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.
You might remember that when you entered the viewing gallery of the Hall of Empty Melodies, the game cut to Ansem and Mickey, and then returned to Sora and the party. At this point, I said: “Everyone lowers their weapons now that the Heartless are cleared.” What I didn’t say was that they’re all facing away from one another as this happens (pictured below), as though the Heartless just hit them from all sides. After this, Donald compliments Kairi on her fighting. Clearly a battle took place, but we saw none of it. Where did that cutscene go? KH2 doesn’t tend to rely on off-screen implications to save time, note how they went into detail about Riku and Roxas’ battle three times when they weren’t able to show it (from Ansem, from Riku, and from the Report). So where did the battle go? My guess is that it was originally an actual combat sequence that was cut from the game for time. Keep in mind that KH2 doesn’t show things in cutscenes that it could easily show in gameplay.
Following this sequence, things get weird. Riku and Kairi are cut from the battles with both Luxord and Saïx. Obviously this was to keep Riku out, as his Ansem form wouldn’t have been programmed to fight, right? And Kairi must have been similar. But the game keeps forgetting about Kairi. Over and over again, before and after this point in the game, I find myself saying “Oh right, Kairi!” as though she had walked off between shots even though she hadn’t. But then it occurred to me: what if there’s a reason she features so minimally in cutscenes? What if it’s for the same reason? Kingdom Hearts 2 doesn’t show in cutscenes what it could easily show in gameplay. Donald and Goofy don’t shove their way into the limelight during cutscenes because they’re already present in every battle you’re in. What if Kairi was programmed to fight? Or at least, what if Kairi was intended to be.
You might remember my theory from earlier that Will Turner or Nala may have been programmed into the party as second party members in each world. I could imagine Shang filling a similar role in Land of the Dragons, and possibly Hercules in Olympus Coliseum, though the mechanics of the Hades fight may have made that impossible. Still, KH2 seems to have nearly set up viable second partners at every world but two: Halloween Town (where the supporting cast are all non-combatants) and Space Paranoids (where the cast was pared down to such a degree that it, too, now lacks a second option). This theory also seems to answer a long-standing question: why give Kairi a Keyblade with no narrative significance? I can’t tell you why they didn’t just give it narrative significance, but it would make sense if they had given her a weapon for gameplay reasons.
We’ll be keeping an eye on this in the scenes to come. I feel there are a few other scenes that have frayed edges, like someone just tore a Kairi-shaped piece out of them. I admit, the theory is quite a bit of a stretch, but I feel it provides a few satisfying explanations to long-standing problems. There’s also the general sense of last-minute rush and revision that criss-crosses KH2. However, there is at least one upcoming scene that presents a… different picture. It may be better if you see it yourself, so let’s just return to gameplay, and see if we can make it to the final save point alive.
You reach the pinnacle of the Castle, the Altar of Naught, where Xemnas is staring up at his damaged Kingdom Hearts. In a massive show of ego, Xemnas commands the Keyblade wielders present to collect more hearts, as though they were already his underlings. I love it. The boys all draw their Keyblades in defiance. Kairi… is almost not in this scene, but her absence is immediately suspect. Indeed, she stands in the background, fish-facing and surrounded by other, more meticulously posed characters, running her basic idle animation, which includes so little movement that in some wide thoughts, I thought she was static.
Kairi was absolutely put into this shot in a rush job, they didn’t even bother to put her into her “active idle” stance that she uses a few scenes from now. She’s even blocked from sight in most angles. The question is: why? Did someone forget about her and have to rush her in? I don’t want to push my theory too hard, but Kairi is treated in a similar way in many upcoming shots. Either something changed about Kairi’s placement in the scene (even if my theory is wrong), or someone was really, really lax about putting her into the scenes.
To my surprise, because it’s stupid and makes no rational sense, Xemnas responds to this hostility with trite philosophical questions, and each one of them put at least one good guy to pause like it was the weightiest idea in the world. He asks why the good guys hate the darkness, as though their hatred for the darkness was the reason they attacked him, and not the fact that he endangered and probably destroyed the lives of millions if not billions by seeding the Heartless around the galaxy like a man releasing smallpox into water supplies. Mickey says they don’t hate the darkness, darkness makes up half of reality after all, but Riku points out that it’s because of dicks like Xemnas who use the darkness as cover. Xemnas then asks why they reject him for being forced to living neither in light or darkness, which if you think about it means that the first question was irrelevant. Riku says what I said: he’s hurt and destroyed the lives of millions of people or worse. Xemnas claims he had no choice, which is just preposterous. Thankfully, Sora derails the whole conversation by calling it a dodge: Nobodies don’t care about shit like this because they have no emotions. Unfortunately Sora wasn’t speaking out of surety, but confusion: he was clearly just overwhelmed by the moral uncertainty, and I gag off in the corner.
