Kingdom Hearts 2 – Checkpoint and Save

kh2-2016-06-13-03h25m20s156Sora is completely exhausted as he and the others crawl out of the Great Maw. Together, they find Mickey and Xemnas facing off on a ledge overlooking Villain’s Vale. This is essentially the edge of the world as far as you need to be concerned – you cannot get any closer to Maleficent’s fortress. Hell, the manga essentially destroyed Villain’s Vale before Sora even arrives, and the plot didn’t change one bit!

As for Mickey and Xemnas, I can’t make up my mind: either Mickey and Xemnas have either been locked in a standoff for the past five minutes, or have just now caught up to one another after a long chase. Or maybe, you know, the developers forgot that any time passed at all.  KH2 – like a lot of Square Enix RPGs, I could link any number of places in the Marathon – has trouble recognizing that gameplay is anything more than empty stuffing between narrative, and in this case the stuffing is so empty that it acts like it took up no space at all. 

Sora shouts to Xemnas, demanding to know where Riku and Kairi are. It seems Xemnas hasn’t been keeping up with reports from his underlings, because he claims not to know anything about Kairi. Sadly, once we do catch up to Kairi, a giant plot hole will have swallowed her movements, so it’s hard to say if Xemnas is lying or not. Xemnas does know something about Riku, and he directs Sora to ask the King for answers. This finally opens Sora’s eyes to Mickey’s strange behaviour about Riku several scenes ago.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h27m09s806Knowing Sora will be momentarily distracted by this revelation, Xemnas turns to leave. Unfortunately, Mickey was not distracted, and he jumps into Xemnas’ portal before it disappears, leaving the trio behind and clueless as to Riku’s whereabouts. Thankfully, Axel has arrived to enlighten them on a thing or three, though as it happens, not that.

Axel starts by revealing Xemnas’ name to Vanilla players, but that’s old news to the rest of us so let’s just hurry along. Axel is a traitor to the Organization at this point, and happy to spill the beans on the Organization’s biggest plans. He says Sora’s been duped, and the Organization wants him to kill Heartless en masse. He reminds Sora – and the player – that every time the Keyblade destroys an Emblem Heartless, its artificial heart is freed, stopping the Heartless from regenerating. It seems the Organization’s plan has been to grab these emblem hearts and slap them together one by one. It’s a variant of the KH1 end game: they’re trying to gather a large number of hearts to create their own Kingdom Hearts.

It’s The Battle of Hollow Bastion’s last subversion of expectations, and it’s… not a bad twist. The devs are trying to use the Battle of 1000 Heartless to shock you, as you realize that you just gave the Organization 1000 extra hearts! But it’s not a great twist, either. In the end, I’ve just seen better plot twists that reveal the enemy has been using me all along. I hate to be this way about it, because the twist hasn’t done anything wrong, it’s just…

kh2-2016-06-13-03h31m31s664Remember my question in Twilight Town where I was wondering if Saïx’s taunt would explain why the devs had wasted the entire first half of the game fighting Heartless and pretending Pete was somehow involved in the plot even though he wasn’t? Well here’s our answer: the first half of the game was spent killing Heartless, so you’ve been helping the Organization this whole time.  Even though there was no sense of any sort of overarching plot! There are two prongs to the problem here. The first prong is the smaller one: I don’t really feel like I was manipulated by the Organization?  Sora has been fighting the Heartless for two games prior to this one, and thanks to the Organization being so hands-off, I don’t really feel like anything has changed.  Does that make sense?  Remember when Demyx suggested that they not interfere with Sora at all and everything would be fine?  They really didn’t have to do anything, and in essence, they didn’t do anything! It’s not a huge criticism, but certainly the plot could have been sharpened a little.

The more critical problem is this plot twist is being used to excuse the Organization’s absence from the plot, without fixing all of the other problems or acknowledging the fact that the Organization’s absence from the plot is itself a problem. It doesn’t account for the shoddy handling of Maleficent and Pete, the shoddy handling of the King and Riku, and I’ve already talked about how long the Organization has been absent from the plot back in Traverse Town!

