Returning to the surface, we have a brief cutscene here were Meg talks to Hercules. It’s mostly irrelevant, I wasn’t going to mention it until I remembered it features Hercules walking into the arena to the cheering crowd we know from experience does not actually exist. He insists he has to keep exhausting himself to entertain the Cursed Hall of Voices. We just came off drama that kept slamming itself in our face to drama that didn’t show up on the set in the first place! Hercules is no longer voiced by Sean Astin in this game, but his original voice actor, Tate Donovan, who’s been in 24, Deception and even Friends as Rachel’s boyfriend Joshua. The ghost crowd is voiced by the hopes and dreams of a thousand unemployed game developers.
With nothing else to do but tell Meg the bad news, Sora and friends finally leave the Underworld through the front door and find themselves conveniently at the entrance to the Coliseum. Nothing has changed here from KH1 (not even the signs announcing the tournaments!), and hey! The GUI just changed its theme mid-world, from Underworld themed to Coliseum themed! That’s a great touch, I love it! As I said before, I’m sure some people have a need or want for the original GUI but I just think the dynamic GUI is the neatest thing.
Back in the Underworld, Hades is having a lucid moment. Rather than be furious that everyone escaped, he’s having a fangasm about the Keyblade, and how it can unlock any lock (that was a very tactful set up, my complaints about the characters not seeing the giant lock aside). He explains to Pete that he used to have a coliseum of his own in the underworld, where monsters used to battle, but things got so bloody and horrific that Zeus had the place locked up. Hades dodges the question on why he didn’t have his monsters fight in, say, the room where we fought Cerberus (which is actually larger than his coliseum), and instead he and Pete jump straight to the conclusion that they’re going to use the “Underdrome” to kill Hercules. Instead of, say, the room where we fought Ceberus.
It’s even stranger when you realize Pete suggests they use the Underdrome to kill Hercules more-or-less out of nowhere. Hades just seems to want the Underdrome unlocked because he’s greedy and wants to snub his nose at Zeus, so the part about Hercules is entirely Pete’s fault. The line might breeze past the player, considering it’s the plot they expect, but it’s happening formulaically, not naturally. Didn’t CoM call this faulty narrative logic to the chopping block not one game ago?
Hercules meets up with Sora at the gates, and there’s a shot in here I swear is framed for the trailer: “Junior Heroes, always busy!” Herc even asks if Sora ever found his friends, the only recurring character to show that kind of consideration so far. What a consistent, stand-up guy. Sora asks Herc if there’s a way they could explore the Underworld without the curse affecting him, and Hercules says there’s a special medallion, the Olympus Stone, kept by the gods for any trips they take to visit Hades. You can imagine what kind of “trips” they must be if the stone’s only purpose is to restore one’s combat potential.
Hercules suggests you go train with Phil while you’re waiting, and the game repeats the joke from KH1 where he mistakes you for Hercules. There’s also a cute bit where Donald and Goofy are laughing to themselves and counting Phil’s “two words” recurring joke on their fingers. Normally, when the cast explains a joke (which that happens far too often in this series), it drives me up the wall, but these two look like they’ve been waiting for Phil to do this since they landed, and it’s so cute I can’t help but enjoy it this one time.
Phil is thrilled to see you, and it really is nice how everyone on this world gets a happy reunion, especially Phil who was always a hard-ass to you. Phil declares (amicably) that you’re still just Junior Heroes, and offers you your training: a weird mini-game called… uh… “Phil’s Training.”
Phil’s Training has two phases, and the first one doesn’t count, which is confusing because the game doesn’t spell out that only the second round matters (on replays, the first round continues infinitely, and it probably won’t occur to you that you have to end it manually!). The objective in both difficulties is to break a bunch of flying target urns that hover about the arena in formation. Each urn you break drops a number of orbs for you to pick up, and if you knock one urn into another, they will drop a huge number of orbs proportional to their size, and I mean that just how I said it: size only matters when you fling one urn into another. If you break a big one on its own, you’ll get almost nothing. It must be the target of another thrown urn, or the projectile itself.
