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September 30, 2012

The Return of Jafar: A Kingdom Hearts 2 Retrospective (Part 3)

I’ve written more than two hundred posts for this blog, and I’ve noticed a certain trend.  I’m not about to crunch any numbers, but if I had to guess, a fifth of them would be about fighting games, a third would go to writing, and the rest to JRPGs.  It wasn’t exactly my intention, but I’m willing to roll with it for now.  It’s much more rewarding and pleasing to talk about those than shooters.

And on that note, I have to ask: do you know why I prefer JRPGs to shooters?  If you’ll let me make a blanket statement, it’s that shooters (especially today’s shooters) are eerily similar.  If you’ve shot with one machine gun, you’ve shot them all.  If you hide behind one wall of sandbags, moving to the next one becomes second nature.  And the less said about the narratives attached (Gears of War 3 being a prime example), the better off we’ll all be.  That’s not to say that all shooters are stupid and identical -- Bioshock and Borderlands say hi -- but in theory, JRPGs are the more varied genre.

Don’t get me wrong, the genre’s LOADED with clichés and trite elements -- Magnacarta 2 says hi -- but the lynchpins of JRPGs, the story and especially the gameplay, are what make each one distinct from one another.  Turn-based games.  Strategy hybrids.  Real-time combat.  ATB systems.  Speaking as someone who’s played his fair share of JRPGs, I’d argue that if you’re running away from battles, you’re not getting your money’s worth.  Fighting, and getting stronger, and turning your ragtag team into harbingers of destruction are as valuable as the story itself.  At least, they should be if the game is doing its job.

Which brings us to Kingdom Hearts 2.  

Readers, you might want to go grab your favorite snack.  This is gonna be heavy.

Part 3: Gameplay

I’m not going to talk about exploration and minigames in this section like I did with KH1, because I pretty much ran that discussion into the ground last time.  But in a nutshell, exploration has gone well beyond just being simplified from the original game; it’s been downright excised.  It’s a blessing in the sense that it streamlines the game and removes the less-than-savory elements (Monstro and Atlantica) of the first outing.  It’s a curse in the sense that you’re being shuttled from one cutscene/Heatless battle arena to the next -- a truth of all JRPGs, but the trick that the good ones use is to create the illusion of an adventure -- and the expansiveness of each world takes a critical hit.  And as for the minigames…

But surprisingly, the Gummi Ship -- which logically should have become a whirling nexus of despair, given the treatment of minigames -- isn’t that bad.  At times, it actually veers into being pretty good.  If the original Gummi Ship sequences were slow, clumsy, and bland, the NEW Gummi Ship sequences are the complete opposite.  They’re fast-paced.  They’re full of over-the-top, thousand-shots-a-second action.  The levels themselves are a visual treat (if you can ignore the enemies long enough to notice them).  Rather than the static camera and movement of KH1, KH2 creates an appreciable sense of dynamism with its camera movements and the shifting position of the stages.  Couple that with some surprisingly good music -- maybe the best in the whole game -- and there’s a lot to love about each sequence.  You only have to play through each level once, but a part of me wouldn’t mind playing a stage or two again.  And this time, maybe I’ll make my own ship -- maybe something that looks like an old biplane, or an F-16.

If there is one fault to the new Gummi sequences (and it’s a whopper), it’s that it’s a pretty brain-dead experience.  Sure, a lot of stuff is happening on-screen, and you’re bound to take plenty of hits, but even on Proud Mode you take so little damage that you might as well not bother dodging.  But the illusion is that you need to dodge, and you need to shoot, or else you’ll die; as a gamer, you’re hard-wired to kill anything that moves.  So you dodge and dodge and dodge, and shoot and shoot and shoot, and you’re going boosh-boosh-boosh and doing all these flip-de-loops, and you’re blowing up all these enemy ships, and you’re just having a grand old time.  But the moment you realize you’re just mashing X and Circle over and over again, the illusion is shattered.  You’re not nearly as cool as you think you are.  You just LOOK cool because of all the explosions wrought by your thumbs.

