Of Zippers and Mouse Ears: A Book Report on Kingdom Hearts II by Alexa Ray Corriea

Reading Alexa Ray Corriea’s Kingdom Hearts II corroborated a sneaking suspicion I’ve had for a very long time – that this game, and the series by extension, is something of an unmitigated hot mess.

As curious of an idea as it is mixing the House of Mouse with Square’s spiky-haired troupe is, it’s quickly apparent that Tetsuya Nomura, and by extension the Kingdom Heart series, has this tendency to have his head so far up his own butt with the lore and mystique of it all that it becomes this paradoxical investment that only those willing to spelunk through a wiki or fan site will understand. So here’s this gal, writing an entire novella for Boss Fight Books, under the pretense that Kingdom Hearts II is an obtuse game that struggles to find itself because it opens with such an odd and despondent tutorial that only the most die-hard Disneyphile will be willing to decipher it.

And yet, in my moment of grandiose celebration that my opinion had been given validation in the form of an entire book being written about it…there’s this nagging sense that it doesn’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things. Sure enough, a few more paragraphs in and Corriea gives voice to that uncertainty as well – she knows it’s a cobbled together tale that is difficult to understand. She loves Kingdom Hearts II despite that. Hell, a lot of people do. It wouldn’t be a hit series if others didn’t feel the same way.

Suddenly I went from being a disengaged snob about it and quickly became someone who wanted to understand what lies underneath the surface of this bizarre amalgamation of a game.

Even if I didn’t read into this deep dive concepts of the book, on the surface this is the type of Cliff Notes commentary that the Kingdom Hearts series direly needs for those of us too afraid to climb the sheer cliff that is the history and backstory of Sora, Goofy and Donald’s misadventures.

Like many books in the Boss Fight series, Corriea leads off with a little personal history. While that’s the crux for a lot of other titles in the series, she quickly shuttles that to the wayside to get to the heart of things – what the hell is going on, why the developers went where they did and an analyzation of the themes therein. Considering I pooh-poohed Kingdom Hearts II and barely made a dent in Roxas’s role (as it seems a lot of folk did) in the proceedings but then summarily ate this book up, it’s safe to assume she did a pretty damn good job.

There’s a lot to grok in Kingdom Hearts II from simple motifs like the value of friendship and stalwartness therein to heavier subjects like finding a sense of self and meaning when you are literally a soulless being. Whether intentionally implied or not by the developers, it’s inferred by the author and thus given merit. In a culture where people become argumentative over what is deemed “canon” and have this false sense of authority as they lord it over others, it’s nice to have something more personal and, in kind, more relatable to peruse. It’s the type of thing that begets thoughtful and meaningful discourse rather than comeuppance.  If more games literature were lie this, we’d be in a better place.

This, coming from a guy who may or may not have pumped his fist when he saw that even a super fan will admit to a games shortcoming. It was a misguided cheerfulness, and one that turned into abject officiousness. If it can make a believer out of me, Alexa Ray Corriea’s Kingdom Hearts II can make a believer out of anyone.

By Matt Mason Posted in Books

My Wife’s New Favorite Game: Levels+

The highest praise I can give Levels+: Addictive Puzzle Game is that I’m writing about it here because I can’t pry the Switch from my wife’s hands.

I didn’t really learn to appreciate a good puzzle game until much later in life. Like a lot of kids I took for granted those types of experiences that were purely mechanical; I needed some visual pizazz to move me forward. While I could appreciate a good game of Tetris, I always had the mindset that that was the type of game my mom would enjoy and leave it at that.

Well congratulations Mom – you knew better than I did.

Learning, discovering and then eventually mastering a system doesn’t sound like the most exciting use of your time on paper, but the cerebral exercising it takes to play a good puzzle game is just as gratifying as maneuvering across a series of platforms or leveling up a party and min/maxing the hell out of them. Having a spouse who loves them on an unparalleled level means at the very least you have some kind of common ground when it comes to videogames.

Unless, of course, they find a game that’s so addictive they refuse to let you have your game system and stuff.

The reason is because one of my wife’s favorite games, Threes!, is a template from which Levels+ unceremoniously cops from. Threes! has seen its share of clones in the mobile space, but Levels+ judiciously borrows its conceit and makes it its own thing. The line between being an out-right rip-off and something that’s more of a spiritual successor is extremely thin. Thankfully Levels+ the latter.

Like Threes!, Levels+ has you combining tiles based on the number of each tile to gradually increase said number for as long as you can until there are no more moves to make. That in and of itself is a tricky proposition and makes for a fine experience on its own. With Levels+ however, there’s a hierarchy to the tiles that makes for what I think is a more engaging experience.

The base tiles are yellow, which denotes treasure. The overarching goal is to combine treasure to make larger piles which multiply up thus boosting your score. Obviously finding a treasure tile with a 5 is better than a 3, but it takes foresight and intuition to wait it out long enough to get to those tiles. You could just scrabble for 1 tiles, but your score won’t be as good. In order to bank said tiles though you have to use blue tiles which are marked as adventurers. Like the yellow tiles, the blue tiles stack to make stronger heroes that can thus collect better treasure. Just to round out the complexity are red tiles, which are ornery enemies that block your path. You have no control over them, however a blue tile of equal or higher value can smash them to gain access to other sides of the board.

In concept it’s a solid system, but what boosts Levels+ to memorable status is the presentation. The simple, Indiana Jones-like aesthetic is nice, giving it that feel of being on an adventure even though all you’re seeing are rats, snakes and piles of coins on a tile. Each time you raise something to another level, the music adds another layer or complexity to itself. Unfortunately there’s only one song that plays each time you boot the game up, but if I’m being honest it didn’t bother me.

Levels+ has a pace that’s more like Chess or Mancala, where contemplating your next move is imperative to getting further the deeper in you get. Combining like-numbered tiles is only half the battle; knowing what and where your next piece goes can decide a game. That’s my take though; watching my wife play is to see quick but provoked play in action. Basically I have to think harder.

It’s really nice to have Levels+: Addictive Puzzle Game handy on the Switch, it makes for a nice palette cleanser to the more action-oriented games I typically play and is also good for something quick to play before bed if you’re jonesing for some game time.

Or, you know, you could read or watch a movie or play something else because let’s be frank – my wife owns the Switch for a while.