If Kingdom Hearts 2 be remembered for nothing else, let it be remembered for this world. It’s not perfect, no, but with the ongoing march of video game development, near-perfection ages poorly. This world is something unique, or close to it. A similar sequence does appear in 1994’s Mickey Mania / Mickey’s Wild Adventure, which probably inspired this sequence, but seeing it in 3D is still very impressive.
Important footnote. KH2 loads and presents its data in a very specific way: from black, it will start playing music before it shows any visuals. As a result, the first thing you’re likely to notice about this world is that the audio quality has dropped – plunged in 2.5’s case – and switched from stereo to mono. When the video cuts in, Sora and his friends are spat out of the door into a monochrome world, Donald and Goofy in designs reminiscent of their earliest appearances in the 1930s, and Sora has likewise been turn into a character from the Golden Age of cartoon animation. A grown-up player will quickly take all these clues to realize that Merlin has sent you into Disney Castle’s deep past. You’ve landed not far from the Cornerstone of Light, which rests on a scenic hill.
I should say up front that the low-quality sound keeps up for the entire world, though a few generic sound effects slipped through in high quality. This is something I wish they had caught, as it’s very sloppy and jarring. Less disappointing but still out-of-place are the use of coloured items in the pickup screen – surely saving monochrome images of the three or four items you find in this world wouldn’t have been that complicated? But these are minor quibbles. The art direction in this segment is impeccable, and a love for the original cartoons shines through. This is absolutely in my top five favourite KH2 worlds.
Donald and Goofy don’t quite clue in to the fact that they’re in the past as quickly as the player might, though it’s clear it’s just on the tip of their tongues. They’re interrupted by the surprise arrival of Pete, also in 1920’s gettup, who asks them, “Seen any bad guys around here?” What would you do? The trio all point straight at Pete. But Pete starts throwing suspicions in your face by saying he doesn’t have time for “punks like you” and storms off as if you weren’t even a bother. Sora, Donald and Goofy aren’t very quick on the uptake today, and assume that Pete is responsible for what’s going on. It’s funny and magical in a way how everyone recognizes Pete and thinks he’s the present-day one, but we’re all adults here, so for the sake of the Retrospective, I don’t have to hide the fact that this is the Pete from the deep past, right? Okay, great.
You regain control of the team in a safe zone around the Cornerstone of Light, which allows you to talk to a few forgotten legacy characters (Horace Horsecaller, Clara Cluck, Clarabelle Cow) who talk about how they’re going to build a castle on this site, with the Cornerstone as a symbolic… ah… cornerstone. If you haven’t clued in yet, you may be an eight year old, which is fine. I like to think this plot works just as well even if you’re not quite aware that time travel is going on, though you’ll have to pardon me for not wasting time with spoilers, as it is pretty obvious.
You lead the trio down the hill after past-Pete to a pier, where Pete gets annoyed at them for stalking him, and threatens to thump them in a generic, cartoon bully sort of way. The party interprets this as modern day Pete wanting to attack them like he already has in the past. Pete reveals he’s not truly interested in them when he hears a distant steam whistle, but Sora and the others turn full-on aggressors and start a fight.
This… urm… “boss fight” just adds more hints that Pete isn’t really the modern one, like how he gestures and showboats more than attacks, and how the damage he causes is mostly in response to your attacks (for example, if you knock him in the air, he’ll come down with a shockwave). It’s over soon enough, Pete asking what on earth is wrong with you. Even then, he’s more interested in the boat whistle, and tries to leave in spite of his injuries, announcing that someone has stolen his steamboat. This finally seems to clue the party in that Pete isn’t who he seems to be, though if you ask me, the game is still flirting with the idea that this might be the real Pete just pretending to be from the past. That would be a clever idea, and it tries… but the red herring idea is tossed aside too soon. Donald even has the gall to say, “that would be too easy.” Donald, what did I say about you guys doing my job for me?
The trio apologizes to “Capt’n Pete,” and are going to help him look for his boat when they spot the strangest thing: a window frame with a curtain, hanging in mid-air. It’s probably supposed to look like a classic movie theatre’s curtain, though in small scale it also looks like the kind of frame you’d see at a puppet show. Donald pulls the drawstring and the window opens to show Cornerstone Hill, where four other windows are hanging in mid-air, surrounded by monochrome Heartless. The Heartless enter the windows and the windows vanish, only for Sora, Donald and Goofy to arrive in the world moments later. It seems this window shows a vision of the past – well, a few minutes further into the past than you already are!
