Land of the Dragons, Revisited
Land of the Dragons starts off with the trio walking in the mountain village. “I wonder how everyone’s doin’,” Goofy says. Which is why we landed here, as far away from “everyone” as possible!
Thankfully, the second loop rarely wastes your time, and the plot comes racing past only a moment later. One of the Organization members is here, and Mulan is chasing after him. She tells you the Org member has been spying on The Imperial City, rejoins the party, and off you go! What quick pacing! What game am I playing, here?
By the way, if you stall in town and speak to the generic guards protecting the ruined village as it’s (supposedly) being repaired, the guard will say that he doesn’t actually fight the Heartless when they show up. He just runs, and says it’s good how the Heartless don’t chase people for very far. This is a pretty funny and even accurate to the game mechanics! Congrats!
One other thing you’ll notice in town is that the Moogles are no longer updating their shops. If you want new stuff, it’s nearly all synth from here on out.
You follow Hoody up the hill, and the camera keeps following Hoody up the hill as you go. I’m not sure why the game’s making such a big cinematic deal. There’s only one way he could have gone! Maybe they were supposed to reveal an alternate path at some point, like some of the other second loop worlds? Before you can catch Cloaky, you’re attacked by Dusks, who as far as I can tell are dropping synth ingredients for the first time in the game. Nobodies will continue to drop “Twilight” and “Dense” ingredients from here on out, meaning this is the first time where they actually feel like they’re part of the “normal” game.
You catch up with Hoody at the summit, who is wearing the perfect spy garb for a man hiding in snow-covered mountains: head to toe black. But before you can confront him, Shan-Yu’s swarm of Rapid Thrusters rises up again. Even Donald points out this is a repeat, and like the bad first impressions about Reaction Commands, this bad first impression damages the reputation of the second loop. It’s just recycling the old gameplay elements! It’s like I’m playing the damned FFIV: Interlude again! Thankfully, the game never actually repeats a plot element quite so egregiously again. Frankly, BBS rehashed way more things than KH2 ever did, but KH2 is being loud about it and it’s led to the bad reputation of the second loop.
As the Rapid Thrusters cut Sora off from his party members, the hooded figure finds him and draws the Soul Eater – Riku’s sword! Naturally Sora is taken aback that he may have just found Riku, but it also appears that Riku is going to attack him! I’ve heard mixed impressions about this scene. Some feel Riku might be trying to fight Sora to test him, or to mess with him like the old days. Others have suggested that Riku doesn’t attack you and is actually trying to protect you from the Heartless, and only starts to fight you if you attack him (and you’ll have to eventually, because the game insists). I tried to test that out, but my results were inconclusive favouring negative. Speaking as a former programmer, I think Riku was simply given an enemy list consisting of Sora and the Rapid Thrusters, so if you leave him be, he’ll just attack whoever’s closest. Considering you’re standing in a giant cloud of Rapid Thrusters, he’s going to go for them almost every time until their numbers start to thin.
All-in-all, Riku isn’t a serious challenge, certainly not after Demyx, and even without Rapid Thrusters to distract him or give you powerful Reaction Commands you’ll probably just sweep through.
Riku flees down the mountain after the battle, and your friends arrive, though they weren’t able to tell that the hooded figure was Riku, and Sora isn’t about to tell them that Riku attacked him! Just then, a roar from the mountain, as a boss Heartless, the Storm Rider, flies up and down the mountain toward the Imperial City. Obviously that’s a priority, so your party somersaults down the mountain, fighting past familiar enemies mixed with Neoshadows. By the way, after you’ve finished a world’s second plot, certain rooms will randomly gain Nobody attack groups instead of Heartless, but during the plot it’s just old familiar faces except when scripted.
Part-way down the mountain, you see a cutscene showing that Riku got to the city before you. In a scene that’s shot in a very menacing way, and he seems to have beaten Shang in a duel and is about to approach the Emperor. It seems the game is still trying to pretend Riku is evil between his attack on you and his attack on the Emperor, but it won’t last much longer and it was rather silly they bothered to start, given that we know he’s good from the outset of the game! I legitimately can’t decide if this was poor planning, or if the revelation that Riku was “good” during Twilight Town was added later in the dev cycle! What do you think?
