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.
Ansem opens his speech about the complexity of the heart by talking about how he spent years studying the workings of the heart. Years? He earlier claimed to have written only the 1st/0th Ansem Report before stopping! Is he referring to the time after his escape from the Darkness? Or was he lying to himself when he originally said he gave it up? Evidence seems to suggest the latter (bad Ansem!), but I would have appreciated a clearer clue.
Ansem talks about how he created the simulated Twilight Town, saying the occupants were “data created from real hearts,” and that they never behaved how he envisioned. I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about. No one in the digital town seems to have behaved all that unusually?
But for all my complaints, the speech picks up from this point. “A heart is so much more than any system. I saw it when Roxas and Kairi crossed paths. I knew. But I was too stubborn to accept it. It’s always the same. I try to wrap my mind around things my heart already knows, only to fail. While I was trying to bring Sora back, I had so many plans in store. But once Sora was an acting force, they fell apart.”
You know what? That last line, I truly believe it. It almost feels like a writer’s confession, it’s so honest. KH2 has so many narrative problems that you can see them running through the product like a great, gaping fissure, and when Ansem says he had plans and they just didn’t match up with Sora’s active actions, it’s not clear why they didn’t match up (why didn’t he try to contact Sora, even once?) but he’s certainly right, and he sounds like the writer when he’s saying it. “All my research amounted to nothing, compared with that one boy’s heart.”
You know, now that we’ve seen the lengths DiZ will go to get revenge, you have to wonder if any of R/R was rigged in his favour. Was Riku’s heart really devoid of friends and happy memories? I like to believe that it was, if only because if we consider all of R/R to have been a lie, we lose a massive amount of character development for Riku. It would undermine an entire half of the previous game, like Square shooting themselves in the foot. But DiZ is that kind of a jackass, and this game is leaning heavy on the plot twists…
By now, Mickey notices just how wrong things have gone: the machine is about to explode. “Anything could happen!” says Ansem. Just then, Sora and the others run up, and Ansem sees them, telling Sora “the rest is up to you… And Roxas – I doubt that you can hear me – but… I am sorry.” LightUpTheSky points out what I shamefully didn’t catch: he doesn’t apologize to Naminé, does he? Oh KH2, you sure know how to treat your ladies. That detail about Naminé aside, if Ansem had died there, everything would have been fine. In fact, the line seem to have been written as though he were about to die, with urgency and immediacy! Instead… this happens.
First off, the machine does not explode. Ansem insists that no one help him, “My heart is telling me what I must do.” Just then, Xemnas appears. The machine continues not exploding, so he and Ansem can have a chat. They talk about this, they talk about that, the machine does not explode. No joke whatsoever: it takes three minutes and forty seconds to go from “Run, my friend!” to the actual explosion. I understand that Ansem probably doesn’t know when the explosion is coming, but not only is the dramatic tempo ruined, but at no time are we told why he chooses to hold on to the thing. It seems like he could just walk away! I keep expecting him to say “…any second now!” like this was a comedy sequence. I don’t feel like I’m watching a dramatic death scene, I feel like I’m watching a prop malfunction!
In fact, the longer I watch, the uglier this scene becomes. Remember: Ansem is given no reason to hold on to this slowly, slowly heating stovetop, despite his complaints. It does not exist, and that’s important to understand when you approach this scene. The game doesn’t imply that he’s somehow saving everyone else by staying there. And this gets ugly if you follow it to its extremes. Like, let me drag this out to its natural conclusions and show what happens when you don’t think about your implications. Lacking that important context for why Ansem is holding the machine, I can only conclude that Ansem is simply, straight-up committing suicide. Why? His conversation with Xemnas and the others seems to suggest that he deserves to die for his crimes of starting the research on the Heartless and for doing what he did to Roxas, indeed it seems to be going so far as to say that he has a moral imperative to commit suicide. This isn’t just said by him, but tacitly supported by all the lead characters that stand back or even prevent the others from stepping forward to help Ansem, including Mickey St. Mouse. KH2 is having several characters essentially allow a suicide to go through in front of their eyes, because they feel it’s Ansem’s right to choose that and Ansem feels it’s deserved. And so we come to an important question: did KH2 just make a statement in favour of the death penalty via suicide, out of nowhere in the twilight hours of its gameplay? That’s a rather surprising political and moral statement to bring out at the eleventh hour, with no buildup! Don’t you think? I’m not even sure if I should be commenting on it? Should I… should I be writing about actual real-world discussions about the Right to Die or the death penalty? I’m completely blindsided!
