When the action returns, we’re in a strange town stuck in perpetual night, where Donald and Goofy arrive to go looking for Leon. They also look up to see a star going out in the sky, presumably Destiny Islands, and before the cutscene is up, Pluto finds Sora lying unconscious in an alley. Wow, we’re in a hurry to get started, aren’t we? Too bad there will be an entire world full of cutscenes before we assume something resembling normal gameplay-to-story frequency.
Now, Pluto finding Sora is not to imply that Donald and Goofy find Sora. As it happens, they call the dog away without even entering the alley. This scene is home to one of Goofy’s best lines. When asking about the alley, Donald cuts him off, saying “What do you know, you big palooka?” and Goofy, with a tone suggesting Donald just gave him some good advice, says “What do I know?” and follows after.
Since Pluto woke Sora before he ran off, we regain control of our lead as he tries to work out where he is. Luckily for us, we already picked up the name of the place from the title card: “Traverse Town.”
Traverse Town is an odd construction hodge-podge. Not to jump the gun, but a bit of colour text from Kingdom Hearts 2 address the Town as the place where everyone ends up if they survive losing their world. The miss-matched architecture fits this explanation, as though bits and pieces of lost worlds have been mashed together and given a uniform coat of paint. Combined with the myth, you get a healthy fairy-tale feel from the whole place. By poking around, Sora will find a few NPCs to greet. Weirdly, there’s a boy who looks exactly like Tidus just wandering around, but it turns out it isn’t him. Lazy model reuse, and so flagrant when you had just seen Tidus a few minutes ago! I figured he was Tidus at first glance, and I doubt I’m alone!
The player might also find Huey, Dewey and Louie, Donald Duck’s nephews, here unattended and running their own shop. How they got there (and why they never respond to Donald) is never really explained, but they do sell the usual RPG crop of restoratives and weapons. The boys are unvoiced, though Russi Taylor took their role in later games. The boys aren’t selling much you can afford. Your spending money is going to have to come from selling any Pretty Stones you might have picked up on the Islands. Huey, Dewey and Louie do sell “Mega-” versions of the normal items, which are used on your entire party, but those are completely useless while Sora is solo.
Even though you don’t have the cash for it, you should also visit the Accessory Shop while you’re here, if only because you have to. Maybe not the best way to funnel the player along, but not unworkable. Inside the shop, Sora will meet another face that might be familiar to the player: Cid Highwind from Final Fantasy VII, who goes unvoiced in this entry. Fans of the Final Fantasy series will know that there is a man named “Cid” in every Final Fantasy as an inside joke (he first appeared in FFII). This Cid tells you that if you want some help, you should look for Leon, and what a coincidence, that’s what Donald and Goofy are here to do! Cid points you toward the Second District, but warns that something strange is going on there.
Sure enough there is, and in a genuinely creepy moment, Sora arrives at the Second District to find a man being chased by a Shadow. The man, a look of terror on his face, collapses and suddenly fades away. As he is fading, a glittering heart shape rises from his body and a new type of shadow-monster appears that seizes the heart before vanishing.
This is your last warning. From this point on, the tutorial rules have come to an end and the game’s normal rules apply, even if it’s still in the middle of a cutscene bonanza. I still consider Traverse Town to be part of the game’s introductory segment – hell, “Night of Fate” is still being used as a combat theme – but the breezy tutorial-level difficulty has passed. From this point on, you will be attacked as you move in between rooms. Enemies appear in set locations as you approach, and will chase you if you try to escape, though they will only walk so far before disappearing again. Enemies sometimes appear in multiple waves as you clear them out.
For the time being you will just have to contend with the Shadows, but one of your key defences is lost: up until now, during the Awakening / Dive to the Heart and destruction of the Destiny Islands, Shadows dropped a large crop of green health orbs when destroyed, which would keep you more or less at full HP at all times. Ocarina of Time followed a similar model, where enemies in Kokori Forest and The Great Deku Tree dropped mostly hearts. Unfortunately for you, like in Ocarina, enemies outside of the tutorial start dropping cash instead of hearts, and your survivability drops. In Kingdom Hearts, enemies typically drop a mix of health orbs and sharp yellow polyhedrals, called “Munny.” The arrival of Munny halves the number of HP orbs you’ll get from each foe, and since the only other way to recover your health is to chug a Potion or touch the save point, you might be in trouble.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget that save points can heal you! It might seem silly to mention, but if you don’t know save points can help you heal, you might very well assume the means of getting healed are up ahead, in some form of Inn, and not back in the Accessory shop save point. Why might you think that? Because, as it happens, there is an Inn up ahead, and no, it can’t heal you in the way you’re thinking, it’s essentially just decorative. There is a save point in it, but the door is locked! It’s preposterous bad luck how all these factors fell together, but here we sit.
