Month: August 2016

Kingdom Hearts 2 – That man is playing Galaga!

After the battle, we arrive to find everyone standing around, as though they had never been separated, as of course it’s my theory that they had not been. Kairi is here in her “active” idle, and… look, maybe I’m pushing my theory too hard, but I swear that she’s not facing Xemnas the way her model should be? She’s just facing forward, staring into empty air. Just like last time, she looks like she was re-edited into this scene: either to include her at all, or to edit out her weapon. Kairi’s Destiny’s Embrace never reappears after its first appearance! Why not have her carrying it in situations where it would be practical, like now? And why does it look like they edited it out?

Okay, I can’t prove Kairi was ever really in the party. But it is clear to me that someone at Square Enix certain wanted Kairi unarmed, even if it wasn’t a last-minute edit. She had to play the harmless damsel even if not the helpless one. Taking out Kairi’s teeth was important to someone in the dev team, this was something that was done deliberately. We will be talking about it again, especially in later games, which, as you’ll recall, Kairi is not in. In the meantime, let’s get together as a family and watch a man die.

Xemnas is ranting, saying he needs “more rage… I need more… hearts…” Sora, our little angel, takes pity on him and lowers his weapon, making a speech about hearts having “all kinds of feelings.” It sounds hammy at first, but Haley Joel Osmet sells the final line when Sora hesitates and says: “Don’t you remember?” St. Peter plays off this well by sounding just as genuine and spiteful when he replies “Unfortunately… I don’t.” Xemnas dies.

Everyone starts jumping around to celebrate (Donald, Goofy and Kairi’s tiny, silent background celebration is both cute and silly with their tiny celebration hops). But Riku is standing aside, and when Sora goes to confirm with him that he’s coming back to the islands, Riku angsts: “I had given in to the darkness!” Oh for goodness sake Riku. Look, everyone has their own breaking points, but this is mine. Riku’s angsting worked fine for me in previous scenes, but now he has gone from 0 to 100 in seven, shouted words. But before that can even settle in, Sora makes a funny face and we whiplash back in the other direction!

Just then, the Castle starts collapsing, because this is a video game and we’re lucky it hadn’t collapsed earlier. Riku tries to open a portal, but it seems he’s lost that kind of dark power. Great for his personal arc, but bad for everyone’s survival. Just then, a ghostly afterimage of Naminé appears and makes an extra-large portal, and it’s clear from everyone’s actions that no one can see her but the Destiny Islands trio. Pluto shows up (oh hey, remember Pluto? Not me! I hate to admit it, but I’d have probably left him to die!), and the Disney characters run through, leaving the humans to chat with Naminé. Don’t run for your lives or anything.

Kairi thanks Naminé to which Naminé replies, “Sure,” which makes me laugh, because it’s so understated. Naminé then turns to Sora, and says “See? We meet again, like we promised.” Sora is confused, but not nearly as confused as when Roxas outright walks out of his body like a ghost to continue the conversation with Naminé.

Naminé and Roxas’ conversation is sweet, but a little… strange. First off, McCartney and Snow deliver a mis-matched performance. Roxas acts like he knows exactly what’s going on, as does Snow… until the moment where she doesn’t and is suddenly surprised by everything Roxas is saying? Roxas repeats Naminé’s promise: “You said we’d meet again, but when we did, we might not recognize each other.” Roxas claims that he did recognize her, which is unusual. He then says: “I see myself the way you remember me. And you see yourself the way I remember you.” The way you remember her… from your six minutes of contact together? You don’t actually know one another, you remember that, right? I feel the game is trying to cast this as romantic, which is even more confusing. Now don’t get me wrong: I’d be fine if they were attracted to one another, go right ahead. But I’m not talking about flirting here, I mean romantic, like you’d see in a standing, solid relationship, which seems like it’s missing a few steps. Is it just me? Unfortunately KH2 has never even heard of “a logical progression of events,” and is doing it usual thing: burning context, setup and plotlines alive and hoping you never question it. So here you have it: Roxas and Naminé have maintained their identities against the press of oblivion because… they’re… in… love? I don’t know. Folks, I gave up during the dragon mech sequence.

