While the fact that Twilight Town has vanished is notable, it’s time to move on with our lives and into the actual game. There are now two worlds in bottom-right side of the map, plus a third one also covered in a hemisphere of darkness (you can see Twilight Town’s hemisphere at the top of the attached screenshot, and the second hemisphere peeking out at the bottom-right edge). Unfortunately, to get to the new worlds, you’re going to need to complete a few Gummi segments, which are indicated on the map via doors that appear between each world. Once a “door” is opened by clearing the Gummi segment, you never have to do it again, which is a huge relief to me after the original game. If you do choose to play the Gummi segments again, there is the option to do new “missions.” These aren’t the simple challenges from KH1: KH2’s Missions are often whole new stages for you to take on, and if you want the secret ending in FM+ on Standard, I’m afraid to say that completing Gummi missions is now mandatory. Higher difficulties (and players of Vanilla KH2) can breeze by as ever.
In any event, let’s begin a Gummi Mode expose.
Gummi Mode begins in an extensive gummi garage that exists in whatever pocket dimension Chip and Dale have stashed themselves. Gummi customization in this game is much improved, I’m honestly quite impressed, especially the way the editor divides the body of the gummi (where you can actually round or bevel pieces to your liking) from the weapons and tools. This ingenious double-layer system of body and weapons lets you stick weapons inside the body, which improves both the visual appeal of your ship and the ease of use for the editor. You can even attach special abilities to the ship. Weirdly enough, there is also no requirement for you to bring a cockpit!
While your editor has been improved, the game still offers existing blueprints for the lazy, like me. You no longer have to rely on Geppetto or on strange, Heartless-slaughtering, door-opening magic tricks to get new designs – Gummi mode and the main KH2 game are all but completely distinct, for better or worse. The game is happy to throw new blueprints at you as a reward for completing stages, and you can select them on the fly when you start your run instead of having to fuss through menus to load and save your favourite gummi designs. You can earn even more blueprints by S-Ranking the Mission #2’s on each track (which isn’t as hard as it sounds, if you come from the end-game), though there are a handful of blueprints found through other means.
There are now multiple types of weapons you can field on your Gummi, including the traditional projectiles and lasers, but also “impact” gummis for those rare instances when an enemy flies near you (more often than not, these are used as a counter for enemies with impact weapons of their own!). More confusing are the new “slash” gummis, which require you to fill up a gauge by killing enemies with other weapons before you can use them, but they have the added benefit of area attacks and breaking through enemy shields and whatnot. You can also bring “Teeny Ships” into the game, which function like options from any other shooter game – for those not familiar with the term, “options” are small companion ships that fly along your own. You can even customize the Teeny Ships and change their formation on the fly if you equip an ability, though I’m not sure why the formation changer “ability” wasn’t made default.
Once you start flying in Gummi Mode, you’ll discover that the influence has changed from Star Fox to Panzer Dragoon and its descendants. These 3D shooters are still on rails, though now the camera pans to your front, back, or side at set points. Firing controls are awkward: you are no longer firing all weapons just by pressing a single button. Instead, you tap the button to fire the projectiles, and hold it to lock on with your lasers, after which you release to fire (very Panzer Dragoon). Alternately you can enable automatic fire of your projectiles in the menu at the cost of using lasers at all. Since this is so much more convenient and much nicer to my poor thumbs, I tend to design ships with no lasers just so I can use auto-fire. It would have been nice to be able to toggle auto-fire with a button (Select?) instead of being forced to go to the submenus, but it’s not awful. You’re also able to do barrel rolls with Circle, which deflects most attacks, though if you want to use barrel rolls effectively, it’s going to murder your thumb all the same.
Enemy ships no longer drop gummis or parts at all times, nor will you find parts in the main game (divorcing the two modes even further). If you’re looking for parts, you must track down pre-set red and gold-coloured enemies in each mission and destroy them, while scoring high on each mission for a separate list of prizes. Each gummi track has three kinds of gummi missions. Mission 1 is an exact (or near-exact) copy of the mission you did to clear the map in the first place. You’re forced to replay this mission because the game chose not to record your high score during your initial run, because it’s an asshole. During Mission 1, you’ll be collecting medals from enemies like many modern shooters, a task dramatically simplified by a few of the special abilities (like Draw and Medal Converter). While medals are your objective in Mission 1, they also serve a practical purpose in all three modes: collect enough and your ship will go into “Overdrive” and become considerably more dangerous. Mission 2 sees you trying to get a high enemy kill count, and there’s not much more to add about it, beyond the aforementioned fact that Mission 2s always give you a new ship blueprint for clearing them.
