After Port Royal, you’re once again given a choice of two worlds, and sure, sure, that’s nice. We could focus on that. Or! Or we could focus on something more unusual than either: Gummi Tracks I actually have something nice to say about!
The Ancient Highway and Broken Highway missions are surprise, last-minute references you won’t catch until you’re right in the middle of them. But the influence is clear: the music, the shape of the track, the speeder-shaped gummi Heartless that race along the tracks ignoring you entirely. We just flew into F-Zero, and KH2 is being completely unapologetic about it. There’s an evil Heartless wheel-gummi chasing you in both stages, but in very different ways. The music, “Hazardous Highway,” is one I prefer in the original, Vanilla KH2 synth rock version, but it’s a minor complaint I’m sure others might feel the complete opposite about, so this is my personal highlight of the gummi circuit.
Both of the worlds you’ve just unlocked are recurring worlds from KH1 and CoM, so it’s time to go to one with a lower Battle Lv, which happens to be a world I’ve already spoiled you about: Agrabah. Let’s see if it can break its curse of having the worst plot in CoM by following up with a plot based on… what, Return of Jafar? One of the most infamously disappointing Disney Direct to Video sequels? Are you sure this is a great idea?
Personally, I was impressed that KH2 took this route my first time through. Turning to the ancillary canon seems like another good opportunity for KH to flex its crossover muscles and to explore the less-explored corners of Disney lore. And as Return of Jafar goes, the Kingdom Hearts adaptation is easily better than the original. One of the key things that improves this version is how little they try to copy the original, even though we just got off of Port Royal, a world that was 80% photocopy. Let’s take a look.
While I can sort of expect a general familiarity with the mainline Disney films among my audience, with the hope that you might go to other sources to fill in any blanks, Return of Jafar is obscure enough on one hand and bad enough on the other that I’d be wrong-headed to expect the former, and cruel to demand the latter. So here’s a brief summary. The film starts with Iago trapped in the lamp with Jafar, where they have nothing to do but fight with one another since the events of the first movie. Iago eventually escapes (he isn’t bound to the lamp like Jafar) and tries to strike it out on his own, but as a schemer and a brat, he’s no good at it and decides to make it up to Aladdin and Jasmine so he can live in the palace. Iago’s really not genuine with them at first, but as the film goes on, he comes to get along with them and eventually stuck around for the entire animated series that followed. Unfortunately, Jafar’s lamp ended up in the possession of an unrelated minor villain, Jafar got loose, and nothing that follows from that point was really reflected in Kingdom Hearts in any event so I can safely stop talking. We’ve got a good, KH1-style, faithful-in-spirit adaptation here.
Sora and the others land in Agrabah and start reminiscing about the locals, unaware that Iago has freed himself from Jafar’s lamp and is tailing them. Somehow, the trio’s reminiscence brings up the idea that Riku and the King might be here! For no reason! Other than the developers realized they forgot about the main motivations of the characters for the past few worlds and needed it to be brought up no matter how sloppily (it was mentioned in Olympus Coliseum and the King was of course mentioned in Disney Castle, but not any of the other Disney worlds). In KH1, the largest gap in the appearance of the main plot was between Wonderland and the majority of the Olympus Coliseum half-world (it was mentioned just at the end), with every other world in the game involving a critical element of the main plot. This is not that complicated, and yet, here we are. I’m almost more surprised that they made this token effort than that they didn’t!
It’s like the devs are fire fighters in a burning room, and even though they’re carrying a fire hose, they’re just standing there instead of fighting the fire. Oh, they could do something, the capability to do so is right there, but they don’t. They just stand and, every few minutes, start jumping up and down like cartoon characters trying to stamp out their burning feet in a panic. I guess what I’m saying is: even the most militant ignorance must eventually yield to necessity.
Iago makes himself known to the group, and Goofy panics… only to reveal he doesn’t actually remember Iago’s name. I love this, this isn’t just realistic in general, but it plays off Iago’s limited appearance in the original game the same way the manga did with Mushu. Iago only existed in the background of KH1, and as a combat mechanic during the boss fight, and I’m not sure he was ever explicitly named.
Here in Kingdom Hearts, Iago seems genuinely repentant up-front, if only to save time. No one believes him, and even Sora – trusting, somewhat dunderheaded Sora – calls this Iago’s “new scam.” It’s okay, Iago, he let other Disney villains be shot dead right in front of him not less than an real-world half hour ago, you should be glad you were just a cameo in KH1 or he’d shoot you himself!
Thankfully, Sora’s Pulp Fiction moment will have to wait, as you’re jumped by a troop of the newest Agrabahnian Heartless: the Luna Bandits. Luna Bandits continue to serve the general footsoldier role that was never very remarkable in KH1 and still isn’t remarkable here, so while they aren’t exactly praiseworthy, it’s still pretty stellar that KH2 replaced the original Bandits instead of just using the original Bandits again! Considering Kingdom Hearts’ footsoldiers tend to be the least creative enemies in any given crop, an art makeover is above and beyond the call of duty. About the only notable thing about these fellows is their jumping, blender-like spin attack, ala Kurt Zisa from KH1. Many have noted that bandits in the third Aladdin film may have inspired this attack, and it’s become something of an Agrabah staple.
