All right. Where were we?
When Sora returns to the main map, a lot has changed. Only the central worlds (Hollow Bastion, Twilight Town, Disney Castle) plus Atlantica are as they were. Several of the other worlds are now trying to get your attention. Land of the Dragons, Beast’s Castle and Port Royal are all squawking about “New Episodes,” and the worlds behind them have been locked off a second time. (Oddly, Atlantica doesn’t mention that it has a new episode if you haven’t been to the map screen since Space Paranoids! Whoops!) The Journal is also packed with “New” markers (though most of them are identical leads, saying “All was well in Port Royal…” or what have you). We’ve finally reached Kingdom Hearts 2’s infamous second loop, and every world outside the core is going to have to be visited a second time. Disney Castle lacks this second trip, and the Gummi doors are open (thank god) but everywhere else…?
Now how does this relate to the second half, and what was that I was saying about people hating this part of the game but me not hating it? Well it’s quite simple. The Kingdom Hearts fandom likes to call this second half of the game “filler.” And this is a reasonable call: they’ve completed most of a game’s length of activity from Land of the Dragons to Hollow Bastion, and clearly everything that follows will just be extra crap stuffed in to make the game look more impressive. And I agree in the sense that KH2 has been stuffed with filler. But there’s one part I disagree with: the idea that the second half is the half that’s filler. In this next half of the game, we’re going to actually rejoin the main plot, battle the Organization’s evil plan, and actually make a difference in the game world. I love this half of the game!
It’s the first half that’s filler.
Before we go on, some final thoughts on the first half of the game. Now that we’re done the worlds, it’s now clear that KH2 didn’t copy the plots of ALL its movies. Ignoring Timeless River for being about short films, we have Land of the Dragons, Port Royal, Pride Lands and Atlantica copying their films, versus Beast’s Castle, Olympus Coliseum, Agrabah, Halloween Town and Space Paranoids all having unique plots. Not bad. But numbers aren’t the problem, it’s the impression the copycats leave on the plot, the matter of their execution. The copycats are simply too loud to ignore, like how a debate between equal sides is ruined by one jackass with a megaphone. Not only did all the copycat worlds but Port Royal shout down the main plot, but some of the non-copycats ignore the main plot as well, while the main plot itself is so unconcerned with showing up in its own game that it might as well be passed out drunk in a ditch.
I actually like the second loop on its own merits as well: it makes the Disney worlds feel more believable and realistic to have ongoing events, instead of “freezing” in place after you complete them. Games that forget about old locations are a bit of a pet peeve. Kingdom Hearts has basically treated its worlds in three distinct ways. There are the games that force you to revisit worlds, like KH2 and later Days. There are the games that allow you to find new prizes by re-exploring worlds after the fact (usually by using Metroid-style gameplay, but in one game this isn’t quite the case), like KH1, BBS and coded, but largely don’t return you to old worlds as part of the story. Lastly, DDD doesn’t give you any reason to revisit old worlds at all (presuming you explored thoroughly enough to find all the chests your first time through), excusing its one mandatory revisit.
Now personally, I’d rather have the Metroid-style return trips than anything else, but to go against the grain a second time, I’d still rather have forced trips back to old worlds rather than no trips, DDD-style. This is getting ahead of myself, but DDD’s worlds feel somewhat wispy to me, as though they didn’t really happen somehow. They don’t feel like real places in the game world, and I think it’s because I never had any reason to visit them except to do the Mario thing and clear the stage. At least KH2 returns you to the old worlds to show that they still exist after you leave, and aren’t tied exclusively to Sora for their existence. One of my favourite games is the PSX’s Guardian’s Crusade, and one of the reasons I love it is because, after a major plot development, the bad guys attack every town in the game and you have sidequests with bosses involved to rescue them!
