Kingdom Hearts 2 – Tragedy, Clearly

kh2-2016-06-13-03h01m49s672Demyx collapses, his Arpeggio dissolving into water as he goes. At first he just seems a little let down, but rapidly comes to the realization that he is dying and starts screaming as he dissolves into water. It’s actually a little much, especially when Sora defiantly shouts out to the Organization to send another member to be killed. Yikes! Calm down, you little vampire! Killing Demyx rewards you with the Blizzara upgrade, alongside Donald’s Blizzard Boost ability.

The party is about to move off when Mickey finally catches up to them and stops them from going forward. And, ugh, now we’re here. I can’t think of any Kingdom Hearts fan that actually likes this scene. This whole world has been an up and down roller coaster with good Space Paranoids integration and bad melodrama and good slapstick comedy and bad plot twists and a good boss fight and a bad, bad, very bad scene we’re about to ugh look here we go.

“Aha! There you are!” says the King. YOU WERE THREE SECONDS AWAY.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h05m25s344Mickey doesn’t behave like a jerk for long. He admits to having made a mistake when he ordered you to leave the world, and says that yeah, you should go help your friends. But just then, we pan up to see a Dusk fighting a Surveillance Robot atop the canyon walls that flank every 3D game ever made. The Robot blows off a large chunk of rock which heads flying towards the King. Goofy, loyal protector, pushes Mickey out of the way. The rock clocks Goofy on the head instead, and he doesn’t get back up.

Everyone is mortified, except… KH2 once again shows its inability to build up to anything with the proper pace. Here’s what’s going on. You’re not going to believe this: you’re supposed to think Goofy is dead. However the writers don’t seem to have been allowed to say the word “dead.” Sadly for them, most of the audience knows they wouldn’t really kill Goofy. As a result, Sora, Donald and Mickey see this scene, and react assuming that Goofy is dead without conveying that sentiment to the audience, each other, or… checking on him, at all. I mean, they go to his side but since he’s not dead, they clearly didn’t do much checking, right?  As a result, the only way we the audience can work out that Goofy is supposed to be dead is by watching the characters to react as though Goofy is dead, and they can barely do this because of the censorship.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h06m12s342(This is all complicated by Donald’s baffling line “I’m sorry about the ice cream,” which doesn’t seem to relate to anything that actually took place in-game. I know I say it all the time but… maybe a remnant from an old draft of the script? I’ve seen people scratching their heads about that to this day.)

I will say that unlike Sora at the keyboard, the character reactions here are fairly genuine! I believe that if Goofy really did die, Donald and Sora would probably act the way they’re acting! I do have a little more trouble with Haley Joel’s line than Tony Anselmo’s, but that may because Tony gets to talk juuuust before my brain says: “This is irredeemably stupid,” and Haley talks immediately after. Oh, and did I mention that when Goofy is conked on the head, it plays a cartoon sound effect? This is irredeemably stupid.

And then Mickey says “They’ll pay for this.” And once again, it’s like the “Hey fellas, did someone mention the Door to Darkness?” Wayne Allwine is doing just fine with the line. It’s best he could have delivered, the trouble is that it’s just too much to see Mickey Mouse swearing righteous vengeance. It wraps around from sad and plunges screaming into the ground as a punchline. And just when I think I might defend the line, Mickey dramatically throw off his black cloak. That… that was the point where it became too much for me. Now is when I start laughing.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h07m05s219Mickey runs off in a righteous fury, Donald runs off in a blind fury, and Sora hesitates, and follows in a state of mixed emotions but definitely favouring anger. In the only touch here that I really do like, the game announces: “The following party members have surrendered their equipment.” That’s… actually kind of cutting! That was the only moment where I thought they might have meant it… not that Goofy was dead (that’s preposterous) but perhaps that he was going to be replaced with another party member. Notice the red herrings: this time we saw Mickey wants to join us, we saw three people leaving the scene, and even the game seems to say Goofy is out-of-play. The game is faking that Mickey is going to replace Goofy! It’s been a while since mechanics advanced the narrative quite like this (not even CoM really played that particular card). Strangely close to effective!

kh2-2016-06-13-03h08m45s473Sora heads down the slope towards the canyon and Maleficent’s army, but is cut off by a pack of Heartless and their portable force field. Just then, Yuffie arrives to help you. This is a great stretch of gameplay, as Sora teams up with Final Fantasy character after Final Fantasy character: Yuffie, Leon, Tifa and Cloud. Once again, the game is just reversing their Underdrome combat data. Another nice narrative touch is how everyone seems so happy to help you, especially Yuffie. More insightful characters like Leon and Tifa seem to understand that you need to get down the slope for whatever reason. It’s the perfect response I’d want from them in a situation like this where they don’t know what’s happened (Yuffie) but gradually recognize what’s going on from Sora’s implied mood. If Goofy’s “death” had been more believable, this realistic characterization from the peripheral characters might even be emotional! There are a lot of lessons here on how to have NPCs communicate outside of dialogue sequences, and on how to give emotion to temporarily or permanently silent protagonists as other forms of gameplay continue. A lot of those lessons are about how not to do things… but not all of them!

