We left off in the middle of an attack, and leading the charge is the Heartless we saw stealing a man’s heart earlier in the world: the Soldier, which actually kit in weapons and armour. The Soldier showcases what’s to be a design byword for the Heartless from here on out: they look like giant dorks. It’s also wearing a strange red crest, depicting a heart with an X through it. Most of the Heartless can be found with these crests, though you might not notice them until the far end of the game when one of the Ansem Reports points them out. The Soldier also introduces several other artistic motifs: the zig-zag mouth you find on many Heartless, and also the “spiral false eye” design that Heartless sometimes wear when their eyes are obscured, which you can spot on its helmet.
More obvious than these bits of iconography is a special effect: once you fight the Soldiers, you’ll find that defeating them causes a glittering heart to rise out of them and fade away, which is quite different from the Shadows that disappear in a puff of dark smoke. More Heartless do the glittering heart thing than the smoke effect, so it’s clear the distinction is significant. If you’re really observant, you’ll notice the thing that connects them: the Heartless with the red crest leave hearts, while the few remaining others dissolve into smoke.
This is why the Heartless are so afraid of you, by the way: you are “unlocking” their hearts and causing the Heartless to be destroyed where they would normally just reform as a new shadow-monster somewhere else (apparently you have a similar effect on the ones that fade into darkness even though they don’t have a glistening heart, best not to question it). But why do the “Heartless” have hearts to begin with? Hrm.
Leon leads Sora into a back-alley, and quickly abandons him, which sounds like I’m describing a murder in progress. He shouts at Sora that the Heartless are moving too intelligently (staging an ambush is apparently beyond them on a regular day) so there must be something leading them, and then… leaves the Heartless-slaying to the inexperienced preteen who can barely carry his sword. Technically Leon and the other Final Fantasy characters secure the First District and keep the populace safe. You can go visit them if you need a heal or a save. Keeping other people safe is certainly praiseworthy, but don’t they… need Sora? They could at least have lent a hand while he was still on their backyard.
Those complaints made, I have to hand it to the developers for their two-pronged narrative approach to the Heartless: we’ve been told that they won’t let up attacking Sora because he has the Keyblade, but will let up attacking civilians if he can kill their leader. It makes it so you can leave the world later in the narrative without worrying about the people… while still never being out of trouble yourself. Most games are practically afraid to depopulate an area of enemies lest they deprive you of gameplay, and thus you can fight the bad guys till doomsday and never make an impact on the world. You still don’t have an impact on monster population in Kingdom Hearts, but at least there’s a good explanation!
Despite the Soldiers being singularly incapable in terms of AI (they look like little kids tripping around in giant clothes), your new enemies have a good health boost over the Shadows and will definitely slow you down if you try to fight them. Still, it’s just them and the Shadows, so the player won’t have any trouble pushing past them to the Third District, your new objective. The real trick is getting there in good shape, since the boss of Traverse Town is actually further away from any save point than nearly any boss for nearly the remainder of the game. I’m not just referring to actual ground covered (though that is true: most bosses are right next to save points) but in terms of the number of fights between you and there. Traverse Town is packed with baddies, probably because it’s a “regular area” and not a designated “path to the boss.” And thanks to Leon, you’re now in the back-alley, somewhere you’ve never been before, which is just icing.
Still, fighting’s not a bad thing. Like most RPGs, it’s a bad idea to pass up fights, or your level will be too low. But just this once, you might want to skip a few fights on the way to the boss in Third District. The game’s about to pull a stunt.
Once you do make to the Third District, you end up in the middle of a plaza in front of a fountain depicting the Lady and the Tramp, their only KH reference to date. There, Sora, Donald and Goofy are finally united, when Donald and Goofy are blown off a high balcony and down to ground level (as a nice touch, you can actually access the balcony later in the game). There isn’t any time for introduction, as the game throws all three characters into another fight against Soldiers. You have to deal with this fight before the boss shows, and there’s no rest or healing in between, making for a fairly extended battle that might tax you more than you can afford before fighting a boss. Thankfully, Donald and Goofy come stocked with healing items, but if you don’t put out a solid effort against the Soldiers, the dog and the duck will waste all their party favours before the boss even shows.
