What’s going on with the so-called “highest” difficulty in Square Enix’s latest?
Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t just one of the most anticipated titles of this year. It’s a catharsis for a fan-base left wanting for so long, held up by the twists and turns of side-stories while expecting a big celebratory hurrah for Sora, Donald and Goofy. After plodding through efforts like Dream Drop Distance and 358/2 Days, it felt deserved.
We never really expected the storyline to make sense – after all, Kingdom Hearts as a series purposefully keeps details unknown. What did happen to [Redacted]? Was [Redacted] really in [Redacted] that whole time? What was that ending? You could try and explain it in terms of Kingdom Hearts’ strange logic but it’s probably better to just go with the flow.
"Before Critical Mode became the highest difficulty in games like Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix, Birth By Sleep: Final Mix, Dream Drop Distance and so on, it was Proud Mode that was the standard-bearer for difficulty."
To the credit of Kingdom Hearts 3, it does resolve at least one major plotline – the new Keyblade War – before it concludes. There’s also no denying that for a lot of the awkward dialogue and stilted delivery, Kingdom Hearts 3 faithfully captures the magic of so many Disney films in terms art direction and visual style (even if it flounders narratively in some worlds). It’s actually kind of crazy how moments like Elsa singing “Let It Go” or Tangled’s dance in Corona have been recreated, to the point where you have to stop and marvel at how far our technology has come.
Many will take issue with the game’s story-telling and combat, and that’s fine. For what it’s worth, the combat felt pretty good to control. Performing combos felt nice and fluid despite some lack of combo canceling; mixing in Attraction Flows, Links and Keyblade Transformations felt intuitive; and movement was fast and responsive enough that getting to the next encounter felt like a treat unto itself. It was fun, easy to pick up and made you feel powerful even if it became repetitive after a while.
However, there’s one aspect of the game that seems to really weigh on it. It’s not something that’s inherently bothersome about the combat itself, besides the constant mashing of X, then Triangle and maybe Square every now and then. And no, it probably doesn’t make the story any better but it is an option that probably wasn’t implemented with a lot of foresight. I’m talking about Proud Mode and almost every major boss fight, especially the final boss, is going to be spoiled going forward. So stop reading if you want to remain surprised.
Proud Mode will be familiar to series’ veterans. Before Critical Mode became the highest difficulty in games like Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix, Birth By Sleep: Final Mix, Dream Drop Distance and so on, Proud Mode was the standard-bearer. The rules seem pretty simple – you deal the same amount of damage as Standard Mode but receive 1.5 times more damage. The advantage of playing Proud Mode in Kingdom Hearts 3 is that you have to take less photos of Emblems to get the secret ending. Of course, it also presents a deeper challenge. With the ability to receive more damage, you’d expect to play more carefully, fine-tuning blocks and counter-attacks all the more. At least, that’s what you’d think.
"Even if your HP does run low, the relative lack of crowd control allows you to back off for a moment and heal without being disrupted."
At the start of a Proud Mode run in Kingdom Hearts 3, you’ll notice that it’s kind of easy. You’re initially fighting Heartless, traveling through Olympus and trying to stave off the Titans. However, as your stash of abilities expands, enemies seem less able to resist the overwhelming might that is Sora. You can activate team-up attacks with Donald and Goofy at a fairly brisk pace. Combos aren’t fully developed at this time but enemies aren’t putting up too much of a fight either (aside from the Heartless bulls and that’s before you know what to do).
FlowMotion is revamped to not only allow environmental traversal with ease but also to swing around pillars, gathering multiple enemies together before devastating them with a single powerful attack. The latter admittedly doesn’t work all the time in Olympus thanks to the openness of some arenas but it’s still strong. Attraction Flows let you bash enemies around with a friggin ship, water run ride or blaster ship based on Disney theme park rides, annihilating swathes of them in one fell swoop. If they’re not dead after that, all it takes is a team-up attack or a decent Triangle finisher to finish the job.
Let’s talk about the healing as well. Because most initial Heartless aren’t really able to stagger Sora with absurdly long combos, there isn’t any danger of being insta-gibbed or suddenly brought down to low health. Even if your HP does run low, the relative lack of staggering allows you to back off for a moment and heal without being disrupted. Everything seems all hunky dory until you battle the Wind Titan at the end of Olympus. You don’t really have your allies and the Titan hits hard, spamming plenty of projectiles. Plus, you’re essentially flying around in midair. Holding still to press Square and block is a bit tougher here than just dodging but that’s down more to the number of in-air battles experienced than anything else at this point.
However, this is the beginning of the game and even if your knowledge of dodging is rudimentary, you’ll be fine. Even without mapping spells to hotkeys or equipping many Potions, the Wind Titan went down on my second try.
