Kingdom Hearts 2 – Screaming Noise

kh2-2016-08-13-20h32m02s885We 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 could have tried the handle.

They head on through, and find the door leads to another part of the Dark City. Xemnas is waiting for them, though he’s very, very far away, atop a tall, white structure not unlike the Castle itself. The music playing here is “A Fight to the Death,” which in my opinion the weakest of the KH2 final boss themes, though it’s still very good.

Xemnas now does what he probably should have done ages ago. He throws a building at them! I mean: if you could, wouldn’t you?

kh2-2016-08-13-20h33m03s132Everyone runs back, but in the process, Mickey and Kairi are pushed back through the door, which shuts on them. You have to be fucking with me, they actually did the butterfly thing! They pulled the same hack trick four bosses in a row!

Here’s the funny thing, though: once you finally catch up to Xemnas, Mickey is able to rescue you, same as in other parts of the game. I can’t decide whether locking Mickey out of the final battle is a clever way to explain the return of the rescue mechanic, or if the rescue mechanic spits in the face of logic considering Mickey should be nowhere nearby? If it’s the latter, you can imagine that I think Kairi originally wasn’t locked out and continued to serve as a party member during this sequence, given how hackneyed this entire setup can be. But let’s not talk about hackneyed setup just yet. For one: I’m glad the rescue mechanic is in this fight because then the PS3 trophy tied to Mickey can’t be lost forever. But more importantly and relevant to all versions: we can’t dwell on the hackneyed setup here because we are about to cross out of the realm of the shit setup and into the realm of shit myth and shit legend.

Are you ready? Are you sure? Okay, here we go. Locked away from their friends, Sora and the others choose to carry on without them. Xemnas suddenly and somehow causes building to shoot out of the ground in front of him, and Sora leaps through them, causing them to be cut to ribbons by his Keyblade. Buildings.

Buildings.

kh2-2016-08-13-20h34m35s686And this is just the beginning. In the next few seconds alone, Sora is going to outright fly and charge through structure after structure. I was jarred by Sora firing laser beams in Atlantica, but I don’t know how to respond to this “flying through buildings” sequence even ten years on. In seconds, we’ve lost all sense of perspective, scale of intensity… everything really! KH2 has had a consistent growth curve for Sora’s abilities, until this very second. This is further underlined by the sequels, which, like BBS, have starred characters with more experience and training. I would understand if the BBS characters could do things like this, and sure enough they do… but only in a sequence taken from FM+’s secret video, so yet again the problem comes back to KH2. In every other portion of BBS, those characters have far less absurd and far more consistent abilities. DDD does some of these things (the jumping around), but only after explaining that Sora is using a brand new skill, and even then, there’s still no slashing through buildings! It should be said: KH2 favouring of spectacle over substance (and now over sense) has been a running trend for the entire game, and now we reach the climax, both in the sense of narrative and in the sense of splooge. This noisy, and entirely-one sided, sensationalist splooge. That’s for some people. It’s not for me. I said in KH1 that KH1 can get away with seemingly simplistic messages because they earned them, and I think the same goes for simplistic sensation. To me, KH2… hasn’t earned this.

What’s funny is how easily this masturbatory visual effect collapses. During the Retrospective playthrough, I cut through the initial building attack, but then noticed a weird, zebra striped slanted wall nearby and paused to examine it, trying to work out what the level designers are trying to convey. What can I say? I’m weird like that. But as I was studying the wall, I came to realize that Xemnas’ attack has ceased. Suddenly the empty room became rather eerie to me, and I become pre-eminently aware that the developers had put me in a small, empty rectangular prism, threw a single special effect at me, and then left me there under the assumption that I would move on without question. The Quick Time Event was the room’s only “occupant,” if you think about it that way, and now it was gone. I’m not really under attack by the final boss. The illusion was shattered, verisimilitude was lost. Knowing what’s to come, I realized in a moment that KH2’s central gameplay mechanics had, if only temporarily, become second string to a new set of gameplay mechanics entirely. I wasn’t playing Kingdom Hearts 2 in this section, and the developers were’t interested in playing it with me. They want to play Quick Time Events: The Game, and damn Kingdom Hearts if it gets in the way of their spectacle. You’ll remember that the fandom doesn’t largely remember the Reaction Commands very fondly, and I think I partially realize why. It’s worth saying again: first impressions are important, but so are final impressions, and this is the final impression.

kh2-2016-08-13-20h35m46s309

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the NPCs being flung tackily into the air during this not-quite cinematic.

