…So Xemnas sucks the three of you into the Realm of Nothingness, which is a weird bendy white world with black stripes. He’s dressed for the occasion in a similar gettup, leading to what KHI user Sephiroth0812 once dubbed a “lightsaber zebra.” Sadly, Xemnas has one last villain speech to make and it’s just as bad as the others. Here, he decides for no reason to declare that since light and dark are eternal, nothing must be eternal. Okay. At this point his plan gets a little fuzzy to me and he declares this means he must be eternal too, either because he commands nothingness, because he is “a nothing” (the latter is what he says, but it makes no sense considering nothings and darknesses have been dying this entire game, so I’ve presented the former as a counter-argument). Maybe it’s just that he’s on a heady ego trip.
David Gallagher does give a nice response where had admits nothingness “probably goes on forever too,” but he and Sora point out that Xemnas’ plan is a big ol’ Underpants Gnome lacuna: “1. Nothing is eternal. 2. ??? 3. I can’t die.” You know, I’ve had a lot of reasons in the past few years to take down various jRPG final boss speeches as tripe, but Xemnas’ have been so full of holes the cast is making fun of it for me. On one hand, I love Sora and Riku even more for doing it, but on the other hand, his speech was so faulty, that Kingdom Hearts 2 proves once and for all that it’s possible to suck while not sucking, while sucking. Congrats.
Xemnas’ opening attack is curious. He immediate grabs Sora and chucks him in the air, and begins attacking him both directly and with spiked thorns ala the Twilight Thorn from the other end of the game. On the PS2 (both Vanilla and FM+), this is easily dodged, as you just rapidly tap Triangle to perform Reversal just like against the Twilight Thorn. Yet again, a bad final impression for Reaction Commands. But even that was better than the HD remake, where the Reversal command just doesn’t work during this attack. At all. According to some reports, this is a side effect of the 2.5 collection’s already infamous loading issues, but whatever the cause, here it is, and it is guaranteed. In the end, I find it may even be best for 2.5 players to just let Xemnas wail on you and let Once More keep you alive? It’s that bad. Sure, if you hit the ground, his combo will be interrupted and you’ll die on the next hit, but what else can you do?
At the end of the combo… well, I’m not sure? In Vanilla, I always survived the initial attacks with the Reaction Command and then Sora descended lazily to the ground. It always seemed like I was missing a grand finale, so I was surprised and yet not surprised when I first played 2.5 and a cutscene played at the end of Xemnas’ opening attack. I don’t know what triggered it: either it’s brand new to FM+, or maybe it only occurred because I let Xemnas thrash me, or maybe something was just going wrong in every one of my Vanilla playthroughs? In this cutscene, Riku helps pry Xemnas off of you, and the real fight begins.
The final battle with Xemnas is fast paced, if a little arbitrary. Since he can teleport to any location, you’re essentially fighting a roulette wheel of random attack patterns, not that there’s anything wrong with that in-and-of-itself. Attacks include more thorns, combos, and projectile lasers. He also often makes duplicates of himself, though I’ve never worked out or seen a way to tell them apart from the real Xemnas short of attacking them. The whole time you’re going to have to deal with the fact that the distorted background stretches beyond the arena’s edges, so you’re essentially unable to tell where the edges of the arena are until you walk into them. Delightful.
One luxury you have in this battle is that Riku can’t die, and so will always be available for healing so long as he has the MP. Riku’s immortality exists because, part-way through the battle, Xemnas will attempt to grab Sora and you’ll need Riku to rescue you. This attack is bad news. The best way to survive it is to avoid it making contact in the first place. I recommend Reflecting or Dodging this whenever possible once you’ve learned the cues. If the attack does land, Xemnas will gradually strangle the life out of Sora while you suddenly gain control of Riku yourself! During this sequence, you have to use Dark “Aura” and Dark Shield to fend off Xemnas clones while you try to get close enough to rescue Sora. If Sora was at low health when Xemnas grabbed him, he might die in only a few seconds, and you would get a game over through frankly no fault of your own. Worse, the change in controls mid-battle is awful for all the same reasons the dragon battle was awful. Not that this sequence isn’t cool, it’s definitely cool, it’s just… also not fair. Maybe if we had controlled Riku in previous parts in the game?