Mission 3 changes the game entirely. During this mode, you have control over the camera, able to move it freely in 90 degree angles along the y-axis. A radar around the edge of the screen tries to tell you where enemies are, but they tend to appear with such rapidity that it’s hard to keep up, much less actually shoot the targets. I get the impression that camera control may have once been intended as a default in Gummi Mode at some stage in development (for example, the radar appears in all modes, and the radar “locks” when you have a mini-boss is on screen, even in Missions 1 and 2, where there’s nothing to lock). This is probably for the best, as Mission 3 is hectic and unrewarding. Your target in Mission 3 is a high score, a classic arcade shooter objective, but the limitations of the mechanics and the ability to break the game with customization is probably not going to attract many hardcore shooter fans.
FM+ complicates this whole affair with new EX missions. These are variants of the existing missions that you can perform if you S-rank the existing missions, meaning there are twice as many missions in FM+ if you’re a really, really big fan of Gummi Mode. These EX missions are similar to KH1:FM’s missions, at least in that they demand a specific gummi model or building restrictions to participate. Sometimes those restrictions are so trivial that it’s hard to tell why they bothered, but I guess I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. 2.5 gives an achievement for S-ranking one EX mission for every Gummi door, but otherwise only Standard mode players, will need to worry about EX missions, as it factors into their unfair secret ending requirements.
Yoko Shimomura is on point in most of the gummi musical tracks, which I feel are some of the best tracks in the game even if no one remembers them after they leave the gummi track and never return.
The stages themselves can be interesting, with little dioramas of the full gummi track appearing on the main map to remind you what’s where. Like I said, I love this game’s menus. Generally speaking, Gummi tracks in this game are paired: two separate routes will share game assets, enemies, and so on. The two tracks you can access at this point share an asteroid theme, though you’ll also encounter Gummi constructions somewhat similar to KH1, though typically more involved. These courses are called Asteroid Sweep and Stardust Sweep, and neither is particularly ambitious. I don’t think I’d have minded them if they appeared later in the game, as they’re not a great first foot forward. In both tracks, you’ll encounter mostly Organization gummis, which appear to be machines or gummi ships of a unique design. When you do encounter Heartless in Gummi Mode, they tend to be flying around of their own accord, no longer piloting ships like in KH1. One particular Heartless, a Hunter, serves as your first Gummi midboss and lurks in Stardust Sweep, and is probably the most interesting thing in either course.
The Gummi missions introduce a problem to the KH2 map screen that didn’t need to be there. Unlike in KH1, where you could check the difficulty of each world before travelling, KH2 forces you to clear the Gummi segment before it will tell you the world’s difficulty. As a result, the first time I played, I felt that I had to clear both routes before I could safely pick a world to visit, and I doubt I’m alone! Spazbo4 does as much in the longplay I’m using for screenshots! Difficulty on KH2’s map is measured in “Battle Lv” instead of stars. A world’s Battle Level is essentially the recommended character level in which to approach each world. For example: a Battle Level 8 world is matched for Sora at level 8. In practice, while this system does show how much harder one world is than another, it probably shouldn’t be taken quite so literally if you’re out of other options. If you’re short a few levels and have completed every other world, you’re probably still fine going in “early,” no matter what the Battle Lv is. After all, like most RPGs, the fastest way to gain levels is to go to the newest section.
After you clear the paths, you’ll discover that the lower-levelled world is the one on the right, The Land of the Dragons. When Sora lands, we find the Disney plot well underway, and oh hey! A Disney plot! We’re coming up on four or more hours in (or thereabouts – I’ll be honest I lost track around here) and we’re finally getting to the main game! Our long national nightmare is over!
The Disney plot is already underway, as a young woman dressed as both a young man and a soldier hides in a bamboo thicket, planning her next move. It’s Disney’s Mulan, and we’re already a fair chunk of the way into the action. To speed things up the game shows the villain, Shan Yu, and his falcon Hayabusa (probably not its official name, considering it just means “peregrine falcon” in Japanese, not Chinese), having already burned a village outside the thicket. Which… means he’s already inside rural China? I think I liked this shot better when I didn’t realize the village was visible as a vista just outside the thicket, and you can look at it manually. I thought it was a cutaway to another location! And I’m going to look really stupid for thinking that, too, because the game makes it perfectly clear and I don’t know where I was coming from.