And that’s KH2 in a nutshell.  You press buttons, and cool stuff happens.  You can do cool stuff, like shoot baddies and transform and slash buildings in two.  But if you realize for a second what you’re doing -- if you take a half-second to think about the gameplay mechanics -- then the entire game falls to pieces.

I mean…damn it.  KH2 is…look, it’s not objectively terrible.  Playing the game won’t kill you, assuming you’re not bothered by the reputation for button-mashing.  But that reputation is there for a reason; it’s so jarringly simplistic that it’s not just unrewarding, it’s borderline offensive.  And when I think about all the sacrifices and compromises that went into making the battle system what it is -- especially hot off the heels of KH1 -- I can’t help but think to myself, “What the hell happened, Squeenix?”  But then I remember that it’s precisely because it’s Squeenix going to work, and suddenly it all makes sense. 

So.  Let’s take this step by step, and see what went wrong.

1) The choice of your specialization is negligible.
One of the first things you do in KH1 is deciding your vocation -- whether you want your Sora to prioritize attack, defense, or magic.  In exchange for boosting one of your stats (and affecting which abilities you get more readily), you also have to lower one of your stats.  In my case, I chose the path of the wizard; I not only had a hefty MP bar and a magic stat that nearly made Donald obsolete, but I also learned passive abilities that would help me keep a healthy amount of MP at all times.  The cost was forgoing my Attack stat, and all the abilities that would make Heartless-bashing that much easier.  It added a bit of depth to the game, even from the outset -- and it was a harrowing choice that suited the opening sequence AND set the stage for the game to come.

KH2 gives you a chance to select your specialization, in a sense.  Roxas picks up the foam bat of your choice that gives a boost to his (and presumably Sora’s) stats, and when he has his Dive into the Heart sequence you get to choose again.  So theoretically, you could choose the sword-like foam bat, and then choose the shield for the benefits of both -- or you could do what I did and go with double-magic.  But even if you do, your abilities end up the same.  Sora learns lots of boosh-boosh-boosh attacks no matter what you chose, and stat-boosting items are in no short supply.  So what was the point of that?

I’ll come back to this in a little bit.  But for now, there’s something that’s been on my mind for years.

2) The MP gauge system is sheer pants-on-head idiocy.
To the game’s credit, it does give you some nice magic to use -- a general upgrade from KH1.  While you can’t shoot rapid-fireballs anymore, Fire has become a 360-degree attack.  Blizzard is your default shot.  Thunder can take out multiple enemies, and lock on so it virtually never misses.  Magnet pulls enemies toward you and leaves them open for battery.  Reflect has to be THE best spell in the game because it lets you instantly deal with so much of the enemies’ boosh-boosh-boosh bullshit.  And just as you can combo into your magic, you can create combos with nothing BUT magic.  You can spin fire around yourself three times (with the third acting as a strong combo-ender), or you can shoot blizzard balls twice and end with Thunder, and because it homes in AND does huge damage it’s a reliable way to bruise baddies.

It’s a shame that the game gives you some interesting tools, but actively punishes you for trying to use it.  Even if you’ve got an insane Magic stat and the MP to match, you can only shoot a certain number of attacks before you enter “MP Charge”, in which you can use no magic until your gauge refills…very…very…very slowly.  Why?  What is the purpose of this mode?  Sure, you COULD use an Ether to refill your MP, but wouldn’t you rather have item slots dedicated to Potions and Mega-Potions?  Why am I banned from using magic with no simple way to build it back up?  In KH1 you could (and would) run out of MP, but you could restore it by attacking, getting attacked, or blocking and landing counterattacks.   Why take that out?  Why create such an asinine system?

The only conceivable answer is that the developers didn’t want you to use any magic besides Cure.  And on that note…

3) Why does Cure use up all my MP?
If there’s one spell that any JRPG player will use, regardless of strategy -- regardless of whether they rely on brute force or Materia setups -- it’s Cure.  The healing spells and their higher tiers are vital for any gamer looking to conquer the last boss.  They’re vital for conquering most bosses, period.  They’re vital in case you’re fighting a strong enemy.  So of course, Squeenix would make it so that Cure, the most vital spell in the entire game, can only be used once every few minutes -- even if you’re taking a beating.