The trouble is, even though it’s a dodge, I feel it’s pretty clear Square Enix wanted the fandom to actually ask these questions, to actually think them over. And the fandom did, they did for years. It was still going on when I finished KH2 a few years after its release. But it just goes to show how much I’m not like the Kingdom Hearts fandom of 2006 and 7. To me, while I do look at this and think “Yes, there’s a moral debate here” I also think “This is entirely artificial.” Yes, even during my first playthrough. Not only is Xemnas doing this to buy time for him to be a monster, a technique used in the real world to do real harm, but it’s just KH2’s oldest problem all over again: there is no context for this debate. This is just splurged onto the page from nowhere.
Did you notice my “smallpox in water supplies” argument up there? I’d like to focus on that for a minute because, in the NES and SNES eras, Square used poison in water supplies as a puppy-kick meant to show that their villain was unforgivably evil, twice: once in FFII and again in FFVI. In 1995, Enix did similar with one of Terranigma’s villains, possibly in response to and in reflection of the horrifying, real-world sarin gas attack in Tokyo earlier that year. But according to Square Enix, somewhere in the ten years between Terranigma and KH2, introducing a lethal agent that will wipe out entire populations of people has become morally gray and debatable.
But that’s how KH2 rolls, apparently to great success. KH2 says “SORA IS ANGRY” without providing any sign that he was angry prior, and he smashes a keyboard like King Kong. KH2 says “SORA IS SAD” as he weeps at the feet of one friend while ignoring another that the game seems to want gone from every scene she’s in. KH2 says “THIS IS MORALLY COMPLEX” as it raises questions with no foundation in the remainder of the narrative, despite sounding like half if not every RPG villain speech in history. Dammit, the other Kingdom Hearts games set these things up, they earn their philosophical questions! It’s what I like about the series! Only Roxas and Axel raised these moral questions and they clearly didn’t represent the Organization!
I was not the intended audience for KH2. I grant that. But at least my brain was mostly off the first few times through. Now my brain is turned on, and it’s because the later Kingdom Hearts games asked me to turn it on. The series has nothing to blame but itself.
Xemnas compliments Sora on recognizing that Nobodies can’t be sad about their lot in life, and he even confesses to not feeling misery about ruining the lives of millions or billions, just in case you haven’t gotten that yet. And with no further pretence, he teleports himself and Sora into a weird pocket dimension for the first phase of their extended battle.
This first phase is, to me, a pretty weak sequence. It seems to exist mostly out of principle, if that makes sense: the principle that each Org member would have a fair, human-to-human fight instead of transforming into a giant monster or whatnot. Xemnas eventually will have extra phases, but first we have the standard duel, just like Marluxia in CoM. It’s a curious design pattern that FM+ put to clever use later on, but we’ll talk about that when we talk about that. The music playing here is “Disappeared,” reaffirming that Xemnas was the Unknown in KH1:FM.
Featuring in Xemnas’ pocket dimension is… the Memory’s Skyscraper? Xemnas then casts a spell on you, and you’ll lose HP until you run to the bottom of the Skyscraper to hit a Reaction Command. After doing this, Xemnas and Sora will recreate the dive battle Roxas and Riku had in Deep Dive. Why, though? Why does this dismiss Xemnas’ spell? Why does he want to do this at all? I shouldn’t still be complaining about the irrationality of Reaction Commands but they keep finding new levels of irrationality. If someone asked me to set up the most arbitrary QTE I could imagine, it would just be a variant of this.