Once you finally do move to the next room, you get your first good look at Xemnas’ new location: it’s a giant dragon mech, the size of multiple sizescrapers. This mech is a preposterous monument to the excess of KH2’s finale. Imagine one of the eldritch horrors that typically end Final Fantasy games, but every limb and protrusion replaced for some whackadoo reason with a skyscraper, attached with all the finesse of a bad Photoshop edit. That’s not even an exaggeration, the thing is made out of skyscrapers, and I never realized until I saw it in HD. It looks terrible. Good, sweet riddance to the concept of giant final bosses of this franchise if this was the direction they were going to take. But that’s a compliment to later games for using human-sized final bosses.  For now: this nonsense. Here we are again, Square Enix, and here we will ever go.

You know, the first RPG I ever completed was Final Fantasy Legend III, a game that actually had Lovecraftian gods as its bosses. Every other game trying to shoehorn in Lovecratian gods for their final bosses always seemed less justified as a result.

This second room of the final boss sequence is just as pointless as the first. The game continues to use QTEs to hide the fact that these rooms are some of the simplest rooms in the entire game: flat rectangles, not meant to be seen for more than a few seconds and so not worthy of time and polish. The moment you hit the next QTE, you will essentially leave the room and enter the world of the QTE, with no need to exist in an actual location. KH2’s finale desperately wants you to watch in awe while being unaware of the fact that you’re not really playing anything.

kh2-2016-08-13-20h37m33s806Sora continues to chop at projectile buildings, and I suddenly realize… he has no reason to be chopping them in the first place?  He’s not slashing through them any longer, so it’s not that they’re obstacles that he has to burst through to get to the other side. He’s cutting them because it looks cool. Eventually, Sora reaches the last building and he jumps what looks like half a mile from a brief running start. Remember what I said about it being stupid if we said Riku could fly because of Dark Aura, but then never used it in other situations? How much stupider does it sound that Sora has had Golden Age Superman jumping powers for no reason at all?

Where does Sora jump? Fuck, I don’t know. Sparkly things are happening, don’t you realize your brain should be turned off? I’m afraid, “Fuck you, sparkly things are happening” is going to be the game’s answer for everything that happens for the next seven or so minutes. I really, honestly considered – to the point of writing a substantial draft! – simply describing what’s on screen during this section with no attempt to contextualize or explain it. Just to show you the chaos. It turned out that the draft was completely incomprehensible to me – even though I was the one who had written it! ­and I abandoned my little plan.  The game provides just that little context for its visuals in this sequence.

kh2-2016-08-13-20h38m21s651

Incidentally, I think it’s funny that Spazbo4 spends most of the fight facing away from the hexagon, even though it’s the nominal “boss.”

Sora flies up to one of two large, hexagonal parts of the dragon mech. These appear to be some kind of cannon or possibly an engine, in that it discharges a huge quantity of energy after a long charge time. When Sora arrives, he is attacked by a number of Nobody gummis known as “Bomb Bells,” so named because they resemble mechanical alarm clocks. By attacking the Bomb Bells, Sora either knocks them into the hexagon or causes them to lose propulsion, at which point they are simply sucked in. This gradually damages an HP bar for the hexagon, but you can only work so fast before the beam fires. As a result, you must use a reaction command to glide to the other hexagon (Sora can do this whether or not you mastered Glide or unlocked Final Form at all). Donald and Goofy follow using teleportation, but we’ve long since stopped questioning that and don’t feel I can really hold it against the game.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure why Sora chooses to run away when he does. I mean, yes, the hexagon is about to fire a laser at you, but despite the game’s current preoccupation with visuals, it seems to have forgotten to give you an in-universe visual cue that the hexagon is about to fire?  The core has been getting gradually brighter, but doesn’t seem to climax in any notable way that could have possibly warned Sora that he had seconds to escape (and unfortunately, the way the camera works means you’re typically not looking at the laser in the first place!). Come to think of it a second time, I’m… not sure why we’re even here? Flinging gummis at this giant kindergarten block in the first place?  What are we accomplishing? I won’t pretend that KH1’s finale wasn’t largely guilty of the same faults, but in KH1 there was a general sense that you were damaging the World of Chaos to release Ansem from his healing cocoon.  I think a massive improvement to this KH2 segment would have been to have Xemnas take a shot at you with the hexagon first, to imply that Sora was coming here to stop him from shooting. Instead, Sora comes to smash up this thing for no reason whatsoever, and it takes the better part of a minute for it to even present itself as a threat with its first laser. Until that happens, for all Sora knew he was attacking the headlight! I do like the use of Nobody Gummi ships, though, that’s a nice touch here in the “real world” when Gummis are often treated like they’re unrelated to the rest of the game. But why are they here? These are intelligent beings (whether the Nobody Gummis are beings themselves or that Nobodies are piloting them, I can’t say) that are just teleporting in to help us in a suicide charge. Why are they barely even attacking us?

kh2-2016-08-13-20h40m58s816

Sora, get your foot out of the geometry.