I also want to compliment KH2’s revisits in how they allowed the game to tell stories with a gap of time in the middle! It seems funny to say, but “one visit only” systems force all the game’s events to occur in one time block, and it forces a sense of urgency into every one of the worlds. Everything has to happen in one block in other KH games, but not here. Unfortunately, only some of the worlds take advantage of this rare opportunity, like Olympus Coliseum (Hercules needs time to be depressed and I would have been really disappointed in the plot if he had been lifted back to his spirits instantaneously) and Beast’s Castle (Xaldin will be back, and he needed time to lick his wounds), Pride Lands and Space Paranoids. On the other hand, I think Port Royal, Agrabah and Halloween Town definitely suffer from the time lapse. Lastly we’ve got Land of the Dragons, which technically uses the time lapse, but to no particular positive or negative effect.
Okay, that’s enough reminiscing. I’m going to be moving on to 100 Acre Wood and Atlantica in just a moment. But first: Secret Ansem Report 1. Like Ansem Report 1 from KH1, this one doesn’t really have much to say. It starts with the curious note that Ansem describes himself as governor of a world named “Radiant Garden.” From there, he talks about how he wants to protect his world from danger at the very root, darkness in the heart. So I guess he does admit to wanting to change the world at first, and it’s only in Report 2 that he starts to call his experiments a “simple psychological test.” It seems our friend Ansem lies to himself more often than he might like!
In Secret Report 1, Ansem explains that his initial test subject was our buddy Xehanort, an improbably named young man with amnesia that Ansem found near death a few years back. Ansem hopes that by running his “psychological tests,” he’ll help Xehanort recover his memories. Ansem seems somewhat worried about doing so, as he’s concerned Xehanort may not even be a normal human being. (Incidentally, Ansem drops Vexen’s original name, Even, during this sequence).
Now let’s start picking up loose threads. How about… “in the order they were unlocked?'”
I’ve made a terrible mistake.
Atlantica cuts more-or-less immediately to the song Sebastian tasked you to practice, and it turns out it’s nothing less than Oscar-winning song “Under the Sea!” Unlike “Part of Your World,” which was sung entirely by Disney talent, “Under the Sea” includes parts sung by Haley Joel Osmet and the like. Oh well. We’re still about as far from “Swim this Way” as Adventure of Link is to Wand of Gamelon, so I’m not going to complain any further.
“Under the Sea” introduces a new button prompt, which appears to be Sebastian next to the Square button. If you hit this button, the game will give you a miss. But at the last second, some Sebastian prompts change to Ariel, and then you have to hit Square. This is mildly clever as Atlantica’s mechanics go. The real killer in this song is the success meter, which determines whether or not you clear the song. This looks like one of those water-filled gimmick pens that have a little plastic thing bobbing up and down inside… no, no one remembers those? Just me? Maybe most of you are too young to remember that kind of 70s and 80s kitch. The success meter is filled with a drawing of the sea, and you have to get a little plastic Ariel to the very top by hitting the proper notes to win the song. Ironically, even cleverly, this means you win when little plastic Ariel gets above the sea!
All things considered, I’m not so put off by Atlantica when it approaches competence, and this segment is pretty good! Don’t worry. It’s all (all) downhill from here.
After the song, Ariel admits she’s just not into this Atlantean jingoism, and Sebastian is put out. He mutters aloud to himself that she’s “in love […] with a human!” and is overheard by Triton, because sitcom coincidences are the fastest way to move any plot along.
Meanwhile, Ariel visits the surface with the trio at night, and they see Eric accidentally drop a necklace into the water. They go to retrieve it, but find it trapped in between a few rocks. Believe it or not, this small object caught in a rock prevents you from advancing Atlantica’s plot. The game wants you to get Magnera to pull it out, which doesn’t actually strike me as a great plan. Atlantica established that Magnet could pick up a statue the size (and so, multiple times the mass) of a human being trapped under a pile of sand and crap. Using Magnera on a tiny necklace wedged between rocks sounds like a good way to make metal wire, or a bullet.
Weirdly enough, we’re done here. The whole sequence was just a quick layover. It’s odd, considering the next Atlantica segment is extra long. Goodie.
