Before we head out of camp to do army work, I want to mention something that probably slipped you by: saving here is weird! No, seriously: count on your hands the number of games where save point are the only form of saving, but there are no save points in a “town” (this military camp is functionally a “town”). It just doesn’t happen. The reason KH2 prevents you from saving in the encampment is because there was already a save point in the bamboo thicket, one room away, and it would be redundant to have two. But it still stands in the face of 20 years of RPG tradition, and accidentally feels like some kind of Illusion of Gaia setup where the narrative is nudging you to realize your character has to hide before you can save. That was true in Illusion of Gaia (in fact, it’s one of my favourite bits of detail-work in IoG, but we’ll talk more about that when I get to my upcoming Soul Blazer retrospective), but here?
Once you’re ready, it’s time for those missions. Two of the three are set at the “Checkpoint” just outside camp, while the third is inside camp itself. This also suggests to me that the developers meant to expand the mission list at some stage in development, as you’re essentially doing them within twenty paces of your starting point. All three missions run on a special system to symbolize “Ping’s” cowardice at this point in the narrative: a morale meter. As the fight goes on, the morale meter will drop, and if it drops to zero you lose the mission. To raise it you’ll need to kill Heartless to get them to drop morale orbs, not unlike the Struggle orbs in Twilight Town. About the only good thing you can say about Ping is that she has the Draw skill to pull in the orbs, so generally morale will not be problem so long as Sora himself is in good shape.
Speaking of Draw, it’s way overpriced. This is the game’s equivalent of Treasure Magnet, a 2 AP ability in KH1. It’s now 3 AP, which might make sense given KH2’s larger max AP stat, except for the fact that I’m not entirely sure the KH1 incarnation should have been 2 to begin with! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like leaving behind small handfuls of munny, but at the same time, I’m not willing to give up 3 whole AP so that I can nab maybe an extra 50 munny a world at the fringes of my reach, only enough to buy a Potion. I always assumed the devs expected to put in more “orb” challenges like the ones we’ve seen so far that would benefit from Draw, but there are only a few left in the game, and I feel Land of the Dragons is one of the few (or only!) places where you’re at risk of failing the orb challenges, mostly in the upcoming mountain pass mission. And yes, I did just say you’re not really at any risk of running out of orbs in the first three missions. Instead of just adjusting the difficulty of the mountain pass mission, they adjusted an element of core gameplay instead. It’s like calling a fire truck to put out a candle.
Morale orbs also present an unintended tactical challenge: they stop enemies from dropping other orbs, like HP or MP orbs, or the new Drive Orbs. Between the lack of Drive Forms and Ping potentially taking up Goofy’s slot in your party, it’s very hard to use Drive Forms during this first world. I want there to be world variety but why are these opening worlds filled with world-specific limitations instead of enhancements? It seems to me like this sort of thing should have been towards the end of the game as a challenge instead of the start of the game as a means of… what even is their aim here? Simplifying the early hours? That’s my best guess.
Play Kingdom Hearts 2! We’ve got great new features that mesh in incredible ways! And we’ll prevent you from using all of them! For not only this one, but the world after next as well! For our next trick, we’ll release a mouth-watering high definition experienced trapped behind a tutorial made of Pong.
