It’s been a long time since we saw cutscenes on both sides of the staircase. Back in the dark room, Zexion… I guess “smells”… Lexaeus’ death and acts somewhere between neutral and upset. The dark meeting room is starting to look very lonely. Axel decides this is the right moment to intercede. Zexion’s strangely neutral toward Axel (“neutral” is the key word with Zexion) considering that he earlier describe Axel killing Vexen as “deplorable.” Axel says that he wonders who will be next to die, which is lovely dinner conversation, and Zexion shows a sense of humour by saying “I thought perhaps it might be you.”
This gives Axel an excuse to show us where we are in the plot: Sora has just thrashed him and is on his way to Marluxia. At least this time the time skip makes sense: Riku was unconscious just now.
The funny thing about this conversation in the remake is that Zexion takes Sora fighting Marluxia as a sign that Marluxia is certain to die – he talks about him like he’s already dead! In the original, Zexion teases Axel some more: “Anyone who beats you is unbeatable – is that it?” I like this side of Zexion, let’s see more of these quiet jabs! Zexion remarks that since Marluxia is doomed, this means Riku is only a nuisance now. And after all I said about the remake giving them no reason to want to kill Sora, Zexion now acts like he has to kill Riku, for no reason in both versions. It’s the remake, unusually enough, that implies a reason for this, but it only implies: Axel seems to goad Zexion into doing it. But it’s still pretty thin.
At B3, Riku is out of world cards, and for someone who was musing about this earlier, he doesn’t seem all that put-out by it. In the remake, Riku reaches B3 just in time for the entire castle to shake (in the original, there is no such signal). Zexion arrives to explain: the keeper of the castle is dead. Once again, Zexion is more playful and sarcastic in the original, I really feel like we’ve lost a lot of his personality in the remake. And wow, speaking of the remake, did someone accidentally thumb Zexion’s saturation dial or something? Outside of the Dismal Meeting Room, Zexion looks like his skin is darker than everyone else’s. It may be that he just looks that way, but (spoilers) we later see Zexion’s original self during BBS, and it doesn’t match. I can’t help but wonder if this was the budget remake way of shading Zexion for the dark basement meeting: that they might have changed the colours on his model to make him look like he was in the dark? Lighting was one of the frontiers that really advanced in the last two console generations, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s exactly the case.
Zexion tells Riku that Sora killed the Master of the Castle, Riku’s first confirmation that Sora is in the castle at all! (I suppose this might even break the feeling that he’s on a mythical journey, if he’s still clinging to that old chestnut.) Zexion asks if Riku is willing and able to face Sora. Riku asks what he means, and Zexion reminds him that his heart is still full of Darkness and with Ansem (the first time the basement crew have mentioned Ansem by name, weirdly enough). Riku looks ashamed by this, and Zexion presses his point: Sora’s the one who fights the darkness, and might very well not like what he sees in his darkness-driven friend. But he goads Riku to “see the truth for [himself],” and tosses him the Destiny Islands card he seems to have received from Axel.
By the way, Zexion addresses the Ansem in Riku’s heart as “Ansem’s shadow.” There are two ways of reading this. One: that this is the Ansem from KH1 and he is “Ansem’s shadow” only in that he’s a Heartless; or, two: that this is just a shadow of the Ansem from KH1, a copy of some sort, and isn’t the original. The distinction is important. Some fans theorize that the Ansem we’re seeing here is all that’s left of the original Ansem, still in Riku’s body from the possession during KH1, while others theorize that this Ansem is just a copy, a set of memories corrupting Riku’s heart, a bit like the memory-version of Voldemort from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Even the series seems confused: some games act like Riku really has Ansem in his heart… but also that this Ansem is outside his heart… leading to this weird quantum situation where it’s not clear if Ansem is dead, alive, here, there, or what. It’s a mess!
Oh, and Riku notices that the card depicts the Islands, something that completely blew past Sora, who apparently never looked at the cards. “Smelling” darkness, a scene that had to be changed entirely, recognizing the cards when Sora can’t… do you start to get the impression that someone else wrote this half of the game?
So Riku goes to the Islands and holy shit, plot in a card world! While the Destiny Islands still only has one gold room, we get a traditional opening sequence as though we were back in Sora’s story! Riku is thinking about how much he wanted to leave this world originally, and how strange it is that he’s relieved to be back. Just then, he notices the Final Fantasy cast in the distance. This scene’s a little funny, because it’s one of only like two scenes where the Final Fantasy friends are acknowledged as friends of the main trio by someone who isn’t Sora. They’re supposed to be close playmates, but in practice… not so much.
