Things get started at Hollow Bastion when Sora sees a troupe of Heartless and a separate troupe of Nobodies right in front of them. “Looks like there’s more Heartless now,” Goofy says, based on a group that’s about the same size as the groups that normally attack him. Sora suggests they find their friends, and Goofy says, “I think they’re at Merlin’s!” That’s not unreasonable, but between these two lines, it sounds like Goofy’s script-reading has come to knock Jiminy off his psychic perch! We’re in for some entertainment tonight!
You head down toward the suburbs, only to find a familiar face waiting by the stairs. But forget about that guy: let’s talk to Scrooge McDuck and his baffling dessert business that has nothing to do with the plot but has in-engine cutscenes all the same. Not that he has anything to say this time, making the cutscene even more baffling than the others. Oh well, let’s talk to our old friend back from his far-away trip: Cloud, who got here god knows how. Like Yuffie, he is now dressed in his Advent Children costume.
“I’ll get him,” Cloud says, in response to Sora’s hello. Personally, I avoid people who start conversations like this. But as we’ve shown in the past, Sora is not me. “This time we settle it,” Cloud continues to ramble with no sign that he’s actually noticed we’re here. “Me, and the one who embodies all the darkness in me.” Personally, I avoid people who talk in opaque and stilted riddles, too.
No one… really knows what to say about this, and I can’t blame Donald when all he can think of saying is, “I thought you looked kinda different, Cloud.” And then Cloud says: “If I do, it’s his fault.” Wow, uh, that’s great Cloud but I just remembered I left the house on at my stove, so uh, goodbye! But once again, Sora is not me, and he asks who Cloud is talking about. Of course he’s talking about Sephiroth, and Cloud is looking for him. To my surprise, Sora asks what Sephiroth looks like. Hrm, up until now I had assumed the Platinum Match from KH1 was canon? It seems the fight between Sephiroth and Cloud was canon (Sephiroth mentions fighting previously, at least) but Sora had to fight Sephiroth to trigger that scene! I guess you can do whatever you want with this information: de-canonize entirely, or maybe… assume that Sora never learned Sephiroth’s name? CoM and KH2 are so adamant that Sora fought the Unknown in KH1:FM that I really don’t know how to read this ambiguity about Sephiroth.
As you try to leave, Cloud keeps rambling at you, and I’m starting to feel bad for the guy and I’m not sure it’s in the way the narrative intends. “Be careful. He messes with your head, makes you think darkness is the only way.” Geeze, I don’t want to feed this guy to Sephiroth, I want to give him a stuffed animal, counselling and some dubious ice cream. And I’m not sure how I’m intended to read the scene, either. Kingdom Hearts’ friendship norm would imply I’m supposed to feel bad for him, but I can’t help but suspect that I’m supposed to feel angsty and vengeful. It’s hard to tell which corporate mandate is pushing through here.
Just then Aerith appears and Cloud immediately turns to leave. You might recall that these two met at the end of KH1, and I suppose it didn’t go so well. Aerith stops him, but he insists he doesn’t “want [her] involved.” They have a strange conversation we’re clearly not supposed to be understand in full, where Aerith suggests she’s more concerned that Cloud will leave again (it’s hard to tell if she actually means “leave” or “die”) and Cloud insists he’ll always come back. Finally, she says he should go “get things settled,” saying she hopes his light will always lead him back. Wow, “get things settled.” I’ve never heard anyone talk about murder in such a chipper voice. But when he leaves, she admits to Sora that she’s not sure Cloud will be okay. I still don’t think letting him go is a good idea, but I’ll get into that during the FFVII journal if I get into it anywhere, so for the time being, you do you, Aerith.
Sora and the others descend into the Borough, where they’re attacked by Bookmasters, a new kind of mage Heartless wielding a giant book. According to Jiminy, they’re supposed to resemble the bell wizards from KH1 when casting elemental spells, but I don’t see it myself. The Bookmasters can be very handy for drops, since they control both valuable Energy Crystals and the Akashic Record: a shield for Goofy. He just… picks up their giant book and uses it as a shield. I think I saw a Mythbusters about this once!
Down at Merlin’s House, Cid is hard at work at the ramshackle computer they have set up in a corner. He tells the trio to “get yourselves over to Leon’s,” which is not very helpful because Leon doesn’t have a set location in the final game (no, I have not let this revision theory go. The statement “Go to Leon’s” would have made sense in KH1’s Traverse Town. Now that we’re back to one of the worlds that seem to have undergone considerable revision, I’m going to be pointing them out all over again). Yuffie explains that they found Ansem’s computer in the ruins of Hollow Bastion, and Cid suspects it will have information about “the Heartless and the Organization.” And the Organization? No matter who you think wrote the Ansem Reports, they were clearly written before the Nobodies even started to arrive on the scene. I can’t imagine Ansem would have risked coming to Hollow Bastion just to update his blog about some shitheads in cloaks!