Yes, you can use a Potion to restore your health, but you could make the same argument about FF7.  Why use what you have a limited stock of -- and have to pay good money for -- when you can use a much-stronger Cure spell a large number of times (and heal more HP) and comfortably reach an inn/save point or use ONE item to refill your MP to full?  Can you imagine what FF7 would be like if you could only heal once, and then had to wait for a gauge to fill while monsters wailed on you?  Thankfully, Cure in KH2 can be used even if you’re not at full MP, so you can blast foes until you’re down to your last 5 points and then heal.  But even if that’s the case, it means you can’t use your magic safely and reliably without the constant worry of having to blow it all on a Cure spell, then waiting for the cooldown to finish.  This is not a gameplay mechanic that needed to be there -- it doesn’t add anything except limit your options.  And speaking of limits…

4) Your defensive options are severely limited.
Dodge Roll was one of the most important parts of KH1.  Period.

I know it wasn’t exactly the fanciest move, but it was the most practical.  Roll, and get out of the way of attacks.  Roll, and get behind cover.  Roll, and put some distance between you and Heartless so you could Cure safely, or use an item.  Rolling was a vital tool, as was magic.  As was Guard (and eventually Counterattack).  So were special attacks like Sonic Blade and Strike Raid.  They were tools that each served a purpose, and fit handily into your tool belt to give you a well-rounded, nice-and-comfy tool belt.

Not so with KH2.  Dodge Roll is a Reaction Command you can only use against one rarely-appearing enemy.  Sora’s Guard animation has him do some quick turn and flash of his weapon, which may look cool but actually makes it harder to block -- and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the active frames of the block animation were reduced.  You can do an aerial recovery if you’re smacked into the air (and even launch into an instant counterattack), but that’s just an action you can use AFTER you’ve taken damage.  Reflect is the ultimate defensive tool, absorbing physical and magical strikes in a full range of motion and turning them into damaging shots -- very damaging if you’ve buffed your Magic -- but again, you’re so crippled by the bogus MP system that you’ll be left with less than half your MP after using it three times.  How are you supposed to protect yourself if Squeenix won’t let you?

5) Reaction Commands > skill and strategy.
If you haven’t played KH2, here’s a quick primer: Reaction Commands are context-sensitive moves that are usable against certain enemies in certain conditions, and are activated by pressing the Triangle button.  You can use it to Dodge Roll away from bombs, grab onto flying lance enemies, and even stun bosses.  They’re flashy, they make Sora’s life easier, and I absolutely hate them.

Why do I need to activate a canned animation to do something in KH2 that I did on my own all the time in KH1?  Why does beating bosses, or exposing them to a flurry of attacks, come down to hitting a button when the prompt comes up?  Why can’t I just finish them off with my own attacks instead of doing monumental damage because of one big green polygon?  Why can I mash Triangle, and ONLY Triangle, to get out of these sequences with no sense of timing or urgency?  Why can I casually defy logic, Sora’s current skill set, physics, and reality itself whenever I enter one of these sequences?  Why can Sora hold back two Cerberus heads with his bare hands, or leap a mile in one bound?  Why does Squeenix have any money?

6) Reaction Commands = finicky and gimmicky.
The first Reaction Command you use in battle is “Reversal”.  You get to use it against the Dusk Nobodies, and it allows Roxas to slide behind an opponent.  Given the name, you’d think this would be some kind of counterattack.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I find I can pretty much spam it repeatedly with no gain or loss.  Imagine my added surprise when, in moments where I WANT to use Reversal, like when a Dusk is about to use a hard-to-stop attack, I can’t.  You can imagine how irritating this must have been for me -- and since I was playing on Proud Mode, this led to me dying.  Frequently.  If I wasn’t seated in the middle of the room, I assure you I would’ve been banging my head against a wall.

