kingdom hearts 3 is a game quite expert at simultaneously showing the player how capable it’s artists are, while simultaneously letting us down with hd renditions of 2005 level design. nowhere is this more apparent than the frozen world. i didn’t defeat that level, i survived it. what starts off with potential, soon devolves into a typical lifeless modern squarEnix corridor crawl. and whats worse is rhat the member of organization 13 that essentially creates an ice labyrinth for you feels as if he is an in game manifestation of the corridor design philosophy. one part bland repeating texture, one part rooms made of 90* angles, one part scattered assests snapped to the grid and pushed far into the corners. there is a rationale to this design philosophy... it’s there to accomodate the battle system, which needs space to feel unencumbered by the level. the game also uses a camera angle that feels like it’s at 15mm, giving a constant wide angle view to already artificially widened corridors. the traverse town sewers, the minsters inc... um... well all of monsters inc, the first half of frozen, the latter half of toy story... etc. i have played bayonetta, and devil may cry, and the new god of war, and these games are all able to take a battle system with both close combat and ranged attacks, yet they all manage to feel like living worlds i feel a part of, which most of kingdom hearts seems unable to grasp. but there are bright spots: andy’s room and the yard of his house, pirates of the carribean, and finally, after a strenuous love/hate experience of some 40 hours, i finally made it to san fransokyo.
this level is fundamentally kingdom hearts. but it has one small feature that helps negate the feeling of being a lego figure in a diorama built for a g.i. joe. the lanes on the streets. such a minor touch, but they perform the function of scale. sora is just big enough to fill slightly more space in each lane than someone might in real life. which is at odds with the rest of kh3ks design philosophy. it works by making the player feel almost cramped compared to the amount of space the playable area of the street provided. without these slightly tighter-than-real lanes, the roads would feel much more kingdom hearts than they are. of course, it’s not just the lines giving us a sensation of scale. the backgrounds are lush and complex, even though functionally not that different from the corridors plaguing the rest of the game, but these lanes were the first time the game designers told me “hey, after all these shortcuts we took throughout the game, here’s us finally sitting down and reimagining what the KH style should look like without the technical limitation which necessitated the empty diorama style in the first place.”
honestly, despite how excited i was for SF, and the glimpses of open & living environments throughout the rest of the game, i can’t help but feel like the high points only serve to highlight just how much of the game was expedited. a 13 year wait is more than enough time to design a living arendelle. it’s more than enough time to figure out how to make monstropolis feel like it’s not a post apocalyptic bersion of itself where the only inhabitants are russel, mike, sully, and boo. maybe if we waited 14 years they could have included the celia or maybe at the bery leadt a janitor to let us know the world is not dead, just currently uninhabited. but ultimately, it comes back to level design. when a hallway is not programmed to have enemies in it, why not keep the proprtions scaled realistically? why not add some assets that look used by the inhabitants of the world? i will never know what happened during the production of this game, but i do know that they spent way too much time on the technical aspects of graphics, as the lighting and shading and charachter modelling are all gorgeous, yet overall this game is mostly ugly as 2005. at least the traffic lanes let me know that there’s hope.