After the fight with Xigbar, we cut to Ansem and Mickey, who observe Riku and Kairi still battling Heartless. Ansem says they should move on, since all will be well now that the friends are about to reunited. Mickey asks him his opinion on whether or not Riku will ever regain his form, and Ansem simply says it won’t be easy, since Riku took the form voluntarily.
You regain control of Sora at last, and if you’re like me, your first action to reunite Sora with his friends after all this time will be to turn tail and run the other way, so that you can save! Oh, and a nice touch: you actually can look up to see Kairi and Riku in the viewing gallery, though they aren’t moving. It’s like Seifer’s gang in the prologue, except not quite as creepy since they’re further away. After all this silliness about “Look at that invisible Groundshaker in the distance!” I think I’ve changed my mind about Seifer’s gang in the prologue: better creepiness than nothing at all.
You fight your way to Naught’s Skyway, a simple staircase-like hallway famous with many a player who’s tried to grind in this game. This is one of the two rooms that still play host to Creepers during the post-game, but this one is special because not only are there more of them, but they’re almost unguarded, making it a popular grinding spot for Final Form and experience points alike. Anyone going for the late-game challenges will be sick of the place by the time they’re done. Past Naught’s Skyway, you make your way to the viewing gallery to unite with Riku and Kairi. During your first visit, there will be nothing here but cutscenes, but should you return from the room, the viewing gallery will be filled with Assassins. In fact, it’s the only room Vanilla game to host any Assassins at all after Axel’s death, which makes hunting for their Twilight Gems a pain and a half.
Before Sora’s long-awaited reunion, we cut to the pinnacle of the castle, where Xemnas is standing watching the finalization of Kingdom Hearts, seemingly oblivious to the war going on in the lower levels (keep this scene in mind during Days, when the characters will comment on similar behaviour from Xemnas). Saïx arrives and he poses Xemnas a direct question, which is very unusual for him. He asks Xemnas if Kingdom Hearts is ready, and Xemnas says almost (well I guess that answers that). Saïx then asks what may be my favourite line of his, not for the context of the line, but for Xemnas’ reaction. Saïx says, “Then, I can end this charade?” Xemnas looks up, as though he’s surprised by the suggestion, only for it to rapidly occur to him as a good idea, and he says, “Indeed.” Saïx smiles for the first time and says “How I’ve waited to hear that.”
This exchange does a great job of showing you that Saïx is the right-hand man here, the second in command, and that Xemnas really does value his opinion and indeed, that Saïx sharpens Xemnas’ impact just by being an underling, and that Saïx may very well be the second-most-dangerous person in the building. You have to wonder how this working relationship developed when Saïx wasn’t one of the original six, and luckily, you’ll get some more hints in Days. In this scene I feel you see the first signs of what we’d learn about Saïx in games to come.
Okay, finally. This next scene is so complicated that I’m actually going to have to cover it in two passes, each pass with a different focus. Unfortunately, the second is going to have to wait until later in the game when we have additional context. Are you ready for pass one? Let’s get into it.
All five leads – Sora, Riku, Kairi, Donald and Goofy – are present in the viewing platform in the Hall of Melodies. Everyone lowers their weapons now that the Heartless are cleared, and surprisingly, it’s Donald who makes first contact, complimenting Kairi on her fighting. Sora then comes to her and says, “You are different, Kairi,” which is certainly correct, but seems unprompted. I guess he’s talking about her appearance? Her behaviour? It strikes me this is a localization mistake, but it’s possible it’s in reference to the “Sora, never change” scene from KH1 that I covered in one of my earliest posts. Remember, the opening poems in this game and ending poems in Re:CoM suggested that the theme of KH2 would be personal change and reunion, so it makes sense that KH2 would be more willing to accept change than the childhood sentiments of KH1. More on that in a minute.
