Kingdom Hearts 2 – Battle for Literal Souls

kh2-2016-07-03-15h29m26s800Olympus Coliseum, Revisited

When you return to Olympus Coliseuem, you appear in the Underworld, and for some reason Hercules is arriving here with Meg. Herc has no reason to be here given in the state he’s in, but there is a good real world reason for the scene to start here. Remember when we came here for the first tournament, and Sora had that scene with Auron about the tournaments opening up? The devs were thinking ahead and considered the possibility that you might be seeing that Auron scene for the first time right now. As a result, they wanted to be able to blend from the Auron scene to the Hercules scene without cut. Letting the scenes run together does have a strange effect, given how Auron isn’t in the same mood when you encounter him again in just a few minutes, but they’re doing a great job when they honestly didn’t have to do any job at all, and that’s worth the extra credit.

kh2-2016-07-03-15h29m20s282Hades chooses this moment to show up, and he declares the Underdrome re-opened with a new Hades Cup. He says it’s the “ultimate test for the ultimate hero.” Ah yes, the test for the ultimate hero, in a tournament consisting entirely of minor Heartless. I hear FIFA likes to test new players against teams of small dogs, which I presume happens after they gather them together to explain the rules of the game. To force Hercules to participate, Hades decides to arbitrarily threaten Meg, which is just… trite. Imagine if Norman Osborne knew Spider-Man’s identity, and every time Peter goes to check his answering machine there’s:

“Hey Peter, it’s the Goblin.  It’s Tuesday, fight me in town square by 6pm tomorrow or I’ll kill your aunt. Goodbye!”

*beeeeeeep*

“Hey Peter, it’s Wednesday, bring the Fantastic Four to the auditorium or I off your Aunt May.”

*beeeeeep*

“Peter. Thursday. 4th and Main. Kill your aunt. *click*”

Where’s the savvy from the original visit?

kh2-2016-07-03-15h31m00s146For some reason, this threat – and let’s repeat: Hades is trying to get Hercules killed in the arena! – is immediately followed by Pain telling you that Hades is going to rescind death during the tournament. I’m sure Hades would still let Hercules die, and I get what the devs are doing: they’re trying to say “As far as you need to be concerned, this tournament is a normal tournament.” I understand all of that, but it still results in them saying: “Hercules is going to die” followed by “Nobody is going to die!” For that matter, this isn’t a traditional tournament and the fights are incredibly short-lived, so they probably could have kept death in and had no measurable impact!

This tournament isn’t going to be seed style like all the tournaments since KH1. Instead, it’s a classic tree structure, with only three rounds! The first two aren’t even very remarkable battles, except for the part where an exhausted Hercules fights by your side. No extra effort was put into making the battles special. You enter, you win twenty seconds later, and the plot moves on. What was the design aim here? If anything, they’re exposing how shallow KH2’s combat can be by taking away the shallow exploration in between, or the gimmicks of the actual tournaments!

kh2-2016-07-03-15h31m44s722It’s not even the ease that bothers me. I don’t consider easy combat to be a bad thing, as I’ve said. I’ve played kids games for years, much longer than the average person, thanks to younger sibilings. But there’s easy, and then there’s shallow, and now that we’re in the deepest end of the game, it’s clear it’s… not very deep. Except on Critical mode, KH2’s difficulty is so shallow that many of its enemies may as well not even be there. In the past, others have said that KH2 could be played by errantly pressing X and not even looking at the screen, including one infamous contemporary review. In my younger days, I was hostile to this idea, thinking it was just some empty argument people who didn’t like Kingdom Hearts were using to discredit the series – and besides, it was Standard mode! But during my Retrospective playthrough, something startling happened in Olympus Coliseum. Without realizing what I was doing at first, I turned away from my Critical Mode playthrough to make notes for this Retrospective, and started hitting X without looking at the screen, and I continually won fights while doing it. This isn’t true in all situations, I’m not saying KH2 can be played blindfolded at all times (at least not on Critical), but the fact that it can be done so frequently…!