One weird thing about this fight is how the game walls you out of leaving the area with literal walls that pop out of the ground. The series will never, ever do this again. Kingdom Hearts 2 develops a force-field fetish that lasts the entire game, but even force fields make sense than walls that sprout from the ground like magic beans. I wrote something about obstacles in 3D video game for a Marathon Journal on Mega Man X7, but I think I’ll hold off on that until KH2 makes artificial walls a common sight.
Let’s take a look at our new brothers-in-arms. Your partners run around trying to fight the Heartless based on special AI settings in the main menu, which is unfortunate, because you haven’t had a chance to adjust those settings yet! Mr. Duck is wielding a Rod and Mr. Dog a Shield, which he uses as though it were a weapon. There’s no more overt hint in the series that Sora is, narratively at least, meant to be carry the Sword. And here’s an interesting fun fact: Donald and Goofy also seem to represent aspects of the personality quiz from Sora’s Dive to the Heart! This insight came from ThePumpkinQueen at Kingdom Hearts Insider, who suggested that Donald levels up easily at the start but then slows, which I see as being like the Dawn scheme; Goofy represents Night by levelling slow then fast; and Sora is presumably supposed to take the “normal” type, Noon.
As you fight, you’ll also get a little used to fighting with Donald and Goofy, but not very well. The game also made an odd decision with the audio that can lead to weird feedback. See, Donald and Goofy don’t know your name, and so won’t call out to you when they’re doing you a service, like using a healing potion. This means you might suddenly heal for no reason, and might not notice them helping at all. KH2 would correct this issue by giving everyone some generic quotes for the few times you fight alongside a stranger.
The boss, when it does arrive, comes crashing to the ground in the form of six distinct pieces of a suit of armour that levitate into a vaguely human-like position. It looks sort of like a giant Soldier, come to think of it. The Guard Armor is actually made up of different enemies: two feet, two arms, and a helmet-and-torso piece that functions as one. They operate in only a loose formation. This is actually a clever way of handling a start-of-game boss, as defeating each part causes the Guard Armor to drop a bucket-full of health restoring green balls, not unlike the Shadows summoned by the Darkside in the last boss fight. As you’ll see, almost half the difficulty of early-game bosses comes from your inability to heal without items at this point in the game. These health orbs are the only thing keeping the earliest bosses in line.
When you defeat the Guard Armor’s torso, it collapses, a very large glittering heart rising from the wreck. Donald and Goofy finally get a chance to talk to Sora now that the boss is done. Having seen the Keyblade earlier, they’ve concluded it’s the Key the King wanted them to find, and inform Sora of what’s going on. Donald gets a little conniving to make sure Sora joins up, and we are finally in position to start the main game. Donald and Goofy are hoping to find the King, and Sora is hoping to find Riku and Kairi, who don’t appear to be in Traverse Town. The new trio promise: “All for one and one for all!” which the series will try to make the motto relevant a few games later. Oh, and then Donald also makes Sora give an awful smile, which will become something of a weird, infrequent running joke in the series.
So the journey is on, right? Wrong. Just inches from freedom, the game chooses this precise moment to lay on the exposition. You just crossed the entire world available at the moment, fought a boss, got a party and so unlocked a glut of party mechanics you’ll have to learn, you’re about to get two new special abilities to learn, and we are just a few moments from entering an entirely distinct game mode we’ll have to learn from the ground up, and the game just won’t. Stop. Talking! This section grows more tedious each time I play it.
First off, we get a shadowy introduction to our villains for the game, and I mean that: the room they’re in is so dark you can’t make out any one of them. Thankfully, each of these evil masterminds are voiced by their official Disney voice actor, often their original Disney voice actor, so you can probably take guesses as to who is who. I’ll sit on that information for the time being, for the sake of spoilers. The only one who reveals their face is their leader: the dark fairy Maleficent, from Sleeping Beauty, Mistress of All Evil, here voiced by Susanne Blakeslee. Blakeslee was new to Maleficent in 2001, but she doesn’t miss a note, and you’d hardly believe she’s otherwise famous for voicing Wanda from Fairly OddParents!.
