT ever had to offer, it would be a typical Final Fantasy 13 corridor dungeon.

Though effectively a corridor early in the game, you can see some interesting things to start. The first picture here at the fountain is showing where Sora is looking “from”, and the other two are displaying what Sora can see from that vista. Oh, look, a happy hat maker’s shop, and some sort of grand cathedral looking thing off at the end of the street. But these landmarks are just there to spruce up the corridor, right?

Moving on to 3rd District, we have an area that is primarily there for an early game boss fight. As such, it’s your typical “arena” looking area, with a lot of room to run around and fight a giant heartless armor creature. But even in this arena, you can look around and see some fun stuff, like the inexplicable Lady and the Tramp fountain (who the blazes builds a fountain dedicated to stray dogs humping!?), and whatever is going on way up above the 1st District entrance.

And that’s about it for your first Traverse Town visit, barring a few minor areas visited for like seven seconds for plot reasons. Straightforward corridor heartless extermination.

But Kingdom Hearts has lofty goals. See, over the course of Kingdom Hearts, not unlike in some Metroid or Castlevania games, Sora acquires greater mobility options as he progresses. The most obvious of these skills is the High Jump (no boots needed), which grants Sora access to places that are (prepare to be shocked) higher. Even later still, Sora acquires the ability Glide, which allows Sora to cross an incredible horizontal distance between heights. And you know what? There was enough communication between the level designers and the ability programmers (that’s a job, right?) that the vast majority of the worlds in Kingdom Hearts accommodate a revisit with all abilities unlocked.

Back to Traverse Town!

Remember that Cathedral looking thing? Let’s see if that’s open for business.

Looks like it’s the Gizmo Shop, which, unfortunately, is neither a shop nor a place where Gizmo Duck hangs his metal hat. It’s just a room filled with no shortage of heartless and whimsy. It’s got low ceilings, and can be explored to find some treasures or power some gears, but it’s mainly a gateway to a ladder, and from that ladder…

Well, the view is pretty choice. Yes, after the right abilities are unlocked, you can scale the TT cathedral, and even play along the rooftops of Traverse Town. The third picture there actually shows that same Mad Hatter sign from earlier, but from the side. It’s not setting the world on fire, but it’s always fun in a game to see an area that has every right to be simply background, and then make it your own as you stomp around (and find treasure! Yay!). These rooftops even lead to…

3rd District rooftop, which can be seen just a little in the previous 3rd District picture. Hey, there’s a good view of that stupid fountain. This little area is really only there to hide treasure, but that’s kind of the point, it’s a place that can only be accessed with some platforming ingenuity, and you receive a reward for doing so.

Traverse Town also has some random areas that seem to exist only to give the player something to explore (this is a good thing). Here’s a lovely little hotel.

And you can’t tell me that room isn’t the result of a scrapped Mulan level.

Behind the hotel is an alley area.

And take special note of those boxes, as they are another example of mobility skills improving the game: early game Sora just sees a pile of boxes blocking his way, but High Jump Sora can vault over the boxes, and find a shortcut back to 1st District. It’s no Planet Zebes, but it does display some thoughtfulness.

And, finally on our Traverse Town tour, we have an underground sewer/cave, which exists primarily for story beats, but it does add a lovely touch of organic to this otherwise urban area. It’s nice that someone decided to make a “special place” for Kairi and Sora to have important conversations late in the game, and not stick the two teens in some sleazy art-exhibiting hotel.

Now I know what you’re saying, “Goggle Bob, big honking deal, that’s the first real level in the game, and games inevitably have an amazing first level, and then peter out to rote repetition thereafter.” To respond to that, first of all, “rote repetition” is redundant. Secondly, there are other worlds in Kingdom Hearts that show a similar level of attention to design.

Agrabah is a great example for comparison, as it appears in other Kingdom Hearts games.

The town area of Agrabah is basically a series of back alleys, which makes sense as Aladdin is a filthy street rat. The relevance of the alleys I’ll note again later, but for now, just note that Agrabah Town exists on three different elevations, and those three elevations connect in interesting ways. Of course, the highest elevation is only accessible with the proper abilities, and some things that appear to be basically background nonsense, like these awning things, are actually working platforms that aid exploration.