In short, while I did feel the impact of this plot twist my first time through the game, it’s ultimately just one bandage on a body covered with cuts and scrapes. This plot twist fix just isn’t enough. If I think about it, nothing would have been enough, but I guess I was willing to pretend?

ffvi-2016-06-18-18h30m17s972Sora has been quiet this whole time, but that’s not because of the twist, oh no.  It’s because he’s realized that Axel is the man who kidnapped Kairi.  A one track mind, our Sora, like a slot car gummed with molasses. Axel responds to this accusation by politely re-introducing himself, which is hilarious. But when Sora asks where Kairi is, Axel gets suddenly sheepish, and starts apologizing for something, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Saïx. Axel flees and, perhaps recognizing that Axel is too far away to be stopped, Saïx stops Sora from leaving and/or capturing the traitor.

Saïx insists Axel will be punished, further entrenching this weird act he was doing in Twilight Town where he acted as though the Organization were a legitimate authority somehow protecting Sora. Now that we know what Saïx wants from Sora, you can see why Saïx has been treating Sora as though Sora works for him! Saïx tells Sora that the Organization has captured Kairi from Axel, though Sora keeps rambling about Kairi being in the realm of darkness, even though he has no basis for doing so. Perhaps he means to say “Your world, inside the realm of darkness” (it’s as fair a guess as anything), but remember that Sora was making this claim about Kairi being in the realm of darkness well before he learned the Organization had captured her, so it seems more likely that he once again means “Kairi is nonspecifically in the Realm of Darkness.” He’s just not listening, in one final sprint to take the World Series away from Leon.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h32m32s864Saïx asks how important Kairi is to Sora, and Sora chooses to demonstrate by kneeling to Saïx. Wow, okay, I think we knew she meant that much to him, but I’m still surprised. GrovyleTheThief tells me the particular bow has something to do with apologies in Japanese culture.  But Saïx’s response is surprising. He says: “In that case, the answer is no.” It seems he’s really bought into Xemnas’ “make Sora angry” lecture from FM+, because he’s convinced that keeping Kairi from Sora will make him angry, and that this is important for some reason. Saïx will repeat that he’s trying to make Sora angry in a later FM+ exclusive scene. The devs felt they needed two separate band-aids for this problem, because making Sora angry in this scene accomplishes nothing, as I said before, making Saïx’s actions seem inscrutable and pointless.  Arrrgh, this is all so poorly planned out!

The game is going to milk its plot twist a little longer. Saïx summons some Armoured Knights to see if he can get Sora to kill them for him. Okay, we’ve gone from stupid to a Dolores Umbridge-level of sado-dominance, this suddenly got interesting for some creepy reasons, but okay, if that’s how you want to roll it, Saïx. Saïx then makes a speech about the Heartless and how they’ll form Kingdom Hearts:

“Pitiful Heartless, mindlessly collecting hearts. And yet they know not the true power of what they hold. The rage of the Keyblade releases those hearts. They gather in darkness, masterless and free…until they weave together to make Kingdom Hearts. And when that time comes, we can truly, finally exist.”

It seems the Organization’s plan is to use their Kingdom Hearts to restore their own hearts!

kh2-2016-06-13-03h36m59s161Unfortunately this production of Walt Disney Presents 50 Shades of Grey is interrupted by Maleficent. She summons some Soldiers, because apparently she’s not interested in actually winning this fight. Sora panics, now afraid of having to destroy the Heartless since he knows doing so will help the Organization. Saïx just banishes the Soldiers and calls in Dusks. Some have argued this scene proves that Saïx is stronger than Maleficent, and while I don’t think they’re wrong… I’m just disappointed. This scene exists to Worf Maleficent and show how strong the Organization are. The second-most-powerful character in KH1 is being thrown under a bus to service the plot of KH2. I’m okay with the Organization besting Maleficent with numbers, or even if Xemnas had beaten her in a challenge of dark power, but I’m not okay with Xemnas’ underlings beating her one-on-one. This isn’t good writing, this is schoolyard pettiness. “Nuh uh, my bad guys can beat your bad guys!”

I don’t even care anymore. Do you want to know how bad this is? Maleficent raises a fire wall to save Sora’s ass, and tries to coax Sora to leave and find a way to stop the Organization. While she is doing so, she is taken down by Dusks. Dusks. I don’t even care that she’s distracted talking to Sora. This is Smaug the Dragon from The Hobbit being killed by three or four orcs to show Sauron from LotR is the bigger bad guy. Dr. Wily taken down by a highway crusher robot from Mega Man X, Pandora from Persona 1 taken out by a Cowardly Maya from P3! Maleficent isn’t dead, but god forbid Saïx lift a finger! Oh no, KH2 is so much better than KH1 that we can defeat KH1’s secondary villain with Koopa Troopas.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h37m47s015Thankfully the scene serves a secondary purpose: to show that even though Maleficent is sacrificing herself for him, Sora is still paralyzed by inaction. This time around, Sora has all the reasons in the world to be hesitant, so I don’t mind it. Besides, if you’re paying attention, Maleficent didn’t exactly give him an escape route. Her fire only really would have allowed him to take a dive off the cliff into Villain’s Vale, so maybe it only makes sense that he went nowhere.  Congrats, Mally!

