Kingdom Hearts 2 – Incidental Blackbirds

kh2-2016-02-22-05h10m19s165In a clever bit of writing, no one noticed that you were gone and just assume they missed you in the chaos of the fight, which avoids any unnecessary discussion about military procedure and allows the plot to move on without any major discrepancies. Well, discrepancies on your side, since Shan-Yu is once again moving away from mainland China and back up the mountain. Sora suggests Shang look for the villagers (sigh) while “we’ll handle this.” Sora: I know you can, and you know you can, but saying that to a guy who just fought an army of Heartless and lost is bound to raise some eyebrows. Mushu continues to walk around in the open in front of Shang, and I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be hidden anymore? Later, Shang will act totally unsurprised when he sees Mushu but a lot of other context clues (many of them from the original film) suggest Mushu wasn’t supposed to be seen?

By the way, before you leave: giant Chien-Po says that “A falcon even captured some of us!” …H-how?

kh2-2016-02-22-05h11m00s440Heading up the slope, you encounter a new Heartless: the uninspiring Rapid Thrusters. These… uh… how do I describe a Rapid Thruster? …………”Helicopter beaks.” These helicopter beaks are like flying KH2 Shadows: monsters that exist only to be high-number, no-challenge mooks that are here purely for the player’s empowerment. And nothing illustrates the problems with this more than when you reach the slope, and Shan-Yu appears above you. Then, instead of the dramatic scene where Shan-Yu’s unstoppable army of mounted Huns marches in behind him, we instead see a force of buzzing Rapid Thrusters. And not even, say, a lot of Rapid Thrusters, which is strange because the game will soon prove able to put nearly a hundred of these things on-screen at the same time. No: we get a dramatic reveal of Shan-Yu and his (I counted!) thirty-six Paragoombas. It’s Shan-Yu and a flock of incidental blackbirds that got caught in frame. This is the biggest Disney deflation I’ve seen in Kingdom Hearts to date, and it’s funny because this could have been amazing if he had stood up with an army of Assault Riders, even if you only ended up fighting three or four of them. But no.

The enemy force charges and you end up fighting a swarm of over a hundred Rapid Thrusters. The “swarm of Rapid Thrusters” encounter is repeated in KH2: you’ll encounter it a few times in the game, and while it’s visually impressive for the PS2, keep in mind they’re still fruit flies and it’s hard to take them seriously. The game kicks your party members out when the swarm appears to keep the number of objects on-screen to a minimum, which leads to a party change screen even though the change is extremely temporary. The game will occasionally take away party members without any sign of the menu, but at other points the menu comes back!

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Pictured: more than thirty-six.

Not that you need your party members. You’ll kill 50 Rapid Thrusters here easily. No joke. You’re actually just trying to survive a timer. Complicating manners is the arrival of a new Heartless, the Bolt Tower, which appears part-way through the swarm battle. As implied by the name, the Bolt Tower is a large column rather than a humanoid or animal shapes you typically see on Heartless. It has a floating sphere face that’s typically mounted near the base that serves as its weak point, though the sphere will actually fly off in combat and hover around the tower, making it much harder to hurt. The Tower has spikes and beam projectors it will use to shoot you. The latter are quite interesting as they can trigger the Bolt Reversal reaction command to redirect its shot and clear out a whole group of enemies. Bolt Reversal is the kind of Reaction Command I wish we saw more frequently, at least thematically. You’re working with a resource you didn’t otherwise have in a situation prompted by the enemy. The Rapid Thruster’s Speed Trap reaction command, which causes Sora to stand in mid-air and both strike and freeze enemies, is just witchcraft.

You don’t fight Shan-Yu in the big battle. I imagine he’s fighting some other poor bastard in your place. Goofy would be fine, but who knows who would be worse off: Ping or Donald? The fight is broken off when Ling, Yao and Chien-Po arrive with fireworks. “We’ll handle this!” You guys know that one-rocket thing of Mulan’s from the film was never supposed to work, right? It was a suicide attack. Frown a little!  Also, in the film they launched the rockets before combat was joined, whereas here you’re threatening to fire directly at your allies? Strangely enough, this scene lacks all urgency, making it kind of hilarious when Mulan decks her friend to steal his firework. Maybe it’s the DEAD SILENCE IN THE BACKGROUND. I love Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack generally, but when the games try to emulate the films like this, the games’ limited soundtrack will always suffer.