The first mission at the Checkpoint is just an introduction featuring familiar enemies, but the second introduces Assault Riders, one of the most dangerous Heartless in the series. And yes, this from a game I called the easiest in the series not one world ago. Perhaps the difficulty of the Assault Riders has to do with the fact that they were excised from KH1 according to some developer interviews. This is something you can see in their visual design, but mostly in the way they’re designed for a positioning-based, KH1-style battle not typically present in KH2. Assault Riders are centaur Heartless, armed with large spears they spin to prevent you from getting anywhere near them, ever, no matter what you do. You’re supposed to get behind them ala the KH1 Large Bodies, but like most KH2 enemies they pivot far too quickly and it’s only a temporary strategy. If you try to hit them after they attack, even then you have to contend with the sheer range of their spears, which might tag you even if you think you’re going in the right direction. In the end, their KH1 strategy and KH2 speed is best countered by a barrage of Blizzard spells (if only because you have nothing else), but be careful when you run out of MP, as they only get more aggressive as their health drops. At least the Assault Riders fight fair, which is more than I can say for the arbitrary invincibility of KH2’s actual strongest Heartless…
The third mission is the most interesting to me. In this mission, you try to root out a number of Heartless (Shadows and Nightwalkers) which are hiding in the encampment. You’re shown a Shadow at the start of the mission, and if you fight it you might catch sight of the next Heartless. The idea is that you’ll be led from enemy to enemy. That’s the idea, but remember that Nightwalkers spawn in a collapsed state, meaning they aren’t visible over the tents in the encampments, and Shadows are not only short but can slump into the ground. This is the only mission of the original three where the morale meter might bite you, simply because it’s taking too much time to play hide-and-seek! But there is a solution, drawn straight from the FFII playbook: burn the damn camp to the ground.
I’m not kidding: whip out the Fire spell (other spells work too, but this is funnier) and level as many tents as you can, giving you a free line of sight. In Vanilla, the tents even stay burned down. Forever. In FM+, this was changed so that the tents eventually regenerate, but they forgot (or chose not to fix) the fact that the watch towers burn as well. This doesn’t destroy them, but does change their texture. As far as I can tell, those remain burned forever in all versions. It’s kind of funny to think that you can level the whole camp and get Shang to congratulate you for it. I would have liked to see more “hunt” missions like this with the choice between destroying the terrain and hunting the Heartless, maybe on different worlds, but sadly this is all you get.
(The tents are even more curious to me as a programmer in how Shadows can climb over them, unlike all other destructables and most other objects in the game! This is probably to make the Shadows easier to spot during this very mission. But I wonder how they’re coded, considering Shadows normally just move along the ground, and destructables aren’t typically part of the “ground” in the code?)
Having completed the missions, Shang allows you to go to the mountain, and I imagine this is the first time the average player will walk to the Checkpoint under your own power. Weird, huh? Here, you’ll notice that Land of the Dragons is scattered with fireworks and firework carts that you can hit to detonate them. Once you hit the mountain pass, your fourth and final mission begins. The morale meter drains much slower here, and you’ll need it. Your objective isn’t just to scout the way forward: a number of rubble piles blocks the mountain pass, and you have to destroy them with attacks or, preferably, reaction commands, as Heartless pick at you from all sides and Assault Riders block the passage themselves with their damn spears. The rubble walls are very large, and sadly you’ll have moments of Re:CoM targeting where Sora will attack the walls instead of the enemies, or vice-versa.
There are a good deal of treasures along the pass (including your first Moogle recipe), and while you can grab them, that only puts you at risk of exhausting the morale meter. I suggest one leave the chests behind for a later trip. To win the mission, you have to clear one final rubble wall that’s defended by not just one Assault Rider, but a second Assault Rider that spawns almost on top of the old one. It’s easy to mistake them as infinitely regenerating as a result, a mistake I’ve made in the past. These pests have proven to be so much trouble that I often leave poor Ping to… ahem… “hold them off” while I do the busywork on the wall. Reach the top of the hill, and Yao, Ling and Chien-Po will appear almost on your back and congratulate you. Were you guys with us the whole time?
This pass is my favourite place to use Valour Form for the first time, so let’s talk about that. We may be here a little while, because as fond as I am of Drive Forms, I also have a lot to criticize, so let’s get started.
Drive Forms are one of several advanced techniques in KH2 that you can use to make a big mess of your enemies in combat. There are several of these new techniques: so many that the developers gave the action menu two separate pages as I said before, with Attack, Magic, Items and Drives on one page and Attack, Summons, Limits and the dynamic Party menu on the other. And despite my usual compliments towards this game’s menus, this is a time for complaints. This two-paged menu system isn’t just a pain to navigate: once you’ve found a favourite page, you’re going to use the other page less – if you’re like me, you might virtually forget the other page exists! And since one page has fundamentals like Magic and Items on it, that’s probably the one you’re going to pick, giving Drives (the fourth entry on the page) an unintended visibility boost, while burying future features like Summons and Limits into the dirt. It’s funny how these tiny factors can ruin things so fast. I don’t think I’m the only one in the fandom who forgets that in-battle Party switching exists, and who favours Drives to Summons and Limits just because all those other things are on the second page!
