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September 9, 2012

The Return of Jafar: A Kingdom Hearts 2 Retrospective (Part 2)

A funny thing happened the other day when I went to Best Buy with my brother.  We wandered over to the games section (as we often do), and while faffing about I happened to catch a glimpse of the player’s guide for KH3D.  It was surprisingly weighty; a part of me thought about flipping through, but since my intent is to one day play it I decided not to risk getting spoiled.  And this is coming from someone who normally has no problems with reading spoilers; that should tell you just how much hope I have for this series, regardless of missteps.

Anyway, I held up the cover and showed it to my brother.  “Look, it’s your best friend Sora,” I said jokingly.  I imagine he’s more of a Riku fan than a Sora fan -- if only because I feel the opposite way.  Still, I wanted to see his reaction.

He gave the guide’s cover a skeptical glare.  “Man, Kingdom Hearts would be so much better if they took out all the Disney stuff.”

It took all of my willpower to resist doing this.

I’m pretty sure I’ve explained this several times in the past, but just to be sure, I’ll make it perfectly clear.  Kingdom Hearts CANNOT WORK without Disney elements.  It is, by design, a mixture of eastern and western sensibilities.  It is a celebration and collaboration between two creative giants -- a melding of mediums to create a product that no one would have ever dreamed of, but a product that earned a rightful place amongst the other members of the JRPG pantheon.  You can’t remove the Disney part of the equation, especially not a decade after the original game’s release, and hope to have a product with the same effect. And in case anyone’s forgotten, if you disrupt the balance between the two powers (and give in to fanboy pandering/creator proselytizing), you get less of this:

Get it?  Got it?  Good.  Now, before we get started, I want to quickly address something else.  For those of you who are finding my blog based on keyword searches for Roxas, here’s a little something from me to you: I hate Roxas Roxas sucks Roxas is a bad character Roxas fail Roxas is stupid Roxas emo Roxas whiny Roxas angst Roxas prologue makes me want to cry.  Prove me wrong, fans.

And now that I’ve taken the piss out of the internet, let’s move on.

Part 2: Worlds

When I did the KH1 retrospective, I talked about the exploration of the worlds as a part of a gameplay-related post.  And I was about to do the same here, but…well, I feel like that might not work so well.  There are things I want to say now about the worlds, rather than delay them for a later date.  Plus when I talk about KH2’s gameplay, I want to make sure I have a whole lot of room for what I intend to discuss.

Let me start by explaining a gameplay mechanic of KH2.  As a lot of you know, Sora gains access to Drive forms -- powered-up versions of his normal self complete with a wardrobe (and weapon) change.  They’re good for getting out of a tight situation against a powerful/annoying enemy, and I’ve discovered in this past playthrough that the transformation effect blows enemies off you, a la the Burst in games like Guilty Gear or BlazBlue.  While the actual usefulness of Drive forms may vary from player-to-player, there’s another incentive to using them besides mashing your way out of a sticky situation: using a Drive form enough gives you access to (and powers up) a passive ability that lets you move in different ways across the field.  So using Wisdom Form enough gives you access to Quick Run, which lets you do a magic dash across the map.  Valor Form gives you High Jump.  Master Form lets you double-jump.  Final Form lets you glide.

Generally speaking, you will never, ever need a high jump, double-jump, or glide.

There are a few combat situations where being able to glide can probably help (though considering the shitstorms that Xigbar and Saix throw at you, that’s up for debate), but the biggest reward for earning those abilities is being able to say you earned those abilities.  It’s even more of a slap in the face when you realize how much work you have to put in to earn and max out those abilities.  Wisdom Form will only give you Quick Run once you kill a certain number of Heartless, which SHOULD be easy, but thanks to certain gameplay mechanics…well, isn’t.  Master Form can only be leveled up by getting orbs that fill up your Drive meter…which can only be done efficiently by grinding in certain areas, because they’re the only enemies that actually drop Drive orbs.  Final Form can only be leveled up bu killing Nobodies, which means you have to grind in even more specific areas; by the time you get it, I’m fairly sure the only place you CAN fight Nobodies is in the final world. 

Thankfully, gaining and fully-leveling these extra abilities are 100% optional.  The drawback is that because they’re optional, the game has to create an environment working under the (likely) assumption that you can’t be arsed to exit and enter the same area over and over just to gain an ability you’ll only use a few times.  So because you can’t leap twice as high as you usually can, there’s no situation where not being able to jump that high prevents you from progressing in the story.  Because you can’t double-jump, there’s no reason why you should be penalized for not being able to spring from a safe platform to a boss arena.  Because you can’t glide, there’s never a moment where gliding will be anything more than a bonus that’ll put a smile on your face for about five seconds.