This whole sequence is so inchoate. Sora comes to attack a thing, so things show up so he can conveniently thing the things into the thing before it does a thing that doesn’t affect him but he things the things into the thing so that it will stop doing the thing. Thing-thing-thing. We’re just flying around with no rhyme or reason to where we actually are, what we’re doing or why we’re doing it!

After this section, Sora outright flies up the building, he’s fucking flying, and now we’re destroying the “energy core.” I don’t even know where we are in the dragon, or have any idea what’s going on in any way except what the GUI is telling me. Since the tooltip has outright told us that this is an energy core, it makes sense that Sora should smash it, but surely you can see that that’s an incredibly artificial way to motivate the player? The fact that I don’t know where we are on the mech is also a serious problem, both in how it’s confusing me and in how it’s breaking immersion. I don’t really feel like I’m, say, inside the dragon mech’s chest, or head, or funny bone.  We just teleported here and it might as well not be connected to anything.

kh2-2016-08-13-20h41m42s975You know, on any other day I’d be thrilled to destroy a large machine one part at a time. It’s one of my favourite broad gaming concepts, but KH2 has somehow managed to undermine that love in this instance. Something about its presentation in this end sequence makes me more and more aware with each bottled room involves the Kingdom Hearts 2 disc being revved up in the PlayStation, loaded room[375], and called function sora.location.set(x, y, z) to put me into the box. I don’t feel like I’m destroying part of a giant threat, but I am aware that I’m activating trigger[255] to move Sora from room[375] to room[376]. I’m punching a giant red button on the wall like that infamous social game parody sequence in The Stanley Parable. Actually, that’s pretty accurate! We’re pressing the big red button on the machine! The core does have a glowing red bit and it is on a wall! My button analogy is so little removed from the actual events that it’s nearly a factual description of how arbitrary this sequence has become. The only word that risks inaccuracy is “button!”

Here at the ending I finally understand why KH2 continued to throw CoM under a bridge from start to finish: because CoM attacked weak game design, including the implication that charging forward without observing yourself and your actions was doomed to harm you in the long run, while KH2 holds up charging ahead without regard to yourself and your actions as a pinnacle of game design! KH2’s motto is starting to look like “screaming noise,” “screaming noise,” “thought is the anti-joy,” “screaming noise.”

So, the energy core. This sequence involves you punching a piston at one corner of the room (I’m reminded of the final boss of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, save in that it can’t attack you directly), as Lesser Nobodies try to defend the thing. After you cause it enough damage, it will raise a force field. Of course it does. But all sarcasm aside: of course it does! This is a power core in a space ship! It should have a force field around it! Hell! Why wasn’t it sealed off from damage in the first place, forcing you to fight some Nobodies when you arrived, a minor change that would have improved things straight-off? After you clear out the Nobodies, the shield drops a second time.

kh2-2016-08-13-20h50m55s729

I got lucky with this screenshot, but there is a very real possibility that you won’t see the claw any better than this.  It desperately needed an establishing shot.

At this point, Xemnas’ giant dragon stabs its claws in to attack you. This is very sudden, very jarring, and very effective. It’s like a building actually fell on you, unlike those paper “buildings” from before. It’s probably the most effective moment of the entire sequence for me. Too bad I didn’t realize what was going on my first few times through the game. You just don’t have the perspective to recognize these are the fingers of the dragon mech, because as I said above and bears repeating, you have no perspective on where you are and what you are doing here. You only saw the dragon for a few seconds before the QTEs took over, and on the PS2 it was smudgy in the background. What could have been a great moment of being attacked by a mech was dashed by the fundamental problem underlying this entire sequence. I’m not even surprised any longer! The game does say “look out for enemies from above” but even knowing what this is supposed to be, I wouldn’t call this “enemies from above,” because for goodness sake, they’re fingers! This is the section I like!