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“Don’t mind me, just taking my daily avalanche walk!”

Mulan causes the avalanche as per the film, and Shan-Yu is buried. But Shang just happened to saunter casually into an avalanche the moment it was going off. Remember when Sora didn’t hear or smell the fire? It seems everyone here has that sort of perception problem. By the way, Shang is just adding to the impression that nothing going on here is urgent.

Unlike the film, Mulan is not injured when she rescues Shang from the avalanche. I can’t tell if the game wanted to avoid the implication that a doctor saw her in some degree of undress (as per the film), or if the game wanted to avoid the trouble of modelling a doctor and pretending Mulan was temporarily injured in the first place. Instead, we get this hack scene: Shang is just saying how much he trusts Mulan now that she saved him, and one line later he learns she’s a woman and feels utterly betrayed. It’s like I’m watching a spoof! And how is Mulan revealed to be a woman? Mushu, angry she used him “as a lighter,” starts using her name out loud without realizing Shang is right there. I have to credit the devs for that. They spent all of the Land of the Dragons establishing that Mushu had zero spatial awareness or concern for Mulan’s safety whatsoever by parading around in public and here all that setup is paying off. Bravo. This was… truly intentional.

I do like it when Sora and the gang catch up, congratulate “Ping” on “his” success and Shang realizes they must have been in on it. He just knows Sora and the others that well from just a few days together. Alternately, you could imagine Shang accused them just to expose themselves, knowing they were too terrible a set of liars to cover for her? They are terrible liars, after all, that’s how I’d get them to confess to something.

kh2-2016-02-22-05h13m59s944As per the film, Shang says he won’t apply the death penalty because he feels a life debt to Mulan for saving him from the avalanche he strutted into like a man with no sense of sight, hearing, touch, vibrations, temperature or self-preservation, and he leaves with the army. Sadly, we don’t see two of my favourite bits from Mulan that take place here in the film. The first is the pained and painful expressions on everyone’s face, like how Mulan’s friends are angry and unwilling to look at her. We also don’t see the scene that follows, where Mulan and Mushu confessing their lies to one another in private, all great scenes sadly lost here. KH2 is way ahead of KH1 for gesturing and expressions, but it’s in such a rush to power through the Disney plots by rote that it often misses some of the best moments simply because they’re character moments.  Flash and noise.

While we don’t get the Mulan and Mushu scene I like so much, we do get a scene where Mulan changes back into her clothes from home despite being in -30 degree temperatures, high above sea level. We also get a nice replacement scene where Sora agrees to help take the blame off of Mulan when she goes back to her father. Say what you want about the guy, but Sora’s a loyal friend to a fault and he’s got his friends’ backs. Mulan’s change in costume also comes with a marked increase in her abilities. She’s now at her full potential (fuck, maybe she did fight Shan-Yu in that swarm), with no more tripping or awful basic attacks. She also has her full list of abilities, including several combo attacks with Mushu. I personally like turning off some of her abilities to turn on Fire Boost so that she and Mushu can reach their full potential. “Mulan learned a new ability,” the game says, even though she now has a half dozen. What’s with this series and irregular pluralization?

kh2-2016-02-22-05h14m30s882One of Mulan’s abilities is new to the table: a “Limit,” Dragonblaze. For those not familiar with Final Fantasy’s history, “Limit Breaks” were introduced in FFVII as an evolution of FFVI’s “Desperation Attacks.” Limit Breaks became so popular that they lent their name to many special attacks that appeared in Final Fantasy from that point on, so even though Limits in KH2 don’t function like Limit Breaks in FFVII, KH2 is just carrying on a storied tradition. KH2’s Limits are special attacks performed by Sora and a teammate, costing all his remaining MP just like the Cure spell. This makes Limits a pretty easy move to use frequently, and means their corresponding Auto-abilities are somewhat worth the trouble, though I find that in practice, much of the fandom (myself included) tend to forget Limits exist entirely!