Riku goes up to the trio, and asks them what’s up, but while they turn to face him, they disappear, leaving Riku on his own. Tidus and Wakka fade out pretty hard, too, since we won’t see them again until Kingdom Hearts coded! Bye, “best friends”!
Destiny Islands is home to a brand-new boss in the remake, so it’s a little surprising that your deck has only been mildly improved in the 3D versions. The original deck was only built to fight the Darkside, after all, so it’s not very good! The GBA deck was spread too thin, with fifteen cards spread not-quite-evenly across the numbers 1-8, with priority given to 2s just to add insult. Its biggest strength is that you have no less than four 0s, but you can only capitalize on 0s so much. The remake’s cards are arranged in a similar pattern, but its cards are simply higher in value. The biggest improvement in the remake is a Mega-Potion, which you’re going to want when that boss comes (although it occurs to me that since the Mega-Potion’s primary advantage – resetting the reload counter – means nothing to Riku, this is just a Hi-Potion in disguise!).
In the Room of Beginnings, Riku runs on to the islet with the paopu tree… which is silly, because that’s where he started Destiney Islands in the remake! He just walked from the paopu tree to the paopu tree! Here, Riku runs into Kairi, and he’s so casual about meeting her that it’s hard to tell if he remembers this is a memory-world at first (which would be understandable, since this is the first time he’s had to interact with friendly people in here, even if the last ones did fade away in front of him). If you think about it, this is also the first time we’ve seen Riku and Kairi interact since the start of KH1, so the casual way he says hello feels surprising. It does make sense, I suppose. Kairi and Riku are important to one another, but not as much as Kairi is to Sora. I think if Sora were in Riku’s place, he’d have a heart attack.
Unfortunately, Kairi also disappears, and now Riku is upset, as this seems like proof that he really did toss aside his childhood for power. But as he’s beating himself up about it, Zexion appears and says “Surely you knew this would happen.” He reminds him that all the memory worlds have been empty, but Riku insists that he remembers the Islands, and can even name all of his friends, something Sora could not do at the same point of the game. But when he tries to insist that they’re his “closest friends,” he can barely do it. And Zexion knows why. “And who threw away those friends? Maybe it’s your own actions that you forgot. You destroyed your home!”
Riku finds himself on the night Destiny Island was destroyed, but Zexion is still there, and he accuses Riku once more of being responsible for their destruction of the islands. Zexion explains: Riku hated being an islander so much that he was the one who opened the door to darkness. It’s not clear whether he did this physically or magically, by exposing his heart to the dark. And while the context clues were here for this all along, this is technically new information. The suggestion is being made that Riku let the Heartless in to Destiny Islands deliberately, which meshes with what we saw in KH1 too well to be a complete lie. Chain of Memories is completing its second magic trick: after having Sora chase a repressed memory only to find a false one, Riku has tried to purge his memories only to find a repressed one.
Zexion then makes another claim, though it’s not clear if he’s trying to be literal or metaphorical. But damn would this be cool if it were literal: he reveals another Riku standing nearby, a memory-Riku, and says: “[You destroyed the islands.] And now you belong to the darkness. Look at what you are!” And the other Riku turns into the Darkside.
You can see what I mean from both angles. Zexion could be metaphorical, showing Riku how much damage he caused out of his own selfishness, or he could be very literal, saying Riku actually destroyed Destiny Islands by transforming into the Darkside! KH:coded will later imply that Riku was indeed on the flying island where Sora fought the Darkside, even though he appeared to have left the island far earlier…
You fight the Darkside, and it’s a joke. You can jump high enough to hit its arms even in neutral position. Even with Mickey gone in the original, this is a joke. Who cares. We return to the far more interesting plot. Or… do we? Riku finds himself back on the island, with no sign of Zexion. In the remake, he spots Sora in the distance, surveying the destruction, when suddenly the ornate door to light appears behind him. The game makes a very deliberate point of showing you the door, because it is trying to urge you to go back to the card world and synth yourself a save point. Take this advice.
Once you talk to Sora – or immediately, in the original – Sora rounds on you with the Keyblade. Riku asks him what he’s doing, asking if he doesn’t recognize him, and Sora says he knows who Riku is, but also what he’s become. The original does this a little better, simply because Sora appears out of nowhere after the revelation that Riku destroyed the island. For all we know, this could be the real Sora, at some point before or after he went to sleep in the pod. In the remake, it’s clear he’s a memory, but since that was a necessary consequence of giving you the chance to save, I don’t really mind.