You arrive at the Imperial City, in the Great Empty Courtyard That I Hate with a Passion. Sora takes a look around and says: “Everything’s fine.” It’s just as soulless and empty as ever! Mulan’s friends, Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, arrive in full armour and announce that a guy in a black cloak just broke into the palace. Uh-huh. And you just… stood there, I suppose? You’re fired. Also: the three of you being here as the only guards of this canyon-esque abyss? It just makes the abyss creepier, since now I have a sense of scale. So thanks for that. My thanks are your severance packages. Get out.
It’s just now occurring to me, but weren’t some – not many, but some – rooms in KH1 bigger than this? And full of more stuff? Like Second District in Traverse Town. How is it they packed less stuff per room in a presumably more advanced sequel game? How does the later game end up feeling less technically capable in this regard? Are the vistas I keep complimenting actually costing the game content by filling up each room’s object limit with long-distance clutter?
You head up to the platform where defeated Shan-Yu, where there is no sign of Mushroom IV (typically, the Mushrooms have been placed in rooms you don’t revisit during the second loop, to avoid this exact situation). The party finds the big doors shut, and rather than beat a health bar out of it, now Mulan decides to bring back the climax of the original film, and shows Sora how to climb a pillar, except this version is lacking in all context and emotional weight. In fact, Mulan actually falls down now, during the triumphant moment of her own film. And that’s… just fantastic, isn’t it?
You end up in a hallway just past the big doors, where they spot a cloaked figure eavesdropping at the doors at the far side of the hall. The game clearly expects you to think this is Riku, but it doesn’t last long. As soon as Sora has approached him and asked if it’s Riku, he unhoods, and reveals a face we’ve never seen before: a man with an eyepatch and a huge scar running out from beneath it. James Patrick Stuart then says “No, never heard of him!” After this scene, Jiminy identifies Stuart as Xigbar, the Organization’s No. II, who has mastery over space and dimensions.
This is a good scene in and of itself: Sora is pleading with “Riku” and even seems afraid that he’ll be attacked again, while Xigbar briefly ekes out the drama before getting a laugh at Sora’s expense. But the scene has got some noticeable context problems, namely the fact that there’s no way this could have been Riku to begin with. Remember: we’ve already seen Riku inside the throne room! You might be wondering why they bothered! Well there’s a good answer for that: it’s partially to raise the tension on “evil” Riku, but mostly because, after this scene, Xigbar bails and isn’t seen again. That means the Organization wasn’t really here at all, and the devs were cheating to give them an appearance, just like they used to do with Pete! Dammit, Land of the Dragons! I’m trying to defend the legitimacy of this half of the game!
Xigbar summons his lesser Nobodies, the Snipers, to cover his escape. Snipers are named after the FFTactics Advanced class by the way. I know they probably sound odd as something coming from a fantasy setting like most of the FFV job classes. Hell, they sound odd coming out of a fantasy setting like Ivalice! Snipers are an unusual enemy that teleport around the room, using any patch of air they want as their sniping position. From there, they fire a bolt of red energy at you, which stalls in mid-air immediately after firing. During this brief stall, Sora can attack the beam to deflect it, either using regular attacks or a reaction command called Warp Snipe. Not only does this hurt the Sniper (or, if they’ve died, another minor enemy within range), but you seem to be able to chain Warp Snipes if there are more shots in the air, making a real mess of the enemy formation. I like Warp Snipe, especially in the way you can deflect beams with normal attacks instead of having to rely on reaction commands. True, Warp Snipe is irrational (why can’t Sora teleport everywhere, etc – personally, I assume he’s somehow abusing the Snipers’ power over space?), and it partially shares the Silver Rock problem of dominating an encounter (though not to the same degree), but since it adjusts your actual position as well as acting as a counterattack, it modifies the battle in a more dynamic way than most of the other reaction commands. It’s like a more aggressive cousin of Reversal.
There are quite a few Snipers in this battle, but once they’re clear you’re free to talk to the Emperor and Shang. Both are fine, surprising no one, because this twist of Riku being evil is as unsubstantiated as Sora’s keyboard tantrum. Mulan fills her friend and her monarch in on the boss Heartless coming their way, and they reply that Riku told them already, and the Emperor adds that Shang got his ass handed to him. I like this guy. The emperor then says the cloaked figure was very rude, and Sora says “Rude? Then it was Riku!” This scene is great.
Sora then asks why on earth Riku would have come to the Land of the Dragons, but as if to punish Sora for questioning KH2’s volatile plot, the fucking dragon shows up. By the way, there’s no answer for why Riku was here. Surprise! The party decides to take Riku’s suggestion: they’ll go after the Heartless while Shang sticks with the Emperor and Mulan’s other friends continue to exist in like empty vapour in a canyon of souls.
