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The Heartfelt Brilliance of Kingdom Hearts II | Kingdom Hearts

A thorough examination of an absolute masterpiece, and one of my favorite games of all time.

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Links to videos mentioned:

Understanding Kingdom Hearts (and every other story)

The Music of Kingdom Hearts II

Theme vs. Leitmotif

Mixing Jazz and J-Pop

Sections
00:00 Introduction
01:43 Gameplay Improvements
05:11 Reaction Commands, Drives, & Limits
10:15 Magic & Summons
14:03 Enemy & World Design
18:07 Opening Analysis
21:17 Roxas, Day 1
26:00 Roxas, Days 2 & 3
30:54 Roxas, Day 4
37:15 Roxas, Day 5
44:13 Roxas, Day 6
51:24 Roxas, Heroism, & Plurality
1:01:57 Sora’s Return (Twilight Town I & Hollow Bastion I)
1:10:12 The Story Structure of Disney Worlds
1:12:57 The Land of Dragons
1:16:41 Beast’s Castle I
1:19:16 Olympus Coliseum
1:26:25 Disney Castle & Timeless River
1:33:42 Atlantica
1:41:31 Port Royal
1:49:07 Agrabah I
1:53:04 Twilight Town II
1:56:21 Halloweentown
2:03:51 The Pride Lands I
2:09:28 Hollow Bastion II, aka Final Fantasy Cameo Central
2:13:47 Space Paranoids I
2:18:36 Ansem, Ansem the Wise, & Xehanort
2:25:06 The Showdown at Hollow Bastion
2:33:09 Organization XIII’s Plan
2:39:36 The Music of Kingdom Hearts
2:55:39 Revisiting Disney Worlds
3:01:10 Beast’s Castle II
3:06:00 Agrabah II
3:11:23 The Pride Lands II
3:14:47 Space Paranoids II
3:20:00 The 100 Acre Wood
3:23:33 Twilight Town III: The Other Twilight Town
3:28:38 The World That Never Was
3:35:41 The Tale of Ansem the Wise
3:39:58 Riku
3:44:52 Ascending the Castle
3:49:03 The Final Battle
4:03:08 Conclusion
4:05:58 Outro & Credits

Music used: https://pastebin.com/V1gPWYLs

Video transcription:

Kingdom Hearts II is one of my favorite games
of all time.This probably comes as no surprise to those
of you familiar with the series.Among Kingdom Hearts fans, Kingdom Hearts
II is generally regarded as the best gamein the series, with later games either failing
to live up to its standard, or not even tryingat all, due to being focused on providing
a different kind of experience.And I tend to agree with that consensus, and
fully believe that Kingdom Hearts II is asgood as its most ardent fans claim, and arguably,
even better than some may realize.Because, playing through Kingdom Hearts II
is a simply magical experience, and I saythat without an ounce of hyperbole.What exactly makes Kingdom Hearts II so magical
is hard to pin down, as evidenced by my needingthirty-eight thousand plus words to do so,
but, to a fan of classic animation, JRPG storytelling,and action-RPG gameplay, there is a certain
oeuvre that this game captures that not onlyworks ridiculously well on its own, but isn’t
available in any other game in this series,let alone another game series out there.Or, to be more straightforward,
Kingdom Hearts II is a masterpiece.That doesn’t mean that it’s
perfect or beyond critique(there are plenty of critiques to come in this essay, after all)but it is a game that is entirely
unmatched in what it sets out to do,and easily stands up to the test of time
due to its quality and clarity of purposeI can’t think of a better example of what
Kingdom Hearts sets out to be than what KingdomHearts II is, and with any luck, at the end
of this long journey of a video,you'll be able to see why I feel that way, and possibly,
come to feel that way about the game yourself.Let’s start, once more, with the gameplay
and mechanics.Up until very, very recently, I had no real
context for how to approach the mechanicalshift from Kingdom Hearts I to Kingdom Hearts
II.Because Kingdom Hearts II, while being a near
immaculate beginner’s character-action game,is still a sequel to an action-RPG with slow
paced combat, and the transition from oneto the other can be jarring if it’s not
something you’re expecting, which is exactlyhow I felt when revisiting it a few years
ago, when I first started this project.From my perspective, Kingdom Hearts II was
so much simpler and easier than Kingdom Hearts Iever was, and I couldn’t quite wrap my
head around why they’d taken away the complexityof basic fights out of the game, and made
everything feel so automated.The thing is though, it’s true that fights
against standard Heartless in Kingdom Hearts IIare much easier on the whole than they
were in the first game,but, that's just because unlike in
Kingdom Hearts I, you’re not actively fighting against the controls every step of the way.Sora is quick and responsive, has a lot of
options for fighting and movement given tohim over the course of the game, and generally
just feels amazing to play, unlike the verysame Sora I struggled against in Kingdom Hearts I.There is no more jank, no more weird idiosyncrasies
to memorize, and the majority of enemies aren’tdangerous enough to require you to memorize
their movesets.Instead, that kind of memorization and forethought
present for all enemies in Kingdom Hearts Ihas been limited to a few select dangerous
enemies placed alongside “trash mobs”that battles are filled with, as well as being
necessary for boss fights, and a new typeof enemy called Nobodies, who all have highly
memorable designs and attack patterns.This game even has the sense to
gradually ease players into the new moveset,and does so in a very clever way.For the first couple hours of the game, you
play as Roxas, another Keyblade wielder, andhe controls like a middle ground between the
Sora from Kingdom Hearts I and the Sora fromKingdom Hearts II.Roxas’s movements are a decent bit slower,
weightier, and require a longer period ofrecovery than the Sora you play later on,
but we still get to slowly unlock abilitiesfor Roxas that push him well past the capabilities
of Kingdom Hearts I's Sora, and once he’ssurpassed Kingdom Hearts I’s Sora, then the game
hands control over to Kingdom Hearts II’s Sora,who has an immediate boost in speed
and maneuverability, and feels even more satisfyingto play than the already satisfying Roxas.It's this transition that likely explains
why when I played this game as a kid,the updated mechanics and controls felt so much
better and more natural than the first game,and I was far more engrossed in Kingdom Hearts
II than I had ever been in Kingdom Hearts I.I am not entirely sure why I didn’t see
the clear improvements for what they werewhen I first revisited Kingdom Hearts II,
but I never had any issues with the updatedmechanics as a kid, and don’t have any major
issues with them now either.The only real criticism I had of this
game when revisiting it that holds upis that the Ability Points system, wherein you
were required to strategically manage what abilities youhad equipped, was made much more straightforward
in Kingdom Hearts II, with you being ableto basically equip every ability Sora unlocks
as he unlocks them, but I don’t think thatcriticism holds much water overall, because
I realized that while you don’t have tostrategically manage what abilities you have
equipped in most scenarios, you still wantto strategically manage what abilities you
use in the middle of combat, and that is afar more fun and interesting choice for a
character-action game than simply thinkingabout what abilities to equip.If these were all the improvements
Kingdom Hearts II made to the gameplay ofKingdom Hearts I, it’d already be a great sequel,
but Kingdom Hearts II goes a step further,and adds a ton of tools for you to use in
combat, while subtly reworking old mechanicsto make them more balanced.The first addition you come across is the
Reaction Command feature, which is essentiallya simplified version of a Quick-Time event,
where you’re required to press specificbuttons during cutscenes in order to make
key actions occur.The difference between Reaction Commands and
standard quick-time events though is thatReaction Commands are limited to a single
button, the Triangle button, and this hasits benefits and detriments.On the one hand, the benefits for accessibility
here can’t really be understated;it's a whole lot easier to only have to react by
pressing a single button that is the samebutton you use any time you need to react
to something special happening in the game.On the other hand, because of the way Reaction
Commands are used in most boss battles, theyoften serve as nothing more than a glorified
“press to win” button that will instantlymake Sora do some over-the-top action that
deals a ton of damage.These short scenes are, of course rad as all
hell and very fun to watch, but they do trivializea lot of boss encounters that may have been
more satisfying without them.Thankfully, there are exceptions to this:
all of the Reaction Commands for basic enemies,while powerful, are not broken, and usually
serve as opportunities to get to deal extradamage if you can position Sora in the right
place at the right time, with the ReactionCommands for Nobodies being particularly useful
and common.There are also more than enough exceptions
in the game’s bosses as well; most mandatoryboss fights have reaction commands that break
the encounter, but the more optional bossestend to provide reaction commands that simply
create an additional opportunity for a player,as well as all the bosses that are part of
Organization XIII, where Reaction Commandsare often needed just to survive the battle
or open an opportunity to deal damage at all.The second major addition to the game, and
easily the most fun and interesting new mechanic,are the Drive Forms, which are magical transformations
Sora can use to gain extra power, at the costof one or two allies in battle disappearing
while he’s transformed.There are five forms in total, and each one
has different strengths; the first form isValor form, which gifts Sora a second Keyblade
and a boost to physical attacks and speed,at the cost of not being able to use magic;
the second form is Wisdom form, which is completelyfocused on boosting magic and has no physical
attacks at all; the third form is Master form,which boosts Sora’s physical strength, magic
power, and increases his ability to fightin mid-air, but costs both allies, leaving
him without any support; the fourth form isLimit form, which draws on Sora’s friends
far away, and means he can transform withoutlosing any allies, and it replaces his magic
with Limits based on the special attacks fromthe first game, and changes Sora’s basic
attacks to resemble his attacks from the firstgame as well; and the last form is Final form,
which provides an incredible boost to magic,physical attacks, maneuverability, and defense,
with its only downside being that it coststwo allies and takes little time to burn through
before you’re transformed back to normal.Each of these Drive Forms are fantastic additions
to the game, and add a lot of variety to combat,since they all feel so unique to control,
with Final Form in particular just feelingabsolutely amazing, as the way Sora moves
and fights in that form makes him feel trulyunstoppable and powerful.These forms however, are powerful enough to
break the game if you were to solely relyon them for all battles, and so there is also
an additional form called Anti-Form that hasa random chance of occurring anytime you transform,
with that chance increasing every time yousuccessfully transform, or during certain
boss fights.Anti-Form isn’t necessarily bad on its own;
it does increase Sora’s attack power slightly,and give him more maneuverability, but the
form comes with a high cost to defense, andtransforming into it drains your entire Drive
Gauge, leaving you unable to transform againuntil you’re able to refill it.The third major addition to this game that’s
worth noting is the complete overhaul of Limits,which are special moves you perform in tandem
with other characters that let you deal alot of damage and look cool while doing it.Technically, these moves are just expansions
to the special abilities like Ars Arcanum,Sonic Blade, and Ragnarok that were in the
first game, but they’ve been so heavilyreworked that they feel like an entirely new
mechanic.Unlike in the first game, where most Limits
were tied to Sora, in Kingdom Hearts II almostall Limits are abilities given to other characters,
and they consume all of Sora’s magic inexchange for letting off a very powerful attack.Each limit is also very heavily themed around
the character they’re tied to, with theBeast’s limit being a series of powerful
slashing attacks followed by a roar, and Aladdin’slimit being a series of quick slashes done
in tandem with Sora, before unleashing a whirlwindof blades, just to list a couple examples.The biggest downside to these Limits is that
they are not nearly powerful enough to beworth using late into the game; they’re
very effective and worthwhile to use in theearly parts of the games story, but after
about the halfway point, most Limits aren’tworth the cost of being able to use magic
when you consider the relatively low amountof damage they do, and part of that is due
to the significant buff and redesign magichas undergone in the game.Reworking magic is probably the biggest change
Kingdom Hearts II makes from the original game.In Kingdom Hearts I, you had a set amount
of MP that drained whenever you cast spells,and you could refill your MP by landing melee
attacks, using certain items, or later inthe game, by getting hit by attacks yourself.This system meant that you were always able
to recover some MP, no matter what happenedto you, but it also ultimately meant that
once you ran out of most of your MP, you’dbe scrounging and saving every bit of MP you
could to recover during a difficult fight,unless you had items to help restore it.This system was also incredibly broken in
regard to healing and defense; it only cost1 MP to cast cure and heal Sora fully, and
the defense spell Aero only cost 2 MP, whichwas easy to earn back in the middle of a fight.There were some advantages to this system,
in that you could survive literally any fightif you were persistent and patient enough,
but there was almost no risk of actually dyingin all but the toughest fights.Kingdom Hearts II completely abandons that broken system
in favor of a new, much more balanced one.In this game, you have a set amount of MP
you can use, and once you run out of MP, youenter MP Charge, and are unable to use any
magic for a short period of time while yourMP is refilled.This means that you are never blocked off
from using magic for the entirety of a fight,and are always able to get your magic back
by being patient if you need to.Combine that with Cure costing all of your
MP, no matter how much you have left, andyou suddenly have a much more dynamic magic
system that rewards aggressive play and magicuse over patient defense and healing.It doesn’t hurt that the spells themselves
have also been completely reworked too;Fire and Blizzard in particular are completely
different, with Fire no longer being a fireballshot once at an enemy, but a circle of flames
that spins around Sora, and Blizzard beinghorizontal blast of ice, instead of the shotgun
spread it was in the first game.The spells Aero, Gravity, and Stop have all
been replaced, as well, with the Reflect spellreplacing Aero, and serving as both defense
and offense, as a properly timed Reflect protectsSora and strikes back with a huge amount of
damage, and Gravity and Stop being jointlyreplaced by Magnet, which deals a small amount
of continuous damage to enemies and trapsthem in midair.Some spells are still essentially the same
though; Thunder still calls down lightingstrikes, but this time in a more focused area
around Sora; Cure still heals Sora of course,but now, rather than having to select separate
party members to heal, it simply heals allallies that are within a certain distance
from Sora, making it much easier to bringyour party back up to full strength.Sora’s elemental spells also change drastically
whenever he’s in a form that’s able touse magic; Fire for example, when combined
with Wisdom form, automatically draws Sorain towards enemies in order to maximize damage;
the same spell also has Sora dash forwardaggressively in Master form, and in Final
Form, the Fire spell is blended with spinningKeyblades in order to deal massive damage.Summons have also been reworked from the first
game, as well, though their overhaul, whileincredibly reasonable, makes them feel perfunctory
when you consider all the other options Sorahas.The biggest change to Summons in Kingdom Hearts
II is that they, like Form changes, use theDrive Gauge in order to replace both of Sora’s
allies with another, summoned character.And I want to say upfront that the Summons
in this game are much more worthwhile thanthey were in the first; Chicken Little, Genie,
Stitch, and Peter Pan are all very usefulin different situations, and Genie in particular
has a lot of powerful moves and attacks available,but no matter how good any of these summons
are, the fact that they draw from the samepool of points as your Drive Forms means that
anytime you might use a summon, it’s probablyboth more reasonable and more fun to just
use a Drive Form instead.The abilities these summons offer don’t
really stand up to the raw power boosts offeredby drive forms, and they’re just not quite
as fun as the new moves and abilities youget with each drive.One of the areas where Kingdom Hearts II falls
short of Kingdom Hearts I is in its enemydesign, as it isn’t able to stand up to
the impeccable design work of the original.While each and every enemy has as good visual
design as the enemies in the original, thereare still a lot more Heartless in Kingdom
Hearts II that exist mostly to fill up spacein a fight, rather than be a unique challenge
on their own.There are still plenty of excellently designed
Heartless, of course; the “techno” Heartlessin Space Paranoids, are all very distinct
and challenging, as are a lot of the largerenemies in the Pride Lands, but the philosophy
of making every enemy a unique challenge thatwas present in the original is gone, and Kingdom
Hearts II is a bit less for it.I’d say that the presence of the Nobodies
makes up for most of the complexity lost inKingdom Hearts II though.The Nobodies are phenomenally designed, and
each of them feels incredibly unique, havingvery distinct designs and identifiable movesets.A lot of the best mob fights are fights against
assorted Nobodies, where you have to workout different strategies for how each type
of them plays off the other, and, like fightingthe Heartless in the original game, it never
fails to be fun and interesting every time.Even if the enemy design of Kingdom Hearts
