This next world daunts me. At this point in the game, I am certain to have the Torn Page from the Dalmatians, so in a manner of speaking, the game’s major sidequests have been completed. There are just a few Dalmatians left to find and a few tournaments left to go. I feel, very strongly and every time I reach this point in the game, that we should be moving into the final arc of the plot. But no, this world isn’t the first world in the last arc – it’s the last world in the middle arc, and the middle arc has overstayed its welcome. Never mind that there’s a feature at the end of this world that I’m in a hurry to get to, I just can’t shake the feeling that the game should be moving the fuck on, and it’s made me do rash things in the past.
In a way, I think the developers agree with me. This next world is very, very cramped, but also very, very quick. The only thing that’s going to slow you down is the bosses. Unfortunately, those bosses really going to slow you down. This is an unfriendly place, and the sooner we start the sooner it will go away.
The world begins when flying on the route between Atlantica and Halloween Town after beating two of the previous three worlds. Halfway through, you encounter nothing short of Captain Hook’s ship, the Jolly Roger, flying out in space. Hook rams you, and the next thing you know, you’re on the ship in an endless expanse of water: the ocean around Neverland. There is nothing but water in every direction. How did you get there? Where are Donald and Goofy? Why is Sora walking around like he’s just going for a stroll? We haven’t jumped ahead a week or something, have we?
Actually, no, and that makes the situation all the more confusing. Seriously, where are Donald and Goofy? How did we get in this water, and why is Sora loose on the bridge? Moments later, people arrive and act like Sora walked into their trap. The hell’s going on?
Riku shows up on the deck and Sora’s first question to him is about Donald and Goofy. Sora doesn’t know either? This makes less and less sense by the minute. Trying to make Sora feel bad about caring for his new friends instead of his old, Riku reveals that he’s brought poor comatose Kairi onto the deck just to make Sora feel guilty. He’s sort of a dick like that. At least Kairi’s shown breathing here, though she stares to the side at nothing in particular, eyes open
Sora, happy to reduce any nuance in the situation to its black and white, asks why Riku is siding with “the Heartless,” as though this entire conflict was about him and the great shadow swarm. Still, this does lead to the best line in the entire series. Riku claims the Heartless obey him now, so he has nothing to fear. Sora’s reply?
Haley Joel Osmet’s delivery is so spot on you just have to laugh. As much flak as I was giving Sora a moment ago, he’s right: siding with the Evil Magic Zombies, which is what Heartless essentially are, is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Riku has become outright arrogant, thinking his heart is too strong to lose to the Heartless. Considering that even Maleficent has cautioned against that, it seems she may have misled Riku a tad too much!
Riku then makes one of the series’ most subtle references: he causes a Heartless to take the form of Sora’s shadow. Gaming is so full of shadow clones that most players blink this off and go about their business, but once you meet Shadow Sora later in the world, the reference becomes clear: it prances about, dances, and mischievously knocks out some of your Munny. It’s a reference to Peter Pan’s shadow from the Disney film! And a reference being made by a member of the main cast, no less!
EDIT: Reader Eamonn made some great observations about the Shadow that you can see in the comment below!
Riku drops Sora down a trap door, because he and Captain Hook are both Bond villains now, and Riku leaves the deck. Captain Hook and his first mate, Smee, stick behind. Hook is furious that Riku keeps ordering him around, but when Smee (Jeff Bennett again) asks what they should do, Hook says to just wait for it to be over. “The hold is crawling with Heartless,” says Corey Burton, putting more cartoonish comedy and loathing into the same word than I thought possible. Good voice actors are a treasure.
By the way, if they’re trying to get back to Maleficent’s base, why are we waiting here on Neverland? We stay in the water this whole time. Captain Hook later delays Riku with a question and Riku orders him to leave again, but why did they come to begin with? So Sora could admire the view?
Down in the brig, we have a cute cartoon moment where Sora and Goofy are talking about Kairi even though Sora fell on Goofy and Donald’s heads and hasn’t gotten up. When they do get up, they realize they’re not alone: Peter Pan is with them. Pan (voiced by Christopher Steel, who hasn’t done much else but has stuck with Kingdom Hearts through eight years), seems to be waiting for someone, and soon Tinker Bell arrives, with news that Wendy Darling is also being held on the ship. My, Hook has been effective, hasn’t he? Tinker Bell isn’t keen on being used to look for information on Pan’s other girlfriend, but Peter asks for her help to jimmy the lock, and everyone’s free. If Sora had arrived earlier we wouldn’t have needed her, since the Keyblade could have worked the lock, but I’m not going to complain about NPCs being industrious.
(Vanilla PS2 players should make sure to visit the save point in the brig before leaving. The devs made a silly but catastrophic mistake with Neverland. Typically, you have to visit a Save Point or World Exit to leave the world, and that exit save point is the only save point you must visit in Neverland. Here’s the trouble: the exit save point is locked off later in the game! If you haven’t visited another save point, you’ll be prevented from revising Neverland permanantly! There are a few save points in Neverland, and visiting any one of them will fix this problem, but I feel it’s best Vanilla players tag this first one before something bad happens. A disastrous oversight, thankfully fixed in later revisions.)