Sora’s movement ability in KH2 is -- compared to KH1 -- gimped.  In the same sense that a power-up in Metroid would help you explore more of the game, so too did certain power-ups in KH1 give you important, journey-advancing abilities.  Some of them, like Dodge Roll and Guard, helped you out in combat and proved incredibly vital.  Others, like High Jump and the Trinity arts, helped you move through the game.  But that element is sorely missing in KH2 -- yet even without those power-ups, it’s not exactly a deal-breaker.  Glide and High Jump didn’t automatically make KH1 better or deeper or even easier to traverse; you could still go through a large portion of the game without them.  There was still a hefty amount of platforming and exploration to be done, flawed as it was.

Not so with KH2.

One of the biggest improvements to KH2 was its camera.  Rather than keeping it fixed at a certain position and level (too close) and having its controls mapped to the shoulder buttons (so it could move too slowly and get stuck on specks of dust), it was a relief to have full control, and even beyond that a default setting that remained manageable and acceptable at virtually all times.  You would think that with the improved camera, it’d help make platforming easier -- that there would be an incentive to give that basic gameplay element a bit more polish, and help make the worlds more dynamic than ever.  But then again…

That game’s gonna haunt me forever, isn’t it?

There is a distinct lack of a vertical element to virtually every world in KH2.  There are moments where they’re back in full force, yes, but platforming has essentially vanished.  There’s never a moment where you have to swing your Keyblade in midair to get just a little extra distance on your jump.  There’s never a moment where you navigate a series of moving platforms, or swing from vines, or flip some switches, or investigate a suspicious area, or search for an item, or…well, damn near anything.  In general, the worlds are flat.  Flat and linear; the game gives you maps, but it’s virtually impossible to get lost -- and so many areas are just corridors of varying size that it makes me wonder why there are maps in the first place…especially since they don’t mark where treasure chests are, AKA the sole reason why you’d explore in the first place.

To the game’s credit, just because the vertical element is gone doesn’t mean that the worlds are terrible; nor is the linearity anywhere near as bad as FF13.  Dimensionally speaking, the worlds have gotten shorter -- but they’ve also gotten wider.  There are multiple, varied areas in each world, adding a bit of color and flair to each journey.  The worlds don’t go as high, but there are still slopes and inclines and outcroppings that beg for Sora’s rhino-sized steps.  Even though you visit each world twice, there’s often enough content to keep things fresh for both trips, not just forcing you to slog through the same areas twice.  So while things are different, they’re not exactly for the worse.

Except for the gimmicks.

Nearly every single world in this game comes with a stupid gimmick -- some sort of mingame, or an extra stipulation to battles or exploration.  I know I gave the mingames and such in KH1 a lot of flak, and the same applies here -- only doubly so.  Whereas the gimmicks and minigames were just momentary elements of a level in KH1 -- annoying, but ultimately forgettable diversions -- KH2 manages o make them as frustrating as they are frequent.  Forgive my ignorance, but aren’t sequels supposed to improve on the flaws, not add new ones?

Whatever.  What’s important are the worlds themselves -- and with that long, long, long preamble out of the way, it’s time to see how they stack up.  But once again, since the Hundred Acre Wood and Atlantica have nothing to do with the plot (and I hate them), I’ll be skipping past them.  If you’re desperate for pain, go ahead and check YouTube.

Twilight Town
The new hub world, in a sense.  In the original game, Traverse Town served as a sort of hub, since that was apparently the only place in the universe where anyone cared about medical attention and supplies (though maybe that’s just because the other worlds are distinctly Disney-esque, and death is only a concern for the villains).  Essentially, this means that you’ll be seeing a lot less of Twilight Town outside of the prologue.  Which is kind of a shame, because it’s a pretty fantastic world.

I’m a little wary about the aesthetic, though; it’s a lot more modern than Traverse Town, and while that lends Twilight Town its own character, it also distorts the “magic vs. technology” theme that’s among the series’ only subtleties.  But that’s forgivable, given that this world is closest to the baddies’ lair (a techno-haven) and because it’s just plain pleasant.  It encapsulates the “lazy summer days” idea merely by design -- the perma-sunset, the populated bazaar, the sandlot, and all the other locales come together to make the town feel more expansive.  And if you head to certain parts of the world, you can see the scope that KH2 can put on display -- a number of neighborhoods that, while serving ultimately as decoration, create the illusion that this world (and your coming adventure) are bigger than ever.  Some serious work went into this world, and I’m glad it did; it’s enough to get you hyped for your playthrough.  It’ just a shame that there’s…

The Stupid Gimmick: Doing those job mingames over and over again.  Whose bright idea was it to not only make them boring and repetitive, but make it so that even if you do them perfectly (and that’s a big if), you still have to play them as much as sixteen times in a row to raise the money for a trip?

