Sora and the others walk into the Castle, and Sora IMMEDIATELY STARTS SHOUTING. KAIRI ARE YOU HERE? ARE YOU WITHIN SHOUTING DISTANCE OF THE FRONT DOOR? I’M PRETTY SURE CASTLES PUT PRISONERS RIGHT PAST THE FRONT DOOR. ANYWAY, TELL ME IF YOU’RE HERE. I later discovered that the manga makes the same joke, so I’m in good company. Mickey shushes him, and it’s not going to work, Your Majesty, I’ve been trying to shush him for half this retrospective. Mickey realizes being with Sora is the least safe place he could possibly be, and he runs off, as DONALD SHOUTS AFTER HIM. YOUR MAJESTY, COME BACK!
Elsewhere in the castle, Kairi and Naminé are on the run – if you count that silly animation they’re using as “running.” Naminé is fading in and out of existence as she runs thanks to her proximity to Kairi. Unfortunately, they’re both cut off by Saïx, who “offers” to take them to Sora. Saïx calls his thugs (Berserkers), but the girls are rescued by a cloaked figure holding… the Soul Eater? It looks like the Soul Eater, so much so that the casual observer might not notice any differences, but it’s actually a Keyblade which only resembles Riku’s sword superficially. Saïx reacts with surprise, saying he assumed Roxas killed whoever this is. Naminé announces that this is Riku… mostly so Kairi will realize it’s Riku than the audience, but I suppose it’s here juuuust in case you still haven’t gotten it.
Saïx and Riku fight, Riku slamming Saïx into a wall, and in a clever touch, Saïx just uses the wall to make a dark portal to escape. Riku is going to follow when Kairi interrupts. She’s nearly in tears to see her friend after so long. Remember, Kairi last saw Riku as a ghost over a year ago, when he was holding back Ansem, Seeker of Darkness. It must be a shock to her, then, when she reaches up and removes his hood, revealing the face of Ansem all over again. Nice thematic parallel, though I think it might have been stronger if they had flashed back to her last seeing Riku in Hollow Bastion (in fact, because they don’t, I’m not 100% convinced the parallel wasn’t simply an accident). As this scene is playing, we hear Riku’s theme for the first time in KH2. They’re trying their best, I can’t emphasize enough how deflated this game becomes when you already know “Ansem” is Riku, which really makes me wonder about the game’s revision process. The game was really hoping this would be a dramatic reveal, but no. No.
Riku’s Keyblade never explained in-game, though I love its name: the Way to the Dawn. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten this close to teary-eyed on an equipment screen. It’s hard to say why the Keyblade isn’t explained, either. Yes, it’s explained in the “Director’s Secret Report XIII,” an article of Nomura’s, but that doesn’t really count (besides, his explanation is a jumbled mess). Since I can’t explain the Keyblade without that outside information I suppose I should focus on why the lack of an explanation is an issue. Originally, Riku getting a Keyblade off-screen didn’t bother me at all! I think the first issue with the Keyblade not being explained is that it seems like sequel-baiting that never paid off: after KH2, Nomura famously listed a number of potential plots he might use for sequels, including one about Riku’s actions prior to and during KH2, a sequel that never happened. And even if it’s not sequel-baiting, there’s still trouble.
While I can only speak for myself, I know that I’d have been fine with the mystery if Riku had gained this Keyblade before the events of KH2. The trouble is, he clearly gained it during the events of KH2, between here and Land of the Dragons part 2. That gives the whole thing a feeling of a deleted scene or a plot hole that it simply can’t escape. Keyblades are too important to the series to just have one appear out of nowhere, and while the missing year might have excused it, not this. Not this. Oh, and did I mention that he has two Keyblades, and the second has even less explanation tied to it? But we’ll get to that. Oh boy, will we get to that.
For those tired of hearing about Riku, this generally well-handled scene between him and Kairi has one other smart detail you might not notice on a first viewing: by the end of the scene, Naminé has vanished.