What’s strange is, the game seems to expect that you’ll return to the First District for healing as a matter of course, because that’s the only way the plot will advance! If you try to explore Traverse Town, the game will lead you on a wild goose chase. There are multiple doors: one to a “Gizmo Shop” that has no power, another to the Inn with an irate and hidden employee who will make a brief appearance if you smash on the bell on the desk. Another door leads to the Third District (let’s skip that for now), and there two more doors that are locked entirely at this point in the game. Busy place! No one would blame you for thinking you had to find a specific door to proceed! As you use some of the unlocked doors, you’ll see Donald and Goofy off using another door, just missing you. If you try to follow them (after all, they’re your only lead!) they’ll eventually lead you back to the First District, but until then you might go in circles for a while trying to find the “end” of the stage when you really have to be back at the beginning!
Once you do return to the First District, you get a chance to save before finally running into Leon. Wielding the gruff and tired voice of David Boreanaz, Leon reveals himself to be… Squall Leonheart, from Final Fantasy VIII? Oh, Iiiiiii get it! Boreanaz almost needs no introduction, being Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Booth in Bones, but this role is not working for him. He makes everything Leon says sound so dire I slip past tension into sleep. Again, that’s arguably a factor of direction. He’s hardly the worst voice in the cast but he’s the first semi-prominent bellyflop in my eyes, and so always comes to mind when I’m thinking about this game’s subpar voice-acting outside the Disney cast. Other people seem to like him a lot more than me.
Before you know it, Squall says something about you not deserving the Keyblade and he attacks you. And hey, you know those parts in video games where, after the battle, your opponent claims to have been going easy on you? (Kingdom Hearts included.) Leon is about to do that, and this may be the only time I’ve ever believed it. You want to see how seriously Mr. Final Fantasy VIII is taking this duel with a child? He doesn’t so much as jog. He doesn’t even come at you in a brisk walk, he just sort of meanders in your direction and swings his giant gunblade every once and a while. If you try to keep a distance between the two of you for too long, he’ll do the only fast thing in his repertoire: he hurls a Fire spell that jets across the area. The swing of his sword isn’t that hard to avoid, even with Sora so sluggish on his feet (more on combat in a later entry) but the Fire spell will almost certainly brain you the first time he uses it. His stats are fairly high, so unless you’ve been grinding for experience points on Destiny Island (and there’s no reason to have done so), he’s not going to give you much room for error.
Thankfully, if things go wrong, the story continues, just like the fight with the Darkside in the dream. The only immediate prize for winning is some EXP, though if you win, he later gives you an Elixir, just before you leave Traverse Town. If you’re not familiar with Elixirs from Final Fantasy, this is actually worth some trouble, as it completely restores your character to full health and magic. Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t much change, and the variation comes off as sloppy as a result: if you win, Sora still somehow collapses from exhaustion. It’s better than games that wouldn’t let you win to begin with, and shows how new Sora is at this, but how arbitrary!
As Sora blacks out one way or another, Leon is formally identified by another Final Fantasy character: Yuffie from FFVII. Yuffie here is voiced by Kim Possible star Christy Carlson Romano, who would go on to voice the role in FFVII: Advent Children.
At this point, Final Mix cuts away from the original for the first of a very small handful of scenes entirely new to that version. It’s also the least substantial of those additions. Riku wakes up in a strange place surrounded by rising water – a place, in my opinion, that gets a stronger impact out of you when you see it in person. He calls out to Sora, but there is no sound. The sequence is surreal: Riku is dizzy, weak, and more importantly, they didn’t want to make these Final Mix scenes more expensive by voicing them (not least of all because the original FM used English audio as one of its selling points, which would have meant paying for flights and North American staff that otherwise wouldn’t have been in the budget!). As a result, all the Final Mix scenes are unvoiced, with one partial exception, and the end result is memorable but extremely strange. Long story short, we see Riku starting to panic, and we see a sinister and familiar figure looks on. Like I said, this sequence wasn’t very substantial. Not much happens, and none of it really matters. Where most of the Final Mix scenes in KH1 were added to clarify plot point from Vanilla KH1, I feel there is nothing in this scene we couldn’t derive from later context. My best guess is that it exists just to prepare you for the existence of later Final Mix additions, or to prove you’re getting your money’s worth by having one early. Nice work on atmosphere, but I think the later Final Mix additions would have worked fine on their own.
Sora wakes up in one of the hotel rooms I mentioned before, with Kairi standing over him. Except not. After Sora shakes himself off, this turns out this is Yuffie, who has an impeccable resemblance to Kairi, and the devs are teasing themselves about it in a playful moment of self-deprecation. The jokes are appreciated, but methinks Nomura could have mixed things up a bit more during the Kairi’s design stage. Yuffie turns around and says: “I think you overdid it, Squall,” as Squall insists he be called “Leon.” The in-game journal later includes an entry for Leon saying he changed his name after losing his world to the shadows, but it’s clear they only really changed it to make Squall a surprise for Final Fantasy vets. Big question though: we later learn that Leon lost his world a long time ago (ten years, to be exactly). Why are his friends still calling him “Squall?”