II falters though, it takes a huge leap forwardin improving its overall world design from
the convoluted mess that most worlds werein the original game.Kingdom Hearts II’s worlds are far more
grand and impressive than the worlds in theoriginal, being about double the size on average,
and every individual area in each world feelslarger than any space in the original ever
did.Unfortunately, the trade-off for this increase
in scale is that any semblance of complexlevel design has been lost, but, this also
means that navigating each world and followingthe story is far more intuitive than it ever
was in the first game.Combine that with shifting focus away from
labyrinthian, dungeon-like worlds in favorcreating interesting small areas for combat
encounters, and you end up with worlds thatfeel a lot more suited to the game and its
story, as fun battle arenas are way more importantfor a character-action game than complex labyrinths.Of course, while the worlds themselves may
be simple to navigate, that doesn’t meanthat there are no incentives to explore them
thoroughly, with the biggest incentive givenby the game for exploration, besides good
old treasure chests, being various puzzlepieces scattered across the world.These puzzles pieces are only present in the
Final Mix version of the game, a director’scut-like rerelease that was exclusive to Japan
until the HD collections came out, but theyare still easily one of the best fun little
additions to the game.They essentially serve as a mini-collectathon
going on in the background of the game, andsince collecting every puzzle piece requires
you to upgrade your drive forms, to unlocknew movement abilities, they double as an
incentive and reward for making Sora stronger.The puzzle pieces aren’t the only bit of
content added in with the Final Mix releaseeither; the other major addition in this version
is an optional dungeon called the Cavern ofRemembrance, which is designed to put your
combat and navigation skills to the utmosttest.It’s a really great, well designed area
on its own, and at the end of it, your rewardis a series of thirteen superbosses, who are
all powered up versions of the members ofOrganization XIII, and a genuine test of skill,
as they’re designed to be fought by Sorawhen he’s at max level.There are more additions to the Final Mix
release as well, from the Mushroom XIII enemies,to a hidden superboss based on a character
from the game’s secret ending, but biggestand most worthwhile addition of the Final
Mix release is, by far, the additional cutscenesand story moments that weren’t present in
the original game.Most of these added scenes simply exist to
add more context to the story’s progression,and some in particular add a much stronger
emotional context, or completely new momentsthat weren’t present in the original, but
I want to say now, before we start to diveinto the story, that none of these scenes
are necessary.The original version of Kingdom Hearts II
told a complete, coherent story, and whilethese new scenes are helpful in making certain
parts of the story clear, they aren’t requiredto understand what’s going on, or to be
fully and deeply invested in the story thisgame is trying to tell.Okay?Okay.Let’s jump into the meat then!Kingdom Hearts II begins with a musical opening,
just like the first game, but where the openingin Kingdom Hearts I served to foreshadow the
direction of the story through visual metaphor,Kingdom Hearts II opts instead to use visual
metaphor to recap the events of the firstgame and Chain of Memories, and establishes
a motif of characters and environments fadinginto dust to represent the destruction of
worlds, memories, and friendships.As we watch Sora sit on a familiar beach with
his beloved friends, Riku and Kairi, we seeKairi and Riku transformed into dust and blown
away, just before Sora jumps off into theunknown and Destiny Islands dissolves around
him.The dissolution of his islands brings Sora
to the gates of Hollow Bastion, where we watchas he valiantly defeats Heartless on his way
up to the castle, transforming them into dustwith his every blow.We then see Sora in the center of Hollow Bastion,
facing an unconscious Kairi and his formerfriend, Riku, and see Riku extend his hand
out to Sora in the same motion as the firstgame’s opening, with the background fading
away to show the wave of darkness about toovercome him.As Sora rushes forward and faces Riku, we
watch him transform into Ansem, and cut quicklyto Ansem’s defeat at the door to Kingdom
Hearts, and Riku’s last words to Sora asthe door is closed.We return then to the moment of Sora’s sacrifice
in Hollow Bastion, as he used the Keybladeof Heart to release his and Kairi’s hearts
from his body, fading into flecks of light,and after lingering on that moment, see Kairi
patiently waiting on the beach as similarflecks of light fall from the sky.Her old self is then blown away into dust
as she is transformed into who she is a yearlater, still looking out on that beach, waiting
for Sora to come home, and as she waits, wesee her connected with Naminé, as they both
mouth the words of the song being played,and remain with Naminé as we see her construct
the trial Sora is put through in her sketchbook.There’s an absolutely breathtaking transition
as we pan in on the sketchbook and see itturn into Sora, Donald, and Goofy climbing
a series of endless stairs, and then in flashes,we watch as Sora and Riku both face down their
ultimate challenges from Castle Oblivion,with Sora defeating Marluxia and Riku defeating
Ansem.As we see them both ascend up those endless
stairs, we catch a brief glimpse of Riku notrunning up the stairs, but down the stairs
upside down, representing his willingnessto use the power of darkness, and the minor
step backwards it is for him.We then are back with Sora as he finally approaches
Naminé, only to have a sleeping pod riseup from beneath him, and fall back asleep
as Naminé utters a few lyrics of the song.He continues falling into an empty white void,
but that void eventually transforms into thefamiliar waters around Destiny Islands, showing
the slow restoration of his memories Naminéput him to sleep for.As Naminé closes her sketchbook on an image
of a sleeping Sora, we see him resting peacefullyon the beach, holding hands with his beloved
friends once again, before being thrust downwardbelow the sand, as we see an unfamiliar blonde
boy pushed down into deep water.Dust particles surround him, tying him to
some force of destruction, and we watch ashe slowly falls into the deep water, mimicking
the way Sora did in the first game’s opening,and eventually waking up and standing atop
a glowing stain glass image of Sora himself.This mysterious blonde boy is Roxas, and after
a short scene where the events of the firstgame are recapped in more detail, we see him
wake up peacefully in his bed, as he opensthe window to a sunset-lit sky over the sleepy
cityscape of Twilight Town, and comments onhaving had another dream about Sora.Besides these strange dreams about Sora though,
Roxas seems to be a fairly normal, quiet kid.He has a group of friends in Hayner, Pence,
and Olette, who all hang out in The UsualSpot, an alley filled with abandoned furniture
situated under the train tracks, and we seeRoxas hanging out with them and talking about
the local gossip.It’s intentionally very slice-of-life, and
like Destiny Islands in the first game, thetime we spend here allows Kingdom Hearts II
to explore the small moments that make upa friendship.Even with the slice-of-life framing though,
things in Twilight Town take a turn towardsthe surreal fairly quickly, as after Hayner
has finished venting about how another boynamed Seifer is giving him and his friends
a bad name, Pence, the soft, lovable nerdof the group, checks inside his small binocular
camera and finds that all of their photosare gone, and beyond that, neither him nor
anyone else is even able to say the word “photo”when they try, with their speech being blanked
out entirely where the word would be.Hayner, who is clearly the leader of the group,
immediately dedicates them all to investigatingthis, hoping to clear their name by recovering
everyone’s stolen photos.We then take control of Roxas, our protagonist
for the time being.After speaking with some of the shopkeepers,
we’re introduced to Hayner and Roxas’rivals in this town, the self-appointed members
of the Twilight Town Disciplinary Committee.This group consists of the Final Fantasy characters
Seifer, Fuu, Rai, and Vivi, and the contrastof their brash, bombastic style against the
chill friendship of Hayner’s crew is immediatelyobvious.The characters even serve as direct contrast
to each other, outside of their dynamics asa group.Olette who is kind, friendly, warm, and sensible,
is mirrored by Fuu, an aggressive, cold, andhardboiled goth girl you could easily fall
in love with, I mean, see as a protagonistin an edgy shounen anime.Pence, who is short, stout, and extremely
lovable, and probably the smartest memberof his group, is then mirrored by Rai, a large,
muscular, loud, and extremely lovable jockwho is dense as a brick and ends his every
sentence with the phrase “y’know.”There’s also Hayner and Seifer, whose contrasting
personalities are the subtlest; both of thesecharacters are brash and charismatic leaders
of their respective groups of friends, andthe biggest difference between them is the
amount of control they have over themselves.Seifer is frequently demanding and harsh in
the interactions we see, but the way he carrieshimself makes it very clear that he is in
control of his behavior, and that his actions,whatever they may be, are guided by forethought
and insight, and never spur-of-the-momentreactions.Hayner, on the other hand, very clearly lacks
this kind of self-control, and most of hischallenges as a character stem from his quick,
gut reactions to emotions.Not all of his reactions are bad, of course;
while Hayner tries to hide his love and affectionfor his friends most of the time, his emotions
often get the better of him and lead him makebold declarations about how much treasures
the time he has with them, but just as often,he will get angry about a mistake someone
else makes, or a complex misunderstanding,and has to storm off from the rest of the
group to cool down, even if he always returnsand forgives them.And finally, there’s Roxas and Vivi, who
don’t so much contrast each other as muchas fill the same role in their groups, as
the quiet outsider who doesn’t quite fitin, but is still loved by their friends anyway.We don’t learn much about Vivi in this early
scene, but we do learn a lot about Roxas,as he responds to Seifer threatening and accusing
him and his friends by feinting submission,before grabbing a plush weapon and attacking
him, beating Seifer handily and allowing Penceto take a victory photo.Before Pence has a chance to respond though,
a mysterious white figure jumps at him andsnatches his camera away, and Roxas follows
the figure to the outside of an abandonedmansion.This figure moves and behaves in the most
unnatural manners, and acts even more strangelyas Roxas approaches it, unzipping its “mouth”
and wordlessly saying“We have come for you, my liege.”Roxas is taken aback, and tries to strike
down this creature with his plush weapon tono avail, before some form of technological
magic transforms his toy weapon into a Keyblade,allowing him to defeat the thief and recover
the photos.We return with Roxas to The Usual Spot where
he and his friends examine the photos, andrealize that all of them have a common feature:
they’re photos of Roxas.Pence jokingly posits that the thief may have
been somehow trying to steal the real Roxas,and everyone laughs off this idea, but after
Roxas goes back home for the night, we seea man in a mysterious black cloak and a man
wrapped in red bandages confirm that the thiefwas in fact going after Roxas, but was unable
to discern the difference between him andthe photos.Things appear to be normal enough the next
morning though, as while Roxas dreams of Sora’smemories from Kingdom Hearts I yet again,
he arrives at The Usual Spot to have a completelynormal conversation with his friends, where
Hayner launches a hare-brained scheme to earnenough munny for them all to visit the beach
and eat some delicious pretzels.We’re free to earn that munny as Roxas in
a variety of six different minigames, butjust after we’ve earned the munny and think
we’re going to visit the beach with Roxasand his friends, the man in the black cloak
appears and bumps into Roxas, stealing themunny they all earned and preventing him from
going to the beach after all.This of course, is made more surreal by the
fact that no one but Roxas sees the man inthe black cloak, having just seen Roxas trip
and get back up on his own, and the concernthey show at Roxas seemingly hallucinating
a figure like that is surprisingly kind andunderstanding.Still though, their plans for a fun day at
the beach are all spoiled, and Roxas returnshome to dream more of Sora’s memories, as
we see the man in the black cloak speakingwith the man covered in red bandages, who
we can recall is DiZ, and learn that theyconspired to steal the wallet in order to
avoid having to create a beach, which wouldallow their enemies, presumably the white
husks, another way to enter their world.The next day arrives for Roxas as usual though,
and when he arrives at The Usual Spot, hefinds a note from Hayner, revealing that he
has found a way to get them all to the beachwithout needing to each earn munny, but before
Roxas can meet up with the rest of his friends,time stops for the entire world, except for
him, and a familiar girl dressed in white,who we know as Naminé.Roxas opts to chase after her, rather than
go towards the station, and as he followsher to the sandlot, he finds Seifer’s gang
beset by white husks like the one who stolethe pictures.As before, Roxas’s toy weapon doesn’t
have any effect on them, but after being remindedby Naminé to use the Keyblade, Roxas attempts
to summon it like he’s seen Sora do in hisdreams.Instead of simply calling the Keyblade to
himself though, he’s transported to theStation of Awakening, a world of stain glass
images floating over an empty black background,and we see Roxas standing on the image of
Sora and his friends.We then fight our way through the white husks
of this world, and come to the Twilight Thorn,a giant white figure who serves as the game’s
first boss, and our first chance to see justhow badass Roxas can be, as he reacts to the
wild attacks of this figure with calm, deadlyprecision.Defeating the Twilight Thorn isn’t quite
the victory you’d expect it to be though,as its disintegration causes a pool of darkness
to appear and start to engulf Roxas.Before he’s pulled in completely though,
Naminé’s hand reaches out to grab his,paralleling Sora’s attempt to save Riku
from the darkness in the first game, but unlikethere, Naminé is able to grab Roxas’s hand,
and pull him out of the darkness and intothe light.Standing in a white room filled with the symbols
of Castle Oblivion, Naminé finally introducesherself to Roxas, and asks if he remembers
his true name.Before Roxas can begin to respond though,
she is pulled away by the man in black, andhe pushes Roxas into a portal of darkness,
leaving him to wake up on the ground in thesandlot as Seifer and his gang celebrate their
victory.And just as quickly as that, we’re thrown
right back into the slice-of-life story ofTwilight Town, as Roxas awkwardly stands around
with Seifer, only for Hayner and his friendsto see them all hanging out together, instead
of visiting the beach like they planned.This back-and-forth, between the surreal events
all occurring around Roxas, and the everydaydrama and friendship between him, Hayner,
Pence, and Olette, is honestly masterfullydone.It sets up a clear mystery around our protagonist,
asking why he’s being chased by these whitehusks, what DiZ and the man in black want
with him, what his connection is to Sora,and why he’s able to wield the Keyblade,
all of which are questions we the audiencewould be bound to be wondering anyway, and
the game only gives us little hints towardsthe answer, while still answering deeper,
more meaningful questions, like what kindof person is Roxas, and how does he relate
to the world around him?We won’t even get a full answer to all the
mysteries surrounding Roxas until after thegame is finished with him as the protagonist,
but every moment that we’re with him, whetherduring the surreal or real moments, we learn
more about him, and why we should love andcare about him.Roxas chases after his friends, hoping to
explain what happened to Hayner, but he’snot able to find the words, and ends up upsetting
Hayner more anyway, as he suggests that theyspend the next day at the beach, forgetting
that he promised Hayner that they would bothcompete in the next day’s local Struggle
contest, and split the prize regardless ofwho won.Hayner just exits after that, leaving Roxas
to sit with his feelings, and we jump to DiZand the man in black, revealing that Naminé
broke into “the data” on her own, andthat DiZ is not concerned whatsoever about
what happens to Roxas.The next day, after another dream of Sora,
Roxas heads to the Sandlot, ready to keephis promise and be a part of the Struggle
competition.He is matched up in the first round with his
best friend, Hayner, and the tension betweenthe two of them is immediately clear, as Hayner
acts very cold towards Roxas, but as soonas Roxas steps up and apologizes, he reveals
that he’s already gotten over his hurt feelingsand come to understand that Roxas just has
a lot going on.The two of them then smile and make up, and
put their all into this Struggle match, whereRoxas defeats Hayner and moves on to the next
round.The following match is between Seifer and
one of his own friends, Vivi, and in a surprisingturn, we see Vivi defeat Seifer with grace,
speed, and unadulterated brutality, knockinghim out before even a minute of the match
has passed.This contrasts pretty strongly from the clumsy,
shy Vivi we’ve seen so far, and makes itseem like there is another parallel between
Vivi and Roxas, as they both have immensepower underneath their shy exteriors, but
this isn’t quite the case, as after followingSeifer’s command to “thrash ‘im,”
time stops again, and Roxas sees Vivi transforminto a white husk, and his toy weapon turn
into the Keyblade.These husks, while challenging, are not a
major threat to Roxas, and after defeatingthem, he’s approached by a new figure in