We then come to a line that doesn’t work in either version. Sora fires a beam of light at Riku (actually it looks like the Keyblade’s unlocking laser in the remake, which is silly, but it doesn’t look like anything in the original, so we’re doing better than that). Sora says “How can the light hurt you?” in the remake, and “Look at you, shrinking away from the light,” in the original. Both are silly and can be explained by later events, but for the sake of comedy, let’s take these scenes at face value.
Let’s start with the remake: “How can the light hurt you?” Are you serious? Light is just a magical element in Kingdom Hearts, like Fire or Thunder. Sora used Light-based attacks on his friends and allies all through the KH1 tournaments at Olympus Coliseum! Light can hurt everybody! I can understand the writers’ confusion at the time of release, but this looks even worse in hindsight as the series went on to adds more and more Light attacks, not to forget a particular incident in an upcoming game that makes it clear how dangerous Light can be to anyone.
To make matters worse, in the GBA, Sora may have not been firing a beam of light in the first place! The animation is very indistinct. He may have just been hitting Riku with the Keyblade, and he has the nerve to ask why Riku was shrinking away! “How can metal hurt you?” he wails, hammering Riku with a steel bat.
Sora concludes that Riku could only be hurt by the light if he had become a creature of the dark. Was he not sure Riku was “dark” until just now? Do you beat up all your friends just to say hello? Sora resolves to finish Riku off, right on the spot, which should be a warning bell to the player, if the rest hadn’t warned you already. He then summons a massive amount of light. In the original, this could be seen as another warning bell, because Sora doesn’t really have an attack like that and we’re a little too intimately familiar with his capabilities to believe he pulled it out of his ass. In the remake, the attack was retrofitted to look like Ragnarok, but isn’t identical, so we get a more effective lie without losing the hint that something is wrong.
Consumed by the light, Riku is slowly dying. But as he muses on fading away, Kairi appears in a vision. Her first speaking lines in the game! Re:CoM was localized during the run of NBC’s Heroes, which meant Hayden Panetierre was unavailable. As a result, this game uses a new voice actress for Kairi, who will recur in several later entries: Alyson Stoner, singer, dancer, voice actor. For the Disney connection, Stoner played Max on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. She’s also played Isabella on Phineas and Ferb, and Batgirl on Young Justice. Stoner would go on to get her own character in the series, though in a weird twist, Panetierre has doubled for that character in turn! Confounding.
Kairi’s speech to Riku is surprising: it doesn’t sound like a friend talking to a friend, but Riku listens to her the way you’d expect him to listen to Kairi. She says that Riku can’t be killed here, and seems to really mean “can’t,” as though it were factually impossible, not improbable. She explains: “No power can defeat you – not the light, not the dark.” She then makes a very, very peculiar request: “So don’t run from the light – and don’t fear the darkness. Both will make you stronger.”
At first I assumed this was Zexion speaking, making one last attempt to seduce Riku to the Organization’s side, but then Kairi continues. “If you can truly stare into [the dark] and never try to look away, you won’t be afraid of anything again. […] Know that the darkness is there and don’t give in.” It’s like I was saying about Light just above: Light is just an element like Fire and Ice, but so is Darkness. Riku has a talent for Darkness the same way Axel has a talent for Fire. If he can tap it with equal parts restraint and courage, he’ll “be able to escape the deepest darkness—” Riku cuts in here to add: “—and I’ll be able to see through the brightest light.” This is a revolutionary way of thinking about the light/dark dichotomy in Kingdom Hearts, and shows how Riku has been going the wrong way. He’s been trying to chase down the darkness in his heart, even though it was a natural part of him, a personal strength, and was also ignoring the damage he did to his friends and family. Now he’s ready to confront both.
This is the second time Kingdom Hearts has turned around to confront one of its own conclusions: it’s turning around on the idea that Darkness is a universal ill from KH1. This may be because they compared darkness to personal strength in KH1, which was hardly an evil thing, just something Riku was misusing. If Riku can work out his personal problems, he might be able to clinch that personal strength and turn it into a benefit for everyone. This, by the way, is why there are no consequences to using Dark Mode throughout the game, no matter Ansem’s taunted you at the outset.