Sora seeing Kairi where she should not be is actually something that happens a few times in this game, but you might have trouble noticing it’s a running trend. While there’s two stand-out instances you just can’t deny, others blend into the plot as though they’re supposed not something irregular at all. Like right here: Yuffie looks like Kairi, and Sora just banged his head. This isn’t just cliche, these are the opening lines of Link’s Awakening! I know that I didn’t suspect anything was suspicious at all!
When Sora realizes he’s woken up without the Keyblade, Yuffie and Leon point it out in the corner, saying they had to remove it because the shadows wouldn’t stop following them while he had it. Leon picks it up, but it only teleports over to Sora’s hand, and he supposes that means Sora is stuck with it. Don’t… put it back down or anything, it’s not like you have monsters after you when he’s carrying the thing.
The game then starts mixing up our exposition dump to keep us from getting bored. It seems Donald and Goofy are actually in the very next room talking to Aerith Gainsborough from FFVII, who is working with Leon and Yuffie. She’s here voiced by Mandy Moore, she of singing, songwriting, and… uh… Southland Tales? I trapped myself in alliteration, I’m sorry. For the Disney connection, Moore would later voice Rapunzel from Tangled, but obviously that hadn’t happened yet. One wonders if she’ll be back for KH3! And no, I’m not going to comment on the Aeris/Aerith change that started here in Kingdom Hearts, which introduced the latter, present-day spelling. That’s better suited for the FFVII Marathon Journal.
What I do care about is the Final Fantasy characters holding this stupid discussion in different rooms. It makes for good aesthetics in what could have been an even more boring exposition scene, but you have to wonder why the characters bother. The Final Fantasy characters seem to be aware that Sora, Donald and Goofy should meet and that they’re one wall apart at this very moment. What is the point to of splitting them up except for the devs to stall?
The back-and-forth plot dump reveals a few key points of information. We learn that there are many other worlds in this universe, but they were divided (and so kept secret from one another) until “the Heartless” showed up and were drawn to the darkness in people’s hearts. Before you have the chance to question the term “hearts,” the game goes into overdrive with it. Leon gets us started by calling the Heartless: “Those without hearts.” Thanks, buddy, that helps a lot. But there’s more to Leon’s repetition than meets the eye, since an explanation would have been warranted in Japanese. You see, in the Japanese version, “Heartless” are still addressed by their English name! Naturally the devs would want to explain what the term meant. There’s a bit more to the name in English as well, but we won’t get to that for a long time.
Continuing the spiel, Yuffie mentions a man named Ansem, later called “the Wise.” It seems he used to be the leader of the Final Fantasy characters’ world, before the whole “being destroyed by a titanic, shadow-muscleman with dreads” thing happened to said world. Ansem was studying the Heartless, and his notes have since been scattered throughout the universe for your collecting pleasure later in the game. Ansem’s Report is an interesting mechanic that explains a lot of the drier background info in the game, and is very important to the series at large. There are other “reports” in the series – in KH1, 2 and Birth By Sleep – but KH1’s is so important that even though you can get through KH1 without most of its parts, trying to explain the later games without the basics from KH1 is like trying to film Superman 2 without mentioning that Superman is an alien. For the time being, the game will use the reports as an excuse for Donald and Goofy to go world-hopping with Sora so they can help out the King, something they’ll quickly forget.
As the Final Fantasy characters drone, something has to be said about the voice direction. These Final Fantasy actors, Romano excluded, are just not used to voice acting, and each of them, Romano included, sound like they were goaded into the voice booth with a cheese grater. It’s almost hard to believe Moore went from voice Aerith like a snoring zombie to voicing one of the more vibrant Disney Princesses (Moore is looked on fondly by some KH fans, so obviously my opinion isn’t universal, but don’t worry: her replacement is worse). I’ve already discussed Boreanaz. Romano’s doing okay, but she does a better job selling a spritley Yuffie than an expositing Yuffie. I don’t think anyone could sell Yuffie doing an infodump, forced to lecture about scientific research into magical creatures. Maybe I’m wrong to blame the voice actors or even the directors. Maybe no one could sell this sequence. Let’s all get together as a family and blame the writers, too.
Leon sleeps his way through an explanation about why Sora keeps getting jumped by the Heartless. He explains the Heartless can be permanently destroyed by the Keyblade, not by other weapons, and so they feel so threatened by it that they will keep attacking Sora wherever he goes. Yuffie also explains the blade’s only real notable power. Yup, just one: this entire series hinges on a magic sword that has only one fundamental power besides its ability to appear from hammerspace. What is it? The Keyblade can lock or unlock anything. You’ll ultimately learn that that’s the reason it can destroy the Heartless, as odd as that sounds. Yuffie and Leon explain this skeleton key power by having you unlock a special blue chest. I think it’s impressive how they’re conveying something of stupendous import by both involving the player and making it feel like a natural extension of gameplay. Blue chests will unlock from you from now on, so it even feels like you accomplished something! With that done, Leon goes to ask Aerith to introduce Donald and Goofy, when of course the Heartless attack.
Wow, it’s like they were keeping our characters from meeting for a reason!