Or… tossing all that uncomfortable stuff in the trash… is it more likely that KH2 just make the biggest, most consequential gaffe of its entire faulty narrative by forgetting to give Ansem a reason to hold on to the machine? If KH2 had intended there to be a reason for him to hold on to the machine, but forgot, it would be the triumphant king of Kingdom Hearts’ narrative gaffes. My feelings on the matter are complicated, but… these are your extremes.
It’s a variant of Poe’s Law that I’ll call Ansem’s Law: without a clear statement of author’s intent, poor enough writing can be mistaken for a plot element or theme!
Ansem and Xemnas’ tête-à-tête isn’t worth getting into, which makes our prop malfunction even more frustrating.
Xemnas: You’re responsible for this.
Ansem: You’re evil!
Xemnas: You’re jealous!
Ansem: You’re an idiot!
Children, children, you can both play with the blocks if you share! Ansem does get a good line towards the end: “You have surpassed nothing—only proved how little we both know.” He claims that Xemnas can’t build anything on top of ignorance, says a few additional goodbyes, and finally the machine explodes.
And after all that fuss, I find I don’t even really care? One of the major problems with Ansem’s plot is the fact that it’s just not present during the game! I’ve said this so many times in this retrospective, but KH2 assumes that if it mentions something for a single line, it will somehow have accounted for hours of absence. It’s one of the games’ biggest, most consistent mistakes. Ansem (as DiZ) is in the lesser part of the first three hours, then his reports show up, but in terms of actual appearances, Ansem is missing from the game until the final hours. If he had appeared during main game (as more than a journal-writer), it would have been possible to see him coming to understand his mistakes as the game went on. We could have seen how Sora’s journey was set into motion by a revenge-driven man who gradually discovers his own faults, instead of just having him say it in a speech at the end! The most prominent problem, in my mind, is that they’re asking me to care for someone who hasn’t been in the plot at all. I’d say if you showed me this scene and asked me if I cared more about Ansem or Hayner, Pence and Olette, who aren’t even in this scene but did show up occasionally during the gameplay, I’d still care more about The Other Trio than Ansem. In short: who is Ansem the Wise to me?
Some of the characters change their minds and try to save Ansem last minute, but Riku stops them from running into an explosion and takes much of the blast himself. The explosion causes a massive rent in the Organization’s Kingdom Hearts (it’s possible this was what Ansem was hoping to accomplish by steadying the device, but again: it’s not said by the game, and wasn’t the device supposed to have been damaging it all along?). Hearts escape the machine and rain down over The World that Never Was. Dusks flutter beneath the eerie rain, grabbing at the hearts in a disturbing, mechanical reaction to their orders that – to me – says more about the Organization than most of their actions this entire game. And to make matters worse: every Heart respawns into a Shadow. This is, of course, impossible, as the hearts are the hearts of Emblems, but I get what they were hoping to convey: the Hearts became the simplest possible Heartless in their disorganization, and unfortunately for everyone in the building, they are now a swarm. It’s still wrong, though. Xemnas leaves while no one is looking, probably because this whole three and a half minute conversation with Ansem wasn’t in the original draft.
