Finally, we’ve reached the last Disney world of the left branch: the last (optional) thing standing “in our way” of that tantalizing Twilight Town scenario. But first, the last of the standard gummi missions: Sunlight Storm, which is paired with Olympus Coliseum’s Phantom Storm at the other side of the map. This mission sees you flying through another plasma cloud, this one more of a maze, as Nobodies pop in to destroy you at whatever time they want. Actually, Sunlight Storm is fairly lazy in Mission 1, though the ending is very stylish, seeing Sora flies into a bright patch of cloud and straight into an Organization ambush, only to have that ambush is torn apart by a Hunter!
Your landing on the final world is followed up with a flashback, which is not how Kingdom Hearts typically presents its plot, even if Halloween Town just got one (you see what I mean about my theory that these worlds were created by the same designer?). Still, it makes sense in KH2 because this scene is, say it with me now, a graft from the original film. There, you’ve got it!
It’s the middle of Disney’s The Lion King, and young Simba is about to trampled by wildebeest! Finally, KH2 tries to do a crowd shot, but holy shit there are still so many empty gaps in the stampede that the shot just doesn’t work. When Mufasa comes to rescue Simba, he has so much empty space on the ground that he probably could have stayed there instead of trying to climb the wall. There’s a giant empty gap near the canyon walls!
You know the rest of the story. Scar knocks Mufasa back into the canyon, and we hear an archive scream from Johnathan Taylor Thomas before the flashback ends and we cut back to the present, where the adult Simba is having a nightmare. It seems we’re at the point in the film when Simba is fully grown (naturally, since he was fully grown in KH1), and is still living with Timon and Pumbaa at the oasis. Simba is now voiced, featuring the talents of Cameron “Cam” Clarke, who has been covering the character since some of the earliest spin-offs and tie-ins, including Timon & Pumbaa. He even did Simba’s singing voice in The Lion King 2! Like a lot of Kingdom Hearts vets, he did incidental voices in FFXIII, and is also the voice of Liquid Snake from MGS, though I’m sure many will know him better as the original voice of Leonardo from the 1980s Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles!
Back with Sora, Donald and Goofy, we find they’ve 1) somehow ended up in the elephant graveyard, which is arguably the worst place Sora has ever landed the gummi ship since he parked in hell not half the game ago, and 2) they’ve been turned into animals. Well, uh, more animalistic animals, as the case may be. Sora is now a lion cub, with dark grey fur to match his clothes; Donald is a small flying bird of some sort; and Goofy, same as in Atlantica, is a turtle.
These transformations come with a whole new set of abilities and ways of moving about, which drive most players up the wall. I am not most players. How much am I not most players? Pride Lands is my favourite world in the game. That much. There are some things I don’t like, like the fact that you can’t use Drive Gauge techniques here (as a result, it’s a wretched place to grind), and can’t use most Limits (the only Limit Sora can use here is the one he gets with Simba), but I just love running around at high speeds as lion Sora, it’s the best feeling in the game for me. Sorry, folks who aren’t fond of this, but I’m going to have a blast.
(One especial irritation is that you can’t change Drive Form Keyblades while in Pride Lands – indeed you can’t even look at your drive form stats while you’re here. All rather silly.)
Naturally it’s not long before Sora and the others are attacked by the hyena trio from the film, surrounded by every other hyena in their pack, who line the walls ala “Be Prepared.” Sora and the others decide that the hyenas are Heartless! Sora, they don’t even look like Heartless. You know it’s funny, but we’ve never seen Sora in a world with so many hostile natives, usually just one or two local bad guys. Disney’s animated films don’t exactly have many armies, per se, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Let’s see… the hyenas, the undead in The Black Cauldron… Rattigan’s mice in The Great Mouse Detective… Prince John’s forces in Robin Hood… Kingdom Hearts has already erased the one from Mulan…
Shenzi, Banzai and Ed take a few minutes to taunt you, before they’re suddenly called away by Scar roaring and decide that means they can’t even kill you and eat you later, even though they’re starving. “I’m too lazy to lower my arm to stab you with this knife” is a writing crutch for the truly cornered, and KH2’s version of Pride Lands somehow managed to get cornered after only a few seconds of plot! How?
