At the Very Beginning with Kingdom Hearts: Unchained χ [chi]

At the Very Beginning with Kingdom Hearts: Unchained χ [chi]

I spent at least two hours trying to free up as much storage space on my phone as possible–deleting songs I don’t seem to care much about anymore, the Facebook app (though I still use the browser version), etc.–and upgrade to a new version of Galaxy S5 in order to accommodate Kingdom Hearts: Unchained χ [chi] last week Thursday. It was painful, but as a Kingdom Hearts fan of nearly a decade, I say it was worth it.

A prequel to the entire Kingdom Hearts series in general, KHUχ features wonderfully drawn 2D character models and a battle system that most claim slightly resembles that of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Players can also customize their avatars by choosing the hairstyles, their eye and skin colors, and the outfits similar to the ones worn by Disney and Square Enix characters (by “Square Enix characters” I mean Final Fantasy characters).

At the start of the game, young Kairi listens to her grandmother tell the story of the battle between Light and Darkness known as the Keyblade War, which is the focal point that created the present-day structure of the Kingdom Hearts universe. Rewind to the very distant past, and in the Dive to the Heart, five unions are presented to the player character you customized: Angius, Leopardos, Unicornis, Ursus, and Vulpes. Once you commit your loyalty to one of these unions, Darkness moves to envelop you, until you summon a Keyblade to drive it away and are enveloped in Light. Upon arrival in Daybreak Town, your home base you meet a feline figure named Chirithy, who informs you that someone is trying to seek out the Light for themselves, and that your purpose as a Keyblade wielder is to defeat the Darkness that is rapidly covering the worlds it has spread to in the form of Heartless.

kingdom-hearts-unchained-5
Courtesy: Square Enix-Disney

So far, I have visited the Dwarf Woodlands, Wonderland, and Agrabah to fight off the Heartless and I noticed something peculiar. With the exception of the third world mentioned above–oh look, a pun!–the timelines for Dwarf Woodlands and Wonderland are looped. In other words, the two Disney worlds started off from the beginning scenes of their respective movies. Not to mention, they’re repeating the events of Birth by Sleep–which I didn’t finish because I had to give the PSP back to Jack for technical repair a couple years ago and I haven’t gotten it back since, so I don’t know which character started off at Snow White’s castle–and the first Kingdom Hearts installment. It’s kinda weird that history sort of repeated itself. Then again, each Disney film featured in the Kingdom Hearts series is set in their own time period in accordance to the era in which each original literary work was published or orated, so the Keyblade Wielders are basically time-travelling.

To fight the enemies, you either swipe your finger across the screen to swing the Keyblade at every Heartless at once, or you can use Medals that can cause minimal to maximum damage, depending on the Disney or Square Enix character that’s featured on the Medal, and the attributes that come with them–Speed (green), Magic (blue), and/or Power (red). You start off with using three Medals on your deck during your turn, plus a fourth Medal from a friend in case the Heartless proves too powerful for you to handle yourself. The further you advance in your quests, you’ll be able to unlock the last two slots for any new Medal you have earned, which gives you a sixth friend Medal. One warning: they use up your AP gauge, so use them wisely. I’m close to quest #40, and the last two slots on my Medal deck still haven’t opened up yet.

Tetsuya Nomura said that KHUχ will most certainly lead up to Kingdom Hearts III, whenever that will be released. I guess he might be right–he did create the series.

Kingdom Hearts: Unchained χ now available for Android and iOS devices.

One more thing. Will Kairi’s KHII dress come in red when it appears on my Avatar Board?

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Utada Hikaru: Queen of J-Pop

Utada Hikaru: Queen of J-Pop

Utada’s 33rd birthday may have already passed, but I think it’s only fitting that I write a tribute to her about my love for her music that started in my latter days of elementary school and continues to this day.