Drives are a transformation skill. To use them, Sora must have a certain number of full “Drive Gauges” in the corner of the GUI: three for Valour Form for example, which at the start of the game is as high as the Drive Gauge goes. Filling the Drive Gauge is more obnoxious than you’d expect going in. Even though it rises by attacking enemies and picking up orange “Drive Orbs” from enemies, the best way to level it up is the Damage Drive Ability, which is more-or-less identical to KH1’s MP Rage. Why is that a bad thing? First of all, you probably don’t have it yet: it’s learned at Level 15 with the lovely Dream Shield, but even that’s probably ahead of us, while the Rod and Sword suckers learn it at 23 and 33 respectively. But more importantly: Damage Drive restores your Drive Gauge based on how much damage you take, and if you’re on Beginner or Standard (where most players will be playing) the damage you take is completely negligible. Like I said earlier on: this game’s difficulty has consequences on its other systems, and in this case I don’t think the developers realized what they had done, as otherwise they could have adjusted the math! (It seems “fixed,” after all, with Critical’s higher damage output!) In boss battles, restoring the Drive Gauge seems to be a lot easier. Not only do bosses deal more damage for the sake of Damage Drive, but the math for landing attacks seems to be increased straight out the gate.
Outside of battle, you can use something that’s a bit more efficient to restore your Drive Gauges: a Drive Recovery item that restores multiple gauges. But there’s trouble: you can only get new Drive Recovery items from chests or by using Synthesis. And not only is synthesis a drain on resources, but you have to find the recipe first, though thankfully it’s the first you can find when taking the worlds in order (I’m mostly mentioning it to show how the game discourages the use of Drives in its first few worlds). FM+ introduced an easier source for these things, but you have to clear much of the game to get to it.
Once you transform, the Drive Gauge changes to a new level depending on the strength of the form, and then becomes a timer, not unlike R/R’s Dark Mode. During that period, you will gain the form’s new controls and abilities to use at your leisure. Most transformation will also take a party member out of play. Supposedly, you’ve fused with them somehow to power your Drive, don’t think too hard about it. Goofy is needed for Valour Form. To use the fusion, the given party member is going to have to be in your party and conscious. All the more reason to use Drives at the start of a boss fight before anyone has a chance to drop dead.
Sora’s first Drive Mode is Valour Form, a red-clothed attack form. Valour Form is fast on its feet and has a stellar air game (actually, KH2’s Sora has a great air game in general – I find myself hopping half a foot into the air to use air attacks even against ground enemies). Valour Form’s primary advantage is rapid attacks: Valour Form is a blender made of Keyblades – indeed, it dual-wields both its equipped Keyblade and the one equipped to Sora’s normal form. It’s fantastic for bosses, even when you consider many of the other forms. It also introduces a new mechanic: it has a number of Abilities that have to be triggered mid-combo with Square (a clever new feature Days would take to the next level). No matter which way you choose to attack, Valour Form seems to want to button mash. Don’t believe me? Well, then we need to talk about how to strengthen your Forms.
Strengthening Drive Forms seems to divide the KH community. Some love it for giving you new powers, while others hate it for forcing you to play play-styles you don’t like. I’m in the former party, but I can see where the other camp is coming from. Sad to say, even with intelligent play, Drive Forms will only ever reach max level by grinding. I can’t approve of that wholeheartedly, but if you’re going for 100% there are plenty of other things to do at the same time as grinding your drives. Some of those are… also grinding, but not all of them! The biggest trouble with levelling the drives is that you can only do it while they’re active – a very, very limited window and one even more limited by how long it takes to fill your Drive Gauges! Drives don’t gain experience points as such, but require you to complete a special task. In Valour Form’s case: you gain 1 EXP for every hit you land on an opponent. Button mash away! Using Valour Form against most of the game’s bosses will put you well on your way to a well-levelled red combat suit.
