Kingdom Hearts 2 – The Visible Substructure

Twilight Town, Revisited

kh2-2016-05-16-11h49m08s473So we’re finally here. And because we delayed, this means Axel somehow didn’t think to check Twilight Town for the duration of two Disney worlds plus travel time. Genius!

You arrive in Twilight Town at the Tram Common, where Vivi runs past and shouts “Help! The sandlot! It’s Seifer!” Seifer’s gone mad with power!

No, no, Seifer’s actually in trouble. While you could explore Twilight Town as I’ll describe in a moment, let’s carry on with the plot, since someone is being murdered after all. And doesn’t it just make you feel weird that you could have put this off for two worlds? How… long has Seifer been under attack? You just can’t say!

You arrive in the sandlot to find Seifer and the rest of his gang nearly under attack by Dusks. Hey! Dusks! Remember when? It’s been around twenty-five hours if you did all the optional worlds, no joke. It has been nearly a full day of real-world time since you actually engaged the Organization in any fashion. And it may take some getting used to. The strategy of fighting lesser Nobodies is fairly different from Heartless – Nobodies provide more of a challenge at the same battle level as the player, compared to Heartless who cave without any difficulty at all one or two levels prior.

kh2-2016-05-16-11h50m04s299I feel like there’s a strategic divide between the KH2 Nobodies and KH2 Heartless not unlike the strategic divide between the KH1 Heartless and the KH2 Heartless. I certainly remember each kind of Nobody, which as I’ve proven isn’t true of the Heartless. In fact, it’s something of a narrative and gameplay experience divide as well. It’s starting to seem like we’ve been playing a different game for the past 25 hours, a different game more obsessed with quantity and spectacle than the (attempt at) quality promised in the prologue.

The gameplay divide between the Nobodies and Heartless is probably intentional, but if we assume it was intentional, what were the devs hoping to accomplish? Hunting the Heartless for the past 25 hours has felt more in thematically line with Kingdom Hearts as we know it, but the Nobodies are simply more mechanically in line with KH2’s systems. As such, which of these two “games” is these “the real” KH2? As I said, they feel so distinct as to be separate games, and KH2 as a whole feels ripped at the seams as they fight to get away from one another. More on this subject in a moment once you see what this scene is about.

kh2-2016-05-16-11h51m14s685First off, you have to survive the combat, and that isn’t easy if you came here early. The Dusks aren’t the real problem. The real problem is the introduction of a new lesser Nobody, the Berserker. Named after the FFV job class, Berserkers are dangerous, both strong and very durable: in the final world, they have more than a single bar of HP, which isn’t the case for any other minor enemy outside of the bonus dungeon from FM+. They’re also very strange looking. They’re huge figures armed with hulking “claymores” that look like clubs. The weird thing is that the Berserkers are attracted to their clubmores as if by a magnet, and at times the weapon seems to be doing the fighting for them. If you can detach one of the Berserkers from their claymore, you can grab the weapon yourself and “stick” other Nobodies to it before unleashing a combo. I know I’ve already said it, but I can’t think of any word to describe it except for “strange!”

The complications of the Berserker are underlined by the fact that, unless you’re in Critical Mode, you’re probably running short on AP at this point and being forced to pick and choose between your Abilities. Good luck in the short run, but don’t worry about the long run. By the time we’re done the game, all difficulties should have more AP than they need for a solid build.

kh2-2016-05-16-11h51m49s023After the fight with the Berserks, you’re confronted by a member of the Organization. This is… uh… oh, shit, it’s been ages since we last encountered an unknown member of the Organization (in Olympus Coliseum). I actually forgot I was doing a thing where I addressed them by the names of their voice actors. Uh… where was the man’s name…?

I need to stall. You know, it’s funny: you’re soon going to learn that Axel wasn’t operating under Organization orders when he went to kidnap Kairi. I’ve already discussed how long it’s been since we fought a lesser Nobody, but it’s nice to know that it’s been nearly the size of a small novel (just short of 48 000 words) since the Organization’s plans had any impact on the plot at all! That’s nice, isn’t that nice folks? I think that’s nice.

