Kingdom Hearts 2 was originally released in 2005, re-released as KH2: Final Mix+ in 2007, and is the most recent dedicated console game in the series at the time of writing. It was also the last game in the series designed by the original team (even FM+ was designed by the team that went on to make later games in the series). The original team was reassigned to produce Final Fantasy XV for the rest of their measurable lives. KH2:FM+ was eventually released internationally in KH2.5, and if I say much more… oh folks, this is already looking to be the longest entry in the entire retrospective, wouldn’t it be best if I just got to work?
Some discussion on version preferences is relevant. If you’re living in Japan, the original PS2 FM+ might be preferable to 2.5, since 2.5 has texture loading issues for some players, and load time issues for everyone, plus a change (glitch?) in the final boss fight which may kill you if you’re not prepared for it. While this Retrospective was written before the release of the PS4 version of 2.5, I will say that the PS4 version looks even glitchier. But if you’re living internationally, the advantages of getting 2.5’s version of FM+ is immeasurable, PS3 or 4. FM+ is the best version of KH2. New gameplay, a new challenge level, a half hour of new cutscenes… This was the best and perhaps most essential re-release of a Kingdom Hearts game in the entire series, if you exclude coded’s transition from cell phones. You do not want to be left out of the changes in this version, you can’t let something as trifling as minor loading issues hold you back. This version is even better for veterans of the series willing to try out Critical Mode, which I recommend even if you’ve never played KH2 in the past but have played some of the others. We’ll talk more about difficulties in a moment.
This time I used two scripts, both by DJ Firewolf, the Vanilla and the FM+.
Kingdom Hearts 2 starts with one of my favourite versions of Dearly Beloved, and like KH1, features a demo video set to an orchestral version of the main theme. The Japanese main theme is called “Passion,” so this is “Passion – Kingdom Orchestra,” and it’s another series great, though I feel the demo has a few too many spoilers, and doesn’t add much of value outside the music and in repeating the poem from the KH1 demo sequence.
After the title screen and demo, you’ll be asked to make that usual choice that never gets off your back: difficulty. KH2 Vanilla has three difficulty levels, Beginner, Standard and Proud, while FM+ adds Critical Mode. Like with KH1, you get different unlock criteria for the secret video depending on your difficulty. Let me be clear up front: the unlock criteria for the secret videos on Standard mode are prohibitive. I don’t want to get too much into the subject up front, but you have to get nearly 100% in Vanilla on Standard, and in FM+, you do have to get 100%. FM+ will actually let you unlock the Vanilla secret ending even on Beginner, but the requirements for the new secret ending are even higher. I’ll discuss this in-depth in one of the final entries, but if you’ve played KH1, KH2 is going to make you hate yourself for playing on Standard difficulty.
A lot has to be said about the new Critical Mode. In later games in the series, Critical Mode is just the “Very Hard” mode over top of Proud’s “Hard Mode.” This is not the case in KH2. Critical Mode makes radical difficulty changes, not just making life harder for you, but also making life hard for your enemies, turning the game into a far more skill-based experience compared to the original. Yikes, do you feel that? That’s the feeling of me getting too far ahead of myself in the intro again. The faster we go the easier this will be to talk about. Let’s bail.
KH2 opens with a voice-over from Haley Joel Osmet reading a short verse, not unlike KH1. This time, it’s “A scattered dream that’s like a far-off memory. A far-off memory that’s like a scattered dream. I want to line the pieces up. Yours and mine.” Huh. That was… oddly romantic! As you’ll see, these lines turn out to be actually kind of dismal depending on interpretation, but we’re far too early for that. How about we kick in the new theme song?
Utada Hikaru returns for this one, singing “Passion” for the Japanese version or “Sanctuary” for the English, and this time not only was the song written for Kingdom Hearts, but the English version was as well, so I won’t be ragging on it being inappropriate for the rest of forever. Nevertheless, the songs do have different meanings, and while the English version is still relevant, I feel Passion is closer to the mark than Sanctuary. Passion is about the singer looking back at a lost or distant relationship that she’s unable to retrieve, and how she used to look forward at the future in ignorance of her problems. Sanctuary is about a relationship that the singer finds comforting against the turmoils of the world. I can’t help but see the two of them as two parts of the same song, Sanctuary as the past and Passion the future. Or is Sanctuary the present, Passion the future… and Hikari the past? Woo, look at me go! One of this game’s central themes (starting as early as the poems at the end of CoM) are about relationships changing with time, especially after time spent apart, so it’s worth keeping an eye on anything that seems relevant to those subjects.
The opening video begins with Kairi on the beach, finishing the Oathkeeper keychain. The scene then cuts to Sora and his friends waiting at the paopu tree, when they suddenly fade away, and Sora leaps off the tree… into Hollow Bastion. What follows is a beautiful montage of the events of KH1 and CoM, half told through visuals and half through visual metaphors. It’s easily my favourite Kingdom Hearts opening, and I’d also say the best. DDD tries a similar note and easily takes second place, though DDD tried to summarize all six previous games and comes off a little cramped as a result.