Saïx gets back to business, and calls the Knights back. The Knights soon dogpile Sora and it looks like he’s going to die. At this point, my notes from my Retrospective playthrough simply read: “HOW STUPID ARE YOU.”  You know, I don’t remember who I was writing about?  Was I referring to Sora, for not leaving during the previous scene? For not pushing the soldiers bodily away without killing them? For not realizing what he will in a scene or two that allows him to kill Heartless again? Maybe I was writing about Donald and Goofy for not grabbing Sora and running? Or maybe the note was for Saïx, who is for some near-sighted reason trying to kill his only hope of completing Kingdom Hearts?

It’s probably that last thing, let’s be honest.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h39m51s757As things turn to their worst, Maleficent’s voice rings out and she seems to teleport our heroes away. Or rather… that’s what happens in a chronological narrative. Unfortunately, this is the point where KH2 descends into a complete and utter mish-mash of non-chronological scenes cut and pasted from their logical progression and into a spaghetti. Why? Were they trying to do something avant-garde in the middle of a largely chronological narrative?  Well, you see… erm, hold on.  Why does this exist? This sequence is so bad that I’m not even going to blame the editor. There must be a technical limitation involved here. The editing is so bad that there must be an external factor. I can’t imagine someone, even someone incompetent, did this on purpose. Let’s take a look.

These are the scenes in chronological order:

  1. Maleficent speaks and we see a vague, bright light.
  2. Leon and Cloud watch Sora and friends be teleported away from a distance, implying that this was what Maleficent was doing in #1.
  3. An FM+ exclusive scene.
  4. Sora finds himself with Donald and Goofy in a black room. After a few events, they are teleported out.
  5. The trio find themselves on the Gummi ship safe and sound. You receive a number of items, including Secret Report 1.

This is what actually happens:

  1. Maleficent speaks and we see a vague, bright light.
  2. The game gives you Secret Report 1, then refuses to let you see it until you’ve gone through every other following cutscene, which ironically ends with an item binge that could have held Secret Report 1 with no foul or harm.
  3. The game cuts to Leon and Cloud. Note once again that this scene confirms that Sora was teleported away during #1, which will be relevant in just a moment, as it nullifies all future tension.
  4. The FM+ exclusive scene.
  5. Sora, Donald and Goofy are in the Gummi Ship, where they talk about help coming from unexpected places.
  6. The game cuts back to Sora being dogpiled by Heartless, expecting you to be tense yet again about why he survived, even though scene #1 and #3 confirmed they were teleported away.
  7. The game repeats Maleficent’s telepathic speech about teleporting him.
  8. Maleficent teleports Sora away.
  9. The black room scene takes place.
  10. The trio finds themselves on the Gummi ship safe and sound, where they already were in Step 4.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h41m51s940Notice not just the choppy non-chronological nature of these scenes, but how much information is repeated. What happened here? Note also how the repetition outright spoils things from later in the sequence from the viewer’s perspective. The repetition might be there to help younger viewers understand what’s going on, but why not just show the scenes in order if you want younger viewers to understand?

Another idea is the “episode” structure of KH2 may have once been harsher, which is to say: maybe this game really was divided into episodes. If you think about it, this scrambled sequence could be split down the middle: with #4 from the second list as the end of one “episode” and #5 as the recap segment at the start of the next. I don’t know what that might imply about KH2’s original structure, but this scene feels like it was structured with a commercial break in the middle! Buy Square Enix brand Xtreme Starch! You can see a similar “commercial break” structure used deliberately in games by Shu Takumi, like Ace Attorney and especially Ghost Trick, but they’re used there to break up episodes, not non-chronological action scenes!