Hollow Bastion after the Battle
Before we head into 100 Acre Wood, there are a few extra sequences to visit in Hollow Bastion itself. First off, everyone has new dialogue, which for KH2 is fairly unusual. One other new thing you might encounter while wandering around Hollow Bastion are Neoshadows, which have replaced Shadows in almost every world in the game (only Timeless River, where the enemy loadout has barely changed at all, retains Shadows in bulk). Neoshadows are a lot like their CoM selves, which in KH2’s low difficulty framework means that they’re harmless, end of story. They also drop Bright Crystals, which means you’ll rarely be short on those things. This is especially good for FM+ players, since Bright Crystals play into an important late-game synth recipe.
While you’re here, you may also try out Master Form for the first time, at which point you’ll be reminded how much Level 1 forms suck with their low Drive Gauges. Your practiced and honed Valour and Wisdom Forms will have spoiled you! And it’s hard to say whether or not you should rush to train Master Form. One major consequence of this second-half-of-the-game push is that Master Form is your last new form between here and nearly the end of the game! This means your Anti points are going to pile up like debt. Since AntiForm lasts longer the more Drive Gauges you have, it’s even worse at this point in the game!
If you journey out to where you killed Demyx, you’ll find Mushroom IX there paying its respects in its own kooky way. This Mushroom spins when you challenge it, and will keep spinning as long as you keep up attacks, though it will gradually lose momentum faster than you can keep up. Your objective is to keep it spinning for as long as possible. Fast attacks like Wisdom Form’s finisher are very helpful here, though more complicated strategies are also viable. You’ll probably need an upgrade or two to clear this Mushroom.
There’s also a new, official “episode” in Hollow Bastion, which involves a short trip to visit the Gullwings. You’ll find the Gullwings hanging out at the Postern (I wonder if the Postern may have been chosen for the location of the bonus dungeon because this episode draws you back to the Postern now that your plate is clear? Nice use of existing resources!). If you talk to Yuna, she gets on your case about lying to her about Leon having treasure. They resolve to take your stuff, specifically your items. Really, whoever wrote Hollow Bastion was having fun subverting expectations. “Items” is a technical term, and game narrative convention suggests that no one would use real-world technical term unless they’re referring to an actual mechanical impact. This makes this scene feel like Zelda’s old “Pay me for the door repair charge.” You might believe the Gullwings really would take your stuff!
Luckily, the Gullwings say they were just teasing you, and give you a reward for free. This is the Gull Wing Keyblade (note the space). It stinks, but that’s because it’s one of two Keyblades in the game that’s meant to stink in exchange for a powerful ability. Both of these weak Keyblades had a 0 MP bonus in the original game, but this was shot up to +3 in FM+. The Gull Wing refused to take that kind of game balance lying down, and dropped its FM+ Strength by a point just to flip you off. So what’s the ability? Experience Boost, and it’s a ringer. Sora gets one Experience Boost ability very early in the game, and this is a second copy. Each copy you have equipped adds 100% to your EXP gain when Sora is below half health, for a total of 300% if you use the Ability and the Keyblade. That’s pretty hefty! This strategy factors into two great grinding plans in the post-game, so I’ll discuss it in further detail at that point.
And with that the Gullwings leave, never to return. That’s it, that’s their entire impact on the plot. I don’t understand either, but that’s part of the fun. They’re just this baffling thing that happened one strange day in 2006, when three fairies showed up, accomplished nothing, and handed us a deadly weapon. We don’t talk about it much.
The 100 Acre Wood
We return to the 100 Acre Wood to visit Kanga and Roo. Kanga is Tress MacNeille. You might recall from the KH1 Retrospective that Kath Soucie (Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas) was actually the voice of Kanga at the time of KH2’s release, but that MacNeille had done the roll in the past, so I can’t imagine how they decided who should do it. This may be cynical of me, but it probably came down to money. Meanwhile, Roo is Jimmy Bennett, who has was playing the role at the time (as a child’s role, Roo burns through more voice actors than any of the other Winnie the Pooh characters. He’s had two more since!). While acting is not Bennet’s most prominent job (Bennett is also a musician these days), most will probably know Bennett for his brief role as Young Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. For a second Disney connection, he may have played the elephant Hathi Jr. in The Jungle Book 2, though this isn’t on IMDb for whatever reason – I found it on the Disney wiki, instead. For the curious: I also can’t find any connection between Jimmy Bennett and another Disney regular, Jeff Bennett, so I guess their names are just a coincidence.