We return to Sora and the others for three rooms of content, during which you’ll meet the last of the Minor Nobodies: the Sorcerer (the non-achievement of seeing all the Nobodies is worth an Achievement in 2.5, because the game wanted to give every section in Jiminy’s Journal its own trophy). The Sorcerers are Xemnas’ personal underlings. They attack with bricks made of “nothingness,” which serve as combination barrier and bludgeon. The bricks will even shock you if you touch them. Sorcerers can be fairly dangerous if they stun-lock you, but the position of their bricks seems to be semi-random (that is to say, the formation the game chooses is random – the formations themselves are probably preset), so it’s not so much the enemy killing you as the RNG reaching out from the PlayStation to slap you in the face. Fire Emblem fans send their regards. Sorcerers can be found in a few places during your first climb up the Castle, but during the post-game they’ll be restricted to just a few rooms, so you may want to risk outright grinding them at this point for their Twilight Crystals.
By the way, the hangar bay you’re in at the moment is called “Nothing’s Call.” The whole Castle is packed with rooms with very dire room names, even for boring hallways. Nothing’s Call looks nice, at least, using the vista system to show just how large an operation the Organization has here. Sadly, after a few rooms the whole place starts looking very sterile and same-y. I once compared the dungeon to an “evil hospital,” a comparison that seemed to resonate with some other fans.
From Nothing’s Call you proceed to a brief elevator sequence – a beat ’em up classic – and then to that staircase you may remember seeing in the FM+ flashback with Zexion and Xigbar. A Moogle waits for you here with a save point, and you’ll want to hit it, because this is where things get ugly. The next room is The Hall of Empty Melodies, an obvious battle arena that even has multiple viewing platforms! Hm, if I installed box seating for the final boss of FFXV, I might make a cool profit! Just a minute, going to write this down… okay, we’re good. Saïx appears on one of the viewing platforms to greet you as you arrive.
Saïx opens the conversation by trying to taunt Sora with the fact that Kairi is meeting up with “her friend from the darkness.” He even plays the “she doesn’t need you anymore” card Maleficent played in KH1. Is this really the conversation we’re having here in KH2? Do you think it’s really going to work? I can’t imagine this working on Sora or certainly not the audience, and since Saïx says nothing more to Sora, I can only assume this is meant for the audience. Are they still trying to pretend Riku might be evil? It doesn’t last – the next time we see him he’ll clearly still be a good guy. Saïx has so much more to talk about than Riku and Kairi, why are we wasting generic villain taunts on this when we could be wasting generic villain taunts on something we haven’t discussed recently?
Good idea! Saïx says the Organization doesn’t need Sora any longer either, because Kingdom Hearts is complete. You must have completed Kingdom Hearts… uh… shit when was the last time you so much as bonked an Emblem on the head? Space Paranoids? Kingdom Hearts must have been ready for a while now, is what I’m getting at, or can’t be ready at all. The Organization should have been willing to kill you at any time. The time you spent fighting Nobodies and investigating, the time you spent caught in the void, fighting Purebloods in the Dark City, being distracted by Roxas… Hell, this sounds like it’s been days since Space Paranoids!
Saïx then reverses on what he said, and says Kingdom Hearts needs one last helping. Make up your mind! But wait, I didn’t write that previous paragraph that for no reason! Saïx summons mostly Purebloods. If the Organization really is this close to their ultimate goal, they should be throwing The Second Battle of 1000 Heartless in Sora’s face. Obviously one of Saïx’s two lines is mistaken, but neither really fits the evidence. Option 1: Kingdom Hearts is done, Saïx’s second line was a lie purely for the sake of a villainous speech (aim high my friend!) and everyone should have tried to kill Sora by now and they’re just really incompetent… or Option 2: Saïx’s first line was mistaken for no reason, Kingdom Hearts is only close to being finished and everyone’s still incompetent because they haven’t sent any Emblems after Sora for nearly a week. The writers get to choose, I think.
It seems the writers have chosen “we’re not even paying attention,” because Sora breaks into a panic about killing the Purebloods that can’t possibly complete Kingdom Hearts, implying that everyone involved in the development process forgot their own rules. By the way, Days will also feature narrative screw ups involving the difference between Emblems and Purebloods, even though that’s far more central to the narrative and there’s a critical gameplay difference between Purebloods and Emblems. These two games are like watching a team of writers try to write about Superman, except writer #3 is convinced that Superman is weak to “green things.”
