After getting outside city walls, we find Agrabah no longer faces an endless desert like it did in KH1. Besides someone planting a little desert garden just outside the gate, you can also see the Cave of Wonders visible as a dark dome just off to the left. There are dark domes on the horizon, not a soul in town, clearly there’s nothing to worry about at all! Also, the Cave doesn’t look any further away than I live from my grocery store. Desert notwithstanding, are we positive this place hasn’t been picked clean of treasure? The “dark dome” turns out to be some very stylish clouds, by the way. In hindsight they look like you somehow glitched outside of the Cave of Wonders’ skybox and saw it from the outside!
Approaching the Cave, the player gets bad news: Pete is here, and he seems to be exploring the cave just ahead of you. You inadvertently follow Pete in and find that the Cave’s interior has undergone a serious makeover. Rather than the pits and pusher traps of KH1, the Cave is now a long, downwards slope (I’m reminded, perhaps not unintentionally, of the back of a tongue going down the throat) dotted with blocks almost at random. The game tries to make these blocks look intentional with some cool floating geometry, but that doesn’t shake my impression that we’re standing in a video game test environment. It’s not seriously impacting the gameplay of the world, so I want to assure you all that I’m talking about this from an artistic standard rather than a quality standard. It’s probably just an inconvenient coincidence: but between this “test environment” room dotted with simple, primitive shapes, the “skybox at a distance” from the previous scene, and the “Quake-like” Agrabah rooftops, I can’t shake this vibe that this world was designed by someone with limited level design experience.
Here on the tongue, you’ll encounter yet another pair of brand new Agrabah Heartless! We’re really piling on the new enemies here! One of them is a cluster of Fiery Globes. These are little pyro-type gnats. I appreciate that they could be blown through with Blizzard’s piercing effect, but gnats are still gnats and I imagine very few players ever bothered. The only time these bugs are of even minor concern is in later tournaments, where a certain upcoming area spell feels like a better course of action.
The second enemy is the Fortuneteller, a belly dancer-looking Heartless riding a crystal ball through the air. Fortuntellers are fairly durable for fliers in KH2, going so far as to be immune to the Blizzard spell. The intent was probably to make Fortunetellers strong against the spell players are most likely to use against Fat Bandits and Fiery Globes, but it seems half-baked: you had no reason to use the dumb-fire Blizzard spell against fast-moving Fortunetellers to begin with (Thunder is better since it’s homing), they rarely appear in the same enemy groups as Fat Bandits, and again, there’s no reason to use Blizzard on Fiery Globes because they’re so weak. Whether you want to adjust Donald’s abilities is another matter, but as with every other time KH2 has tried to be strategic, it forgets the simple fact that the whole game is wet-paper-bag-easy and its strategy can always be circumvented with brute force. Ah well. While this won’t be universal, in my eyes it’s better that the enemy’s powers and strategies be ineffective than non-existent.
Sora and team tumble their way down the Tiger’s gullet into the next room. In the next chamber, it’s time for another of those short, forgettable mini-game segments KH2 likes to use to provide variety without the trouble of designing gameplay systems with integrated variety, like… say… combat demanding strategic response, or worlds worth exploring instead of randomly organized geometric shapes that exist in a last-minute effort to unflatten a flat, prairie layout the stretched off to the horizon. Like Saskatchewan. KH2 is Saskatchewan. And as per my Canadian citizenship blood pact, I apologize to Saskatchewan.
The mini-game starts with a giant floating gem in mid-air, which everyone ignores! Even though everyone here has come here to find treasure! Oh, no, no, I take it back, clearly this isn’t filler at all. You then check out the statue at the back, and Abu grabs the floating gem while no one is looking, and the deathtraps begin. Sora gets moved to the back of the room in the process (not unlike Roxas and that ball in the alley), and you have to navigate the deathtrap with Abu to put the gem on the statue in hopes that that will shut down the deathtraps.