The party goes to the hill to investigate, and sure enough the four windows have returned (you’ve already seen what a rush the devs seem to be in for this world, so I’m not even going to question this arbitrary development). Cornerstone Hill demonstrates an interesting use of the safe zone mechanic during this segment: Donald, Goofy and two of the locals each camp out next to a window, and will give you commentary on what they see through the window. But if you’ve already been to that particular room, they go away from the window and say something else! It’s not perfect (I would have preferred they shut the curtain on a window after you clear each window), but it’s still a great way to keep track of which windows you’ve already visited or not.
By the way, you might want to explore the rest of Timeless River at this point. Video games don’t like to waste rooms, and KH2, like KH1, rarely has you go to a world without visiting every room on the map. Yet oddly enough: one of the rooms in Timeless River is only visited during a boss fight despite not being a “boss room,” per se, and if you want the chests there, you’re going to have to wander in your own time!
While you’re wandering about town, check out the signage – no, really. The signs propped around Timeless River have real writing on them, not the kind you need to hit a button to read, which make navigation easy and make the place seem like an established community. Too bad the industry has a justified, localization-rooted fear of readable signs, because I find these more helpful than dialogue-box style signs!
Returning to Cornerstone Hill, you get to pick from the four windows, and we’ll tackle them from left to right. The rightmost is kind of hard to explain in the first place so I’m eager to put it off until it’s clear what’s going on in all four rooms as a group. Not that any of the rooms are very new-user friendly. The leftmost transports the team to a skyscraper’s construction site, and Sora has no idea what’s being built, because he’s probably never seen a skyscraper. Just then, a hammer shaped Heartless, the Hammer Frame, appears, and is knocked away by… 1920’s Mickey Mouse pulling a Tarzan on a rope? Mickey waves to the others, and Goofy notes that he “seems kinda different somehow.”
This setup – bad guys appear, Mickey appears – repeats four times across the four rooms, and in a very clever touch, Donald and Goofy’s reaction dialog is poised in such a way that they’re not on-screen when they say it. This allows the devs can replace their dialogue with whichever line is most appropriate: the first reaction always occurs in the first room you vist, the second in the second, and so on. Each room represents one of Mickey’s old cartoon shorts, this one being 1933’s Building a Building. The gameplay in each room has a gimmick, usually built around a “Mayhem Bar” that represents the damage being done to the environment during your fight. The Heartless are aiming to destroy the past and you have to stop them! Sadly, after you’ve cleared each room, the room returns to “normal,” often losing their gimmicks. Good riddance to the Mayhem bar, but it seems like such a shame to lose some of the other gimmicks.
At the construction site, the gimmick is that you’re battling on a platform the Hammer Frames have knocked out of joint, turning it into a cartoon see-saw that propels you into the air. Good use of enemies, by the way, since the Hammer Frames slam their heads into the ground to cause shockwaves, which fully justifies the see-saw. The Mayhem bar here is a real danger since it just shoots up compared to the other three rooms, but Sora can use a special reaction command near the cable in the centre of the platform to use special area attacks in mid-air (area attacks that, you guessed it, have nothing to do with the cable). Unfortunately, while it makes sense that the Hammer Frames would jostle the platform, their attack strategy is to cause area damage by smashing the ground, and you’re rarely standing on the ground! Oh well, I still think it’s better (and funnier) that they send the platform askew than that they get optimal fighting conditions. This game has so many flat open areas that every other appearance the Hammer Frames will ever have is “optimal.”
After clearing each world, past Mickey arrives, shakes Sora’s hand without a word, and runs off with a wave. After this, the gang finds another floating window and look in to see a strange scene. Well, actually something of a self-explanatory scene, but it’s a strangely shot scene. In the first, we see Maleficent in Villain’s Vale, shot from someone else’s perspective. It is oh-so-painfully obvious that our point of view is Pete. Sometimes you even catch sight of his arms! But not only do Sora and the gang not know it’s him (something I could once again chalk up to the dev teams not communicating) but there’s a dramatic reveal that it’s him later on, as though it somehow wasn’t obvious at all, which is just insulting.