a familiar black cloak, who slowly claps andcheers him on, before removing his hood to
reveal that he’s someone we know: Axel,one of the members of Organization XIII Sora
met in Castle Oblivion.Axel approaches Roxas as an old friend, but
Roxas doesn’t recall who Axel is in theslightest, and demands to know why he’s
acting like they should know each other.Roxas, however, has no context for that answer,
and when Axel threatens to bring him backto the Organization unconscious, he readies
himself for battle, dueling with Axel untilDiZ teleports in, trying to convince Roxas
that Axel is lying to him.Axel, naturally, argues back, and their shouts
quickly devolve into a cacophony of noise.And yet again, everything jumps back to “normal.”Roxas has defeated Vivi and is declared the
winner of the Struggle, sending him on tothe title match against Setzer, from Final
Fantasy VI.This Struggle match can be either won or lost,
as Setzer promises Roxas a reward for throwingthe match, and while Roxas rejects his offer,
I generally prefer the ending where he loses,as it suggests to me that the strange events
of the day have him shaken, and unable togive his all to the match.This option also means that while the crowd
as a whole cheers on Setzer and congratulateshim for his victory, Hayner, Pence, and Olette
all get together and cheer on Roxas, who hasstill done his best and given his all to the
match, which I just find so much more emotionallygratifying that him winning outright and being
celebrated by everyone.Whether after victory or defeat though, Roxas
and his friends take the Struggle trophy upto the top of the local clock tower, where
Roxas hands out each of the gems on the trophyto his friends, and they all admire the way
they shine in the sunlight, and enjoy sharingthis treasure with each other.Before we have time to re-adjust to reality
though, Roxas slips and falls off the clocktower, having jumped up too eagerly at Olette
having brought sea-salt ice-cream along, andwe are moved to a character we’ve only seen
in flashback so far: Kairi.Kairi walks along a road on Destiny Islands,
talking to Selkie about Riku, and how sheremembers spending time on the islands with
him and another boy, who she just can’tseem to remember.Selkie can’t remember there being another
boy at all, but this doesn’t deter Kairi,as she knows that there was someone else she
and Riku spent time with, and has committedto not returning to the island they used to
play on until she completely remembers him.It’s then that we hear Roxas’s voice.We return to Kairi as she rises up from the
ground, and then rushes off to the beach,meeting her there as she places a message
in a bottle in the ocean.She explains to Selkie that she’s remembered
a little more about Sora, and specifically,remembers the importance of the promise they
made to each other, to meet again so he canreturn the star charm she made for him.Confident that Sora will receive the letter,
we cut away from her just as she remembersthe two syllables of Sora’s name, and smiles
as her letter floats off into the waves.Meanwhile, DiZ and the man in black discuss
what just happened, as DiZ explains that Roxas’sconnection to Naminé put him in contact with
Kairi’s heart, and this act, in turn, putKairi’s heart in contact with Sora, even
over the vast distance that separates them all.DiZ also explains that Naminé is a “Nobody,”
and that because she wasn’t born like otherNobodies, she has the ability to interfere
with the hearts of Sora and those connectedto him, which leaves the man in black asking
whose Nobody Naminé is.DiZ doesn’t answer him, but instead asks
the man in black to reveal his true name,and he does so, throwing off his hood and
revealing himself to be Ansem,the villain of the first game.After Roxas gets dressed for the day, he heads
out to The Usual Spot, where he and his friendsreluctantly agree that Olette is right, and
they should work on their summer homeworktoday.Roxas and his friends all commit to investigating
a set of mysteries Pence refers to as “theseven wonders of Twilight Town,” which are
all strange and surreal occurrences that fitin with the strange experiences Roxas has
had, as well as the “sleepy town with darksecrets” vibe Twilight Town has established
for itself so far.The mysteries themselves less resemble Twin
Peaks though, and more closely mirror thestories you’d find in a Nancy Drew novel,
as Roxas teams up with Pence to travel aroundand investigate them.This project takes Roxas and his friends to
a part of Twilight Town we’ve never seenbefore, the Sunset Terrace, which hangs over
a steep cliffside, and on the train ride there,Roxas and his friends all pull out their special
gemstones and admire them in the light, onlyfor Roxas to realize his is gone.Once they arrive in the terrace, Roxas and
Pence solve the first mystery fairly easily;the steps of Sunset Station are rumored to
count differently going up and down the staircase,but Pence reveals that the only reason this
incident ever occurred is because Rai, thelovable dumbass in Seifer’s crew, was the
one counting the steps, and probably justmiscounted.There are still six more mysteries to investigate
though: The rumors say there are dark dopplegangershiding behind a waterfall, a large bag that
bounds around on its own, strange voices comingfrom the tram tunnels, and an alleyway where
volleyballs seem to bounce from out of nowhere.As we investigate these mysteries, we see
a clear pattern of supernatural causes; ashadow-Roxas emerges from the waterfall and
challenges him to a fight, the strange bagbounces around too quickly and erratically
for rational explanation, there are multiplecopies of Vivi acting just like the Vivi at
the tournament inside the tram tunnels, andthe alleyway sends out a bombardment of volleyballs
that Roxas can barely dodge.Once Roxas finishes his investigations though,
Pence catches up just in time to have notseen anything supernatural going on.He sees his reflection in the waterfall and
proposes that as the explanation, he seesRoxas open the bag and reveal a dog trapped
inside, he sees a single Vivi enter the tramtunnels and assumes he was just practicing
in there, and he sees a single volleyballcome out of the alley and assumes Roxas threw
it out at him, making it appear like it cameout of nowhere.Roxas is still baffled by all of this, we
see him question his own experiences afterPence provides a “logical” explanation,
but we as the player get a little more truth,as we are shown a glimpse of strange white
husks behind almost every mystery.After this, Roxas and Pence meet back up with
Hayner and Olette, who have just discoveredanother rumored mystery about the Ghost Train,
which travels along the tracks with no driverand no passengers.They all head up to the top of the cliffs
to watch the train tracks, casually watchingfor anything unusual, when they are approached
by Seifer, who aggressively asks what they’redoing.Naturally, he mocks them for investigating
the ghost train, and starts to walk off unimpressed,but he’s stopped by Hayner, and responds
that he’s still taking part in somethingthey have planned for tomorrow.Not long after he leaves, Roxas jumps up,
as he sees a train dressed in the trappingsof Disney wizardry coming down the tracks,
and realizes that there is no driver or passengerspresent.He excitedly leads his friends back to the
train station, and is ready to board the trainand find out more, when he is stopped by Hayner
at the last second.Roxas’s friends are once again visibly worried
about him, but they don’t make any judgementsagainst him, and simply push him onto the
train back home once it arrives.They collectively decide that all of the seven
wonders are bunk, and to just make their reporton the investigative work they did, but Roxas
isn’t satisfied, as he realizes that there’sone more wonder that needs to be investigated.Hayner pushes back on him, trying to play
it off like the seventh doesn’t matter,but Pence fills Roxas in on the details: there
is a girl who sometimes appears in the windowof the old mansion, despite no one having
lived there for years.The two of them head off to investigate, and
once there, Pence explains that Hayner hadactually planned to come investigate the mansion
the next day, as well as the rest of the town,in hopes of discovering the source of the
strange events surrounding Roxas and the townas a whole.Hayner had also made a deal with Seifer and
his gang, inviting them to help with the investigation,and while it’s not commented on again, it’s
clear that this is a moment of maturity onHayner’s part, as he set his personal feelings
of rivalry aside in order to help out hisfriend.Roxas then proceeds with the investigation,
and stares up into the window of the mansion,finding a very familiar, yet mysterious girl
standing there.He begins a conversation with Naminé, and
is transported up into the white room, whichis covered in her drawings.He finds a drawing of himself and Axel together,
wearing black cloaks and staring at two moreblack cloaked figures, and has it confirmed
by Naminé that the two of them are in factbest friends, and while Roxas is in disbelief
that Naminé could know more about himselfthan he does, this prompts Naminé to help
explain all the strange things Roxas has beenexperiencing.She explains that a year ago, she had to take
apart Sora’s memories, and has been workingon putting them back together again, a process
which has led to the dreams Roxas has beenhaving.She also explains for Sora to be made whole
again, he needs Roxas, as he is “half ofwho Sora is,” and that according to DiZ,
she is a “witch” with powers over Sora’smemory, powers that she isn’t even sure
there’s a right way to use.Roxas, now unsure he knows himself as well
as he thought, asks Naminé what exactly sheknows about him that he doesn’t, and she
responds.Roxas is shaken out of this scene by Pence
though, having apparently been lost in a daze,and he tries to explain that he saw the girl
in the window, who we see when he points up.When Pence looks up though, he only sees the
curtain flapping, and figures there must justbe a draft causing them to move, though we
cut back one more time from Roxas’s perspectiveto see Naminé still standing there.The boys head back to The Usual Spot, and
find that Olette has already finished theirreport, having assumed that the seventh wonder
would be just as disappointing as the others.They head up to the clock tower where Hayner
is waiting for them, and have one last laugh,some sea-salt ice cream, and enjoy one of
the last days of summer together.Sora’s restoration though, is almost complete.DiZ and Ansem meet up one more time to discuss
their returning memories, as they both arenow finally able to remember Sora clearly,
and we learn that DiZ plans to dispose ofNaminé once her work restoring Sora is done,
claiming that she was also never meant toexist.We then return to one final dream, where Roxas
remembers all of Sora’s journey up to enteringCastle Oblivion, and then has some memories
of his own restored, recalling meeting anotherdark cloaked figure who claimed to have visited
Sora, and a duel with Riku at the steps ofa skyscraper, a scene shown in the secret
ending to Kingdom Hearts I.With this, Roxas awakens, and as he steps
out of bed, he’s overshadowed by the silhouetteof Sora, showing how closely the two of them
are connected now, and while this fades, andRoxas is returned to himself, his trials are
far from over, as when he tries to returnto the Usual Spot, and speak to his friends,
he discovers that they cannot see or hearhim, and they pass right through him as they
run off to spend time on their own.Roxas is then confronted by Axel, who laments
that he’s been given orders to destroy Roxasif he won’t return to the Organization.Roxas recalls Naminé mentioning that the
two of them were once best friends, and thisclearly makes Axel ecstatic, but when he presses
Roxas to see if he really remembers theirtime together, he realizes that Roxas still
doesn’t remember him, and prepares to attackhim.Before he can strike though, time freezes
around Roxas once again, and DiZ calls outto him, summoning him to the mansion.Roxas tries to free himself and restore the
flow of time by calling on his friends oncemore, but this time, it has no effect, and
he’s left with no choice but to go to themansion, leaving Axel behind to reflect on
the Roxas he once knew being long gone.Once at the mansion, Roxas realizes the gate
is locked, and opens it with his Keybladeafter recalling Sora do the same.As he heads into the building proper, the
figure of Ansem appears to fend off the whitehusks chasing after Roxas, only, when he prepares
to fight, he doesn’t draw a weapon we’veever seen Ansem use, but rather, the Soul
Eater blade of our good friend Riku.We only get a glimpse of this weapon though,
and are then returned to Roxas as he findshis way into Naminé’s room, and has his
memory of leaving the Organization restored.But before Naminé can explain, she transported
away by DiZ.Roxas ventures down to the basement of the
mansion, where we find what appears to bethe computer room we’ve seen DiZ and Ansem
working in, and it’s here Roxas regainsalmost all of his memories.We see him sitting in a throne alongside the
other members of Organization XIII, with themembers we have yet to meet concealed under
their hoods.Roxas also remembers the full story of his
departure from the Organization, and the restof his duel with Riku, where he was defeated,
and ended up unconscious as DiZ and Ansemdiscussed his fate.Roxas flies into a fit of rage, realizing
just how much he’s been manipulated andtaken advantage of, and he violently smashes
DiZ’s computer, an incredibly catharticmoment that ends up opening the door further
into the basement.Roxas heads in and finds himself face-to-face
with Axel, who is just as enraged as he is,and as the two of them gear up to fight, Roxas
draws out two Keyblades, Oathkeeper and Oblivion,to Axel’s surprise, and the two of them
let out all of their frustration and rageon each other.Their rage finally subsided, Roxas’s last
forgotten memories finally return, and herecalls the last time he saw Axel, as he was
leaving Organization XIII.Axel tries to stop him, both by asserting
how dangerous the Organization is, and byassuring Roxas that if he was destroyed by
the Organization, that he would miss him,even if no one else would, but it’s too
late, and Roxas departs anyway.We return to the present, where Axel asks
Roxas to meet him again in the next life,and Roxas agrees too, while Axel vanishes
into a fog of darkness.Roxas heads further into mansion and finds
a series of sleeping pods like the ones wesaw Sora enter at the end of Chain of Memories,
these pods containing a sleeping Donald andGoofy, and Roxas heads even further on, coming
to a final sleeping pod standing alone inthe center of a white room.DiZ, naturally, is waiting there for him,
greeting him as the Keyblade’s chosen one,and refusing to acknowledge Roxas as his own
person, simply calling him “half of Sora,”and claiming that Roxas is merely a tool he
plans to use to destroy Organization XIII.This sets Roxas off, and he attacks DiZ, keeping
up his attack even after he discovers thatDiZ is only there as a hologram, tiring himself
out in his rage.As we fade away from Sora’s reveal, Roxas
is subsumed into him, and we follow Sora throughthe rest of the game.I’ve hesitated to explain what exactly is
happening to Roxas thus far, mostly becausethe game frames his existence, connection
to Sora, and purpose as a mystery to be unfolded,but what’s going on here is pretty simple,
and explained not long after we leave Roxas.Back in Kingdom Hearts I, when Sora sacrificed
himself to free Kairi’s heart, his heartwas freed from his body, and transformed into
a Heartless.And as we learn shortly after, when a person
is turned into a Heartless, if they possessa strong will, their body can remain and live
on its own as a new creature, called a Nobody.Most Nobodies are like the white husks we’ve
seen attacking Roxas so far, but the Nobodiesof those with incredibly strong wills can
retain their human forms, and memories oftheir past lives, and all of the members of
Organization XIII are these kinds of Nobodies.Once we know all this, the answer to the questions
about Roxas become very obvious; he is Sora’sNobody, created when Sora was briefly transformed
into a Heartless.The only difference between him and other
Nobodies is that because Sora was restoredto his true self shortly after being turned,
Roxas didn’t inherit any of Sora’s memories,and ended up becoming his own person.From Roxas’s flashbacks so far, we know
that he was recruited into Organization XIII,left them for unknown reasons, and was captured
by Riku in order to help restore Sora’smemories.There are more details to Roxas’s story,
explored in another game, as well as moreinformation about DiZ and his motivations,
explored later in this game, but the picturewe’ve had painted of Roxas is very clear,
and soaked in nothing but tragedy.Despite asserting his own personhood and right
to exist time and time again during the story,Roxas is unable to avoid a destiny that forces
his own identity out of the picture.He’s told constantly by others that his
existence serves no purpose, and even thathe was never supposed to exist, by someone
trapped in a similar fate to his own.Naminé’s fate, in fact, is probably even
more tragic than Roxas’s.While we don’t see her subsumed into another
person quite yet in the story, we’re shownvery clearly that she has internalized DiZ’s
claims that Nobodies like her and Roxas werenever supposed to exist, despite Sora’s
best efforts in Chain of Memories to showher that she truly matters.And yet even as DiZ belittles her, she works
tirelessly with him to restore Sora’s memories,all so this man obsessed with revenge can
restore his “warrior of light” to defeatOrganization XIII, only for him to turn against
her, sending Riku to dispatch her once herwork is done.It’s in this way that Roxas and Naminé
serve as opposite representations of the “empty”existence of being a Nobody.From the beginning of Roxas’s story, we
see him fighting tirelessly against thosewho would seek to define him.He lashes out against Seifer when he tries
to assert that Roxas and his friends are nothingbut losers, and continues to lash out against
a world and destiny that claims he is nothingmore than half of Sora, attempting to define