By the way, there’s a bothersome number of Morning Stars when you fight alongside Cloud. The game tries to give you a number of Sentry Robots and Armoured Knights to “help” defeat the Morning Stars with their reaction commands, but if you clear them out by accident, the Morning Stars are going to be a real pain.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h08m09s697

*grin*

Finally, at the bottom of the hill, you find Mickey and Donald waiting. It seems they’ve burned off enough anger that Donald has to outright catch his breath and Mickey has realized that Sora probably has to talk to someone. Or at least, that’s how I want to read his dialogue. In terms of expression, Donald is frowning but Mickey’s fish-face is locked in a permanent smile. C’mon animators. A talk between Mickey and Sora could have been emotional, but it’s probably for the best that KH2 chooses this moment to call a halt to its entire charade. Goofy just walks down the hill, probably having gotten up a few seconds after Sora left. And in a surprise move, the umpire declares that the Idiot Ball World Series must carry into overtime!

I do love how Goofy points out that “Gawrsh, Yer Majesty, I get bumped on the head all the time.” This reunion blesses you with the Cura spell, which has a wider radius for healing your teammates. Unfortunately, unlike other –ra level upgrades, this doesn’t come with a Cure Plus for Donald, whose Curing abilities are about as good as they’re ever going to be.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h10m16s523Now that that’s done, you have to re-equip Goofy, which is stupid (they do, at least, give him his Shield back. I’d have sworn Vanilla KH2 gave all his equipment back, but maybe I’m remembering wrong). You can also open a nearby chest to find some Torn Pages. Geeze, the Heartless didn’t take this set very far, did they?

If you talk to Donald in this Safe Zone, he’ll give you some advice for when “we get split up like we did earlier.” Oh game, aren’t you sneaky.

From here, our foursome proceeds into a huge open area called The Great Maw. There, St. Peter’s character appears on a hillside and finally unhoods, revealing Xemnas for the first time. He essentially resembles Ansem, Seeker of Darkness from KH1, except he still has his original skin tone and different hair. (By the way, this name swap is why I and other members of the fandom address the first game’s villain as “Ansem, Seeker of Darkness,” appellation and all. It’s completely unwieldy, but the name swap leaves us with no choice.) The Heartless freeze at the sight of Xemnas, the implication being that his will is so strong that he’s contesting Maleficent for the control of the entire army. This is underlined in the scene after next.

Seeing Xemnas’ face, Mickey finally remembers where he first saw Xehanort, Xemnas’ original self, very long ago. Mickey flashes back to when he first met Ansem the Wise. It seems their professional chat between Kings has gotten quite friendly, as they are even sharing some sea-salt ice cream together. Still, their conversation is dire, and doesn’t go quite how it was reported in KH1’s Ansem Report… but it also doesn’t match Ansem the Wise’s Secret Report from here in KH2! In the flashback, Ansem the Wise says that he really was intrigued by the idea of testing the Darkness and the Hearts of the Worlds, and even has hearts in jars, but claims that he was a good enough person to swallow the urge. Indeed, he’s worried he’s responsible for the Heartless and is taking on a lot of the blame. But if you look back on the Secret Report, you see Ansem saying that never wanted to know about the darkness and claimed no responsibility for the Heartless. It seems Ansem the Wise (aka DiZ) lied to himself in the Secret Reports! Could he not face the truth, or did he feel the need to present himself as “better” than the apprentices that betrayed him?

kh2-2016-06-13-03h10m59s281Just then, a knock on the door, and Xehanort steps in. Remember that FM+ scene we just saw, with the voice-over? This is the original, Vanilla source of that voice-over. Xehanort wants to continue his experiments, and Ansem orders them shut down. I suppose I should describe Xehanort himself. He looks much like his later selves, though he’s wearing a suit-cum-labcoat, and his eyes aren’t yellow. He’s very polite, but he walked in at the worst possible time. “I FORBID IT!” Ansem shouts, based on new information he hasn’t shared with his apprentice.  And don’t forget that for the audience, this is moments after a scene that was casual and friendly. It’s just another instance of overacting from this long stretch of the game. It’s so reductive of the issues involved that I feel less like this is Mickey’s flashback and more like it’s Xemnas’, because it feels like the memories of a biased kid explaining why their dad is a meanie: they know the base points but scrubbed out the nuance.