Sora asks if the computer might have information about “the dark realm” because “It looks like that’s where Riku and Kairi are.” Donald then mentions the King. I’ve already discussed this line in the last segment. It seems Sora really misinterpreted Saïx’s hint about Riku, and he is going to get loud about it. But wait! I could understand Riku being in the dark realm, and Donald is assuming that the King is with Riku. That’s all fine. But Kairi? Axel took Kairi into what Sora already knows from Yen Sid is a corridor through the Darkness, that they walk through with protective cloaks because it’s so caustic. The idea of imprisoning someone inside the darkness itself isn’t just a bad idea, but it’s not justified by any of the evidence that’s presented itself to Sora. The Corridors are used to go places. As the script stands, it’s like losing track of a friend on your way home from a get-together, and insisting that they’re on “the train” for the next three days instead of checking at their home, their friends’ homes, their work or school, or their grandmothers’. No, just… “the train.” Because they left on the train, you see. Days ago. Even if we assumed Axel might be holding Kairi in a Corridor of Darkness, that’s still just one option among many and there’s no reason for Sora to be acting like it’s the leading theory.
After Sora and Donald ask about information on Riku, Kairi and the King being on the computer, Cid says: “See for yourselves!” and it’s clear he and Yuffie are hiding something. With no other directions but to “go to Leon’s,” you walk in the only corridor this corridor-driven game and hope for the best.
En route… how do I put this… three small bird-winged fairy women appear behind you, based on childish versions of the cast of Final Fantasy X-2. Just take that in for a minute.
As in X-2, these three are called the Gullwings, except now their name is literal. There’s Yuna, originally from FFX, voiced by her original voice actress Heddy Burress, who is otherwise probably best known for 1990s TV series Boston Common. Next is industry legend Tara Strong replaying the role of Rikku from FFX. Tara Strong is known for Barbara Gordon, Raven from Teen Titans, and also… everything. Every single thing. Ever. Even just listing her Disney connections would be asking too much of me, though a sample includes: the character of Hazel from various Tarzan spin-offs, two of Ariel’s sisters in The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, the character of Porcupine from latter-day Winnie the Pooh segments… really, the fact that she’s only in these three Square Enix titles is what’s really surprising, since she seems to be everywhere else. Rounding out the pack we have Paine from FFX-2, played by Gwendoline Yeo, who has an extensive history with the X-Men franchise in all sorts of roles, was also on Desperate Housewives and The Clone Wars, and played one of my favourite minor Superman characters, Mercy Graves, on The Batman. For a Disney connection, she played Yuna’s grandmother (Obaa) in Stitch!. No, not this Yuna’s grandmother, another character named… oh forget it.
Speaking of names that are too similar, a brief word about Rikku. Apparently, early plans for KH1 had Rikku as part of Leon’s group, in the place currently held by Yuffie. It seems she was taken out for the reason you suspect: her name sounds exactly like Riku’s. So they replaced her with someone who looks a lot like Kairi? In a funny way, this explains why Leon’s group ended up triple-stacked with FFVII characters, since one of them was actually supposed to be from X. It doesn’t fully explain the triple-stacking, as I’m still not sure why they were double-stacked in the first place, but it’s more explanation than we had! If you think about it, they could have traded Cid for any of a dozen other Cids and avoided any double-dipping to begin with!
As to the Gullwings… wow. I haven’t met any of the FFX characters during the Marathon (we’re playing Dirge of Cerberus at the time of publication), so I can’t vouch for their personalities, but I imagine they weren’t quite like this: childish, chipper, incapable of keeping a secret, and mercenary to the core. The cast of FFLI have met their avian counterparts. As to why they were turned into fairy-birds, it seems from interviews that the developers just thought it would be fun? As the journal says: “[A] teenybopping trio of friend neighbourhood something-or-others.” You’re a work of art, invisible cricket.
We’re now approaching two pages written about the Gullwings, so I should probably tell you that they barely even stay on screen. They ask you what Leon’s up to, Sora politely answers, and they’re so excited at accomplishing this basic information with no specifics whatsoever that they let slip that they’re spying on you on behalf of Maleficent before teleporting away. You can tell this trip to Hollow Bastion is going to be, uh, interesting.
Along the way to the Bastion, you run across another new Heartless: Armoured Knights. Despite KHX later making a huge deal out of these guys (they were frequent special event guest stars in the browser version of KHX), they’re pathetic popcorn enemies here in KH2. They’re barely threatening on their own right and like any good popcorn enemy from a shooter game, they possess a power that’s more valuable to you than to them. You see, by using a reaction command on the Armoured Knights, Sora takes to the sky, actually flying around the room and into enemies, doing absurd damage. I barely even need to say that the Armoured Knight did nothing to justify Sora flying through the air like a bird. This is definitely one of the more preposterous Reaction Commands out there, the kind that make players like me look back at the Reaction Commands system and scowl.