The other big area of Agrabah is The Cave of Wonders, which is really a dungeon’s dungeon. It’s got giant rolling balls, spraying water jets, and an underground “sewer area”. It’s a great showcase for the creativity that Kingdom Hearts is capable of when it’s not falling over itself to recreate an accurate representation of The Queen of Hearts’ Court or whatever. It’s also another area that you cannot explore fully until after obtaining skills like Glide, as far off treasure chests must simply be salivated after, unless you want to hurl Sora into a pit. I understand but do not condone the impulse.

Before we get to Kingdom Heart’s coup de grace, I’d like to take a moment to sit down, and talk about puppies. Throughout Kingdom Hearts, Sora may find treasure chests that contain, in sets of three, puppies. The logistics involved are confusing at best and terrifying at worst, but all of these puppies add up to the eponymous 101 Dalmatians. Why do I mention this now? Because it’s one of the greatest ways Kingdom Hearts separates itself from its JRPG forbearers.

You’re familiar with JRPGS, yes? It is very uncommon for a JRPG to have a “return to old dungeons with a new skill” mechanic. Ancient keys aside, the usual for a JRPG dungeon is to have your hero traipse from one end of the place to the other, once, and never think about the place ever again. That said, usually there are treasures hidden around the area, and, should you find them, you get a +1 Sword or a +1 Armor. If you come back to that same dungeon later in the game, perhaps in an effort to know you have found every last treasure chest, you will… still find a +1 Sword or a +1 Armor, despite the fact that you are already equipped with a +15 Sword and a +20 Armor. Good job wasting your time finding this dusty old loot, maybe the next time you want to drop 120 hours into a game, you’ll remember to find these earlier.

Kingdom Hearts subverts this wonderfully. While there are still +1 Swords and whatnot to be found, there are 33 puppy chests spread across nearly all of the worlds. Assuming you remember to head back to Traverse Town to bug the puppy parents, amassing puppies will earn you progressively better rewards, culminating with the essential Aeroga spell. This translates to a game where it is always a joy to find puppies, which might be the most realistic thing ever to appear in a video game. Whether you are in the first world at Level 1 or revisiting the sixth world at Level 99, finding a pack of dalmatians is always worthwhile, and beats the pants off finding some accessory that would have served you better hours ago. Like accumulating missile packs in Metroid, the 101 Dalmatians quest is always worthwhile, and a fine way to reward the player for exploring.

And I would be remiss if I did not disparage the fact that this kind of quest never appears in the series again. Yes, there are collectathons in later Kingdom Hearts games, just not a single one is as focused and rewarding and subverts traditional JRPG values like Puppy Quest. Birth by Sleep rewards you for finding every last treasure chest in the game, but if you find a treasure chest in an early area, it has an early, weak prize just the same as if you found it early in the game. And there are stickers, but their prizes are terrible and seem to have been carelessly placed around the universe like a child playing with a set of… stickers. Huh. Let’s be real here: would you rather receive a sticker as a gift, or a box of three puppies? Note: this is a turing test.

Always remember to have your pets spayed or neutered. Back to level design!

The final, final area of Kingdom Hearts is an inky blackness at the heart of the universe, and is practically Lovecraftian in its madness, but before that is what appears to be the final planet of the game, Hollow Bastion.

I provided that second picture of Hollow Bastion there so the main castle (which comprises 95% of the world) can be seen easily. See that big heartless emblem in the middle? Much of Sora’s time in Hollow Bastion is spent scaling the castle area around that very emblem.

Here’s where you first arrive in Hollow Bastion Castle. That first picture shows a door that is directly beneath the bottom tip of the heartless emblem. The second picture shows a rampart far to the right that is inaccessible even via flight. And the third image shows a door and ramp that are inaccessible with even the best jumping.

So, we head inside that door under the emblem. I’m not going to dwell too much on the interior of Hollow Bastion, as this post is stupid long to begin with, but know that this large area has its own share of important locations. From there, we find the interior elevator room, which is a giant, very vertical room that connects to much of the castle, but seems to only be scaled one floor at a time via very limited elevators. Not very convenient, but I suppose it helps to repel teenage heroes.

