Kingdom Hearts 2 – A Modest Proposal

kh2-2016-04-26-17h12m59s176Sora and the others head into Santa’s workshop (Jack hangs back a bit), where Santa Claus himself is at work fine-tuning his famous list. Santa Claus here is voiced by Corey Burton, which means it should be pretty easy to name all the good and bad children, since I imagine he’s voiced half of them. I can’t find out much else about Ed Ivory, the man who voiced Santa in the original Nightmare Before Christmas, save that he only acted for a small period from 1987-1995. His last role was in a Brøderbund FMV game, In the 1st Degree, where he played the judge. As Ivory was an older man even in the 1990s, I fear the reason he hasn’t appeared since then may be that he’s no longer be with us.

Santa doesn’t seem all that perturbed, or even surprised, by the group bursting into his house, but he also doesn’t seem to know who they are or why they’re there, so it’s more like he’s just very nonchalant. Of course, he may be putting on a show. He asks Sora for his name to see if he’s on the list. Sora gives him his first name and Santa is able to find it with no other information, so I think Santa might secretly know who he’s dealing with.

But Santa has bad news: Sora isn’t on the list, because “seven years ago you told everyone you did not believe in Santa Claus.” Yikes man, forget you. Donald and Goofy are both on the list, but when Jack barges in to ask the same question, Santa has only long enough to be shocked at Jack’s arrival before he hears a commotion in the nearby factory. Naturally, Santa assumes that Jack’s responsible.

kh2-2016-04-26-17h13m51s655It turns out the intruders were Lock, Shock and Barrel, who broke in so that Maleficent could take a look at the place. The good guys spot the imps, though not Maleficent. Santa orders you (no, really, he orders you) to find the imps so he can give them “a lecture,” and he refuses to talk to Jack at all. Nightmare’s Santa has always been one of the harsher Santas out there. And so now it’s… back to Halloween Town? Having seen the workshop, you’ve actually seen almost every location in this two-sided world, so I suppose it makes sense that they’re bringing you back to an old location (your Treasures list is filled out by Christmas Town, which is especially notable because it’s not the case of any other world in the game). It only makes sense… but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.  Not only is that not many locations, but they’re almost all corridors, too. You’ve had no reason to stop anywhere except to save the Mayor, and the only thing holding the rooms up as “interesting” are the deathtraps. Naturally the game has to fill time by having you zig-zag back and forth across them: there’s nothing else to do!

I’m not even sure where to point blame for this problem. Is it the deathtraps? Were they supposed to bear the weight of the entire world’s gameplay? Halloween Town and Christmas Town are actually a long hallway that runs from Finkelstein’s Lab to Santa’s living room here with only one branching path that’s presently locked (technically two, but that’s WAY far in the future). There isn’t so much as a bend in the road until you reach Santa’s workshop. Kingdom Hearts 2 has been gradually abandoning the idea of exploration across its entire length, becoming straighter and less detailed in terms of gameplay world-by-world, and the apex may be here in Halloween Lane.

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Corridor.

A complaint you’ll often hear from Kingdom Hearts fans shows that this problem goes beyond the usual FPS “Corridor Syndrome,” which I’ve mentioned before. The complaint is that KH2 is “flat.” This complaint is actually unfair, because KH2 actually does have some vertical segments, but compared to KH1 (with its actual climbing up walls in Agrabah and finding hidden chests in Traverse Town), KH2 is flatter than you might have expected coming in. The problem becomes self-evident once you reach BBS, which is absolutely the flattest game in the series, and look back and discover the games have been flattening out almost with each additional entry, with only a few exceptions. Eventually, you notice that KH2 is right in the middle of the curve, and you realize just how flat it was relative to KH1.