You’ll also encounter Morning Stars, a fairly dangerous enemy as KH2 enemies go. Morning Stars are a giant gummi-looking sphere with arms, legs and a tiny head (cleverly, KHX used a Morning Star reskin to create a gummi-themed enemy for a special event, but we’ll hold off on that until KHX). Morning Stars change their strategy at half HP. I’m not sure how this is possible, but in some playthroughs I’ve found them to be harder in the second half, while on other playthroughs I’ve found them harder in the first half! In the early stage, the Morning Star can swing around in huge arcs, very hard to dodge and fairly dangerous, but in the latter stage it tries to jump on you and cause area damage, which would be even more dangerous if you don’t catch it with a Reaction Command. I think the trouble with my modern play style is that I favour air attacks more than I did in the past. As a consequence, I jump over their attacks in the first phase, and am never on the ground to use Reaction Commands in the second!
One other weird thing about the road through the Bailey is that there’s a skateboard lying around the moment you enter. Typically, KH2 scatters these things after you clear a world (Twilight Town aside), but here it is in a new room? I guess you have technically cleared the world during your first visit but it seems like a minor oversight. This probably irritates no one but me, I suppose my issue is that it’s too easy to just breeze past without meeting the new Heartless, which I feel is exactly why the skateboards are delayed on every other world!
You head through the Bailey’s now-open gate to the Bastion’s Postern, where Aerith is waiting for you. Guess she got ahead while you were chatting with Cid and the flying spies. She tells you that Leon is working on the computer inside, and that “the King is very interested in [the computer].” Donald and Goofy are thrilled to hear the King is here (after what happened with Kairi, it’s hard not to share their joy), but Aerith tells you there’s no sign of Riku.
Inside the Bastion, you navigate a section of the lower halls filled with broken piping and blocked passageways, which looks very little like any room you’ve seen in KH1, and I’m not sure why KH2 is filled with such unfamiliar architecture when a few similar motifs would have helped make the two games feel more aligned. As you enter the corridors, you might catch sight of a surprise guest climbing along the ceiling behind you: it’s Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, and he crawls out of sight so fast you might not notice him on the grimy SD versions! Stitch is voiced here by his original voice actor, Chris Sanders, who is actually Stitch’s animator and writer! He also worked as an animator and writer through the Disney Renaissance, and more recently with DreamWorks on How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods.
In the halls, you’ll discover a new Heartless called a Surveillance Robot, which like the Armoured Knight has a Reaction Command that makes them liabilities to every other Heartless in a half-mile. And they both have really stilted, boring names, what’s up with that? Using the Robot’s lasers to burn your way through the corridors, you’ll find the construction suddenly changes from the dirty basement tile to a more refined white tile, and find yourself in an office. This is probably supposed to give you the impression that you left the basement and entered the main bastion, but personally I get the impression that the room was built here in isolation, which is more than a little odd (I know you later discover another room, but even taking the two together, they seem to be an island of furnished rooms among drippy basements!). The walls in the office are covered in books and diagrams about the nature of the heart and the universe, and looming down on you from the back of the wall is a painting of Ansem. There are no signs of Leon, the King, or any other exits.
As Sora and the others are taking a look around, they’re interrupted by a shout at the door. They turn, and in walks Tifa Lockhart from FFVII, and like every other FFVII character she is wearing her Advent Children costume. Tifa is voiced by her Advent Children, Dissidia and Dirge of Cerberus voice actress, Rachael Leigh Cook, who is probably best known for taking a kitchen apart with a frying pan in a 1998 “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” PSA. Oh yeah. If you haven’t seen it yourself, you’ve probably seen the references. These days she stars in the TV show Perception and she has an extended relationship with Old Republic-era Star Wars, and with Robot Chicken.
And speaking of people known for destroying rooms, that’s exactly what Tifa starts doing! Well, not immediately. At first, she’s asks if you’ve seen Cloud, though she only describes him as “a guy with spiky hair.” The game makes a joke that she could easily mean Sora, and it’s legitimately funny, but I can’t help but complain even as I laugh. It’s the kind of horrible buzzkill I am. My issue is… everyone in Hollow Bastion has hair like that. It’s a bit like asking: “Have you seen a guy with skin?” She then begins examining the room, checking things out and punching and kicking things for no reason. It’s clear she thinks there’s some kind of secret passage in here, but her lack of explanation (and reasoning, for that matter) just turns this into a surreal comedy (thankfully, that seems to be the point!). First the Gullwings and now this! Tifa ultimately seems to find a passage, but gives up on trying to open it almost without any fuss at all! After this, she leaves, and it’s only after she’s gone that Leon shows his face. I can’t help but wonder if he was deliberately avoiding her quiet rampage.
You know, I don’t want to undermine the gag, because Tifa going over this room with a fine-toothed comb is pretty funny, but you have to wonder how she got past Aerith, who could have answered her questions about Cloud.