Kairi hugs Sora, to his surprise, and whispers, “This is real…” which is something of a tearjerker. Riku takes this as his cue to leave, but Sora sees him make the portal and goes to stop him. Now, keep in mind that Sora doesn’t know this is Riku, so what happens next is one of my ranking favourite Sora moments, maybe as high as my #2 favourite Sora moment, and is one of the reasons I’m proud to have him as lead character despite… incidents like in Hollow Bastion. Sora goes up to Ansem, and tells him that he’s still angry about everything from KH1, but he also recognizes that Ansem just helped Kairi, and thanks him for that. Sora recognizes that nothing Ansem has done recently nullifies what he did in KH1, but also recognizes when to say, “Thank You.” Both are incredibly valuable in their own ways, and I think there’s more value in this fraction of a scene than there is in all the visual pyrotechnics and melodrama that seep from every other pore of the product.
Riku takes this in silence, and once again turns to leave, before Kairi protests and calls out his real name. Kairi, your protest may have been more effective if you weren’t unconcerned and fish-faced a moment ago. Riku tries to pretend that he’s someone else, so Kairi appeals to Sora to come and see. She puts Riku’s hand in his and tells him to close his eyes – keep the fact that Sora had to close his eyes in mind when we come to the subject of Riku’s blindfold. In his mind, Sora sees Riku (returning David Gallagher’s voice acting to the character), and Sora begins to break down crying.
Oh, this poor scene. This scene gets so much flak, it’s infamous. And you know what? I don’t like it either. But here’s the funny thing: when I take the scene into my hands and examine it, I don’t think there’s much wrong with the scene itself! Well… not much wrong besides the game’s propensity for melodrama, which, okay, yeah, that’s out of control and I won’t deny that it’s in this scene as well, but give me a minute, because this scene doesn’t bother me as much as the keyboard scene from Hollow Bastion. First, let’s identify the central problem – or at least the central problem once you set aside the melodrama. For me, the scene’s chief problem – like so many of KH2’s problems – is one of context. Sora is reacting stronger to Riku than he has any other stimulus across the past three games. Sora fell to his knees when he lost the Keyblade in KH1 and again in his attempt to get Kairi back from Saix (easily forgotten when he had such a mild reaction to Kairi here), but he’s never, ever cried like this. Excusing the melodrama, has this scene earned this particular reaction?
My answer may be lot more complicated than you expect. I feel Sora’s reaction to Riku is supposed to be the emotional payoff to one of the game’s central threads, so let’s look back to Sora’s “My friends are my power” speech from KH1. This was a close-to cheesy scene that I felt succeeded on a much higher level because the game had provided it with a proper context, being the end point and exclamation of all of KH1’s central themes. If we examine this crying scene under a similar light, and ask the question: “Does Sora crying at Riku’s feet start to exclaim, embody or resolve the game’s central themes?” I think most of us will answer “No.” But what if I asked you a different question? What if I asked you: “Is the scene meant to accomplish that?”
Kingdom Hearts 2 is not a successful work of fiction, by and large. Kingdom Hearts 2 is a mess. Throughout this Retrospective, I’ve been exploring the game’s faults, largely because this is a critical work, but also because I want to make a few important points before the series Retrospective is over, and one of them requires you to understand that I feel Kingdom Hearts 2 is flawed. Before I can make those big points (some time from now), I need the reader to understand that KH2 has these mistakes, and secondly why I think they may have been made.
I said in one of my very first KH1 posts that if I want to be a critic, I don’t want to replace the author’s content with something I think would be “better,” but rather to be the kind of critic that works to enhance the author’s original intent. So if we’re going to do that kind of criticism for this scene, we need to wind the reel back a bit and identify the purposes this scene serves. Firstly, it obviously serves the practical purpose as one of the final scenes in the Riku plot in KH2. Secondly, the theme: which of Kingdom Hearts 2’s central themes is this scene supposed to serve? Don’t worry, it’s not a hard question, I’ve been mentioning this particular theme throughout the entire Retrospective: the theme of “reunion after a long period of change.” Ansem the Wise keeps mentioning it, which makes it even easier to identify.