So what’s the dev’s reason for this? It seems to exist solely to fulfill the “promise” of Deep Dive that we’d get a big action scene at Memory’s Skyscraper, and they didn’t want to provide at the actual skyscraper beeeee…caaaause…? KH2’s sense of spectacle is overriding its capacity for reason, but you don’t know the half of it, we’re about to plunge off of “reason” like Xemnas is about to plunge off the building. Given the relatively low difficulty of this battle, I can’t help but wonder if Xemnas was supposed to engage you at the actual Memory’s Skyscraper at some point. We know for a fact that Xemnas was originally planned to have additional forms in the final battle that didn’t make it to print, so it would have made sense if this part were originally somewhere else. It would explain this weird copy and paste pocket dimension, don’t you think? (Ed. A possibility that occurred to me well after the initial posting: Memory’s Skyscraper itself may have been moved. Maybe the game originally ended in the Dark City instead of the Castle, or never featured the Castle at all?)
(Ed. So it turns out you can actually hit Xemnas during the QTE by waiting for him and Sora to get closer to one another. There are three distinct Reaction Commands involved. I didn’t know this for years, and I hope you can understand why I didn’t, because that’s just not how Reaction Commands work in KH2, and also because hitting Triangle early duplicates the scene from Deep Dive, so why would I have suspected anything was wrong?)
After the dive, the proper battle begins. Xemnas’ weapon of choice is a series of Ethereal Blades, which are energy blades (well, blades made of “nothingness”) that sprout directly from his hands. This set is called the Interdiction, coloured red-white. Xemnas is happy to teleport around the arena, launching two main forms of attack. First are his combos, and he has really long combos. My friend Kyle likes to guard against them repeatedly and make them look preposterous. Xemnas also likes using a wall like the Sorcerers, except unlike the Sorcerers, he’ll use the wall to attack you directly (he even shouts “Guard!” as he bludgeons you with them). Xemnas isn’t very good at hitting you with the walls, so if he ever throws one up in front of you, you can take advantage the fact that Thunder comes down from the sky to circumvent the wall entirely!
After defeating Xemnas, Sora returns to the platform, and finds that Xemnas is now flying up in front of Kingdom Hearts. Oh, pardon me: “Look at that!” Kairi shouts, reminding us that she’s here. You know, these repeat attempts to pretend Kairi is present and doing things is really no less artificial than it was when she and Riku kept getting blown out of rooms. But don’t worry, the game is going to do something just as ham-handed before this is over.
Xemnas speaks to the moon, pleading to Kingdom Hearts to give him power to kill the others. “You can no more be complete without me than I without you.” This begins a series of tacky reaction shots from half the characters present, pleading for him to not to beg Kingdom Hearts for power, as though concerned for his safety? Well, not Donald, Donald seems upset that Xemnas might become more powerful, but Mickey and Sora sure give that vibe. They’re such goodie-goods that I believe it, tacky as it may be. Too bad for them: the moon glows, and Xemnas vanishes. This is followed by a set of giant door appearing in the air. Mickey explains: “Kingdom Hearts… The worlds gave us this doorway. They want us to be the guardians of their destiny!” Ah yes. The worlds. Not Xemnas himself. The worlds gave you this door. Made in the style of Xemnas’ décor. After he gathered the power to kill you and wants to do so. Definitely not Xemnas! I can’t help but notice Mickey’s mouth isn’t onscreen when he says this, I wonder if it was added after the fact. Present theory: Xemnas did indeed send the door, but the writers realized the cast would have been pretty misguided to walk into a door sent by the bad guy, considering it probably opens into the void of space, just off the sun. No, I’ll cave, this hackneyed explanation is probably for the best.
The game chooses this moment (essentially, after defeating Xemnas the first time) to give you the final Secret Ansem Report, number 13. It was written the day before Sora’s awakening during the prologue, and in it, Ansem sets up the finale inadvertently, and apologizes to Riku, Mickey and Sora indirectly, showing deep regret. There are also one part of this report that appeals to me very much. Ansem writes that there’s one mystery remaining, one not solved by the game. This sets up the player to think about this perhaps unanswerable question, probing the mystery well after the game is turned off. The question: “How did Xehanort manage to open the door that appeared in the basement of my castle [as mentioned in the KH1 Ansem report]…?” Ansem decides there’s no time to wonder now, when everything is reaching completion.
And with that… the regular game is functionally complete! All that remains is the final boss… and plenty of late-game challenges to complete. Before we go after Xemnas, I’m going talk about final grinding, synthesis, and more. I’ll be putting aside the three biggest FM+ challenges, however, as they’re not fully unlocked until after you clear the game. See you in the game-wide wrap-up!