World Ranking: 5 Unnerving Vivi Clones out of 5.
The Best Part: Realizing that the reason you can skateboard and do physics-defying 360s is because the world is so big that it’s a more efficient way to travel.  Alternatively, “That was undeniable proof that we totally owned you lamers.”  Terry McGinnis, you are a card.
The Worst Part: That it will always, always, always be associated with The Prologue That Must Not Be Named.  (I might still be a little bitter about it.) 

Hollow Bastion/Radiant Garden
I have to give credit to Merlin and the FF crew for turning so much of Hollow Bastion from an enemy stronghold and abyss of despair into a livable safe haven.  Although now that I think about it, I have to wonder about the mindset behind the crew for reconstruction.  If Sora was the one that made re-entry and the restoration of Hollow Bastion possible, and everyone forgot about him for the year that he spent asleep, then does that mean that for a year everyone just thought of him as some unknown hero and messiah that led the people back to their home?  Did somebody just take a telescope to Hollow Bastion one day and say, “Whoa, it’s safe to go back now (more or less)…for some reason!  Let’s hit the old swimming hole”? 

Well, whatever.  Much like Twilight Town, Hollow Bastion is likewise expanded in scope.  At the outset, there’s the town that the people and the FF crew use as a base of operations/outpost for living.  Progress further, and you reach the unfinished works of the Restoration Committee, machines, concrete, and all.  Progress even further, and you reach the blue-cragged, nigh-untamed wilds that should be familiar to anyone who cleared KH1, or at least made it to the final hours.  And then there’s…Ansem’s castle?  Kind of surprising that it didn’t get wrecked, but oh well.  At least you get to see the Heartless’ hidey-hole in the distance.  All in all, not a bad world.

The Stupid Gimmick: So apparently, someone thought it was a good idea to add a defense mechanism that locks onto and launches Heartless.  Fine from a story/logical perspective, but in gameplay, it only serves to annoy.  KH2 is not a hard game (especially now that Sora’s essentially a demigod), and I don’t need some ball of light that not only takes away my ability to enjoy battles, but hampers and breaks my combos.  Doubly so when the thing goes haywire and starts attacking me instead.  Can’t we just have the townsfolk man turrets or something…?

World Ranking: 5 Ominous Towers in need of Zoning Clearance out of 5.
The Best Part: Scrooge McDuck is in this game?  HELL YEAH!
The Worst Part: Advent Children-era Cloud is in this game?  Aw, HELL NO!

The Land of Dragons
Why don’t they just call it China?  The movie calls it China, and we all know it’s China.  I mean yeah, there’s a more magical air to naming it “The Land of Dragons”, but still.  Does Sora’s world have a China?  Or is his world just Destiny Islands?  No, that can’t be the case, because…well, I’ll get to that in a little bit.

On one hand, I have to give Squeenix credit for managing to cram in a number of varying, iconic images from the movie.  Not just the Huns’ zerg rush (recreated with Heartless) or Mulan’s avalanche attack; there’s the bamboo forest where Mushu makes his “grand” appearance, the training camp rife with inexplicably exploding tents, the mountain pass, and even the destroyed village…albeit with a phenomenally-reduced effect.  Still, you can’t fault the developers for making the world varied.

On the other hand…I can’t help but feel like the world is kind of bland.  Having just seen the movie again a few days ago, I feel like the movie’s a lot more active and colorful.  Whether it’s quiet moments at Mulan’s home where Fa Zhou is meditating beside cherry blossoms, or there’s a celebration full of fireworks and lanterns and dragons before the palace, there’s a lot of visual excitement that didn’t get translated into the game.  The Land of Dragons is just kind of static and lacking in ambition.  Even the backgrounds are kind of bland…and if I’m not mistaken, the color palette is a lot more subdued.

The biggest problem here (and one that’ll become a recurring theme, I’d wager) is that the worlds are bigger, but in exchange there’s nothing to fill them with.  The celebration en route to the emperor’s palace is bustling with activity, and in the movie’s later scenes that huge square before the steps is filled with people that bow to Mulan.  The huge square in KH2 is filled with…nothing.  It’s just a big, empty square that eventually becomes a boss arena.  And whereas the final battle with Shan Yu in the movie took place through and ultimately atop the palace, you fight the big baddie in…a flat, square arena in front of the palace’s gates.  Whether this is a problem with KH2 or a problem I didn’t notice retroactively for either game is up for debate; what I can say is that The Land of Dragons is a disappointment.

The Stupid Gimmick: The “Morale” gauge.  There’s a bar in this world where, if you let it drop to zero, it’s game over.  But it doesn’t just drain on its own; every time you get hit you drop Morale Orbs, and while you can pick them up/kill enemies to refill the gauge, it’s still a pain in the ass to get smacked around by hard-to-hit enemies -- exclusive to this world, mind -- with multi-hitting attacks that slap you around, do big damage, AND drain your Morale gauge very, very quickly.  And while we’re discussing morale, just whose morale are you supposed to be boosting?  Does Mulan just give up and go home if you don’t kill every Heartless within some magic time limit?