You fight, but siggghhh, they “just keep coming,” and everyone’s exhausted. The day I make it to Agrabah without an unwinnable battle… Of course, this is just here so Iago can earn Sora’s trust by accidentally saving the day (he knocks some pottery on the Heartless during an escape attempt). Apparently that’s enough to earn Sora’s complete trust, upside-down and backwards, because he promises to recommend Iago to Aladdin and Jasmine almost without condition.
You’re finally allowed to search Agrabah at this point and both whoa and yikes. What looked like a tiny, compact corner of town during the Luna Bandit fight is actually a sprawling open room, one of the largest in the game, with limited rhyme or reason in its construction and a lot of roof-hopping. And while the streets look interesting on the ground, from the roofs it’s just long stretches of plain brick, like I walked out of the PlayStation 2 era and back into Quake. What’s worse is: this extra space serves little purpose! There’s enough room here for you to chase a boss around, or fight some really wide-range Heartless like… Wyverns, or something, but the game never gets more ambitious than a skateboard trial you don’t even have to fully complete to appease Taskmaster Jim. It’s not an awful room, it’s just… coming off of the original Agrabah’s tight efficiency and use of space, this is the exact opposite design sensibility, and doesn’t even stand up to the standards of open-space, insignificant design sensibility, at least not for a brawler. That level design mentality belongs primarily to first-person shooters, because they need open space in which to first-person shoot!
What makes this even weirder and emptier is the fact that the entire town is considered a safe zone just because your party is puttering around in one tiny corner. That paragraph of mine up there is a testament to the importance of first impressions. It’s like the ghostly stands in Olympus Coliseum, except world-wide. No one is living in this town. There are only three human beings, one genie and two sidekicks living somewhere in one of the largest cities in the franchise prior to DDD’s mobility upgrades.
Speaking of the safe zone, Iago has this great line in the first one: “If it wasn’t for what happened last time, Aladdin and Jasmine wouldn’t be together! So in a way, I’m responsible for that.”
If you happen to duck into a door near your party in the safe zone, you’ll encounter a pile of junk. This is apparently a “broken down store” according to Donald. God knows how he works that out, but he’s 100% correct, so I guess Goofy passed him the script?
You get lost for a while, accidentally go the wrong way a while longer, hate the game for not providing any navigational aids, dread the existence of DDD for a similar problem gone mad, and eventually find your way to the palace. There, Jasmine is waiting, standing outside the palace gates, because as we established in KH1, these gates do not open and the entire “Palace” is a giant, empty wooden frame that exists purely for show.
Jasmine and Sora exchange hellos while Iago shows off his cartoon bird signature ability to hover in mid-air. Sora asks about Aladdin, and is informed that he’s been acting funny lately. Jasmine says he’s been going off by himself all the time, which prompts Iago, in amazing fashion, to reveal himself and declare that Aladdin must be cheating on her and he’ll find out how so Jasmine will owe him for doing it. Suddenly Iago has become the funniest character in this entire game.
Jasmine runs off to call the guards, and Goofy suggests they just casually go off to find Aladdin, perhaps realizing there are no actual guards as the palace is a canvas shroud over chicken-wire and the city is empty. And sure enough, no one ever follows you.
You go into town, where a voice calls out “Stop, thief!” and runs past. It’s the Peddler from the start of the film, here voiced by Corey Burton (I’m surprised they didn’t give the role to Dan Castellaneta, given that he returns to voice the Genie and the Peddler was originally voiced by Robin Williams). The merchant isn’t calling after you, however. Abu runs past, carrying what’s clearly Jafar’s lamp! Aladdin is also in pursuit, and he pauses as he sees you, shouting, “Hi, Sora!” as he passes. I’m serious, this is the funniest world in the game. Sadly, it seems Abu is the only one present who remembers a small prop they saw for barely five minutes over a year ago, so everyone thinks he’s just been grabbing at merchandise.
By the way, Abu’s original voice actor, Frank Welker, came back for this. If you don’t know Frank Welker, you’ve been left out. He’s Curious George, he’s been Scooby-Doo since 2005 (he’s also Fred from Scooby-Doo!), and he’s got enough Disney connections alone to wallpaper a room, including plenty of animal voices and a lot of the Disney animated television shows from the 90s, including Bronx from Gargoyles. He’s a legend. No other Square Enix connections, surprisingly enough.
Unfortunately for the fate of the world, the Peddler gets the lamp back, though luckily he doesn’t realize what it is, either. Sora and Aladdin get to talking, and Aladdin explains why he’s been acting strange, not realizing that Jasmine was worried: he’s been looking for Genie. Without… ever leaving the city. Aladdin also explains that Genie took the Magic Carpet with him, which is odd because the Carpet doesn’t return with him, but I guess we had to explain why he was missing.