Kanga and Roo’s place is covered in packages, for some reason. You don’t interact with them, they aren’t commented on in the dialogue… were these in a film? I actually re-watched the Winnie the Pooh films recently and don’t think I saw any packages! When you approach, Kanga just sort of acts like she knows you, even though she never appeared in KH1. This is on one hand sloppy but on the other, partially excused by the whole “Sora is Christopher Robin” thing going on in 100 Acre Wood. It seems Kanga has heard Pooh is out-of-sorts, and she’s prepared some sort of medicine for him in a dark, early-century medicine bottle. God knows what early-century “medicine” is in there.
Unfortunately, Tigger arrives and mistakes the bottle as a present for him. You have to chase him down, and wait a minute, Sora. It could be fun to watch Tigger zonked out on laudanum. But no, our hero insists, and he chases after Tigger, which seems like it was… meant to be a mini-game, maybe involving those packages, but is just normal walk-up-and-chat in the final. The gang fills Tigger in on what’s going on, and of course Tigger suggests that bouncing will solve everything. Yup, today’s mini-game is about bouncing to restore Pooh’s memory. I’m not sure if Sora goes along with this as part of his policy to go along with his friend’s suggestions no matter how stupid they are, or if it’s just in hopes of getting Tigger to return the bottle, because he sure has a death-grip on it.
Tigger’s game, Balloon Bounce, is probably the most skill-based on the KH2 100 Acre Wood mini-games. Luckily, its story objective is almost nonexistent. You have three attempts in which to bounce on 10 balloons. This requirement is so piddling that if the game didn’t stop dead to tell you you won, I’d have probably missed it! You have to replay the game to get your stamp from Jiminy, which has higher standards.
Balloon Bounce starts by bouncing off a trampoline – or rather, an exaggerated version of the blanket from Blustery Day – which propels you into a 2D area filled with balloons. The objective is to stay in the air by bouncing off a predictable pattern of balloons (with reaction commands, not the jump button). If you hit the trampoline after hitting at least one balloon, you lose a “try,” the Jiminy objective being to gather 2000 points of hunny from the balloons across 3 tries (totalled). Balloons are worth different amounts of hunny points, with tiny ones worth much more and large ones being worth less but having more “spring” to them, shooting you up even higher in the air. Though I mentioned a predictable pattern to the balloons, the springiest balloons shoot you so high in the air that when you finally come down, the balloons below you might as well be random. If you get high enough, you’ll find a big prize balloon at the top. Also, once you get that high there will be so many balloons below you that you may have to force yourself to lose or Sora might stay up there forever.
100 Acre Wood is stuck in a narrative loop at this point: bouncing doesn’t restore Pooh’s memory, but a few minutes later, Pooh remembers Tigger, this time with no head trauma. It just sort of happens – he doesn’t even drink his bottle of cocaine! In fact the bottle is so forgotten that the game doesn’t even bother to establish that Pooh remembers Kanga and Roo, though that probably is better for pacing.
At this point, we arbitrarily cut to Pooh at night, sleeping on the floor of his house for no reason… except the obvious. After all, Sora’s nowhere to be seen. Remember how I said the flashback at the start of Pride Lands didn’t seem like Kingdom Hearts’ usual method of storytelling? This scene also takes place away from the player-character, though I suppose it’s better than the other because it’s not a flash forward or back. You guessed it though: it’s here to once again recreate a scene from one of the films. In this one, Pooh floats out of his body and sees the end of 100 Acre Wood in KH1, when Sora said goodbye, except Sora is simply a shadow. It seems Pooh’s starting to remember… but he just can’t remember Sora, and the segment ends.
If you go back to visit Kanga, she has this to say: “When Pooh isn’t his normal self, it affects us all. It isn’t just Pooh, we want everyone to be well.” It’s a cute line, and really ties into the familial nature of 100 Acre Wood.
With that done, we can finally proceed to the second loop of Disney world. Sans gummi ship segments, thank the sugar gods.