World Ranking: 2 Animal Sidekicks out of 5.
The Best Part: Sora getting decked by Yao.  Gets me every time.
The Worst Part: I can’t shake the feeling that, in terms of getting the point of Mulan across in the world’s breadth, they missed the mark.  Mulan isn’t finding her own path to honor in this game as she is doing gofer work for Shang (and not getting recognized for her work).  Or, more notably, where in the FUCK is “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”?

Olympus Coliseum/Underworld
And the winner of the “Most Improved World” award goes to…

This world had nowhere to go but up, and it has definitely gone up.  Whereas the last game had Hercules’ world as a trio of boxes linked together, the new world features…well, I wouldn’t call it expansive, because it’s mostly just two different areas.  And I wouldn’t call it exciting because it’s just a couple of largely-linear caves.  And I wouldn’t call it…you know what?  I’m not gonna over-think this.  What’s here isn’t exactly fashionable, but it’s functionally sound.  And beyond that, I still like bits and pieces of it; the area behind the green door leads to a foggy set of catacombs that looks easily-traversable at first, but leads to a grim labyrinth…one that’s easily-traversable, but it’s still a little surprising.  And the rocky path hanging above the sickly lime pool of lost souls is always a welcome image.  So there’s not much to say, but there’s not much to hate, either.

The Stupid Gimmick: Comparatively tame in this world -- you just have your Drive Gauge sealed for a while.  Hardly a deal-breaker, since you can just brute-force your way through the level (and theoretically the game) without ever using Drive Forms.  And Summons.  I’m convinced that Summons are either pointless or useless.

World Ranking: 3 Godly James Woods Colloquialisms out of 5.
The Best Part: When you realize that the wispy balls of light you’ve been smashing to refill your MP are likely the condensed remains of the departed’s essences.  Metal.

Beast’s Castle
(Author’s note: Beast is to be referred to as “the goddamned Beast” in all instances, even when not explicitly typed out.  Please continue to speak of him with regards to his proper, 100% canon title at all times.)

Before I begin, let’s have a show of hands: if your first thought when somebody mentioned the west wing was Beast’s iconic order (“Stay out of the west wing…IT’S FORBIDDEN!”), raise your right hand as high as you can.  And then, like a pissant, you go to the west wing anyway.  Once more, I have to give credit to Squeenix for making it possible to enact such a reckless disregard of death-inviting protocol by a blue-blooded, metamorphosed hellspawn.  But that aside, the level itself isn’t that bad.  Goofy notes that it’s very gloomy-looking, and while I think that it’s a little too well-organized to be as gloomy as he suggests, it’s still fairly atmospheric.  What’s interesting to note is that, looking at how the game portrays the castle and how the movie portrays the castle, both of them have a fair number of areas that aren’t bleak and run-down.  The west hall looks pretty well-kept in spite of the situation, and a lot of the “clean” areas have their intricate designs and flourishes.  So essentially, it’s a juxtaposition that carries over from movie to game -- dungeons and wreckage amidst brightly-lit rooms and fireplaces and ballrooms.  Wonder if Belle had anything to do with the good upkeep…?

Probably not a wise idea to think about that any longer than I have to.

The Stupid Gimmick: A “minigame” where you undergo the dangerous mission of…lighting lanterns.  It’s easier than it sounds.  Also, PLEASE MASTER!  PLEASE COMPOSE YOURSELF!  Cogsworth wants you to get your head in the game.

World Ranking: 4 Planet-Shaking Roars out of 5.
The Best Part: Re-enacting the ballroom scene.  What a trip it is, thinking that back in the early nineties animation like that was only possible thanks to Disney, and now you can live through the experience yourself.  Also, the boss arena version of the ballroom is pretty sweet.
The Worst Part: The Xaldin fight.  Nothing I love more than a boss who goes into “I don’t wanna get smacked anymore” mode and spams his invincible attack…while I’m clear on the other side of the bridge by the time he’s finished the move’s startup. 

Disney Castle
I’ve heard that Disney Castle was supposed to be a full-fledged world in the original KH, but ended up getting axed; in spite of not being playable, it was left on the world select screen almost as if to remind us of what could have been.  But with the sequel came a chance to make that dream come true, and rectify past mistakes…except with this being KH2, it only serves to add missteps rather than subtract.  Riveting.

On the plus side, there are some nice little flourishes.  The Gummi Ship hangar is at once intricate and silly, filled with lots of gears and machines that would only practical in a Disney universe (maybe all their schematics are drawn up by second-graders?).  The courtyard is also suitably cartoonish and silly, with inexplicably-solid hedges that beg you to step all over in search of treasure.  The library looks and feels like a winking nod to Beauty and the Beast’s library, which is always a good nod to make.  Even if you can’t visit the rest of the castle, you still get to see glimpses of how expansive it is.  And of course, there’s a certain theme playing that begs you to whistle along. 