There’s a little more romantic awkwardness between Kairi and Sora, and Naminé and Kairi take one another’s hands, merging together for good. Sora is gawking, and Roxas him to “Look sharp!” which I like to believe is emblematic of what their relationship might have been like if they had been allowed to meet in normal circumstances. A good contrast of their characters in two words, and a good outro to the scene even if I didn’t like the scene itself. Roxas returns to Sora, and it seems like all will be well.

Welp, time to fuck things up.

Kairi walks into the portal, when suddenly things shake, and the portal collapses, taking her away with it and leaving Riku and Sora behind. I imagine that someone deliberately shut the portal to trap Sora and Riku here, but imagine if the portal had only collapsed because the castle was shaking? That would mean that Sora and Riku were trapped here because they were too busy being dramatic to escape, and that’s… that’s just hilarious. But no, it seems something is up, and Sora and Riku spot the dragon mech re-activate in the distance and take to flight. Whoops, guess you didn’t smash enough of the insides, huh? I personally suspect that in early drafts, the dragon mech was making its first appearance at this moment, and not during phase 1 (which would have just been Kentauros and King), and so naturally it wouldn’t be damaged it all.

At this point, a weird visual effect happens. It’s hard to describe, but the Dark City goes berserk. It’s infinite in all directions now, and also forming a ceiling (check out the screenshot above for a close-up)? The dragon knocks over the Castle that Never Was, but don’t worry: there’s a tandem jet bike nearby that Sora and Riku just happen to find off the edge of the castle. Congratulations: you’re the luckiest shits in the face of pure chance. Riku takes the driver’s seat, while Sora stands on a preposterous ride-along platform, wielding the Keyblade.

The music playing here is the first motion of KH2’s legendary Final Boss track, “Darkness of the Unknown,” which in my opinion has yet to be topped, even after all these years.

I’ll take one last opportunity here to throw a bone to my theory about Kairi being a playable character. I’m not certain whether or not Kairi would have stayed with Riku and Sora during phase 2 of the Final Boss sequence. As I told Divine Past on the forums, the ending works well with her having returned to Destiny Islands, but I also think that Divine Past made some good points in the opposite direction. The answer might lie in the tandem jet bike. Riku drives it and Sora stands on a stupid-looking open air platform, swinging his Keyblade. The bike honestly looks lopsided to me. I can’t help but imagine the bike with another Keyblade platform on the right, with Kairi or Riku taking the other side and the other one driving. It’s just a thought.

The battle with the dragon consists of the mech flying around in front of you on canned animations while you control Sora and Riku on the X and Y planes, as per Gummi Mode. But the canned animation bit really sticks with me, it’s like there’s a strict division between depth levels. Unlike gummis, the dragon doesn’t react to your combat by flashing or flickering or basically in any way until it outright starts losing parts. It also doesn’t attack you, per se. It does use missiles, okay sure, but its primary attack is a series of laser lances that come from nowhere and essentially exist on the “TV screen” depth level with the player. I’m reminded unfavourably of the bad interactivity of 90s FMV games, though on the plus side, the developers seemed to be at least somewhat aware of the interactivity problem and made it very hard to miss your shots. Still, Sora and Riku don’t feel like they’re in the scene they’re pretending to be in. You could be running any visual in the background with lasers spawning around you, and the connection would be just as logical. It could be a video of the dragon mech, the King mech, or a 10-frame animated gif of Gary Busey, the veneer of interactivity is very thin.

(The laser attack is borrowed from Ansem SoD’s final boss fight in KH1, which is neat in its own right, but I’m still focusing on the technical problems at the moment.)

