Ode to Aqua

I’ll be assuming you have a general knowledge of Kingdom Hearts in this piece. I…I have to. It’s the only way to write this in under 10,000 words.

Kingdom Hearts is a series filled with clones, clones of clones, time travel, nonsense dialogue, and a bewildering plot that is debated on GameFAQs forums and Reddit threads to this day. It’s confusing. It’s a mess. I love it.

But underneath the cacophony of discussion about hearts and weird anime-haired lions is Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. A game that’s so subdued and uncomplicated in its focus, it almost feels like it’s from an entirely different series.

It’d be unsurprising if you haven’t played Birth by Sleep. Released on the PSP in 2010, only the most rabid of fans would be willing to buy the game on such an unsuccessful console. It wouldn’t be until Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix (yes, I know, and I’m sorry) released in 2014 on the PS3 that a larger audience would gain access to the game. Which is great! I consider BBS to be the best of the series, and a large part of that has to do with Aqua, one of the game’s three playable characters.

Birth by Sleep is a prequel to the Kingdom Hearts series, taking place ten years before the first game — in essence, before things got wild. It tells the story of Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, three keyblade wielders that want to become Keyblade Masters alongside their current teacher, Master Eraquis. Their exam to become masters occurs at the beginning of the game, where Aqua succeeds, and Terra does not. This division between the friends sets off a chain of events that basically screws everything up for the whole universe and will lead you to ask questions like, “what’s the difference between a Heartless and a Nobody? and, “wait, so Heartless carry hearts in them, effectively not making them heartless?”

Yeah.

Aqua is a blessing to the Kingdom Hearts franchise. She feels too good for it, if we’re being completely honest. She displays a level of competency that’s pretty much unmatched by any other character in the game, including characters like Yen Sid, who are supposed to me mentors to the series’ plucky gang of Final Fantasy rejects.

It’s refreshing to play a female protagonist that isn’t helpless or weak, and especially important, isn’t undermined by the rest of the cast. On the contrary, Aqua is without a doubt one of — if not the — strongest character in the series, if you take into account what she accomplishes by the end of Birth by Sleep.

By the time credits roll, Aqua pretty much single-handedly prevents the Worlds from being completely swallowed up by darkness. She saves Ventus and defeats Terra-Xehanort, the hardest boss in the game, before letting herself get swallowed up by the Realm of Darkness to save Terra, too. Then she travels and survives through the Realm of Darkness for ten years to find a way out, before helping save the Worlds again by closing the door to Kingdom Hearts with Mickey. In short, Aqua gets things done, and it’s that agency that makes her so engaging and impressive to me.

On top of that, she’s just fun to play. She has access to the most powerful spells in the game and feels more competent than Terra and Ventus. I spent hours grinding for levels to make her deck of commands a force to be reckoned with. Her barrier is the best at defending against attacks from all directions, too. By the time I was ready to face the final boss, I had moves that would essentially clear a room of Heartless in less time than it’d take you to say “Sora, Donald, Goofy!”

In essence, Aqua is the best. She almost (almost) makes up for Xion, Namine, and Kairi’s general lack of agency in the other Kingdom Hearts games – the first is unplayable, the second has been a damsel forever now, and Kairi has barely had a chance to show off her keyblade skills. But there’s one major problem I have with how Aqua’s character is developed.

She’s the Team Mom. Aqua ends up being a baby-sitter for Terra and Ventus. She’s constantly having to help them fix their problems, and provide support for them. She’s pigeonholed into being a maternal figure a lot of the time, especially when you consider her overall lack of impact on the plot up until the end of the game. Sure, you could argue that this is due to Xehanort not wanting her to interfere in his plans for the two boys, but that feels like a weak explanation.

It pains me to say it, but Aqua’s character development feels like an afterthought at times. A Fragmentary Passage, a recent addition to the series that has you play as Aqua during her time in the Realm of Darkness, thankfully alleviates some of those issues for me, as Aqua confronts some of her fears and character flaws in an interesting way. But Birth by Sleep was her debut game. It would have been nice for her to get that sort of depth there. A lot of my love for Aqua stems from the characterization that we the fanbase have given her, in spiteof Nomura’s storytelling decisions, not because of them.

All that said I feel that Aqua shines through these flaws. She’s the heart of Birth By Sleep. Its her sense of justice and loyalty and her ability to kick ass that carry her through to the game’s final moments, cementing her as the true protagonist of Birth by Sleep, a key player in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, and one of its best characters. Without her, I don’t think Kingdom Hearts would be nearly as interesting.

Which leads me to ask Square Enix: please let Aqua, Kairi, Namine, and Xion finish strong in Kingdom Hearts III. With so few female characters to begin with, it’d be a shame for you to fail them so close to the finish line. You’ve had fourteen years to make sure you get it right. Don’t mess it up.

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