Kairi says that if Riku can work his way out of the darkness, he can be reunited with his friends. Riku wonders if he can face his friends. Kairi encourages him, but as she does, something strange happens. In the remake, Naminé appears, ghostly, beside Kairi, implying that she is the one speaking to you, and that Kairi has been an illusion. In the original, Riku will retroactively imply that this happens – albeit, a whole world from now! – but we don’t actually see it, which frankly feels inadequate. This explains the unusual way “Kairi” was speaking. But why would Naminé want Riku to embrace his darkness, to his benefit or otherwise? They’ve never really met! We’ll just have to wait and see!
Riku enters Dark Mode, and breaks out of the light, finding himself back on the island, and he has managed to attack Sora in the process. In the remake, when Sora speaks, we hear Zexion’s voice coming from his lips. Zexion transforms back, revealing “Sora” to have been an illusion all along (and I wonder if that was also the case of the other Destiny Islands characters, though I can’t say for certain). Zexion’s powers aren’t tied to a specific element like the other Org members, his power is in “Illusions.” Riku tells Zexion it was easy to find him, because of the—ugh, my god—the smell. If you can smell him why didn’t you smell him earlier?! Also, I’m starting to worry that this whole “smell” thing was introduced just so Riku could find Zexion when he couldn’t “see” during this one scene. It wasn’t worth it, devs!
In the remake, the scene now changes. Zexion gets back on his feet and challenges Riku, starting that new boss fight I told you about. In the original game, Zexion was never fought! Riku’s initial attack was strong enough to take him nearly out of the game, and he fled the room! That means the remake crew could create a fight specifically tailored to the remake’s additions, like duelling… and they created what some call the hardest fight in the game. I don’t necessarily agree with them (Lexaeus was harder for me) but like the control scheme in KH1’s Atlantica, there’s something to be said about the popular opinion.
Zexion is armed with a spellbook, specially called a “Lexicon” in KH2. This particular Lexicon, the Book of Retribution, has some unusual and powerful properties that are going to make this fight a real hassle. Thankfully, you have an edge: thanks to embracing the darkness, Riku is in permanent Dark Mode during the fight, giving him access to Sleights and a serious base attack advantage. Zexion also doesn’t seem to have much defence. But the rest… the rest is against you.
Unfortunately, like Marluxia phase 3, Zexion can steal your cards. Just your attack cards, not your High Potion, Friend Cards or Reload Card like Marluxia, but it’s bad enough. Oh, and he can use them against you. Try not to get confused about who played the Soul Eater card at the bottom of the screen! “Am I in Danger or Did I Make that Attack: The Zexion Story.” Zexion can also play a whirlwind to steal more cards, but you can use Dark Mode’s impressive Dodge Roll to escape. Oh, and Zexion can place false cards in your deck, with a reversed, pinkish-orange Soul Eater. Play them and you’ll be stunned.
Once Zexion has stolen enough of your Attack cards, he’ll summon a number of duplicates to the field (you can, in fact, prevent this attack by keeping him away from your cards, but it’s not easy). These duplicates are easily identified because Riku won’t auto-target them and because they are carrying Soul Eaters. To stop the duplicates, you need to destroy copies of the Book of Retribution which are now flying out around the arena, each of which corresponds to a duplicate, such that destroying the Book will destroy the duplicate. This is troublesome because the books are small fliers and, like Iago, Riku’s Dark Mode air attack is awful at hitting small fliers. Thankfully they don’t have much HP. While the duplicates are out, Zexion can use a special Sleight called Catastrophe to spawn a spinning laser around the arena, like Hades’ fire stream but far more damaging. This fight is no joke, and it’s best to treat Zexion as though he were one of the final bosses, just to be safe (we are pretty close to the final bosses, so all’s fair in love and card games). Even if I don’t feel Zexion is the worst of the worst, he’s definitely up there.
Zexion’s enemy card makes his/your attacks cause confusion and makes him/you resistant to everything. If you see it being played during the battle, use the Darkside Enemy Card to copy it or Parasite Cage to kill it. Or both! But be careful. The damnable remake forces you out of your Enemy Card deck and back to your Attack Deck if you pick up one of your stolen attack cards. This was also a problem when Sora fought Marluxia’s third form. It’s too bad that faulty mechanic had to stick its nose in. The rest of this fight was going so well!
We rejoin the original game now, with Zexion too wounded to stand. Zexion says “After all your protests you’re still just another darkling,” but Riku isn’t listening the taunts any longer, saying he knows what he is. He moves in for the kill, and Zexion leaves in a hurry, calling Riku a hypocrite in the original. You’re left to leave for the Conqueror’s Respite on your own.