Most guest party members start with one Limit, while Donald and Goofy eventually learn two each. Sora even gets his own, Trinity Limit, but it’s not quite as useful solo and is meant to be used when both Donald and Goofy are in the party together for optimal effect. Limits open with a special attack, then release you while allowing you and your teammate to use a variety of special attacks with X and Triangle, including a powerful finisher. Jiminy tracks the number of hits you land during each Limit in the journal, so anyone going for the secret ending will need to use each limit at least once (and land at least one hit!).

kh2-2016-02-22-05h15m19s225Now that Mulan is in her final form, I can finally give an analysis of her as a party member. She’s no Tarzan (no one will ever be that good again) but she’s not bad, and she’s even better at this early point in the game when Goofy lacks most of his abilities. Since the game will finally let you kick her out of the party if you want, the decision is up to you. Once again, you need the Goof if you’re going to use Valour Form against Shan-Yu, but there’s something to be said about taking the local hero at least part-way to the boss.

As Sora and Mulan are talking about her going home, you see Shan-Yu still alive on a lower ledge. He roars with rage, summoning more Heartless to his side. The whole rage -> Heartless thing is pretty cool to see, even if he does summon more of those flying kittens, the Rapid Thrusters. “He’s heading for the imperial city!” He’s ten feet away and heading for the imperial city through heavy, debilitating snow in a game with no fall damage! We’ll… we’ll–!

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You laze back to the Checkpoint, where a gate has opened, allowing access to the Imperial Palace. And… presumably hours of walking across countryside and through the capital city in between? You know, I’ve seen one other game do this kind of instantaneous cross-country horseshit. Just one, and it was also set in China! Game developers, China isn’t a Mobius strip, I promise! (It was Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time. Great Adventure game, weiiiird sense of spatial relations.)

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Inside the palace walls, you—whoa. This is a pretty huge empty space. It’s like we walked inside of one of KH2’s massive vistas instead of the room you were supposed to see it from. There’s a big empty platform, then a bridge, and then a HUGE second empty courtyard, leading to an empty plateau up some stairs. There’s so much room here that I can’t help but wonder if they were planning to put in some of the buildings that were in the palace in the original film, but cut them out for whatever reason. We do later see the crowd from the end of the film standing in this room (which appears to be the kind of 2D crowd you see in sports games) but at ground level, the emptiness is… vast.

Shang and the other soldiers are here, this being a retake on the scene where Mulan rides up and tries to talk to them. In the film, they were still angry with her and ignored their warnings. But this time it goes better… by certain definitions of better. Firstly, Shan-Yu reveals himself immediately (it must be easy to spot him when he’s the only living thing for miles). So we’re just gonna give up on the tension from the film, eh? That’s fine. I don’t mind this one so much because KH2 scores its own points by causing some of Shang’s exhausted soldiers to fall into darkness and become Nightwalker Heartless. Wow, that’s dark! We’ve never seen the game do this before, I feel like it adds a lot to the scene and universe! Too bad it’s undercut by my confusion over the men turning into Emblems when succumbing to darkness should only produce Purebloods, but I’m not going to let that kind of canonical confusion ruin a good moment… the first time.

kh2-2016-02-22-05h18m14s805(It may be that we were supposed to see the other soldiers as being fakes who were Heartless all along, but I feel that undercuts the moment so I’m going with my gut.)

You split up, Shang going to protect the Emperor from Shan-Yu while you mop up, uh, your fellow soldiers without a moment of grief. Great camaraderie, Sora. You rush across the bridge and the game skips the entire gargantuan courtyard in another moment of spatial distortion, rushing you to the plateau where you’ll fight Shan-Yu. Since the courtyard looked so awful I’m not sure why they didn’t skip the whole room. Couldn’t they have had the Heartless fight on this platform, and the final fight somewhere in or on top of the palace, like in the actual film? And I’m afraid I’m serious: even though the film had a big climax where Mulan and friends broke into the castle disguised as women and Mulan had an epic rooftop battle with Shan-Yu, we’re going to fight him here at the doors. Normally I wouldn’t harp on a micro change like this, but the interior of the castle actually exists in the game and is unlocked later on, so why aren’t we using it now? It’s not so much “negative” as “confusing.” I’m inclined to dig up an old chestnut from the Marathons and talk about how the FFLegends series often seemed to add features as you went through the game. Is it possible that the interior just didn’t exist when they were scripting the boss battle, and they were in too much of a hurry to go back once it was done?