But most spectacular of all is Riku, whose body has been restored to his original self. Also, his blindfold is back. Where on earth did Riku’s blindfold come from? No, wait, hold on, this whole thing is horseshit and even the cast seems to know it, I shouldn’t focus on the blindfold. The blindfolds is some of the charred and shredded remains of Ansem the Wise, blasted onto his face. Whatever gets us moving on to the next part of the discussion. Forget about the clothes. Let’s talk about how this plot development is garbage.
Let’s recap. Sometime between CoM and KH2, Riku is transformed into Ansem, causing him to stay away from Sora for the entire game. This starts Riku’s plot for the entirety of KH2. KH2 doesn’t bother to address it except in melodramatic bursts, meaning it technically only existed for a few minutes of run time. But you don’t have to agree with me. Maybe you feel this was a critical, major plot that spanned the entire game. I bring that up not just to be representative, but because that’s what the developers were clearly shooting for. Riku’s transformation is supposed to be a major, central plot to KH2. In that case: a major plot that spanned the entire game was just resolved by an openly acknowledged deus ex machina. KH2 did it. They finally did it. I didn’t have to establish they were doing a poor job of keeping up with the Riku plotline because they made it worthless deliberately. They took the plotline and said: “Fuck it, fuck your being interested in a substantial resolution, and fuck your caring about this game.” Did you want to see Riku redeem himself with regards to Roxas? Fuck you. Did you want to see the power of friendship bring him back from the brink? Fuck you too. Did you want to see Ansem redeem himself and so undo one of his lesser mistakes? Why? We might disagree about Riku, but even I feel Riku’s plot was more substantial than Ansem’s. This deus ex machina is a giant middle finger up the ass of anyone who wanted KH2’s resolutions to be satisfying.
I’m of the opinion that no writing tool is in-and-of-itself a failure. A deus ex machina is not, in and of itself, a failure. I feel that writing can only fail in context, but at the end of long plot running from end to end is the exact context where a deus ex machina should be discouraged with flames, because it essentially means that no one has accomplished anything, and the storyline loses all value. The game tries to pass this off like Disney Magic – we all love Disney Magic, right? – but not only is that insulting to the often well and carefully plotted Disney films, but it’s not as though Disney’s deus ex machinae were what made their movies appealing!
This particular deus ex machina is awful for me. I feel this is grade-AAA tripe… but you know what? There’s been so much worse that happened before this deus ex machina, and so much worse to come, that in comparison? I’m not even that upset. I’m really just sort of babbling because I know this scene bothers others in the fandom and that needs to be represented in some way, Atlantica-style. But to me? KH2 just set fire to what it thinks is one of its supporting pillars, and it’s still not the most damage done in the final tenth of the game alone. Things are going to get worse.
Sora asks Riku to take off the blindfold, and he does. Sora asks what the deal was with the blindfold and Mickey says (and note, this is the only explanation we get for it in Vanilla) “His eyes couldn’t lie.” His eyes couldn’t lie. Thanks KH2. Thanks for so much and more.
The friends tease one another for a while, and while I usually appreciate these displays of friendship, this case seems like total narrative dissonance. Sora, I get you’re trying to help him out, and you can’t hear the tragic background music, but holy shit man do you not recognize this is a sensitive moment? Stop acting like a child for five goddamned seconds. Oh, and Kairi isn’t even involved, because the plot has forgotten her. That takes a lot out of this display of “friendship,” as you can imagine. Thankfully, this all stops when everyone notices the rising Heartless swarm. Riku rationalizes that they need to defeat Xemnas, presumably before the Heartless catch up to them, and removes his cloak, revealing his new costume, which I hate.