his identity on his own terms, as his ownperson.Naminé though, actively works with and serves
someone who thoroughly dismisses the ideathat she might have an identity of her own,
referring to her as nothing more than a witchwith power over Sora’s memories, a tool
for him to use in his revenge.And yet, regardless of how Roxas and Naminé
respond to the world around them telling themthey don’t matter, they’re ultimately
bound to the same fate; to be subsumed intotheir other, more positive halves.Even as they both are subsumed into others
though, I think it’s pretty clear that,for Roxas at least, his identity can’t be
defined or contained in the simplistic ideaof who Sora is.There is more depth to Roxas than being an
avatar of heroism and relentless positivity,seen in how he is visibly affected and hurt
by the circumstances surrounding him, buteven with that dark texture to his character,
Roxas refuses to be defined so simply as anavatar of angst and suffering.He is far more defined by what he does, and
that’s fighting for his own existence, fightingfor the right to be seen as a person all his
own.Within Roxas’s story, there’s a truly
great idea, that what it means to be a heroextends past simple definitions of positivity
and optimism, the kind of simple definitionscorporate marketing executives would use to
try and define a hero, and that idea is thattrue heroism is about asserting your own existence,
and fighting to be recognized on your ownterms.It’s an incredibly queer interpretation
of heroism, in fact, and Roxas’s struggleagainst the existential meaninglessness others
place upon him due to “what” he is, issomething I find really impactful and inspiring.There’s even more to Roxas than this though.In fact, the very concept of being a “Nobody”
in Kingdom Hearts raises the question of whatsuch an existence even means, to begin with.And…I think I know the answer.Darkness, in Kingdom Hearts, is consistently
used as a metaphor for the darker side ofmental illness, whether that be depression,
anger, or obsession, and with that in mind,we have to assume that becoming a Heartless,
and losing your identity to these all-consumingfeelings, is probably a very traumatizing
experience.When we’re first told about who and what
Nobodies are, the thing most emphasized aboutthem is that they do not experience any emotions;
they remember what it was like to feel emotion,of course, but they are ultimately a body
left behind after a heart turned to darkness,and thus don’t have the heart needed to
actually feel their feelings.And being unable to truly feel your emotions,
particularly as a response to a traumatizingexperience?Well, that, that’s real.And we call that dissociation.And dissociation… dissociation defines the
entirety of Roxas’s experiences in thisgame.From his introduction we can see that he’s
a very shy kid, that despite being part ofHayner’s group of friends, he’s always
partially on the outside of their interactions,never quite fitting in no matter what he does.There’s even one particular scene that shows
Roxas’s dissociation in about as clear termsas you could ask for, and that’s this scene
on the train.And… well… it’s about to get real personal,
because I can’t talk about what I thinkthat means without doing so.Because when I think about Roxas’s dissociation,
and how the trauma surrounding his creationmade him a completely different person than
Sora…Well, I start to think about plurality, and
dissociative identity disorder.See, dissociative identity disorder, in its
most common forms, exists as a response tosevere trauma, and it can cause people to
develop a completely separate personalityin order to avoid being overwhelmed by that
trauma.I’ve mentioned in my Chain of Memories video
that I definitely have experience with childhoodtrauma, and, due to that trauma, I formed
two alternate personalities whose purposeis to shield and protect me from harm, whether
that be in the form of new trauma, or flashbacksto past trauma.And Roxas?Roxas reminds me so much of Rosamund, who
exists to block me off from having to bearthe full brunt of my emotions, and keep me
moving forward and asserting my own existence.Our own existence.And when Naminé tells Roxas that he was never
really supposed to exist, no matter how wrongshe may be, Rosamund and I feel that line
so strongly.If I hadn’t been hurt severely as a child,
if I hadn’t been so thoroughly traumatizedand forced to hide within myself, Rosamund
would never have had to exist.They never would have had to be born, and
I would be a far less broken wreck of faultsand insecurities.But, Roxas?Roxas fights so desperately for his right
to exist, no matter the circumstances throughwhich he was created, and it, it just feels
incredible to see a character who representsthe birth of dissociation through trauma refuse
to back down when every single thing and personin his life is telling him that he doesn’t
exist, that he doesn’t matter, that he’sonly half a person and doesn’t deserve to
be recognized on its own.And it’s tragic, to see him ultimately lose,
to fade into the background of Sora, and failto be realized as his own person, but even
within that tragedy, there is a bit of hope.A bit of purpose in that sacrifice.Because without Roxas’s sacrifice, Sora
would be unable to be whole, and he wouldbe burdened down by the weight of his own
trauma and suffering, whether that be thetrauma of becoming a Heartless, or the trauma
of his own experiences in Castle Oblivion.Roxas, in the end, comes to realize this truth,
and step into the background of Sora, allowinghim to exist free and whole in the world.Rosamund and I have a bit of a similar relationship;
they have much more willingly stepped intothe background of me.They exist in the background and they only
come out when they’re needed, but even withinthose circumstances, I think it’s important
to affirm that Rosamund absolutely still existsas their own person.They have completely different wants, needs,
and desires than I do, and just like Roxas,they deserve to exist, and have their existence
acknowledged, on their own terms.So…Yeah.I’m plural.I prefer that to dissociative identity disorder
because I don’t pathologize it.It’s just a part of who I am.And I’m proud of being a plural person.And as someone plural, I have always felt
deeply seen through Roxas, and other partsof Kingdom Hearts as well.#PluralGangAfter we leave Roxas for the final time, wesee one important scene as Riku meets with
Naminé and Axel on the cliffs of Sunset Terrace,where Axel fully expects him to destroy them
both.Riku spares them both instead though, against
DiZ’s orders, due to the fact that theyboth helped him and Sora back at Castle Oblivion,
and we see Naminé and Axel depart, managingto get away unscathed.And then, we’re returned to Sora, who awakens
lazily from his sleeping pod, and finds anexcited Donald and Goofy waiting for him.There was one more purpose to the extended
opening with Roxas, and it was fairly simpleand straightforward; it was to make us miss
Sora, to miss this lovable doofball and wantto see him awaken again, and I think maybe
the greatest strength of this opening is that,no matter how happy we are to see Sora finally
return, it’s hard not to feel a twinge ofguilt as he does, since we know what Roxas
had to give up to bring him back.After our wonderful trio finishes their joyous
reunion, they make their way out of the mansioninto Twilight Town, where they meet Hayner,
Pence, and Olette.Despite these three not being the same people
who knew Roxas, they seem to immediately connectwith Sora, as if they instinctually feel a
connection to him, and Roxas inside of him.They chat a bit about summer homework and
independent studies being the worst (theyso are), and then Olette remembers running
into a mouse with big, round ears who wantedSora, Donald, and Goofy to meet him at the
train station.When we arrive at the station, Sora is indeed
greeted by the soulless husks of a secretiveOrganization, but not of the cartoon mouse
variety.Instead he is greeted by Nobodies, who come
after him in waves, overwhelming him.Just before the Nobodies can close in on an
exhausted Sora though, Mickey swoops downfrom above and quickly dispatches them.Sora, Donald, and Goofy all recognize him
immediately, but before they have a chanceto catch up, Mickey hands them a familiar
pouch of munny, tells them to board the train,and leaps off to parts unknown.Never a bunch to feel much urgency though,
Sora, Donald, and Goofy all take a momentand breathe a sigh of relief, finally assured
that their King is okay, with Sora assumingthat if Mickey found his way out of the realm
of darkness, Riku must have made it out aswell.Sora decides then and there to commit to finding
and reuniting with his friend, with Donaldand Goofy happily agreeing to stick by his
side until he does so.Our trio then heads into the train station,
and are met by Hayner, Pence, and Olette,who, inexplicably to themselves, felt like
they needed to see Sora off.This tearful goodbye is the last bit of story
tied to Roxas that we’ll get in a while,and it is the perfect epilogue to his tragic
tale.We can also see how his fate parallels Sora’s,
as after the events of Chain of Memories,the people closest to Sora lost their memory
of him, and what we see with Hayner, Pence,and Olette is very similar.Yet, just like Sora, even after being erased
from the world, Roxas’s existence stillripples out into it, whether that be through
his connection to Sora, or through his connectionto the friends who happily spent their summer
vacation with him.Once the train stops, Sora, Donald, and Goofy
depart and find themselves at a mysterioustower, and run into the classic Disney character
Pete.Mickey Mouse’s classic rival and all around
lovable jerkwad is voiced by Jim Cummingshere, and he is clearly having a blast in
the role.We find Pete peeking into the doors of this
tower, watching the Heartless he sent in afterits master, and find him shocked to discover
Sora, Donald, and Goofy there at just theworst possible time for him.After defeating the Heartless he throws their
way though, Sora, Donald, and Goofy end upcompletely ignoring the big buffoon and heading
up the tower without him, as Donald realizesthat King Mickey’s old teacher resides here.At the top of the tower, we meet Yen Sid,
otherwise known as the unnamed wizard fromDisney’s Fantasia, and he serves as Sora’s
guide here, filling him in on the continuedthreat of the Heartless, and the new threat
of the Nobodies and Organization XIII.Yen Sid also delivers a final warning to Sora
about the Nobodies, reiterating the idea thatthey do not truly exist, and that they are
unable to feel any emotions, since they lacktheir hearts, though whether he is correct
about this remains to be seen, and doesn’tfully match with what we’ve seen of Roxas
and Axel.Yen Sid also provides Sora with a Gummi Ship
to travel on, letting Sora know that whilethe old pathways between worlds may have been
closed, new pathways should have opened up,and he will be able to access them using his
Keyblade.With that, Sora, Donald, and Goofy set out
on a brand new adventure, where they’llexplore worlds both old and new, and fight
to save them one Heartless and Nobody at atime.We also get one final scene with the fairies
from Sleeping Beauty before we go, as we seethem accidentally bring Maleficent back to
life by remembering her, which, yeah, totallycomes out of the blue, but it means Maleficent
is back, and she’s great, so I can’t complain.There is one last stop before the game opens
up properly, and sets you free to exploreits Disney worlds to your hearts content,
and that stop is at the best world from thefirst game, Hollow Bastion.Sora, Donald, and Goofy all arrive in town
and find that it’s being completely renovated,with Yuffie, Leon, Aerith, and Cid all working
together to restore it to its former glory.These characters all have the restoration
of the town under control, except for thesmall problem of Heartless and Nobodies threatening
to interfere with their work.As Leon is explaining all of this to Sora,
a group of mysterious, black-cloaked figuresappear, and reveal themselves as the members
of Organization XIII.All the remaining members arrive and send
a horde of Nobodies to attack the gates andseize the city, but Sora and Leon are able
to fend them off successfully together.From there, the members of the Organization
attempt to toy with Sora, threatening himand making their interest in him known, with
one member specifically coming down to threatenSora personally.Sora is undeterred though, and after this
last member departs, he discovers that theHollow Bastion Restoration Committee card
gifted to him by Leon and the rest is a keythat unlocks a path to another world, and
he opens that path with his Keyblade.This is Sora’s cue to leave, and head off
in search of other worlds, and Leon wisheshim the best as he goes, promising Sora that
he and the rest will keep the town safe whilehe’s gone, and as Sora departs, we cut away
to the boardroom of the Organization, wherethey all commit to making Sora’s journey
(and the game’s story)as interesting as possible.Before we dive into the Disney worlds, which
we’ll be spending a lot of time talkingabout, I want to talk about the way Kingdom
Hearts II’s story is structured, becauseI think it’s pretty unique and interesting.Now, I’m sure everyone watching this has
seen Brian David Gilbert’s Unraveled videoin which he attempts to explain the story
of the entire series (and if you haven’t,well, it’s great, you should watch it),
and in that video, he does a pretty good jobshowing how Kingdom Hearts I fits into the
typical structure of the monomyth, or hero’sjourney, and that same general structure applies
to each game in the series pretty well.Except, that is, for the Disney worlds.The Disney worlds are a bit of a strange outlier,
as they typically only tie into the overarchingstory in small ways, and contain generally
complete stories with a beginning, middle,and end on their own.Brian David Gilbert, in his video, placed
the Disney worlds in the “Tests, Allies,and Enemies” section of the monomyth, and
they fit in there decently, but I think there’sa much better, arguably more modern structural
format that explains what the Disney worldsare meant to be: episodic television.In most dramatic episodic TV shows, each episode
works to tell a complete story on its own,while tying the story in to the overall narrative
in small, but often significant, ways.Kingdom Hearts II does the exact same thing
with its Disney worlds, with each distinctvisit serving as its own individual episode,
that sometimes ties into the greater narrative,but generally, focuses on telling its own
self-contained story.Now, granted, this is an easy conclusion to
come to with Kingdom Hearts II; it literallycalls each distinct visit to a Disney world
you can make an episode, but more importantly,I think that the story structure of episodic
TV fits nearly every game in this series perfectly,and makes it a lot easier to understand them.The overall narrative of Kingdom Hearts is
contained in the first few and last few worlds,just like the overarching plot of a show like
Supernatural is focused into the first andlast episodes of a season, and the Disney
worlds themselves are the episodes in between,where we get to see our characters go on various
adventures and occasionally advance the narrativethroughline of the whole game.And, just like in any other good episodic
story, this means that the point of the Disneyworlds isn’t necessarily the way they contribute
to or connect to the overall plot.Rather, the point of these worlds is to see
their stories exist for their own sake, and,more relevantly for Kingdom Hearts, how Sora,
Donald, and Goofy all react when thrown intothese stories that we’re likely already
familiar with.The games vary in how well they manage this
from here on; some games hit it out of thepark, like this game, and some games fall
incredibly flat, like the first game, butI think it’s important to understand the
purpose of the Disney worlds like this, asit makes it a lot more clear what they’re
meant to accomplish than trying to fit themin with the game’s overall plot.Now, we can dive right in to our first proper
Disney world, The Land of Dragons, which followsthe story of Mulan.This world’s story is a fairly simple retelling
of the film, with its most creative aspectsbeing the way it uses game mechanics to deliver
that story.After meeting up with Mulan, and deciding
to join the Chinese army, in order to helpher blend in as Ping, Sora is assigned to
a series of missions by Shang, where the goalis to defeat a wave of Heartless while maintaining
a Morale gauge, which is lowered by takingdamage, and raised by finishing off enemies.Once you’ve completed Shang’s basic missions,
which serve to introduce you to the typesof enemy Heartless this world has to offer,
you then lead an expedition up the mountain,with Mulan in tow, and have to clear a path
for the rest of the army to ascend.This mission structure is pretty simple, but
it’s a lot of fun, thanks to the minor twiston combat provided by the Morale gauge, and
it does a great job of emphasizing the ideathat Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Mulan are working
as part of an army, by giving them stricttasks to complete and orders to follow.The rest of the world’s story proceeds pretty
well in line with the film; the village atthe top of the mountain gets burned down by
Shan-Yu and the Heartless, and Shang’s companyis ambushed by them, only to be saved at the
last moment by Mulan causing an avalanche.This leads to Shang learning Mulan’s true
identity though, and being butthurt abouther not telling him something that would have
caused her to be executed, so he kicks her,Sora, Donald, and Goofy out of the army, and
returns to the capital city.Mulan realizes Shan-Yu is plotting an ambush
though, and returns to the city to warn them,arriving just in time to defeat Shan-Yu and
save all of China.If we’re being honest though, I think that
The Land of Dragons following so closely withthe original story is playing things a little
too safe, overall.Don’t get me wrong, I can totally see why
they did this; sticking to the original storywith the first Disney world means that Square
Enix could focus on how much they’ve improvedtheir storytelling techniques since the original
game, and on expressing the setting throughunique mechanics, but even with the improvements
brought to this Disney world, playing throughits story is still a far sight from watching