Before you go, there are some chests to open, including what I’m sad to say are probably the best hidden chests in the Vanilla game: they’re behind two short staircases. KH2’s exploration is hide-and-seek with four-year olds. There are also some puzzle pieces, Torn Pages, and a major find: the recipe for Donald’s Save the Queen! “Hurry!” shouts Donald. HOLD ON DONALD, I’M ROBBING THE EMPEROR OF CHINA!
The dragon, the Storm Rider, is right at the door when you arrive, and scares the crap out of Mulan as a way of saying hello. Sora gestures at her to gather herself – we’ll talk about that in a moment – and the fight starts with an extended cinematic designed to get you used to its unique mechanics. Well, “unique” as in unique to KH. It feels oddly like Shadow of the Colossus, but that seems impossible given the games’ respective release dates and likely promo dates… right? I mean… it’s really similar…
The Storm Rider fight focuses on getting up on the thing”s back while it flies around, which is no mean task. The best way to do so is to use a number of tornadoes that dot the arena. You were introduced to these up on the mountain, a good, rare example of a tutorial done right. Take note, industry. These tornadoes let you “ride” them and jump high in the air with reaction commands. One thing that’s not entirely self-evident about the tornadoes, however, is the fact that you can move while inside the tornado (before using the “Soar” reaction command), which is critical to landing on the dragon’s back. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a perfect tutorial. Once you’re on the Heartless’ back, you can attack the Storm Rider’s horns, not unlike the Behemoth in KH1, and will have to grasp on to a part of its back if it tries to shake you. As you’d expect from a fight that’s so reliant on Reaction Commands, this is where Mickey uselessly returns to save you after a multi-world absence. Thanks buddy.
While you’re on top of the Storm Rider, you can attack some spikes on its back (marked with an odd, red reticle while targeting to let you know they’re not vital) which will cause the whole monster to crash to the ground. Explosion is good for this if you’re playing in Vanilla. Another way to get the Storm Rider to come crashing down is to use a reaction command versus its dive attack while standing on the ground. If you do stun the boss, it will loll its head slowly, often out of your reach, which is a nice subtle touch to add variety to a puzzle boss’ beat-down sequence that you don’t normally see in other games, like Zelda. Others might not agree with me on this, but I like it.
What with all this flying around, your party members are practically useless, excusing Donald’s healing. Though you may discover in the middle of this fight that Sora’s Cura actually works in a vertical column! Who knew?
After a while, the Storm Rider will come to the ground, summon huge lightning walls and try to shoot you with a giant laser. Both of these are deadly, but the joke’s on it, because it’s completely exposed while it’s charging and there’s still plenty of room to hide.
Clearing the battle wins you Thundara, an area-of-effect upgrade, which will make any victims of your Magnet spell even less happy, since it now essentially covers the entire Magnet zone. Those poor minor enemies.
After the fight, the Heartless is dissolving… but also falling straight onto Mulan’s head. She just sort of cowers without moving an inch like people in media do when confronted with something they could easily run away from, and Shang runs out of the palace to shield her / be crushed beside her. Also, thank you, Shang, for proving that Mulan had plenty of time to run away. Thankfully, the Heartless melts away before it can harm them. Naturally, Sora and the others did nothing to help either of them, and while I suppose that would have just cluttered the scene, I do think it’s funny how the writers often forget about Sora in the middle of his own game, even if it means his friends have to die horribly.
Okay, time to back up a bit, I’ve got something else I want to cover. The way this revisit has been treating Mulan has had my hackles up ever since she slipped down the pole. Why would she slip down the pole? Why would you add that? Why not make Goofy slip down the pole? Failing at physical activity is one of his primary jokes in the cartoons. But we have Mulan failing – against the movie script KH2 typically holds as sacrosanct – and Sora helps her up. It’s not meant as a joke, so it stands out like a sore thumb to me. Next, Mulan flinches back from the dragon at the door. A reasonable reaction, though she is the only one to do it. She then turns to Sora for support, which in this series is also a reasonable reaction. People turn to Sora for support, it’s what he’s good for. Then Mulan cowers under the giant dragon and is “saved” by Shang, a good chance to show their relationship. But that’s still three times in under fifteen minutes where to took the piss out of one of Disney’s female leads, twice where Sora was hanging over her like a mother hen, and in essentially all instances she had to turn to a man for help. These problems with Mulan are just little problems, but KH2’s problems include so many little problems. And god help the thing, they add up. KH1 has some big-ass holes, like from cannon-fire, but KH2 is perforated with grapeshot, a grapeshot of editing gaffes, gameplay mistakes and (relatively new to the table but sadly not about to leave) casual sexism that run from start to finish. They’ve ripped through more substance than KH1’s large problems do overall.