This is no ordinary deathtrap (is there such a thing as an “ordinary deathtrap?”). This one is water-based, sending up a whole wave pool just to spite you. It also drops Blizzard spells on your head, taken from the Fortunetellers, and I really do mean “Blizzard spells” because they borrowed the animation from some of the Final Fantasy games where the spell causes a huge chunk of ice to appear above the targets’ head and drop there. This means that you have the wave pool coming at you from the front and ice crystals falling from above, forcing you to weave left and right. It’s not so badly designed as I’ve been teasing, I’m just a little temperamental at the thin nature of KH2’s everyday gameplay, and how these mini-games aren’t satisfying enough to work as a supplement. The real challenge in this game is getting Abu across, as you have to help him get over the waves with reaction commands. Before long you’ll have made it to the other side, and even though the game allows you to replay the deathtrap, even Jiminy doesn’t care enough to make you bother.
(I do always appreciate the offer to replay segments of a game, even if I rarely replay them myself. Better the option be there than not. As a kid, this was something I appreciated up and down about Majora’s Mask, and always sort of resented the small handful of scenes MM wouldn’t let you replay on later cycles.)
Past that mini-game is… another mini-game! I’m surprised, but in a way appreciative that KH2 didn’t artificially inflate the dungeon by sticking in another hallway full of boxes and generic combat. But even then, putting two mini-games back to back just isn’t kosher. The mini-game starts with… a signpost. Not a button, or an attendant NPC. I can only assume that Sora is just… talking to the sign. I can’t help but picture him taking off his hat to pray like that baffling Desert Palace sequence from A Link to the Past.
This combat challenge is weird, which mingles with KH2’s easy difficulty to the point where I… don’t exactly understand it? It’s called the Chasm of Challenges. You start on a large cube, fighting enemies, and after clearing the enemies the cube disappears. (This leads to some obnoxious puzzle pieces you have to grab mid-fall in FM+.) The trouble is: the cube also disappears if you take too long. There is a two minute-timer, but this is misleading. Once you reach the final cube (you’ll know because there is a bordering platform) you must clear it quickly or it too will disappear, dropping you into a pit well before the timer has exhausted. The funny thing is, this game is so easy that most online resources aren’t even aware of the unusual failure conditions! Maybe each cube has its own timer and 2 minutes is just the maximum possible timer, if you let them all fade with time? I’m at a loss. Combined with the “rescue Piglet” timer in 100 Acre Wood, I’m beginning to suspect some sort of general, timer-related change or issue during development rather than something that happened minigame-for-minigame.
While you fall, you’ll also encounter another new Heartless, the Icy Cubes. These are the Blizzard-aligned counterparts of the Fiery Globes. They seem to have roughly the same AI, which is to say they’re so inconsequential that they were usually killed by Aladdin, Donald or Goofy before I could observe them doing anything at all. The Icy Cubes are immune to Blizzard and weak against Fire, which is agreeable since Fire does feel like a more natural magical strategy for fighting an enemy swarm, certainly more than Blizzard ever was. These tiny, weakling Heartless are all but lining up to be killed by Wisdom Form for Drive EXP, so it’s worth considering. Of course, if the Icy Cubes show up alongside Firey Globes, that later spell I mentioned is just as viable. For the time being, Wisdom Form’s enhanced Thunder spell has a huge area effect that could kill them both without a second thought, and even that’s just me thinking too hard about a small problem!
Unlike the wave pool mini-game, the Chasm of Challenges does have a Jiminy Challenge, but it’s unscored. All you have to do is repeat what you already did, which screams “high score challenge removed later in development.” I can imagine this being a multi-part challenge with increasing difficulties, perhaps, but nah, you just have to do what you’ve already done. Thankfully there’s a teleporter on hand if you want to do the challenge again immediately, though if you’d prefer you can come back at the end of the game and let your teammates clear it out while you snooze.
…Should I even open my mouth about the fact that this “ancient” Chasm of Challenges has a deathtrap in it is that relies on Emblem Heartless, or should I just assume the Cave of Wonders is a Castlevania-like “creature of chaos” that adapted to the Heartless, given that it’s already changed interiors on us?