Riku joins the party as a local party member at this point! Wow, uh, okay. This is a total surprise! It’s a very nice surprise, too! He’s not like most other guest party members, either. While Riku is in play, you actually gain special Reaction Commands. The first follows your combo finishers. The game calls it “Dark Aura,” but don’t get excited at a chance to use Riku’s super-attack from KH1 and CoM: it’s actually Dark Firaga and they changed the name in another of KH2’s weird renaming efforts. There’s also a defensive command called Dark Shield, which causes Riku to teleport to your location where he will cast a shield. This is much harder to use, so much so that I typically don’t bother, but I appreciate their effort. Generally speaking, Riku has some good abilities (including Cure!), but the fact that he doesn’t have Lucky Lucky is something of a deal-breaker if you’re trying to get 100% off those wretched Assassins. Also, I kind of don’t like fighting the final boss without Donald and Goofy at my side. So. That.
One thing that makes it hard to get excited about Riku is that KH2’s teammates haven’t really been up to snuff for a few worlds now. Unlike KH1, which celebrated all of Sora’s connections in its final moments, Duck, Dog and Guest become quite useless in later parts of KH2, and I feel it’s deliberate this time. I’m not sure what’s even causing them to do such little damage: their stats are up to par with yours, so I can only assume their techniques have damage caps or… something. Maybe it’s their slow attack speed? Oh, and Donald does lack -ga level spells (if you count his Boost abilities as providing -ra level spells) and Cure spells higher than Cure itself, so that’s a problem, but it doesn’t account for Goofy and the Guest characters. At this stage in the game, your friends essentially become… how do I put this… “containers?” Donald can heal you, but other than that, your partners exist to distract minor enemies, to carry items, and to “carry” Lucky Lucky, Jackpot and Limits for your using pleasure. KH2 wanted to focus on you as the lead instead of you and your friends, and even though I think that it was a deliberate decision, I’m sure you can see why I think it was a mistake!
Digging around in the soot pile that used to be Ansem the Wise, the party finds Secret Report 11. This report is set just after R/R, and Ansem laments being unable to talk to Mickey while he was still in disguise as DiZ. He talks about Mickey using Corridors of Darkness to move around, and then briefly about Riku. The rest of the report is dedicated to a discussion of the “Realm Between.” Ansem explains that The World that Never Was isn’t the first world we’ve found from the Realm Between: Traverse Town from KH1 was also located in a “cleft between light and dark.” Just a side note, and maybe this is just me, but I wish they hadn’t named both Traverse and Twilight Town the way they did: as both being “T. Town.” In this game, whenever I read Report 11, I always misread the name of the world, sometimes at length, believing Ansem was talking about Twilight Town as the world Sora showed up in in KH1! Whoops!
The party pushes on through an odd door that now seems to be leaking dark energy after the explosion. It’s a curious visual effect, though I can’t quite explain it one way or another. The door leads to the final “normal” room of the game, where the Lesser Nobodies make their final stand. This is a neat room, too, filled with invisible floors that only appear once you approach them, but without the maze-like approach you’d expect from a room like this. I feel mazes should have died in gaming in the 70s, so for once, KH2’s uninspired approach to room layout wins my favour. At the top of the room, we get another cutscene. Yup… another one. I was talking to a friend as I was writing this section, and told her: “this damn backloaded game is going to make these three last rooms bleed me dry, I swear.” I’ve only made it through one of those rooms. I’m not going to get out of this alive.
Kairi, having crawled her way back to the front of the game after being shoved into a corner, notices that the Shadows have found their way into the current room through the windows. This isn’t an instant concern, considering the Heartless are just falling into a pit below the invisible platforms, but Sora resolves to fight them all anyways, even though he was terrified of fighting the Heartless earlier and ugh, who even cares about consistency any more. We’re spared a Battle of Infinite Heartless by the arrival of – I still don’t believe the devs are doing this – Maleficent and Pete. I don’t even care! I just watched a man explode and my response was “I don’t care,” do you think I care about these two?