And yet, Disney Castle still feels…incomplete.  Compared to the other worlds, it’s very small.  Half of its rooms are just big, empty spaces; the hallway, the throne room, and the room containing the Cornerstone of Light are all rectangles/squares of varying size that add little to nothing in the way of a “wow factor”.   It’s also worth noting that Disney Castle is pretty much the only world that you only visit once.  I can see why; between the lack of content, character interaction, and threat beyond Maleficent’s thorns (not even Maleficent in person), even with the imagery it’s enough to leave players wondering what could have been.

The Stupid Gimmick: What’s the best way to make a small world seem twice as long?  How about an escort mission where you have to lead Queen Minnie along empty corridors and protect her from Heartless?  And how about making it so that she only walks for a few paces on her own, forcing you to stop every few seconds and use a reaction command to have her move away from danger?  And how about navigating through a needlessly-large room filled with annoying Heartless that are at once incredibly hard to hit and highly lethal?  How about knowing that this “fun little adventure” could be solved five times faster if Sora just carried Queen Minnie on his back?  I know she’s royalty, but carting her rodent ass to safety should take priority.

World Ranking: 2 Automaton Broom Slaves out of 5.
The Best Part: The brief moment in the courtyard battles where you have Dodge Roll again.
The Worst Part: Knowing that Dodge Roll has been relegated to Reaction Command status, meaning you can only use it when the game feels like it…and often getting blown up for your troubles.

Timeless River
Arguably, the reason why Disney Castle is so small is because it’s annexed to the Timeless River.  At a base level, the world is interesting because of the art shift -- everything’s in black and white, and Sora and company revert to their past versions.  (Except for Pete.  Come to think of it, why doesn’t he go back to his past version?  Is it because there’s another Pete nearby?  Also, I love how Merlin sends the three people who should NEVER be allowed into the past on the grounds that they’ll change the future into the past so they can change the future.)

But back to the matter at hand.  It would have been easy to just make everything black and white and leave it at that, but some actual work went in to make it look like an old cartoon.  The décor has that cartoonish bend to it where nothing’s straight, and there’s a surprising amount of bouncy, energetic motion to the items around Sora.  There are multiple, varied areas to explore well beyond the world’s actual river, each one harkening back to a long-since-crafted cartoon.  There’s just an all-around air of goofiness to the proceedings, one that’s much-appreciated in lieu of the drab angst that could drag KH2 (or any given JRPG, for that matter) down.  It’s not exactly the most complex or expansive world, but it IS one of the most stylish.

The Stupid Gimmick: Nothing too aggressive here; you just head to four separate arenas and bash Heartless before time runs out.  But I have to point a damning finger at the car enemies that appear ONLY in this level; after you whittle down their health, they go into a berserker rage mode.  They become invincible, ram you three times for huge damage -- moreso on Proud Mode -- and can’t be stopped, even if you block.  And they can immediately do the ramming attack right after.  If there was only some move that could help Sora DODGE their attacks…perhaps some sort of ROLL maneuver?  Oh well.

World Ranking: 4 Time Paradoxes out of 5.
The Best Part: The construction site arena is my personal favorite -- though I can’t help but wonder how structurally sound the building is thanks to those warped girders.  Alternatively, getting Wisdom Form, which puts us one step closer to getting Dodge Roll’s equivalent.
The Worst Part: Wondering if meeting Mickey in the past created some sort of chronological glitch in which Sora, Donald, and Goofy become the accidental saviors of the town…or perhaps they just created a stable time loop by virtue of being destined to save the Cornerstone?  See, this is why you don’t put time travel into your story, people -- SOMEBODY is going to over-analyze it. 

Arabian niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiights, like Arabian daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays…

As the premiere expert on Aladdin (author’s note: I am not the premiere expert on Aladdin), I feel like I’m qualified to discuss Agrabah fairly well.  The KH1 incarnation of the town was cramped as all-get-out; it had a notable vertical element to help compensate, but even then it wasn’t enough to shake the feeling that Agrabah was one of the game’s smallest worlds.  Surprisingly, KH2 manages to keep some semblance of that vertical element as well as make the town much bigger.  It goes beyond being less claustrophobic, as well; there are banners and clothes hanging from high-strung lines.  Booths full of food and carpets line the streets.  While the walls are mostly in working order and decorated with the occasional ochre decal, there’s also a bit of decay -- bricks are laid bare, planks of wood and boxes lean against numerous surfaces, and roofs that should be squared off degrade into crumbling stones.  It’s much-improved, generally speaking.