the much more excellent film.Which, I guess, in a nutshell, is the curse
of a lot of Kingdom Hearts.As competent as the developers are at telling
a story, they are so often unable to expressthat competence, since they’re just trying
to imitate another piece of art that was madeby masters of their craft.I mean, just look at how often you see the
performances in Kingdom Hearts pale in comparisonto the original, even when the game is using
the same actors.Both the actors and developers are trying
to recreate something locked to a specifictime and group of artists, and no matter how
much work they put in, they can never fullyrecapture the same magic contained in the
original.There is some new magic to be found in most
of these worlds though, even if it only comesin small doses, and the dose for The Land
of Dragons is very small, but it’s alsolegitimately one of the best and funniest
moments in the game.It arises entirely from letting Sora, Donald,
and Goofy be thrown into a world and situationthey don’t belong in, and letting their
personalities clash with everyone around them.Our next stop is Beast’s Castle, and unlike
The Land of Dragons, it opts to use the charactersand setting of Beauty and the Beast to help
provide background texture, while exploringa new story and character arc of its own.When Sora, Donald, and Goofy arrive in the
castle, they find it eerily vacant, occupiedonly by a scattering of Heartless, and an
angry, obsessive Beast.Beast clearly has changed from the last time
we saw him in Hollow Bastion, and pays noattention to Sora, Donald, or Goofy, even
going so far as to violently shove Donaldout of his way, so that he can retrieve a
glowing pink rose.Sora, Donald, and Goofy realize they need
to find Belle, so she can explain what’sgoing on, and they learn from her that Beast
has locked all of his friends and servantsin the basement of the castle.Sora doesn’t waste a moment heading down
there to rescue them, and after defeatinga Heartless whose sole purpose is to lock
the door, they discover that all of Beast’sservants have been transformed into various
household objects, thanks to a curse placedon him long ago.With these folks now free though, they join
forces with Sora, to guide him through thecastle and into Beast’s chambers, hoping
to bring their master to his senses.Sora is able to work with Cogsworth to wake
the Beast up, and we see that a member ofthe Organization known as Xaldin has been
whispering doubt and anxiety into the Beast’sear, planting the seeds of his anger and self-hatred.With his senses restored though, the Beast
realizes that he needs to cut this toxic personout of his life, and teams up with Sora to
try and stop Xaldin for good.Sora and the Beast are pretty successful,
too; together they fend off a powerful Heartlesssummoned by Xaldin, and send him packing out
of the castle, leaving Beast to apologizeto his friends and Belle for his angry behavior.This story, while resembling some of the beats
of the original film, is ultimately nothinglike it, either thematically or plot-wise.Instead of retreading the film’s ground,
we’re granted a short story about the wayself-hatred and obsession can blind us to
the love and connection of those who carefor us, and the Beast specifically is challenged
by Belle to not shut her out, and insteadtrust in her love for him over the insecurities
that blind him, whether those be the onesthat come from within, or the ones planted
from without.My only real complaint about this story is
that it arguably tries to excuse some of theBeast’s bad behavior; Sora and Cogsworth
both try to insist that the Beast lockinghis friends up in a literal dungeon was just
his own way of trying to protect them fromhimself, rather than a cruel and unnecessary
bit of isolation that harmed both the Beasthimself, and the friends he imprisoned.The fact that the Beast is consistently challenged
by every character to improve his behaviormore than makes up for this though, and easily
makes this one of my favorite worlds in the game.The next stop for our heroes is a familiar
world, this time filled withnew and unfamiliar characters.Sora, Donald, and Goofy make their way to
Olympus Coliseum, only, instead of landingtopside next to the Olympic arena, they find
themselves in the Underworld, where they findMegara being chased down by the Heartless.After scaring off her pursuers, Sora learns
that Meg was trying to speak to Hades, asthe Lord of the Dead has been relentless in
sending dangerous monsters to the Coliseumfor Hercules to battle.Hercules, naturally, is getting exhausted
by all this difficult fighting, and this ledMeg to seek an audience with Hades in order
to try and get him to let up on the pressure.With the threat of the Heartless though, it’s
not safe for Meg to make the trip, so Soravolunteers try and talk some sense into him
instead, heading down into the bowels of theUnderworld.Hades, meanwhile, is conspiring with Pete
to try and finish off Hercules, who he expectsshould have lost his will to fight by now.Pete, in a rare clever moment, suggests sending
someone already dead to take on Hercules,and without missing a beat, Hades summons
Auron, from Final Fantasy X, hoping to makea deal with him to take down the big Hero.Now let me just say, I have never played Final
Fantasy X, and have no significant attachmentto Auron as a character outside of Kingdom
Hearts, so keep that in mind when I say thatthis moment cements him as the coolest Final
Fantasy character to cameo in a Kingdom Heartsgame.Like, if that ethos isn’t life goals, I
don’t know what is.But anyway, Sora makes it to Hades just after
he summons Auron, and tries to talk to him,but the Lord of the Dead is in far too foul
a mood to listen, leaving Sora to team upwith Auron in order to escape Hades wrath.This fight is really mechanically interesting,
because Hades himself is completely invulnerable,due to the fact that it’s his Underworld,
and Sora himself is powered down here as well,represented mechanically by being locked out
of using any Drive Forms.Naturally, this ups the battle’s challenge
by quite a bit, especially on the high difficulties,and makes for a genuinely tense escape sequence
as you desperately clear out Heartless anddodge fireballs on your way out of the Underworld.Sora narrowly escapes Hades grasp here, but
he and his friends soon discover that Hadeshas locked the exit to the underworld, pinning
them in an ambush by Cerberus.Sora is able to unlock the door, but he refuses
to leave Auron behind, and joins him in abattle against Cerberus, who is far faster
and more deadly than we’ve ever seen himin these games before.Cerberus is so dangerous in fact, that Sora
might not be able to take him down on hisown.But that’s okay, because this, and a few
other more challenging boss fights throughoutthe game, are fights where if Sora dies, Mickey
has a chance to swoop in and come to his rescue.And you get to play as Mickey, who flips around
the battlefield, casually and quickly attackingwith his powerful golden Keyblade.This mechanic fucking rules, and it’s always
a blast to take Mickey into a fight with hisYoda-inspired movesets, and it also serves
to further the story, showing that Mickeyis travelling around the worlds, hunting the
Organization, and keeping an eye on Sora,even if Sora never gets to see it.Once Cerberus defeated, Sora and Auron are
able to escape the battle, though Auron disappearscompletely afterward, heading off to wherever
edgy anime swordsmen go.Sora, Donald and Goofy themselves decide to
head up topside, where they catch up withPhil and Hercules like old friends.Despite Hercules’s positive demeanor, he
is clearly exhausted from the battles Hadeshas been subjecting him to, and eagerly jumps
at the chance to do anything else when Soraasks him for help negating the effects of
the Underworld.Sora catches up on some training while Herc
heads to Mount Olympus, but when he returns,he comes back with the news that the Olympus
Medallion, which would protect Sora from theUnderworld’s effects, has been stolen by
a man in a black cloak, likely part of OrganizationXIII.Before they have a chance to think about retrieving
the medallion though, Hades appears and revealsthat he’s kidnapped Meg and trapped her
in the underworld.Hercules immediately moves to try and rescue
her , but Hades stops him when he remindshim that he has a match against the Hydra
today, and leaving that beast to wreak havocon the Coliseum could be catastrophic.Hades, of course, is playing Hercules; he
knows full well that he’ll stay and fightthe Hydra, and that Sora will make his way
down to rescue Meg, and he plans to use thisto his advantage, having learned that Sora’s
Keyblade can unlock any lock.Hades plan works like a charm, despite his
obvious trickery, and Sora heads down intothe Underworld to try and find Meg, running
into Demyx, a member of the Organization,on the way.Demyx is…Well, I love Demyx, with all of my heart,
but he is a total pushover, and an absolutefailure of a fighter, a fact that he himself
knows all too well, even as he follows ordersand challenges Sora to a fight.He loses that battle handily, and leaves behind
the Olympus Medallion as he retreats, allowingSora to be protected from the Underworld,
and us as players to use the Drive Forms again.Demyx is little more than a diversion though,
and Sora quickly makes it down to the Underdrome,a long since abandoned arena of the dead that
was sealed away by Zeus long ago.Hades has placed Meg here, and Sora, not knowing
what he’s doing, unlocks it in order tofree her, falling right into Hades’ trap.Still, he’s able to free Meg, who gets away
unharmed, there are a short couple boss battleswith Pete, and Hercules shows up for the second
battle to help fend him off.Pete, naturally, goes down like a punk, but
Hades pops in and reveals that, despite Hercfighting valiantly, the Hydra is still very
much alive, and causingPandemonium! At the Coliseum.Like, Panic! At The Disco?Yeah, okay.Sora and Hercules rush back to it, only to
find that the Coliseum is all but destroyed.Hercules then passes out, too exhausted to
do anything to save it, but Sora, Donald,Goofy, Meg, Pegasus, and Phil all still have
plenty of fight in them, and work togetherto defeat the Hydra.This boss fight, repeated lines about arriving
on the monster’s rear aside, is fantastic,as the many heads of the Hydra serve as serious
threats, without being too overwhelming thanksto the spectacle filled Reaction Commands
available, all of which are based on our heroesworking together.As the dust settles with the Hydra’s defeat,
Hercules wakes up, and despite his guilt,all of his friends surround him and tell him
that it’s valid for him to be exhausted,uwu, and try to help him realize that his
beliefs about sacrificial heroism are wrong,and that he is allowed to take a break sometimes.Hercules, like so many people , doesn’t
really take to this advice, but it still affirmsthe subtext that’s been built up in this
world, about the importance of self-care inheroism, and all of the characters coming
together to support Hercules like this isgenuinely heartwarming.Next up, we’re off to Disney Castle, and
Sora, Donald and Goofy arrive just in timeto discover that it’s under attack from
the Heartless, who’ve managed to get infor the first time in the castle’s history.After fighting their way through the dark
horde, they find Minnie, safely locked awayin the castle’s library, and she lets them
know they need to get to the Hall of the Cornerstone,as the castle’s protective source of light
has been corrupted, and needs to be saved.Sora escorts Minnie into the throne room,
and after he’s cleared out the Heartless,she reveals a passage underneath the throne,
where the Cornerstone of Light is, surroundedby dark, threatening thorns.This all wreaks of Maleficent’s handiwork,
and sure enough, the evil queen reveals herselfto be the mastermind behind this plot, and
promises to take over this castle and makeit a bastion of darkness all her own.Ever the drama queen, she disappears after
making this scene, and Minnie shares that,despite her best efforts searching the castle
library, she’s been unable to learn howMaleficent has spread her corruption.Thankfully, Sora, Donald, and Goofy know someone
with knowledge not found in any book, andthey set off to get the wizard Merlin, and
bring him over to help investigate.Merlin quickly realizes what’s going on
once he arrives, and he summons a magicaldoor, telling Sora and his friends that they
need to go through the door, find its counterpart,and lock it with the Keyblade.And when they step through the door, they
step into the black-and-white magical worldof the Timeless River.It’s not really had good reason to come
up before, but something you might find surprisingabout me, the girl who can wax poetic for
thirty-eight thousand words about the gameseries dedicated to writing fanfiction combining
Disney movies, Final Fantasy games, and originalcharacters, is that I haven’t always been
that big a fan of Disney movies.I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan,
in fact, though I have gained a lot of appreciationfor them through the process of studying Kingdom
Hearts.Even though I’ve never been that big into
the films of the Disney renaissance, or theirclassic, fairytale adaptations, there’s
one thing Disney that I’ve always unabashedlyloved, and that’s their classic cartoon
shorts about Mickey and all his animal friends.Those shorts are the one Disney creation I
think are near universally appreciable, nomatter how low or high a view of Disney you
may have otherwise.They’re just masterful works of animation
and comedy, and the way they helped birthan entire medium of artistic expression can’t
be overstated, as without them, animationas a whole may not have even found the footing
and audience it needed to thrive across theentire world.Timeless River, then, is a celebration of
everything that early era of animation hadto offer, and it’s a fantastic celebration
at that.Just looking at all the details of this world,
from the way Sora is redesigned to fit it,to the grainy filter placed over all of the
audio, makes it clear that the creators ofKingdom Hearts II love this era of animation
deeply, and they succeed in capturing itsidiosyncrasies perfectly.Exploring this world always puts a big smile
on my face, and it’s never failed to doso since I first played Kingdom Hearts II
long long ago.The story of this world is pretty simple;
Sora, Donald, and Goofy arrive and bumbletheir way into Pete, attacking him blindly
after they assume he’s the one causing troubleback at Disney Castle, only to learn that
this isn’t the Pete they’re familiar with.Rather, it’s a much more innocent, older
version of Pete, whose only real concern isgetting back his steamboat and dealing with
any punks running around his town.It takes Sora and his friends a bit long to
realize this; they wail on Pete, who we’llbe calling Old Pete from here on for clarity,
pretty thoroughly before figuring out thatthe Pete they know would have summoned some
Heartless and started causing havoc already.Once they make peace with Old Pete, they decide
to start investigating the world, and finda series of windows that send them into different
cartoon scenarios; there’s a Gilligan’sIsland-esque tiny city that needs defending,
a construction site with incredibly bouncyrafters, an apartment building about to burn
to the ground, and Mickey’s bedroom, wherea mysterious black hole has appeared, threatening
to destroy all his furniture.These little vignettes are a great way to
allow Sora and his friends to interact withthis world of classic animation, based on
its silly and surreal rules, and they alsodouble as fantastic combat arenas where you’re
put up against Heartless meant to fit thiscartoon world, who have easily some of the
best and most unique designs in the game.I hate that stupid car Heartless though.Kills me so often, so easily.Once Sora finishes exploring a vignette, they’re
shown a flashback from Pete’s perspective,revealing that he discovered a door just like
the one they went through, and, working withMaleficent, stole the Cornerstone of Light
from this world, allowing her to spread herdark influence inside the castle walls in
the future.After they’ve figured out what’s going
on, they track down Pete and find him stealingthe Cornerstone of Light, commandeering Old
Pete’s steamboat to do so.They manage to free the Cornerstone before
he can escape though, and then team up withOld Pete, to take down Pete once and for all.This boss battle is absolutely fantastic,
not just because Pete is an interesting villainto fight, but because at certain points in
the battle, Pete will dash “off screen”and trigger a transition, transporting us
to a new battle arena based on the vignetteswe’ve explored, where Pete uses these arenas’
gimmicks to his advantage.Having our expectation of geographic continuity
abandoned for cartoon logic like this is aton of fun, and makes this fight easily one
of the most memorable in the game.Sora and his friends are able to send Pete
packing the way he came, and quickly lockthe door with the Keyblade to prevent him
from messing with the past again.They also return the Cornerstone of Light
to Cornerstone Hill, where Old Pete promisesto keep an eye on it, and make their way back
to the present.Minnie thanks Sora for what he’s done, and
shortly after, we’re treated to a fun littlescene where Daisy shows up and playfully chases
Donald around, teasing him for not havingbeen around to take her on a date.Well, okay, I say teasing, but there’s an
undeniable air of, just, straight people bullshitgoing on here, and it seems like Daisy is
actually upset with Donald for real, despitethe fact that he’s, you know, out saving
the worlds from certain destruction.Whether or not Donald has been a good boyfriend
and kept in touch while away, I couldn’tsay, and the game is hardly interested in
interrogating whether or not they’re a goodcouple, but it’s still a weird undertone
to a scene that’s meant to provide a happyending to a pretty fantastic set of worlds.Not all the subtext about relationships in
this world is so iffy, however, as one relationshipwe get to see expanded upon significantly
is the relationship between Maleficent andPete.In the flashbacks before Pete discovers the
door, we see Maleficent treat him like he’scompletely useless, and put him down at every
turn.We only see her compliment him when he is
