Roxas arrives at The Usual Spot only to find a note from Hayner saying they’re going to get to the beach again today for sure. Roxas goes to the meeting point, where he meets Pence and Olette, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Naminé… who somehow freezes the entire world in the process. Naminé is taller now to imply that she’s aged, but her costume hasn’t otherwise changed. In fact, I think it’s the same dress from before and she’s starting to outgrow it! Naminé says hello, now voiced by Brittany Snow, who was the lead in American Dreams at the time. Snow did not return to voice the character after the initial release, so Naminé’s new scenes in FM+ are voiced by Meaghan Martin, whom we’ve already heard in Re:CoM.
For all the build-up required by my introducing a new voice actor, Naminé does not stay long. She says she just wanted to meet Roxas at least once, and walks away, the world restoring in her wake. Pence and Olette keep talking where they left off, explaining that Olette dragged Pence shopping. Wait, I thought you were going to the beach? Why are you spending money when you—oh for goodness’ sake, it’s like the nerf bat selection all over again. This reeks of shitty editing and an old draft. Now I’m convinced this prologue had two designers working on it, and they sure weren’t talking to each other.
Pence and Olette assume Roxas is babbling about a girl just to ditch them, and they head off, Roxas wondering if Naminé went to “that haunted mansion.” And here’s another clue that more than one designer was working on this segment! Roxas says she was going to the mansion despite standing a location that has no view of the mansion or the route to it! “Did she go to the Mansion?” he says! Half of Twilight Town is in that direction!
Roxas follows Naminé to the tram common, where she goes through a massive crack in the wall that is never explained. This would have been a perfect time for Roxas’ line about the mansion, but no. Through the hole, Roxas finds himself inside the forest from the first day, where suddenly a troop of Dusks appears and begin to tug at him. He pulls them off and bolts, as he doesn’t have a weapon, and ends up at the Sandlot, where Seifer and his gang are meeting.
Seifer adds to his repertoire as Kingdom Hearts’ Shakespeare by calling out “Hey, chicken wuss!” Just then, he and the others spot the Dusks, and I’m as surprised they noticed as I thought the game was going to carry out a gaslighting of Roxas for another few days. Seifer says the Dusks have “Already crossed the line!” when they appear, and I have no idea what he’s talking about. Later in the game, we learn Seifer is ultra-hostile to outsiders, but even then he doesn’t outright attack them as he does now. I can only conclude that, bully he may be, he’s responding to Roxas’ panic and is actually defending the town as a member of the Disciplinary Committee!
The Dusks divide between Roxas, Seifer and the gang, but Roxas is once again only armed with a Struggle bat, and once again he can’t harm the Nobodies. By the way, this is the first fight in the game with an obvious force field around the arena, made of invisible hexagons that appear if you touch them. Just beyond the force field, Seifer and the others are squaring off against the Dusks like a set of creepy dioramas that barely move (they’re the reason I say the force field is “obvious,” since the player might try to reach them). It’s probably best you focus on the fight than the awkward window-dressing.
Your dead-ended fight ends after a little while, and Roxas notices the world has once again frozen around him. From a distance, Naminé calls out for him to use the Keyblade, something I’m sure Roxas considered, but thanks for helping! Just as Roxas is about to die, there’s a flash of light, and where should he awaken but in the Dive to the Heart.
The Dive to the Heart starts on a similar note to KH1. A Sword, Shield and Rod appear at the “Station of Serenity.” But there’s an element of menace this time, as the Dusks from before are now waiting outside the Station of Serenity for you to make your choice.
Yet again, this is a character creation moment, but thankfully this is the only one you’re going to have to put up with. Your choice will impact how Roxas levels up, and also at which levels he’ll gain skills. There is no “choose a power to surrender” moment and no “choose how EXP works” moment, so it’s a simple this-or-that-or-that decision. Personally, I think Shield is hard to beat, since it gives you Second Chance at a very low level, and the same for Second Chance’s combos-only brother, Once More. Sword comes off looking like junk for delaying those same two skills. Staff also delays a valuable skill – Lucky Lucky – but only in the Vanilla game, since Lucky Lucky isn’t learned by level-up in the remake. Staff also delays MP Rage in both versions, for who knows what reason. The wizard staff delayed the wizard skill? Did anyone think that through?
Wait, you say. What’s “Lucky Lucky?” Why, it’s Lucky Strike from KH1, of course! One of many returning classic abilities, all of them renamed in the localization for no reason! But don’t get comfortable with these KH2 names: many of them will be renamed again by the later games, some back to their KH1 forms and others given even more new labels for even less reason than before! What a class act.