And KH2 isn’t just “flat” in terms of verticality, but in terms of texture and objects-of-interest. I’ve already talked at length at how KH2’s slopes discourage you from climbing anything that isn’t clearly flat itself, but there’s also the issue of how rooms have almost nothing of note inside them. Halloween and Christmas Town’s deathtraps are a nice break from that, but KH2 features so many flat arenas for the sake of combat that after a while, you run the risk of no longer seeing the rooms as locations from favourite Disney movies, but as circle, square and lozenge shaped coliseums. No wonder the actual Olympus Coliseum had to apply special rules to its tournaments! What interest is combat in a large, flat arena with strict walls, when every room in the entire game is already Final Destination thanks to arbitrary force fields?

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Corridor.

Furthermore, we have an problem with mechanical objects of interest. Until the inclusion of Puzzle Pieces in FM+, there was no reason to explore the game’s various rooms to find all of its knickknacks. But the Puzzle Pieces only go so far. There are no NPCs to talk to in most worlds (to surreal effect in Agrabah), few puzzles and fewer optional puzzles, and no objects to interact with outside of Safe Zones on most worlds. The end result is that you typically leave colourful Safe Zones to enter banal combat arenas, and every chest in the game will almost certainly be reached on your first trip. The chest thing is even double-edged, because not only does it spell out that the Metroid-style return trip mechanics from KH1 were removed, but that it exposes how chests aren’t hidden in the slightest way, with only a handful being even moderately out-of-view.

This is what I meant earlier one when I said that KH2 wasn’t paying attention to the Metroidvanias that were popular at the time. KH2 was created during something of an ugly hiccup for action-adventure games.  Let’s look at the traditional Japanese industry leaders at the time, in the three fields that inspired KH: Action-Adventure, Action, and jRPG.  The leader in the action-adventure field was and is always Zelda, but both Wind Waker and Minish Cap were notably shorter than previous games in the series, good as they may have been.  Japan was just starting to hit the content bubble that would come to put developers out of business in the latter half of the decade: they couldn’t afford to make larger games at this level of technology, and it was starting to show. Action game leader Nintendo was running the GameCube, which only saw a flop of a Mario game in the form of Mario Sunshine.  Meanwhile, MMOs were starting to put traditional jRPGs out of business. FFIX and X were divided by one year, but FFX and XII were divided by five, leaving us with a dead zone from Square Enix! If you looked at the traditional industry leaders, it looks like Action-Adventure was in a slump, Action was in a slump, and jRPG was outright asleep at the wheel.

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Corridor.

But it’s not like those genres were dead, just that the traditional leaders were fading.  No, there were new industry leaders for action-adventure games in the first half of the 2000s, namely: Castlevania and Metroid Prime. It was the golden age of Metroidvanias. Problem: the portable Castlevania games weren’t actually performing as well in Japan as they were internationally, and Metroid has never performed as well in Japan as in North America. As a result, even though Japanese franchises were leading the charge, Japan wasn’t paying a lick of attention (and of course, Retro Studios was American), and Kingdom Hearts 2 shows it right on its face. There’s limited backtracking to find prizes in old areas, and Metroid Prime’s legendary detail work isn’t found in KH2 at all. All this even though KH1 was a game with some backtracking, and plenty of detail work. The tide of the industry was going one way, and KH2 took one look, turned on its heels and went the exact opposite direction. Why?

A lot of these issues strike me as overreactions to complaints against KH1. KH1 had awful platforming, so now there is no platforming.  Is that a fair reaction?  I think that nothing about Sora’s inability to hop on a hippo’s back should have encouraged them to cut vertical exploration entirely. And sure, there were chests that were hidden too well in KH1, like the ones in Halloween Town that required Gliding around stone teeth in what looked like background objects, but leaving them all out in the open seems to have gone too far in the other direction! KH1 was awful when it tried to do anything skill-based with its platforming, but it was excellent at Mario 64-style exploration. There’s an important difference: even if it’s a hit to your pride, you have to admit that Mario 64-style exploration collect-a-thons and the Metroid-style Castlevanias typically aren’t as challenging as twitch platformers. The Mario 64, N64-era Rareware style of platformer relies on easy movement that doesn’t force strict, 16-bit platforming challenges on the player. That’s one of the reason Mario 64 succeeded when others 3D platformers didn’t: it wasn’t aiming for twitch-gaming. The fact that Sora can’t compete in twitch gaming should have never prevented a new game from focusing on exploration.  Now maybe KH2 since  was going for twitch-gaming, and they decided the only twitch gaming Sora was any good at was combat? I can’t agree, but here we are. Exploration still exists in KH2… it just sort of stinks.

