Let’s put this off as long as possible, how about?
No, you don’t understand, I need this put as far away from me as long as I can.
The Gummi Mission, which I will happily embrace to avoid the world itself, is called Splash Island, and it exists in a pair with the other Gummi route you just unlocked going towards the bottom of the map. Splash Island former is a lot more visually interesting than its twin, consisting of a series of flat islands with waterfalls streaming down. Sora seems to explore the whole area rather than simply fly through, which does make the route a little silly, but it’s all very attractive ride. It sees the introduction of the Dragonfly pseudo-miniboss, which is hard to hit and heavily armed, but in exchange is very fragile as mini-bosses go.
This route’s counterpart, Floating Island, squanders a lot of this appeal and more-or-less creates a third asteroid-themed world by accident. It’s decorated with a lot of Organization ground gummis, including giant Heartless walkers. Until I realized the giant Heartless and mini Nobodies belonged to other factions, I used to think this was some sort of Organization mining facility, but now I’m not so certain.
…sigh, okay let’s do this.
This world begins with such subtlety and effectiveness that it’s just awful how far it falls. Disgraceful. Atlantica is off in a corner of the world map, clearly not connected to anything else, making one wonder what’s going on as they approach it, no doubt terrified of its alternate control scheme. These paranoid fools are ill-prepared for what awaits them, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
On Atlantica, we’re suddenly on the surface – a place that didn’t exist in KH1, but that’s how Kingdom Hearts worlds work – where we see Ariel as she comments on a recent storm that’s since cleared. But as she takes a look around, she sees the unconscious body of Prince Eric, floating in the waves.
The game cuts ahead to later, when Ariel has brought Eric back to shore, when she does something I had presumed, after two and a half games, would never happen in Kingdom Hearts: she sings a song from the film. I feel this may be a new recording by Jodi Benson, and yet again the game fails to give the scene its proper musical accompaniment, but it works here. In the original film, Ariel singing to Eric is accompanied by only light musical accompaniment, but here it’s just Jodi Benson. It’s also night in this version. The combination of these factors is shocking: the whole scene becomes quieter, Ariel’s voice more haunting and striking. When Eric wakes up a moment later, unable to think of anything but Ariel’s voice, I believe him.
It’s is a steep, downhill dead-drop from here.
Though we won’t be seeing him again for a while, Eric is voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes, his original voice actor. More recently, Barnes has played Electro on Ultimate Spider-Man, and has also voiced Cinderella’s Prince Charming in Cinderella III.
While I’m here, I should also account for Parker Goris, the voice of Flounder, who is also voiced this time around. Goris has stuck with Flounder since KH2 clear to the present day, and also has another Disney credit in the Meet the Robinsons video game.
Sora, Donald and Goofy arrive on Atlantica, where Donald has the gall to say “Oh boy! Under the sea again!” That a boy, Donald, stand up and defy the reception of Atlantica in KH1! Ariel arrives, and is happy to see you… and to point out that you clearly forgot how to swim again. Everyone’s just humouring Sora when they pretend they don’t know he’s from another world, aren’t they? We go straight to tutorial.
This isn’t said very often, but I feel the KH2 swimming controls are vastly improved over the original. Your party members’ safe zone AI even works underwater! As for the controls, they use the right thumb stick instead of the face books, which is far more intuitive. Second, they gave you a Dolphin Kick move on the O button, which will cause Sora to automatically swim up to his current target automatically at short range, though with a bit of a flourish. That flourish would be a problem in combat, but don’t worry! Presents for everyone, because there’s no combat at Atlantica! Blow your noisemakers, put on your party hats! It will make you all look so much despondent when you realize what you are in for.
But I still wonder why the underwater controls were improved. There’s nothing else to do or see underwater (well, you can go to Triton’s throne room, which is empty in Vanilla but holds a puzzle piece in FM+). Either a programmer went above and beyond the call of duty while programming these systems, or there was supposed to be more area to explore as the plot goes on (given the nature of the Dolphin Kick command, which seems dedicated to chatting, I doubt there was ever any combat). Maybe it was meant to be a larger hub? Then again, I keep complimenting this game’s menus, and this is just an elaborate menu…
The lack of the Heartless on Atlantica is the next topic of conversation, and Sebastian explains that they’re holding a concert, conducted by none other than himself and starring Ariel as one of the lead singers. No sooner has Sebastian said this than he sneaks Sora away where Ariel can’t hear him, and nearly begs him to join the musical, even though Sora has no singing experience. It seems Ariel has been acting “strange” lately, i.e., feeling depressed and restricted as per the film. Sebastian hopes that with her friends in the concert, she’ll refocus on the concert and she’ll feel better.