After a short time, some Nobody gummis appear at a similar depth level to the player, and actually interact with you. Spiked Rollers will shoot at you, and Bomb Bells will float around again, existing almost purely for you to use against the boss. Oh, video games… ugh. You have three buttons to use as controls. Riku can pound on a laser to do minor damage to the dragon (and possibly the Spiked Rollers – this section is a little confusing so I can’t be sure) while Sora can use Attack on the Bomb Bells with his Keyblade, knocking them into the dragon just like the hexagons during phase 1 or the Heartless during the Agrabah carpet minigame. You also have to bear in mind that your ship is lopsided. This makes for odd controls as you try to swat things with your avatar’s extreme right side instead of the middle. If Kairi had been on the opposite side, the speeder would have essentially been a whole attacking hitbox, instead of this lopsided affair we have right now. The lopsided nature of the speeder does make the boss fight a bit more challenging, so you’re going to have to make up your own mind about this.

Alongside swatting Bomb Bells into the dragon and dinging its paint job with lasers, you can use Drain. This allows you to gradually absorb the laser fire from the Spiked Rollers to charge a “Megalaser” that can blow away most of the Dragon’s hit bars and is very easy to hit with. Apparently the Organization arms its teeny tiny speeders with a laser powerful enough to destroy any of their major war machines, isn’t that polite? You have to rip the dragon apart one part at a time, until it finally crashes down in the Dark City.

This “shooter” sequence really is something else. It’s bad enough that I feel it warrants specific scorn. In fact, I’m going to go out of my way to cite a professional. Specifically, I’m going to turn to Dr. Ernest Adam’s famous “No Twinkie Database.” Adams is one of the most prolific authors on game design and development, and I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to quote him. His PhD is on interactive storytelling, and you can download it from his website. But his most famous series of articles is the sometimes farcical but always honest No Twinkie Database: a list of admonitions against certain bad design patterns. Not long after I finished KH2, I caught up on the No Twinkie columns as they were at the time, and discovered a certain entry in one of the most recent columns. Published just a few months after KH2’s western release, this column advised game designers to avoid “Extreme Rule Changes When Fighting Boss Characters.” As Adams puts it: “when the changes are so great that all your earlier experience is worthless, the game is being unfair to the player. […] Fights with boss characters should build upon what the player already knows, not replace it entirely.” This is the dragon mech battle to a T. It’s the World of Chaos from KH1, too, and the Spectre from the original GBA CoM, but KH2 goes even further by almost changing genre entirely. Coincidentally, the No Twinkie Database also features entries for “Wrecking a Game’s Balance for the sake of a ‘Cool Feature'” and “Forcible Gameplay Style Changes.” This final boss segment is like an embodiment of everything game devs were doing wrong in the mid-naughties.

Sora and Riku fly close to the crashed dragon, and discover what they had probably already guessed: Xemnas is alive, well, and still driving the mech in his three-tonne suit of armour. It may be that he never left the dragon in the first place and the rest was an illusion. You know, guys, you two don’t actually have to kill Xemnas at this point, if you don’t want to! I’m reasonably sure all three of you are trapped in an infinite, non-Euclidean cityscape, with no escape for any of you. Better to give in to death.

Our duo drops of the speeder and into the crown structure, and we get a dramatic shot of the speeder being blown away by magic wind. The duo even looks surprised. Do you believe this? We just had a plot development in a serious section of the game about a character forgetting to set the parking break! What the heck!

To my shock and surprise, the devs chose this action-packed moment to insert a new FM+ sequence, with voice acting and everything! This one was a surprise for me too – unlike every other new FM+ scene, I had never heard about this one before playing! Remember in CoM, when Sora promised to thank Naminé, but then he didn’t because KH2 Vanilla treats CoM like gum that gets stuck to your shoe? Well it seems that the developers knew fans were angry about Sora not thanking Naminé, as FM+ has him actually addressing the issue. He says: “I couldn’t bring myself to [thank her]. Not until everything was back to the way it was before.” Riku tells him he’ll have plenty of time to thank Naminé later. This is sweet, and I appreciate that the scene exists. That said, it doesn’t really seem like this is the best time? On one hand: yes, this scene is the first scene they could have edited since Naminé appeared on top of the tower, but it’s so unrelated to what’s happening in front of us that Sora might as well have added: “Oh by the way, Aladdin says hi!” If I had my preference, I think this should have gone in a slow, talky section of the ending (you know which one I mean), but oh well.

