I think my reaction to seeing this world for the first time was “No waaaaaay!”
Sora and the others step into this world to find a seaside fortress wall. They look around, and see that this world… looks different from the others. Not cartoony, or illustrated, this world is realistically rendered for 2005, and it’s clear that while the cast doesn’t see it as “normal.” Just then: actual screaming! “Organization XIII?” shouts Goofy. “Or the Heartless!” says Donald. Why yes, those are our only options! Though I’m not sure why you’re mentioning the Organization, we haven’t really seen them in a number of worlds. They’re… sort of not in this game anymore, come to think of it. What happened?
Maybe Atlantica wiped the last in-game month or so from their minds. That’s why they think the Organization is still a present threat. Good, that fixes everything.
If you stall on top of the fort wall, you might check out the cannons, which have silly notes tied to them indicating they’re “For use in event of pirate attack. –Norrington.” Yes, that’s stupid, especially given how the fortresses in the Spanish Main were partially deterrents for international, non-pirate warfare, but let’s ignore that and be excited about what’s really happening: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl! Sadly, Commodore Norrington is nowhere to be seen in this adaption, but that’s okay. The filmmakers forgot about him, too, given time.
Sora and the others head down the stairs to see the first of many preposterous sights: Pete, in his animated glory, is chewing the fat with Captain Hector Barbossa and his crew of realistically rendered pirates. Sadly, none of the actual celebrity cast for Pirates is present here in Kingdom Hearts 2. Barbossa is voiced by Brian George, who also did the voice of Barbossa for the The Legend of Jack Sparrow adaptation a year later. The only other Disney connection I can spot is a role as Jane’s father Professor Porter in Tarzan: Untamed for the PS2 and GCN, but to focus on that would be to ignore a huge CV full of regular voice and live action roles, including Beware the Batman, the DCAU, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and even a recurring role in The Big Bang Theory. As Barbossa, I think he does one of the better roles of the cast replacements, though I know that the PotC replacement cast aren’t held in high regard by fans at large.
Barbossa is relating an abbreviated version of his backstory to Pete, which is going to look silly in a moment when he repeats the backstory a few scenes from now. And you’ve gotta respect Pete’s cool here, when the moon comes out and the pirates go full skeleton and Pete doesn’t even flinch. In a rare show of intelligence, Pete shoots Barbossa a warning: stay away from the brat and his Keyblade. “They got a kinda magic that don’t belong in this world, see? And nobody knows what it’d do to ya. ‘Specially when the moon’s showing whatcha really are.” Wow, that’s too precise to be wrong. Thanks, Pete, I’ll do just that! And I don’t even blame the game for the awkward dialogue, because I can respect that this is a very specific mechanic that had to be spelled out in detail. It’s almost exactly what it sounds like: you can only kill the Cursed Pirates in moonlight, and that means every shadow on the battlefield is a potential calamity.
By the way, it’s nice to see the return of the idea that the Keyblade helps out all of Sora’s allies, the same way it lets them destroy Heartless and free their hearts. Pete’s hint about magic is also very apt, as you’ll see in a moment, but you can also hurt them with normal weapons. I credit that to the Keyblade as well.
Sora shows and a fight begins, Barbossa running off with most of his crew to find Elizabeth Swann’s medallion, as per the film. And wow! The battle music is essentially “He’s a Pirate” from PotC (it’s even titled the same) and so the 2.5 orchestra sounds fantastic. I don’t want to lessen the work of the rest of the soundtrack but they went full force on this one!
So. The pirates. We could be here for pages, this is a complicated topic. The crew play the role of minor enemies, and there are three separate pirates, constantly photocopied across the world, as though this were a licensed 80s game. The first is Isaac Singleton’s bo’sun character (that’s the only name given to the character: “Bo’sun”). You might remember him as the one who fought Will Turner in the initial raid on Port Royal. Here, the bo’sun fights in melee with twin hatchets. Next is Michael Berry Jr.’s character, “Twigg,” who fights with a missile weapon. I can’t remember any stand-out scenes for Twigg in the movie. Third and final, Vince Lozano’s bomb-wielding character, Jacoby. Each of them have distinct attack patterns for you to learn, which is going to be important in a moment.
But for now let’s focus on an oddity: the fact that all two of the three were given big-name voice actors to do their battle grunts. Just… battle grunts, and three lines coming from a pirate I can’t identify. None of the three voice actors did any other work for KH2. Twigg was voiced by Adam Leadbeater, who otherwise played in True Blood for two seasons, and okay, True Blood only came later so he wasn’t a big name quite yet. But Jacoby was voiced by John DiMaggio, aka Bender from Futurama and the future Jake the Dog from Adventure Time. Oh, and he’s the voice of Wakka and Kimahri from FFX. The Bo’sun’s voice was done by Beau Billingslea, aka Jet Black from Cowboy Bebop. He also voiced the Bo’sun in The Legend of Jack Sparrow. Just… doing battle grunts. Can you just imagine sitting around the casting table thinking “Do you know who we need to voice the Bo’sun saying ‘ugh’ and ‘arggh?’ The voice of Barret from Advent Children!” Voice acting is a baffling industry.
