In a cutscene, we see the pivotal scene from Nightmare Before Christmas where Jack Skellington discovers the door in the tree that leads to Christmas Town. You might think this is about to imply that we’re going to go through the plot of the film, but we’re actually not – this is a flashback, and KH2 strongly hints that the events of Nightmare took place between KH1 and 2. It’s a clever way to handle the games’ relationship to the film without having to re-watch the film, Port Royal. I like the setup a lot. The actual plot is essentially brand new, and while I can’t unequivocally say I like it, I… well, you’ll see.
Sora, Donald and Goofy walk down the road to Halloween Town some time later, decked out in their old costumes. One thing I should mention up front is that Sora’s costume actually changes with his Drive Forms, which was a lot of effort they didn’t really have to take (and essentially didn’t in Timeless River, but oh well, the Halloween costumes are still here!). His little mask from KH1 also changes. In his normal form, it’s a pumpkin-looking imp mask just like KH1. Valour Form has a red and yellow demon mask (that actually somewhat resembles DiZ?). Wisdom Form’s costume is clearly meant to evoke one of KH1’s Bell Wizards. Even AntiForm gets in on the party with a Shadow mask. Nice detail work!
The scene is shot watching Sora and the others from the front, and we learn why when Sora sees something unusual up ahead: Christmas lights. …I think. The trouble is, they’re all orange, and all the bulbs in Halloween Town seem to be orange, so at first glance it’s hard to tell what Sora is gawking at. This is one place where Square Enix should have diverged from the movie to stick in bright red and green, or even a Christmas tree. Hell, the town square is full of garish Christmas crap and we’re going to go there just moments from now, so I question the decision to start in this hallway in the first place.
Just to spite Sora for showing up in this hallway, we discover that Halloween Town is once again filled to the brim with ambient hazards, including giant tombstones that will fall on you if you bump them. The whole town is full of these sorts of hazards, complete with notes (often in other locations) explaining where to find them in case you want to use them against the Heartless (“Guillotine […] Not for preparing vegetables”). Generic destructibles like the vendor stalls in Agrabah are all fine and dandy, but they don’t add much to the texture of the experience, so I’m glad Halloween Town tries to jazz up combat with its deathtraps. We haven’t seen this kind of interactivity since the explosive carts in Land of the Dragons. Sadly, you won’t be doing much fighting in the rooms that have the traps. This kind of oversight is all too common in video games: adding context-sensitive features and then rarely applying the context. I’m reminded of Arkham Origins: Blackgate. Wretched game, Blackgate. Blackgate advertised destructible terrain for use in stealth sequences, only to use it less than five times (three?) in the entire game. Wretched game. Absolute garbage.
…What were we talking about?
The trio goes to town square, the background music kicks out for no reason, and they discover Jack flying through the sky on a sleigh complete with skeletal reindeer. “It’s Jack!” Donald says, his voice echoing in the vast silence. You’d be forgiven for thinking the game is in the middle of the film, because it really seems to be setting that up as a red herring. And I’m not sure why. There’s no payoff to this false buildup, they’re about to announce that the movie took place off-screen in just a few lines, so why the setup? Jack gets off his sleigh to greet his friends with a “Merry Christmas!” and is just as delightfully in-character as he was in KH1. For example, he explains he’s in the Christmas spirit and is “running the show again this year—but I need Sandy Claw’s blessing.” He’s just carrying on, implacable and deaf to the outside world as ever, simultaneously assuming he’s running Christmas and aware that he has not even asked permission. I love him.
Sora is excited by the idea of seeing Jack run Christmas (if you think about it, you could say that he’s excited about… seeing the film!). Jack says that first they need something “no self-respecting Santa Claus can do without!” (yes, he says “Santa Claus” correctly, an oversight), and that they need to see Sally.
You head off to Finkelstein’s lab, where the doctor has short-sightedly employed Lock, Shock and Barrel as lab assistants. He’s having them assemble a large contraption in the middle of the room. The experiment isn’t relevant at the moment, and is actually an unusual early bit of foreshadowing for this game. This world has impressed me for a while now, I can’t wait to see what they do to undermine the positives like nearly every world has done in its own special way since the start of KH1. I’m going to put my chips oonnnnnn… narrative! For some reason, it seems like a safe bet?