(Reader LightUpTheSky reminds me – and just in time, too, only a few hours before this post is going up! – that Riku’s death quote, easily heard during this battle, is actually “Kairi…”! It’s been years since I’ve heard it, so I appreciate the reminder. What a surprising thing for him to bring up when Kairi is arguably safe back on Destiny Islands! Riku and Kairi’s relationship is really quite compelling to me, though I’ll admit that it’s probably because it gets so little screen time, even compared to the already dry Sora and Kairi relationship.)
I feel like I’m not saying enough about this boss, but there’s really not much else to say: his attacks are so random that you will get used to them over time, but there’s very little I can recommend or summarize. Towards the end of the battle, Xemnas decides to go all out, and launches what I can only describe as a giant dome of laser attacks. In a memorable but completely artificial QTE, and you have to hit both Sora’s Block button and Triangle to use Riku’s Block to get through alive, which I once saw Kyle from the Marathon fail to realize to hilarious consequences. The two friends fend off the attacks in a visually impressive sequence that sadly amounts to you doing no more than button mashing. After the attack, Xemnas tries to attack the two of them, but the two friends rescue one another in turn. At the end, they both take the Kingdom Key in hand and fire another of those wretched lasers at Xemnas – though I suppose I could justify it this time around by saying it’s the power of two wielders combined? At this point, Xemnas is so weak that he simply floats and waits for you to deal the traditional finisher to clear the entire game, purely for style (not unlike the final blow in Ocarina of Time).
In FM+, clearing this battle gets you a Drive Gauge boost to carry over to your cleared save file.
Xemnas dies suffering. Not only is this a good contrast to his silent faked death earlier on the Altar of Naught (which helps sell it where the game’s many false villain deaths did not), but it’s almost an ugly and honest final character moment as he practically claws for existence against his injuries. But it’s not over: as he dies, an army of Dusks appear to avenge him. The boys arm for battle, and I’m not 100% sure what happens next. There’s a white flash, and Riku buckles to his knees. It’s not clear if he just used a sacrificial attack (a deliberate reference to Axel), or if the white flash was supposed to represent a time skip (this is what DJ Firewolf suggests in the transcript I have in front of me). Either way, we now have reason to fear for Riku’s life, but Sora refuses to let him go. He takes most of Riku’s weight onto his shoulders.
Riku points out that they’re trapped in the World of Nothingness, but Sora isn’t hearing it. “You’ve been hanging out in darkness too long. You gotta try and think positive!” He makes such a joke of it that even Riku has to laugh, and he asks Sora to lead them into the spiralling void. If you didn’t catch the significance of Riku asking Sora to lead, the characters spell it out themselves: it’s there to show how much they’ve changed since the start of KH1. “You know…” Riku says: “I always figured I was better at stuff than you. […] Are you mad?” Riku asks, sounding genuinely concerned. “No,” Sora says. “I kinda always though you were better at everything too.” I love most of the banter and conversation in this section: it’s heartfelt and honest, and with no background music to inform you how to feel: just two friends. KH2 can be great for little touches from time to time. In fact, once the Dusks vanish, we’re more or less in a magical ending that pays off for at least some of the crap that made up the rest of the game.
At the end of their long walk, we find that Sora and Riku have escaped the Realm of Nothingness but only by arriving on the cusp of the Realm of Darkness. They’re at the “Dark Margin,” the beach we first saw in the secret video of KH1 and again at the start of KH2, where Roxas spoke to Xemnas. Riku asks Sora for help to get closer to the water. As the boys talk, they discuss their new situation. This starts off maybe a little too angsty, but is soon muffled by the beach, which brings the boys back to their younger days. Eventually they sound like they’re just talking about a new great adventure in the Dark Realm. Riku apologizes for saying he always thought he was better than Sora, but admits he was also jealous of him. Haley Joel really sells it when he says “What for?” as though he doesn’t believe a word of it. But Riku seems honest, and Sora reciprocates. Riku adds that he does have one thing over Sora: “Having you for a friend.” Oh, just make out.