There are a number of instances where you can’t use Reaction Commands when you want to, or when you think they should logically activate, but whenever the game feels like it.  But that’s forgivable, because in spite of my complaints not all of the combat is regulated to the pretty green button.  What ISN’T forgivable is that sometimes, triggering a Reaction Command is a matter of life and death -- even if you manage to use it correctly.  The lance enemy I mentioned earlier?  If you don’t hit Triangle to stop one of his attacks, you take some huge damage.  The boss in Christmas Town will utterly wreck you unless you use a Reaction Command, but he spins so much and moves so fast that the camera and the game and the prompt can’t keep up.  But the crown goes to the Demyx fight, where you have to kill all his water minions in a certain amount of time.  Use a Reaction Command, and you can feasibly clear out a lot of them in a short period.  But in one instance, after clearing about ninety of the aquatic buggers, I hit Triangle to clear out the rest…but because the animation lasted for so long, I couldn’t kill them in time and got a game over.

I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to blame Nomura for that.  It feels like every time a Squeenix game he had a hand in pisses me off, he’s sitting in a velvet chair laughing at me.

7) Your abilities are nearly all geared toward more X-mashing.
I will readily admit that Sora’s move set in KH1 was severely limited, but that was purposeful.  Sora couldn’t do everything because it was up to the player to use his/her ingenuity and skill to find ways to get hits on the opponent while minimizing damage.  He -- and you -- couldn’t do everything with one button because it would make the combat shallow and unrewarding. Think about it from a fighting game perspective; would you want Ryu to be able to fly across the screen, instantly break an opponent’s guard, hit them with twenty punches and kicks (each), and then finish by blowing up half of Canada?  No, of course not.  But Squeenix is perfectly okay with that, as long as Sora looks as cool as possible.

I wish I was kidding, but for the most part I’m dead serious.  Sora learns an ability that lets him instantly zoom in and attack Heartless.  He has a move that does the same thing in the air.  He has a move that instantly breaks their guard.  He has moves that attack multiple enemies at once.  He has moves that overlap with other moves.  All the legwork of positioning and monitoring your enemy is made useless, because by mashing the X button good things happen.  Worse yet, because so many of your attacks have multiple hits attached to them, it’s difficult to tell where one move ends and another begins.  Your instinct is to keep hammering X even while one over-long attack animation with five or so hits isn’t done yet.  And thus, you’re mashing X even when there’s no reason to mash X, and when you’re done mashing X your first instinct is to start mashing X.

Can you see why I’m a little annoyed?

8) Drive forms are geared toward X-mashing.
If there is one saving grace about the above complaint, it’s that there is a remedy to it (albeit a backwards one that the player shouldn’t even have to do in the first place): remove abilities.  Sora may learn them, but there’s nothing forcing you to equip them.  So if you’re like me, and you want four button presses to equal exactly four Keyblade swings, it’s almost possible.  Alas, you can’t do anything about the Drive forms.

Activating Drive forms is a quick way to announce that “it’s on”!  That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.  It’s good in the sense that you’re about to wallop whatever enemy is in your way, with the stat boosts and filled meters to match.  It’s bad in the sense that the problems above are multiplied just as much as your power level.  Between the rapid, multi-hit attacks and the wild motions Sora makes and the particle effect overdrive, it’s impossible to tell where one move ends and another begins.  Wisdom Form handles it best since you’re shooting at enemies with a manageable attack string, but Valor, Master, and ESPECIALLY Final Form all turn into the average Mario Party minigames.  Mash one button, do cool things, enemies die.  The end.  You don’t even come any closer to getting the Coin Star. 

9) Leveling your Drive forms is geared toward X-mashing…and grinding.
It’s a good idea in theory, but suffers -- greatly -- in practice. 