As for the vista, the idea a hidden vista is very nice – like a picture box! – but this was still a mistake. Shan-Yu must really love the frigid border mountains if he retreats to them after burning down part of China proper. Shan-Yu will barely speak in this game (the script in front of me has two lines), but what he does say is provided by Corey Burton. The falcon was presumably voiced by a falcon, but you never know in voice acting.
Mulan is looking out at Shan Yu, and we learn she’s still voiced by original voice actress Ming-Na Wen, known for ER, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and (I won’t let her forget it) Chun-Li from the 1995 Street Fighter movie. Nor will I let her forget Dr. Aki Ross, the lead of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but it’s not all bad, because with a lead Disney role and lead FF role, she just trumped Keith Ferguson as ideal Kingdom Hearts voice actor!
Mulan has already stolen her father’s armour and gone out to join the army at this point in the plot, and it makes very little effort to explain what you missed. She’s accompanied by Mushu, still voiced by Mark Moseley, who appears in this scene as a shadow on a rock in reminiscence of his introduction to Mulan in the film. There’s been a script change from the film: Mulan and Mushu already know one another and Mushu is just being reflected on the rock to set up a cheap comedy bit later in the scene. He and Mulan discuss ambushing Shan-Yu (why didn’t I realize he was in the very next valley…? I feel silly!) but they’re interrupted by the arrival of Sora and the gang and forget all about their ambush in the process. This was probably done because their ambush relied on Shan-Yu being in rural China and was best shoved under a rug by the writing team.
Sora and the gang do not arrive… peaceably. They arrive in the thicket and Sora and Donald presume Mushu’s scary shadow is a Heartless, which is I think is a fair assumption? I mean, the developers lose points for setting up this highly arbitrary scenario where Mulan had to talk to a rock for no reason about a subject that not only makes no sense but is in the opposite direction, but once the setup is in place, I think Sora and Donald are in the right. Goofy objects, but he’s got no reason to do so. Mushu looks exactly like the monsters that are covering the land so thick you could make a carpet out of them.
Sora and Donald charge in (…unarmed…), but all the confusion is straightened out when Mushu comes into the light. Sora recognizes him, which is always confusing. My brain goes: “How does he… oh! The Summon! That Summon that I never used!” I’m not the only one. My favourite reference to this problem is in the KH2 manga, where Sora doesn’t recognize Mushu, but Mushu insists that he should… so he breaks the fourth wall, skims through a copy of the KH1 manga, and realizes that he was never included! It’s fun to see Amano admit to an innocent mistake, and it’s a mistake anyone could have made because Mushu honestly wasn’t important in KH1!
Mushu knows an opportunity when he sees one, and overblows his role in KH1 so that he can say Sora, Donald and Goofy owe the Fa family a mountain of debt that they could repay by helping Mulan succeed in the army. Goofy, still playing the role of psychic, recognizes that “Ping” is a woman in disguise, which I probably shouldn’t rag on. She has been doing a terrible job maintaining her disguise during the scene. Sora and Donald haven’t noticed, of course, because ha ha! our heroes are idiots! *sitcom shrug*
“Ping” joins your party at this point. Or rather, Ping shoves her (their?) way into the party “and cannot be switched out for some time.” Shit, game, lay it on! But the game’s warning is serious. You won’t be able to take Ping out of the party until 75% of the way through the world, and she suuuuucks. That’s the point of the narrative, after all. Not only are her stats bad and her abilities limited, but her basic attacks are also subpar, including a vague exploratory prodding instead of a proper stabbing attack, and even the “ability” to trip! Part-way through the world, Ping gets Hyper Healing, the KH2 equivalent to Second Wind, but that’s it. I consider it best to take Donald as your only competent ally for this world, as you’ll appreciate his Cure spell, but since Goofy is tied to Valour Form, you’ll want to have him in play from time to time. Thankfully, KH2 offers a quick party-switching mechanic using the action menu… even if I tend to forget about it. I’ll discuss why later on.
But back to Ping, and her being useless. Sheesh! First Wonderland and its atypical navigation in KH1, and now this! This is nowhere near as bad as Wonderland, but why do the games keep throwing you into these unorthodox first worlds at you? I’m reminded of an observation I made about Mega Man during the Mega Man Marathon: the easiest Robot Master often follows the weirdest stage. (Toad Man’s stage has high winds and water; Star Man’s stage has low gravity, etc). On the other hand, the opening Disney stages of all subsequent KH games have been fairly standard and easily played!
Sora and team walk into the camp, and the game starts off recreating Mulan’s entry into camp, only for things to be changed just an inch when a fight starts between not Mulan and the fellow recruits, but Donald. Why didn’t I remember Donald getting so many jerk moments in this game? This is great!
