Day: August 30, 2016

Kingdom Hearts 2 – That man is playing Galaga!

After the battle, we arrive to find everyone standing around, as though they had never been separated, as of course it’s my theory that they had not been. Kairi is here in her “active” idle, and… look, maybe I’m pushing my theory too hard, but I swear that she’s not facing Xemnas the way her model should be? She’s just facing forward, staring into empty air. Just like last time, she looks like she was re-edited into this scene: either to include her at all, or to edit out her weapon. Kairi’s Destiny’s Embrace never reappears after its first appearance! Why not have her carrying it in situations where it would be practical, like now? And why does it look like they edited it out?

Okay, I can’t prove Kairi was ever really in the party. But it is clear to me that someone at Square Enix certain wanted Kairi unarmed, even if it wasn’t a last-minute edit. She had to play the harmless damsel even if not the helpless one. Taking out Kairi’s teeth was important to someone in the dev team, this was something that was done deliberately. We will be talking about it again, especially in later games, which, as you’ll recall, Kairi is not in. In the meantime, let’s get together as a family and watch a man die.

Xemnas is ranting, saying he needs “more rage… I need more… hearts…” Sora, our little angel, takes pity on him and lowers his weapon, making a speech about hearts having “all kinds of feelings.” It sounds hammy at first, but Haley Joel Osmet sells the final line when Sora hesitates and says: “Don’t you remember?” St. Peter plays off this well by sounding just as genuine and spiteful when he replies “Unfortunately… I don’t.” Xemnas dies.

Everyone starts jumping around to celebrate (Donald, Goofy and Kairi’s tiny, silent background celebration is both cute and silly with their tiny celebration hops). But Riku is standing aside, and when Sora goes to confirm with him that he’s coming back to the islands, Riku angsts: “I had given in to the darkness!” Oh for goodness sake Riku. Look, everyone has their own breaking points, but this is mine. Riku’s angsting worked fine for me in previous scenes, but now he has gone from 0 to 100 in seven, shouted words. But before that can even settle in, Sora makes a funny face and we whiplash back in the other direction!

Just then, the Castle starts collapsing, because this is a video game and we’re lucky it hadn’t collapsed earlier. Riku tries to open a portal, but it seems he’s lost that kind of dark power. Great for his personal arc, but bad for everyone’s survival. Just then, a ghostly afterimage of Naminé appears and makes an extra-large portal, and it’s clear from everyone’s actions that no one can see her but the Destiny Islands trio. Pluto shows up (oh hey, remember Pluto? Not me! I hate to admit it, but I’d have probably left him to die!), and the Disney characters run through, leaving the humans to chat with Naminé. Don’t run for your lives or anything.

Kairi thanks Naminé to which Naminé replies, “Sure,” which makes me laugh, because it’s so understated. Naminé then turns to Sora, and says “See? We meet again, like we promised.” Sora is confused, but not nearly as confused as when Roxas outright walks out of his body like a ghost to continue the conversation with Naminé.

Naminé and Roxas’ conversation is sweet, but a little… strange. First off, McCartney and Snow deliver a mis-matched performance. Roxas acts like he knows exactly what’s going on, as does Snow… until the moment where she doesn’t and is suddenly surprised by everything Roxas is saying? Roxas repeats Naminé’s promise: “You said we’d meet again, but when we did, we might not recognize each other.” Roxas claims that he did recognize her, which is unusual. He then says: “I see myself the way you remember me. And you see yourself the way I remember you.” The way you remember her… from your six minutes of contact together? You don’t actually know one another, you remember that, right? I feel the game is trying to cast this as romantic, which is even more confusing. Now don’t get me wrong: I’d be fine if they were attracted to one another, go right ahead. But I’m not talking about flirting here, I mean romantic, like you’d see in a standing, solid relationship, which seems like it’s missing a few steps. Is it just me? Unfortunately KH2 has never even heard of “a logical progression of events,” and is doing it usual thing: burning context, setup and plotlines alive and hoping you never question it. So here you have it: Roxas and Naminé have maintained their identities against the press of oblivion because… they’re… in… love? I don’t know. Folks, I gave up during the dragon mech sequence.

There’s a little more romantic awkwardness between Kairi and Sora, and Naminé and Kairi take one another’s hands, merging together for good. Sora is gawking, and Roxas him to “Look sharp!” which I like to believe is emblematic of what their relationship might have been like if they had been allowed to meet in normal circumstances. A good contrast of their characters in two words, and a good outro to the scene even if I didn’t like the scene itself. Roxas returns to Sora, and it seems like all will be well.

Welp, time to fuck things up.