Use a Drive form enough, and it becomes even stronger.  It gains new and more powerful abilities, and Sora in his basic form can use abilities he otherwise wouldn’t have access to.  This is the only way to gain a defensive move that’s worth a damn, Quick Run -- a magical dash that’s not as good as Dodge Roll, but good enough.  In order to get it (and better versions of it), you have to level up Wisdom Form, which in itself requires you to kill a certain number of Heartless, and only Heartless, in that form.  But because Squeenix doesn’t want you to use magic -- even in a form dedicated to magic -- you only have a few seconds of lethality before your Drive Gauge runs empty, forcing you to resort to the basic Wisdom bullets.   It’s generally a pain in the ass, trying to level up the form…or any form, really.  Valor Form is the easiest to level, because you just have to hit enemies -- in other words, mashing is not only expected, but rewarded.  But that’s generally an application to all the Forms; you only have a short amount of time to level as much as you can, so you have to mash to make sure you kill.  And you go into a frenzy, trying to maximize your kills, and your only thought is to mash, and you get sucked into the lights and sounds and colors and then you have a seizure.

So thanks for that, Nomura.  You made me so sad, you gave me a seizure.

10) Enemies have plenty of cheap-ass moves.
I’ve touched on this before with those jackass cars from Timeless River and most of the Organization 13 boss fights, but there really is a high density of BS attacks in this game.  The bomb enemies will do massive damage to you unless you roll.  All but a couple of Nobodies have annoying, hard-to-dodge, highly-damaging attacks.  There are enemies that shrug off your attacks, enemies that are hard to attack, enemies that knock you into the next century, enemies that take advantage of Donald and Goofy…the list goes on.  Why did I like this game again?

11) Battles are less about skill and strategy and more about rushing your enemies.
So here’s a riddle for you.  If you can’t protect yourself from enemy attacks with any consistency, and enemies will wreck you if you give them even a half-second of breathing room, how do you handle fights?  How is any part of this game manageable?

If you’re attacking enemies, then (theoretically) they can’t attack you.  In the same sense that a Magneto player in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is nigh-impossible to deal with, you can win most of your fights with Sora by getting in on that ass and wailing on them.  But KH2 (and its predecessor by proxy) isn’t nearly as nuanced as the average fighting game, shared mechanics and metagame aside.  All your abilities are geared toward making your combo as long and flashy and effective as possible, removing player input and thought.  True, you do eventually learn a launcher-type move you can activate with the Square button, and additional air attacks with the Square button, but the end result is the same: murder baddies as fast as possible.  Victory comes down to attacking enemies with a flurry of moves, occasionally stopping to hit Triangle.  It all looks very cool, and it’s effective, but at what cost?

A couple of years ago, I loaded up an old KH2 file and decided to take on Sephiroth.  I remember beating him in KH1, and thinking it was the hardest thing I’d ever done -- so much so that I didn’t want to subject myself to the horrors of the sequel’s rematch.  But I was bored, and I had a leveled-up Sora waiting, so I figured, “why not?”  I lost a couple of times, but before the day was done I beat him.  My thoughts?

“I remember this game being a lot harder.”  This is why I think Past Me was a moron.  KH2 was never hard.  Only cheap.  And confusing.

12) Donald and Goofy are often made useless.
If there’s one complaint I have about Tales of Graces f, it’s that the AI can be kind of…iffy at times.  And by iffy I mean brain-dead.  Your healer will focus on healing herself with a spell that takes a long time to charge…while the other three members of the party are dead.  One of the melee characters will alternate between mindless rushing and casting vastly-inferior magic from a distance.  Supposedly, one of the magic users is only useful if you don’t let the AI control her.  In spite of that, they can still (for the most part) take care of you and themselves.

Donald and Goofy can kill Heartless and heal you, no question.  But remember, once you use your MP, it’s gone for a while no matter what you do -- a limitation that Donald shares.  So if he heals you or another party member (and he will), unless you’ve got an Ether loaded up he’s -- and pardon my pun -- an absolute waste of space.  Goofy can block, but I’m still not convinced that he does it on purpose.  And once again, the way the combat works -- real-time combat that relies on the player outmaneuvering enemy attacks -- they’ll get smacked repeatedly because they don’t know any better.  This is not a problem that needs to exist.  The characters in the Tales games can block, and jump, and move away from trouble, and can use Magic Guard to shrug off big spells from enemies.  Why can’t Donald and Goofy?  Why are they put on distraction duty?  Why do I have to watch them get waffle-stomped by enemies I (sometimes) have no problem evading?  Why do they STILL use all my items?