Sora doesn’t have enough information to realize his friend is deeply upset and Sebastian’s good intentions are questionably motivated, so he agrees to be a part of the musical. Sebastian immediately sets you up in a second tutorial, this one for–.
Okay. I should explain. Atlantica – the entire world! – is a rhythm game. It was 2005, rhythm games were big in Japan. Still, since Guitar Hero wasn’t out yet when the game was released, I can’t pretend this was justified to any degree, I just… I can’t. I… Do you remember how Gummi Missions were less than well-received in KH1, but they were still everywhere? You can only see it as the Kingdom Hearts devs overshot all their limits to create a major mini-game, and when it screwed up, they’re stuck with that blight forever. Well here we are again. This is bad, folks. This is… honestly… very bad.
We start with a not-very-reassuring tutorial, in which Sebastian keeps talking and talking. This might make sense if he was teaching multiple mechanics, but instead he repeats the same mechanic five times. This seems like as good a time as any to tell you I suspect this game was dramatically pared down from whatever they had originally had planned. By the time you’re done Atlantica you will have learned four mechanics with one variation (arguably two variations), so this count of “five” seems to mesh up almost perfectly, as though the game planned to introduce every mechanic in this initial five-step tutorial. If that was the case (as usual, I’m just guessing, and in this case being driven more by irritation than curiosity), the game ultimately chickened out and gave you only one mechanic at the outset.
The one mechanic you get for now is to press X as a circular prompt reaches a sweet spot. It’s always the same prompt, though prompts bounce around the screen along with whatever character is in focus, and this bouncing serves as the only real source of challenge. And yes, that’s a pretty tiny source of challenge. The other mechanics are almost identical. If you’re not good at rhythm games, this might still be fairly hard, but for everyone else…
(If you are having trouble with rhythm games, I’ve heard that turning the music off ironically helps, depending on the nature of the game.)
You also learn a variation of the basic mechanic, sort of: sometimes two or three prompts appear at once… all on the exact same timer, adding nothing to the challenge unless you feel momentarily overstimulated, I suppose? And for this marginal increase of challenge, the game doubles or triples your reward for completing the double/triple prompt. We’re in the tutorial and this entire system is already a disaster.
Let’s make it worse: the prompts don’t match the music, so there’s no immediate feedback. As one final humiliation, the game pretends that missing button presses will change the animation going on in the background (Sora will screw up a dance, or someone will crash into a wall, etc), but in many cases that simply isn’t the case!
There’s also a baffling spot in the tutorial where Sebastian stops asking characters to act and starts talking to… bubbles. Atlantica in KH2 is weirdly obsessed with bubbles, starting with Sebastian acting like they’re distinct characters in their own right. My best guess? Bubbles were once tied to one of the unique mechanics, as they show up in multiple songs. In fact, I can make a stronger guess based on Sebastian’s whole tutorial: I bet you that most of the mechanics were originally associated with different characters. Sora (and maybe Donald and Goofy) may have originally had the X prompt, Ariel a prompt we’ll see in a later mission that features her face, the bubbles might have had another, etc. This is in line with the game’s focus on the choreography taking place behind the prompts: not only would you have seen the characters fail if you screwed up, but if you were looking at the characters in the background, it would be easier to know what prompt to hit! …Or at least that’s my guess. I’m a little strained here, I don’t deny it. I’m trying to make the most of a very shallow experience, you’re going to have to excuse me.
So with that finished… oh wow, I have an actual, real-life headache as I write the first draft of this. You can’t make this stuff up. Hold on.
Okay. After that’s done, it’s time to drive this sub straight to Mariana’s Trench with an awful, hacky song sung by the actual voice actors. Jodi Benson is a singer. Kevin Michael Richardson is an singer (although – no offence Kevin – you have to wonder why Sebastian’s original voice actor and singer Samuel E. Wright isn’t a part of this, considering he’s still alive today and was working until 2008, and as Sebastian, no less!). Everybody else… Well let’s just say that if you ever wanted to hear the kid from The Sixth Sense sing about laughing and playing underwater alongside Donald Duck, well then… you’re very particular! But I’m happy to announce the discovery of what may be your newest fetish.