This repeat battle against Xemnas in his armour isn’t an exact duplicate of the one from phase 1. Xemnas now uses his force fields all the time, though it’s hilarious to watch Riku if Xemnas misses hitting him with the force field: Riku will just stand politely outside the force field waiting for it to drop. Just hangin’ out. Unfortunately for Xemnas, between your Cure spells and Riku’s Cure spells, your chance of actually dying here at the recommended level is very low, so most of this battle is a formality. The game knows it, because it draaaaaaws out the formality as long as possible.

I’m referring, of course, to the extended sequence where Xemnas knocks you from the dragon mech with his long spear weapon, and you’re forced to glide back down to it, once again whether you’ve unlocked Glide or not. Wait, hold on. Gliding is supposed to be horizontal. Isn’t Xemnas… below you? Holy crap, you are in non-Euclidean space! I should have expected no less from the infinite double layered Dark Cityscape sandwich from hell! After knocking you and Riku out of the grown Xemnas raises a preposterous, giant, physical shield over the crown and starts chucking buildings at you, forcing you to dodge the moving one and locate any buildings that are just floating in mid-air, as you can use these stationary buildings to damage Xemnas’ shield. The tooltip you get is not very helpful about this. “Move close to the buildings to use reaction commands,” says the tooltip, without specifying that the moving buildings are dangerous and won’t work! Tooltip! You betrayed me again!

This whole time, Xemnas is going on with this babble about the two of you betraying each other, I’m not even sure why. “Riku, are you sure you’re not jealous of Sora? “Sora… are you sure you can trust… Riku?” This is so half-hearted that I wonder if it’s supposed to sound half-hearted? That is to say: that you’re supposed to recognize these two are inseparable at this point, and Xemnas just doesn’t understand because he lacks a heart? Xemnas also keeps saying “Nothingness… is… eternal!” Oh, stop harping on that, didn’t you get the memo that we’ve all but dropped the idea of “nothingness” being a thing since the original KH1 drafts? God, it’s like he expects this to go to the Realm of Nothingness, which hasn’t even been mentioned by name since KH1:FM in a back-corner journal. That would be a crowning failure of buildup…

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Screaming Noise
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – You’re Home

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).

Kingdom Hearts 2 – Screaming Noise

We return to the main plot on The World that Never Was, where everyone’s still hanging around in a safe zone atop the castle. A bridge of light leads to the big floating door, and the three Keyblade wielders the game actually cares about raise their Keyblades the sky to open it, like a series of spotlights. It looks nice, but I’m going to bring up an old chestnut from CoM and wonder if they should have tried the handle.


Persona 1 – High School Grudges

After the sequence, the party found themselves dropped off in the school’s “Old Gym.” Mark rushed to Maki’s side while Sorrow just sort of stood there, watching his unconscious “friends” with disinterest. After confirming that everyone was alright, the party turned their attention to the subject of the “Old Gym,” explaining that it had been demolished six months ago (you might remember Maki’s confusion about the new gym from earlier). Maki said that they’ve “gone back,” and they discussed the possibility of time travel for a while. Maki brought up an unfamiliar name at this point, Yosuke, and by the magic of plot contrivance, a girl rushed into the gym and said that Yosuke had just been attacked by the girl in black, who was apparently a regular sight here in… urm… the past? Something was clearly wrong.


Kingdom Hearts 2 – Light! Dark! Neutral Gray!

The Vanilla version of KH2 shipped with only a single Superboss (same as the original Japanese KH1), and we’re going to attend to it now. Yes, it’s that loose thread left over from Hollow Bastion: Sephiroth from FFVII! Unlike most Kingdom Hearts Superbosses, Sephiroth is actually tied to a number of plot sequences, though your rematch is the first step in the process, so getting started is as easy as poking him in the thigh. At any point after you clear Space Paranoids, Sephiroth can be found at the Dark Depths, the room where Saïx told Sora they were using him to complete Kingdom Hearts. He’s looking out over Villain’s Vale, probably wondering why Villain’s Vale was added to the game when you can’t visit it and it adds nothing to the narrative. I know I am.