Taking an elevator from the elevator room leads to the exterior again, but this time you’re exiting that previously inaccessible door and ramp from the entrance picture set. Progress! The second picture of this set is another view of that door at the foot of the heartless emblem, now seen from a greater height. Then this area leads to a large elevator… or whatever one calls an elevator that travels horizontally. People Mover?

You don’t have to pay attention to the scenery while on this elevator as, from a strictly gameplay perspective, it’s one of those elevators usually seen in Beat ‘em Ups and Chrono Trigger that will only progress if every enemy is defeated. But if you look around, as I obviously have, you can see Sora is crossing directly in front of the castle, and you can see much of the architecture and how it surrounds that previously mentioned giant heartless emblem. Note that we’re still only at the bottom part of that emblem. We’ve still got a ways to go to reach the top.

That elevator drops us off at the far rampart shown in the entrance picture set. Look at all the progress our lil’ keyblade meister has made! Another elevator from this area will lead us…

Further up at last! We’re a whole story higher now. We can see the previous area below us, but now we’re in line with the “heart” area of the giant heartless emblem, as opposed to its bottom tip. Aw, that big elevator we took before looks so small now.

I’m not going to tour the whole castle with this post, but you get the point: Hollow Bastion is very carefully constructed. It’s a castle that could conceivably be used as an actual castle in happier times, and its architecture is meant to provide clues not only to “go this way, stupid,” but also to aid in “are we there yet?” Here’s a tip, where you’re above the giant heartless emblem, congrats, you’re at the end. It is a seriously well considered world. And we’ve got one other bit we haven’t covered:

Here’s the bottom floor. Why do I mention it? Because all of those balconies and elevators aren’t there for show. There aren’t moving platforms or jumping puzzles in this area, but if you send Sora flying off of a rampart, gravity is going to take hold, and Sora is going to fall aaaaaaall the way down to the lowest level. Two main reasons this would happen:

  1. You get impatient with “how do I get over to that area,” and send Sora flying into nothing when he misses the jump/glide.
  2. Sora has ridiculous enemy homing abilities. If a heartless is flying, Sora will fly into the air after it, swinging his keyblade and accumulating significant horizontal momentum. By the time the monster is dead, Sora finds himself in a Wile E. Coyote situation, and down he goes.

Away we go

While they’re infrequent, there are platforming challenges in Kingdom Hearts. Right at the start of Hollow Bastion, for instance, there is the Rising Falls, which is basically just a series of moving platforms.

This isn’t Mega Man; there is no death penalty for falling, just time wasted. However, there are multiple areas throughout the game, like Wonderland or the previously noted Cave of Wonders, where the heartless attack while there are pits around. Sora will, almost every time, send himself flying into the first available pit thanks to his homing attacks, and it gets frustrating quickly. There’s nothing like carefully maneuvering your player avatar into an interesting area, only to have the nitwit send himself into oblivion seconds later and make all the effort worthless.

This is a problem that was very noticeable in Kingdom Hearts, so, naturally, it was addressed in the design for Kingdom Hearts 2. The solution? Never have interesting levels ever again.

Kingdom Hearts 2 focuses primarily on Sora’s combat abilities, and leaves everything else by the river to drown. This is not a bad choice, as the combat of Kingdom Hearts pretty much is what people showed up for, but it turns the game into a series of “arenas” and corridors instead of proper “worlds”. Even Sora’s advanced traversal skills are locked behind a quizzical limit experience system, and thus become completely optional; obtaining the Glide command in this game is so ridiculously complicated, I doubt most people ever know it’s there, even when finishing the game to completion. With the advanced movement skills becoming entirely optional, the game is based on a Sora that only ever can jump poorly, and is poorer for it.

Oh well, let’s fire up Kingdom Hearts 2.

I put how many hours into the game I don’t enjoy as much? Yeesh.

Here’s Kingdom Hearts 2’s Hollow Bastion aka Radiant Garden. Instead of just a castle, the world is now a “town” similar to Kingdom Hearts’ Traverse Town. Let’s see how it compares.

The first area is, like Traverse Town, a town area with shops and whatnot. We’re going to skip to the second area, and take a look there.