useful to her, in fact, which suggests a levelof abuse and manipulation that lines up with
the tactics we’ve seen her use towards Rikubefore, to make him subservient.Seeing this in tandem with Old Pete, who,
for all his flaws and bad temper, is a genuinelywell-meaning guy, makes it clear that Maleficent
has been a corrupting and controlling influenceon him, though the game wisely avoids blaming
her entirely, as Pete clearly has a lust forpower and respect all his own.Still though, we get to see that, once upon
a time, there was some good in Pete, and thisleaves open the possibility that we’ll get
to see this good come out again, even if hedoesn’t fully change.Our next stop is one of my favorite worlds
in the game, because of how well handled itis, and that is Atlantica.Now, you may recall that I hated Atlantica
in the original Kingdom Hearts, and may thusbe wondering what they could have possibly done
to make my opinion change so drastically,and the answer to that is honestly pretty
simple: they got rid of underwater combat.That’s right, Atlantica is an entire world
without combat in Kingdom Hearts II, and itis all the better for it.It still takes place underwater, of course,
but underwater navigation has been streamlinedand simplified, and only really serves to
allow you to move around and talk to differentcharacters.And that is all that’s needed, because the
focus in this world is on a series of musicalmini-games that let Sora, Donald, and Goofy
join in song with Ariel, Sebastian, and Flounder.Does that sound fun, and perfectly in the
joyous storytelling spirit of Kingdom Heartsto you?It does to me, and I think it works really
well!I don’t think it’s perfect, of course;
the game adds a couple of original songs ontop of the classics from The Little Mermaid,
and those songs are… well, they’re notas good as the songs from the film, I have
to admit that upfront.But what those songs lack in brilliance is
made up for by just how fun it is to experiencethe story of Atlantica this way, as a little,
mini-musical of its own.And, for some reason, it feels like I’m
the only one who feels this way about thisworld.It’s a generally accepted “fact” in
the Kingdom Hearts fandom that Atlantica inKingdom Hearts II is garbage, and one of the
worst worlds in the game, but I just can’tagree with that notion.Atlantica’s a truly beautiful world in this
game, and it embodies the spirit of creativitydriving Kingdom Hearts.As for the story of Atlantica, it’s a prettystraightforward retelling of the The Little
Mermaid, and is easily the strongest retellingout of any of the worlds.Ariel falls in love with Eric, and her abusive
father and narc of a teacher attempt to dissuadeher from interacting with the human world,
Triton through violent outbursts and Sebastianthrough manipulation and gaslighting, which
ultimately drives Ariel to make a deal withUrsula to become human, only for Ursula to
cheat at the last moment and doom Ariel, whois only saved by Triton taking her place in
the deal.Ursula uses this opportunity to sieze Triton’s
Trident and steal his power, but is defeatedby Eric, who swims to Ariels’ rescue and
saves the day.Also, Sora, Donald, and Goofy are there.Helping.It’s great.When you get past the fun musical mini-games
and straightforward retelling though, whatI love about Atlantica is that it does an
excellent job of capturing the emotional coreof Ariel’s story.Ariel’s love for Eric, but, more importantly,
the human world, drives her to fight backagainst the controlling, abusive nature of
her father, and something Kingdom Hearts capturesthat even the original film doesn’t is the
depression that arises from being trappedin an abusive situation like that.We know Ariel is a big lover of music in this
story, and see her gleefully singing abouther collection of human artifacts, and even
joining Sebastian’s propagandistic tuneabout the beauty of the sea, but even though
Triton and Sebastian are both happy to encourageAriel to express herself musically, Triton’s
refusal to allow her to interact with or explorethe objects of human society leaves her downtrodden,
and uninterested in expressing herself musically.This depression makes the impact of Ariel’s
decision to sell her voice to Ursula evenstronger than in the original film, in my
opinion, because it makes it clear that asmassive a decision as it is to lose her voice,
it’s not something she’s even able toenjoy while she’s trapped in this abusive
situation with her father.That subtext is obviously still there in the
film as well, and is one of the biggest reasonswhy anyone who tries to tell you The Little
Mermaid is an antifeminist story is wrong,so it’s not like Kingdom Hearts II is breaking
new thematic ground by expanding this interpretation,but I still really appreciate that it makes
it obvious how hopeless Ariel’s situationseems to her.Of course, there is also new thematic ground
being broken in this world, and it’s hardlysubtle, as it’s about how the presence of
Sora, Donald, and Goofy, three genuine friendsof Ariel who have her best interests at heart,
and aren’t either bootlickers like Sebastianor literal children like Flounder, affects
Ariel’s status in the story.These three spend most of their time just
trying to cheer Ariel up and lift her spiritsin various ways, but when push comes to shove,
they stand up for Ariel, whether against herabusive father or the manipulative Ursula,
and do their best to look out for her as shetries to woo Eric without her voice.And on one final note, Jodi Benson remains
one of the best actors in any of these games,as she consistently gives her all to her role
as Ariel every time she appears.She’s fantastic, and just about every other
actor pales in comparison to the depth ofher performance.So, uh, next up is Agrabah, I think, which
is a great world and really…*sighs*
Yeah, okay, I know.I can’t just skip over it.It’s time to talk about Port Royal.Port Royal is a weird world to me.I’ve always thought it was one of the weakest
worlds In the game, ever since I first playedit, and upon revisiting it a couple years
ago, I absolutely loathed it, and thoughtit was completely irredeemable and unsalvageable.I’ve softened up on it again by a lot on
this most recent playthrough, partially becauseI much more clearly get the episodic joys
this game wants to deliver on, but even asmuch as I’ve softened up, I can’t really
bring myself to defend it.Okay, look, I’m not gonna be able to defend
certain parts of this world.There is no good reason why Sora, Donald,
and Goofy should all be sporting their original,colorful designs when worlds like Timeless
River and Halloweentown will match their designto the setting, and none of the voice actors
in this world are very strong, especiallynot James Arnold Taylor, who sounds more bored
in the role of Jack Sparrow than Johnny Deppdid in the newest Pirates movie.But just like Halloweentown in Kingdom Hearts
I, the devil for what makes Port Royal sogenius is all in the little details.For one, let’s not kid ourselves, this world
looks gorgeous.Yes, it looks grimy and dirty, but that matches
the aesthetic of the film, and making theworld look this grimy on a Playstation 2 is
no small feat, and again, we have to rememberthat this is a PS2 game, and as such, its
visuals were downright cutting edge for itstime.I’m not saying it looks as good as, say,
the God of War games, but compared to say,I dunno, the Pirates of the Caribbean PS2
games that came out both before and afterKingdom Hearts II, I think it’s pretty safe
to say that this world actually looks reallygood, and is not as bad as some people might
lead you to believe.Beyond just its looks though, Port Royal holds
a deep and abiding love for the story of theoriginal Pirates of the Caribbean movie.It works hard to recreate the iconic “ghost
stories scene” from the original film, andwhile it fails to live up to the perfect construction
of the original, I daresay it comes damn nearclose, and therefore does a great job communicating
the rules surrounding magic and curses inthis world’s fiction.It is… unfortunate, to say the least, that
the majority of scenes in this world don’tget that same level of care and attention,
especially not the climactic fight betweenJack and Barbossa, but there still is a level
of craftsmanship to the scenes in this worldthat goes beyond what we see in most of the
other worlds in this game.And then finally, speaking more abstractly,
Port Royal makes it clear that the creatorsof this game all hold a deep love for pirate
adventure stories, beyond the movies they’readapting alone.Whether it be through implementing fun reaction
commands that allow Sora to enter a backstepduel with a pirate swordsman, or creating
new and adorable Heartless that fit perfectlyin this pirate world, their love for these
adventures is abundantly clear, and incrediblyinfectious, making you want to get into the
story and have fun on these adventures too.So, does that all make Port Royal actually
good?Well, I couldn’t say, I still don’t know
how much I like the world, even if I havegrown to appreciate it a lot more than I once
did.But I think it’s worthwhile to look at this
world, warts and all, and see all of the workand care that went into it before you try
and critique, whether you ultimately likeit or not.I do think I like it a lot more than I used
to though, and hey, maybe if you’re likeme, and used to dislike it or be “meh”
towards it, you should play through it againand see if your opinion has changed at all.What you find out might actually shock you.As for the story of the world itself, it’s
a pretty straightforward retelling of thefirst Pirates movie, The Curse of the Black
Pearl.Captain Barbossa of the Black Pearl leads
a raid on Port Royal, kidnapping ElizabethSwann, believing that she’s the heir of
Bill Turner, who was part of the Pearl’screw when they found a chest of cursed Aztec
gold.Will Turner, along with Sora, Donald, and
Goofy, team up with the pirate Jack Sparrow,the former captain of the Black Pearl, to
rescue Elizabeth, and Will is able to successfullysave her, but betrays Jack in order to do
so, leaving him unconscious.Barbossa catches up with Will though, and
Will, having realized they’re looking forhim, makes a deal to save Elizabeth, Jack,
Sora, Donald, and Goofy, while turning himselfin.Barbossa double crosses the lot of them though,
leaving them behind on the boat with a bunchof Heartless, who threaten to destroy the
boat.Jack is able to cut himself free though, and
working with Sora, they stop the Heartlessfrom destroying the boat, and head to the
Isla de Muerta, to face off against Barbossaonce and for all.While we manage to defeat Barbossa and a shadow-creating
Heartless in a boss fight, it’s still notenough to kill him, and Barbossa is only defeated
after Jack shoots him in the chest, and Willreturns the last piece of cursed gold into
its chest, ending the curse and allowing Barbossato finally die.The biggest problems with Port Royal, from
a storytelling perspective, are how weak thescenes not lifted straight from the movie
are, and unfortunately, that’s a lot ofthem.So much of this world takes place from Sora’s
perspective, and while that could work ifSora spent most of his time with the world’s
protagonist, he doesn’t, because as anyonewho’s watched the first Pirates movie can
tell you, that film’s protagonist is notJack Sparrow, despite how much time we spend
with him.Its protagonist is Will Turner, and its secondary
protagonist is Elizabeth Swann, with JackSparrow mostly serving as a deuteragonist,
whose perspective we follow, but whose agencyand character growth are limited.This is a formula that works really well for
the film, as its focus on Jack’s perspectivestill allows us to stay with the characters
who matter the most at any given time, butit isn’t so narrow in its focus as to stick
to his perspective entirely.Port Royal though, is very committed to sticking
to Sora’s perspective, almost myopicallyso, and this breaks the world’s pacing,
tension, and structure to an absurd degree.For example, in one of the first scenes, Sora
runs into Barbossa, Pete, and a bunch of pirates,where we overhear Barbossa telling Pete all
about the curse and its mechanics.This scene, it makes sense, it’s there to
establish the way cursed pirates work mechanically,as you can only deal damage to them when they’re
standing in the moonlight, but just like that,the questions of what Barbossa and his pirates
want and what the curse they’re afflictedwith does are answered, long before we get
to the scene where Barbossa slowly revealsthe nature of the curse to Elizabeth, completely
breaking the tension of that scene and underminingthe craftsmanship surrounding its recreation.There’s also another scene where sticking
with Sora’s perspective breaks the pacing,as when Will and Jack head into the Isla de
Muerta to rescue Elizabeth, because we haveto wait with Sora on the ship, and then go
find Will after he’s in trouble, we onlysee how Will rescued Elizabeth and betrayed
Jack in a set of disconnected flashbacks,which is just a bizarre way to tell what would
have made more sense as a linear story.More than any structural flaws though, I think
that the biggest weakness of Port Royal isthe pure, childlike reverence it has for Jack
Sparrow, as the ultimate avatar of piracy.Don’t get me wrong, I love pirate stories,
and I think, at least in the first two films,Jack Sparrow is an interesting and fun character,
but the way Kingdom Hearts II treats him justmakes him insufferable.He’s played up as this suave, braggadocious
agent of chaos, who can do no wrong and solveseverything by being unpredictably awesome,
and while, yes, that’s how Jack is portrayedin Pirates 4 & 5, in the first two movies,
his unpredictability and refusal to admitdefeat were played up as weaknesses as often
as they were strengths.Because he can do no wrong and make no mistakes
in this game though, it’s impossible toactually care about or root for him, and while
the game does try to insist that he’s “bad”and “untrustworthy,” the complete and
total lack of consequences for his actionssay otherwise.A far more interesting and lovable scoundrel
awaits us in the next world though, as ourheroes are off to Agrabah, to reunite with
Aladdin and all his friends.Agrabah is not the strongest world, story-wise,
but it’s bright, colorful, and simple, allof which are a welcome change of pace after
the dingy, dark, complex failure of Port Royal.The greatest strengths of Agrabah comes in
getting to explore it, and while it’s notas complex as the winding, treasure filled
heights of the original version in KingdomHearts I, it makes up for that with a massive
upgrade in scale, expanding the city marketto a large, complex open area, which sells
the idea that it’s a real city, with a centerof trade and commerce, unlike any other we’ve
seen in these games so far.The Cave of Wonders has also received a similar
overhaul, having been transformed from a weird,multi-level dungeon into a linear gauntlet
leading straight down into its depths, witha few unique combat challenges scattered along
the way.This is, quite simply, a massive simplification,
and I can understand if it’s not your cupof tea, but personally, I think that it’s
a welcome change, as I always found the originalcave’s design to be too complex, confusing,
and somehow, also boring, to enjoy.As for Agrabah’s story, it’s definitely
one of the lower stakes stories of any worldin this game.After showing up in the world and running
into Iago, Sora, Donald, and Goofy learn thathe’s trying to be a better person, and wants
to try and make amends with Aladdin and Jasminefor what he’s done.While they don’t trust him at first, he
helps them fend off some Heartless, and theydecide to give him a chance, taking him to
meet Jasmine and apologize to her in person.Jasmine has her own problems at the moment
though, and she immediately beseeches Sorafor help with them.It turns out that Aladdin hasn’t been spending
much time in the castle, lately, and she wantsto figure out why, and asks Sora to find him
and figure out what’s going on.Sora agrees to help her out, and heads out
to the market to find Aladdin, who revealsthat he’s just been coming out here because
he finds the castle boring and stuffy, andwants to hang out in the…
crowded and busy market.Yeah, uh, model limits are a bitch.Before Sora can really talk to him about this
though, Iago interrupts, and he reveals thatthey all might be in danger.He saw Abu being chased by a peddler for taking
a small black lamp, and informs everyone thatthe lamp Abu stole from the peddler was the
very same one that he was trapped in withJafar.Sora and Aladdin head off to try and confront
the peddler, hoping to make a deal and buythe lamp off him, but Donald lets slip they
have access to the Royal Palace’s funds,and the peddler decides to press them for
a grand treasure, which Aladdin isn’t comfortabletaking from the palace just to get the lamp.Iago has an idea though, and realizes they
could all go to the Cave of Wonders and takesome treasure from there, and they do, making
their way down through its many challenges,and getting their hands on a large, golden
chalice.Before they can retrieve it though, Pete manages
to catch up with them, and covertly sendsa bunch of Heartless their way, holding them
off so he can get back to the city and takethe lamp for himself.Eventually, Pete has had enough hijinx though,
and summons two giant Heartless to fight Sora,and, while these Heartless are fun bosses,
they’re also pretty dang easy to beat.Sora and his friends are able to claim the
lamp after their victory, and seal It awayin a tomb underground, hoping no one can access
it ever again.Iago has also entered Aladdin and Jasmine’s
good graces, thanks to his help in the battleand help retrieving the lamp, and he promises
the two of them that he’s going to be thebest friend he can be, even though he’s
just a small lil birb.This visit to Agrabah, with its simple, low
stakes, is a pretty great example of a fillerepisode, and that’s perfectly alright with
me.It focuses on telling a short and simple story
about friendship and redemption, wherein Iagois able to make amends to the people he hurt,
and Sora is able to just kinda kick back andgo on a simple adventure with a bunch of people
he loves.It’s the perfect bit of variety at this
point in the game, and I can’t think ofa better way to spend this time.Because Kingdom Hearts II is committed to
mimicking the structure of episodic TV though,right after we finish with Agrabah, we find