You know, there may actually be a good explanation for all this wretched confusion. No, really. It turns out not one but two bosses were cut from this final boss sequence. We have pictures of them taken from one of the Ultimanias. The missing bosses were also giant mechs made out of chunks of the Dark City, known as King and Kentauros.  You can see how the missing bosses might explain the incoherence of this sequence. You can imagine the energy core maybe being inside Kentauros’ or King’s insides, which is why the transition animation we have here is inadequate: the transition used to feature an entirely different mech, and now it can’t, so they fudged it.  That’s just a guess, but the fact that we’re introduced to the dragon mech for only a few seconds, and it only seems to interact with you a teensy little bit is suspect to me one way or another. There’s also the issue of the first cut boss, King. Note his crown. After Sora destroys the energy core in the finished KH2, he flies up the dragon mech where he finds an almost exact copy of the same crown, where we proceed to fight a boss. It seems like you were supposed to fight this boss on top of King, not the dragon mech! This seems like another copy-paste, not unlike my feelings on the Memory’s Skyscraper fight from before.

Ultimately, even if you like this boss sequence, it’s clear to me that someone went through The World that Never Was with a weed-whacker. Things haven’t been this much of an editing mess since Sora woke up in Twilight Town!

kh2-2016-08-13-20h54m13s442We finally get an establishing shot of our location on the mech (the crown), though god help us there wasn’t even an attempt to establish how we got there. We just teleported or something. The good guys even get a fishface shot that looks like they’re just as confused as I am. Facing them is a regal figure wearing a heavy suit of armour, lazing in a throne.  And here’s where we come to a moment that’s always bothered me (since my first playthrough) but probably didn’t bother any of you.  This suit of armour is huge, so heavy that its wearer does not and perhaps cannot stand up as you attack them. The armour is so devoid of real emotion (it just lazes back in its chair) that I would have sworn to you that it was an automaton, just another part of the machine that we were tearing up, even after I had beaten the game in my first playthrough. It’s also so devoid of challenge that I had to think of it as a midboss. It’s easily the weakest boss in the entire World that Never Was! But no, it’s not an automaton, it’s not even a lesser Nobody. It’s Xemnas, and we’re supposed to know that it’s Xemnas, and we’re supposed to be fooled into thinking this is his final form, as you’ll see in a moment.  All of this despite the fact that the game makes no attempt to establish him as Xemnas whatsoever.  There’s no scene showing him pulling on the helmet on, and no one shouts “Xemnas!” which was all we honestly needed. I’m sure this another part of the game that most fans did understand and I only I didn’t, but damn was I confused!

To make things even more confusing, Xemnas uses powers from other Org members, except himself, so he was the last person I would have though was in the armour! My best guess during my first playthrough was that it was some sort of golem carrying the powers of dead members of the Org, like hundreds of boss rushes before him, and that this was just another midboss on our climb up the tower. Yes, the “golem” theory was presumptuous, but the game has asked me to do nothing but presume what was going on since Sora flew through a series of apartment buildings!

kh2-2016-08-13-20h55m29s229I found out later that there was a pause screen tip that identified this boss as Xemnas, and there are a few voice clips, but Vanilla had so few sequences with St. Peter and I just wasn’t familiar with the voice! Since every other sign seemed to point to “not Xemnas,” I assumed it wasn’t!

After a game with a whole subset of bosses I called “chase bosses,” Xemnas’ armoured form is like an… anti-chase boss? He can’t move, so spends a lot of time pushing you away. It’s similar to Marluxia phase 3 in Re:CoM, though Marluxia’s fight is significantly more interesting if you ask me (that’s not surprising if you think about it, since Re:CoM was made after KH2 and was built on its lessons). There are a few differences: Marluxia is more aggressive about pushing you away, forcing that you had to exploit every opportunity he gave you. Xemnas, meanwhile, gives you more than ample opportunity to wail on him, but you just have to know when to back away lest he use Saïx’s Lunatic to crown you unconscious. Riku’s Dark Aura can be helpful here, but his Dark Shield is useless and only distracts his own efforts to attack Xemnas, so try to avoid using it by accident. Of course, I avoid that trap easily, as I don’t take Riku in the first place.

After the battle, you find yourself standing back on the Altar of Naught, where Xemnas stands injured in front of you with no sign of his armour. Imagine my confusion during my first playthrough, as I was only now cluing in to the fact that I had just fought Xemnas in the previous round! But let’s set that aside. How did we get back here? Even during my first playthrough, I felt something had been cut from the middle of this scene!

kh2-2016-08-13-20h56m04s852By the way, do you want to know how ramshackle and pointless the past few scenes have been? Despite me writing ~3900 words about it, DJ Firewolf’s script manages to describe the entire sequence, from the big doors to Xemnas’ collapse, in a single chaotic paragraph. Just. One.

But at least it’s behind us.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Light! Dark! Neutral Gray!
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – That man is playing Galaga!


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).

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