Sora is so determined not to fight the Purebloods that he lets them dogpile him, and he’s rescued only by the arrival of Kairi a few storeys up. She jumps down to the gallery, where another group of Shadows attack her. Riku follows, his hood down and Ansem face visible to the world. He then hands Kairi that second Keyblade I mentioned, the “Destiny’s Embrace” (don’t read too much into the name – it was named in BBS and arguably for unrelated reasons). Don’t wait for an explanation for the second Keyblade, because you’re not going to get one. Kairi gets a clever line about Sora being helpless without her and Riku (true), and she runs off into the nearest patch of Shadows, blowing through a few. Hey! These two sure don’t seem concerned about killing Purebloods!
Saïx watches all of this, and then sees something else. I’ll let Saix put this into words: “Will the intrusions never end?” It seems Maleficent and Pete are here now. With no buildup! Accomplishing nothing! Just like everything they’ve done in this entire game, so I suppose they’re being internally consistent. Maleficent shows an interest in capturing the castle to be her own Final Boss lair, but Pete is concerned about it being an “in-between world.” Oh sweet goodness, I’m never going to make it to the next gameplay segment alive with all these digressions. OKAY. HERE WE GO. THE “IN-BETWEEN WORLD” THING.
You might remember how we’ve spent about a third of the game so far with Sora shouting about Riku and Kairi being in “the Realm of Darkness” and I objected. Now you might have thought: okay, maybe Sora is over-acting, but isn’t the bad guy’s lair in the Realm of Darkness after all? Isn’t Sora just dealing with Step 1 in the rescue by finding the Realm of Darkness first? I’d have addressed this issue earlier, but I’m afraid spoilers were binding my hands until just this second. The World that Never Was isn’t in the Realm of Darkness. It’s “in-between.” This is building off of a concept we haven’t heard of since KH1, and that’s a problem, because a lot of the foundation of KH2’s finale is built on top of it. Yeah! The finale of KH2 is built on top of something that hasn’t been in the product for 97% of its run-time. Not so much as hinted at. This is… this is… ho boy.
You might remember how in KH1:FM, there was discussion in the final Ansem Reports about “the world in between.” There were also quite a few references to Nobodies being “nothing” or even “in-between” existence. I hope you remember, because western players didn’t get to see these references at all, which is going to make the ending of KH2 even shakier. “Nothingness” is essentially the central characteristic of Nobodies. It seems to me that, at least during the KH1 era, Nomura was interested in exploring a being that doesn’t really exist in the traditional sense of the word. But by the time we reached KH2, the developers were more concerned beings that lack emotion. The central focus has changed, which is fine in-and-of-itself. The trouble is, like many an author who wrote an ending ahead of time but then changed the rest of the book, KH2’s ending is still concerned with the old idea, the subject of beings that don’t exist, something the western Kingdom Hearts has mentioned maybe three times total, in passing. You’ll note the Sorcerers with their blocks made of nothingness, for example. Keep an eye on this, because it’s not going away.
So we look away from Maleficent and Pete, which we did after we looked away from Saïx who was looking away from Riku and Kairi who were looking away from Sora, so we can look at King Mickey come to DiZ. Wow! I don’t care! I feel like I’m watching a six year old tell a frenetic story while they vibrate with pent-up energy. This particular scene just adds to the whiplash because it’s slow and silent after all that build-up to a good old fashioned brawl and inevitable boss fight. Couldn’t they have put this scene anywhere else?
DiZ has been attacked by lesser Nobodies, and Mickey destroys them and helps DiZ up. Having done so, DiZ unties his bandages to reveal the face of Ansem the Wise, because like Riku, this isn’t even a surprise at this point and the writers know it’s best if we just move on. Mickey asks: “Why didn’t you come to me before things got so bad?” I assume “So bad” refers to the giant mechanical fortress meant to staff an army, lit by the apocalyptic fire of a billion hearts, making this Official Understatement of 2005. Ansem says that since the Organization was founded by his apprentices (he focuses namely on Xehanort), this makes them his responsibility. But mostly it was just stone-cold revenge.