Now, KH1 can become nearly as brainless as this with the right strategy, character build, or by grinding (especially grinding), but KH2 didn’t require that sort of preamble. KH1 can become brainless if you abuse Thunder, but KH2 is brainless without using any strategy at all. In the KH1 Retrospective, I said KH1 will just give up if the player has the gall to grind ahead of the level curve, but KH2 gives up if you come to a world a few levels below the level curve. During my first ever playthrough of KH2, I skipped two worlds to rush into the Battle of Hallow Bastion, and only Demyx could touch me.  I should have realized something was wrong.  Fast forward to my Critical Mode playthrough for the Retrospective, and the game let me henpeck long paragraphs of notes, one-handed on its hardest difficulty while I was still somewhat behind the level curve. My experience with the game was a non-factor, because I was playing one-handed, with one button, while not watching the screen.  I did not have to look up to observe the battle, I did not have to target the enemies, I did not have to employ basic tactics or abilities other than the miles of abilities chained to my attack even by midgame. Once you’re past the first few hours of the game, KH2 becomes a Cow Clicker, designed to give a Skinner box reward for the minimum level of input, and I cannot defend that any longer.

kh2-2016-07-03-15h32m54s398KH2’s gameplay is so shallow that I might go so far as to say that vast swaths of the game, 80% or more, is so empty it may as well not exist, simply filling your eyes with bright flashes and not much substance. I entered into the first, mental draft of this Retrospective the kind of person who would vehemently have fought the idea that there were any problems with KH2’s difficulty, but I left it facing in the opposite direction.  FM+’s Critical Mode goes a long way to addressing the problems, but perhaps not far enough, and besides, most people play  on Standard, and the game has to be held accountable for that.

So.  The plot. Sora and the others are helping Hercules through the tournament, though they notice Auron is also on the lists, and he refuses to speak to them when they encounter him. Instead, he insists that he must defeat Sora and the others to “atone for my crimes!”

(There’s a nice minor detail during a dialogue sequence that takes place during this span of plot. When Hercules is beating himself up emotionally, at one point Sora’s shout bubble covers up Herc’s text as Sora shouts him down!)

kh2-2016-07-03-15h34m43s851

The best shot I could get of the Crescendo before it was instantly annihilated by basic gameplay.

During the second round of the Hades Cup, you have what may be your first encounter with the Crescendos from CoM (you can also run into them if you go wandering about Olympus Coliseum outside of the plot). These poor things have the indignity of the Heal Stomp reaction command, where Sora jumps on their backs so that they heal his party instead of the enemies. Nice guy.

Just before the final battle with Auron, you spot him walking off into the depths, and follow him to find him in a meeting with Hades. Here, we learn that Hades has hypnotized Auron with a small statue (ala the original film, sort of), and is having him babble about the “crime” of existing. This is pretty awful dialogue. It might have been interesting if we explored it, but it’s like Hades picked a topic out of a hat. Once again we’ve tossed aside Hades’ skeevish savvy for skeevish brute force. Between his casual threatening of Meg and his emotional abuse here, Hades feels less like a cartoon villain and more like a picture of an abusive relationship, and even that approach lacks tact (what with it being unintentional).

Auron does recover slightly as Hades changes the deal so that he has to kill not just Hercules, but also Sora, Donald and Goofy, showing he really does care enough about you enough to stand up to a god, but Hades forces his hand.

(Another nice minor detail: when you spot Hades, Sora actually shouts in surprise and Donald looks at him like he can’t believe how stupid Sora is for doing it. Same here, D.)

kh2-2016-07-03-15h39m06s194It’s too late to stop Auron from going to the Underdrome, but Sora discusses things in front of Hercules and sparks that old heroic spirit. They agree on a plan: Sora will go to Hades’ throne room to get the statue (Because it’s absolutely going to be there!) while Hercules stalls with Auron. Despite the depiction of Hades, I do like Hercules’ slow climb against his slump, if only because it builds up on the more successful original visit. Seeing him perk up at the chance to do genuine, personal good is heartwarming, even if he is volunteering to go duel a man who wields a sharpened highway billboard as a one-handed sword.

