I’m posting this as a new thread because, while it was sparked by a Waypoint Radio episode, it’s not a direct response nor a discussion of the content of that episode. I’d like this to be a place to talk about the combat mechanics in the Kingdom Hearts series as a whole independently of the story content. I don’t have another place to post it to link out to either, I genuinely just want to discuss it with this community. I messaged the mods about it last weekend with no response so I’m hoping it’s okay to post this as a separate thread before everyone is sick of thinking about Kingdom Hearts.
On the recent Waypoint Radio Episode 217, Patrick described his grievances with the combat in Kingdom Hearts 3 in a way which surprised me:
Patrick Klepek, Waypoint Radio Episode 217 at 00:32:55:
It’s better than what it was before but I still find it to be a pretty poor character action game.
To be clear, I wasn’t taken aback by how Patrick dislikes it - his issues seem perfectly justifiable - instead, I was surprised with how strongly I felt that KH doesn’t fit the genre of a character action game. Genre definitions being unhelpful has been a cliché ever since critics debated whether Portal was a First-Person Shooter, yet I’m still enamoured by how we want to categorize them. There’s already a great discussion about whether the combat is fun in the forum thread for that episode, although I’m not particularly interested in evaluating their merits. Instead, I want to delve into why they don’t feel the same to me such that the comparison seems incongruous.
In most character action games, the direction of an attack is dependent on whether the player locks the camera to a target. If locked-on, the playable character will attack towards that specific enemy, otherwise the direction of attack is determined by the direction the character is facing (sometimes the camera is used). The latter is crucial because it allows the player greater flexibility in how they want their attacks to spread in 3D space. The attacks available to the player are often spread over a range of hit-boxes meaning the player may choose not to attack head-on to land a hit with a different attack (or to hit multiple enemies at once).
Conversely, KH games removed the latter option. Even if the player doesn’t lock-on, the game will always choose a specific enemy on screen to target (indicated by a yellow ring where the blue lock-on ring would have been). Should an enemy be in the range of an attack, regardless of direction, the player character will always turn to strike (or cast a spell on) the nearest enemy. This omni-directionality even pertains to blocking: if it’s possible to block an attack and the player hits the block button with the correct timing, the player character will always turn to nullify it.
Even at the highest difficulties, combat is incredibly forgiving, allowing the player to focus on the command menu.
The screenshots below show the player targeting and attacking a pot (taken at the earliest possible moment in 3):
In the first image, the player character is so far away that there’s no reasonable expectation that a sword strike will hit the pot. The second image is after choosing the Attack command only once, notice how far the player character travels with a single attack. While he misses, this shows how huge a distance he can travel. The third and fourth image show the before and after image for the maximum distance I could get the player character to stand to hit the pot (moving the player character in small degrees is difficult so the actual maximum is likely further).
Considering how the player character will always turn to hit a target in range as well as the huge reach even his weakest attacks have, so long as the player stands in the approximate vicinity of a foe, the player character almost certainly won’t miss. Furthermore, even if the player character does miss, his basic attacks have very short recovery times. While the final hits of a combo do have noticeably long recovery animations, they can often knock-back or stagger foes, so the risk is small in return for completing a full combo.
Altogether, the result is a combat system where movement is superfluous. I urge you to try it yourself: try to complete a battle without ever moving the left analogue stick. Whenever an enemy isn’t in range or on screen - such that the player character starts flailing blindly - press the right-back button to lock-on (and thus reorient) towards a random enemy. This will allow you to navigate the command menu and deliberate without having to worry about the 3D space. The games always try to make sure your command choices aren’t wasted. Later abilities make this strategy extra potent, especially combo master which makes the player character’s combos continue even if they initially miss.
While I haven’t played enough of 3 to find out if this still holds true, in later games, harder enemies (especially bosses) can only be killed with finishers. In short, if it requires MP or involves a flashy animation with a noticeable recovery period, it’s probably a finisher. Crucially, however, this means that the individual hits of a combo do not complete the kill until the final, flashy hit connects. Similarly, the player character can learn the abilities Second Chance and Once More which allow them to survive a single blow or a full combo so long as they have more than 1HP beforehand. If you evade part of the combo but are eventually hit, you take damage equal to the sum of the remaining hits. Thus, combos aren’t as they traditionally appear in a character action game: they feel more like one long attack split into multiple hits.
Still, what about the instances when you do have to move in combat? If they’re superfluous, why include so many traversal abilities with combat uses such as jumping, gliding, evasion (rolling and air-dashing) or the more recent Flowmotion and Shotlock-warping? While the player is somewhat rewarded for utilizing them, you’re only expected to move when you’re too far away to land a hit. If you try to move over too large an area the enemies will just disappear. Games on weaker hardware limited enemy spawns based on zones you loaded between, however even as areas between loading screens have become much larger, combat encounters have stayed relatively compact.
Alternatively, you may look to boss battles where movement is paramount in evading environmental hazards. Boss fights are separated into distinct phases: those when you’re able to attack; and those you’re meant to be evading. You’re never expected to do both at once. Many players find later battles difficult because these games poorly explain in explaining when to attack as well as how generous the blocking and evasion invisibility frames truly are.
On the other hand, enemies often spawn when you can’t reach a boss. However, these enemies serve a vital role in offering the player a source of healing by picking up the HP Orbs that enemies drop. Otherwise, can safely be ignored should the player not need to heal.
These healing opportunities are welcome though since healing is the biggest source of tension in KH combat. While most spells use only part of your MP, Cure will always use it all initiating the MP Charge cool-down. The risk of healing is losing their MP for some time. Since you’ll eventually get to a point where you know you’ll survive a hit or a combo should you have more than 1HP, the player always wants the option to return from the brink. While finite items help, the player’s apprehension with comes from knowing they’ll be waiting in a vulnerable state afterwards. While healing being on a cool-down isn’t rare, KH makes me feel like I simultaneously have an unlimited number of heals while also having a pressure not to use them too early.
Ultimately, KH feels more like the ATB (Active Time Battle) system popularized by the real-time Final Fantasy titles such as Final Fantasy VII. The ATB system is similar to a Turn-based game where participants can continue to act while players choose their actions from a menu. Combat often takes place in separate combat zones where players choose to act on specified targets. Positioning may be implemented in terms of attacks only being available from certain ranges, however, the movement is usually relegated to a separate menu action. The addition of the real-time aspect allows for timing-specific interactions (such as staggering, blocking, evading and countering). Combos aren’t usually included but a single attack could result in multiple hits (maybe even a variable number of hits due to randomness or misses).
It’s not surprising that when creating an action game, the Final Fantasy developers over at Square Soft (later the Japanese arm of Square Enix) would be heavily influenced by the design philosophy they were familiar with. They probably wanted their game accessible to this same audience even when they had the expertise to make a more traditional action game. Similarly, a core objective was amazing children with Disney spectacle without punishing them for being overwhelmed so the forgiving nature of the ATB system had its appeal.
I don’t have the vocabulary name the genre of Kingdom Hearts since the ATB system still doesn’t fit, but I know that the character action genre doesn’t feel right either. Nevertheless, I’m not surprised that the visual illusion of being one caused fans of the genre to leave scratching their heads.
Do any of you feel the same? What about if you actively try to play the game with this in mind? Honestly, I’d like to see if Patrick would feel differently about the game were he to play it from the perspective of it being similar to the ATB system than character action games but I’m not going to pester him by tagging or messaging him about it (he’s swamped by Kingdom Hearts emails already haha)