ourselves following Pluto through a dark alleyway,and then on the beach of Destiny Islands,
watching Kairi as she is ambushed by Axel.Preying on her desire to see Sora again, Axel
invites her to come along with him, but beforeshe has a chance to be pulled in by him, Pluto
charges towards her through a portal of darkness,leading her through it to Twilight Town.Meanwhile, Sora, Donald, and Goofy are informed
by Chip and Dale that they can visit TwilightTown again, and upon doing so, they run into
Vivi, who is being chased through the townby Nobodies.Sora naturally dashes off to the rescue, arriving
in the Sandlot just in time to take on theNobodies that have thrashed Seifer and his
gang.Once the Nobodies are defeated, Saïx, the
Organization member behind this attack, showsup and greets Sora with a warning about a
fellow member gone rogue; according to Saïx,Axel has set off to try and turn Sora into
a Heartless, and he warns Sora that Axel willdo whatever he can to injure Sora’s heart,
in order to make that happen.Saïx departs after leaving these cryptic
warnings though, seemingly having calculatedthem to dishearten and bewilder Sora as much
as help him, but before Sora has a chanceto reflect on what he’s been told, Pence
rushes into the Sandlot, and asks Sora ifhe knows a girl named Kairi.Sora jumps at the sound of her name, and heads
up to the Station where Hayner and Oletteare waiting for him, and learns that these
three met her when she came through a darkportal to their Usual Spot.Like any good kids, they took their time getting
to know her and found out that she knew Sora,but before they could talk for long, Axel
appeared through another dark portal of hisown, and dragged Kairi away, leaving them
all behind.This moment of bad news reveals a bit of vulnerability
in Sora, as he tries to be a beacon of positivityfor Hayner and his gang, who are upset over
being unable to help Kairi, but walks it backalmost immediately, as he realizes that he’s
just as disappointed by this news as theyare.Instead of actually embracing these vulnerable
emotions though, Sora buckles down, and proclaimshis intent to help Kairi, seemingly forcing
himself to remain a beacon of light, despitefeeling just as negatively as the people he’s
trying to encourage.Sora’s proclamation here also leads to Goofy
dropping the Struggle trophy Seifer triedto pass off to them, after he defeated the
Nobodies, and as it falls, all of its gemscome rolling out.Sora, Hayner, Pence, and Olette all manage
to collect the gems though, and after theydo so, they notice the way they all glint
in the light, and hold them up to the settingsun to admire them.Sora is able to use the blue gemstone he recovered
to open a path between worlds, and with that,he sets off with Donald and Goofy to explore
them.Before we continue with their story though,
we see Saïx as he returns to the Organization’sthrone room, where the group’s mysterious
leader congratulates him for sowing doubtinto Sora’s heart.This scene mostly serves to clarify the level
of conspiratorial intent the Organizationhas for Sora, though without spoiling the
mystery of their plans just yet, and it alsolets us see that even the leader of Organization
XIII believes that he and his cohorts areincapable of feeling emotion, though whether
he has a vested interest in this being trueremains to be seen.There are still a couple of Disney worlds
to explore before the Organization’s plancomes to fruition though, and the next world
on our heroes’ itinerary is one of the bestworlds from the first game, Halloweentown.This world is interesting, in that it’ s
the only returning world where it feels likeit’s been shrunk down from the original
game, in terms of level and world design.On the whole, of course, Halloweentown is
about the same size as most every other worldin the game, but without the semi-labyrinthian
layout or Oogie Boogie’s massive tower,it just doesn’t feel as strong as Kingdom
Hearts I’s vision for the world.Thankfully, it more than makes up for this
with the world’s excellent story, a storywhich would have been absolutely miserable
in a complex labyrinth, but works very wellwith these simpler arenas.See, this time, our visit to Halloweentown
doesn’t just take the characters to theeponymous spooky land; it also takes them
into Christmastown, where the majority ofthe world’s story and narrative are centered.This story is also a true sequel to both the
original world in Kingdom Hearts I, and thefilm The Nightmare Before Christmas itself,
subtly suggesting that it takes place sometime after Jack first discovered Christmastown,
and tried to claim the holiday as his own.We jump in just as Jack “stumbles into”
Christmastown again, a trip which, predictably,reignites his passion for a holiday that isn’t
his, and leads him to obsess over gettingto take over for Santa Claus once again.Jack at least has the sense to try and disguise
his culturally appropriative schemes thistime though, and claims that his obsession
with Christmas and Christmastown is purelyout of a desire to protect Santa Claus, by
volunteering to be his bodyguard.Donald and Goofy are, naturally, immediately
skeptical of Jack’s goals, but Sora is toodistracted by the prospect of actually getting
to meet Santa to care how foolhardy Jack’sscheme is, and excitedly tags along to Christmastown,
where he, Donald, and Goofy all get to finallymeet Santa, in a scene that’s some of the
cutest shit I’ve ever seen.Before Jack can approach Santa with his hare-brained
scheme, their conversation is interruptedby the sound of shattering glass, as Lock,
Shock, and Barrel break into Santa’s Workshopto cause some mayhem, at the behest of Maleficent.Sora and Jack chase them back to Halloweentown,
and as they do, we see Maleficent raise OogieBoogie from the dead, planning to use him
and his minions to destroy Santa’s wretchedtown of holiday cheer.Oogie Boogie isn’t quite there when he gets
resurrected though, and seemingly can’tretain memories for more than a couple minutes
at a time, leading Maleficent to sic Lock,Shock, and Barrel on Sora, granting them a
powerful Heartless as backup.While Sora deal with the Heartless, Maleficent
has Oogie Boogie kidnap Santa Claus and haulhim back to Christmastown, planning to turn
him into a powerful Heartless.When we see them next, Oogie has finished
converting Santa’s factory into a workshopof horror much like his old base, but he and
Maleficent just can’t seem to work together,with Oogie having completely forgotten who
she is, and that she brought him back to life.Being the supreme queen of drama, Maleficent
refuses to help out someone who won’t evenacknowledge her existence, and decides to
peace out and leave Oogie to cause mayhemon his own.It’s shortly after this that Sora, Donald,
Goofy, and Jack arrive on the scene, withSally performing a daring rescue of Santa,
while they all battle against Oogie in whatis a far superior boss fight to the one in
the first game, even if it still kinda suffersfrom really strict caps on how much damage
you can deal to Oogie in each phase.Sora manages to reduce Oogie into a pile of
bugs yet again, and with him defeated andChristmas saved, Jack decides that now is
obviously the perfect time to try and pitchSanta on the idea of him taking over delivering
presents for a year, an offer which Santavery patiently refuses, doing his best to
turn Jack back towards focusing on his ownculture of Halloween, instead of trying to
continue appropriating Christmas.Of course, men like Jack can only be temporarily
deterred from doing things like this, butat least for the moment, Jack commits to focusing
on making Halloween the best he can, by tryingto bring new ideas to the holiday.I think one of my favorite things about this
world is just how little tolerance Santa hasfor Jack’s bullshit.While Santa ultimately is as gracious and
patient as possible when refusing Jack’sproposal, during the rest of the story, it’s
clear that he has a job to do, and Jack barginginto Christmastown and pitching his “disruptive
innovation” of Christmas is getting in theway of him doing his work.When you combine Santa’s disdain for Jack’s
annoying interruptions with Donald and Goofy’sskepticism of his motives, I’d actually
say that Kingdom Hearts II understa nds JackSkellington’s character better than the
original film did; instead of taking Jack’s“creative malaise” seriously, the game
treats Jack as a needy manchild, whose perspectiveand interest in Christmas is downright antithetical
to the continuation of the holiday as a whole.I mean, Santa literally sits down and explains
the basic principles of empathy to Jack: heshouldn’t try to take Christmas away from
Santa, because he wouldn’t like it if someonetried to take away Halloween from him.We’ll, of course, see later that Jack doesn’t
fully take this lesson to heart, a decisionthat absolutely fits his character, but it’s
nice to see the game treat Jack’s culturalignorance and lack of empathy as a character
flaw in need of addressing, and not just asa fun thing that he does with no consequences.Now is also possibly the best time to talk
about the way Kingdom Hearts II uses its Disneyvillains, which I think is pretty dang fantastic.So far, about half of the worlds have had
either Pete or Maleficent team up with theworld’s Disney villain, and in each of these
instances, they’ve served as a strong contrastto the type of villainy that world’s villain
embodied.This strong contrast between the individual
world’s Disney villains and Maleficent orPete, also helps solve a story problem present
in the original Kingdom Hearts, namely, thatMaleficent’s camp villainy often felt redundant
when she was paired with similarly camp villains.Introducing Pete and pairing him off with
the camp villains like Hades and Jafar providesa much more fun and interesting contrast than
Maleficent could provide, as Pete’s villainyis very much of a cartoon nature, where Maleficent,
Hades, and Jafar all rely on camp for theirvillainy.I particularly think the contrast between
Pete and Hades and Maleficent and Oogie Boogieis fantastic.Pete has always been an oafish buffoon, and
this contrasts with Hades’ constant schemingand plotting really well, while Maleficent
and Oogie Boogie are just… complete polaropposites.She is the supreme queen of drama and petty
behavior, and forcing her to work with anugly sack of bugs who can’t even remember
what happened five seconds ago, let alonehold a grudge about it, is so goddamn satisfying.The next stop, and penultimate Disney world
on our heroes’ journey, is The Pride Lands,a world based off The Lion King, one of the
clearest masterpieces of the Disney Renaissance.And…This world…Shouldn’t work.The world’s story is bogged down by so many
issues: Cam Clarke and Vanessa Marshall replacethe original actors for Simba and Nala, but
despite clearly trying their best, they don’tmeasure up to Matthew Broderick and Moira
Kelly at all; we’re forced to enter thestory after Simba has grown up in the oasis,
leaving behind the emotional context for hisguilt and insecurity; and as with all Disney
worlds, the time the game has to tell itsstory is far more limited than the original
film itself.Despite all of this though, I think I kinda
love The Pride Lands as a world?For one, it’s just one of the best worlds,
from a purely ludic perspective.Because Sora is transformed into a lion while
in this world, you get to play as a speedy,ruthless, and aggressive Sora, who can outrun
and outpound his enemies easily, which isa blast to play as, and the world’s enemies
and bosses are all sped and toughened up tomatch FurSora’s capabilities, leading to
an excellent sense of challenge, even afterFurSora’s natural power boost.What makes the story of The Pride Lands work
is far less explicable than the gameplay though,but I actually think it comes down to a similar
factor: it really is just a lot of fun tosee Sora transformed into a lion cub, and
having to behave like an adorable, ferociouskitten in order to blend in with the world.It also doesn’t hurt that throwing someone
as simple and kind-hearted as Sora into theworld of Shakespearean tragedy and motivation
works as a really strong contrast to the world’scharacters, since all of them but Timon and
Pumbaa are obsessed with questions of kingship,power, and succession.And while most of the story takes place long
after Simba has grown up, there is an attemptto define Simba’s emotional history, as
we begin our time in the world with a briefflashback, to the wildebeest stampede where
Scar killed Mufasa, a scene whose recreationis a laudable effort, even if it severely
lacks the impact of the original.After this, we join Sora and his friends in
the present, as they arrive on the world inthe Elephant Graveyard, where the hyenas Shinzi,
Banzai, and Ed give them an unfriendly welcome.They’re saved by the summons of Scar though,
as he calls the hyenas away, and Sora, Donald,and Goofy leave the graveyard and discover
that this world is being overrun by Heartless.These Heartless start to attack Nala, but
Sora jumps in and fights them off, introducinghimself to her as soon as the battle is over.Nala fills him in on the situation; the true
king Mufasa has died, Scar is their new king,and they need to find another true king to
take the throne in order to bring prosperityback to the Pride Lands.Sora, very innocently, suggests himself as
a possible new king, and takes off excitedlyfor Pride Rock, where Nala introduces him
to Rafiki, hoping to see if he could be thenext monarch.Rafiki, predictably, tells Sora that he doesn’t
have what it takes to be a king, and shortlyafter, Nala lets slip that Simba, Mufasa’s
son, is the only person she knew who couldhave been a true king, but he died long ago.Simba was a summon in Kingdom Hearts I though,
and like the other summons in that game, thatmeans he’s alive, and should have been returned
to his place in this world when he came back,sparking a bit of hope in Nala, and leading
them all to set off to find this “True King.”They find Simba in the oasis, alongside Timon
and Pumbaa, in a predictably sorry state,and unwilling to move past his guilt for Mufasa’s
death.With some convincing, and divine intervention
from the ghost of his father though, he getshis courage back, and decides to join Sora
and return to Pride Rock to face Scar.We travel with him and arrive, watching as
the conclusion of the film is recreated, andare given an interesting boss fight as Sora
must defend Timon and Pumbaa from the threehyenas.With that out of the way, Sora, Donald, and
Goofy head to the top of Pride Rock, whereSimba and Scar duel each other for the throne,
with Simba eventually knocking Scar off thehigh ledge just like in the movie.Only, this time, Scar floats back up from
his long fall, shrouded in complete darkness,and Pete, who’s a lion here, and just, hanging
out for some reason, chimes in to point outthat the anger and jealousy in Scar’s heart
turned him into a Heartless, leaving thissouped up Scar for Sora and his friends to
battle, one of the most fun Disney villainboss fights in the entire game.We do eventually beat Scar though, and just
like that, all peace returns to The PrideLands, as Simba is divinely appointed to the
throne of Pride Rock.Probably the most interesting thing to me
about this world is its subtle deviationsfrom the original film, most notably, in how
Simba doesn’t seem to have bought into thephilosophy of Hakuna Matata.We see Simba’s guilt and sorrow weighing
on him heavily from the moment he’s introduced,and even when Timon and Pumbaa try and cheer
him up, the most he can muster is a half-heartedsmile, before he walks away and collapses
in despair again.Even more interesting than Simba failing to
embrace Hakuna Matata though is how Sora seemsto not only embrace it when he’s introduced
to it by Timon and Pumba, but actively embodyit in his persona and outlook.Despite there being multiple occasions where
Sora’s journey and failure to find his friendsis weighing heavily on him, each time these
feelings surface, we see Sora push them backdown, and try to embrace a carefree, golucky
philosophy instead of accepting his vulnerability.And, perhaps for now, embracing “hakuna
matata” seems to be working, as Sora hasmanaged to keep his resolve, despite not having
heard a whisper of Riku’s location, or havinga clue what the Organization’s plans might
be.But even if this approach of his is healthier
than Simba, who willingly dives down intothe depths of his despair, it’s an approach
that can’t last forever, and one we’llsee cause Sora to crumble very, very soon.Our heroes’ next stop is a return to Hollow
Bastion, where Nobodies and Heartless seemto be running amok far more than usual, and
they decide to try figure out what’s goingon.Before they can get to the bottom of things
though, it’s time for a bunch of Final Fantasycharacters to have cameos, all of which have
nothing to do with the world’s story whatsoever.Yay?I guess if you can’t tell, I feel like the
Final Fantasy cameos in Hollow Bastion werekinda shoe-horned in, and for the most part,
are only here because the developers wantedthem to be here, and couldn’t find a more
naturalistic place for them.I don’t think it’s like, story-breaking
to have them show up now or anything, butthey kind of stick out like a sore thumb when
you compare them to how say, Leon, Aerith,and Yuffie have been worked into the series
thus far; those characters have a place inthe world, and a role in the story within
it, and don’t feel like they just existto fill an arbitrary quota.Of course, that’s not to say I completely
dislike these scenes either, because the firstcameo scene we get, where Sora and his friends
run into Cloud and Aerith, may feel tackedon out of nowhere, but is still pretty great
on its own merits.While that little interaction may not have
much bearing on the world’s plot, it doestie into the game’s themes pretty well.Cloud is pretty clearly still struggling with
the darkness inside of his heart due to Sephiroth’sinfluence, who serves in this game as a representation
of Cloud’s darkness and struggle with mentalillness, and to deal with this struggle, he’s
setting off to try and find his way back tothe light, even as he’s not sure if he’ll
make it back.Aerith’s promise to Cloud then, to stay
and cheer for him as he finds his light, isa really great gesture of support.She knows full well that Cloud’s battle
against the darkness is his own, and thatshe can’t help directly, but she still promises
to be there for him, cheering him on, andhoping that he’ll make it back to her once