The imps manage to mess up the experiment and bolt, leaving you to talk to Sally, who is making Jack a new Santa suit to replace the one he lost when he was, uh, shot down by the military during the film. So… does a major real-world-style military power exist in the Kingdom Hearts universe now? Better not think about this. Sally hasn’t finished sewing, and it’s clear this is because she is hesitant about this whole idea, which you can understand, because it is a terrible idea that’s only funny to us because we’re not involved in any way. When Jack refuses to listen to her, Sally pleads to Sora, Donald even backing her up. It’s nice to see Donald and Goofy not acting like some sort of flat unit that agrees with Sora at all times. Seeing Donald siding with Sally against Sora, meaning he both distances himself from Sora and has an independent interaction with a Disney character, is such a simple but fundamental fix that would have improved the whole series if it were used more often. It’s a shame that it’s not.
Unfortunately, Sora isn’t listening. As Jack steps outside briefly, Sora clues in to the fact that Jack really is going to talk to Santa Claus, which implies that Santa is real. This sparks a childlike delight in Sora that hits him so hard that it practically puts him out play for a few seconds, and he’s only snapped back to reality when Jack comes back in to say “Are those strange-looking fellows in the town square with you? […] What are they called again… Heartless?” No, seriously, I love him.
Actually, that lacuna in my last quote covers up a curious sentence. Jack addresses the Heartless as “the ones who wanted to spoil Halloween and Christmas?” I think this was the writers mis-remembering the plot of KH1, but taken as it is, it seems to imply that Jack had another encounter with the Heartless during the plot of Nightmare Before Christmas. That’s amazing – not just the idea of Jack going through with the plot of Nightmare with Heartless all over the place and no Sora to help him out, but also the fact that he forgot what they were called in spite of seeing them twice!
Jack rejoins the party at this point. Unlike Aladdin and Beast, who served relatively similar roles to their original games, Jack is entirely reworked here in KH2. He no longer uses Sora’s spells the way he and Ariel did in KH1, maybe because that was a little bland, but definitely because there aren’t enough advanced spells to go around. First off, Sora only has six spells this time around, instead of seven, and since Donald already has four of these, Jack would be down to two spells to avoid overlap. And if you think about it, Reflect would be either terrible or overpowered in the hands of an AI, depending on how it was programmed. That’s not going to work.
In the place of Sora’s advanced spells, Jack gains his own spells, almost all of which cause area damage. His MP runs out fast but his impact is impressive. Jack may very well be the only character in the game that truly benefits from the in-battle Party menu, as you could swap him out whenever his MP empties. Thankfully, there’s rarely much need for that kind of finesse against minor enemies in KH2, even on Critical Mode, which is for the best considering the menu is still a pain to work with. Besides, Jack has Lucky Lucky! You’re welcome to stay, Pumpkin King!
Back in town square, you discover that Jack didn’t just casually walk back into the building to ask about the Heartless, but that he casually walked into the building, leaving the Mayor at the Heartless’ mercy! Unlike KH1, the Mayor is here voiced by his original voice actor, Glenn Shadix, who’s best known for playing Otho in Beetlejuice, though younger fans will know him as the voice of both Monsieur Mallah and The Brain from the final arc of Teen Titans. Sadly we’re introduced to this performance with a repeat of his “I’m only an elected official” joke with no sense of timing. Moments later, he spots Jack with the face on the back of his head, which I admit is actually pretty funny.
The only “new” Heartless in this initial battle is the Wight Knight from KH1, which is also the only carryover from Halloween Town in KH1. Wight Knights haven’t changed in any notable way, they’re the same relatively boring “soldier” type you find on most worlds, just like in KH1. There are plenty of deathtraps to use here in town square, so feel free to make use of them and make the poor Wight Knights feel even more negligable.
After clearing out the Heartless, Jack’s headstrong presumptuousness gets the better of him, and he declares that “Sandy Claws needs bodyguards,” clearly trying to use this as an excuse to talk to the big man himself. As this is happening, we cut to Lock, Shock and Barrel, who are off riding their walking bathtub in another room, when they run into someone you probably didn’t expect: Maleficent. Wow, she’s taking things into her own hands, I didn’t think I’d see the day.