Voice actors for the trio are easy to cover: Shenzi is Tress MacNeille, in desperate struggle with Corey Burton for command of the end credits; Banzai is his original voice actor, Cheech Marin, whom you may know from being Cheech Marin (he’s got an additional Disney connection via the Cars franchise, where he voices Ramone); and Ed is his original voice actor, Jim Cummings. Hey, speaking of Jim Cummings, where are all the other Torn Pages? Aren’t we nearly out of worlds?
Left to their own devices, the trio works out how to make use of their new bodies, which is just an excuse for the game to provide a brief tutorial. Donald credits Sora’s magic clothes for their transformation, even though that doesn’t really explain Donald and Goofy?
While you’re walking around, you may discover that Pride Lands uses large gourds as chests, carved in an African style. I could make a joke about the world famous wildebeest carving industry, but if there’s anything that video games have never questioned, it’s the ubiquitous presence of boxes and crates. At least these look nice.
Getting used to Sora’s Lion form is simple enough… for me… and no one else… but unlike KH1’s Atlantica I have a harder time conveying what bothers the average player this time around. Feel free to comment, below. With Atlantica there was a clear matter of vertical movement and the irrationality of the controls. Here, controls are more or less the same as ever, except you have to get used to Sora’s super high ground speed, and also his new Keyblade swings (Sora is wielding the Keyblade in his mouth). It’s essentially not unlike a new drive form, except you can’t leave it. Despite that, it seems to bother nearly everyone else to some degree, and I’m not going to deny that, so if you want to talk about your own experiences in the comments, feel free.
You don’t get long to adapt to your new controls. As soon as you’ve walked out of the first room, you’ll find yourself in a series of canyons, where none other than Nala is being attacked by Heartless. I guess the hyenas walked straight past her, too? Nala here is voiced by Vanessa Marshall, who would go on to do a lot of voices for Marvel TV shows, including Mary Jane Watson in Spectacular Spider-Man, the Black Widow in the 2010 Avengers, and Black Canary in Young Justice. She also did incidental voices on Lightning Returns, and had a few roles in MGS, which I only mention because that means she’s “reuniting” with Liquid Snake.
Nala is being attacked by two Living Bones, one of the most dangerous Pride Lands Heartless. Just going to throw us into the deep end instead of giving us time to stretch our legs, huh? The Living Bones are huge headless things that wear what I can only describe as dragon skulls like some kind of dullahan Marawak. The best way to fight them is with their reaction commands, Rodeo to ride them and Grand Cross to bust up their skulls, leaving them headless. W-wait, “Grand Cross?” A whole library of Final Fantasy games to choose from, and the one you choose to representing piledriving a demon hyena is Grand Cross, a spell that “commands the planets themselves” from FFV and IX? We used Helm Split in CoM! Final Fantasy Tactics has a command called Head Break!
One trouble of this reaction command dependency is that Living Bones actually appear in Olympus Coliseum where you, as a human, can no longer use these commands, so learning how to fight them without the Reaction Command will prove helpful in the long run.
Once you’ve cleared the Living Bones, Sora decides that those were definitely Heartless! Every time we a gut a living thing, there’s more mess! Thank you Professor Clown Shoes. At least in FM+, the Living Bones had a tawny, savannah colouring (quite nice actually) which makes them vaguely look like animals like the hyneas. In the original Sora just looks silly for being confused.
Nala explains that she’s here to hunt, which means she and the other lionesses… don’t talk or even listen to the hyenas much, do they? Or else they’d know there was no food. Unless she was trying to hunt one of hyenas… Sora asks Nala if she’s seen any of the major plotlines, and she says no, which is surprising because as we’ll find out in just a moment, Pete is here, and unless he arrived just after Nala left to go all Hotline Miami on the hyenas, I can’t explain her not knowing about him! Pete seems to be a last-minute addition based on a few other clues, so this is probably another instance of KH2 mentioning the main plot for a line or two purely as an afterthought. Or did they just forget him, the way the plot seems to keep forgetting Pete in general? It’s hard to tell which larger mistake is responsible for this particular small problem. Spin the Wheel of Oversight to find our shitty prize!
By the way, let’s ignore the fact that Sora just asked a naked animal woman, who has never seen clothes in her life, about “guys in black hoods,” and she replied: “nah.”
Nala is intrigued by Sora: seeing him and the others fight off the Heartless has made her wonder if maybe Sora could depose Scar. Well in my case, she watched me get trampled by Critical Mode until I accidentally ended up landing a Reaction Command, but sure, let’s pretend. This leads to a hilarious moment where Sora pulls the others aside to tell them his plan to depose Scar so that he can become king of the Pride Lands! This joke is great to me because not only is it clear Sora is joking, but it’s also clear that maybe, just maybe, he’d do it all the same. KH2 can still get across some good emoting, even from an animated cat.