The developers spelled out this particular theme as early as the poems at the end of CoM and Re:CoM. You can see elements of this throughout the entire game: the Heartless and Nobodies are divided, Sora and Roxas are divided, Roxas and Naminé, Sora and Riku, Sora and Kairi, Kairi and Naminé, Riku and Kairi… it goes on. Roxas’ “another promise,” first introduced to us in Re:CoM, also has to do with reunion, but you’ll have to wait and see what I mean about that. We also have Hayner talking about what the Other Trio will do after they grow up and become separated which the developers introduced like a blunt instrument. Speaking of a blunt instrument (wait for it…): even Goofy’s “death” is an example of separation and reunion! (It’s funny because he had a concussion!)
Themes of returning to a changed relationship are also seeded in the Disney plots – and you can certainly see how the return trips to the Disney worlds benefit this particular plot angle! Hercules has to recover his lost strength from emotional distance and become a greater hero than before. Iago tries to reunite and become friends with Aladdin and friends. Jack Skellington arguably tries to reform and make a better first impression on Santa. Auron’s rough life as a guardian made him a stronger enough person to come into his own (…as a dead man…). Even Simba’s self-doubt plot in the second trip to the Pride Lands arguably fits the mould of “fitting in where you don’t necessarily belong any longer.” Like in KH1, this theme is probably best exemplified by 100 Acre Wood, where Sora went back and just wasn’t fitting in any longer, despite Pooh’s promise that he could always come back and be remembered.
However, if Sora’s reunion with Riku really is the capping scene of both the Riku plot and the reunion theme, we have to acknowledge two serious problems: namely, that both of these elements – the plot and the theme – are in absolute ruin. The Riku plot first. The Riku plot began to flounder the moment Riku drew his Soul Eater outside the mansion in Twilight Town, exposing his identity as “Ansem.” From this moment on, the Riku plot was functionally resolved. It had no tension: Riku was safe, if in an unusual form, and was looking after Sora all along, and we all knew it. I’ve tried to cover the faults of this plotline partially for this very payoff.
The scenes involved in the reunion theme were also faulty in one way or another. The biggest trouble with this theme is that there really wasn’t much doubt involved that relationships would return to a healthy new norm in this friendship-happy series, and the payoffs tended to be weak or strained. “My friends are my power” took place after Sora’s friends had abandoned him and only just then reunited with him, which makes the scene work, but this tension is lost in KH2’s reunion theme. The Disney reunions in KH2 were incredibly weak. The 100 Acre Wood sequence, otherwise our Disney front-runner, ended arbitrarily. Riku, Sora and Kairi’s relationship rarely felt like it was ever distant (it’s hard to worry if someone still cares for you if they, like Riku or Kairi, have been showing gestures or making efforts to care about you across the entire story!). The only tension left in this theme was whether or not Sora would accept Riku in his new form, to which I’d say: of course he would!
But here’s the funny thing. If I want to figure out how to clarify the developer’s original intent, I have to put myself in the developers’ point of view. So I did my best: I tried to imagine the Riku plotline is still a mystery, I tried to imagine that there have been multiple examples of reunion after a long period of separation that have ended in a number of different ways. I tried to imagine a Kingdom Hearts 2 that had gradually approached Hayner’s idea of adulthood, where people can’t always be together but they try to make the best of the time they still have. And in doing that, I realized that, in my opinion, there are very few problems with Sora’s crying reunion with Riku! Look at him: Sora doesn’t care about the long period of change, which brought Riku so close to the ultimate darkness! He accepts his friend the same as ever! Like KH1 approaching “Is any of this for real or not” with a cliche flip to surprise us with yes, Hayner’s trusim about adults have to split up is greeted with a surprise no. It’s a wonderful capper to what should have been a wonderful set of ideas, themes and buildup. I wouldn’t replace it for the world.
The problem isn’t with the scene, it’s with the scene’s context.
The problem is with the entire rest of the game.
Now you might ask me: doesn’t this also apply to the keyboard scene in Hollow Bastion? In my opinion, sort of, but not entirely. Smashing the keyboard would still be an idiot ball scenario even in an ideal context, and still shows a lack of respect for the audience. A second problem: what if the developers did know that Riku’s identity as “Ansem,” was obvious to the player? In that case, they must have been hoping that the player would simultaneously empathize with Sora while having different knowledge than him, which is absurd. This is fundamentally a mistake – most players cannot segregate their characters to such a degree that they genuinely feel two distinct sets of emotions. If you can, definitely congrats, but I feel you’re the exception. Moreover, I still think that’s a problem with previous scenes rather than the crying scene itself.