Okay, I’ve just remembered that this figure is Kirk Thornton, who’s been one of the quieter members of the Organization so far, though he’s about to get a lot more talkative. Thornton applauds your fighting, and actually tries to engage you in casual conversation, asking if you’ve seen Axel. Sora’s not about to drop his guard, but he does ask enough questions to learn that Axel has gone into open rebellion against the Organization, or as Thornton puts it: “Axel’s no longer acting on our best interest.” When Sora proves obstinate, Thornton becomes clearer: “Don’t let your guard down. Axel will stop at nothing to turn you into a Heartless.” I’m sure we the players can guess why, even if Sora’s probably at a loss.

kh2-2016-05-16-11h55m24s887Sora says he’ll keep an eye out for Axel, and Thornton says “It would break our hearts to hear something happened to you.” When Sora points out that Nobodies don’t have hearts, Thornton responds by unhooding, revealing a blue-haired man with an X-shaped scar across his face. Though never identified on screen, Jiminy identifies in the journal yet again: Saïx, The Luna Diviner, and the Organization’s Number VII. He’s also the master of those Berserkers you just fought, which calls his concern for you into question.

Saïx admits he doesn’t have a heart, but he does remember what it was like, which is what separates him and the other humanoid Org members from the lesser Nobodies. He then announces, in stark contrast to his attempts to play nice, that he knows “very well how to injure a heart.” Weirdly enough, Saïx never really shows the kind of tact you’d need to injure a heart at any point. In fact he may be the bluntest Organization member this side of Lexaeus, but whatever you say, man.

kh2-2016-05-16-12h22m54s260Saïx turns to leave after blithely telling you to “keep on fighting those Heartless.” This is a weird moment. Saïx is drawing a deliberate line in the sand between the main plot (the Organization et al), and the Heartless-fighting from KH1 that Sora has been spending most of KH2 doing. The division between the “two Kingdom Hearts” that I mentioned above is now deliberate on the part of the developers. So we return to our previous question: which is KH2’s true “side?” And if only one side is true, why has it wasted so much time on the other? An interesting and critical question. I’ve said it before, but when you hang a lampshade on something, the lamp is still in the room. Just because you’ve had a laugh at its expense doesn’t mean it’s been nullified. In fact, you’ve called attention to it, and despite the conventional wisdom, I find that rarely actually fixes the problem. If KH2 is about to make a grand point about Sora wasting the time not following the main plot, that doesn’t suddenly mean that KH2 hasn’t wasted its time not following the main plot! Works that demonstrate their problems only to confront them are running a lot of risks but can have far greater returns. KH2 is on wobbly ground, and if it doesn’t resolve itself, both soon and in a spectacular narrative commentary, it won’t be enough. A weak commentary will not make up for several days’ play (to repeat: 25 hours!) worth of openly irrelevant content.

As I said in Halloween Town, KH2’s core problem is that it’s trying to do too much. I worry my true answer to the question “which of these two is KH2’s true side” is going to be: “an inconsistent mash in a vain attempt to do both.”

But let’s wait and see.

Sora, Donald and Goofy whisper to one another that they should jump into Saïx’s portal behind him (something that, funnily enough, we’ll see another character do later in the game), but Saïx has good ears, and warns them not to do so. “Do you want to end up like Riku?” he asks. Saïx has said the magic word, and Sora stands around stunned as Saïx leaves.

kh2-2016-05-16-12h24m52s414“Do you want to end up like Riku?” Hm. How to approach this? It’s still not clear to me whether or not KH2 is aware that Riku’s identity as “Ansem” is obvious to every KH1 veteran from age 8 and up. Let’s pretend for a minute that the devs are aware the audience knows what’s up with Riku. What is Saïx saying here, both to the audience and to Sora? Saïx seems to be discussing either exposure to the Darkness of the dark corridor, or he’s discussing meddling with the Organization’s plans. It’s hard to say, because the game seems to conclude both at different times.  Towards the end of the game, Sora suddenly concludes – with no basis other than Saïx’s statement right here – that Riku has been captured by the Organization! There’s no other way of explaining Sora’s sudden conclusion unless he was referring to this line of dialogue here.  But in the next world, Sora begins saying (again with no other prompting), that “it looks like Riku and the King” are in the dark realm!