kh2-2016-02-22-05h19m29s763Shan-Yu has captured the Emperor. Why the Emperor was outside, I don’t know. He may have come to the door to greet Shang, or maybe to say “echo” into his massive courtyard and hear it come back to him three or four times. Shan-Yu has him at sword-point, but Shang manages to save him by… descending from the sky on eagle’s wings? I don’t know. He must have dropped down from the balcony that exists in the film but not the game, implying that he ran past the hostage situation for about ten minutes just to perform this stunt. Shang gets the Emperor to the main doors with the help of Yao, Ling and Chien-Po, and they seal the doors behind them. As they’re doing this, Shang giving you this dire look like he’s not 5000% certain that Mulan and Sora are the superheroes they pretend to be, and that he may very well be leaving you all to die. I respect your professionalism, Captain Li. You made the right move by locking Shan-Yu in with Spaceman Magicsword and Lady Dragonfire here, I promise. I don’t mean to tease, I actually really like it when someone applies strategy and tactics to magic and the inexplicable in fantasy, so this scene is a favourite.

Unfortunately for all that dire posturing, Shan-Yu is not a hard boss, and if you have Valor Form ready to go, he’s in deep, deep falcon shit. At least you can enjoy the battle music, “Vim and Vigor,” which is possibly my favourite Kingdom Hearts minor boss themes.

By the way, as the door shuts, a force field raises up. If the good guys can control these magic walls, why aren’t they using them elsewhere? Was it really unbelievable that Shan-Yu couldn’t knock down a foot-thick door that you had to throw in magic?

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Sora duels Shan-Yu. Mulan is… unimpressed.

Just to jazz things up, this boss fight has a morale gauge, but it doesn’t function like the previous ones. Instead of dropping passively, it only depletes when Shan-Yu and his Heartless attack the door, similar to the fight on the Bailey in Hollow Bastion, except in how enemies drop Morale Orbs for you to restore the bar. Don’t question that much, it’s not good for your head (although in hindsight, maybe it explains the force field?). Shan-Yu summons a force of Heartless at the outset, and you’ll want to take them down first, with or without Valour Form, before turning the full might of Sora’s red-clothed transformation into poor, unfortunate Shan-Yu. Shan-Yu has a desperation phase where he glows with Darkness, but it’s no big deal. You do want to watch out for Hayabusa, who can, sure enough, kidnap you if it wants, but also because attacking the poor bird can be a regular source of morale orbs, not unlike Flotsam and Jetsam serving as MP restoration in the fight against Ursula in KH1.

The most interesting part about this fight is a new mechanic you probably won’t even notice, considering it’s such an easy fight. If you should lose ten specific fights in the game, starting with this one, you’ll be given a special prompt asking if you give up. If you don’t give up, suddenly King Mickey appears on the field in place of your party, and he’s under your control! Whether King Mickey comes to rescue you during these ten fights is random, starting at 100% and decreasing permanently each time you use it, but it never goes lower than 50%.

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Shan-Yu enters his Desperation Phase.

When Mickey is in play, you’ll find him to be hyper-agile, like Yoda in Attack of the Clones. He can’t use reaction commands or finisher attacks, and so can’t kill any bosses (Way to go, devs! Way to abuse a technicality!).  He also lacks Guarding, but he can use an attack called “Pearl” to shoot from a distance, and his Kingdom Key D is fast as Valour Form (by the way: “Pearl” was a common 90s localization for the Final Fantasy spell “Holy,” and weirdly enough we’ll be seeing a new term for “Holy” in the KH series later in this very game!). For all the fun it can be, your objective while playing as Mickey isn’t just to attack the boss. By tapping Triangle, you can call life back to Sora by filling Mickey’s Drive Gauge to 3. If you can do this, Sora will be restored to full health! This feature is weird: if you fail to revive Sora, he revives anyway but on low health, and if you led the boss away with Mickey, Sora can easily heal himself with Cure or an item without Mickey wasting any time dodging and tapping. Since healing Sora with Mickey takes way too much time and effort, as a rule, I try to fight the boss with Mickey and only heal as a last resort. On the plus side, Mickey’s so good that you often get a chance to do both.

After Mickey vanishes, no one mentions him. I can’t imagine how the devs could have introduced a dynamic conversation about Mickey, but it does feel awful ghost-like. Maybe Sora and friends aren’t aware he was even there? Maybe a text-only conversation back on the Gummi ship would have worked…?

kh2-2016-02-22-05h22m00s392The Emperor and your friends emerge from the palace after the death of Shan-Yu (yes, you did in fact kill him). As in the film, the Emperor is voiced by the late Pat Morita, here in one of his last roles before he died a year after release. Morita repeats his “In the end you have saved us all” speech from the film, except for some reason the adds the words “You’re a young woman” in the middle of the speech. Why repeat every word and inflection of the original but add a line in the middle to contributes nothing to the scene? To reiterate a poorly explored theme from the film?  I say that with considerable generosity.