It’s not a major concern either way, as it’s not hard to get all of KH2’s skills. KH2 is built to get you to high levels, with at least one challenge saying “For Level 99” right on the tin (and others implying it), while KH1 practically surrenders if you show up in the high-80s! Like I said in the KH1 Retrospective: it depends on what style of gameplay you want in your brawlers.
…Wow! We’re done character creation! This was an entire post in KH1!
After your choice, the Dusks close in, all four of… urm… three of them. Hey Dusks! I think you lost one of your buddies! Funnily enough, this happens at least once more in the prologue. You see four Dusks and they’re cut down to three. I guess four proved too dangerous for the playtesters, so they were cut down to three in every scene that previously had four, but no one told the cutscene team in time?
I consider this your first proper battle with Dusks, so I may as well talk about them. Dusks are actually pretty tough for a Koopa Troopa. They’re not Goombas (the Nobody Goomba is introduced just a few battles from now, though the Dusk is far more common and iconic). Compared to Soldiers from KH1, or honestly half the KH1 menagerie, Dusks have a far wider library of techniques, like the ability to walk upside-down in thin air, or to drop down and stab at you. They can bend through the air like fabric as well, which makes them interesting to watch, even deliberately confusing. When lesser Nobodies die, they dissolve into bubbles (dropping MP bubbles in every direction), as though that was all they ever were: a thin bubble waiting to pop.
To help fight these new enemies you gain a special counter-attack that you may have spotted during Roxas’ fight with the photo-thief. This is your first “Reaction Command.” These commands are triggered when Triangle prompts appear on the screen, similar to how you interact with people and chests. The prompt appears when an enemy is using a specific attack, and should you hit it, Roxas will respond with a special technique based on whichever enemy happens to be attacking. With the Dusks, this Reaction Command is “Reversal,” and it’s triggered by practically all of their attacks, which helps suit their role as a tutorial enemy. Reversal allows you to dart behind the Dusk, momentarily confusing them and even some surrounding enemies, even those enemies that aren’t Dusks! It is, granted, kind of silly how Reversal will still confuse enemies even if Roxas darts into a wall and never got away from the Dusk in the first place, but I feel KH2 should be allowed to get away with that.
Reaction Commands are funny, and highlight an important continuation from my KH1 Retrospective: you see what the devs were going for, but they don’t seem to know how to do it. Does that sound familiar? Remember when I said that God of War revolutionized the 3D Brawler in 2005? It’s now only 2005, and Wikipedia suggests KH2’s design work was done as early as 2003. While KH2 is clearly trying to take inspiration from other 3D Brawlers instead of 90s relics this time around, the trouble is that God of War had only just hit the scene, and KH2 had no chance to learn from it. That means KH2 was almost as lost in 2005 as KH1 was back at the turn of the decade! It had a few more years of games to pull on, but the quality of those games were… scattered. Devil May Cry was good, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was not (not that KH2 seems to have been paying attention to the Metroidvanias that were popular at the time, but that’s a discussion for later in the Retrospective). Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox was good but was still released late in KH2’s development cycle (2004), and for that matter on a system that wasn’t doing well in Japan. The genre was still the formative years, and like every sucker trying to make a fighting game before Street Fighter II, they only had a few scattered ideas about what to do. I can’t say for certain why KH2 chose to abandon the path KH1 had started, but abandon it they (largely) did, and in doing so they dove back into the confusing morass of pre-GoW Brawlers, as though they had made no progress at all!
While I find a Reaction Command like Reversal do add to the game’s tactics (in fact Reversal is on my list of favourites for that very reason), I’m still bothered by the fact that it’s considered a Reaction Command in the first place. It seems to me that if you can dart behind one monster, you should be able to dart behind most of them as a standard technique. Nothing about the Dusks make it any easier for Roxas to dart around them than any other enemy. In fact, I repeat that other enemies get confused by Reversal right alongside the Dusks, making Reversal’s association with Dusks even more arbitrary! (Frankly, if Reversal was a regular technique, it wouldn’t have a confusion factor to begin with, but you know what I mean). As we go along, you’re going to find that most of my favourite Reaction Commands depend on some quirk of the enemy rather than something Roxas is doing magically and for no good reason, and sadly most of them are arbitrary.
Reversal is kind of pointless in Vanilla. Oh, go ahead and use it if you want, but we’re talking about combat so it’s time for it to be said: Kingdom Hearts 2 Vanilla is one of the easier games in the series, and for me it’s either the easiest, or tied for it (at the time of writing). There’s nothing wrong with an easy game! But we have to be frank about the game’s difficulty to understand (and criticize, where appropriate) the decisions made around that difficulty. Only the boss fights against the Organization present a modicum of challenge along the ideal path, leaving the remaining 98% of the game on the easy side. It’s something to keep an eye on as we go along.