I could delay the talk about how to battle the pirates, considering this arena has no shadows at all (and even has a swinging bag you can use to hurt enemies!). But no, let’s do this. Generally I like the light and shadow mechanics, but it bothers me that the AI clearly isn’t aware of the shadows, and neither uses the shadow to protect itself nor helpfully moves out to make the player’s life easier. They’re just dumb, rank-and-file enemies same as any other, and so goading them into the light is easier said than done. (Of course, you could argue that they’re easier to trick for that same reason! Me, I’m more bothered out of principle. But enough about that. First off, you can try to use Reaction Commands to try to control their movement. The Bo’sun’s reaction command has the both of you move backwards from Sora’s current position, but try to be certain of the angle before you engage it. Bearing in mind that Twigg a missile enemy and will try to stay away from you, his reaction command reflects his projectile back into him in case you’re afraid of chasing him into a patch of shadow. Jacoby doesn’t have a reaction command, and he often survives the longest because of it.
You can also control the pirates through the use of spells, even if they’re not in the moonlight and are otherwise invulnerable (if you do hit them when they’re in the moonlight, it does extra damage). Thunder will stun the pirates, good if they’re in the light but not so useful in the dark. Blizzard will freeze them, which is even better in the light and even worse in the dark. Fire… well Fire will catch them on fire and have them running, hopefully into the light. This makes it the most important of the spells. That’s why I hope John DiMaggio will forgive me if I mimic one of his co-stars to say: “Good news, everyone!” The Fire spell was censored out of all non-Japanese versions, meaning that even though the spell does control the movement of the pirates, you’ll never realize that’s what’s going on.
This isn’t the only censorship. Twigg is carrying a crossbow in the west. Haha, nope, it’s a musket in Japan, and it even goes “bang!” in every release! And we’re just getting started, because both the gun censorship and the fire censorship will be coming back to bite us, one soon enough and the other quite a long ways down the road. Keep your blackpowder crossbows handy.
After the fight, Sora and the others discuss what’s going on, rationalizing that Pete is hoping to turn Barbossa into a Heartless. This could very well be, and if it’s true, I bet you Maleficent would be pissed. She seems to favour living agents. Sora seems childishly interested in being a pirate (it practically drives the plot at a few points). For the time being, they decide to help out in town. I’m glad the screaming citizens finally managed to sway you from your pleasant chat!
The trio heads into town, in time to see Elizabeth has been kidnapped and Will Turner attacked by Heartless. Now let’s see here… Elizabeth is voiced by Eliza Schneider, who besides going on to voice Elizabeth in The Legend of Jack Sparrow, and a minor role in Epic Mickey 2 and FFXIII-2, is known more famously as Cartmen’s Mom on South Park, alongside a myriad of other voices. Will Turner is Crispin Freeman, our Setzer come back for a second role. Despite doing good work in other places, neither is very grand here.
Perhaps to your surprise, or perhaps not, Will does not join your party to fight the Heartless. Instead, let’s move on to the baddies. The new enemy group you encounter in town features a mortar-style Heartless called a Cannon Gun, which are low-HP enemies you might very well forget about until they drop a bomb on your head and make you regret it. While battling, you may also notice the explosive crates in this room, which block off secret passages. This town is actually very oddly structured: it’s a loop, and if you aren’t paying attention, Deep Jungle-style, you might not realize the exit you want to use after this first set-piece battle is right behind you! At least the game gives you another exit at the far side that leads to nearly the same place! Take that, glaring mistakes of KH1! In fact, I wonder if this false exit might be intentional, to trick you into searching a room you might have otherwise skipped? So much going on here. This room is confusing on the surface (its loop structure partially exists for the sake of a skateboard mini-game) but under close observation, it’s actually really clever!
Will thanks you for fighting off the Heartless, and tries to draft you into Elizabeth’s rescue. You race to the docks (or in the opposite direction of the docks, as above), but you’re too late. Thankfully, they’re just in time to run into the star of the show, Captain Jack Sparrow. Who insists on being called “Captain Jack Sparrow,” even though no one has said his name yet and there’s nothing for him to correct. Oh geeze. The film world spent the next two years watching Jack’s creator misunderstand what made him funny, we don’t need another creative team to make the same mistakes!
Jack’s voice actor is none other than James Arnold Taylor, the voice of Tidus. No, not Shaun Fleming’s Young Tidus from KH1, the original Tidus from FFX and Dissidia! I think he does a pretty good job as Jack Sparrow in spite of the bad writing… even if he’s not doing a great job as Johnny Depp. There’s a fine line between the two. I think if James Taylor’s version of Jack had been the only one we’d ever seen, he would have come off pretty well. Sometimes it doesn’t do to get lost in the shadow of a cultural icon, even someone as skeevy as Depp. Other than Tidus (and the requisite minor voice role in FFXIII), Fleming is also known as Obi-Wan Kenobi from both Clone Wars TV shows, Johnny Test from the show of the same name, a numerous roles from DC. Oh, and he also voiced Milo in the video game adaptation of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for a Disney connection. Dude’s all over the place, going all the way back to Nausicaä in 1984.