Here’s a view of the area from as high as possible. Note that Kingdom Hearts 2 now grants us a minimap in the top right corner, so we can more easily see how damn boring this has become. There’s a high road and a low road. If you try to fly out over the roofs that can be seen in the distance, you hit an invisible wall, and drop like a rock. That third picture basically tells you everything you need to know: At first glance, it appears Sora is flying out to unknown environs, anxious to explore the rest of the town, but the minimap says, “Nope, this is the edge of the corner, knock it off.”

The town area connects to an area that can best be described as “ruined town”. Go left, and you’ll find a boss arena where Goofy died, and then a straight line down the canyon to where Goofy got better. Go right and you’ll find areas shown in the second screenshot, where you have the amazing choice of “go left or right” for thirty seconds before the path rejoins.

Oh, hey, we’re at the foot of that cool castle from the first game. Oh, we get to explore the previously unseen castle basement? Oh, this oughtta be good, like a forgotten area from Kingdom Hearts 1.

Nope! Just a series of boring corridors for fighting heartless.

And that’s basically it for the whole damn planet.

But maybe that was just a fluke, let’s see how Agrabah is doing in Kingdom Hearts 2.

Oh, this is not a good idea.

See, as mentioned, the previous Agrabah was mostly back alleys and such. This created a claustrophobic area, yes, but they made it work by exploiting different elevations. Now Agrabah is wide open, which is better for battling, but terrifying for storytelling. This now feels like the marketplace of Agrabah proper, but it is abandoned. Did something happen? Aladdin, did you casually wish for yourself and Jasmine to be the only people on the planet? Yes, Agrabah has more breathing room for heartless bashing, but, geez, it also gives the impression a neutron bomb went off about ten minutes before Sora’s arrival.

Also, while I didn’t capture it, The Cave of Wonders has now become a series of hallways featuring various fights. Not very wondrous.

Okay, last chance Kingdom Hearts 2, let’s see your final castle.

Oh yeah, that’s not so great. Yes, we’ve got another amazing, huge castle to explore, but this one is, naturally, just a series of hallways. Take a look at those last two balcony shots: in Kingdom Hearts 1’s Hollow Bastion, you’d have been able to see where you’ve been, or some indicator as to where you are in the castle at that point. In KH2’s The World that Never Was Castle? Not so much.

Actually, here’s something superfluous from KH1 Hollow Bastion:

See that? Rubble. It’s silly, but those stupid rocks block you from accessing “the other side” of this huge castle, giving one the impression that this is not so much a level, but an immense structure you happen to be exploring. Meanwhile, in KH2’s final castle, the home base of Organization 13 and a whole host of nobody underlings, there is no indication that the castle is actually “lived in”. This is a castle built for people who exclusively teleport to where they need to be, which, granted, seems to be accurate, but is at least impractical. Perhaps I’m not giving the designers enough credit here, maybe this place is so poorly designed as something habitable so as to explain why Organization 13 is annoyed all the time. Hm.

But what aren’t you seeing in any of these Kingdom Hearts 2 screenshots? A need for guardrails. In emphasizing the combat over everything else, the designers dropped any sort of risk that the combat could lead to a poor result like in Kingdom Hearts 1. Swing your keyblade proudly Sora, you have no risk of causing yourself harm anymore. Rather than solving the problem of Sora’s combat skills interfering with his platforming skills, the decision was made to simply drop any need for platforming.

It’s… cowardly.

Every Kingdom Hearts game following KH2 followed its example, leading to some levels that actually make their source material worse for it. In Birth by Sleep, the distance Cinderella must travel to get to the ball from her home is actually less distance than a single hallway within the castle. Good to see the prince had that glass slipper to identify Cinderella, as he never would have just found her living twenty feet past his front lawn.

It’s a shame, really, too, as Kingdom Hearts was a very flawed game, but it had some big crazy ideas about interesting level design, and they seem to have dropped off entirely with later iterations in favor of “corridor after corridor”. Every Kingdom Hearts game, every single one, includes some kind of crafting/synthesis system that is immense and fueled by monster deaths; however, there is only one Kingdom Hearts game where revisiting each world to hunt individual monsters can actually lead to new exploration opportunities. Maybe we’ll see some improvement in Kingdom Hearts 3, but I’m not holding my aeroga.

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