The game refuses to let you go free even after this. Leon, Yuffie and Aerith have a few goodbyes to say, and I still have to talk about all of the post-boss changes to the world… Kingdom Hearts 1 loves to lay on bonuses, sidequests and opportunities once a world is finished, to make the whole world feel more functional, involved and alive, but here in Traverse Town it just makes things boring. Traverse Town just refuses to end, shoving each option in right your face since many of them are prominent and important features. Yes, I think it’s time to introduce a new section, which I’m going to call…
Okay, so let’s back up a bit. One of the most important things you get from this section is an Ability called Dodge Roll. I haven’t discussed Abilities, and am not going to start, because we’re going to be here long enough as it is. To cut things short, once Dodge Roll has been set up, it will let you somersault out of trouble by moving and hitting the Square button. This Ability is so important to the way Kingdom Hearts plays that, like the dash in Mega Man X, most of the games to follow will just give you Dodge Roll almost from moment one. Dodge Roll is so important that it almost explains the lack of enemy variety up until to this point. I’m not even kidding, it would almost be unfair to force you to fight shooters or defensive enemies with Sora’s lead clown feet.
During the wrap-up, Donald finally teaches Sora his first spell, all of which are modelled after traditional Final Fantasy spells. The first is Fire, a homing projectile attack, and I’m not going to talk about spells very much at the moment. I haven’t even had the chance to talk about combat yet and we’re two worlds in! From this point on Sora and Donald will share spellcasting abilities: unlocking a spell unlocks it for both characters.
During the final scene, the Final Fantasy crew gives you cash and items, and Leon the softie requests you look after a family of Dalmations that have taken refuge in town. It seems Pongo and Perdita, the parents from 101 Dalmations, have lost all 99 puppies when their world was destroyed, and you’ll have to rescue them. Thankfully the game is more generous than other games when it comes to collection sidequests, and lets you find the puppies in batches of three. Still, those thirty-three chests are going to take most of the game to find. You get prizes for every ten dogs or so, should you return to Traverse Town to visit the dogs in the Second District.
You also gain the ability to use blue “Trinities.” Any Disney fan, especially a fan of the parks, will be familiar with the tradition of Hidden Mickeys, where Mickey Mouse’s icon will be hidden in plain sight. The trinities represent something to that effect, hidden in the environment and waiting to be found. Should you find a Trinity, you can trigger it on the action menu to earn prizes or open doors. The Blue Trinities (called “Trinity Jump,” since it involves Sora, Donald and Goofy doing a synchronized jump around it to evoke its magic) typically offer prizes, usually just a small cache of treasure.
That’s all the game throws at you before returning control to the player, but it would be misleading to say the game “lets you go” even now. You’re at your leisure to explore Traverse Town at the moment. In fact, the Heartless are temporarily gone! Should you leave and come back, the Heartless will return, giving you a chance to hear the town’s proper combat theme, “Hand in Hand,” which is another signature tune. I know I keep saying all these songs are “signature tunes,” but I promise, this is where it stops. Kingdom Hearts worlds typically have a main theme and a combat theme, and a whole farm full of boss themes, making for some nice musical variety, but I promise, no more “signature tunes” for a while now.
What else can you do in town, especially while the Heartless are gone? Ugh, I don’t even care. How quickly can I wrap this up, while still giving you an idea of how overwhelming Traverse Town’s post-tutorial infodump can be? Well, I haven’t mentioned the postcard subquest in Traverse Town that has you scouring the town for hidden rewards. Oh, hey, how about Jiminy Cricket’s journal? Remember him? He sets up shop in Sora’s hood and keeps track of stuff in the game for you, like story, Heartless profiles, or mini-game scores. Here, overwhelmed player, have a detailed submenu!
Oh, and remember when I said that the moment you leave town, you get embroiled in another massive, overly complex game feature? Did I remember to mention you also have to put up with its tutorial, too? If you’ve been playing since Destiny Islands, this is probably a good time to go take off for the night, maybe make a damn sandwich, because trouble’s brewing, and it smells like gumdrops.