Jack is in the middle of “commandeering” the Interceptor, the other ship from the film and the only one nearly fast enough to keep pace with the pirates’ Black Pearl. Will says something about freeing Jack from his cell off-screen, and says that Jack owes him. This is a pretty sloppy way to recount film details, but I suppose I appreciate the speed more than I’m annoyed by the confusion. Jack joins the party at this point. He has the skill Lucky Lucky, this game’s version of Lucky Strike, so as far as I’m concerned, he can stay forever. In a nice touch, to avoid confusing him with Jack Skellington, everyone in the party calls him “Captain” when casting spells on him, rather than “Jack!”
Blah blah blah, recapping the film, “named for your father,” I don’t care. I’m sorry if anyone reading this has never seen PotC nor played KH2, but I promise: you only need to do one, as you won’t be missing on anything from the other. To prove it, we jump over to the Black Pearl, where we get a point-by-excruciating-point recreation of the scene where Barbossa has dinner with Elizabeth, she runs away, and see the pirates in their full skeletal glory for the first time. Yes, it’s all very close-to-accurate, but I just don’t care about something I’ve already seen in the theatre if it doesn’t add to the plot efficiently, and since this isn’t accurate enough to evoke PotC’s mood and atmosphere, it’s just an extended mediocrity that repeats what Barbossa already told Pete! Was one of these two conversations added to the script at a later point? Then skeletal Barbossa drinks a bottle of wine that dribbles out his insides and – I’m not kidding – adds “Consumption of Alcohol” to this game’s ESRB label.
What makes this scene more interesting are the glitches and errors, like when I first played this on 2.5, Elizabeth opened the door to the deck and for some reason I got a brief shot of an empty deck with no one there. And then there was a texture popping glitch someone ran into and posted online not long after 2.5’s launch, where Barbossa walked into the moonlight and became… an unskinned polygon mesh! Oh no! His true form!
KH2 actually dedicated a special mechanic for ship travel here in Port Royal. You leave a location at port, and then Jack will serve as a menu to move to the next one. Except, here’s the surprise: when moving between locations, you get ambushed en route. It’s the D&D wandering monsters mechanic, finally playing one of its forgotten intended roles after 30 or so years on the shelf!
(If you’re willing to indulge a little gaming history, I’ll talk about the sometimes-forgotten role of wandering monsters. Monsters were too lethal in OD&D for you to risk running into more of them, so wandering monsters forced you to avoid lollygagging and to be efficient and clever in how you engaged other enemies. The ambushes here in Port Royal replicate that by discouraging you from sailing back and forth whenever you please. If you play ideally, you’ll only be ambushed twice, which cuts down on any tedium. Well done!)
Your first ambush sees the return of Air Pirates from KH1. They’ve changed substantially between games. For example, they no longer use sweeping passes and stay out of your range, in line with the KH2 design philosophy of “null challenge uber alles.”
Jack is checking out his magic compass, something so incidental I wouldn’t mention it if it didn’t come up again later, in the most arbitrary way KH2 could have imagined. If you don’t know already, see if you can guess. It’s going to be really obvious in hindsight, but let’s have fun for now!
You arrive at the Ilsa De Meurta (sorry, no stopover in Tortuga, we’ve had enough “Consumption of Alcohol” for the ESRB, I think). Jack and Will sneak off, ostensibly to rescue Elizabeth, though as anyone who has seen the film knows, Jack is planning to hand Will over to the pirates. Since Jack is planning to betray everyone, he has Sora and the others “guard the ship.” Sora does as he’s told, but when no one returns after a long wait, you regain control and get to go hunting for your missing friends. Or… not. We get another cutscene instead. And then we’re… oh for fuck’s sake! There’s an event combat, fine, and then straight into another cutscene! We’re just. Watching. Every. Scene from the original film! By the way, Jiminy writes some of the LONGEST single-section story journals here on this world. You can check the journal after every plot point and find two or three paragraphs of summary waiting for you. If I wanted to watch Curse of the Black Pearl, I would do so, and if I wanted to read its Wikipedia page, I’d have done that too! This could have been done other ways!
So, right, the event combat on the island. We’ll back things up a bit. Sora goes to see what happened to Will and Jack, when Will runs past you with Elizabeth, alluding to Jack trying to betray him and failing. Sora sends the both of them to get the ship ready to sail, and tell them to light the signal fire when they’re done. Your job in the interim is to survive until that timer runs out. Easy stuff, right?
Well, that depends on whether you’ve grasped how to fight the pirates or not. If you’re on top of things, the fight will take place in a large, easy circle of moonlight, no problem. But the pirates are coming out through a bottleneck, and they’ll try to get you to charge them there, where a strip of shadow will ruin your plans in seconds. Are you a big enough fool to all for it? I know I sure am! It’s your job to goad them to you in a big open patch of moonlight, but it’s oh, so easy to get drawn off to the bottleneck by Twigg. Now that you know, it’s easy enough to handle this fight, but if you were new to the game, you might be surprised to learn how little self-control you have when the game is hanging such a juicy prize in front of your face. That bottleneck looks awwwwful tempting!