Shit, I can’t pause to take my notes! I thought I had a little longer before the game prevented you from pausing, but it looks like this in-game sequence is uninterruputable too!
The boys lie down and fall half asleep, the game finally accomplishes a proper, unambiguous time skip. There, was that so hard? After a long while, a bottle washes up on the alien shore, complete with a message inside. Riku reads the message and says: “Sora? I think it’s for you.”
The game transitions to a pre-rendered cutscene, and to my surprise the letter is written in English in all versions. Sora’s voice starts to read it, but is soon taken over by Kairi’s, as it becomes gradually clear that this is Kairi’s letter in a bottle from way, way back at the start of the game. Do you even remember it? Its contents: the poem from the KH1 demo and manual, tying the original trilogy from end to end.
Thinking of you, wherever you are.
We pray for our sorrows to end,
and hope that our hearts will blend.
Now I will step forward to realize this wish.
And who knows:
Starting a new journey may not be so hard
or maybe it has already begun.
There are many worlds, but they share the same sky—
The music swells, and for the first time in KH2, we hear a version of “Hikari” playing, as the long-awaited prophecy from KH1 comes true, and the Door to Light finally opens through Sora’s connection to Kairi. The return of the original game’s theme music, the way the scene is shot… this is one of the most effective scenes in the entire franchise, and I don’t know many fans that won’t cop to getting a little sniffly here at the end.
Sora reaches a hand out to Riku, a clear reference to Riku’s outstretched hand inviting him to the darkness in KH1. He says: “We’ll go together.” Riku takes his hand, and they step through the door.
When next we see the boys, they are plummeting like comets through the sky, as we’ve seen Sora do in both game’s opening cinematics. They land in water, and surface, Sora shaking his spikey hair dry in a ridiculous shot that’s becoming infamous on the internet. Just then, Kairi’s voice calls to them, and they look and realizes they’ve landed at the Destiny Islands at long last. A slower version of KH2’s opening theme plays, similar to the slower version of “Hikari” from the end of KH1. Sora and Riku come to shore, but are caught part-way by Donald, Goofy and Mickey. Donald and Goofy hug Sora, and Mickey and Riku embrace, which also gets me a little sniffly, personally. CoM really made their friendship work for me.
Hey, this reminds me: where was Jiminy Cricket during those alone scenes in the Dark Margin? Did he ascend to the higher plane from whence he came?
Kairi, cut off by the others, laughs a little, but Sora eventually makes his way to her. Briefly, there is a flash of light, and Roxas and Naminé acknowledge one another. Sora stammers: “W-we’re back.” And Kairi says “You’re home.” Sora takes out the Oathkeeper, and accepts her outstretched hand by finally returning it to her. And in that instant, the game cuts to black. Apparently this abbreviated reunion prompted one of Tetsuya Nomura’s coworkers to call him something like “a real bastard.” I love it.
Some time after I originally wrote the above section, I’ve come to wonder why the ending succeeds so well in spite of KH2’s general… well, you know by now. And while that might be a bit spiteful of me, I think I found an answer all the same! KH2’s biggest problem over its run has been its bad writing work from scene-to-scene, preventing the good scenes from succeeding as a matter of garbage context, but this ending simply doesn’t require much context. In fact it hardly requires any specifics at all considering it’s the final scene in a game. Specifically: it needed: 1) Sora and Riku to be separated from the others, 2) in the Realm of Darkness (which if you think about it, was done very arbitrarily, so this step might not even count!), 3) Kairi to have sent the message in a bottle, which they got out of the way in the prologue, and 4) something about Roxas and Naminé. It didn’t even have to be something specific about Roxas and Naminé, if you think about it, since they were only in it for a second. They just needed to be on your mind. Lastly, 5) it had to be put at the very, very end, because if you think about it, it doesn’t resolve many hanging threads from KH2 itself (except, ironically, it does touch on the hanging Roxas and Naminé thread, though I’d argue that the thread is still mostly hanging loose even after this ending). There are very few themes or plot elements touched on here, it’s just… “reunion,” but strangely, it occurs well after the actual reunions.