Christopher Lee is fantastic here, as ever, and the whole scene is solid despite its poor placement. He gets across a few things very quickly, some more subtle than others. Ansem longs to talk to Mickey, which we learn indirectly – “Riku’s told me a thousand times” that Mickey would never help him with revenge, meaning DiZ kept talking about Mickey! We also confirm that Riku is not evil and Ansem’s spirits seem to lift at the idea that he’s finally reunited with his friends after so long.
Mickey explains that he and Riku separated after CoM because Riku was suffering weight Xehanort’s Heartless left in his heart. This always bothered me, since it deflates – even undermines – the player’s actions in CoM. “You fought to free Riku’s heart? Sorry!” Let the Mass Effect 3 ending stand as example of how players feel when you deflate their efforts. Ansem then tries to explain how Riku lost his appearance: it seems it happened when he fought Roxas, and Roxas won. As a consequence, Riku must have immersed himself in darkness to win the follow-up duel. This conversation is funny. Talking about something just isn’t exciting, even if Christopher Lee does it. I’m sure the developers would have rather shown all of this instead of talked about it… so they eventually did! Some of the scenes that Ansem is talking about appear in FM+! But because this talking scene was in the original, it remains in FM+, meaning the problem is simultaneously fixed and unfixed. It’s not something you see very often!
Geeze, Riku’s transformation is so arbitrary. At the end of the explanation, Ansem explains why he laughed when Riku first called himself “Ansem.” Ansem says he was so ashamed, he had to laugh to hide it. Only Christopher Lee could make this work, because it screams of a writer trying to apply an inadequate explanation to something they did with no explanation in mind – like a TV show that piles on the mysteries with no intent of resolving them. Make whatever topical joke you please, because writers sure as hell aren’t going to stop doing it. Both of these stories will get additional backing from later games, but on its own, KH2 is just doing unjustified shit because it wanted to do unjustified shit, same as half the other faults in this game.
For what it’s worth, I’ll repeat that, if nothing else, this scene is nice on its own. Ansem tells Mickey that “I must make amends to these young people.” After all this time spent seeking revenge, Ansem the Wise seems ready to do something to help someone else. He collects a strange tool he brought with him, and Mickey rests his hand on the machine to help Ansem balance it, looking for all the world like two friends walking hand in hand on an ordinary day.
Back in the Hall of Empty Melodies, Sora shoves a Shadow off him, and according to the sound effects, this kills the Shadow! I can’t decide if the Shadows are just fragile or Sora is just OP, maybe some of both? I’m surprised the game didn’t try to eke out a fight sequence here, but there is a boss fight upcoming. The narrative essentially avoids the question of whether or not Sora is willing to destroy Heartless from this point on by having you only fight Nobodies from here to the endgame. The part where you run off-world to mess around in Tournaments instead of saving the universe goes essentially ignored by the flow of canon, but that’s standard for the entire industry.
Sora spots “Ansem” with Kairi up in the grandstands and is just confused, but he doesn’t get long to think about it, as Xigbar arrives and attacks. No. II follows up with some mind games: he calls Sora “Roxas” and starts saying Sora isn’t “half the hero the others were.” The others, eh? Blink and you’ll miss the sequel hook.
No more talking from this point. Xigbar says “You really shouldn’t have betrayed us,” and the fight is on. And it’s a doozy. FM+ players already knew the gloves were off thanks to Roxas, but this is where Vanilla players get slapped awake. Xigbar opens the battle by teleporting away from Sora (…after teleporting in?) and taking out his “Arrowguns.” This particular set of Arrowguns is called the Sharpshooter. The Arrowguns have a long and complicated history of censorship internationally, and thanks to dlppictures for correcting me on the details. In Japan and for some reason in 2.5, Xigbar combines the guns them to form a sort of sniper rifle, while in pre-2.5 English versions, Xigbar simply balances one Arrowgun on the other to snipe. The camera then goes into his perspective as he takes aim at you. This shot actually includes one last bit of censorship, though it’s a clever one: in Japanese versions, Xigbar’s rifle uses traditional crosshairs, while English versions use a set of sci-fi crosshairs, which I feel look far more interesting, so at least something good came out of it.