13) Donald and Goofy are inexplicably removed from the party at times…by which I mean often.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Aren’t sequels supposed to fix problems, not add them?  

For once, I think Squeenix actually heard my plea (it helps that I made a virgin sacrifice).  So their answer to making Donald and Goofy better party members is…wait for it…to remove them from the party entirely!  YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!  Just what I always wanted!  I mean it wasn’t enough that the summons take away my party members, and the new Drive forms take away my party members, but you have to engineer needless situations where suddenly I’m all alone?   Oh, please, Squeenix, take my money!  You’re so deserving of it, you genius developers you!  I mean, come on.  Camaraderie and thematic significance?  That’s all horseshit!  Characters created in the 1930s in America?  Pshaaaaaaaaaw, they’re so out of date!  Who wants to see them in action?  Who needs auxiliary heals and offense when you’ve got a triangle button?

…I may be a little bitter.

14) Difficulty in this game is an illusion.
Behold, the hardest fight in the game.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  Let’s see.  Sephiroth telegraphs the hell out of his attacks.  He gives you plenty of time to shrug off or interrupt all but his invincible moves.  His combo flurry makes him highly susceptible to a counterattack.  His “best” moves leave him wide open if you block, up to and including the move you block with a Reaction Command.  He’ll use more moves as the fight wears on, but the general strategy doesn’t change -- block the obvious attacks and wail on him.  He’s all power, no skill; all he can do is flail around and use spiffy attacks, and all you have to do is block and flail right back at him.  And that is what they call gameplay.

15) No, seriously, what the hell is up with the magic in this game?
No, I’m not over it!  What were they thinking?

You know what happens when the only thing that matters is melee attacks?  There’s no incentive to use magic as anything besides a novelty.  You know what happens when defense is a crap shoot?  You tend not to use it.  You know what happens when the series’ triad of power, magic, and defense gets overwhelmingly slanted towards power?  There’s only one right way to play.  And because there’s only one right way to play, there is only one Sora you can create: a boosh-boosh-boosh particle effect emitter.  There’s no incentive to do anything but mash.  KH1 could get a little mash-happy too, but you were rewarded for using other moves.  Hitting an enemy with their elemental weakness netted you more experience.  Bouncing an enemy attack back at them stunned them.  Hell, you could even use Stop to freeze them in place -- an MP-heavy spell, but a rewarding one that let you play your way.  And that was KH1’s strongest argument for its combat; it was flawed, but you could play your way.  With KH2, all roads lead to one: broken X buttons.

16) All the arenas are flat.
From the KH1 gameplay post:

“In the fight against one boss, I was struggling.  He had me on the ropes, and I was running low on MP and items.  He started charging up for an attack I was pretty sure would tear a new ass onto my face, so out of sheer desperation I started Dodge Rolling while searching for an answer.  Suddenly, I had it; I rolled behind a wall and took cover, saving myself from a lethal blast.  This is a feature that, in some thirty hours I’ve yet to see reproduced in KH2; whereas the sequel has fights occurring in mostly-flat areas and boss arenas being little more than empty squares, KH1 made the terrain a part of the equation.  Use a few platforms to launch an attack against a too-high foe.  Use the stands to nullify Cerberus’ ground pound.  Don’t jump into the acid moat.  Take cover from Jafar’s magma attacks by using the rising and falling tiles, making sure to move in and out of hiding to hit his lamp.  Granted, this would come with the risk of making the finicky camera sputter out of control, but the fact that you could apply some tactics to the field was a welcome addition.”

I don’t think there’s anything else that needs to be said.  Except that KH2 REMOVES content rather than fixing problems.  Effort!

17) Why do I need a message telling me to kill all the Heartless?
Before a fight, there are prompts giving you info on what you need to do.  Sometimes they’re useful and tell you what you need to do, like protect Minnie or pick up all the coins.  Other times, the mission is to defeat all the Heartless.  And by other times, I mean ninety percent of the game.  Why do I even need a prompt?  That’s pretty much all Sora does, even WITH special battle stipulations. 