Depending on my mood, I would either describe the KH2 ending as “generic” or “modular,” because it feels like it could have been attached to other places without many changes. For those in the know, consider: with a few no-more-than-moderate changes to both the ending and the context, I think that this could have just as easily been the ending to DDD instead of KH2! It’s ending designed to be an ending to Kingdom Hearts – arguably meant as the ending to the entire series in 2005! – but isn’t an ending designed to be the ending to Kingdom Hearts 2, which surprisingly is what makes it such a success for me.
Kingdom Hearts 2 is better than the sum of its parts, and that’s important because the parts are shoddy and broken. I feel, if only from my perspective, that I feel we’re dealing with the worst of the series’ narratives and the second-worst of the series for gameplay, since KH2’s gameplay only worked on its final set of bosses and not the vast majority of minor enemies and the vast majority of its playtime, and even that positive review of the bosses only applies for me in Critical Mode, leaving it with only a teeny, tiny fraction of success to a teenier, tinier fraction of players. I think this is important to say: Kingdom Hearts 2 is still very good, and definitely better than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, when I balance KH2 against the other games in the series, I think that it may be my least favourite game in the franchise.
A slideshow of scenes from the game play out over the rest of “Sanctuary” alongside major credits, before the song ends to the shot of Riku and Sora at the Dark Margin. After this, a sprinkling of pixie dust and the game proceeds to main credits, alongside “Fantasia alla Marcia for piano, chorus and orchestra,” the final credits track. This batch of credits is accompanied by a number of epilogue-style videos of the Disney characters.
Some highlights of the epilogue videos: Huey, Dewey and Louie return home (again) along with with Scrooge, and Donald and Mickey reunite with their loved ones. Hayner battles Seifer in the Struggle (he’s doomed). Hercules finishes rebuilding Olympus Coliseum, and Auron leaves for the afterlife, in a display of pyreflies from FFX. Beast is restored to human form, and dances with Belle in the ballroom at last. Tron indeed got reprogrammed with singing and dancing routines without his consent, which I still find morally objectionable. Kiara – Simba and Nala’s daughter – is presented to the Pride Lands as their future queen. Ariel chooses to become human and marries Prince Eric, with all her friends in attendance. Leon receives a letter and a magical butterfly flies out, implying that Rinoa exists in this universe (or so I’m told, I don’t really know much about FFVIII). I like how the videos we’re seeing match up with the song in the background (drama to Port Royal, epic and wondrous with Timeless River…) though I don’t think the Nightmare before Christmas segment really fits in the “drama” section, as it’s just the cast hanging out in Finkelstein’s lab. Still, one misplacement out of over a dozen isn’t so bad! Finally, in Destiny Islands, Sora discovers the new carving Kairi made during KH1’s credits, showing her offering Sora another paopu fruit.
After the credits, we return to Destiny Islands, where everything is peaceful at last. Riku seems to appreciate the quiet of Destiny Islands after three (actually, from his perspective, four) games full of chaos, and Sora comes to ask him what he thought about the Door to the Light. Riku seems to think it’s related to Sora’s heart. “It’s always closer than you think.”
Just then, Kairi runs up, with another message in a bottle: this one marked with the King’s seal. Together, the trio take out the message and read it excitedly, though we are not shown the contents. And it’s here where Kingdom Hearts 2 comes to an end at last.
Except for me. I have to stick around for another 3000 words worth of fucking notes alone. We’ll be back for the post-game, plus an in-depth examination of all the jagged plotlines and editing mistakes in this game to try to figure out just what KH2 might have looked like on its earliest draft.