Like the Junk Sweeper mini-game in Twilight Town, this game is easier with a smaller combo, so that you get around to the finisher as fast as possible, though it’s not strictly necessary this time around. What’s even nicer is: completing this training for the first time actually trains a new ability for you! I think I could count the number of games that actually trained your character with “training” on one hand!
After racking up a score in Maniac, Hercules returns. And… walks right past you. It’s so confusing and poorly shot that each time it happens I try to remember if there was a subplot where Hercules is under mind-control! That might sound like I’m exaggerating for effect but, but I promise I’m not. The shot is just that bad. Have you ever played the Kafei and Anju sidequest in Majora’s Mask, where you set up a meeting with Anju, and she refuses acknowledge you until she reaches an exact spot in the kitchen? Hercules is acting like that – like a dynamically scripted character from a game five years earlier, except this is a cutscene where scripting was 100% under their control. Hercules later implies he was looking for Meg, but his model sure wasn’t looking around! This is a fish-face moment that goes well and beyond the typical lack of emotion: turn your damn head! He was staring into the distance like Riku Replica looking into the face of death, like a mannequin with no working eyelids.
Phil leaves – very suspiciously, might I add, which seems to be deliberate on the part of the writers even though it never amounts to anything – and you speak to Mr. Glass-Eyes here. Hercules says that the Olympus Stone has been stolen, meaning he had information for you and still walked right past you instead of sharing it. He heavily implies an Organization agent stole it, and holy shit, the Organization robbed the gods! Why didn’t we get to see that?
Hercules asks about Meg, and right on cue, here’s Hades to announce that he kidnapped her. What a guy! Celebrity Voice Actor James Woods announces that Hercules can’t come rescue Meg, because a monster is going to show up at the arena soon. This is his brilliant plan. Set Hercules up with a monster and pray he doesn’t finish it off in the first few seconds so that Sora will be forced to find the seal on the Underdrome without Herc there to fill him in. This god failed to kill one man for how many years, you say?
Hercules looks like he’s about to sucker-punch Hades, which would have been hilarious. Ultimately, he summons Pegasus and sends Pegausus off to search for Meg, even though Meg is in a cave, but I guess you know what your horse can do best, Mr. Demigod. You’re fast on Pegasus’ hooves, and it’s back to the underworld with you, through the creepy dark clouds that are now hovering outside Olympus Coliseum’s gate.
Back in the Underworld, you find Phil unconscious. He announces that when he went out of the arena earlier, he saw an Organization member and chased him all the way to hell, where he got clobbered. He did see the Org member “douse” the flames in this room. Oh, right, I didn’t mention the flames: there used to be a wall of fire blocking off a hallway in this room, which is about the most arbitrary kind of “broken bridge” a video game could use (I admit, that may be my bitterness at FFIV talking, since it used both fire and ice to the same purpose). Worse, this once again raises the possibility that Hades could have kept you trapped in the Underworld some other way! A round of applause for this paragon of competence and consistency!
Back at the stadium, Hercules is fighting the Hydra, and defeats it. Unfortunately, where the Hydra was Hercules’ first opponent in the film, in this universe Hercules doesn’t yet know the Hydra can regenerate. He thinks he’s killed the thing and runs off to join you, which can only end in invisible tears.
You head into the other side of the Underworld, where the ground is covered in fog and a new Heartless, a Trick Ghost, taunts you from the distance. You move forward, jump at the Heartless perhaps… and realize the fog was hiding a drop-off. It’s so cleverly done that even though you can’t fall for it twice, I still admire its execution every time I come to the room. It’s just perfect. FM+ even threw in a puzzle piece as an additional lure!
More Trick Ghosts ambush you at the bottom of the drop. These monsters underline how little I’ve retained of KH2’s massive yet shallow menagerie over the years. The Trick Ghosts change form to attack at both close and long range? I never noticed! I mean… I must have read the Journal entry that explains this at some point in the past, but I don’t think I absorbed that basic information? It also goes to show how much the game wanted to have a KH1 style in-depth combat system with strategy and enemies changing forms, but they blew it by making Sora too fast and too capable. Which is to say: I think the issue is less that I’ve forgotten the Trick Ghosts could transform and more that I never needed to know.