kh2-2016-04-26-18h21m14s229On your way back to Halloween Town, you get another cutscene with Maleficent and the imps, who have retreated to Curly Hill. Maleficent declares she didn’t know Sora was here, but she’d love to get revenge. Oh hey, she remembers us! We’ve made so much progress in our relationship since KH1. That’s sweet. The imps ask what she’s going to do, and she says “magnificent, malevolent” revenge, “of course.” You’re a walking cartoon character in KH2, Leffy. I mean, obviously you are, but… after you’re done with the dog and the duck, could I direct you to this moose and squirrel?

This display of stereotype prompts the imps to bring up Oogie Boogie, which reminds Maleficent that he exist…ed. Remember that joke I just made about us needing to kill Maleficent for her to remember us at all? It was just in the last paragraph, it was great. It seems that since Oogie Boogie never killed her, it seems she not only forgot that he ever lived, but that he died, and possibly that he even existed. This woman was the main villain of 90% of KH1, and I’m starting to suspect KH2 may not remember… why. At this rate, it’s only doing a good job of turning her into a Xykon from Order of the Stick. Oh well, I don’t mind so much at least for the moment, because if you haven’t guessed, Maleficent is about to threaten to destroy Christmas. I’m serious. This is, as far as I can tell, a fully deliberate attempt to create The Kingdom Hearts Christmas Special, and it’s so tacky I can’t be bothered by the characters behaving in less than serious ways.

kh2-2016-04-26-18h28m35s914Learning Oogie is dead, Maleficent gets a plan on how to get revenge on Sora, and just… revives Oogie Boogie. Just like that. This is the second time in one game that this character has brought someone back from the dead (the first being Maleficent herself) a skill she won’t demonstrate at any other point in the series. Granted, so few people in Kingdom Hearts die in the first place, but this still seems somewhat irregular. I’m going to assume this has more to do with the fact that Oogie is really just a swarm of insects in a canvas bag, so all she needed to do was call them all back, and that Maleficent is not, in fact, a necromancer.

Back with Sora, you’re tracking the footprints of the imps’ walking tub, which is an interesting idea that just doesn’t pan out very well. I wish it had, since tracking could have been a lot of fun! First off, the footprints start off old and get fresh as you follow them, which doesn’t make a fat lot of sense considering you’re following the prints only seconds after they were made. Second, even though you go from the snow of Christmas Town to the dry autumn earth of Halloween Town, Sora once again insists the tracks become clearer as you go (again, because the writers were confused about how fresh the tracks were, so much so that they apparently forgot how snow works). Lastly, on the PS2, the darkness of Halloween Town actually makes the prints harder to see as you get closer to the end, yet again as Sora repeats that they’re getting clearer and clearer. And while not as clear a flaw as the others, the fact that we’re tracking anything at all through a one-way world is just insulting, because where else would they go? I personally think a tracking mechanic would be cool in a 3D video game with a more open environment, but KH2 managing to screw up three times on the exact same part of the exact same idea. It’s like watching a startling boss monster walk into the arena – maybe some gargantuan fire demon – which promptly slugs itself on its own jaw, falling unconscious.

kh2-2016-04-26-18h29m07s413Sora arrives at Curly Hill, where Oogie is just waking up. It seems he also doesn’t remember what happened in KH1, and I’m cluing into the fact that these convenient cases of temporary amnesia are just lazy excuses to recap the base skeleton of the KH1 plot. This one is a little better executed, since the imps get to shout gleeful explanations of how Oogie, uh, died, and it’s morbid in the best way. Oogie is furious, but when Maleficent is about to tell him her plan, she finds him unconscious and nearly drooling. This is supposed to indicate Oogie is tired from his resurrection, but because he’s just a burlap sack the emotion doesn’t quite come across. Probably just me, but I always get this half-impression that Oogie somehow just died on us again.