Okay, sure: Maleficent and Pete have been in more of the game than DiZ. Or… Pete has anyways, though my investment in his comic relief exploits has been minimal. But these two just haven’t proved a need to be here, at any point in the plot. I’ll be frank: they should have been set aside after the Battle of Hollow Bastion. Maleficent had to deus ex machina her way into the plot in the first place, and has had no marked impact on the plot that followed. These characters have no weight. Remember when I said this, ages and ages ago in the first trip to Olympus Coliseum?:
[D]uring this whole scene, Sora never notices Pete. This might seem like another nitpick but it’s actually the symptom of a much larger problem about Pete’s presence that we’ll elaborate on as we go along.
Pete felt like an edit in virtually every one of his KH2 appearances. I suspect that Pete wasn’t originally in that Olympus Coliseum scene – probably in other parts of the world, but not that scene – and in other worlds he probably wasn’t there at all. Pete is some kind of living plot-patch for a worse version of the game that mercifully no longer exists, thanks in part to his efforts. I appreciate his work as an substantive edit, but don’t exactly feel invested in him as a character. I want them to go away so we can move on with the plot!
Maleficent and Pete offer to fight off the Heartless, trying to shout out a verbal contract with the King to let them have the Castle that Never Was in exchange for their services. These two are being put here specifically to explain why the horde of Heartless stops being a plot point – yet again, KH2 throwing out a plot point because it was inconvenient, although I suppose I can’t fault the game for killing two inconvenient plot threads with one stone? But yes, the heroic end of Maleficent and Pete’s “arc”: a minor stooge pair, suitable only for fighting Shadows, something Kairi did with no training not two boss fights ago. Maleficent’s great glory is to disappear from the game for good to go fight Goombas. She doesn’t even take over the Castle that Never Was in later games, which seems to imply that she lost to those Goombas.
And to make matters infinitely worse: everyone but Maleficent and Pete fishface through this entire scene! These final scenes!
And then Mickey makes it worse, even worse than it already was. He says: “They’re doing what their hearts command. We can’t interfere.” I just… had to pause the game to walk this off during the Retrospective playthrough. I honestly did. I don’t know if it comes across, but I’m going to repeat that when I write these things, I try to keep the hyperbole to a minimum, so please realize that I actually did feel the need to walk this off. That might sound silly to you, but trying to apply criticism to a product that isn’t even trying to be good is surprisingly draining. I wouldn’t have believed it myself a few years ago, until I had larger contact with other critics. All credit to those critics that deal with bad media on the regular, because sometimes it fights back!
So. “They’re doing what their hearts command. We can’t interfere.” This is the second time you’ve said that, KH2. You’ve used it to justify quasi-suicide so I feel you must be either very impassioned about this sentiment, or very ignorant. But you know what? I’m leaning more and more towards “ignorant,” because you wrote yourself into a corner with this Heartless swarm, and are using Z-grade characters to get you out of it. I’m not going to put up the pretence any long: you’re using this “heart’s command” excuse to handwave your shitty writing. There is no other way to read “they’re doing what their hearts command, we can’t interfere” except “We have no rational explanation for these plot events and we’re going to tell the audience to stop thinking about it in desperate hope that they will.” I didn’t buy it in the first place and with each plot hole I see yawing under the lie, the further I go from thinking the developers are incompetent by accident and the more I realize that the developers are aware of the problems and refuse to fix them!
Do you remember earlier in this Retrospective when I said I first drafted this in my head and the low quality took me by surprise, and how I wish I could have recorded my initial reaction? Well I wish you could have seen my face as I got closer and closer to the end of the game in my draft, and I realized for the first time that the developers knew they were doing wrong, and did nothing. They knew, and not only did they do nothing but the writers often stuck loyally to their mistakes like there was some glory in doing so. Somewhere between the start of this world and the end, KH2 has gone from a series of accidents in an acceptable product to an Icarian ruin streaking pridefully toward the ground on melted wings, so afraid to make a single concession that its dying words are: “I MEANT TO DO THAAAAAAAT!”
Walt Gluesniffing Disney, we’re only at the Altar of Naught!