A third, more notable problem in my opinion is the problem of Kairi. Now, a lot of people approach this scene and, instead of saying “Sora is acting extremely,” they say “The problem with this scene is that Sora reacts more to Riku than he does to Kairi.” I understand where this is coming from, though I don’t personally think this is a problem with the scene. Again, mind the “with” – the problem, again, is with context: I think Sora’s reaction was supposed to make sense, but the context scuttled it. I’ve got two major reasons for thinking that. First off, let’s be clear that the developers, for all their faults, probably got the proportions between Kairi and Riku’s reunions exactly where they wanted them to be: after all, the two sequences run one after another and that would be hard to screw up, and for that matter, two teary reunions in a row would have been bad pacing (though frankly, they could have just separated them…). Second off, it wouldn’t have been a very hard fix! One could have easily made Sora calm down when he Kairi from the Hall of Empty Melodies, for example. So I once again feel the problem isn’t with the scene, but with its context, but I admit it’s harder to prove this time around. I’ve already discussed how Sora did fall to his knees for Kairi in the past, for all he didn’t cry, but it goes beyond that. That’s is because Kairi isn’t treated very well by KH2’s context, and it may very well be that the context doesn’t exist. How badly is Kairi treated by the rest of the game? Well, this is where this little exploration gets… uncomfortable.
Cutting to the chase: it’s just clear to me that the developers of KH2 just… didn’t like Kairi. So far, they’ve sidelined her, stripped away her agency, blamed her for her lack of agency, and things are only going to get worse from here until the end of the game. Laughably, pathetically worse. In fact, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that KH2 has been doing this to a number of the women in its purview. Mulan has been covered in detail, Meg was deflated, Jasmine was threatened with forced marriage (and goodness knows, worse) while before that she was basically invisible, Elizabeth Swann was sidelined from her action role in her original film (especially odd when you consider Port Royale’s overzealous copying of the original film), Ariel repeats mistakes she already made in KH1, and Nala – while I hypothesized that she might have been playable at one point – is sidelined during the second trip even though it’s about her best friend and mate’s emotional well-being! There are exceptions, of course, like Belle and Olette, but I’ve suggested in the past that different authors may have been working on different worlds, and… well…!
If that doesn’t convince you, I’m sad to say that the Kairi situation is only going to get worse before it gets better, with no major appearances for Kairi in any game to date. Nomura and the like only recently seem to have come into the idea that people might want to see more of her, while they wrestle with some… curious ideas about female characters that I’m going to have to explore over the next two games.
But there’s another ugly idea wrapped up in this scene that I feel I have to address that has nothing to do with the developers, but rather with the fans. Often, the complaint “Sora reacts more to Riku than to Kairi” isn’t couched in concern for Kairi, but rather in homophobia. “Sora reacts more to Riku than to Kairi, that’s gay, and that’s wrong.” In fact, I found that to be overwhelmingly the case in the mid-to-late 2000s, i.e. the initial reaction to the game. I mean, these arguments were all over the place when I first got into the fandom a few years after KH2, and then promptly turned my ass around and left the way I had come, not to return for years. In fact – and this is sad to say – but I don’t think the crying scene would have half as infamous today if it hadn’t built up such a strong, homophobic head start in the fandom.
You don’t even have to be homophobic to have repeated the homophobic argument. It’s just a way people behave: you don’t like the scene for your own reasons, you see an argument that works, you don’t question the motivation behind the argument, and rather than think of your own, you repeat the argument in your own right. It’s an unfortunate sort of thing that happens every day, and sadly, we’re not only going to see it again in the Retrospective. Even worse, the next time we see it, we’re going to be confronting a bigotry that seems to have become an overwhelming fandom consensus rather than something the fandom confronts.
…Boy, you turn over one rock and you find a hundred bugs, don’t you? Where were we?