Ironically, the Cave of Wonders takes a huge hit.  It starts off promising enough, but then gives way to…a slew of square arenas in a plain void.  And then when you reach a room full of treasure, Pete comes in, summons a bunch of Heartless, and shrouds all but a small circular arena in darkness.  And that’s it. 

Well, to be fair, there is one other part of the world…

The Stupid Gimmick: The magic carpet ride returns, and it’s ten times more annoying than before.  Whereas the ride in KH1 was forgettable thanks to its brevity, this one goes on…and on…and on…and on…forever.  First off, congrats to Squeenix for undoing one of KH2’s most important changes and mapping the up/down motion on the carpet to the right stick, making camera control that much more difficult.  Next, speeding up demands that you maintain forward momentum, but the rate of acceleration is extremely long…which can be a problem if you run into something and your speed nosedives, OR if you need to fight Heartless.  And on that note, fighting them is more difficult because you have to align yourself with them so your attacks don’t whiff, and they’re not making it easy by moving and shooting at you. 

You also have to fly through the huge area in search of switches, line up exactly with them, and time your magic attacks just right to activate them.  Then you have to make it back to a tower within a certain amount of time (i.e. not much), and pray that you activated the switches in the right order or else you’ll be too far away to get there in time because you go from zero to sixty in eight hours.  And then you do an on-rails segment to escape, and all you can do is move around and attack; no healing.  So if you’re playing on Proud Mode and therefore take double-damage, get ready to do it alllllllllllllll over again.  Also, if we’re on a magic carpet and need to escape, why the hell can’t we just go STRAIGHT UP to get out of danger?

Squeenix, if you can’t get the gameplay OR the story right, what are you even good for?

World Ranking: 3 Direct-to-Video Releases out of 5.
The Best Part: Being able to see the palace in the distance, and knowing you can go to it…or at least its front door.
The Worst Part: The Jafar boss fight.  You’re gonna get smacked, no matter how good you are.

Port Royal
A lot of people have cried foul of the mish-mash between the KH crew’s cartoony style and the realistic style of Jack and his world.  I’ll refrain from doing that…except for right now.  Why does nobody care about the sentient pants-less duck a yard away from them?  If ever there was a time to do it, it would be by the most realistic-looking character in the game.  (Well, tentatively speaking.)

Now that that’s out of the way, Port Royal is…well, bleak. It’s nothing if not atmospheric, and unlike The Land of Dragons the faded palette only adds to the level’s effectiveness.   And surprisingly, the PS2 hardware is put to full use; there’s a level of detail and intricacy that I’d almost call missing from the other levels; the textures are decrepit but decidedly man-made.  The towns and the ships all feel like they’ve seen their fair share of wear and tear, which ties into the darker mood of the world.  And even though there are two islands, they’re different enough to warrant player approval.  Overall, a pretty cool world.

The Stupid Gimmick: Fighting pirates is a huge pain in the ass.  They can only be hurt/killed if they’re standing in moonlight, which wouldn’t be so bad if you had any means of controlling their movement.  The most you can do is lure them towards you and (in a rare departure for the game) use ice magic to freeze them.  But since so many of your combos blast them back into the shadows, and since they have long attack strings that move them from shadows to moonlight to shadows again, and since there are pirates that can snipe you from the shadows…well, I think the word of the day is “problematic.”  Likewise, the coin-collecting mechanic that doubles the length of a boss fight.

World Ranking: 4 Encounters with a Harmless Nobody out of 5.
The Best Part: “And now, the blood will be repaid to free us from this curse…FOREVER!”  Said by Barbossa…twice.
The Worst Part: I have to knock off a point for another reason: as much as I think the world is interesting, I still think adding Port Royal was a mistake.  Not because the other characters aren’t cartoons; because outside of Jack (and even then, Jack to some extent), nobody’s really animated.  Will and Elizabeth are comparatively boring, and don’t show off the spirited nature of the game.  Also, why are Sora and company sent off to guard the ship while Will and Jack do the work?  Wasn’t that what the movie was for?

Halloween/Christmas Town
So here’s what I don’t understand.  In Christmas Town, Sora meets Santa Claus, and is understandably excited.  But in order for that to work, there not only needs to be a Dutch/German territory to base the legend on, but a North Pole for the common conceptions.  Soooooooo…if that’s the case, then does that mean Sora’s world (Destiny Islands et al.) also has some form of Europe?  Does that mean Destiny Islands is in some facsimile of the real world?  Does he just have some alternate version of the St. Nick myth?  Dammit, Kingdom Hearts, why can’t you fill us in on even basic details?  This is not something you should be leaving out!

Anyway, on to the world itself.  Halloween Town has (inexplicably) gotten some redecorating, but I’m of the opinion that it’s for the better.  In a nutshell, it’s darker, creepier, and more twisted than the original -- blinking festival lights, an oppressive and never-ending night, and all the buildings loom over you like a nightmare made real (or the work of a legion of drunken architects and construction workers).  It’s a bit more spacious, but the style overflowing here is undeniable. 