It’s important to note that the KH2:FM+ team actually were aware of the difficulty issues. This is why FM+ added both new secret bosses (more on them later), but new bosses just changes 98% of the game being easy to 97%. No, the real fix was to add Critical Mode, a radical rebalancing of the player’s and enemy’s stats to create a more dangerous, skill-based game that was arguably more in line with KH1. Older fans owe it to themselves to play Critical Mode at least once. I was playing it for the first time for this Retrospective and I was very satisfied. Critical Mode arguably adds more to the early game than to the end, but it’s still worth the trouble.
It’s no coincidence that I bring up Critical Mode now, as clearing the Dusks unlocks your first ability, and Critical Mode has a few things to say about abilities. Wait, you say: where did the ability come from? A level-up? A chest? As it happens, it came from a brand new progression mechanic. This is a funny thing that Kingdom Hearts 2 does, but I like it a lot: not all your powers come from levelling up. Many come from clearing event battles, challenges, and bosses. The mechanic can also increase HP, which as a matter of fact, HP can’t be increased in any other way! Your event battle first prize is Aerial Recovery, an ability that allows you to free yourself from a knock-back while still in the air. I won’t be documenting every ability in the game, but Aerial Recovery has become a Kingdom Hearts standard since KH2, so it was worth a mention. Earning your first ability also unlocks the Abilities menu, which means some extra special prizes to Critical Mode players.
Critical Mode players start the game a whole prize pack of special powers. These help them through the rebalanced early levels of the game, which can be very hard, and reward them for taking on the challenge in the first place. To help them through the early parts of the game, Critical Mode players are given Finishing Plus and MP Hastera, and as a reward for taking on the challenge, they get two Lucky Lucky skills to boost rare drops. These skills are top-of-the-line abilities, and you’re given an astonishing 50 AP to play with them, though your AP will increase at a slower rate to compensate for this head-start. Critical Mode players also have to deal with lower EXP rates overall, though I find that only puts you behind by a few levels at any given point in the game.
After clearing out the Station of Serenity, a mysterious voice calls to Roxas, repeating a line from Sora’s tutorial. It may be that Roxas is experiencing something through his clear but yet-unexplained connection to Sora? The door from the KH1 tutorial appears and the voice tells him that through the door, he’ll find another world, which is a strange thing to say because the door just leads him to another Station of Awakening! I once again hate to harp on things from the start of my KH1 retrospective, but I really, really think the Japanese term or terms being translated to “world” mean different things in their native language.
It is around this point in the game where you gain the use of items. A few interface improvements have been made in KH2 that you’ll really wish existed in KH1. For starters, you can now assign items to quick-use buttons, alongside your spells, and all four buttons are now available for quick-use. The game also lets you set items to Auto-Reload in your inventory whenever a battle ends. You can set this up any of your party members, so there’s no longer any need to dive into the menu after every single fight. This was something that really discouraged the use of items in KH1, especially on party members. Of course, party members still aren’t very good with items, but if you feel you must give them items, it’s easier for them to suck munny out of you than ever. I should also mention that you can finally open chests from the sides and back in this game! Interface improvements all-around! You can also open chests when enemies are around, if you’re in the mood to get slammed across the head.
Roxas fights his way through a few more stations, joined by stained-glass stairs, which you’d think would have me smiling and saying “Hey, the tutorial’s finally behind us! We’re playing Kingdom Hearts and not Roxas Goes on Fetch Quests HD!” but no. First off, this is just a brief interlude before we go back to the prologue! But I’m also peeved at their removing some of the mystique of the Stations of Awakening by turning them into a normal Kingdom Hearts area you can walk through like any Disney arena in the rest of the universe. There’s no mystique at all without the teleportation and other magic transitions. Maybe that’s just me being pedantic but it’s part of a larger–eh, forget it. If I start talking about taking uniqueness away from worlds in favour of mundanity now… Look, let’s just push on.
While we’re talking about fighting, I should mention that in 2.5 HD, some of Roxas’ battle grunts were expanded. It’s one of the very few changes made in 2.5 on top of FM+. Keen-eared fans tell me that that these battle quotes are drawn from other scenes in this game, and from other games in the series that use Jesse McCartney. Which is funny, because Roxas isn’t Jesse’s only character in the series, and sure enough, the wrong character’s voice is coming from Roxas’ mouth!