The trip to Hades’ throne room is the same as ever, and if you haven’t cleared out Zexion yet, now’s the time to do it (HOLD ON HERCULES, I’M FIGHTING A THESAURUS). Inside the throne room, you find the statue completely out in the open waiting for you to grab it. It’s not even a trap! Wow, there’s accidental lack of savvy and then there’s Idiot Ball: Battle for the Bronze! Sora and the others try to grab the statue, but are first electrocuted by Hades magical defences, and then forced to experience Auron’s ugly memories from their contact with the statue. This second part includes quotes that I’m told come from FFX. By experiencing this pain, Sora is able to collect the statue (interesting parallel to DDD here), and he declares that the statue is made up of the contents of Auron’s heart. Goofy notes that “he musta had a pretty rough life,” but Sora says “in the end, that’s really what made him stronger.” Sora… he’s dead. He had a rough life, and it killed him. I get what you’re saying, it’s even internally consistent with the story at-large and is the reason Hades brought Auron back. But there is no more foolish a moral than “what does kill you makes you stronger.”

kh2-2016-07-03-15h39m56s272Just then, Dusks slip in through the window. “Nobodies! Where did they come from?” Good question! KH2’s desperate attempt to justify its own plot in the thinnest ways possible? No, you can’t deny me on this one, there is no other answer. The Nobodies are here for one combat and are never internally justified. They’re just here to pretend the Organization is still relevant to the plot, the same way Pete was around to pretend Maleficent still was, but on a much smaller scale. And it’s just a troupe of Dusks: it’s not a creative group of Nobodies you haven’t fought before, you’re not in any danger, the devs just got a memo to add in Nobodies and did it in the most half-assed manner imaginable.

You’re saved from the Nobodies when Hades’ Rabid Dogs attack, and you escape with ease. You return to the Underdrome, where Hercules is nearly at his limit (almost walking off the platform in a daze). Sora tosses over Auron’s statue, and I’m not sure what he hopes to accomplish? He can’t be trying to give it back to Auron. Remember, Auron is carrying a giant sword in one hand and his other arm is broken! Sora tosses it over his head, but thankfully it explodes and restores to Auron automatically. That’s fine I guess. I would have laughed for a good ten minutes if it had just bounced off his chest or sailed over his head into a pit, but I suppose this works too.

kh2-2016-07-03-15h40m50s566Hades is pissed, as you might imagine. Even if Hades’ portrayal is off, I like James Woods’s delivery here. “Because the laughing… is about to stop!” He opens a door at the back of the room to reveal the pit of souls from the end of the film, and teleports Meg to his side. I can only assume Hades can do this to Meg because of the deal they had in the film, even though that was never mentioned in the game. If he could grab any of you, he looks pretty damn stupid when he doesn’t!

If you’re a fan of Hercules the film and have never played KH2, I know exactly what you’re wondering: what did KH2 do with the famous animation error in the film where the pit of souls is both near and far from the ledge? Drumroll please… and it seems KH2 favours “near.” I’m almost disappointed they didn’t screw it up again deliberately, just as an Easter egg.

This scene plays out about how you might expect if you had seen the film. Hades pushes Meg into the pit, Hercules recovers his heroism and dives in after her. Hades then turns to fight the rest of you, Auron rejoining the party, but you still can’t hurt Celebrity Voice Actor James Woods. A brief skirmish later, Hercules returns with Meg and his godly powers, just like the film. He says “A true hero is measured by the strength of his heart,” meshing conveniently with KH’s mythos, and the fight continues with Hercules at your side.

kh2-2016-07-03-15h41m29s828Unlike the fight with Pete where Hercules was simply helpful, you need to rely on Hercules’ powers to defeat Hades. Every time Hades returns to his “red fire” appearance (in a giant pillar of Sephiroth-like flame!), you will need to help Hercules knock some orbs of light into Hades to revert him to the default blue appearance. Like the Devastator, Hades’ transformation is the real damage-dealer – in fact, the rest of the fight is a little boring! If you ask me: Hades’ difficulty seems to have been designed less for this specific fight and more for a later Tournament, where you and Hercules have to fight Hades against a timer and also infinite Hammer Frame allies. That is a pain. In the meantime, this is just a little rote and step-by-step boss battle. Throw in Blizzards, Master or Wisdom Form, and maybe even the Mysterious Abyss (yeah, I said it), and you’ll make a real mess of the King of the Underworld.

Clearing Hades in FM+ gets you Magnet Burst, another powerful area attack. I take back what I said about them moving Explosion for balance reasons. I don’t have a choice: they’ve introduced two pseudo-Explosions ever since they moved the original!

kh2-2016-07-03-15h42m06s992After the battle, Hades manages to trip and fall in the pit of souls, leaving everyone safe and sound (unlike in the film, where it seems Hades will be gone for centuries in that pit, in the game he’s back out on your next visit and walking around his throne room again). Donald asks Auron what he’s going to do now, and Auron considers that maybe it’s time for him to live his own life instead of being someone else’s guardian, and he leaves after a joke that I really appreciate.