Kingdom Hearts 2 – The Cricket Whip

Welcome back to flashback screenshot theatre!

End-Game Challenges

Before we talk about any specifics in KH2’s end-game challenges, let’s talk about one thing I like above all, maybe my favourite single mechanic from KH2: once you’ve cleared the entire game, the game will hint at the things you’ve missed. This doesn’t happen quite yet, but it exists and it’s wonderful. The journal and the Moogle shop add question marks to their list, implying missed content. It doesn’t tell you what’s missing, though you can often derive from context, and that’s clever too. In a game so packed to the gills as this, this is invaluable.

Lovely as this is, the first thing that will probably catch many players’ eye after clearing Xemnas’ first battle is the New Episode prompt that comes to greet them on the map. As such, it’s a great time to return to…


Persona 1 – Compact Compacts

Heading to the shrine, we discovered Maki’s mother, Setsuko. Mrs. Somomura tells us that her employers, SEBEC and its CEO, Kandori, had deployed a machine called the Deva System that may be responsible for the changes around town. But that’s not why we’re actually here. No, the game has actually brought us here for another chat with our good buddy Philemon, who’s here to give us some vague warnings about the upcoming split between the SEBEC plotline and the Snow Queen plotline. The original North American release subtly changed Philemon’s dialogue to make it about the options you’ll take to the good or bad ending, which was clever work for such an otherwise less-than-graceful localization, but the fact that the speech is parked just before the option to start the Snow Queen quest and only after a choice that affects the ending (your response to the nurse trapped under the vending machine) reinforces that the SEBEC/SQQ split was the original intent.


Kingdom Hearts 2 – My Irrelevant Friends are My Power!

Here we go again!

I need a break. How about we all take a break? Let’s talk about something nice, and interesting. Remember when I promised that second pass of the reunion scene?

This was something interesting during my retrospective playthrough, that I brought up in discussion with KHI user Divine Past that caused it to spiral out of control. You can see the original discussion starting here, but I’ll try to summarize the key points.


Kingdom Hearts 2 – Ansem’s Law

Trigger Warning: Suicide, the death penalty.

You proceed to the next room, and we cut to rejoin Ansem and Mickey (the game not revealing that you’ve actually just entered the same platform they’re standing on). Ansem is laughing, and begins to make a speech about the complexity of the heart. Ansem is hinting at something as he talks, that you might not catch your first time through: the digitization process is failing, and failing hard. He’ll say so outright as it become more obvious.


Persona 1 – Demonic HMO

Once we finally caved and went to the hospital, we were given Maki’s room number and spotted Yamaoka stalking Nanjo from a distance. Yamaoka asked Sorrow not to tattle on him, and we went on into the hospital ourselves. This was a strange place to come back to in our SQQ run, as it’s essentially the last new ordinary building you’ll enter in either storyline! This makes it feel very strange. In fact, it was probably more “realistic” than any other building in the game. The game’s dungeons are laid out in an incredibly hostile way, ala Wizardry, while the malls and (to a lesser extent) the school are laid out for easy video game accessibility. Meanwhile, the hospital was structured like a real-world building, making optimal use of all its space, and that made it feel weird!


Kingdom Hearts 2 – But it was such a pretty butterfly!

After defeating Luxord, you can once again chat with your friends in a safe zone. Riku confusingly addresses his weapon as the “Soul Eater” here (rather than the “Way to the Dawn”), which has confounded discussion of his Keyblade for years. I personally feel it should be regarded as a gaffe on the writers’ part. Meanwhile, Kairi mentions speaking to Roxas telepathically during the prologue, though Sora seemingly still doesn’t understand that Roxas merged with him. Granted, the evidence is very thin from Sora’s perspective, but what narrative purpose does his confusion serve? We’ll explain things to him in one boss fight, but why not have explained things to him when Roxas was in front of him?