I will say this: I suspect that these “Mulan messing up in her own story’s climax” are just moments where the writers are trying to cram Sora into the scene as forcefully and tactlessly as possible, and in their urgency and laziness, the writers butted aside Mulan, the person they saw as the… least valuable element in the scene. Frankly, this is one of the big reasons I feel the plots shouldn’t have been repeats of the films to begin with. If the plot had been rewritten to properly accommodate Sora and the Heartless, he wouldn’t be stealing the spotlight from other characters! As stands, Sora’s only options are to stand in the background doing nothing (Port Royal, Pride Lands, seconds ago), or take away actions and power away from the actual cast (a different number of seconds ago).
Back in the throne room, the Emperor offers to reward the party, but Sora only wants to know what Riku had to say in hopes of finding out where he went. The Emperor conveys that Riku said that the Storm Rider was actually the Heartless of an honest-to-goodness dragon, and the implication is that it was turned by Xigbar. This is to show just what lengths the Organization is willing to go to harvest its hearts, and how effective they are at it. Too bad they didn’t do anything on-screen (this is another of my “informed plots” that I mentioned during Hollow Bastion), and will never be this effective at heart-collection again. The fact that most of the Organization’s activities are informed plot has made a real mess of their campaign in the eyes of some fans. “What did the Organization do that was morally wrong?” is a question that gets asked a lot, and the answer is “This thing that happened off-screen and was mentioned for fifteen seconds.” Pure evil. As a result, a lot of fans don’t grasp that the Organization is putting thousands or millions of people in serious danger, converting many of them to Heartless, but I can hardly blame the fans when no civilians are ever shown to be in danger. After all: there are no civilians in this game.
Shang also conveys that Riku told them that “three wise guys” would deal with the Heartless. Yup, that’s Riku. Sora is under the impression that the cloak means Riku is in Organization XIII, which is pretty presumptuous, and also a pretty shitty red herring. Even excusing the fact that we know Riku is “Ansem,” remember that anyone who cleared R/R already knows Riku possesses a black cloak. Then again, we’ve already discussed that KH2 treats CoM like a boot-scraper.
The Emperor asks Mulan for her request, and long story short, he ends up offering her a role as bodyguard so she can be properly honoured and also be near Shang. Despite other changes made to this world, this conclusion is such a nice fit that I sometimes forget it wasn’t from the film! Well done, KH2! Finally, everyone says their goodbyes, and I breathe a sigh of relief that there are no additional gate keys, and everyone wonders at the back of their minds why Mushu never said a word during this entire sequence.
Bye, Pat Morita.
One interesting thing about 2.5 is that you only start getting story progression achievements in 2.5 after you clear a world entirely. This is an odd decision from the developer side. I’ll let you in on a secret: story progression achievements are usually used by the devs as a demographic tool to gauge how far their audience is getting through their games. Because of this odd distribution of trophies, KH2.5 essentially doesn’t track your playthrough until you reach Timeless River and the half-way point! FFVI on smartphones and PC does the same thing!
Jiminy updates his diary again, once again proving psychic in a very strange way. In one of the album pictures, he notes: “Sora spots a man in a black coat on Tung-Shao.” The mountain has a name?
At some point after clearing this world, the village in the mountains finally rebuilds! This is another opportunity for you to grab certain puzzle pieces without top-level upgrades, and thank goodness.
One cute thing you’ll note if you haven’t already at Hollow Bastion is that the map screen now shows multiple Keyholes next to Land of the Dragons to help you tell exactly how many trips you’ve cleared. Good on them!
100 Acre Wood
Returning to 100 Ace Wood, Sora arrives at a place called “Spooky Cave” to find the entire cast gathered inside. They explain that they’re looking for Pooh, who has gone missing. They know he went into the cave, but don’t know why, and as you might expect from the 100 Acre Wood cast, they are now riled up about imaginary monsters eating Pooh up. They propose you send in an “Expotition” to go find the silly old bear.