This is a curious sequence. If you pick the wrong “solution” to the problem, Xigbar will be able to teleport back to his perch and snipe you at various points in the battle, but it’s not so inconvenient as to consider this a mandatory puzzle. As Xigbar takes his shots (as indicated by the crosshairs), you could dodge the attacks, but the proper response is to Guard against them, which will cause Sora to deflect the shots into the Sharpshooter and break its sniper rifle mode after a few deflections. Xigbar won’t be able to snipe you after that. Of course, you still have to deal with the actual Arrowguns, but at least he’ll stay where you can hit him!
If you can hit him, that is. Xigbar is a chase boss, teleporting around the arena while you run after him. If you haven’t been doing Drive training throughout the game (namely Quick Run, Dodge Roll, or if you’re incredibly industrious and have been grinding in the past two or so rooms, Glide), you’re going to be in trouble. Xigbar’s combos can be deflected with Guard, though this only occasionally puts you in a position to attack. In other occasions, you’re going to have to rely on your impeccable speed, or on windows of opportunity provided when Xigbar reloads (yes, the magic space wizard has to reload his laser bows, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!). He’ll occasionally fire a blue bolt or two that can be Warp Sniped like his Snipers. The fight is frantic, but consistent at a moment-to-moment level, even if the big details change.
Speak of the devil: after a time, Xigbar will exploit his space powers to actually change the structure of the Hall of Empty Melodies, creating one of a several different platforms. One of the platforms is a long “hall” you have to cross if you want to attack Xigbar. Next, a small “maze” of sorts you have to navigate as he snipes you. Last of all is special: this is a platform where Xigbar performs his “limit break.” All the Org members have had a desperation phase like this so far, though none quite so overt as this, with Xigbar changing both the platform and his attack pattern, causing him to spam projectiles like a machine gun. I’ve already said this in the past, but it’s still true: one of the great virtues of Critical Mode is that bosses typically die before they can repeat their desperation attacks. I’ve seen/played Proud playthroughs that had to survive the wretched sequence three times or more!
After you kill Xigbar, he begins to die surrounded by visual distortions among the usual black tendrils that envelop Nobodies, which I guess is the dev’s best attempt at illustrating “space” magic. I don’t think I could come up with much better, to be honest. Sora tries to ask Xigbar why he called Sora “Roxas,” but Xigbar decides his last act will be to spite Sora, and he dies giving Sora nothing.
Clearing Xigbar gets you Secret Ansem Report 3. In Vanilla, it also gives you Magnega, though that was put off for a few rooms during FM+. Why? I’m not entirely sure, maybe because of the giant prize pile you got from Roxas? There’s a boss in the middle, but if he’s vulnerable to Magnega then he’s going to be nearly as vulnerable to Magnera, so I can’t believe we gained much by pushing Magnega past him!
Secret Report 3 is the only one of the World that Never Was reports that didn’t change hands in FM+. In it, Ansem recounts a few high-concept ideas from KH1 (World having hearts, the Realm of Darkness) and writes the names of his other apprentices for the first time: Xigbar was “Braig,” Xaldin was “Dilan,” Vexen was “Even,” Lexaeus was “Aeleus,” and Zexion was “Ienzo.” (Somehow, when I first posted this, I forgot one of the game’s most infamous mistakes! The NA release mistakenly translates some of the names to “Bleig,” “Dilin” and “Eleus!” Thanks to FudgementGuardian for pointing out this tragic oversight, and dlppictures for reminding me that the PAL version fixed it!) KH2 isn’t going to give you the names of later Org members like Axel and Saïx, so you have a little while longer to turn in those acronyms for full marks. Ansem also explains the meaning of his new identity, DiZ, saying it stands for “Darkness in Zero,” as he is darkness in the middle of the void. All of these names seem like a stretch, but I’m not going to blame anyone for them. The localization already had the acronym rule, so they had to settle on something.