While Sora is having his cry, Donald and Goofy confirm with Riku that he was the one who gave them the clues to DiZ’s password. He tells the others that he’s stuck in this form, but Sora doesn’t care: “You’re still Riku, no matter what!” Together, our leads go off to have “one last rumble.” That’s all for that scene – at least for now. As I said, we’ll be revisiting this scene a little further up the world
Clearing this scene gives you the much-delayed Oblivion keychain. Like in KH1, the Oblivion is bad for your magic stat, so much so that its ability only works when you don’t have any magic at all! Specifically, the Oblivion’s ability, Drive Boost, boosts your Drive Gauge recovery during “MP Charge,” the state you’re in when MP has been reduced to 0 and is recharging. The fact that both the Oathkeeper and Oblivion have Drive-related skills is a nice touch: not only does this make them uniquely valuable, but it unites them and also shows how they, like Drives, represent Sora’s connection to others.
Higher up the castle, the two kings have finished their march, with Ansem the Wise having called a halt to set up his weird tube-thing. He explains to Mickey that the device is, essentially, the same thing as the machine in Twilight Town: it digitizes things. Since hearts can’t be destroyed, he plans to use his device to essentially steal Kingdom Hearts from under their noses! Jiminy later calls this device the “Kingdom Hearts Encoder,” which sounds like something you’d find in a cereal box in the 80s. But Ansem says that he has no idea if it will work: “Hearts are unpredictable.”
Together, you proceed with the party to a place called “The Proof of Existence.” This is a truly interesting room, one of my favourites. Many of you will probably be familiar with the concept of “memento mori,” an artistic concept designed to remind that the viewer is mortal and will one day die. The Nobodies, however, require an opposite reminder, a memento vivere (thanks Seraphiel!), a reminder that Nobodies exist and can still impact the world. To drive the connection home, these mementos are just as morbid as any memento mori: a series of tombstones-like arches marked with each member’s weapons and titles. A magical field appears in each arch, as though they were meant to be portals. But just to make things all the more morbid, now most of the arches have been damaged or destroyed by the deaths of the Organization members. Only Saïx’s, Luxord’s, and Roxas’ remain, and Roxas’ is inaccessible. Oddly, Xemnas doesn’t seem to feel the need to have an effigy of his own… (Ed. Correction! Seraphiel points out that the door at the back has the Roman numeral I on it, implying that Xemnas is back there, which he is!)
This room is also home to one of KH2’s more famous artistic touches: Zexion, who was not fought in the original GBA CoM, had not had his weapon revealed at the time of KH2’s Vanilla release. As a result, his weapon remains hidden here in KH by the outright collapse of his arch!
The way past the proof of existence is blocked with a somewhat excessive vault door. I’m not sure what sort of garish locking system Xemnas has going on here, but you can probably guess how it works: kill everyone in the room to pass. To do this, you’re going to have to go through not one, but two brutal Org battles in a row, starting with Luxord.
Luxord seems to realize just how superficial his role is here. While I actually do like the idea of having to fight two Org members in a row, the way it’s being done stinks of formality. Even the upcoming fight with Saïx seems to exist more because there has to be a fight than for a reason, even though there are plenty of reasons of the heroes to fight Saïx! But more immediately: Luxord had very few opportunities to express himself prior to this final battle. That’s why I keep trying to assign Luxord different roles in my head. “Oh maybe he could have been an emotionless Organization member.” “Oh, maybe he could have been outright replaced by a woman – preferably one with a personality, but at this point the gender imbalance is a problem in-and-of itself and could have been easily patched up if not outright remedied.” Luxord’s nice enough, but his character’s so shallow that I don’t really feel like he’s worth keeping, either!
Luxord’s entrance is to the point: you arrive on an open-air platform and see Ansem the Wise’s laser at work in the distance (god knows why Xemnas doesn’t just send a pack of Sorcerers to clear him out, just out of reflex), Luxord shows up and captures everyone of the heroes but Sora himself on a series of giant playing cards. When Sora tries to protest, he says, “I’d rather we just skip the formalities.” It’s like I said: he knows he doesn’t need to be here. Good line, though.
