Once Beast is calmed down, it seems he doesn’t remember most of what he’s done over the past few days, and is full of regret and apology. Goofy suggests he put his friends in the dungeon so that he wouldn’t hurt them by accident, but the Beast won’t accept that coddling suggestion, even though the cast keeps trying. It’s not clear where the line is between the Beast’s actions and the Organization members’ magical influence, but it’s clear that Beast, at least, thinks he was behaving willingly. Despite what Sora and friends may think, events on later games seem to back Beast’s darker opinion, even if KH2 itself might be on Sora’s side. I know Sora and KH2 want to see the best in everyone, but considering Beast is trying to make up for things and is looking for forgiveness, not deflection, I think Sora’s doing a harm by cutting off Beast’s efforts to atone in his own way. It’s nice of you to open a door, Sora, but the Beast wants to find his own.
Beast does give you a valuable piece of information: the cloaked figure’s name was Xaldin, and it seems Xaldin has been deliberately provoking him to rage. Magic Jiminy informs us via the journal that Xaldin is the Organization’s Number III. I’m honestly okay with Jiminy knowing the Org numbers, since there was no natural way to convey them prior to what we’ll see the game do at the eleventh hour. I guess they could say it out loud again, like they did in CoM, but I suspect it would have been stilted. CoM made it clear that numbers are based more on seniority than rank, but Xaldin seems like a pretty big fish to be swimming around the shallow end of the pool here in World 4. Best take that as a warning.
Beast joins your party in the hunt for Xaldin. Compared to KH1, Beast’s air game is much improved, probably because of the upcoming boss. In addition, he also has a new Limit: Howling Moon (a name taken from one of Red XIII’s Limit Breaks in FFVII). About the biggest downside to the guy is the fact that he and Goofy fill similar combat roles even though you still need Goofy to use Valour Form. How fast are you at using the Party command in a pinch?
On your way to find Xaldin, you try to check in with Belle only to find that she’s left her room. Along the way, you’ll run into Lance Soldiers. These are dangerous Heartless who, like the Hook Bats, have a powerful attack that expose them to an equally dangerous Reaction Command, Lance Tug, which will have you flying around the room into enemies. Beyond that, the Lance Soldiers aren’t really that interesting, or even very memorable, even despite their danger. I don’t think I even remembered they showed up on this world!
You know, in KH1, the enemy pool was so shallow it got stale at times, but you go to go in-depth into the strategy, which seemed to be the purpose of the shallow enemy pool. Those enemies also returned in CoM, which helps me remember them all the more. In KH2, on the other hand, the enemy pool is much wider, and while I recognize them all, I find I can’t remember many details about each individual enemy… even though I’ve played KH1 and KH2 about the same number of times? True, very few of these KH2 enemies seem to have carried over to other games, even to KHX. KH1 also benefits from what I call “the Goomba effect,” where enemies from early in the first game of a series are considered more iconic (especially if they’re at the start of the first game, like the humble Goomba), but I feel my memory gaps regarding KH2 monsters go further than that. I get the impression that I never found enough challenge in the KH2 enemies to learn their differences in the first place? What’s the difference between the two Gargoyle Statues, the Warriors and the Knights? There is a difference, but I don’t know it out-of-hand, as it doesn’t influence the way I play! I remembered Lance Soldiers, but not that they were on this world. This forgetfulness carries on throughout the entire game, for many if not the majority of the minor enemies. From the perspective of an archivist (if that’s what I’m doing with these Retrospectives) I’m disappointed at myself… but from the perspective of a critic, I find myself disappointed at KH2.
I mean, do you have any idea how hard it’s been to grab a good screenshot of each new enemy? Sora attacks them, they get stunlocked, and they die! What’s to remember?
Ultimately, you track Belle to the Ballroom, where she calls for help. Considering what she’s run into, she’s actually being fairly calm, and is already on her way out of the room when you arrive. Inside the Ballroom, you find our first Pureblood Heartless boss of the game: a frightening, evolved Darkball bound in sharp chains. This is the Shadow Stalker, and it opens what may be my favourite boss sequence in the entire game.