…Okay, that was really nitpicky, even for me.  Let’s move on.

18) Sora is overpowered, and it wrecks the story/gameplay relationship. 
This, however, is not really nitpicky.  

This is a serious issue.

In KH1, Sora is decidedly non-badass.  He’s just a regular, dumb kid way the hell out of his element.  Consider that in the game’s opening, he’s in a realm of darkness, exploring a stained-glass world and being attacked by shadow creatures, all to an unsettling and mysterious tune.  It culminates in a battle against a massive shadow creature, one that Sora can’t beat.  As he backs off, cowering and unarmed, you can see the fear in his eyes, made all the more chilling by the threat of his childhood coming to an abrupt end.

KH1 hammered in an idea in its narrative and its subtext for us gamers: weakness as well as strength can be vital parts of the overall package.  Through strength, we gain spectacle and skill, and a belief that our actions can change the game’s outcome.  Through weakness, we gain modesty and meaning, knowing that there’s always a powerful force waiting to snuff out our virtual lives, and adding tension to the package as a whole.  Used effectively, weakness -- the antithesis of being a badass -- can make for a powerful tool.

It’s a shame that KH2 throws that tool into a trash compactor.  Right off the bat, KH2 gets it all wrong; yes, the Roxas prologue is…problematic, but in a way you might not expect.  True, Roxas starts off with the same goofy motions as Sora, but he comes pre-equipped with one of the game’s many Reaction Commands -- he can slide behind an enemy and dispatch them handily.  He gets to fight some of the kids around town, but failure isn’t an option; they’re just enemies to knock aside to continue the story.  In a call back to the original game, Roxas goes to stained-glass land and fights a giant monster (with several of the shots reproduced); what was a desperate struggle to survive in the first game becomes a showcase of the awesome power of the triangle button.  Press it when the prompt comes up, and HOLY COW ROXAS CAN SPIRAL THROUGH MIDAIR AND DODGE EVIL RIBBONS!  AND THROW HIS KEYBLADE AND MAKE AN EXPLOSION ZOMGTEHAWTNESS!   It’s a shame, because that boss fight is actually kind of cool and creepy…but its effect is diminished when you have an Awesome Button that makes it less of a threat and more of a boneless clown. 

Sora eventually became a fierce warrior by the end of the first game (sans the over-the-top superpowers), but there was a certain amount of levity and cartoonish flair in the fights.  It was a game where the Disney villains were front and center -- enemies never encountered before, and certainly colorful, but far more determined and lethal than you.  You start to have respect for villains like Jafar and Ursula after they hand you your ass on a plate; you wonder how Aladdin and Ariel ever pulled off a win against them.  When you go up against guys like Oogie Boogie and the titans and Ansem and see their monstrous forms, you think, “Oh man, how am I supposed to beat THAT?!”  Compare that to KH2, where it’s just a matter of waiting for a chance to use your Awesome Button and wailing on an enemy.  And you can turn into an angel at will.

But hey, at least you look cool, right?

19) KH1 did the Thousand Heartless Battle much better.
The Thousand Heartless Battle is the much-lauded, much-approved, and much-hyped sequence of KH2, and I have to admit Squeenix deserves some praise for making a battle of that scale more than just a cutscene -- and they certainly deserve some applause for pulling it off with the comparatively weak PS2.  But in light of playing KH1 and KH2 back-to-back, that “epic” fight isn’t as much a battle as it is a sequence.  What WAS a battle, however, was the area just before KH1’s end boss.

There’s a huge arena where you’re pitted against the toughest Heartless in the game -- and lots of them.  Not all at once, mind, but in pretty dense waves.  There’s no telling how many Heartless you’ll have to face; the only indication you have that you’re near the end is that there’s a door with the Heartless emblem that slowly breaks down -- and when it opens, you’re free to go.  But these guys will push you to your absolute limit.  Demons that slash and shoot and pursue with cursed flames; angelic creatures that deflect your attacks and fire tornadoes at you; grinning balls of darkness with erratic motions and attacks -- all enemies you’ve faced before, but the sheer number of them and frightening power, coupled with the eerie visuals and haunting theme makes for a battle that’s not only difficult, but satisfying.  It leaves you exhausted at the end, and all you did was press buttons.  Imagine how Sora feels!