"The sheer variety of Keyblades and their Transformations, even if they don’t all deal tons of damage, provides tons of different solutions to problems."
By the time you hit Toy Box, the Toy Story world, Sora will already have access to Links, Shotlocks and one Keyblade Transformation (two, if you also count the beginning weapon’s alternate “form”). Links fully restore health upon using them, along with providing damage resistance. They’re good for avoiding crowd-control and taking scores of enemies down. Keyblade Transformations, like the Favorite Deputy earned from Toy Box, can also deal crap tons of damage while also having wide arcs of attacks.
Shotlocks allow you to stay a good distance away and shoot the enemy with homing attacks. Each Shotlock attack works differently depending on the Keyblade – for instance, the Ever After from Frozen’s world will restore your health depending on the number of hits. Shotlocks use the Focus Gauge and can’t be constantly abused but they also build up at a moderate pace. Links can be abused as long as your MP gauge is off cooldown and often are a better solution than using straight healing spells. When you can fully restore health and not have to worry about losing it immediately after, then why not?
You also eventually learn to switch between Keyblades. Let’s say you’ve got a Keyblade Transformation ready but don’t want to waste it. Activate it and switch to a different Keyblade – the previous Transformation is saved and can be switched back to, after which it starts depleting normally. This even applies to boss fights. You could batter someone with Favorite Deputy and then switch to Ever After for its healing Shotlock. Then switch back to Favorite Deputy for mad DPS or to another Keyblade for long reach or projectile spam, if need be. The sheer variety of Keyblades and their Transformations, even if they don’t all deal a lot damage, offers plenty different solutions to problems. Keep in mind that hotkeys were still not being utilized to instantly access Potions, Healing and Links.
It sounds like smooth sailing with all of the game’s Disney content. Even if some encounters proved a little rough, either due to the surprising amount of damage coming in or because of crowd control attacks, nothing ever really felt “difficult” or “trying”. So where does that finally change? The Realm of Darkness. Anti-Aqua. Now, I had faced Anti-Aqua in Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage and she was a decent challenge, even on Standard mode. But hey, this is Proud Mode in Kingdom Hearts 3 and I have all these sweet abilities! Surely she can’t be that…and I’ve died 12 times in a row.
"So, Proud Mode seems to have ramped things up by quite a bit. About time, right? Pattern recognition, blocking and skillful dodging seem to have finally taken centre stage."
What’s going on? Well, for starters, Anti-Aqua’s combos are crazy, requiring either skillful dodging, blocking numerous projectiles in a row and – gasp – actually learning her patterns. At one point, she’ll summon a bunch of copies and there’s only one real Aqua. Failure to hit the correct one results in time results in all clones attacking you at once. Not only do some of her attacks stagger you continuously but they deal hefty amounts of damage. Of course, the camera does no favours especially with her ability to teleport around and just reappear behind you, barely getting the words “Nothing personnel” out before you’re dead. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating on that last part but she’s no joke.
The ensuing fight with Vanitas is a little bit better. Playing as Aqua now, all cleansed by the Light, her Shotlock and combos are pretty potent. Wait, why does Vanitas have so much health? Anyway, he doesn’t take too much effort to defeat, that too solo. You will have a hard time catching him out and staggering him enough for a combo but Anti-Aqua has probably taught you to be more cautious by now.
So, Proud Mode seems to have ramped things up by quite a bit. About time, right? Pattern recognition, blocking and skillful dodging seem to have finally taken centre stage. The slight delays on blocking and dodging in succession are a bit annoying but it’s still manageable. Then we get to the Keyblade Graveyard and the new Keyblade War.
I’m not going to spoil everything that happens here but you eventually face off against a Giant Heartless Tornado that’s seemingly unkillable. Its first form isn’t too bad as you block at the right time and attack when all the Heartless eyes aren’t flashing red. However, in the second phase, you need to dodge bombs (where the camera shifts to overhead perspective a la Nier Automata’s bullet hell sequences), navigate around the arena with Glide (you gain the ability before entering the Graveyard) and use Links to get some decent damage in (which is when I noticed the damage resistance, resistance to stagger and instant heal that an entity like Simba could provide). Don’t get caught in the Tornado without a Link – once it goes red, that’s an instant kill. Oh, and you can be chain-stunned in pretty successive bursts by regular attacks.
Had fun? Well, now it’s time to face all the Organization 13 members in several big boss fights, one after another. The battle with Replica Riku, Ansem and Xigbar was rife with projectiles and spells, turning into one big visual cluster overall. Xigbar just keeps teleporting away so you’d think to go after Replica Riku. Oh wait, he absolutely decimates you with spells while Xigbar just staggers you from a distance. Clearly Xigbar must die but even when it comes down to just Replica Riku, the battle can be a chore. Dodging, blocking and learning their patterns is initially tough when there’s so much happening on screen and off screen. But alas.