The Stalker makes its mark by flying back into the windows of the film’s iconic ballroom at the very start of the fight, which it possesses. From there it launches lasers that you can squeeze between by standing in lines with the gaps between windows. Of course, you don’t have to squeeze between the lasers: like many of the Shadow Stalker’s attacks, if you’re willing to limit your ability to counterattack, it’s easy to slip to one side of the arena and avoid the attack entirely. It makes healing a lot easier. After the attack, the Shadow Stalker will become exposed for a brief window, after which it will carry on by possessing the chandelier and spinning it like a tornado, or by grabbing the pillars supporting the balcony and making them dance. Unlike the windows, which the Stalker would abandon of its own accord, these other attacks require you to attack the section of the room to dislodge the Stalker. This is relatively easy for the chandelier, but can be tricky with the pillars, since the Stalker only “hides” in one of them and you have to track it down. Easy enough if you’re paying attention, but shit happens.
The Stalker’s tactics connect the Stalker to its fellow Purebloods, the Possessors. It’s interesting to see the enemies forming a unified theme that has nothing to do with the world itself, considering the Heartless are supposed to be invaders. I wouldn’t want it to overwhelm the usual “Emblems adapting to the world” aesthetic, but this would be interesting to see once or twice in KH3.
If you do keep an eye on the Stalker, it’s fairly easy to defeat. It’s so easy, in fact that you should forgo any use of Drives, especially because this seemingly everyday boss has a second form!
After defeating the Shadow Stalker, its chains are destroyed, unleashing its true power. Its real form, the Dark Thorn, is apparently based on Final Fantasy X’s incarnation of Ifrit. The Marathon is still working its way up to FFX at the time of writing, but this seems legitimate. I wish there were a few more bosses in this series based on Final Fantasy monsters and not screwing it up (Behemoth), but we’ll take what we can get, and this boss is satisfying either way.
Dark Thorn opens the fight by going invisible on you, and I mean truly invisible this time, not the shimmering effect of the Stealth Sneak of KH1. Sora can still lock on to the Dark Thorn, which initially seems to defeat the purpose, but I find I still have trouble hitting the Dark Thorn even with a lock-on, so it evens out. The invisibility messes with my depth perception: I tend to walk straight into the boss and get slashed for my trouble. It’s best to rely on Sliding Dash to attack the Thorn rather than gauge the distance yourself. To get rid of the invisibility, you must either use the Step Vault Reaction Command to jump up off the Thorn’s back and up to the chandelier (this won’t work if the Thorn happens to be under the balcony at the time), or to wait until the Dark Thorn tries to throw you into a wall, which will provoke another Reaction Command to save your ass, turning the Thorn visible in the process. If you do use Step Vault, Sora will bring the chandelier crashing down to slam into the Thorn. Unfortunately, the Dark Thorn will “learn” from this and will attack you with the chandelier in a similar fashion after it loses its invisibility for the first time (at least, I feel that the developer intended for the Thorn to “learn” the attack since it mimics your exact movements, but if you use the second reaction command, the Thorn will eventually use the chandelier against you even though you never used Step Vault. I guess you could say Sora is learning from it?).
During my Retrospective play-through, this was where I had a realization about Critical Mode. Remember how I said that Critical mode limits your HP but also limits the enemies’? (Towards the end of the KH2 retrospective, dlppictures pointed out to me that enemy HP isn’t actually reduced, but that KH2 has some complicated damage calculations that work in your favour. You can check out his post here. Unfortunately, by that point I had already littered the retrospective with references to “reduced HP.” You’ll have to forgive me.) The Dark Thorn was the first boss where the enemies’ HP reduction was truly noticeable. The Shadow Stalker/Dark Thorn fights are fairly drawn out in Standard or Proud, but my experience with Critical Mode was more like brief (but substantial) panic. The enemy doesn’t last long enough for the battle to have its original strategic depth, which was a shame. The Critical Mode challenge level was still “right” for me, but I feel like like something was lost in the transition. Maybe the ideal KH2 experience is to play the game once Proud or Standard so you don’t miss these sorts of things, and then play it again on Critical. Since Critical was only introduced in the remake, this is akin to the experience of the average Critical Mode player from back-in-the-day, but I realize that it doesn’t sound very inviting.