You weave your way through a series of caverns (it’s very easy to miss chests here) until you come across the Organization member you saw earlier, just waiting around (Ryan O’Donohue’s). He unhoods and, after this conversation, you can visit Jiminy’s Journal to learn that the Dial-a-Psychic living in Sora’s hood writes that this guy’s name is Demyx, it will be rainy with a chance of fog, and that today’s lucky number is 13. Demyx is the organization’s No. IX, and his title is: “The Melodius Nocturne.” You’re probably wondering this, but Demyx’s name is never said out loud, and so didn’t have an official pronunciation for years. It wasn’t until the release of 1.5 HD that it was given an official pronunciation (it’s close to “dem-ix”). Speaking of unfortunate names, Demyx tries greeting Sora as “Roxas,” and Sora replies with “excuse me?” with all the tone of someone not sure if he should say “gesundheit.” Haley Joel Osmet nailed the delivery.
Demyx doesn’t know how to respond to this. It’s clear he’s working off of a script he doesn’t want to follow, even before he pulls out the literal script. By the way, this guy’s the intended Organization comic relief I was talking about during the CoM manga retrospective, and he’s pretty good at it. It seems he’s been given order to attack you if “Roxas” does not respond at once, “to liberate his true disposition.” That’s just hokey. That’s “plot of a Mortal Kombat game” hokey. Oh, video games.
The funny thing is, Demyx doesn’t seem to want to fight, but he does what he’s been told and holds up the Olympus Stone to activate it, freeing himself from the Curse of the Underworld. Yet again, this sends up question marks for me on what the Curse of the Underworld was originally supposed to do in an earlier draft, because Demyx actually does considerably less things to you here than he does in a later battle, so it doesn’t seem like his true power has been unlocked at all. The game is just letting the curse do whatever it wants at any given moment, which would be fine if it wasn’t such a… spaghetti. Sora can’t hurt Hades with the Keyblade or Magic, and that was said to be the curse. Demyx had to use it to do even a single attack. Pete is about to imply the curse should be preventing you from fighting at all. Did the game originally block you from fighting entirely? Or did someone script it that way and left the gameplay designers at an utter loss on how to convert that into a combat game? Once again I’ve got to ask: where are the editors?
Demyx’s attack is weird. W.E.I.R.D. It’s one of the weirdest and certainly most infamous things in the entire series, maybe among the most infamous boss attacks in the entire era of gaming, though this early encounter is not so bad. It seems Demyx commands Water (notice that Phil says he “doused” the fire at the gate. Nicely done! If only the fire had been justified in the first place…). First, he Demyx takes out his weapon, which by the way, is a sitar, the “Arpeggio.” So okay, that’s cute, he’s based on the Final Fantasy Bard class. He then summons up a platoon of water clones of himself. At this point, Demyx becomes invincible, commands “Dance, water, dance!” and a fucking timer shows up in the corner. This thing. This damn thing. The game doesn’t tell you but if you haven’t killed every water clone in the arena by the time it runs out, you die. Why do you die? Fuck you is why.
The utter, the complete, utter, bold-faced lack of an explanation has made this infinitely worse for the generation of gamers that have been frustrated by this boss. Square Enix made a boss so arbitrary, so needlessly complicated and weirdly luck-based, and capped it off with a spit in the face for anyone who dared ask why.
Again, this early fight isn’t so bad. There are reaction commands you can use against the water clones (when they turn into musical notes) that take out whole groups, though they’re risky to use towards the end of the fight since they anchor you to a water spirit for so long you risk not killing the one you have a hold of! The biggest and most important key advice is the most irrational: the water spirits are weak against the Fire spell. This is because the game can’t be arsed to have a separate “Water” element from the existing “Blizzard” element. A Final Fantasy Tradition™. Fire is so effective you have to wonder if the sheer infamy of this section was simply the result of the designers not realizing that millions of players would avoid using Fire against Water!