Christmas Town is comparatively weak.  It’s not bad; it’s just a lot less interesting than Halloween Town.  It has its own unique style, but it pales after seeing Halloween Town.  And outside of a couple of rooms, there’s not much to it.  Just arenas for Heartless and boss fights, connected to rooms with…

The Stupid Gimmick: A turret section?  Really?

World Ranking: 3 More Trips to Hot Topic out of 5.
The Best Part: Sora getting denied by Santa because he told others he didn’t believe in Santa.  (So other kids know about Santa, too?  Do they send letters to him?  Do they have Christmas trees?  Do they even have a Christmas?  Do they even have a Christ?  Why does this universe make no sense?!)
The Worst Part: Oogie Boogie’s MAJOR villain decay.  What the hell happened?

The Pride Lands
In this game, Simba is voiced by Cam Clarke.  Insert the Metal Gear Solid joke of your choice here.  (I’m gonna go with an extra-hammy shout of “I SEE YOU!”)
Remember what I said about KH2 worlds trading vertical depth for horizontal depth?  This place is the prime exemplar.  It has to be the single largest world in the game, so much so that it had to introduce a new gameplay mechanic just to make traversing it easier.  And there’s a lot to see, from Pride Rock and the surrounding lands (withering thanks to Scar’s influence…even though I’m pretty sure “being a meanie” isn’t enough to ruin the environment) to the Elephant Graveyard, to the massive fields, to the jungle, to Timon and Pumbaa’s verdant hideaway…there’s a high amount of variety, and it’s here that the expanded scope of KH2 -- and the power needed to render it -- shine through.  This is normally where I’d leverage some sort of piddling complaint, but I’m actually at a loss here.  It’s a great world.

The Stupid Gimmick: Chasing after those hyenas takes much, much, much longer than it needs to.  They move at practically the speed of sound, and even if you catch up to them (and do so without crashing up because you’re moving at an unreasonable -- and near-uncontrollable -- speed as well), if you hit them with a combo to whittle down their health they’ll get blown out and zip away, necessitating another chase.  Sigh…if Sora were a little smarter, he could probably use the Keyblade to cut off their path with a boulder or something. 

World Ranking: 5 Manly Tears Shed in Lieu of Mufasa’s Death out of 5.
The Best Part: Rafiki’s digs are pretty cool.  Also, the lion Pete.  (I find it hilarious that Pete not only gets more character development than Organization 13, but also has a more consistent presence -- and screen time -- throughout the entire game.  Considering that he’s supposed to be a joke villain, that’s either an impressive feat or makes the Organization look that much stupider.  You can guess which way I’m leaning.)
The Worst Part: The boss fight is -- what a surprise -- a pain in the ass.  You have to reaction command triangle-spam your way to a position to even start attacking it, and get knocked around by lasers, and have difficulty even staying atop its body, and Simba is damn near useless because the AI doesn’t know how to move out of the way of attacks.  Bonus points for using the triangle button to inexplicably make Sora leap a distance roughly equivalent to the gap between Santa Fe and Mars.

Space Paranoids
Another world within a world, a la the Timeless River, only instead of being old-timey and monochrome it’s futuristic and blue.  I guess now that Sora’s been in the cyber world -- and since technology is implicitly evil in the franchise -- he’s now destined to become a villainous black man with a mullet.

There really isn’t much to say about this world.  It’s techno-styled and it’s blue.  What more do you need?  Well…to be fair, there is a bit of expansiveness to the world.  It’s got that canyon area, and the backdrops have some serious distance to them.  They managed to pack in the solar sail, a number of computerized consoles and constructs, and capture the feel of the movie (at least to my knowledge; been a while since I’ve seen it).  It’s a simple, straightforward reproduction, so to speak; nothing offensive, but nothing notable either.

The Stupid Gimmick: The light cycle minigame.  Leave it to KH2 to take what could have been a potentially interesting minigame and completely miss the mark.  The movie introduced a sort of tension and metagame to the original scene, one that demanded an awareness of your actions and the opponent’s.  KH2 translates that as “use the shoulder buttons to turn” and “bash more Heartless…but this time, on a bike!”

World Ranking: 3 Arcade Cabinets out of 5.
The Best Part: The MCP is a delightful villain/god/face.  Also, Tron’s Limit is my personal favorite.  Bitch, I can kill you without movin’, cause I got dat 3D swag.
The Worst Part: I hate the music here.  How awesome would it have been if the music was a genuine 8-bit chiptune?  And by extension, what if the world had a section where Sora and company went 32-bit and romped around Chrono Trigger style?

The World That Never Was
Zero out of Five.  Fitting, no?  Because they're Nobodies.