The unfortunate part about levelling forms is how the game tries to tell you: hidden away in the tooltip for “Experience” on the status menu. The tooltip! The thing that shows up on your computer if you hover your mouse over the GUI! This is something most video game status menus don’t even have, so if you’re like me, it’ll never occur to you to move your cursor over the status menu in the first place. I played through this game three times before I learned these were there! I only learned how forms level thanks to the internet and assumed that fans had worked out the details through strategy guides or trial and error! This almost feels like confirmation that there was a pro GUI worker on the team. Why? Because only someone familiar with GUI would use such an esoteric method in a system that doesn’t demand it, and besides: one of the first pieces of advice you get in programmer school is that you’re going to know you’re going to forget that other people don’t think the way you do, and you should account for that, but will probably forget. That’s exactly what’s happened here. You’re supposed to make sure those sorts of mistakes don’t make it to release, but it happens. Hey, I said “GUI pro.” Not “expert!”
Once you’ve levelled up your form, you gain two benefits. First: the Form itself will last longer in the future. Second: Sora’s default form gains a core ability from the Drive! Sadly, that only applies to Sora’s default form: the other Drive forms are left out in the cold, but it’s something. Many of these upgrades are mobility upgrades, and very handy ones. Valour Form’s ability is High Jump, which will be helpful speeding through old areas and picking up puzzle pieces in FM+. Forms also convey a small number of what I call “secondary” skills, Valour Form’s being Combo Plus. Good old Combo Plus is only worth 1AP because, as we’ve discussed, it actually makes bosses harder to kill in the wrong circumstances, even if it is very helpful for levelling up Valour Form itself.
Each form also spits out an “Auto-” ability at you on its first level up. There are several Auto abilities in the game, tied to other features alongside Drives. I find all of these abilities… questionable. The Auto abilities allow you to use one of Sora’s complicated powers by pressing Triangle, but this runs the risk that you’ll trigger them by accident when hitting Triangle to land a Reaction Command. Worse, the Auto abilities overlap with one another! Furthermore, you have to question why this feature is even included. The developers must have realized the command menu had gotten out of control, a lesson they should have taken to heart by fixing the command menu somehow instead of trying to bypass the problem. For one reason or a dozen, I feel auto abilities are best left turned off unless you’ve got a very specific plan in mind for a specific situation.
One thing to keep in mind with Drive Forms is that they have a level cap that only rises when you unlock a new Drive Form. This is to discourage you from grinding too early in the game. That said, it’s still best to stay on top of them every time you notice the Drive Gauge is full. Another thing to keep in mind with Drive Forms is… sigh… the load times on the PS3 version. The games on KH2.5 loads like molasses, and BBS is worse. You’re invincible when you call up a Drive Form (indeed, enemies are blown away) but the game will continue running as it loads the new data and this can take a while. Summons, too. It’s possible to be in the middle of enemy attack at the end of the loading, or to lose an easy attack opportunity that would have existed on the PS2!
Okay, back to the narrative. Together with Shang, you climb the path to a village in the mountains. There, you can stock up at a Moogle, try to synth your first recipe (Drive Recovery Orbs) and grab some puzzle pieces. That is, after the characters stop jawing, but you should know that by now.
Mushu is just waltzing around in public, and tells you a surprising story: he says he saw Shan-Yu himself duck into a cave just outside town. The story doesn’t sound believable for a moment, but Mushu is convinced and is apparently very convincing, as everyone but me believes him. He talks everyone into keeping this a secret from Shang and the others, so that Ping can capture Shan-Yu and finally become a hero. You head into the cave to put this circus in play, and find that the cave houses a small shrine, but no Shan-Yu. Mushu gets a laugh out of me by saying “You’re crazy, check again,” even though he can see the entire room.