Let’s talk about the individual scenes. You’ve probably grasped that Maleficent teleported Sora into a black room to keep him from dying on the spot. Now that he’s safely off of Hollow Bastion, let’s address the FM+ scene that’s stuck in the middle. We’re almost done!

kh2-2016-06-13-03h42m27s288This FM+ scene is another throne room scene, featuring all the surviving Organization members. Saïx reports to the others that Axel spilled the beans to Sora. He and Robin Atkin Downes have a few lines, mostly so that you can remember Downes exists before he becomes relevant in a few worlds. Unfortunately, Vanilla KH2 had trouble remembering Downes exists even while he’s relevant, but FM+ is doing what it can. Xaldin also makes an appearance, and Xemnas tries to justify Saïx trying to kill Sora. Yes, but can you justify the writers trying to kill Sora? He’s going to try. In fact, he’s going to try to explain why the entire Organization seems to be trying to kill Sora even though they still need him. Xemnas says that “If [Sora] is to die so easily, he is of no use to us.” This is complete horsepuck and the writers should be ashamed for resorting to this kind of weak glue to hold the plot together. This line of reasoning only makes sense in light of some details from DDD, and I’m not willing to give FM+ that much credit. We all know that the Organization tries to kill Sora because “That’s what video games do,” and we also know that KH2 thinks “That’s what video games do” is a complete and valid plot in and of itself. FM+ can squirm through the consequences of the Vanilla version’s arrogance all it wants, but there’s nothing it can do to erase it.  All they accomplished was to highlight a serious problem!

So, okay, that black room scene. Sora, Donald and Goofy are teleported away by Maleficent and find themselves in a black void. Sora declares this must be the Realm of Darkness that he’s so eager to find, except funnily enough, it doesn’t match the appearance of the Realm in other games, including previous games or even other parts of this game, so I think it’s best to assume that Sora is simply mistaken. Where are we, then? Well… uh… well…

kh2-2016-06-13-03h43m44s092Sora starts shouting for Kairi and Riku. I don’t know where to start on this. Nevermind the fact that this probably isn’t the Realm of Darkness after all, let’s pretend for a minute that it is. Sora… buddy… the Realm of Darkness is the size of a universe, not a room. This is true even in KH2 – this wasn’t a retcon or anything like that! If Kairi were actually in the Realm of Darkness, Sora has reduced his odds from… why bother with hyperbole? This situation is already outrageous. He’s reduced his odds from finding a person in two universes to finding them in one universe.

(Sora’s confusion here seems to have confused some fans in other discussions, too. It’s a shame. KH2’s gaffes are long-reaching.)

I guess there’s little more to say but to write a concluding paragraph or two about this whole writing problem. After an entire game where Sora gave so little of a shit about his friends that he barely mentioned them, Sora is now so eager to find his friends that he smashed computer keyboards, threatening the efforts and safety of his other friends in the process, and is now shouting for his friends the moment he enters what is, I reiterate, a new universe. It’s as though the writers only knew one way to convey character development, and that was through loud, brainless repetition to hammer it in on the audience and hope that basic melodrama squeezes out a few tears. That or the pain of the hammering. Wait, no, I take it back. It’s not “like” that. That’s exactly what’s going on. I just can’t keep treating it as recurring editing problems: there are writing problems too, and as this scene has demonstrated, massive cinematic editing problems (a different thing entirely) to back it all up.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h45m20s430Yes, KH2 is turn-your-brain-off entertainment, but it’s turn-off-your-brain entertainment in a way I’ve never seen, because the moment KH2 catches you thinking, it start to… die. It withers in front of your eyes. I wish I could have shown you my “mental draft” of this retrospective, the one I did in my head before I started writing, because the failure of KH2’s narrative honestly took me by surprise as I was drafting! I had never thought about KH2 before doing that mental draft, and when I did it for the first time, it was like watching the game’s narrative disintegrate in my hands, and it was kind of upsetting considering my personal investment in the series! Despite the Battle of Hollow Bastion and good integration with Space Paranoids, we just watched our protagonist go from likeable to idiot, our villain go from promising to writer’s pet, our main plot go from forgotten to remembered, yes, but choking on its limited air.  To make matters worse, we’re about to reach the part of the game that’s most hated above all by almost the entire fandom… except for me.

Yeah. If you asked the average KH fan, they would say that up until now, the game was great, but also that this upcoming part was awful. If you look to me, I’m going to say that up until now, the game was wasting away before our eyes, but that this upcoming part is pretty solid. Welcome to a new perspective.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h45m54s480But we’re not there yet. Back to the black room. Sora looks around and sees a cloaked figure holding a box. The figure vanishes but the box remains, and Donald opens it to find two things: a sea-salt ice cream bar, and the photo of Hayner, Pence, Olette and Roxas from inside the simulated Twilight Town. Sora identifies Roxas at a glance, but doesn’t understand why. Moments later, the ice cream bar becomes a gate key, and I’m not even mad because for the first time ever, we see a gate working as a gate as it returns Sora and the others to the Gummi Ship. Show me the gate actually leading somewhere and I actually kind of like it. Who knew?