Okay, I didn’t want to do this but I have no choice. I know what I said about it being okay that certain segments were designed for eight year olds. The sheer amount of (tedious) narrative replay involved in Timeless River underlines how much KH2 was, much more than any other game in the series, designed as a children’s game instead of a teens’ game, among other evidence. Well, okay, fine. But I had a thought as I was taking notes on KH2, and it kept laying on obvious clue after obvious clue like so many bricks falling on my head in a row. If this game is meant for children, why does it have a three hour, boring, hyper-cerebral opening segment? And if it was trying to be more kid-friendly, how did it end up with an E10+ or similar rating in almost all regions? Balancing your product to appeal to kids and adults (or teens) is an art, and if these segments are our best evidence, the Kingdom Hearts 2 development team couldn’t find its audience in a dark room with a long stick.
Maleficent is riding Pete’s ass for screwing up on his last mission, presumably the one in Olympus Coliseum (with time travel involved, I guess you could put this conversation at any point in the game, or even after the game, which may even explain some plot holes, but it seems like a stretch). She tells him that she’s through with him and just walks off. Well thanks for participating, Pete, bye!
By the way, we have another really obvious “the other game development department didn’t get the memo / earlier draft” moment when Sora summarizes the scene by saying: “Someone was mad.” Maleficent was in the middle of the shot. You know, it’s funny. In the past, I would have said “For whatever reason, Sora is seeing something different from us,” but after writing this Retrospective so far? I think it’s clear the problem is editing, and I don’t feel the urge to justify it any longer?
Sora and the others agree to clear out the Heartless before trying to make sense of everything, which I admit is the more urgent matter (although I suppose “urgency” in a time travel situation can be more than a little confusing). The second window from the left leads to a place called Lilliput by the game, a town full of tiny buildings. This makes it easy to identify as 1934’s Gulliver Mickey. Moments after you arrive, a Heartless in a prop plane appears. This is an Aeroplane, a highly cartoonish and frankly harmless aerial attacker, which may or may not be inspired by Mickey’s third film, 1929’s Plane Crazy.
You have more control over the Mayhem bar in this segment than in others: the Heartless will actively attack the Lilliputians and it’s your job to keep them off it. The best way to do this is with the Lilliputians’ help: they’ve set up massive cannon towers Sora can trigger by bouncing on them with a reaction command. Peak cartoon logic here. Speaking personally, I think the gun towers are pretty daunting. You have to imagine them from the ground level. Video games have loved a good ominous tower since Half-Life 2 but I don’t think I’ve seen one festooned with guns!
The big irony here, is that once you’re done? You can come back and destroy Lilliput yourself without punishment or recourse. Hell, everyone loves a game of Rampage!
The second scene from Pete’s point of view actually has Pete’s voice, and the trio still has the audacity to act like they don’t know it’s him. This is the worst editing I’ve seen in ages. At least the scene is intriguing. Pete is upset at being fired by Maleficent, and is calling himself “useless.” He says: “What I wouldn’t give to go back in time,” as sincerely as you can imagine, and it seems the universe grants his wish as a time door, not unlike Merlin’s, appears in Villain’s Vale. The only difference is a crest atop the door: a “P,” a cigar, and a fist. Pete opens the door and sees the past in a patch of glowing light.
Sora and the others do catch on that Pete’s door is the door they have to find and lock on their end. “Let’s check it out!” Sora says, as though you could, even though you can’t. This editing is actually starting to creak a little, and I’m worried the whole world might cave in any second.
The third window leads to one of the harder gimmick segments. A tall building is on fire, and Mickey is running around trying to put it out when he is interrupted by the Heartless. Mickey Mouse has two fire-fighting related cartoons in the classic library, 1930’s The Fire Fighters and 1935’s Mickey’s Fire Brigade. I feel this sequence is probably based on the former, not least of all because The Fire Fighters is the only one of the two in black and white!