Atop the final Station, Roxas is on his own, when – and I never noticed this before, congrats to the HD version – we see a black cloaked figure following him for just an instant. In the next moment, a great monster, the Nobody equivalent to the Darkside appears: the Twilight Thorn. Here’s a weird thing to say: because the Organization fills the role of “Nobody bosses” for this game, this boss is the only lesser Nobody boss in the entire series. As a result, I’m not entirely certain what to make of it. You’d think this giant coat would be a bigger narrative deal, you know? I also wonder what was up with that black-cloaked figure. The way I see it, there are three possibilities:
- The black-cloaked figure was an Organization member (probably the one you’ll be seeing in person very soon), and they deployed the Twilight Thorn.
- The black-cloaked figure was the Twilight Thorn, since the Thorn seems to expand from where the cloaked figure used to be standing.
- Similar to #1 and #2, the Twilight Thorn or its deployer may have been simply living within Roxas’ heart the same way Heartless existed in Sora’s, and Roxas is simply fighting an essence of himself. This explains why no other giant Nobodies exist in the series: the Twilight Thorn is more metaphorical than real. KHI user hemmoheikkinen noticed a heartbeat sound during the battle that I feel backs this theory up.
The battle with the Twilight Thorn is set against “Tension Rising,” a track strongly associated with major Nobody event battles in the future. As a result it’s not so much of a “boss theme,” per se, but it’s still an impressive track that makes an impact here in its first appearance. The Thorn itself is a tall, white being like the Dusks, with the Nobody’s emblem serving as a sort of face (it’s actually the Organization’s emblem as well as the Nobody emblem, I’ll just spoil that). It has four long scarves or tentacles around its neck, and has preposterous shoulder pads meant to resemble the arms of the Organization emblem’s cross. Despite its size, the Thorn moves like the Dusks, bending and wafting through the air, and will often stretch itself all the way across the field, though you can only hurt it at the head.
The fight begins with the Twilight Thorn using a weird attack, and… I was really hoping we could put this discussion off but… no? Are you sure? Because I’d really rather… ! All right, all right.
I once saw a person at GameFAQs write something to this effect, and I wish I had saved the exact quote because it was a bullseye on an issue that spans the game: “Kingdom Hearts 2 is just pressing Triangle. Press Triangle to dodge. Press Triangle to attack. Press Triangle to win. Press Triangle to Sora.” One complaint you sometimes hear online is that the game is so easy on difficulties below Critical that you can beat it blindfolded, which is a little naïve. I’m not sure how many people mean that literally, but it’s naïve in that most of the bosses in KH2 actually do require you to pay attention… if only so that you can perform their reaction commands. Once you do perform the reaction commands the challenge has often ended, usually for the worst. Once you do the reaction commands, then you can replace your blindfold. Yup, it’s that plague of the mid-2000s: the common argument is that KH2 is a Quick-Time Event game. And with the Reaction Commands being treated like a fundamental element of combat against Nobodies, it feels as though the whole game is a QTE.
Even this is a reduction, but it’s a reduction I understand. I think the problem has to do with two prominent early bosses who rely almost entirely on Reaction Commands, one a blow-over (the Twilight Thorn), and one (the final boss of the prologue) that’s actually challenging for this early in the game (as early-game bosses go), but by that point the player’s is convinced that the entire game is QTEs. First impressions can be insidious this way. But KH2 has two kinds of QTEs. There are the shallow QTEs we’re familiar with from other games, like what the Twilight Thorn is doing now: where the game stops to just show you how awesome everything is while you press one button every ten seconds. Isn’t this awesome? How all these amazing things are happening and you’re not participating? Tell your friends! But there are also KH2’s other Reaction Commands, which are intermixed into combat and optional, like the Reversal command attached to Dusks. The question is whether these more common, optional QTEs truly add to the combat system’s variety and quality, or if they are simply a struggling extension of the shallow QTEs or alternately, a shallow, context-specific replacement for a fundamental mechanic that could have been.
Whatever the case, this one QTE is bad. The animation just draaaaaaags out. I don’t even want to give it the dignity of a summary. The Thorn teleports you around, you swing an energy ball at one another, and you both come crashing down to the ground so hard that it raises serious questions about the HP system. It’s supposed to look cool, and maybe it does the first time, but you can’t possibly kill the Thorn before it repeats the attack (it might even do it more than twice!), and it will be so… boring.