Weirdly enough, both items from the box are added to your inventory, and the ice cream bar is still with you hours later at the end of the game, one of only a few key items that are never deleted. Entirely unmelted. Hey, don’t look at me, I’m cool with magic ice cream. More of it, I say. A whole Keyblade of magic ice cream, I say!

In the final gummi scene, Goofy asks aloud if these objects from the box are meant to be clues. I’m going to wait until the next entry to tell you what happens next in the story, but I will tell you what doesn’t: Twilight Town! If you go to ask the gang about the photo, and they have nothing to say. I don’t want to bunch this in with the game’s other recent failures, but it’s still a failure nevertheless. Goofy actually says these items are supposed to be clues. Wouldn’t it make sense for the characters and the player to act on clues? No, no, the game just wants you to keep playing Mario down the dedicated stage-path, and for some reason it’s a stage-path that has nothing to do with these recent developments! The game doesn’t even provide contingency text. I would have been okay with them giving Olette a text box saying: “Oh, who’s that guy in the photo? That’s weird.” But no! Hayner, Pence and Olette are saying the same things they were nearly since the start of the game! The writing and level design teams weren’t talking to one another? You don’t say.

kh2-2016-06-13-03h46m29s145

Not really, Donald.  Not really.

To wrap this all up, Goofy convinces Sora to fight the Heartless again in a single line of dialogue, by saying that “If we don’t fight ’em, the Heartless’ll keep on hurtin’ folks.” The game does have the tact not to show Sora’s response, allowing you to fill that blank in yourself, but sure enough, the next time you set down on a world, he’s fighting the Heartless same as ever, as though his overwrought hesitation on Hollow Bastion was solved instantly. There, did you like that character moment? That dramatic challenge to the status quo? It’s gone now. It’s almost as though Sora’s hesitation was shallow and irrelevant.

God DAMN am I glad to be clear of this segment. The best of times, the worst of times, it’s technically all uphill from here. Technically. Not uphill from where we were before the Hollow Bastion, perhaps. But uphill from here.

No, no wrap-up, I’m clear, go away. Secret Ansem Report 1, 100 Acre Wood, and the Atlantica segment all in the next entry. I’m starting another Word document just to put this behind me, this game’s coverage is, on its own, the longest single thing I’ve ever written.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Tragedy, Clearly
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Mop-Up


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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5 comments

  1. This was immensely satisfying. I’m glad you agree that this is the WORST segment of this game and, in more ways than one, actually damaged the rest of it. Particularly the Battle of 1000 Heartless part because that *one* battle sequence, as important as it is to the plot, is also the thing that I think damaged what the devs could do with the story because it took so much memory power. Nomura himself has even confirmed that they weren’t even sure they could include it it took so much so I can’t imagine they didn’t leave quite a bit on the cutting room floor that never got picked up again for FM+.

    But the BIGGEST grievance I have with this world, the entirety of it, is what it did to Sora’s character. Up until now in KHII, Sora has acted dumb, but it’s always been a limited stupidity, it never really did much harm other than make him look bad for it. I don’t LIKE that they wrote him that way, but I can live with it. Maybe he lost some brain cells coming from his year-long coma. But THIS is inexcusable. The sheer amount of betrayal they managed to cram into this part of the game is unbelievable. The inconsistency of his goals, the stupidity of his actions and the utter slap-in-the-face to what he used to act like in both KH1 and CoM is reprehensible to me. Sora’s never been the smartest guy in the room, (that’s usually Jiminy) but he wasn’t an IDIOT.

    Tron only makes up for this slightly.

    1. Actually, the worst of it is the fact that not only did it ruin his character in KHII (there’s brief flashes of intelligence, wit and actual character scattered out through KHII, mostly when he interacts with Riku) but it ruined his character in DDD, as well. Especially since DDD deliberately separated Sora and Riku exactly BECAUSE Sora’s hopeless without him, which is another point that it seems the writers are trying to shoehorn in which I think is also a slap in the face to the characters’ struggles in KH1, particularly. It’s like nobody seems to remember that Sora was actually the SMART one in the first game, who made the right decisions consistently.

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