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You know, if you think about it, this scene is of a sword shooting a magic beam to form a keyhole, after which you use your sword to shoot a magic beam into the keyhole.

The rest of the scene sloshes together bits of the film and new addition with similar disregard to quality. Sora and Mushu fight about Mushu not being a guardian (remember when I said they took away that heartwarming scene from earlier where he revealed he wasn’t a Guardian? It was for cheap laughs!), and long story short, Shan-Yu’s sword starts glowing. Oh yeah, I forgot about that! It’s the next… thing! The gate thing, that Yen Sid mentioned! That Sora needs for some reason! That I… guess we came here to find even though no one mentioned it at any point! And because of all the jokes the game is making, Sora isn’t holding the sword and no one, not even Mulan, is paying attention to the glowing sword. So what prompted it to start glowing? How do these things even work? If we’re questing after them, that kind of information seems like it might be important. Maybe I’m being unfair. The Keyholes from KH1 weren’t explained until the revisit to Traverse Town, arguably World 5 if you count both trips and also Destiny Islands. We’re on World 3 right now, I can wait. Let’s wait and see what explanation the game has to offer.

Hey. Hey you. Veteran Kingdom Hearts fan. Stop giggling.

kh2-2016-02-22-05h24m10s319The Emperor doesn’t even blink at the blinding display of magic just performed on his doorstep, and everyone wishes Sora goodbye. Your reward for clearing the world is the Aerial Sweep ability (a sort of Sliding Dash for air combat) and the Hidden Dragon Keyblade, which is a magic-focused Keyblade that grants MP Rage. And as if by accident, the game also “gives” you the Star Seeker Keyblade, since you can finally unequip it from Valour Form!


Wrap-up

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Sora, Mulan and Mushu drive Shan-Yu into the ceiling with the Dragonblaze Limit.

In Vanilla KH2, that’s the end of Land of the Dragon’s story, but in FM+, a trip back to the Emperor’s front porch will run you into a new weird friend: a black cloak-wearing mushroom Heartless. Geeze, again? This is No. IV of the Mushroom XIII, a group of powerful Heartless who dress up like the Organization, because if I haven’t made myself clear in the past: most of the Heartless are giant dorks. The Mushroom XIII are a mostly good idea, in my opinion: they provide the “gimmick fight” appeal of KH1’s synthesis Heartless (including an on-screen prompt that explains what you’re supposed to do!), largely without the need to fight them over and over again hoping for random synth drops. Instead, you have to fight them over and over to get a high score, which is far more predictable. They also show up again immediately if you leave the room and come back! I wish you didn’t have to leave to begin with (I’ll explain why later on) but we’re coming out on top so far. I’ll put off the rest of my critique until the end of the game, when we’ve seen them all and I can talk about them with specifics.

No. IV’s fight/mini-game involves No. IV creating duplicates of itself, something Vexen never showed himself able to do in the past, but… more on that in a while. To defeat No. IV and get the best prizes, you have to defeat 85 clones without being so much as touched by any of them. This is probably out of the average player’s range at this point in the game (a certain Drive Form ability helps the most), but give it a shot if you’re feeling lucky.

kh2-2016-02-22-05h24m38s675Your prizes for beating the mushrooms include “Tranquility” ingredients for synthesis that you can only earn from the mushrooms, plus a chance of getting special weapons for Donald and Goofy, ranging from trash to post-game quality. Unfortunately I will have to hide some of my best strategies behind our low-spoilers policy, but I’ll get back to them towards the end of the retrospective. I’m not going to break a simple spoiler policy just because some fungus wrote a gang sign on its back with a bedazzler.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Sora’s Special Speedy Santa Suit
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – The High Five Heard ’Round the World


This retrospective’s screenshots come from Spazbo4’s longplay of the 2.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix+ at World of Longplays (YouTube).

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2 comments

  1. How did Shan-Yu end up gaining control over the Heartless in the game? In the manga, it’s revealed he got them from Xigbar, but no explanation here in the game.

    1. I don’t think he strictly needs an explanation, since the same happened to Clayton in KH1, but since the manga ties the Org into events, that’s nice for entirely different reasons.

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