The rest of the fight can be kind of cool! The Thorn stretches around the arena, releasing another lesser Nobody called the Creeper. These shapeshifters are the weakest Nobodies: in fact, they’re so low to the ground, literally as well as metaphorically, that their faces are only visible from extreme low angles (bottom right). They have a wide attack variety since they can transform, but like the Shadows in the Darkside fight, they really just exist here to give you HP orbs. These will be helpful because unlike the Darkside, the Thorn is actually a threat. Let’s be honest… the Darkside wasn’t trying, and it’s kind of silly that we’ve anchored part of the franchise to its original mechanics ever since. Things get worse when the Thorn begins to attack you with special thorny energy lines, like lightning bolts, which linger on the field and forced you to use Reversal to dodge them (this is a rare example of a Reaction Command being shared between enemies, but Reversal is such a solid technique that I can hardly blame them). If you can master Reversal and have good timing, you can really wail on the Thorn’s head during this attack. It’ll be all worth it in the end.
One weird thing that you have to get used to in KH2 is the way you defeat bosses. To finish off a boss in KH2, your character (not allies) has to land either a damaging Reaction Command, a magic attack, or most common of all, a finishing attack (the attack at the end of your combo). If you end up extending your combo with Combo Plus Abilities, you may end up make boss-killing harder rather than easier. It’s up to the individual.
The prize for clearing the Thorn, aside from the HP upgrade attached to almost all bosses, is the Guard ability. Thank goodness.
In a call-back to Sora’s first fight with the Darkside, when you win the fight, the Keyblade bails on you, leaving Roxas defenceless when the Thorn careens over and consumes him in darkness. He’s rescued by Naminé, who brings him to a white room full of… rudimentary polygons? And I don’t know what to tell you. One of the polygons looks like a CoM card, but the rest…?
Naminé starts to talk to Roxas, introducing herself and asking Roxas if he remembers his “true name,” similar to Paul St. Peter’s question at the outset. Just then, the cloaked fellow from Day 2 (the one I refuse to name) appears and tells Naminé to stop. She says: “if no one tells him, Roxas will…” but Cloaky cuts her off, saying it’s best Roxas not know “the truth.” Cloaky creates a dark portal and shoves Roxas in it. He wakes up in Twilight Town, in the Sandlot.
Seifer’s gang is still here, celebrating their defeat of the “weird white guys,” who have run away or vanished in your absence. Just as Roxas is getting up, who should arrive but his other friends, who are completely pissed to see him standing around with Seifer and the others? Roxas meets up with them at The Usual Spot, where Pence tries to casually introduce the idea that Roxas was hanging out with Seifer’s gang today instead of them. Roxas says no, but so awkwardly that no one believes him. Shit man, everyone’s kind of upset at you. I know you must be stressed, but can’t you say anything more than that?
Apparently the answer is “no,” because Roxas carries on this conversation full of bad decisions and proxy embarrassment, and asks how the trip to the beach went in his absence. Of course they didn’t go without him (I thought they were shopping?). He suggests they go tomorrow and whoops, tomorrow’s the tournament you promised to attend, remember? Roxas, for the sake of Disney Legend Bill Justice, tell them you were attacked. Seifer’s gang will happily back you up on this because it makes them look like heroes. But of course not. Hayner storms out, and the day is reduced to static and the Malefiputer’s announcement that Restoration is at 48%.
Before the flashbacks, we visit DiZ and Cloaky. Cloaky asks DiZ if “that Naminé [was] made of data?” in this series’ weird way of using “data” as a tangible, the same way you might say “is that statue made of bronze?” Nevermind the phrase “that Naminé,” because that at least will make sense before we’re finished the prologue. DiZ says that Naminé hijacked the data herself, whatever that means, and he’s pissed. Lord Summerisle calms down only because he says that it doesn’t matter in the end. “As long as Naminé accomplishes her goal, we needn’t worry about what befalls Roxas.” And he says Roxas’ name with such a note of derision, it’s as though he’s dismissive at the very idea of “Roxas.”
The static flashbacks have reached Hollow Bastion at this point. The battle with the Unknown from KH:FM appears in this section, confusing the hell out of international players, and confusing me as to why the flashbacks have the Unknown showing up before the fight with Riku-Ansem. Of course they did it for efficiency, but it’s still weird, especially in how it’s clearly not connected to the rest of the events at HB.
This recap also includes a shot of Kairi from CoM, probably because it was just a nice shot of Kairi. But because the shot was taken from a cinematic prepared for the original GBA CoM, it’s also heavily pixelated, and the end result is real rotten. Sadly, this is also true of some of the pre-generated cutscenes in 2.5, especially in BBS, since none of them were remastered in HD. Nevertheless, CoM Kairi here has it worst of all.
Also: you have to wonder how “restoration” can only be at 48% when there’s only one world left in KH1!