Kairi walks into the portal, when suddenly things shake, and the portal collapses, taking her away with it and leaving Riku and Sora behind. I imagine that someone deliberately shut the portal to trap Sora and Riku here, but imagine if the portal had only collapsed because the castle was shaking? That would mean that Sora and Riku were trapped here because they were too busy being dramatic to escape, and that’s… that’s just hilarious. But no, it seems something is up, and Sora and Riku spot the dragon mech re-activate in the distance and take to flight. Whoops, guess you didn’t smash enough of the insides, huh? I personally suspect that in early drafts, the dragon mech was making its first appearance at this moment, and not during phase 1 (which would have just been Kentauros and King), and so naturally it wouldn’t be damaged it all.

At this point, a weird visual effect happens. It’s hard to describe, but the Dark City goes berserk. It’s infinite in all directions now, and also forming a ceiling (check out the screenshot above for a close-up)? The dragon knocks over the Castle that Never Was, but don’t worry: there’s a tandem jet bike nearby that Sora and Riku just happen to find off the edge of the castle. Congratulations: you’re the luckiest shits in the face of pure chance. Riku takes the driver’s seat, while Sora stands on a preposterous ride-along platform, wielding the Keyblade.

The music playing here is the first motion of KH2’s legendary Final Boss track, “Darkness of the Unknown,” which in my opinion has yet to be topped, even after all these years.

I’ll take one last opportunity here to throw a bone to my theory about Kairi being a playable character. I’m not certain whether or not Kairi would have stayed with Riku and Sora during phase 2 of the Final Boss sequence. As I told Divine Past on the forums, the ending works well with her having returned to Destiny Islands, but I also think that Divine Past made some good points in the opposite direction. The answer might lie in the tandem jet bike. Riku drives it and Sora stands on a stupid-looking open air platform, swinging his Keyblade. The bike honestly looks lopsided to me. I can’t help but imagine the bike with another Keyblade platform on the right, with Kairi or Riku taking the other side and the other one driving. It’s just a thought.

The battle with the dragon consists of the mech flying around in front of you on canned animations while you control Sora and Riku on the X and Y planes, as per Gummi Mode. But the canned animation bit really sticks with me, it’s like there’s a strict division between depth levels. Unlike gummis, the dragon doesn’t react to your combat by flashing or flickering or basically in any way until it outright starts losing parts. It also doesn’t attack you, per se. It does use missiles, okay sure, but its primary attack is a series of laser lances that come from nowhere and essentially exist on the “TV screen” depth level with the player. I’m reminded unfavourably of the bad interactivity of 90s FMV games, though on the plus side, the developers seemed to be at least somewhat aware of the interactivity problem and made it very hard to miss your shots. Still, Sora and Riku don’t feel like they’re in the scene they’re pretending to be in. You could be running any visual in the background with lasers spawning around you, and the connection would be just as logical. It could be a video of the dragon mech, the King mech, or a 10-frame animated gif of Gary Busey, the veneer of interactivity is very thin.

(The laser attack is borrowed from Ansem SoD’s final boss fight in KH1, which is neat in its own right, but I’m still focusing on the technical problems at the moment.)

After a short time, some Nobody gummis appear at a similar depth level to the player, and actually interact with you. Spiked Rollers will shoot at you, and Bomb Bells will float around again, existing almost purely for you to use against the boss. Oh, video games… ugh. You have three buttons to use as controls. Riku can pound on a laser to do minor damage to the dragon (and possibly the Spiked Rollers – this section is a little confusing so I can’t be sure) while Sora can use Attack on the Bomb Bells with his Keyblade, knocking them into the dragon just like the hexagons during phase 1 or the Heartless during the Agrabah carpet minigame. You also have to bear in mind that your ship is lopsided. This makes for odd controls as you try to swat things with your avatar’s extreme right side instead of the middle. If Kairi had been on the opposite side, the speeder would have essentially been a whole attacking hitbox, instead of this lopsided affair we have right now. The lopsided nature of the speeder does make the boss fight a bit more challenging, so you’re going to have to make up your own mind about this.

Alongside swatting Bomb Bells into the dragon and dinging its paint job with lasers, you can use Drain. This allows you to gradually absorb the laser fire from the Spiked Rollers to charge a “Megalaser” that can blow away most of the Dragon’s hit bars and is very easy to hit with. Apparently the Organization arms its teeny tiny speeders with a laser powerful enough to destroy any of their major war machines, isn’t that polite? You have to rip the dragon apart one part at a time, until it finally crashes down in the Dark City.