Also, during this exchange, Sora says “We can’t just go around knocking kings off their thrones.” Yes, that makes a lot of sense, in fact you should probably have a general rule against these sorts of things, before you do something stupid like deposing viziers or lobbing fireballs at queens. We’ll call it a rule against… hrm… it’s on the tip of my tongue… “meddling.” You know, to maintain the world order. Yes, that sounds like a good idea, why don’t you already have a rule like that?
Nala promises to lead the others to Pride Rock, which is phrased… it’s kind of hard to explain. I feel like I should gather more evidence first. …Okay, look, remember how in Port Royal, Will “joined” you, but didn’t really join you, and then Jack joined you, but then Jack was conked on the head with an oar and left the party, and then Will re-“joined” you despite still not really joining you, and then Jack rejoined you properly… my point is, Port Royal almost would have made more sense if Will had actually been a playable ally alongside Jack. At the end of this scene, Nala leaves without a voiced explanation that she’s leaving. It’s almost as though she wasn’t supposed to leave. Nala is “with” you for half of Pride Land’s total run time before you finally catch up to Simba, and the gap is very curious. Her absence would almost make sense if she was supposed to be playable alongside Simba. This isn’t the last time I feel the game considered giving you other second party members, but we’ll get to those in good time. One of them has a surprising tail of evidence tied to them, and I think you’re going to find them very interesting once we get there, even if you don’t agree with me.
Nala-free for no reason, you enter the Savannah, which may… very well be the single worst room in the entire game. The Savannah is a huge, flat circle that screams “boss fight,” but the moment you mistake it for an actual flat circle, it surprises you with hidden clefts that are hard to make out at a distance on the PS2 (I had a far better experience with it on HD than I ever did on the PS2, but it’s still a problem). The room looks boring and it is: there’s nothing engaging as far as the eye can see, except a very distant vista of Pride Rock. The Heartless feel like they’re here only out of obligation, because you could easily run by or between them by accident. The whole room is just tedious without Lion Sora’s upcoming mobility upgrade. This is like Hyrule Field after a wildfire. It’s less like the Savannah and more like a round chunk of the moon. I hate it, and I’m the one who loves this world!
Nala later points that the Pride Lands are a mess to navigate (too late, and I wonder why), suggesting you use landmarks that barely exist. This is sort of like saying “The level designers did a crappy job, so…” Better the game concede this than not, but better still the level designers have done a better job in the first place. The film’s artists are partially to blame, but I feel this one is mostly the fault of the level designers, since the game’s vision of the Pride Lands doesn’t quite match up with any shot from the film.
As you walk, you’ll run into our newest Heartless: Aerial Knockers, the boxing birds, which are not all that distinct from the Air Soldiers of KH1. I personally find them more memorable for showing up in KHX’s Wonderland than for anything they did in this game. Keep in mind that all KHX enemies are functionally identical, and you’ll realize that says a lot about the Aerial Knockers’ impact in this game.
At Pride Rock, there is no sign of the hyena pack that attacked you earlier, which is confusing because they later show up behind you. I guess Pete must have been here for a while because he already taught them his super-secret technique for always being in second place. Nala goes and finds you Rafiki, saying Rafiki has to check you out before you start any rebellions. Rafiki then examines Sora and whispers his response to Nala. When he does speak, Rafiki is voiced by his original voice actor, Robert Guillaume, famous for the role of Benson on Soap and his own spinoff, Benson (both Emmy award winning performances). He’s known by gamers as the voice of Dr. Eli Vance in the Half-Life 2 games. Guillaume also voiced the character of Rafiki in Timon & Pumbaa. But oddly enough, Rafiki is silent for much of this world. Very strange. Some of Rafiki’s early lines are also directly from the film, and very brief, making it possible the developers could have used archive sounds! Was Rafiki’s Japanese voice actor sick? This whisper to Nala sequence makes the whole thing suspicious with or without any potential “archive sounds.” I wonder what was going on behind the scenes!