Donald and Goofy turn to leave, when the whole cave rumbles and a force field pops up between them and the others, trapping Sora, Ping and Mushu inside. As Donald and Goofy’s eyes are on their friends, the camera reveals that Shan Yu is responsible as he walks out of the cave.
This seems like a lot of effort to trap two soldiers. Did someone (Pete?) warn Shan-Yu about Sora? Has Shan-Yu been spying on you? Trapping Sora might seem to make sense at first kick, as we know the guy is dangerous, but it’s not clear that Shan-Yu has seen Sora in action. I otherwise get the impression that Shan-Yu operated without any help from Pete (an opinion shared by an editor at the KHwiki, which I mention because they made an insightful comparison to Clayton in Deep Jungle), but why else go to this trouble? If he thought Sora and friends were soldiers and was trying to cut them off from Shang, catching them ALL inside would have made more sense. He could have easily given Donald and Goofy a shove, or made the force field block off the hallway instead of the room. No, the only way this makes sense is if Shan-Yu knows Sora and Mulan are The Heroes by reading the script ahead of time. This could have been easily fixed by showing him spying on them earlier in the world. This is something you’re going to be hearing a lot in KH2: tiny problems peppering the product that could have been fixed with just one more editing pass, but – and it’s important to keep this in mind – weren’t. In Shan-Yu’s defence, no one would have hair like Sora’s without being important!
Sora and Ping are ambushed by a pack of Shadows and Assault Riders, not because Shan-Yu wants them dead, but because KH2 follows the Laws of Video Games that you always need to give people a fighting chance to escape even if you have them trapped and starving. The Heartless attack and… I may have spoken too soon about Shadows having boosted AI in KH2. Oh, they have more attacks, but that doesn’t make them smarter even if the other KH1 Heartless are, as whole hordes of them will often ignore you even if you stand on their heads. Even in Critical Mode! It’s pretty clear they were designed to be D&D 4e-style cannon fodder enemies that exist to make the player feel powerful without ever facing an actual challenge!
Now, the Assault Riders, KH1 expys that they are, are more of a threat than these KH2 modified Shadows. Even using Blizzard is less effective this time around since there are three of them in this encounter, first one and then two at the same time. If you rely exclusively on Blizzard, you’ll run out of MP before you kill both Riders in the second wave, and will have to run for your life while it recharges. That or learn to fight them properly like the good KH1 veteran you may very well be. I know, I know, I miss Dodge Roll too, but we can’t have everything. I wish we could use Valour Form here, but with Goofy on the opposite side of the force field, we’re not allowed to have nice things.
After you win, Sora gets Slide Dash, which once again lets him close to combat without the fidgety trouble of moving exactly into place, and Mulan gains Hyper Healing (she may have gained some new basic attacks from this as well, I’m not certain because basic attacks aren’t listed in-game). Ping finally upgraded! Set off some fireworks! Just make sure you don’t set them off in the village, because they’re having a little trouble with fire. …*cough*
The punchline is that Shan-Yu burned down the village and murdered dozens in your absence.
Nah, just kidding: yes, there was a fire, but even though this was a moment of extreme pathos in Mulan as it insinuated not just the deaths of all the villagers, the main army, and Shang’s father, KH2 takes the cowards’ way out by GI Joe-ing the villagers back to life by implying they escaped off-screen. Personally, I’m okay with KH changing the plots so long as they provide something just as substantial in its place (we’ll talk about a certain controversial moment in a later game that I have no problems with for just these reasons), but Land of the Dragons is doing nothing of the sort, and that’s just embarrassing. The characters are crying over property damage in the Power Rangers’ Abandoned Building District.
In a minor issue (though no fault on KH2 here, because it’s an industry-wide problem), but it really shows how little game designers think about the five senses in how Sora had to round a corner to realize a village a three feet away from him has been razed to the ground. By the way, I hope you got all the puzzle pieces in town, because you’ll need advanced mobility moves to get them now!