But what is Saïx saying to the audience?  If the audience knows Riku is Ansem, he’s saying that either the Darkness or the Organization turned him into Ansem, while if the audience doesn’t know he’s Ansem, he’s saying the Darkness or the Organization… what?  Killed him?  Captured him?  Sora seems to think Riku was captured, but is that based on this dialogue here?  If we were supposed to read “Captured him” as the leading possibility, I think the writers are being a teensy bit presumptuous! Did something get screwed up in the localization? Gettin’ real tired of asking that!

kh2-2016-05-16-12h26m11s593Saïx leaves during Sora’s confusion, and Sora starts moping. Just then, Seifer interrupts, ordering Sora to leave town. C’mon Seifer. Don’t be rude! He apologizes, in a manner of speaking, by running up to the trio with a terrible run animation. He then shoves the Struggle trophy into Goofy’s hands, saying “This goes to the strongest guy in Twilight Town.” And congratulations to Goofy.

Just then, Pence runs up, and asks if you know Kairi. Sora practically busts a gut when he hears Kairi’s name. We’re lucky he wasn’t injured. Pence says that you had better hurry to the station, accidentally getting your hopes up. The way he phrases his request, it sounds as though Kairi is waiting for Sora, but she’s not. It’s an innocent mistake. At the station, Hayner and Olette tell you that Kairi was here, but Axel found her first. She’s been kidnapped after all, and Pluto ran after her. This means that, design-wise, her escape was just a device to get you to Twilight Town, as the devs could have easily kidnapped her directly, without this interim stop. Better than nothing, I suppose – and I would know, since “nothing” has been our motivation for most of the game so far. Sora is so upset that he finally remembers he’s carrying Kairi’s charm, which hasn’t come up since CoM.

While this is happening, Goofy has been carrying the trophy, solely so it can come up right this instant, when Sora starts shouts in anger and Goofy trips and falls on his face. This causes the crystals to be knocked off the trophy, each one ending up in the hands of their owners from digital Twilight Town, with Sora picking up Roxas’ Water Crystal. Now you can see why I was originally confused about the distribution of Crystals in the Prologue: Sora’s name means “Air,” so it’s weird that Roxas got the Water Crystal. In this situation, it may represent Sora longing for Kairi (the water character), but as Sora holds it up, we see a memory-flash of Roxas. As a result, I think the introspective symbolism might have worked better of Sora were looking at the Air crystal.

kh2-2016-05-16-12h27m04s149Just then, the—uuuuukkkkhhhhh. My sinuses were not supposed to make that sound. The Crystal reveals itself as another gate key. Why is there a gate key here that unlocks NOTHING. That’s two in a row. Yes, this sequence unlocks a new episode on another world, but that’s not what the gate keys were supposed to do! They unlock tunnels in space! The devs keep confusing the “game progress” with physical progress.

Either the devs are just consistently incompetent on this one plot point, or this is a sign that the “gate keys” were supposed to be something actually relevant to the plot at some point in development. You can just picture Nomura writing “keyhole” on the script and thinking “I’ll come up with something important later on,” but he never did. KH1’s Keyholes had a sense of mystery about them, and most critically, they weren’t tied to Sora’s actual physical progress between worlds – the Navi Gummies they dropped were hackneyed, but technically unrelated to the Keyholes themselves. The KH2 gates are supposed to be tunnels in space, but we’ve unlocked two tunnels that don’t really exist. At this point, I’m starting to get more mad at Yen Sid pretending they were important in the first place than I am mad at the gate keys for not being important in the follow-up!

kh2-2016-05-16-12h27m42s535It’s pretty clear, if we step out of the narrative for a moment, that the plot is only advancing because Sora is clearing stages in a video game. We all understand that, even me with my ranting. But by making the gate keys in the way they did, Square Enix accidentally formalized that relationship: the plot is not advancing because of natural plot developments, the plot itself is advancing because Sora cleared Stage 1-2 and is going to move on to 1-3. When Chip and Dale pop up on the screen after this world and explain where you should go next, they might as well have said:

if twilightTownRevisitCleared == true

while Sora, Donald and Goofy all smile and nod like this were a thing human beings say.