After the defeat of the Dark Thorn, Sora and the others celebrate, only to have Xaldin appear and give a strange response to their cheers. “We did it!” says Sora. “So you think,” says Xaldin, who soon leaves. This… uh… I think I know what he was supposed to be saying, but the game blows it. Let me try to hint at it for those in the know: Xaldin is here with two plans, one involving the Beast and one involving the Organization’s main plan. Xaldin seems to be hinting that you haven’t hurt or maybe even helped the Organization’s main plan. The trouble is, because the Dark Thorn is a specific kind of Heartless, it also has nothing to do with the Organization’s main plan! …Whoops?
Sora and the others repeat a lot of Yen Sid’s monologue to surmise that Xaldin must have been trying to make Beast a Heartless, so that they would get his powerful Nobody in the process. It’s a nice theory, so I may as well admit to the reader that this is, in fact, Xaldin’s personal plan. But now I have a question. As I said regarding the Twilight Thorn, we never see another boss-style Nobody that isn’t a humanoid, so… what happens to these other powerful Nobodies? I can’t imagine Xaldin was going to all this trouble just so the Organization could get its six hundredth Samurai, or god forbid their millionth Dusk, right? In the Retrospective’s thread at KHI, ShardofTruth remarked that the Specter Marluxia used at the end of CoM was probably a lesser Nobody, but was still very dramatic and prominent, so perhaps there were supposed to be more Nobodies like the Specter? Or maybe all the Nobodies were supposed to be like the Specter, and the minor Nobodies were a later addition? The Organization is hunting for powerful Nobodies throughout this game, which gives the impression of some sort of plot change. So why don’t they have other boss-level Nobodies? It seems like it would be a handy by-product of their work, a useful monster-of-the-week for the devs! I can only guess that the devs assumed that the number of Organization bosses in this game was strong enough already, and having any more would have pushed back the Heartless? I suppose I can get behind that, but doing so left the plot with a question mark scribbled on top of it.
Belle returns and the Beast is wholly apologetic for his behaviour over the past few weeks. She accepts… partially, making it clear there’s still a ways and a movie to go before they fall in love and all is well. The servants explain the rose’s role in the curse during this scene, at last. You might wonder why they’re doing it when the world is clearly over, so I’ll tell you: it’s an artificial way of re-introducing the rose so it can be used as the gate key. For goodness’ sake, devs, the rose isn’t even here! Okay, let’s use this to help hone our understanding of the gate keys. We can work out that Sora needs a special object… but it doesn’t need to be present so I suppose he doesn’t technically “need” it… and he needs to… beat a boss… but we don’t know why. Does he need to understand the significance of an object? In the case of Shan-Yu’s sword, the object became significant after his defeat, and they weren’t even talking about it at the time, so that doesn’t quite seem right either…
Your prize for this world is, as per the last time you fought an invisible boss, the Cure spell, and it’s just as much a relief as ever. The Cure spell is greatly refined here, and many of those refinements would be carried over to later entries in the series. The most important improvement is targeting: to spare you the trouble of having to “select a target” whenever you use Cure in a panic (especially considering how, reasonably speaking, you’d only ever want to Cure Sora), KH2 makes it so that the target is always you. This function has carried over to all games that follow. In KH2, the spell casts a healing radius around you so that you can catch teammates if they happen to be nearby (a feature included in most of the forthcoming games as well, though not so universally). Upgrades (Cura and Curaga) increase the radius. Unusually, Donald and Sora don’t seem to share the same Cure spell even though every other one of their spells are identical: Donald’s version of Cure seems identical to the KH1 incarnation, but that’s for the best, since then he can target Sora and heal you at a distance.
That’s technically it for Beast’s Castle, but once you leave your second world, you’re interrupted by new events before you can even stop for a breather! But that’s going to have to wait until next time!