From here out it’s all-out brawl to the deck. Neverland controls your movement via locked doors, forcing you to loop through most of the ship, but it’s not so bad (heck, the doors unlock after you clear the world and you’ll realize just how small the place is). The Heartless will slow you down if you acknowledge them, but even that isn’t necessary if you’re in a hurry. Like I’ve said, I’ve made brash decisions in the past. Besides Shadow Sora, who’s incredibly flimsy and won’t appear again after this segment, the only new Heartless is the Pirate, a harder-hitting version of the Bandit with no missile attack. It’s nothing worth stalling over. Power through, friends.
To help you power through, you’ll have Peter Pan as a Guest party member. Peter hovers alongside you: his manoeuvrability is handy, since most of his attacks cause him to charge forward and his flying prevents him from getting caught on minor obstacles. That said, Pan’s not really worth talking about. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: close combat allies just seem inadequate compared to Donald and Goofy.
Partway through the trip, you’ll encounter three cutscenes. In one, Donald and Goofy ask Peter about his whole… flying… thing, and Tinker Bell sprinkles them with pixie dust to no apparent effect. In another, Riku says Maleficent has confirmed that Wendy is not “one of them,” implying Wendy is not a Princess of Heart. I suppose that’s why the ship came to Neverland? Even though they’d have to land with Sora already kidnapped? Riku orders Wendy thrown overboard as dead-weight. You’re a great guy, Riku, it’s fun to know you. A few scenes later, you speak to Wendy through some netting in the ceiling. Wendy (original voice actress Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice again!) has been locked up with Kairi, and reports that Kairi isn’t responding to anything. Sora and the others are still trying to find a way to get to them when Smee arrives with some Heartless to fetch Kairi.
This leads to the only real navigation puzzle in the area, where you have to jump through a hole in a different patch of netting. You know, the netting that’s on the ceiling. It was 2002, and game developers hadn’t yet learned how to get players to look at the ceiling, so Kingdom Hearts arguably should have known better (in the N64 and PSX era, just one generation prior, rooms often didn’t have ceilings). Maybe if they had shown you the hole in the cutscene, but nope, and as a consequence you might easily get lost here for a while. Once you’re through the ceiling you have to use a Green Trinity in a room to open a trap door to move on. This is the first mandatory Trinity in a world with a Guest, and it trips up more than a few players who haven’t learned that Guests prevent the use of Trinities!
I’m also going to take a moment to comment on the ladder, which you can only climb when the ladder is between Sora and the camera. This kicks the player’s instincts into confusion: to climb ladders, you have to press up, but to get on this ladder, you have to press down to move towards the camera, so…?
The trapdoor leads to Hook’s cabin. There’s all sorts of junk around the room, and he’s even holding a box of Dalmatian pups on his bed. That’s almost cute, since I can’t imagine he knows where they came from and is probably taking good care of them. But there’s no time to gawk: Riku has Kairi in his arms and appears to be waiting for nothing more than a dramatic moment to leave. He backs through the door, and Sora is prevented from following him by another one of his Shadows, and this one’s different.
And boy is this thing going to stall for time. This is Anti-Sora, one of the hardest mini-bosses in the game. Anti-Sora is a Shadow Sora that actually holds a Keyblade, and plays like a more traditional dark double. Anti-Sora is also one the great pains of the original PS2 version, at least for me. Why? It comes down almost entirely to the amount of time he spends invincible. Anti-Sora spends much of his time attacking, but almost as much time slinking into the floor to ambush you, or splitting into three duplicates, and he’s invincible during both attacks. The three dupes strut s-l-o-w-l-y in opposite directions, and he does this all the time, as you grind the PS2 controller into dust in your hands just to vent your frustration. 1.5 seemed to fix most of my complaints for the fight, but that doesn’t take away all the rough patches.
When Anti-Sora jumps you from the floor, it hurts. While Ursula and Oogie hinted in this direction, we’re essentially at a new phase of the game: the phase where you must dodge or use Aero, or you’re going to die. Well, die or get real close to dying. Anti-Sora can easily take away a third of your HP in a single ambush, and judging from comments online, the change from strategic-but-generous gameplay to play-strategically-or-you-will-die gameplay is jarring to a lot of players. The game doesn’t mean to ask you to be a perfectionist. It’s mostly asking you to use Aero, but that’s a hard lesson to learn! Ask yourself: when did you get that spell? Four and a half worlds ago? Plus sidequests and 100 Acre Wood? Have you even used it? Do you even remember it exists?
Anti-Sora’s also mostly immune to spells, and only really stunned by ground combos, so Rod players can’t use their Air Combo Plus advantage against him. This seems like a fair trade-off: Jafar, Iago, Ursula and parts of the Oogie manor battle were all hit by air combos. Rod players’ boosted combos have made up for their shitty stats up to this point, and since they have more MP to use on Aero, maybe they do need a little balance. But “a little balance” quickly becomes kicking Rod players in the gut over and over again on the next world. It’s not until the post-game that things become fair again for magic users. I’m sorry Rod players. We’ll get through this as a family.