Now that we’ve had this major plot shift, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some aspects of CoM’s gameplay. Throughout this Retrospective, I’ve been talking about (and wading through) the games’ over-complexities. I never know what to fully blame for CoM’s gameplay issues. The tutorial is junk, as I’ve been saying. Personally I do feel the gameplay works but it fails primarily as a matter of player education. But whenever someone says they don’t like the gameplay I understand entirely. The development is packed with restrictions, such that failure feels like it was CoM’s only possible outcome: limited portable system, dynamic environment killing game variety, bizarre vertical genre shift between turn-based concept design to real-time execution… and then it did something worse, without realizing it.
CoM desperately wants its gameplay to reflect its story. You hold Sora’s memories in your hand in parcelled cards. You structure them into a structure more advantageous to yourself than they may have been otherwise, like Sora does as his memory fractures, or Namine does as she draws. But the ideal “Sora” you’ve created is a lie: an idealism, which is made up of components from, but is nevertheless not identical to, Sora’s former, KH1 reality.
Riku has a better understanding of himself and won’t lie about it (fixed deck) but this also covers his self-awareness of his weaknesses: his deck is weaker in the early worlds, stronger now. As he goes, despite his attempt to purge the darkness, he accumulates only darkness (Enemy Cards), until he learns that his experience makes him stronger rather than being a series of failures crystallized in history.
So there it is: the (other) reason I suspect this game was planned as a turn-based card game to begin with (besides the early concept art). But narrative integration in gameplay relies on solid fundamental gameplay, and CoM’s attempt to experiment in both narrative gameplay and fundamental gamplay simultaneously was a gamble they were never going to win. CoM feels like a logjam: they couldn’t make the gameplay work, which meant they couldn’t teach it in the tutorial, which meant they couldn’t tell their story in the integrated manner they were hoping to create in the first concept draft.
When you leave the Respite, we return to Zexion in the dark meeting room, where he is barely standing, and complaining to the empty room that he doesn’t understand Riku’s new power. “No one’s ever worn the darkness the way that he does! It’s impossible!”
Just then, Axel teleports into the room with the Riku Replica, and Zexion panics to see Riku before realizing what’s going on. Vince Corazza makes Zexion work here, a desperate but still scheming agent recovering from a big shock, you can tell Corazza’s been doing voice acting for years. I wish they had left most of Zexion’s personality in the remake for him to work with – not unlike what I said about Marluxia, come to think of it. Zexion reasons they can use the Replica to fight Riku, which is what you the player would expect at this point, since the game was so fond of using him over and over in Sora’s story.
But the Replica turned over a new leaf at the end of Sora’s story, right? Well… remember what I was saying about how these two stories seem to be written by different people? The Replica is, even though this makes no sense whatsoever, suddenly back on his rage about Riku being the original! He even remembers their original encounter! I can’t and refuse to justify it (that last part in particular), it’s a complete blow to the end of the Riku Replica’s plot arc in Sora’s story. You could say the Replica was lying to Sora, or that Axel really misled him, but I can’t help but see it as anything but damaged plot.
Anyway, Axel – addressing the replica as “Riku” – tells Riku something a lot like what Larxene told Naminé. “I bet you’d like to be real. […] All you need is strength the real Riku doesn’t have. Get that, and you can be a new person, your own person. Not Riku, not anybody else.” KH1 established two approaches to identity: the light and dark. The light approach says “form your identity through unique connections.” The dark approach says “form an identity with a unique strengths,” and Axel is encouraging the latter. Unfortunately, Axel’s idea of forming unique strengths involves the Replica draining the rest of Zexion’s life-force, killing him. I don’t know how Riku can absorb life force (reasonable guess says Replicas just can… for some reason) or why taking someone else’s strengths would make you unique but… yeah! The Replica wanted to stay with Naminé and build his own life, and now he’s a murderer. I think it’s a little extreme!
Axel’s motives for doing this have changed in the remake as well. In the original, he continues his theme (mostly lost in the remake) of trying to get others to “entertain” him. “Sorry, Zexy. Saving you doesn’t seem half as entertaining as observing Sora and Riku.” Zexy. Amazing. In the remake, it’s more a new plot idea expanded on in later games. He simply says: “Sorry, Zexion. Hm… you just found out way too much.”
This retrospective’s 2D screenshots come from RickyC’s longplay of the GBA version of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories at World of Longplays (YouTube), while 3D screenshots come from BlueGator’s longplay of the 1.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts: Re: Chain of Memories at Temple of the Azure Flame (segmented version).