Compare that to the Thousand Heartless fight.  Yes, there are more of them (more than ten times more), but it’s all an illusion.  The enemies -- rank and file drones -- come in subtle but certain waves.  They’ll surround you, but only a few of them will attack at any given moment.  You can clear out about a dozen if you use (and mash) the Rising Sun Reaction Command, and roughly forty if you use the area-clearing Sparkle Ray.  Enemies are no stronger than anything you’ve fought before; if anything, they’re actually weaker.  Donald and Goofy are inexplicably absent, in spite of being in the preceding cutscene (chalk that one up to hardware limitations…or just Squeenix forgetting what the franchise is about again).  There’s no tension, no stakes, no gratification when you when.  It’s all just a bunch of busywork.  I don’t feel like a badass when I kill them all, I feel like a janitor.  How in the hell do you take a battle scene like this and make it boring?

Sigh.  Squeenix finds a way.

20) KH2 is all style, no substance.
You would not believe the crap my brother gave me over this game -- prior to, and long after its release.  “It’s just button mashing!  X, X, X, X, X, all day long!” he argued.  And of course, Past Me argued right back; yes, you COULD win all your fights with just melee attacks, but you’d be missing out on the nuances!  You’d be doing yourself a disservice by not using the magic, and the Drive forms, and the Limits, and all of that!

Past Me was an idiot.  Yes, you can sort of use magic, and you can sort of use defensive moves, but why would you when melee is so much better?  Why would you when that’s the obvious intent and direction of the game?  Effort went into that single path -- another case of misplaced effort, where the developers’ single minded focus creates an alienating experience for players.  The fights are frantic and frenzied, but they’re rarely ever fun, and never, ever rewarding.  Squeenix succumbed to its needs once again, its desire to pander to fans while simultaneously proselytizing its mindset.  “These are things gamers love, and only WE, our MAGNIFICENT selves, can give it to them!  And we shall!  And we shall give them everything that proves Kingdom Hearts 2 is a superior, far more serious game!”

So, in a nutshell, gameplay’s a bust.

And that’ll just about do it for now.  Next time, I intend to finish this -- I’ll face off not just with the game’s story, but with the worst part of a very familiar person.

See you next time.


  1. Basically sums up my issues with it. I was PUMPED for the 1,000 heartless battle, then a series of quick time events just obliterated their numbers. I prepared HARD for that, and the actual fight was little more than a glorified cut scene.
    Oh, and Donald and Goofy had to be moved aside a lot to make room for more unnecessary buckles and costume pieces. Such is the way.

  2. I am a mmorpg gal and I take great pleasure in looking down on your choice of jrpgs...they are for boys on the verge of becoming men...:))) I am kidding. You've written a saga here.

  3. I can't say I'm into MMOs (and if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all), but as an "expert" on JRPGs I admit that they have a LOT of flaws. It's pretty likely that one of these days, I'm going to have to name some of the worst I've ever played...and there are a number of fine examples.

    But I still like the genre, in a rather unhealthy sort of way.

    I'm a little flattered that you'd call this a "saga", when really it's just me being physically unable to write anything in a feasible length. I will say this though: the biggest sign that a person is getting older is that he/she starts to realize how much the things they used to like suck. Except Power Rangers. That'll be awesome forever.

    Anyway, thanks for dropping by. Always nice to get some feedback.

  4. "Summed up"? I'm surprised anyone had the patience to sit through 6,000+ words of me bellyaching about a game more than a half-decade old.

    But to be fair, these are issues that are important, and point to the route/mindset Squeenix would eventually adopt. (I'll probably point towards Dissidia one of these days.) Even so, I hope someone gives the collective company the ol' leather belt pretty soon -- the way they're looking now, they probably need it.