Sora says “things must be really quiet with Genie gone,” along with the population of the entire city. And just as I’m making that joke in my notes, Aladdin does… this. He says “That’s why I come here [to the city]. The action—the people. There’s always something goin’ on.” As he talks, the camera pans across a vast, empty Agrabah. We then to Sora and his friends and they’re giving Aladdin funny looks. (Or at least I think that might be suspicious – Sora’s face is just really ugly while showing no expression in particular.)
…Okay, show of hands: either Agrabah is supposed to be crowded and the dev team gave the trio bad expressions, or Agrabah is supposed to be a disturbing ghost town, the devs are openly acknowledging their own failure to stock the town with people (like hanging a lampshade over fire damage), and Aladdin is the worst liar that was ever born?
Just then, everyone notices Iago, who is trembling, having recognized the lamp while no one was paying attention. Thankfully everyone believes him when he tells them about it, so they go to talk to the Peddler. Unfortunately, because Aladdin has already upset the Peddler via Abu, they send Sora to do the talking. Sora has the haggling skills of a possum – more likely to drop dead than buy anything – and the Peddler realizes how desperate he is for the lamp almost at once. Donald screws this up even more, as he has the haggling skills of a dying tree: eventually he’s going to drop his money in front of you and never pick it up again. Donald unwittingly announces that they have access to the royal treasury, so the Peddler skips the formalities and asks for a sultan’s ransom.
Aladdin explains something that seems to have gone over Donald’s head: he can’t just filch the Sultan’s treasure just because he’s the princess’ boyfriend. And while I agree that would be rude, I’m still not quite sure I agree with them giving up entirely. Hell, isn’t this a matter of national security? Luckily there is a backup: Iago reminds them that the Cave of Wonders in this universe has no problem with people taking its treasure (even though it was murderous about it in the film) and true to this divergent continuity, they decide to go rob the place. Now you see, this is why Sora and Donald will never be good at haggling: enablers.
You head out with Aladdin now in your party (he is more-or-less identical to his KH1 incarnation), crossing the Bazaar on your way. This room is pretty crowded by any standard. First off, you can destroy its the stands with magic (and not finisher attacks, no matter what Re:CoM taught you), and a few of them hide puzzle pieces or chests (which are visible inside the stand, the chests looking as though they were part of the prop, a nice touch!). Sometimes, Heartless destroy bazaars as they appear.
Here, you’ll encounter our old friends the Fat Bandits, which haven’t changed much and due to their area attacks, are more capable of dealing with your new speed than most returning Heartless! But alongside the Fat Bandits are another new Heartless: the Silver Rock. They’re the newest bell wizard in town, named after rock ‘n’ roll! They’re not the same kind of bell wizard you’d expect from previous games, having an entirely different attack style. In fact I’m not sure why they bothered making a recolour of an older enemy at all when they’re doing such an admirable job of avoiding repeat enemies in before now? I mean, wasn’t I just complimenting the totally redesigned Luna Bandits? Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing new bell wizards. It just seems to go against what KH2 was doing up until this point!
Like I was saying, Silver Rocks have an odd attack style. They’re very small, but can cause light balls to spawn about the arena, which function as a form of proximity mine until they’re launched at you a few seconds later. If you get near the orbs but not close enough that they explode, Sora can use a reaction command grab one and fling the it into a nearby enemy. The Rocks are dangerous enough to not be fully helpful to you, but they have a way of disrupting whatever battle plans you may have had simply because their attacks – and thus your Reaction Commands – will soon dominate the field. What I mean is: whenever a Silver Rock is involved, you’ll have little choice but to respond to its Reaction Commands until you’ve killed every nearby Rock with their own spells, and who knows how many other enemies in the process (though the Rocks tend to have the lowest HP). This is cute but doesn’t add to the battle so much as distract from it. The initial variety is nice, and better we have this than the endless parade of functionally-identical footsoldier enemies, but the fact that Silver Rocks can essentially nullify an entire encounter is discouraging.
While we’re talking about Heartless, I’ve actually been putting one off while I discussed more prominent mechanics, and this busy bazaar full of destructible crap is probably a good time to bring it up. I refer, of course, to the Bulky Vendor, a seemingly random (but not actually random!) Heartless that you might very well never encounter across an entire playthrough! If you do come across a Vendor, this gashapon-looking fellow will appear and immediately teleport into hiding, forcing you to bust up destructibles in the environment to find it. Once loose, the Vendor will begin rapidly losing HP, as it begins hopping around, faster and faster as it gets weaker. If the Vendor “dies” of its own accord, it teleports away and you get nothing, but if you line yourself up with its front side and hit a special Reaction Command, you will get a prize based on its remaining HP, with better prizes the more life bars it had exhausted when you tagged it.
The primary appeal of Bulky Vendors is that they are the only renewable source of Orichalcums for synthesis, and also a reliable source of another synth material, depending on version. In Vanilla, this is Bright materials, while in FM+, it’s Serenity materials. This change may have something to do with the fact that players going for 100% will max the Moogle’s level early (in comparison to every other task) and will no longer need a source of Bright materials to boost the Moogle’s EXP after a certain point. FM+ did introduce a new synth recipe to help you clear out old Bright Crystals, but since Bulky Vendors offer all levels of material, not just Crystals, it made more sense to tie them to Serenity than Bright.