I mean, this is… you have to see this, and hear this to understand the problems here. I’ll link the longplay, c’mon. Share my pain. I do have one anecdote. Now I want to say that despite this retrospective, when it comes to music, I tend not to be very critical. I can occasionally praise songs that I like, but don’t have the vocabulary to talk down musical dreck. It’s not my field. But almost every time this minigame starts for the first time and this song starts playing, this is not a joke, I miss hitting the first note in my shock at how bad the music is. I know the internet is famed for its overuse of hyperbole but I swear up and down that this is true. And then I get back on my fins the gameplay becomes too boring to throw me off my course any longer.
While we’re letting the song speak for itself, let’s talk about the submarine wreck that is the gameplay even more. Let me jump ahead a little, because I feel the context will make this all the worse. For each song in Atlantica, you need to clear a certain special requirement. I should tell you up front that if you clear the song’s requirements for the story, you never need to get any higher: there are no score challenges in the journal, probably because the devs realized they had a hot steaming pile on their hands. All you need to do to satisfy the cricket is to start the song again. There’s no requirement that you finish it, and you can quit before the scene even fades in from black. No joke! As for the story requirements, they’re not very high either. In this song’s case, the scoring works like this: you get a “note” for every time you land a timed hit with an “excellent” rating, and lose one with every “bad.” The goal is to have one or more notes by the end of the song. ONE or more notes. That means you could sleep through the whole thing and hit the last note and still win.
I feel like I’ve got to talk about how my retrospective playthrough notes read for Atlantica: scattered and screaming, like a damned soul trapped in a whirling void. The fragmented nature of the notes is no fault of mine: KH2 will actually force you to restart the song if you pause, so I was either typing quickly or, in some cases, typing angry after pausing by accident. Most rhythm games turn the screen black or something during a pause. I remember way back when Flash gaming was still young, when flash was so simple that right clicking and pressing “Play” normally jumped you ahead in the game. A problem that needed fixing! Thankfully, it was easily fixed by removing “Play” from the context menu. Unfortunately, asshole developers from that period wouldn’t just lock you out of hitting “Play”: they’d give you a game over for pressing right click, or even a screamer as punishment for “cheating.” Sometimes you’d get a screamer just for hitting right click! Nevermind accidental hits of the right click button, or when their own games locked up and needed you to press play. Guess what professional console game from Square Enix was released at the tail-end of this period of “I will scream at you for barely cheating.” No, guess.
Oh, that’s cute, the octopus has a drum solo of three whole beats. The octopus and I have reached a similar plateau in our lives. I emphasize with this character, they—FUCK I PAUSED AGAIN.
Well, it’s not all downhill. After all: the song does end eventually. I do love how the game stops the gameplay cold for you to hear the lyric: …’finny fun.’ Finny fun. It’s like they’re saying “I know, I can’t believe they sang that either!” And it’s funnier still to see the characters congratulate my bottom-scraping performance as musical genius. “Sora, you were amazing!” says Ariel, the only one who can really sing. I mean, you actually outright slept through the first half of the song, but you were halfway conscious later on and our standards are very low!
And then the game has the radioactive, mutated cajones to repeat the line about finny fun back on the surface, and have Eric hear it and say “That’s the voice I heard!” like he’s falling in love all over again.
The plot wraps up with me fleeing the scene at high speeds, but let’s get it over with. At least nobody’s singing. Tritan arrives, once again featuring the late Kenneth Mars in what reader Tartarus points out is sadly his last appearance as Tritan (though he continued to voice Grandpa Longneck in the Land Before Time TV series for another year before retiring). Trian says hello and sort of growls at Sora but they get along all right. Tritan ultimately confides in Sora that he’s trying to keep Ariel from thinking about the humans with this musical. Now that Triton’s cards are on the table, it’s nice to see that Sora takes every opportunity that follows to help her out instead of playing Sebastian’s game straight. Good friend, Sora. I’m glad his brain hasn’t melted with mine.
Unfortunately, the singing hasn’t cheered Ariel up at all, so Flounder gets an idea, and shows Sora and the others to the sunken statue of Eric from the film. Unfortunately, if you came here the moment Atlantica was unlocked, you won’t be able to lift the statue out to give it to Ariel: you’ll need the new “Magnet” spell to do that. That’s how Atlantica goes. Sing a song, maybe get a prize, and come back when you’ve got a new power. I do like the way this plot is structured around new powers, which is far more immersive than “Olympus Coliseum opened a tournament for no reason.” But it’s about the largest positive thing I can say about Atlantica at this point.
And just think! We get to come back four more times!