There are two elements that make this sequence the hardest of the four. First off, a number of living flames are running toward the building, threatening to exasperate the fire. You have to take them out manually or suffer the consequences on the Mayhem bar. The second trouble is more significant, a nightmare in Heartless form. There are hard enemies and there are unfair enemies. Given the extended periods of invincibility these enemies enjoy, I’m inclined to call them the latter. It’s a thin line, but however you read it, the Hot Rods have struck fear in the hearts of gamers since 2005. These cartoon cars are fair enough as enemies go for the first half of their life bar, though they can’t be knocked into the air. It’s the second half that’s troublesome, as they go completely invincible and careen around the arena with their fair-sized hit boxes. The best way to beat them is with a spell you don’t have. You have to make absolutely sure not to exasperate another Hot Rod while the first is in berserk mode, because one is bad enough. Hot Rods are something to be feared. Thank goodness they’re largely confined to Timeless River, but the developers must have realized what kind of beast they had on hand. Do you want to know what the last standard round of enemies is in the very last tournament of Olympus Coliseum? It’s a bunch of Hot Rods, and nothing else. They didn’t need anything else. Sometimes the devs just want to you to lose.
Our next victory window confirms that Pete is the type to look a gift Horsecaller in the mouth. It seems he turned the door over to Maleficent to win back her confidences. As Maleficent looks through the door and plots, the camera has Pete’s gaze lazily trail back to the crest above the door. His crest. As Maleficent is plotting on using his door for her own benefit, it’s slowly dawning on him what he’s given up. Sadly we won’t see much more development for Pete from here on out (except one instance I can think of) but it’s a well-done character moment while it lasts. I almost feel sorry for the guy.
This time, the inter-departmental memos hit home and Sora and the others seem to recognize Maleficent. Goofy outright realizes that the three of them are in the past, and greedy Donald quickly realizes they can change the future. Goofy reminds him that Merlin said not to, and that’s… it. Merlin’s warning existed to 1) show fans of time travel that the writing staff did realize time travel could have consequences, and 2) to make two weaksauce jokes about Donald’s greed. The second such joke is coming later. It’s such a dull payoff after all that build-up.
The fourth window is the only one I can’t tie to a particular film. It’s set in Mickey’s living room, which could be from any number of shorts. Sadly, watching dozens of classic cartoons is not in my job description, as much as I wish it were. Here, the Heartless seem to be the source of the Mayhem, not the plot of the film, as they have put a big black hole of darkness smack in the middle of the room, and it’s eating Mickey’s furniture. The vacuum pull will affect you as well, but all-in-all this is the easiest of the four challenges, and not a bad place to start even if I brought the Retrospective here last.
By the way, there are Rapid Thrusters in this room, even though this isn’t Land of the Dragons. Get used to it: it’s not quite possible to draw a hard line between “local” and “common” Heartless in KH2. You won’t see the Chinese-inspired Nightwalkers on other planets, but believe it or not you will see these rampaging cartoon planes!
In the final window cutscene, Maleficent outlined her plan to Pete: the Cornerstone is vulnerable in the past, go bust it up. Ah, shit, I’m going to have to talk about delayed time travel, aren’t I? The Cornerstone is weak in the present, but it’s not destroyed, so we have some Back to the Future nonsense going on where the changes of time travel take time to reach the present. I don’t even want to address it, it’s just a little too much. No. No, I’m not doing it. Don’t I already have enough time travel tripe on my menu? No!
Flashback Pete then talks to himself about how he’ll need to steal his old boat, which is something he’s obviously doing for personal reasons, as it’s clearly not necessary for his plan. As he’s saying this, we for some reason stop seeing from his eyes and see him from third person perspective. Donald and Goofy freak out at this revelation, because the Cornerstone of Light is secretly the biggest idiot ball in existence. They even extrapolate this to mean that the past Pete must be a lying, present-day Pete. Even Sora is looking smarter than the others at this point, even though he started the confusion. Thankfully the game is done playing this round of idiot ball, but it throws in one last spike to Sora, Donald and Goofy’s heads by revealing the Cornerstone has been stolen as they stood around jawing, and that present-day Pete is just standing around, in his present-day clothes, unchanged except for the monochrome. This world keeps one-upping itself with the dumbest things I’ve seen in months, one after another, each replacing the last on the top of the pile.
Why isn’t Pete transformed? I mean, obviously it’s so the player can tell him apart from the other Pete (spoilers: the other Pete helps you out in the boss fight against future Pete! As a result, giving them distinct silhouettes was imperative, but couldn’t they have given the other Pete a costume from another historical era?). This seems so lazy. And doesn’t all this setup seem like it was heading to an identity swap scenario? I don’t feel I should ever advocate for a different storyline than the writers intended, but you know how I keep saying the devs seem to be in a damned hurry with this world? Yet again!
…Also, why is Pete staring into the distance towards a missing Cornerstone that he stole?