Auron: I suppose I should thank you.
Sora: Not at all!
Auron: Fine. [turns and leaves immediately]

Amazing. And then:

Auron: I guess I could spare a few words.
Auron: …Thanks for meddling.

I love you Auron. I look forward to seeing you proper in FFX.

This goodbye gifts you with the Guardian Soul Keyblade, the newest in the line of FF character-weapon-inspired Keyblades, as it looks like Auron’s sword. This one gives you the questionable ability “Reaction Boost,” which boosts the damage done by Reaction Commands. I feel a proper attack ability could cause more damage than Reaction Boost in almost all circumstances, but oh well.

kh2-2016-07-03-15h43m02s138

Yaaayyy, something that hasn’t happened yet!

Sora also says goodbye to Hercules and Meg, who have a curiously delayed reaction to him calling them “lovebirds” (the delay was probably caused by Japanese->English word order). But before they go, they get to say goodbye to Phil, who shows up just in time for them to ask them if they’re true heroes yet. He says no, but then something ridiculous happens. It seems the gods put up constellations of Sora, Donald and Goofy in the sky (which, considering the stars are other worlds, raises questions about which Disney worlds they just juggled), but that’s not what I’m talking about. No, I’m talking about the strange, Kingdom Hearts phenomenon of what I’m going to call “prescient reaction.”

This is a phenomenon that runs up and down KH2 and many of the other KH games, but is probably never as bad as right here. Essentially, characters react to things before they happen. For example, they say: “What’s that?” and only after that does a Heartless appear (this goes at least as far back as the Soldier that ambushed Sora, Leon and Yuffie way, way back at the start of KH1!). This happens constantly in these games, and it never stops being weird once you start noticing it. In this instance, everyone overreacts to the new constellations even before the stars have begun to move, quite possibly making it probably the worst of the lot. And with that bellyflop, we leave what’s probably my favourite stand-alone narrative of the KH2 Disney worlds. Yes. That one. I mean it: Hercules has a character arc that crosses both visits, the gap in between visits is used to give him time to wallow so that his recovery doesn’t seem too sudden, it’s a pretty solid effort!


Wrap-Up

kh2-2016-07-03-15h44m05s477After you clear your fourth Disney world, you get another message from Chip and Dale about their weird reading: the Organization’s base is now even clearer. This is probably meant to designate that what you’re doing in the second loop benefits the overall plot (you’re visiting worlds to make this reading stronger) but there are three problems with suggestion. First: it’s clearly a patch job, with no one else ever mentioning it in-world. Second: it has no justification, as you’re no longer unlocking gates! And thirdly: when you finally reach the Organization’s base, it’s through an existing entrance you just didn’t find before, and this has nothing to do with the reading at all. In fact, even the fact that the world is appearing on the map is a red herring, because you don’t initially access it on the map! You can see what I mean about these Chip and Dale sequences being corrective rather than additive, and even their corrections are faulty.

You might remember that I described the Organization’s world as being one world over a “large mass.” The large mass under the world is now clearly a city of skyscrapers, which might (rightly) call up memories of Deep Dive. The world itself is still out of view (this time it’s because it’s off-screen and the camera refuses to pan!), though a few structural elements resembling the Organization’s crest can be seen.

kh2-2016-07-03-15h44m48s476Your second reward for clearing Olympus Coliseum is access to the Titan Cup. Since the last cup was Drive-focused, you won’t be surprised to learn this one is all about Summons. Aside from using Stitch to reach Jiminy’s pie-in-the-sky objectives (the wiki tells me Peter Pan’s limit is also handy if you use the Tiny Fairy attack), I imagine each player will have their own preferences as to which Summon will carry them through the tournament, rather than swapping them around.

Like in the Cerberus Cup, there is also a special fail condition: this time, a “Key Points” meter (confusingly, right under the “Points” meter!) essentially works as a health bar that you can’t heal. You start with 500 and have to ration them across the tournament.

The final battle of the tournament is against Hercules himself, and while he puts up a better fight than in KH1, he has very slow tells to all his attacks, probably to spare you and your remaining few dozen Key Points. The prize for clearing the tournament is one of KH2’s innumerable AP up rings, and also the Genji Shield for Goofy. Not… really that worth it on its own.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Going Down for the Third Time
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Agrabah Demolitions, Inc


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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