I have to say a word about this spooky cave: it makes very little sense. It’s full of what’s either smooth crystal or ice, and also bees. Remember what I said about “flanderizing a location” earlier in this retrospective? Now they’re going both ways! These two elements are both not enough like the 100 Acre Wood and too much like the 100 Acre Wood. One way or another, I think the level designers weren’t quite in the 100 Acre Wood mood when they made this place.
The mini-game here, The Expotition, is fairly awkward as a “mini-game.” It’s more like an exploration sequence with weird bonus features and a timer. It’s probably supposed to be reminiscent of Pooh’s Muddy Path from KH1, but not only did I have issues with Pooh’s Muddy Path’s status as a mini-game rather than an exploration sequence, but the addition (and reliance) on chests in the KH2 version makes the whole thing a two-shot at best, because the once the chests are clear, there’s not much sense or challenge in replaying the game! Let me explain.
Sora goes into the cave with a party of friends: Tigger, Eeyore, and unfortunately Rooh and Piglet, who can be hard to spot in a jam. Kanga, Rabbit and Owl stay back at the entrance. Your objective is to find Pooh with a full company, and if you’re trying to appease the cricket god, you have to also make it to Pooh under a time limit. Your threat: a Courage bar that will cause you friends to scatter in a panic if it fills to the top. Your friends are scared by things like crystals that crash down from the ceiling (yikes, me too!) and, yes, the bees. You can gather them after they scatter with a reaction command, but if they ran out of range, you’re going to have to track them down one by one.
There’s also a chance of slipping and falling if you try to walk on any of the crystal surfaces. It’s not like other slippery surfaces in video games where you have to walk slow to avoid slipping: you only slip on the crystal when they shine with reflected light (aka, on a timer), though if you slip, you scuff that particular surface it and it never shines again, which is a pretty bizarre mechanic no matter how you approach it.
The real threat in this game is trying to get the treasure chests and Jiminy’s objective at the same time. dlppictures informs me that it’s not possible to do both in one pass, but even if you know that, you might go after a few chests and suffer the consequences. I personally recommend that you go sweep up the chests on your first attempt, damn the consequences, learning Pooh’s location in the process and rendering any challenge moot during your second attempt. Just leave your terrified, child-aged friends as they’re attacked by bees while you go off finding loot. You’re the hero.
At the end of the cave, you find Pooh in a room surrounded by crystals, where he’s lost in thought. Also, everyone in the entire 100 Acre Wood is now here, not just the members of the Expotition, which I only realized was odd as I was writing this just now. Pooh explains: “I was looking for a very dear friend that I remember I made a very important promise to.” Kanga says what we’re all thinking: that Pooh is thinking about Sora. The animation is great: Sora seems to be awkward, disappointed, but still smiling through it. Sora’s emotional resilience can surprise you when someone else’s happiness is on the line. And then Pooh… does remember him. For no reason. This is completely arbitrary, but the animation plays out realistically at the very least. It’s only when Pooh remembers Sora that Sora shows the weight of emotion, and Pooh’s line “I like it ever so much when you’re cheerful, Sora,” is very tender. But that doesn’t take away from he fact that this abrupt resolution just punctured damn near the entire 100 Acre Wood story in the gut.
Clearing this segment of 100 Acre Wood wins you the Sweet Memories Keyblade. Which… really makes it feel like we’re done here, doesn’t it? 100 Acre Wood’s story must be over now. But no, where KH1 moved from the last mini-game and directly on to the ending, KH2 waits for another set of Torn Pages, including and a mini-game so sparse that it’s doesn’t redeem the anticlimax. Very odd decisions.
The Sweet Memories is the second statistically garbage Keyblade (alongside the Gull Wing), with outright +0 attack bonus (and +0 magic in Vanilla). Does its ability make up for it? In Vanilla, the biggest prize of all: Lucky Lucky. This is so valuable I used it for practically the remaining game in almost every one of my playthroughs, unequipping it only for boss fights (and since boss fights often took me by surprise, sometimes not even then!). But in FM+, Lucky Lucky was moved to that Lucky Ring I’ve mentioned in the past. As a result, the FM+ incarnation of the Sweet Memories has Drive Converter instead, the ability that turns Munny to Drive Orbs, making it a useful Master Form equip when you’re grinding Master Form. I can’t imagine many players using it for any other reason.