Here we meet Mulan’s fellow soldiers, who have so few lines that I’m almost surprised they got the originals voice actors to do the lines, but they’re all here: Jerry Tondo’s Chien-Po, Gedde Watanabe’s Ling, and Harvey Fierstein’s Yao (James Hong’s Chi-Fu does not appear in the game, though he is in the manga). Tondo has only a few roles to his credit, but funnily enough, he was in an episode of a live action TV adaptation of Beauty and the Beast in the 80s. Watanabe was in a few episodes of Batman Beyond, which seems to be a running theme with KH2, but more notably starred in ER with Ming-Na Wen. Playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein has an additional Disney connection from showing up in an episode of Hercules.
BD Wong’s Captain Li Shang shows up to complete the cast. Wong is probably best known for his 13-year run on Law and Order SVU, and he also has the tiniest Disney connection near the start of his career, in a bit part in anthology show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. He’ll be showing up soon in Gotham, too, and he looks great. Shang’s attempts to restore order to his recruits are interrupted by the arrival of a pack of Heartless right in the middle of camp.
This ambush introduces you to your first local Heartless, the Nightwalker. This Heartless seems to be based on the jiangshi “hopping vampire” of Chinese tradition, though Nightwalkers hover instead of hop. I’m not very familiar with the jianshi tradition (nor the hefty film tradition I’m reading about on Wikipedia as I type) but the Nightwalkers also seem to rise up from a pile of clothes when they first appear, reminding me of the Pionpi enemies from Super Mario Land, which could be squashed flat into a similar appearance.
Interesting trivia from KHI user incognito: Nightwalkers don’t have the usual Heartless emblem… but they used to! Each Heartless has a tiny screenshot thumbnail in the journal, and if you look close at the thumbnail, you can see a prayer slip with an emblem tacked to their forehead! This prayer slip doesn’t exist in the finished Heartless model, only in the journal’s thumbnail! What an odd change. I’m not entirely familiar with the cultural traditions here, but is it possible that it was removed because it was a Japanese prayer slip incongruously attached to a Chinese demon in a Chinese setting? Someone correct me if you know better. As for the Heartless emblem, I’m going to link some screenshots, but be aware the post has unrelated spoilers and the thread even moreso.
EDIT: In the comments below, Eamonn points out that the prayer slip does still exist in-game, but it burns off as the Nightwalkers stand up from their collapsed state! Seraphiel, also in the comments, points out that similar imagery of the prayer slip being removed appears in at least one other game!
The fight is brief – too brief. After the fight, Shang says that Sora, Donald and Goofy did great but Ping has to take a hike. This seems completely unfair, as the fight went by so quickly that you didn’t have a chance to see Mulan screw up! Considering she’s here for training, she must have been pretty bad (and she is) but we should have to see it first! Maybe a brief cutscene of her falling on her face? And yes, we do skip most of the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” training sequences from the film thanks to the Heartless, which I respect (Shang’s arrow on the climbing pole exists, but only as decoration), but the game follows the rest of the plot to the letter.
The trio stand up for “Ping,” and insist Ping be allowed to continue training. Shang allows it, but only if you complete a specific mission as a test: to scout the mountain pass. He then refuses to let you scout the mountain pass. It happens exactly like I just wrote. And here we see a “Mistake that came from recording voice acting well before the game was done” in its natural habitat. No, instead of sending you on your stated mission, Shang gives you three others from a menu and acts like nothing has changed.
This menu is a little strange, while we’re here. I do like the cutesy cursor that animates and responds to your choices, but I’m struck by how the missions all say “New!” even though no mission will ever be added to the list, and once you’re done with it the list will never be seen again. It seems like a lot of effort for such a brief feature. I’ve already discussed how much I love some of KH2’s other menus like the Journal and World Map, so I can’t help but suspect they had a very talented GUI programmer/designer/team on hand, but this seems like an odd use of their talents. You can see the jagged edge where the development team cut out additional features, like say… additional missions for this menu! It’s a bit too bad because I’m a sucker for special “challenge missions” that break from the norm if they aren’t too awful. Looking at you, Days.
Before you go on a mission, you might want to explore camp, or go back to save. Chien-Po asks regarding the Heartless: “Is that what I’m up against?” It’s clear he was expecting Huns. That’s a good question! Where is Shan Yu’s army of Huns? Once you’ve encountered Shan Yu, the Journal makes this even weirder by calling him “the leader of the Huns” and describing his army, only to segue and say “Now Shan-Yu plans to use the Heartless to invade the Empire.” Where’d they go?