The imps are surprised to see Maleficent, and Shock delightedly asks: “A witch?” I like how Shock seems intrigued by Maleficent being a witch. It reminds you that Shock is just wearing a costume, and probably enjoys witches to do it! Maleficent divines that the imps are pranksters just to save the plot some time (the scene does got a bit too fast for its own good, but oh well), and she tells them to come with her. No, she doesn’t remember them from the KH1 days, but let’s be honest: did Oogie Boogie strike you as the kind of middle-manager that recommends his employees to the higher-ups?
Back with the good guys, Jack directs everyone to the woods outside Halloween Town, which oddly enough does not involve going to Moonlight Hill (the hill does appear in the game, as “Curly Hill,” but it’s off to the side). Along the way, you’ll fight a new Heartless that appears on a small handful of worlds, the Driller Mole. This tiny robot is no bigger and hardly more threatening than the Icy Cubes and Firey Globes, but it can tunnel underground to mildly… delay you? Its weak HP bar might make you think “Wisdom Form training” but frankly the tunnelling gets in the way of that. Except for how they might trick you into knocking over a tombstone in this one room of the entire game, the Driller Moles are a boring waste of enemy data.
Jack shows you the circle of holiday trees with the magic doors, and like everyone else who’s watched Nightmare ever, I can’t help but wonder about the other doors. Square Enix put them up on a high ledge so you can’t get to them! Ah well. Jack waxes poetic for a moment before letting you open the door and fall into the vortex within, Goofy getting one of his iconic wails as he goes.
Before you can say “What’s this? What’s this?” you find yourself in Christmas Town, and in Vanilla KH2, immediately notice that the “This is Halloween” background music is still playing. This drove me up the wall on my first playthrough. It’s so dissonant with the bright, snowy visuals, making it probably the only time I have a complaint about KH2’s aesthetics in-and-of-themselves. About the only thing that’s right is that Christmas Town has its own GUI skin. Thankfully Square Enix agreed with me, and in FM+, they put a great foot forward by making Christmas Town its own place in KH2’s aesthetics. There’s a new area tune and battle tune, and Sora, Donald and Goofy all change costumes to match their current location: Sora is dressed in a Santa suit (though he keeps his vampire fangs), Donald is a snowman (complete with sort of disturbing wooden stick arms) and Goofy is Rudolph, complete with an actual Christmas bulb for a nose. It’s a great effort. The music in vanilla KH2 was a problem that needed to be fixed, but going the extra mile with the costumes is just impressive. And once again, Sora’s Drive Forms have their own variants of the Christmas Town outfit, most of which alter the design on Sora’s hat and the shape of his oversized Santa Claus buttons.
You walk into Christmas Town, but sadly it seems the magic of the season can’t keep away the Heartless, who have dressed up in Christmas accoutrements and are being a pain as usual. Here you’ll meet the Toy Soldier Heartless, a jack-in-the-box that shoots you with its pop-gun. This enemy also has as a knives-and-axes form that seems inspired by Halloween Town. I imagine, design wise, that this happened because the Toy Soldier is a reskin of a Halloween Town Heartless that shows up later in the game, and not the other way around. Frankly, the pop-gun makes it considerably less dangerous than its Halloween Town counterpart, but it’s still putting in more of an effort than the average KH2 Heartless and the player should watch out. Since this is one of the only rooms in the game that that has Toy Soldiers (outside Olympus Coliseum), it’s not a bad idea to exploit the room’s central deathtrap. Yes, there’s a deathtrap even on the Christmas Town side of the world: a broken merry-go-round that spins so fast it sucks enemies in like a vortex. You should maybe get that fixed as soon as we’ve saved the universe, Mr. Claus!
This merry-go-round is also the key to not one but two two Bulky Vendors, if you’re lucky!
The team gathers to commiserate after the battle. “Christmas…!” Donald says, complete with dramatic pause, “…is in big trouble!” They couldn’t. They couldn’t resist. “Gawrsh, we can’t let anything bad happen to Christmas.” We’re doing it, don’t you see? I’ll give you a few more scenes, you’ll see in a minute. I’m shocked and impressed by the audacity, it’s just too much but it’s also wonderful that it is too much?