I’ve always had an exquisite taste in music since I was very young. I did listen to pop songs by Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and *NSYNC like everyone else in the late 90s, but my mother gave me a wonderful opportunity to hear pop music from the greatest (and often controversial) musicians of her time–Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Eagles, UB40 (the band most people confuse with Bob Marley because their voices sound the same), Sade, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and even Alejandro Fernandez. English and Spanish were my primary languages in regards to music, as I’m of Spanish descent from my mother’s side of the family. At the age of 11, I would discover Japanese music in the form of none other than Utada Hikaru.
At the start of 5th Grade, my after-care counselor introduced to a new girl named Rebecca, who transferred to my school after moving to South Florida from New York. Rebecca had a lot in common with me–we both played Sonic video games frequently, loved to read, and watched the most complex cartoon shows at that time. One day, some time before my father died of liver cancer, Rebecca popped her headphones onto my ears and played something peculiar on her CD player. The singer’s voice was angelic, but the language she was singing in was too foreign for my tongue to decipher, yet the background music sounded familiar.
“Rebecca, what song was that, and what language is it in?” I asked after the song was over.
“It’s the Japanese version of ‘Simple and Clean’ from Kingdom Hearts,” Rebecca said matter-of-factly.
In that instant, my mind flashed back to watching the TV ads for both Kingdom Hearts and its Game Boy Advanced sequel Chain of Memories with the English version of the same song playing for 30 seconds. I didn’t know the name of the artist at the time Rebecca introduced me to her. It was only weeks, months even, before I set foot in middle school that I would find her name on Barnes & Noble’s music search network in its music department: Utada Hikaru (or Hikaru Utada per the Japanese naming custom).
I discovered her English album Exodus at the Virgin Megastore in Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs with the Virgin Megastore replaced by a bowling alley) and I begged my parents to get it for me. They did, on the condition that we all listen to it in the car on the way back to the Ramada Hotel. I loved it, but my mom expressed some concern about the content contained in all the lyrics of the Exodus album despite that there was no PARENTAL ADVISORY disclaimer on the cover. Sure, Utada wrote some pretty suggestive stuff, but I only cared about the beats in the songs, not very much for the lyrics–such is the innocence of childhood. My mom even went so far as to read some of the lyrics to our friends to get their opinion and, on the second day of 6th Grade, impound the CD from me. I was six months shy of 13, yet I got really upset about the fact that my parents decided right off the bat that Utada’s music isn’t appropriate for a 12-year-old girl. Ironically, a lot of kids my age were listening to raunchy rap music on the radio.
What my family didn’t know, Utada lent her musical talents by recording a new theme song for the North American release of Kingdom Hearts II called “Sanctuary” (“Passion” in the prior Japanese release). Kingdom Hearts II was released for the PlayStation 2, as was the first game [that I never played], in March 2006, but I was one of those gamers who acquired the game on Christmas. “Sanctuary” fit so beautifully with the opening sequence for KHII, for every word in that song described Sora’s goal to achieve peace, harmony and justice for his friends. If the fact that Utada sang for the Kingdom Hearts series didn’t convince my mother to accept my interest in her music, I don’t know what did.

During my teenage years, as I was listening to songs from her old and recent albums on YouTube, such as Distance (2001) and Ultra Blue (2006), Utada released a lot of interesting new music. In 2007, in addition to providing the ending song Beautiful World for the 2007 anime film Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, she sang a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)”, lengthening the song by one minute by adding an extra verse of her own at the beginning. I appreciate the original song my mother introduced me to, but Utada’s version was even better. The next year, she released Heart Station with three out of six popular singles that I loved: “Heart Station”, “Beautiful World”, and “Kiss & Cry”. As much as I liked hearing Japanese music, I wondered when Utada would make another English-language album. The answer came one lazy January day in my 8th Grade Language Arts class.
My teacher allowed us to use the school’s laptops to goof off for some reason, so on a whim I logged on to the website for Island Def Jam Records, the record label Exodus was released under. I typed Utada’s name in the search box and, sure enough, there was a new English single called “Come Back to Me” for a new album in the works. I plugged in my earphones to take a listen and, oh, my God, “Come Back to Me” was the best song since Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”! The way she played the piano from a decrescendo to a crescendo in the beginning was genius! I mentally thanked my Language Arts teacher for giving me the rare opportunity to discover Utada’s new English song during class. The physical copy of This Is The One was released May 12, 2009, and though I would’ve loved to go out with my mom to buy it, I figured I wouldn’t find it at any music store in South Florida, so I couldn’t. Thank God LimeWire still existed long enough for me to download at least a few songs from the album that I liked (I’m not telling which ones they are).

My sophomore year of high school came with the announcement that Utada Hikaru will be taking an indefinite hiatus from music. It was shocking, considering how popular her music was with the anime community. Fortunately, Utada was nice enough to release four new singles that would be featured on her second compilation album Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 2: “Goodbye Happiness”, which also came with a YouTube-esque music video where she sang to the webcam, danced like a goofball and played with puppets, “Can’t Wait ‘Til Christmas”, “Show Me Love (Not a Dream)”, and “Hymne à l’amour (Ai no Anthem)”. All of them were epic as always, except the full version of her cover of the Édith Piaf original didn’t show up anywhere on YouTube no matter how hard I tried to look for it.
I was sad to see Utada move on to other things for the duration of her hiatus, but I understood why. Life as a musician can be tedious, especially when your career begins at the tender age of 13, singing with your parents under the band name U3.
In my Chorus class, my Japanese singing practice would pay off when I decided to sing “Passion” at the year-end cabaret show. Two months before, an earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast of Japan, knocking down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and releasing radioactive chemicals into the air and the water in the process. I thought it was appropriate to dedicate the song to the people of Japan who were still recovering from the disaster and needed their spirits lifted. On the day of the show, there weren’t a lot of people in the audience, so I was a little bit discouraged. And even though no one understood a word I was saying–Japanese was not in my high school’s curriculum, such is the Latino-dominant South Florida–I still enjoyed myself onstage. I made Utada and the tragedy-stricken Japan proud. Most of all, I was proud of myself for being able to sing a popular Japanese song to the entire school (even if it was just my Chorus classmates) without fail.