In the present, Mickey announces Xemnas’ former name and charges after him. The trio moves to follow, but its their turn to be cut off from the plot by Heartless! Maleficent’s army reaches the Great Maw and closes it off from three of its four sides. Without exaggeration and in shocking defiance of KH2’s rotten crowd shots to date, thousands of Heartless converge from every direction. And now The Battle of Hollow Bastion plays its strongest card in this game of “expectation versus reality” that it’s been playing with the player for the past hour or so. The game is going to jump-cut to Mickey and Xemnas. Every atom of KH2 prior to this point screams that the game is going to jump-cut to Mickey and Xemnas. But the shot lingers. Sora, Donad and Goofy glance at one another, and he throws them a thumbs up. The sound playing in the background is “Showdown at Hollow Bastion,” a special event track for exactly this instance, and it marks our transition to the final disc of the soundtrack. The jump-cut is coming. They’re going to cut to Mickey and Xemnas. They have to cut to cutscene, they’ve proven time and time again that they don’t have the processing power to simulate so much as a town full of NPCs! But before the player has a chance to adjust their expectations, Sora completes his death-charge, and plunges the player into one of the most iconic moments in the PS2’s entire library: The Battle of 1000 Heartless.

kh2-2016-06-11-01h55m44s947Remember when Nintendo was using the Super Mario 128 tech demo to show off the GameCube and showed a whole 128 3D Marios on the screen at one time? Wow, a whole hundred and twenty-eight! While KH2 does a great job of selling this sequence all on its own, to get the full experience of The Battle of 1000 Heartless, you put yourself back in 2006. You have to keep in mind that this just… shouldn’t have been possible. I’m not impressed by flashiness easily. The Battle of 1000 Heartless succeeds only on a base level by having 1000 Heartless on the screen at the time. The rest is music, setup, and the key fact that wow, this wonderful thing, properly set up and all, should not have happened, and yet it’s happening!

And believe it or not, they had planned even more. An early trailer (which includes a lot of cut sequences), showed Wyverns and Behemoths in the original plan. In fact, this trailer shot somehow became the de facto shot for flashbacks to the Battle of Hollow Bastion in later games, despite the fact that it didn’t technically happen that way!

kh2-2016-06-13-03h12m55s532The battle itself is what you miiiiight have predicted if you had known this was coming. Maleficent’s army is made up entirely of Surveillance Robots and Armoured Knights, meaning this whole battle is you using reaction commands to wipe them out en masse, although Explosion in Vanilla can be very helpful and Limit Form is even moreso in FM+. You’re not in very much danger outside of Critical Mode, since the Reaction Commands will buy you time and breathing room to regenerate MP between Curas.

As you trim away at the hordes, closer observers might notice a few clever illusions in play: the game gives you the impression that there are more Heartless by stacking a few decorative Heartless outside the force field. As the battle goes on, these are gradually removed. It’s not clear to me whether these extra Heartless are moved into the active arena, or if they’re just a special effect to make it look like there are even more Heartless out there.  Other trick being used is the use of 2D sprites at a distance that “pop” into 3D up close, thanks to GrovyleTheThief for pointing that out to me!  It’s very clever!

One of the things I love about the Battle of 1000 Heartless is how well it survives a close mechanical reading. Sure the enemies are brainless and the reaction commands do everything for you, but look at that neat trick with the background enemies! Fight these two Heartless elsewhere, and then look at the way the game quietly manipulates the Heartless’ AI so that you are rarely ever without a Reaction Command. Sure, the reaction commands eliminate gameplay texture, but it’s not a lazy flat experience. It’s deliberate to help you get the full 1000 Heartless experience under the correct assumption that length would be more tedious (a third Heartless type, perhaps, might have helped jazz things up but probably would have devoured the memory). It’s a flat experience, sure, but one created by deliberate effort and I will always, always respect effort more than its lack.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h15m05s022If I could improve the sequence while keeping in mind the limits of the technology, I might have started slipping in other enemies as the crowd began to thin. And I think we all would have loved to see those Behemoths and Wyverns. Imagine if, maybe, after killing 500, a Behemoth rages through, squashes twenty of the others, and the others stay away until you’ve defeated it in a mini-boss fight? Or maybe have it show up at the end, since the end is pretty boring. You usually end up swatting away an Armoured Knight trapped in a corner, or using Thunder on one glitched into a wall. Have the Behemoth show up when only a small crowd is left and just make it a short battle to show how much Sora has grown since KH1! I think that’d be a nice capper, but what we have is already fantastic.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Boom
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Checkpoint and Save


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. For a second there I thought you were making a film reference with the “little vampire” comment, and was about to reply with “Wrong child actor, that was Jonathan Lipnicki”… 🙂

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