Further evidence that this World used to be more complicated than it presently is that the door at the end doesn’t open unless you read another signpost, which compliments you on your performance? Is this sign standing in for some sort of NPC? A high score table? Was it supposed to grade your performance and only let you in if you hit a certain high score? I’m at a loss no matter how I approach this. Doors in Kingdom Hearts just don’t work this way!
There’s only one room left in the Cave of Wonders, which considering you walked from one end of the World to the other makes this a pretty small world. And you’d be right to feel that way! Actually, all the worlds post-Port Royal feel straightforward to the point of rush. Agrabah’s straight line structure makes this all the more obvious. The previous worlds were packed with story, content, and occasionally sub-systems, while Agrabah has just been go-here, go-there, play in a wave pool… I’m not sure why this happened. Perhaps the higher-ups wanted the worlds done quickly, or maybe a different level designer was in charge of this set? Agrabah and the next world have very clearly defined “corridor” structures. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to the infamous modern first person shooter style of level design wherein levels are like tunnels with no branching paths or even small, optional parts of rooms. It’s important to keep in mind that the “corridor” structure can apply to both worlds and rooms, because KH2’s individual rooms have had a corridor structure (unlike KH1, there is never anything hidden in KH2’s rooms), but it largely hasn’t been true of the world structure… prior to this point.
In any event, while I may rather have a complicated structure like Land of the Dragons or Timeless River, I’d still prefer Agrabah’s structure over the Port Royal’s “go here, watch a cutscene from a movie you’ve already seen, go here, watch a cutscene from a movie you’ve already seen…”
The final room in the Cave of Wonders is of course the treasure room, which is weirdly constructed, and I don’t mean that as an aesthetic statement: the collision detection feels off. The piles of gold repel you as though they were nearly vertical, meaning they’re weirdly larger than they appear, and it’s hard to move around the room in a circuit. This was a reasonable mess in Vanilla, when the room was essentially decorative, with no combat or movement challenges. In FM+, there are puzzle pieces here, and a Mushroom XIII we’ll be seeing after the world is done, making the faults of the collision detection more obvious. But first things first. You might be wondering why we came here if the room is entirely decorative. Is it just here for a cutscene? Well, not quite.
Among the vast piles of gold, the party finds a huge trophy which is… just the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen. Sasha Nein would sweat a little. But considering these characters live in a rich fantasy world, I get it. The only way to pay a king’s ransom in a world that already has fantastic treasure is to find something extreme, so the gaudy trophy makes sense. The characters begin to talk about the treasure and their motivations, loudly, the way characters only ever do when someone is going to eavesdrop on them. How polite. Sure enough, Pete someone got behind the parry in a one-way cave, and he appears at the entrance to eavesdrop on their conversation and is clearly surprised by them being there.
Pete’s excited to hear the cast recap every detail he could have ever wanted to know about Jafar and the lamp, and he leaves the party in the dust by summoning an attack force of Heartless. This is a very interesting moment, as he snaps his fingers and the whole room plunges into darkness, forcing you to fight not in the ugly treasure room, but in a striking black void. Since I already lugged out the Psyconauts reference, I may as well say that this battle feels like the Nightmare fights in The Milkman Conspiracy stage from Psyconauts, what with the suddenness, darkness, and perfectly circular arena. The battle is well done, and explains the somewhat less-than-well-done treasure room to boot.
You chase Pete back to Agrabah, only to find that he hasn’t quite caught the Peddler. They’re in the middle of a slapstick chase, entirely undercut by the sedate Agrabah music playing in the background. No one steps in to do anything, even though Sora is fast as a housefly at this point in the game, and Aladdin’s basic survival once depended on stealing things from people exactly like this. Pete eventually catches the lamp, but not before Iago proves his real loyalty by trying and failing to get away with it. Finally in possession of his prize, Pete declares Jafar will “make one beauty of a Heartless!” Wow, uh… Maleficent doesn’t really have much of a leash on this guy, does she? I’m sure she’d like to get her hands on a wish-granting Genie, after all! I guess I shouldn’t expect Pete to show much basic competence but I suppose what Maleficent doesn’t know won’t hurt her?