Utada has experience a tidal wave of events during her hiatus. She quietly released the song “Sakura Nagashi” for the final Evangelion movie in 2012; her mother committed suicide by jumping 13 stories from her condo in Shinjuku in 2013; she married an Italian bartender in 2014; and just six months ago she gave birth to a healthy baby boy whose name she hasn’t revealed to her fans. In spite of everything, Utada has still managed to keep her honest personality intact. I can’t wait for her musical return in Kingdom Hearts III, if she decides to write a song for the highly anticipated game.

Kingdom Hearts III at E3 2015

Kingdom Hearts III at E3 2015

At the E3 2013 conference, Square Enix and Disney Interactive announced the development of the long-awaited title Kingdom Hearts III in the form of a teaser trailer, which showed a compilation of CGI cutscenes from the previous Kingdom Hearts games in the beginning and then faded to Sora grabbing a Keyblade different from his own and fighting a horde of Heartless in Twilight Town. The graphics have drastically improved since Dream Drop Distance, thanks to a new animation program called the Kingdom Shader. My Alaskan cruise had just stopped in Ketchikan when I saw the trailer on YouTube, and I was completely surprised that Square Enix actually got around to producing Kingdom Hearts III at all.

Now, two years later, my cousin from my father’s side of the family was there to witness the new trailer for Kingdom Hearts III at Square Enix’s conference. I called him and asked if they posted a release date at the end of the trailer, and he said that it still reads “Now in Development.” I groaned. Two years after the initial announcement, I thought Square Enix would be towards the finish line in cooking up Kingdom Hearts III, releasing it to the gaming market by next year the latest, but some people (my cousin included) believe that it will be done later than that.

The recent trailer for Kingdom Hearts III–dubbed in English, and showed teenaged Eraqus and Xehanort playing chess–revealed a few things. First, Sora’s new outfit, which is a combination of his KH2 outfit and the one in Dream Drop Distance sans the “X” sigil. Tetsuya Nomura, the creator of the Kingdom Hearts series, was pressured by his staff to design that outfit for Sora to accommodate for his Flowmotion moves. I’m not exactly sure–nor is anyone else entirely sure–if Sora is gonna wear that outfit the entire time, or if he’s gonna magically change from his KH2 outfit to his new one when the need requires just like his Form outfits. Second, some of the new Disney film worlds that Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy are going to travel to, and the only one added to the World Map so far is the world based on 2010’s Tangled. And finally, the Keyblade’s transformations. It can turn into dual bazooka-lasers at will, and change into some Disneyland rides, including the Mad Tea Party teacups and the Thunder Mountain train. Not to mention, a pegasus drawing a chariot. Everyone was hyped to see all of that.

The new teaser trailer for Kingdom Hearts III also made me ponder about some challenges that Square Enix and Disney Interactive will face. The first of these is who will voice Ansem the Wise (if he’ll appear in the game at all) and Master Xehanort now that Christopher Lee and Leonard Nimoy, respectively, have recently passed away. Actually, Lee was replaced by Corey Burton in Re:Chain of Memories, Birth by Sleep, and Dream Drop Distance, so that part of the problem solved itself. The real problem is who will take Nimoy’s place as the voice behind Master Xehanort. When Nimoy died earlier this year, I didn’t know that he voiced the main antagonist in Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, but I do know that his voice-acting in the games was incomparably legendary. I do hope they find someone whose voice is equal to that of the late Nimoy. Honestly, I wish any Star Trek fan would’ve told me that Nimoy voiced Xehanort before I read his filmography on Wikipedia. Another challenge is asking Utada Hikaru if she will write a new opening theme song for Kingdom Hearts III. I understand that in most anime a new opening theme by a different artist will play at some point, but I think Square Enix is crazy if they’re thinking about replacing Utada with someone else as the main singer of the series. I know Utada is still on hiatus from music and has gone through some trials and tribulations, including the tragic death of her mother, Keiko Fuji, and her marriage to Francesco Calliano, but had she not sang for the Kingdom Hearts series I wouldn’t be listening to her music today.

As for the release date…well, I just hope that Kingdom Hearts III comes out next spring or next summer. If Square Enix decides to release it by the time I earn my Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications, I will be seriously pissed. After all, Nomura stepped down from Final Fantasy XV so he could finish producing Kingdom Hearts III as quickly as humanly possible.