Luxord explains the gimmick of his battle during the opening camera pans. “The first to run out of time is the loser.” This causes two “Time” gauges to appear on the GUI. The gimmick is hard to explain, but I’ll give it a shot. Essentially, you have two health bars during this battle: your normal HP bar and your new Time bar, the latter of which you can’t restore by any means and will slowly decrease on its own. Luxord, meanwhile, only has the Time bar, which takes damage like yours and decreases automatically at (I believe) the same rate as yours. To damage your opponent’s Time bar, you can either hit them as normal, or play the Gambler reaction command “Begin Game.” If you win the game, you’ll lop a chunk of time off Luxord’s Time bar. If you lose, not only will you lose a big chunk of time, but Sora will randomly turn into either a card or a die. Oh, and Luxord opens the fight by immediately turning Sora into a die, just because he’s an asshole.
During the battle, Luxord will attack you with a number of his giant playing cards, often using some of the cards as shields that will hover between you and him. The “shield cards” aren’t a huge problem, as finisher techniques like Explosion will often damage Luxord even if your swing contacts a card. This is certainly a battle that rewards a small combo. You can also use a reaction command, Flip, to get rid of the cards immediately, but some of the cards have traps on the opposite side, which can reduce your Time or simply blow them up in your face. Thankfully, you can check the back of the cards just by rotating the camera in the right direction! Nevertheless, I personally try to avoid Flip and unnecessary camera movements, just so I can focus on the fight.
After he’s lost enough Time, Luxord takes on a new strategy. He merges himself with a card, and mixes himself in with a patch of others. You have to use Flip to find him at this point, lest the cards attack you, leaving you open the time and fire traps. To me, I find it relatively easy to track Luxord’s card or to pick it out the pack with camera movements, so for me this is simple mechanical texture, but I’m sure there are a few players out there that have trouble keeping up. To them, I recommend focusing on the camera this time around – Luxord’s cards are more dangerous if you flip them at random than if you take it slow and steady.
The biggest threat in this battle is Luxord’s limit break. The asshole dumps a game of 52 Pickup on the floor, and starts springing out of cards at random. No guide I’ve read has had much better advice here than “with good timing, you can block the attacks,” which is honest, if not particularly helpful. I’m afraid I can’t improve on that advice, either. Even spamming Reflect doesn’t help that much. After the initial phase of the limit break, Luxord traps you both in a box of giant cards, where you’re forced to play an expanded “Begin Game”-style game. Instead of landing just one circle on your command bar, you have to land one in each of the four slots, without hitting a single X. If you pull it off, the fight is essentially over and you only have to complete the formality of landing a combo finisher or spell. If you don’t win the gamble, poof! You’re a card again and your Time bar will be tanked. I hear-tell that if you lose the desperation attack gamble twice, winning the fight becomes outright impossible, so keep on your guard!
Thankfully, you don’t have to win Luxord’s special limit break gambling game to beat him, which is more than I can say about a certain bonus boss…
Luxord dies, once again addressing Sora as “Roxas” as others have done. Sora’s friends are returned to the real world, and back you go to the funky graveyard. Killing Luxord gets you Magnega in FM+, and also another Secret Report that depends on version. In Vanilla, this is Report #8, the one FM+ players got from Roxas. Since Report 8 was just a plot recap of previous games, I agree with FM+ in putting it as early in the game as possible (frankly, it should have been hours ago, or even at the outset of the game). In FM+, Luxord gives you a new report, Report #9.
Report 9 carries on the story of CoM, putting the two CoM recaps right next to one another in FM+, where they’re in reverse order in Vanilla. A perfectly reasonable change. This report touches further on Naminé, though it doesn’t really say much that report 10 (which you got in Twilight Town) hasn’t already alluded to, which makes me wonder why they doubled up. I suppose the clarification is nice (I am talking years after the fact, after I’m well acquainted with these details). There are some new details: namely about why Naminé lacks Kairi’s memories. The answers are essentially the same as why she has power over Sora’s memories: she was born in a weird way. Still, I can’t help but suspect the reports were split just because Report 9 ran a little overlong!