One neat feature of this “fight” is Demyx’s defeated quote, where he sticks adamantly to the idea that Sora is Roxas (and adamance is surprising coming from Demyx). Demyx repeats his use of “Roxas” after the fight, and Sora remarks “Guy’s a broken record.” Maybe it’s the arbitrary battle just prior, but this line from Sora pisses me off. Not three worlds ago, the suggestion that Sora might have been someone else nearly reduced him to a broken mass quivering in a puddle of tears. And given that Roxas keeps peering out from Sora, I can only explain this “broken record” line as the writer of this section forgetting Sora/Roxas’ characterization, wiping it out only for it to come back again later. What a blow to Roxas’ story!
The funny thing is, other than the numerous holes letting water into the ship that is KH2, this world has a pretty strong stand-alone plot that’s going to only get stronger. I’ll look you dead in the eye and say with complete honesty that it’s one of my favourite Disney plots period, even if it does nothing but damage to the main plots. KH2 has some pretty good individual worlds, even if they blow their maximum potential by hamstringing the main plots or avoiding them entirely. We’re taking on water fast and we’re going down for the third time, but it can’t be denied: other than the holes, this part of the ship is so well put-together!
Demyx flees after you win, leaving the Olympus Stone behind. You also get Secret Ansem Report 5 from this exchange. Demyx is just dropping crap left and right, isn’t he? Come to think of it, we got one of the other Secret Reports after a scene with the Organization as well. That’s worrying: this is information the good guys won’t want them to have. The second author writes that he’s been banished to another realm (presumably the Realm of Darkness, god knows why he has anything to write on, or with), with the heavy insinuation that he was sent there by “six traitors”: the researchers working with the author of the Ansem Report from KH1.
The second author reminds veteran players and informs new players about the artificial origin of the Emblem Heartless, and then begins to wonder about how dangerous the Emblems could be if they had a commander. Clearly he doesn’t know about the boss Heartless that already exist. This seems to have been intended as foreshadowing about how Ansem took over the Heartless during KH1 – see my comments in the CoM Retrospective about how CoM dodged the old trope of writers of a prequel or midquel giving their characters perfect insight into events they supposedly pre-date – but the devs had to pretend that Darksides, Guard Armours, and Dark Thorns somehow don’t even exist to make this point! It makes for a confusing read. Even if the author doesn’t know about boss Heartless (there’s a distinct possibility that those particular Emblems don’t exist yet), the player does, and if the game’s going to be mysterious, it really has to consider what the audience is thinking!
The author talks about how the KH1 author must be planning to become a Heartless, with the larger objective of tracking down the largest Heart in existence. It’s hard to tell from the phasing (he uses the term “world,” and you know how this franchise misuses the term “world”) but it seems the author has mistaken the largest heart in the “world” (universe) for the heart of Hollow Bastion itself, not realizing there’s a wider world outside. Alternately, maybe the author is aware of Kingdom Hearts. It wouldn’t be important if it weren’t for the fact that this report further entrenches the misconception that the Kingdom Hearts from KH1 was the “real” one – something that pre-existed for this author to write about!
Back to the plot. Looks like you got the Olympus Stone just in time, because you’re all out of—wait, hold on, FM+ is interrupting me by shoehorning in new content. Demyx returns (despite it seeming out-of-character for him to do so) so that he can drop an exposition on the “Absent Silhouette” book from earlier. He explains that Absent Silhouettes are lingering spirits attached to items (or semblances of items) from their former lives, and if you check out the book, you could go fight one of them. He suggests that might “wake you up” (that is to say, wake Roxas up) as well. That’s probably not the best incentive to get Sora to do anything, but it’s good enough for us players! I’ll talk about the Absent Silhouette during Wrap-Up.
Oh, and did you notice that you got access to the Absent Silhouette the second your Drive Gauge was restored with the help of the Olympus Stone?