Luckily for everyone, Pete is stopped entirely by accident. With a loud shout from the sky, Genie descends and mistakes Pete for Aladdin, which is hilarious even if it is a bit silly, and the lamp ends up away from Pete in the cacophony. Finally, Pete gets angry enough to react, and summons a matching pair of boss Heartless.
You may have been wondering why Agrabah seems to have so many new and exclusive Heartless. On one hand, the devs seem to just really just like Agrabah, but there’s a distinct reason for the Icy Cubes and Fiery Globes to exist: to service this boss fight. The Volcanic Lord and Blizzard Lord Heartless appear to be large, balloon-like figures, though if you look closely, their balloon bellies are actually full of coloured fluid that surrounds what appears to be their real torso, a scrawny thing you can make out in the middle. The overall impression is of some kind of engorged amoeba or plastic bag wearing pants and a cape. It’s the kind of enemy that looks primed to burst, and if you know anything about video games, you should already be able to guess what it bursts into. That’s right: it’s a cloud of Icy Cubes or Fiery Globes, not that they’re any threat whatsoever.
So, I bet you’re asking yourself: is this the kind of dual boss fight where killing one boss makes things easier by cutting down on enemy firepower, or is it the kind where killing one boss makes things worse because the other goes berserk? Well, it’s not the latter, but it’s not quite the former, either. The Blizzard and Volcanic Lord rage about the arena with some powerful attacks, but you can catch them off-guard with Reaction Commands that could – depending on your skill or luck – toss them into one another and stun them both. So there’s a minor advantage to be had in leaving them both alive, though I feel you’re still better off chasing them down one at a time. The Reaction Commands also work just fine at clearing out the lesser Heartless, so it’s not a total loss even if you pop one of the two!
Something has to be said about these Reaction Commands. These commands are named after the infrequent fourth tier of Final Fantasy spells, which KH2 calls “-gun.” But oddly enough, this isn’t the traditional naming convention: more often than not, Final Fantasy uses “-ja,” so the reference fails almost out of the gate (I’ll grant that the Blizzard Lord’s reaction command does look like Sora is firing the Heartless as though from a “gun,” but he flings the Volcanic Lord Bowser-style!). Kingdom Hearts seems determined to avoid the “-ja” suffix, because a later game will replace “-gun” with a whole new suffix! It’s hard to see why the localizations are doing this, considering “-ja” has been around since FFIV in 1991!
By the way, like a lot of recent reaction command heavy fights, this is another Mickey battle. We won’t be seeing our big-eared friend for some time after this. He’s probably off taking a breather.
After you’ve mopped up the bosses and their shattered Cube and Globe pieces, things wrap up quickly. Pete leaves (or rather, Pete shouts vengeance at you and then comes to his senses and bolts. It’s hilarious), and everything wraps up. Iago is forgiven, the flying carpet returns late, Jafar’s lamp sealed away in a tomb of some sort (presumably in the palace), and Sora says it’s time for him to be moving on to find Riku and the King. Whoa, wait, Sora remembered the central plot twice in one world! Amazing! The reason Sora says this is so that, later in the game, Aladdin can ask Sora how his search is going. But do you want to know the best part? Aladdin is not actually here to hear this speech, so the edit was a complete waste and Aladdin’s knowledge came straight out of a plot hole.
Aladdin seems to have disappeared, but returns moments later chasing Abu, who somehow found and stole one of those giant red rubies from the film. This leads to a hilarious shot of Sora, Donald and Goofy all jumping at Abu in slow motion from Abu’s perspective. It makes me laugh even knowing when it’s coming. It’s followed by a few jokes about Donald trying to steal the gem, and to fake-throw it away. This is all great stuff, but the game quickly scuttles my goodwill by having the gem turn out to be this world’s gate key. The… the gem? The one that just showed up in this instant and had nothing to do with the plot of the world? Why not that jewelled trophy? Where did that trophy even go?