Nala says that Rafiki says that Dean says that Parvati says that Sora isn’t meant to be king. Oh, darn. Unfortunately, the hyenas choose this moment to emerge from the Jason Voorhees portal hovering perpetually behind the heroes’ back. This hems Sora and the others in at Pride Rock, just as Scar emerges from his den, followed behind by a bear-like lion Pete, who stumbles down the hill like he has three left feet. While that’s funny, I can’t avoid pointing out that Pete does not interact with Scar at any point in this plot, and will disappear after this scene and only reappear moments before the end. The editing seams are so bad it’s like someone drew a dotted line around him.
Scar here is voiced by James Horan, who modern viewers will know as the voice of Wheeljack from Transformers Prime, or Skull Face from both Metal Gear Solid V games. He has the requisite Lightning Returns miscellaneous voice credit, and is one of the Arkham series’ unshakable roster of “thug” voices (he also voices Jack Rider, which is a bit more substantial than the thugs, but the way Arkham reuses generic thug voices has always been funny to me). He also has one of the more bizarre recurring credits I’ve ever seen: he was on four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise, credited only as “Humanoid Figure,” as the show ended before his identity could be revealed.
Despite being surrounded by vicious hyenas, a ruler who won’t listen to reason, and an outsider your allies clearly hate, Nala decides this is not only the time for diplomacy, but calm, slow-paced diplomacy that focuses on details Scar must already know! Naturally this is just so the player can catch up to speed. Scar suggests that if Nala wants food, why not eat Sora and his friends? The gross implication is how Scar seems to be talking about neither Donald nor Goofy, but Sora in this scene, meaning he’s suggesting she eat another lion. Let’s not let that sink in. Nala and the trio bolt into the Serengeti, and stop their escape mere jogging distance from their pursuers. Past the loading zone and out of mind, right gamers? Geeze.
Nala apologies for bringing Sora into this, and he says it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it, Nala, upsetting monarchs is just Tuesday for these three. Nala reminisces about Simba, the first time his name has come up. This clues Sora in that his talking lion friend probably comes from this world full of talking lions, and he explains that Simba was with the three of them “not that long ago.” It doesn’t seem to have sunk in for Sora that KH1 was a year ago, but now that I think of it, no one bothered to tell him, so maybe that isn’t that unreasonable. Nala is shocked but thrilled to hear this, and suggests Sora fill her in as they go toward the valley where Mufasa died, as it marks the edge of Scar’s territory or… something.
Far away in the Oasis, we rejoin Simba to introduce Timon and Pumbaa. This scene is insubstantial, and probably only exists to introduce Timon and Pumbaa. If you remember the film, Timon and Pumbaa first meet Nala as she tries to hunt them, so the game had to do something before they start screaming. The scene cuts off with Simba dropping down to pout in a bed of flowers, sadly no longer sending up a cloud of “SEX.”
Pumbaa here is voiced by his original voice actor, Ernie Sabella, who has played the role in every appearance since 1994. Prior to The Lion King, Sabella did a lot of TV work, including Perfect Strangers, It’s Your Move, and did you know he was a recurring character on Saved by the Bell? Timon is voiced here by Bruce Lanoil, a Muppeteer probably most famous for a 1990s puppet adaptation of Dr. Seuss stories where he played The Cat in the Hat. He was also a puppeteer on Dinosaurs (the TV show), where he played Charlene. Despite being a puppeteer by trade, Timon isn’t Lanoil’s only voice acting role: he was in Ys 1&2 on the TurboGrafx, and even voiced Pepe Le Pew in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Excusing the Muppets, his only Disney connection is a minor voice role in Oogie’s Revenge for the PS2, though he’s voiced Timon ever since KH2, namely in a surprisingly prolific series of safety films with Sabella that spanned 2008-13.
By the way, fun fact: it seems one of the voice actors who played Timon on Timon & Pumbaa was none other than our own Quinton Flynn, the voice of Axel! He did the voice for a few episodes in Season 1 (if the internet can be trusted), smushed in between Nathan Lane and Kevin Schon, who voiced Timon for the majority of Timon & Pumbaa and all of House of Mouse.
On your way to Wildebeest Valley, it may occur to you to check that flashing “New” icon on Jiminy’s Journal. If you do so, you’ll come across the biggest prophecy Jiminy has ever made, or at least the most infamous, as he talks about something that hasn’t even happened yet. What’s weird is, it’s not just prophetic, it’s wrong. Here’s the line: “[Pete is] helping Scar’s phantom, too. Seems like Pete’s trying to cover all his bases.” He’s helping Scar’s pardon me? And unfortunately, by the time you’re far enough in the game to find out what Jiminy means, Pete is nowhere to be seen!