Knowing Sora is coming and Oogie can’t defend himself, Maleficent decides to leave the imps behind with one of her Heartless bosses to keep Sora distracted. This boss vaguely resembles a Trick Ghost if it were decked out with some of Professor Finkelstein’s experiment’s parts, grafted to its face like Frankenstein’s monster. This boss, the Prison Keeper, takes the imps into a gibbet that hangs from its base. Once again, Sora just misses seeing Maleficent.

kh2-2016-04-26-18h30m35s808You might be wondering how the imps are supposed to help the Prison Keeper in the first place, which is a fair question. The answer is: it swallows them alive, engaging something of a Drive Form depending on the imp swallowed. The imps make it through the process just fine, and while I’ve never watched the animations very closely, I can only assume it straight-up poops them back into the gibbet when it returns to its regular form.

The Prison Keeper is the first of what I like to call “Chase Bosses.” The Chase Bosses are a set of bosses in KH2 whose design essentially turns the fight into an ongoing pursuit, with a great deal of running around. I wonder if these bosses may have been designed with hopes that you would fight them with Wisdom Form, though like all things involving Wisdom Form, it just doesn’t work out.

Like all of KH2’s chase bosses, you could learn the chase bosses’ strategy patterns, but ruthlessly chasing them down without thought or pause is so effective it more or less tosses defensive techniques into the trash. You see, just because I call them “chase bosses” doesn’t mean they necessarily know how to respond to chasing. This means Valour Form is much better at fighting chase bosses than Wisdom Form, with its increased foot speed and jump height, the AI’s inability to keep up with said food speed, plus Valour Form’s its usual proficiency against bosses. If you can’t get into Valour Form, the game expects you to use Curly Hill to gain jump height, so the Prison Keeper’s vertical advantage still isn’t a huge problem.

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The Prison Keeper eats Shock.

The Prison Keeper isn’t quite like the other chase bosses, thanks to its Shock and Barrel “Drives,” but its default form and Lock form are pure missile, and you’re going to spend a lot of the fight running around the room just trying to close with the rusty bastard. One lucky gap in its AI is Curly Hill itself, and the fact that it often engages your teammates. Later Chase Bosses are better at ignoring your teammates, but the Prison Keeper will waste a lot of time wailing on Jack Skellington while you close the gap. All-in-all, it’s a midboss and you’re not going to be that bothered.

One nice touch in this fight is how the pumpkins from KH1 are still present here in KH2, but they’ve been flattened into the ground, keeping them from blocking their movement. Yes, I was just complaining about the “flattening” of the game a moment ago, but boss arenas are meant to be generally flat, so I think this was a clever way to accomplish that!

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Dashing Through the Snow
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Singing the Emerald Blues


This retrospective’s screenshots come from Spazbo4’s longplay of the 2.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix+ at World of Longplays (YouTube).

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3 comments

  1. (Fanboy gush)I don’t know why, but P.K. is one of my favorite heartless bosses, for a few reasons. I like that it’s the first boss with 5 hp bars, and I like how expressive it’s animations in particular are, it’s the only heartless I know of that has facial expressions because it’s eyes are sunken in and it has eyebrows.

    I also wanted to point out , did you notice Finklestien still has the heart from the first game in his lab, on a table to the right of that big book he has?

    Lastly, with the explaination that the chests are easily reached, the teleporting to different parts of a level make a little more sense. They expected you to miss chests by goading you into following the plotlines, and when you realize later on you missed them, you go back and extend your time getting them.

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