This “shooter” sequence really is something else. It’s bad enough that I feel it warrants specific scorn. In fact, I’m going to go out of my way to cite a professional. Specifically, I’m going to turn to Dr. Ernest Adam’s famous “No Twinkie Database.” Adams is one of the most prolific authors on game design and development, and I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to quote him. His PhD is on interactive storytelling, and you can download it from his website. But his most famous series of articles is the sometimes farcical but always honest No Twinkie Database: a list of admonitions against certain bad design patterns. Not long after I finished KH2, I caught up on the No Twinkie columns as they were at the time, and discovered a certain entry in one of the most recent columns. Published just a few months after KH2’s western release, this column advised game designers to avoid “Extreme Rule Changes When Fighting Boss Characters.” As Adams puts it: “when the changes are so great that all your earlier experience is worthless, the game is being unfair to the player. […] Fights with boss characters should build upon what the player already knows, not replace it entirely.” This is the dragon mech battle to a T. It’s the World of Chaos from KH1, too, and the Spectre from the original GBA CoM, but KH2 goes even further by almost changing genre entirely. Coincidentally, the No Twinkie Database also features entries for “Wrecking a Game’s Balance for the sake of a ‘Cool Feature'” and “Forcible Gameplay Style Changes.” This final boss segment is like an embodiment of everything game devs were doing wrong in the mid-naughties.

Sora and Riku fly close to the crashed dragon, and discover what they had probably already guessed: Xemnas is alive, well, and still driving the mech in his three-tonne suit of armour. It may be that he never left the dragon in the first place and the rest was an illusion. You know, guys, you two don’t actually have to kill Xemnas at this point, if you don’t want to! I’m reasonably sure all three of you are trapped in an infinite, non-Euclidean cityscape, with no escape for any of you. Better to give in to death.

Our duo drops of the speeder and into the crown structure, and we get a dramatic shot of the speeder being blown away by magic wind. The duo even looks surprised. Do you believe this? We just had a plot development in a serious section of the game about a character forgetting to set the parking break! What the heck!

To my shock and surprise, the devs chose this action-packed moment to insert a new FM+ sequence, with voice acting and everything! This one was a surprise for me too – unlike every other new FM+ scene, I had never heard about this one before playing! Remember in CoM, when Sora promised to thank Naminé, but then he didn’t because KH2 Vanilla treats CoM like gum that gets stuck to your shoe? Well it seems that the developers knew fans were angry about Sora not thanking Naminé, as FM+ has him actually addressing the issue. He says: “I couldn’t bring myself to [thank her]. Not until everything was back to the way it was before.” Riku tells him he’ll have plenty of time to thank Naminé later. This is sweet, and I appreciate that the scene exists. That said, it doesn’t really seem like this is the best time? On one hand: yes, this scene is the first scene they could have edited since Naminé appeared on top of the tower, but it’s so unrelated to what’s happening in front of us that Sora might as well have added: “Oh by the way, Aladdin says hi!” If I had my preference, I think this should have gone in a slow, talky section of the ending (you know which one I mean), but oh well.

This repeat battle against Xemnas in his armour isn’t an exact duplicate of the one from phase 1. Xemnas now uses his force fields all the time, though it’s hilarious to watch Riku if Xemnas misses hitting him with the force field: Riku will just stand politely outside the force field waiting for it to drop. Just hangin’ out. Unfortunately for Xemnas, between your Cure spells and Riku’s Cure spells, your chance of actually dying here at the recommended level is very low, so most of this battle is a formality. The game knows it, because it draaaaaaws out the formality as long as possible.

I’m referring, of course, to the extended sequence where Xemnas knocks you from the dragon mech with his long spear weapon, and you’re forced to glide back down to it, once again whether you’ve unlocked Glide or not. Wait, hold on. Gliding is supposed to be horizontal. Isn’t Xemnas… below you? Holy crap, you are in non-Euclidean space! I should have expected no less from the infinite double layered Dark Cityscape sandwich from hell! After knocking you and Riku out of the grown Xemnas raises a preposterous, giant, physical shield over the crown and starts chucking buildings at you, forcing you to dodge the moving one and locate any buildings that are just floating in mid-air, as you can use these stationary buildings to damage Xemnas’ shield. The tooltip you get is not very helpful about this. “Move close to the buildings to use reaction commands,” says the tooltip, without specifying that the moving buildings are dangerous and won’t work! Tooltip! You betrayed me again!

This whole time, Xemnas is going on with this babble about the two of you betraying each other, I’m not even sure why. “Riku, are you sure you’re not jealous of Sora? “Sora… are you sure you can trust… Riku?” This is so half-hearted that I wonder if it’s supposed to sound half-hearted? That is to say: that you’re supposed to recognize these two are inseparable at this point, and Xemnas just doesn’t understand because he lacks a heart? Xemnas also keeps saying “Nothingness… is… eternal!” Oh, stop harping on that, didn’t you get the memo that we’ve all but dropped the idea of “nothingness” being a thing since the original KH1 drafts? God, it’s like he expects this to go to the Realm of Nothingness, which hasn’t even been mentioned by name since KH1:FM in a back-corner journal. That would be a crowning failure of buildup…

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Screaming Noise
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – You’re Home

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).