Hilariously, the battle with Xemnas, Larxene, Luxord and Marluxia was much more manageable. This is due to the fairly telegraphed nature of Larxene and Marluxia’s attacks. Luxord was just a mini-game and he was owned accordingly due to his low health pool. The next fight with Saix also wasn’t too bad because, oh look, Xion and Roxas are here to help. Seriously, these two are so friggin powerful, especially Roxas with his dual Keyblades. You’re better off just sitting back and letting them deal with everything. Compared to how Riku and Mickey fought as your allies in the previous battles, Xion and Roxas were a significant upgrade.
And then we get to Xemnas, Xehanort and Young Xehanort, arguably the worst offenders when it comes to projectile spam and constant stuns (at least, up till this point). It was here that I just tried less to block and just abused the Links. Simply stand around as Simba and hit X or jump around, causing damage with the landing. The attack radius is pretty decent even if you need to be somewhat close to an enemy. The damage resistance is great though and I can’t be stunlocked. Did I mention being fully healed? As for what to do when the MP gauge is on cooldown, simply fly around out of reach of the three idiots, like a coward. It just works.
Thankfully, Master Xehanort is a much better boss fight. The underwater battle was actually kind of cool since you had to be on point with your dodges and blocking. Same with the fight atop Scala ad Caelum as you alternated between Normal (where there’s mostly blocking) and Rage forms (which require tout dodging). Some aspects of these fights – like Xehanort not taking damage at times, the player only really being able to combo once Donald or Goofy get a hit in and stagger him, the uncooperative camera at certain times – did hamper the fight a bit. However, for the most part, Master Xehanort is a fitting end boss given all the hype.
"Here’s the punchline – if you have Ultima Weapon, the most powerful Keyblade in the game, these fights can also be turned into a joke."
The main problem with heaps of projectiles and stunlocks in some of these boss battles isn’t that they aren’t clearly indicated. Or that you have to dodge and memorize patterns with the risk of being one-shot without remorse. It’s that there’s an instant win button of sorts with the Links that can negate many of these hurdles. When Master Xehanort takes away pretty much all of your tools in the underwater fight and brings it back to plain old dodging and blocking, the emphasis on pattern recognition returns. Lo and behold, it’s actually a pretty fun fight. Maybe the fact that he’s a single opponent also helps in that regard since multi-man battles can be this weird mix of visual noise and non-discernible patterns (looking at you, Ansem/Xemnas/Young Xehanort).
There is tons of depth to the combat. It’s possible to Shotlock to a target to initiate a combo, deftly switch between transformed Keyblades and time your dodges and disengages as the boss retaliates. Some bosses like Master Xehanort and Anti-Aqua (along with the “secret boss”) are great examples of this. However, others like Xigbar and Replica Riku, Ansem/Xemnas/Young Xehanort, and Saix just throw those by the wayside for their own reasons.
Here’s the punchline – if you have Ultima Weapon, the most powerful Keyblade in the game, these fights can also be trivialized. That’s because its Ultimate Form grants a ton of useful abilities that are simply incredible. I’m talking about teleporting instantly to a target without needing the Focus Gauge, continuing combos even if you miss swings and a block that negates damage from all sides. On the other hand, at least you need to activate Ultimate Form first so it’s not an instant “instant win” button.
"Proud Mode in Kingdom Hearts 3 has a few instances of the same but many of the others seem to devolve into “Press X and then Triangle to win with Simba”."
I’m not against Kingdom Hearts 3 offering players some less mechanically heavy options to tackle challenges. However, you don’t play the highest difficulty in God of War hoping that some easy tactic will win the day. You go in to test your knowledge of combos and enemy patterns, to push the full extent of powerful weapons, to scratch and claw your way to victory if need be. Heck, even the toughest bosses like Sigrun, the Valkyrie Queen, put you to the test on “Give Me A Balanced Experience” in God of War. Proud Mode in Kingdom Hearts 3 has a few instances of the same but many of the fights seem to devolve into “Press X and then Triangle to win with Simba”.
With reports of Critical Mode files being discovered in-game, there is still the possibility of high skill combat that doesn’t lean on Links so much. If we’re talking about highlight the sheer skills that can be displayed in fights, I wouldn’t be against Critical Mode offering specific challenges that take away Links and team-up attacks, tasking players with using certain combos and switching out Transformations until the right moment to win. Maybe fix the camera in some fights as well, while we’re at it.
I’m not saying Proud Mode has to become the next Dark Souls or anything and I don’t expect Square Enix to just revamp all of the existing boss fights in the game. Still, given the sheer number of options and how players can chain them together, not highlighting those and properly pushing them in some of the biggest fights on the highest difficulty just feels like a waste. A very pretty waste, given the production values, but a waste all the same.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.