I feel any attempt to summarize this video would fall short of the mark, so it’s probably best you look it up online. Nevertheless, there are a few highlights that have to be noted. We see Sora battle Riku at Hollow Bastion, defeat Ansem, and we see him talking to Kairi at the end of KH1, where Sora was pulled away from her. Then, there is a transition, and we see Kairi’s new appearance for KH2. We got a glance of an earlier design in KH1’s secret endings, but this is the finalized design. Of the three leads, I’m neutral towards Kairi’s new look. I like this, I dislike that, I find myself liking her hair even though I loved the hair on the original, it’s a mixed bag.
The visual metaphors really pick up as we transition to CoM by contrasting Kairi with Naminé, and the game employs a spiral staircase metaphor to further contrast Sora and Riku’s opposing journeys through the castle (it also shows Sora meeting DiZ alongside an Org member, which never happened, though it works for the economy of time in the video).
The video then reaches my favourite point, which shows Naminé drawing Sora inside the pod, causing it to sprout around him. They actually had Naminé seeming to lip sync to some of the lyrics from the song (“Angels in flight,” in the English; “Mirai wa” or “The future” in the Japanese) and Sora falls into sleep.
As we come to our final shot, Sora is returned to Destiny Islands, where is seen lying hand in hand with Kairi and Riku, when he suddenly plunges through the beach into water like in KH1. Except, in so doing, he is transformed, and has been replaced with the blonde boy from the ending of Re:CoM. When the game was originally released, this person was a complete stranger to the player. The boy seems just as confused as us as he lands on dark ground in the dream. Like in KH1, the ground explodes into birds and reveals a stained glass window. Except, instead of a Princess of Heart, this window depicts Sora in sleep, with pictures of his four closest friends (Kairi, Riku, Donald and Goofy). The opening officially ends there.
However the cinematics continue. Rather than proceed to the Dive to the Heart, the opening cuts to the dark beach from the secret ending of KH1:FM. This is, in fact, the very same sequence we saw in the secret ending, as two figures in black cloaks meet. The figure who was sitting says “I’ve been to see him… he looks a lot like you.” Unlike in the secret ending of KH1, this character is now voiced. We’re going to be seeing a lot of unidentified, cloaked figures in this game, so it’s probably best if I identify them by voice actor until their real name is revealed. This is Paul St. Peter, an anime voice acting veteran, more recently known for a huge number of roles in Naruto, Digimon and Bleach.
But weirdly enough, when the standing figure responds, they are unvoiced. Their lines simply appears in the captions. Voiceless asks St. Peter’s character to identify himself. Paul St. Peter’s character replies “I’m what’s left. Or… maybe I’m all there ever was.” When Voiceless demands an actual answer, St. Peter turns the question on him, asking Voiceless for Voiceless’ “True name.” Voiceless discovers he cannot answer the question, as it seems he doesn’t know his true name. As he struggles, we get a peculiar and perhaps telling transition to Kairi saying the name “Sora.”
Sora awakens on the beach in KH1, and we quickly realize we’re in the middle of a flashback from KH1. But it is no ordinary flashback: the clips are interrupted by static, as though we’re watching on a busted CCTV system. The flashbacks summarize the events on Destiny Islands in the original game, where, incidentally, we learn that Richard Epcar has already been used to overdub Ansem. Billy Zane has left the building. And normally? Normally I’m cool with Epcar’s Ansem, but he is weak in these flashback redubs. Later flashbacks showing the final battle really clinch the problems. Talk about bad first impressions for Epcar.
If you’re impatient while watching these old scenes, you may discover that Vanilla KH2 has finally implemented a Skip Scene button. Hell, you can even use it in certain in-engine text sequences! I’m complimentary toward this, but only to a degree. Yes, it’s nice KH2 that does this (and it was the first game in the series to do so), but Square should have done it years ago. It’s hard to be too praising of common courtesy. Similar common praise applies to the introduction of dual-stick camera controls on a dual-stick system. Both the dual-stick and scene skip features were backported to KH1 in 1.5, so modern players are going to miss how much nicer KH2 was than KH1 for accomplishing the bare minimum.
By the way, backhanded insults of KH1 may become something of a running theme, as its flaws are more obvious in hindsight than they are during the first run.
The flashbacks fade to static, and we find ourselves meeting the blonde boy from Re:CoM for the first, proper time. He’s lying in bed, actually wearing a set of pyjamas, which is more than I can say for the characters in this series that are seen sleeping in full dress. He rubs at his head and says “Another dream about him…” The voice actor here is Jesse McCartney, singer/songwriter, former All My Children child star, and future Nightwing on Young Justice. McCartney has a pretty deep set of Disney connections, mostly musical, though he’s also a voice actor in the Tinker Bell franchise. He matures into one of Kingdom Hearts’ best regulars, and even starts on good footing. KH2 is leaps and bounds ahead of KH1 in terms of quality voice acting and it starts here with McCartney.
The blonde boy sits up and opens the window next to him, giving a dramatic reveal to those who played the original CoM: he is living in Twilight Town, the mysterious village from the GBA game, and it seems he is our current player-character.
Time to get to work.