The lack of self-awareness is shocking, and not just because this ruins suspension of disbelief. It’s baffling enough that the game seems to feel obligated to both formalize the gate key sequence as part of the narrative and to forget it exists, but that’s just the starter. The real kicker (at least for me) is that CoM spoke out against this exact kind of formulaic narrative. Kingdom Hearts 2 is embracing the exact problem CoM was arguing against. And after all these hours with KH2, aren’t we all surprised?

kh2-2016-05-16-12h28m16s402This assumption that gameplay equals story automatically is so bad that the entire game to date lacks almost all evidence of the main plot. Riku and the King are mentioned in one line a world for about half the worlds we’ve been to and none of the others. The Organization has shown up on two of the worlds we’ve been to, and none of the others. And there’s something about Pete running around for Maleficent, but that doesn’t really tie the plot together, as not only is it incredibly loose and episodic, but it’s about to be completely dropped. But let’s set aside the fact that it’s about to be completely dropped. Let’s take a look at the Pete plot.  Does it really hold KH2 together?  Are we implying that KH2 is a coherent narrative because there’s a Mickey Mouse villain in the background, ignoring the orders of the villain from the previous game and with no connection between his actions on one world and another? Indeed, Pete’s actions only seem to have consequences on Timeless River when Maleficent fires him… after which the game erases those consequences. I feel like arguing that “KH2’s first half is coherent because of cameos from a background villain” is about as solid as a film being declared “a Christmas movie” because there’s snow.  Some people are going to go for it, but me…?

And again: the Pete plot is about to be entirely dropped. The game has built a shoddy puppet show out of scrap wood and socks, played it for twenty hours, then shouted “Just kidding! We’re wasting your time,” and set it all on fire. In fact, let’s gather all the KH2 veterans together and do a little thought experiment. If you took Kingdom Hearts 2 and shredded the script so that Sora wakes from the pod and walks directly into this scene with Saïx, removing every Disney world in the process but leaving Hollow Bastion in place (perhaps it happens after the scene with Saïx), how much of the main plot would actually be damaged?

I can only think of one plot element that would be damaged by skipping the Disney worlds so far: Xaldin. In fact, I almost find myself longing for that efficient, alternate universe game!

kh2-2016-05-16-12h28m51s716To bring this back home: the reason this seems to have happened is because KH2’s development staff is convinced that, against CoM’s credo, a video game structure with no meat is substantial enough to carry and justify a narrative. The credo seems to be: “KH2 so far has had a worthwhile plot because it is a video game,” end statement. The reason Sora gets these stupid gate keys at the last minute of every world, even when it doesn’t make sense, is because the KH2 dev staff thinks going to a Mario stage, fighting enemies and hitting the flag pole constitute an entire literary narrative in and of itself.

It’s not hard to imagine a player forgetting the main plot of KH2 entirely as they run through twenty or so hours of the game with almost no mention and certainly no interaction with the main plot in any way – and I don’t have to imagine it, because it’s happened. The complaint even made its way into at least one contemporary review!

kh2-2016-05-16-12h29m28s626

…No, it’s not!

Earlier on, I mentioned that KH2 using “episodes” to refer to story parcels was very apt, and there are two reasons for that. One is the ways in which TV terminology is apt is how KH2 descends into early 2000s anime shounen tropes, which will become more obvious toward the end, but suffice to say it’s obvious this game took a lot on influence from TV of the era. No complaints there, just a statement. But even more obvious is the structure. KH2 is almost purely episodic, perhaps like an 80s toy commercial series like Transformers, or more precisely, an early 2000s shounen anime with copious filler, as was the melody of that era of shounen. Pete is an anime villain of the week, here to play card games, mildly inconvenience Naruto, or further entrench the misery of the Elric brothers, with no real connection to the main plot. The plots are bottled, and in a baffling decision, all the bottles are lined up at the start of the game, instead of mixing them up with with episodes featuring real substance!  Argh!

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – The Incredible FLYING Lioness!
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – The Emptiest Grind


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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2 comments

  1. I think the new road is “the strange reading” that they keep mentioning after this part, since this is the last road unlocked in the non optional parts, Hundred acre is fine because it can be interpreted as completely healing the book, Atlantica has no excuse.

    1. Hm, that may be, but as I ultimately point out, the strange reading doesn’t actually lead to a gate either (it leads to the portal of dark in the artificial mansion basement), but that is better than nothing!

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