…Okay, seriously.  Even though I’ve already spoken at length about the many, many, many dumbass elements about the last three hours of the game, at a base level The World That Never Was -- or Waldo, to revive an old gag -- is cool.  It’s oppressive and bleak, and its strict adherence to modern design is a far cry from nearly all the other worlds so far.  There’s also a little bit of subtext that I have to note: only Heartless appear in the dark, neon-lit city, shifting about and looking for their next meal; meanwhile, the Nobodies reside in the castle far and above -- the higher beings, the kings, looking down on the helpless masses.  (Likewise, the castle is significantly advanced, while the city is more basic.)  But the castle’s whiteness -- its blankness -- is arguably more oppressive than the city you just explored.

And yet…I can’t give the world the same high marks I did for Hollow Bastion, The End of the World, or even some of the other levels in KH2.  It’s not just because KH1 makes my trousers tight; it’s because while Waldo is oppressive, it’s not AS oppressive.  The End of the World succeeded because it had an air of finality, and the signal of Sora’s ending journey.  Moreover, it had an air of mystery around it; there was an unsettling nature, demanding that you stay on your toes at all times.  It filled a thematic purpose, reminding Sora of his past adventures just before potentially bringing him to his death.  It forced him to fight against the most powerful enemies he’s faced yet, including (in my opinion) a sequence that easily trumps the infamous 1000 Heartless Battle of KH2.  To a lesser extent, The End of the World had a strong lead-in thanks to Hollow Bastion and the events therein -- a one-two punch sorely missing in the sequel.

The World That Never Was is a frightening place, but not as frightening as it could have been.  Its predecessor kept you wondering what would pop up next, making you both fear and marvel at whatever awaited you next.  In the second game’s last stop, you don’t even consider it.  It’s got a superficial odiousness -- it affects you, but it doesn’t affect you deeply.  And in the end, that’s all there is to it.

The Stupid Gimmick: The Luxord fight.  After seeing it several times, I’m still not convinced the rules are anything more complex than “hit him a lot” and “get lucky.”  And as I said before, playing Ikaruga with robo-dragon Xemnas.    

World Ranking: 4 Screams of “NOTHINGNESS!” out of 5.
The Best Part: Uhhhhhhhhhh…this one doesn’t count.
The Worst Part: Seriously, did you read my complaints?  Go read those.  Also, fighting Sorcerer Nobodies is -- say it with me now -- a pain in the ass.

If my math is correct, crunching the numbers reveals that KH2 has an overall score of 72.3% -- another C minus score, and slightly worse than KH1.  On the one hand, there aren’t any 1-out-of-5 worlds this time around, and there are a number of top-scoring worlds -- more than I would have expected.  And I have to respect the developers for at least trying to make improvements.

On the other hand, it feels like they only took so many steps forward; there’s a misappropriation of effort here that doesn’t fix the problems as much as it does add new ones.  EVERY world features a stupid gimmick of varying painfulness, and often multiple stupid gimmicks.  There are massive spaces, but they’re filled with nothing -- a stark contrast to the movies, where there’s regularly some form of activity.  There’s an overall sense of emptiness and superficiality because there’s not as much to engage with -- no platforming means no exploration, and the removal of the Dalmatian hunt sidequest only hammers in just how much the game is just a march from one Heartless arena/cutscene/stupid gimmick to the next. 

It’s frustrating.  I want Squeenix to fill the worlds with something meaningful, and I know they can -- but they seem to be okay with filling the worlds with stupid gimmicks and cutscenes.  The effect and the whimsy are lost when I’m constantly assaulted by dumbass minigames and cutscenes that miss the point of the movies, serve only as connections to the next Heartless brawl, and add nothing to the story. Given what happened with Birth By Sleep, along with the rest of Squeenix’s current track record, you’ll forgive me if I’m more than a little worried about KH3.

I’m going to get into the story (and its failings) eventually.  But before then, I have to talk about the gameplay.  The many, many, many failings of the gameplay.

*sigh* Excuse me, I need to go smoke New Hampshire’s weight in cigarettes.  See you around.


  1. Those last 2 sentences were a joke, right?

  2. You'll find that I'm quite serious when it comes to matters such as these. And I can confirm that now, smoking New Hampshire's weight in cigarettes is not a god idea...especially considering that I'm posthumously writing this comment. Being a ghost? Not all that great.

    I'm joking, of course. But that's my go-to joke when I need to express an extreme amount of disdain or dread. There are a few variations floating around out here on Cross-Up. See if you can find them all!

    (Not really, though. You'll be looking for a while, I bet.)

  3. But do you smoke at all?

  4. No, not at all. No smoking, no alcohol...except for this one time when I stumbled into my dad's beer can when I was three. Ah, the joys of my formative years.

  5. Good.... Good.