he’s found his light.It’s exactly what Cloud needs, the space
to fight on his own, and someone in his cornerto back him up, and it makes for a really
touching and meaningful moment.The next major cameo we’re shown is… a
bit less impactful.And, honestly, I don’t know that I’m the
right person to even try and comment on it;I’ve never played Final Fantasy X or X-2,
so I don’t have any context for what it’slike to see Yuna, Rikku, and Paine appear
as cute little fairies trying to mess withSora.It’s cute, I guess?I mean, they are pretty girls and I’m a
sucker for pretty girls, but this scene isjust a cameo from characters I don’t know
or care about, whose presence adds nothingmeaningful to the story.The brigade of cameos halts for a moment though,
as Sora, Donald, and Goofy meet up with Cidin Merlin’s house, where they learn that
Leon has found Ansem’s computer in the lowerlevels of Maleficent’s old castle.They all head out to meet him there, and once
there, we get our last Final Fantasy cameo,as Tifa enters Ansem’s study and scours
the room looking for a guy with spiky hair(obviously, meaning Cloud, but Sora and his
friends are too confused by Sora’s own spikyhair to make the connection).And, finally, the world’s story can proceed,
as Leon arrives and shows Sora, Donald, andGoofy into the computer room.Sora and Donald, however, are completely clueless
about computers, and end up making the computerso mad that it hits them with a laser, digitizing them
and transporting them into the computer itself.Inside of the computer lies this game’s
final Disney world, Space Paranoids, whichis based off of the computer world of the
cult classic, Tron.That film’s beautiful, neon-drenched cyberpunk
melds perfectly with the visual style of KingdomHearts, thanks in no small part to the amazing
costumes given to our heroes in this world,and also, because its neon aesthetic feels
like the perfect counterpart to Hollow Bastion’sfantasy steampunk style.Within this computer world, Sora, Donald,
and Goofy are captured by Commander Sark,the world’s secondary antagonist, and thrown
into a prison cell, where they meet Tron.Tron is a computer security program who’s
been stripped of his higher functions andpowers by the Master Control Program, who
governs Space Paranoids with an iron fist.After everyone’s introduced themselves,
and Tron has realized that Sora, Donald, andGoofy are definitely “Users” (what programs
in this world call humans), he hatches a planto get them back to the real world by restoring
power to a local computer terminal, hopingthat Sora and his friends can recover the
password needed to restore his full function.Naturally, Sora agrees to help, and uses his
Keyblade to escape from the prison and restorepower to the computer.After restoring the power, Sora meets back
up with Tron, and is sent to the real world,where he, Donald, and Goofy search Ansem’s
Study in hopes of finding a clue to the passwordthey need.And as it happens, just as they start their
search, Mickey finds his way into the roomand meets up with them, helping them crack
the code when he realizes that the computer’sdatabase, called the DTD, short for Door to
Darkness, would use a password like what opensthe Door to Darkness itself, the names of
the seven Princesses of Heart.Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Mickey all have a
lot to catch up on, but Leon reminds themthat Tron is still in waiting to receive the
password, and so they agree to catch up withhim once they’ve helped Tron out, and head
back into the computer.Instead of being transported to their prison
cell though, they’re taken to The Pit, wherethey’re all forced to compete in a series
of Lightcycle battles, which are one of themore fun minigames Kingdom Hearts II has on
offer.They find Tron in The Pit as well, and work
with him to escape, leading him out of a holeblasted in the wall by a techno-Heartless,
and successfully getting to safety.Once they’re out of danger, Sora, Donald,
and Goofy take a breather, and Tron openlyquestions why they bothered to physically
re-enter the computer world, when they couldhave just transmitted the password to him,
a great question that they obviously haveno answer for.Since there here though, Tron decides to recruit
them to help make it to the DTD, and oncethere, he’s able to enter the password,
and they all fight through a wave of Heartlessas they wait for Tron’s functions to be
restored.Tron’s functions do eventually get restored,
after the Heartless are defeated, but it’snot a total victory, as the MCP was listening
in as Sora gave Tron the password, and hasused it to access the DTD and start a self-destruct
sequence for Hollow Bastion.Tron thinks fast and changes the password
to one the MCP doesn’t know, but it’sonly a matter of time before it’s cracked,
and so he leads Sora and his friends to theI/O Tower, where they have to fight the MCP’s
program as a boss, and defeat it in orderto save the town.With this victory, Tron is able to exert power
over the system so that it can be a friendlyprogram for the Users, and Sora, Donald, and
Goofy are able to return home and try anddiscover what, if anything, Ansem knew about
the Organization that they don’t alreadyknow.Space Paranoids, like a lot of the best Kingdom
Hearts worlds, gets a lot of storytellingmileage out of taking a set of characters,
conflicts, and general setting details, andusing those as tools to tell its own, unique
story.It never feels like this world is bogged down
by an obligation to recreate a specific story,with specific beats and plot points, and instead,
it’s free to run a bit wild, creatively,with how it uses the world of Tron and lets
Sora and his friends interact with it.That freedom and creativity makes Space Paranoids
a whole lot of fun to explore, no matter howmany times I’ve already experienced it.There is also a bit of interesting subtext
here, in how Tron’s motivation in this storyis to fight for the good of the User, above
and beyond anything else he might do.This is admittedly a bit of a weird thing
for a character like Tron, who is basicallyfully human, to want to fight for, but if
you consider how that kind of philosophy appliesto the real world, it absolutely makes sense.So much of computing technology nowadays is
not in service of bettering the user experience,but instead focused on increasing profit for
faceless corporations, usually in the formof data collection and technological monopolies.Tron, then, can be seen as fighting for the
right of actual people over the interestsof capital and tech, and his fight against
a faceless machine whose only desire is tomake computing systems as efficient and user-unfriendly
as possible is, well, how do I put this?Comrade-as-fuck.After returning from Space Paranoids, our
heroes have full access to the computer, andSora starts to search it for information on
Riku and Kairi’s whereabouts.The computer doesn’t have any information
on these two, as Ansem only ever met Kairiand was unfamiliar with Riku before possessing
him, but Sora is still dismayed by this lackof news anyway, as this serves as yet another
dead end on his journey to try and reunitewith his friends.Goofy decides to use the computer next, and,
because he’s the only member of the maintrio with functioning brain cells, searches
the computer for information on the Heartlessand Nobodies, two things we know Ansem studied
heavily.He does in fact find files on them, though
they’ve become corrupted, but in the process,pulls up the image of a blonde man with long
hair pulled back into a ponytail, and withimpeccable timing, Mickey steps in and informs
Sora that he knows this man, and his nameis Ansem the Wise.This news confuses Sora, to put things lightly,
and this reveal is also somewhat infamousas a confusing moment in the story, often
cited as one of the most nonsensical momentsof the entire series.To get into a bit more detail, Mickey explains
that the man with long, blonde hair is theoriginal Ansem, who ruled Hollow Bastion long
ago, and the Ansem they fought and defeatedin the first game was his apprentice, Xehanort,
who took on his master’s name after he betrayedhim and became a Heartless.Mickey’s explanation here, it makes sense,
you know?It’s not like the game leaves out key information,
despite how many people accuse it of that.But, explanation be damned, this information
feels entirely out of left field, and justleaves you wondering, why did they need to
introduce this convoluted stolen identityplot to the original Ansem?It’s honestly a bad story choice all around,
and there’s no way any sensible critic wouldbe caught defending it, right?Wait, hold on, I already used that joke, I
can’t ju-So, to start off, I’m gonna level with you:
I never found this plot point confusing.Is it convoluted?A little, to be sure, but I first played this
game when I was 15, and I never had troublefollowing the explanation, nor did I feel
like it came out of left field.For one, in the earlier scene with Mickey,
he strongly hints at the idea that this newblonde face is the original Ansem, Ansem the
Wise, which helps give us as audiencetime to process the hint, and come to the
same idea on our own.Tron also hints at the idea that, at some
point in their time together, Ansem changed,going from a man who let Tron run things and
keep the system open for the users, to a manwho implemented the MCP, leading to the dystopic
state we find that world in.We’ve also seen, much earlier in the story,
Riku introduce himself to DiZ as Ansem, whilewearing the face of Xehanort’s Heartless,
only to be laughed at by DiZ, who finds thisidea completely ridiculous, so we know already
that there are more people in this world claimingto be “Ansem” than we might have initially
believed.And finally, we already know that a core facet
of Ansem, or Xehanort’s Heartless, is thathe thrives on stealing the identities of others.He posed as and corrupted Riku in Kingdom
Hearts I, only revealing his true self whenRiku lacked the strength to defeat Sora, meaning
it’s very much in character that this sameman could have stolen the identity we knew
him as for the entirety of the first game.So, if this reveal is alluded to throughout
the rest of the game, and fits the characterof Xehanort’s Heartless from Kingdom Hearts
I, why is it that it’s seen as this strangeand ridiculous story turn that makes no narrative
or thematic sense?I think the answer is quite simple, and goes
beyond the fact that this reveal, reasonableas it is, is technically a retcon.I think the reason it’s so derided as a
reveal is because it’s the kind of revealthat simply would not work in any other story,
and as such, it sets Kingdom Hearts into aclass of fiction all its own.Whether intentionally or not, the reveal that
Xehanort’s Heartless stole Ansem the Wise’sidentity creates a level of separation between
certain types of fans of the story.If you’re here for the characters and themes
of this story, and interested in the way KingdomHearts specifically likes to explore identity
and connection, then no matter how weird youfeel this reveal is, you’re still gonna
accept it, and keep pressing forward intothe story to see how they use this retcon
to advance the themes and characters.But if you’re someone who only gets invested
in a story for lore and perfectly consistentworld-building, this reveal is going to throw
you off, and quite possibly, make you feellike the story itself has betrayed you, even
though all it’s done is remained true toits own meaning and ideas.And I am one-hundred percent, firmly on the
side of people invested in the story’s themesand characters.I am completely okay with this decision, because
it takes the villain of Kingdom Hearts I andturns him into someone who stole another’s
identity and corrupted or destroyed theirconnections to the world, retroactively making
him a stronger villain in a series that arguesheroism is fighting to have your identity
recognized, and how important it is to retainyour connection to others.It also opens up new avenues for storytelling
both in this game, and later on in the series,connecting Xehanort’s Heartless to a series
wide threat, and making the corruption andappropriation of identity core to his character.And because of this, I have no sympathy at
all for the “no meaning, only lore” crowd,especially because this reveal makes it so
the world and history of Kingdom Hearts ismalleable if it can be turned to serve the
story’s themes.The freedom and flexibility this precedent
gives the creators is honestly core to whatmakes the series so compelling to me; the
game’s writers are not bound even by theirown previous ideas, if what they wrote contradicts
something new they want to explore, and Ithink it makes not only this game, but the
series as a whole much more thematically richfor the unbound creativity it gives the creators.Maybe one of the biggest mistakes in fantasy
storytelling is the idea that in order foryour story to be compelling, you have to build
a complete and thorough history for your world,and not allow anything you do to deviate from
previously established history and lore.And Kingdom Hearts, whatever flaws it may
have, refuses to be bound by this myopic viewof fantasy fiction, choosing instead to free its story
from the restrictive lens of “lore” and "canon."From this point on, if you’re on board with
its approach to its own history, it’s here to tellyou a story packed with meaningful themes
and compelling characters,and if you’re not on board for it?Well, it doesn’t care.It’s going to press on, telling the story
it wants to tell, and let those who want toenjoy it, enjoy it, whether “everyone”
does or not.After Mickey has finished explaining everything
about Ansem the Wise and Xehanort’s Heartless,he agrees to team up with Sora, Donald, and
Goofy, planning to work together with themto find Riku and Kairi.Before they’re able to set off though, they’re
interrupted by the sound of a large crash,and we cut away to see thousands of Heartless
and hundreds of Nobodies marching towardsthe town of Hollow Bastion.This approaching army signals the start of
one of my favorite parts of any game, ever:the Showdown at Hollow Bastion.This extended sequence attempts to match the
scale of some of the biggest, most iconicmass battle sequences in film, and it handily
succeeds, managing to push the PlayStation2’s hardware to the limit and show off an
expansive battle, where Sora only feels likea small part of the greater conflict.Part of the key to the Showdown’s success
is that it spends just about as much timeaway from Sora as it does with him, frequently
cutting away to the various Final Fantasycharacters living in Hollow Bastion, and showing
how they’re contributing to the battle.We get to see brief scenes of Yuffie being
overrun by Heartless and quickly healed byAerith, Cloud and Leon competing to see how
many Heartless they each can take out, andTifa taking on a whole group of Heartless
by herself, pummeling them with her bare hands…God I wish that was me… and they all add
up to a larger picture, where every memberof the town is doing their part to help defend
it.The Heartless are being led to assault the
town by the Organization, as we find out,and they’re using it partly as a distraction,
so that their leader can sneak into Ansem’sStudy and make his way into a hidden chamber,
though the main reason for their attack isleft unclear.Regardless, Sora, Donald, and Goofy can’t
just allow an army of Heartless to run overall their friends, and so, against Mickey’s
wishes they join the battle, tricking theirway past Mickey in a moment that plays up
the cooperation and understanding they’vegained in their time together.Sora’s first real challenge in this battle
is a fight with Demyx, who attempts to stopSora from joining the battle.While Demyx isn’t nearly the slouch here
he was in Olympus, he is easily the leastchallenging member of Organization XIII, and
goes down without too much hassle, leavingSora and his friends to proceed.Before they get going though, Mickey manages
to catch up with them, and, having come tohis senses, encourages Sora, Donald, and Goofy
to help join the fight.What happens next?Well, it’s become a bit of a meme for a reason.The sequence that follows Goofy’s apparent death
is another of my favorites, where you playas Sora charging down a cliffside, fighting
waves off Heartless alongside a bunch of differentFinal Fantasy characters.It’s a lot of fun, and kind of the perfect
way to release the tension created by theloss of our lovable Goof.What happens after that fantastic sequence
though…It’s, uh, it’s not great storytelling.Because, only like, two minutes after we watch
Goofy supposedly die, he comes right back,walking into the scene like nothing happened.And like, I wanna be clear here, I don’t
think it would have made sense for Goofy toactually have died from that rock hitting
him.Losing our lovable Goof for good would just
be depressing, and hardly the right fit forthe kind of tone this story is going for,
not to mention that it happening out of theblue like it did wouldn’t be a narratively
satisfying way for him to go.Obviously, Goofy should come back and rejoin
the party; this is a fun, kid-friendly story,and it doesn’t need unnecessary character
death to create artificial drama.But honestly, why couldn’t they have kept
the illusion of his death up for just a littlebit longer?Goofy’s apparent death, while a bit silly,
is a really good way to push our charactersinto this battle with more determination than
ever.The tension it establishes makes the battle
sequence alongside the Final Fantasy charactersthat much more impactful, since we see that
Sora still has a lot of allies on his side,and has to push forward to protect everyone,
instead of remaining with his fallen friend,and it could also be the kind of thing that
motivates our characters to make recklessdecisions, something we even see Mickey do
a little bit later.The right time to bring Goofy back would be
when our protagonists need him most, and thatmoment is absolutely not when they wander
into a random cave, and have a brief reprievefrom the battle.It even feels like that was the original intention,
before what I can only assume was some corporatemeddling on Disney’s part, because they
couldn’t handle the thought of one of theirmascots even appearing dead for longer than
a couple minutes.Goofy doesn’t contribute anything meaningful
to the battle from this point onward, andhe has so few lines of dialogue that it just
makes sense that he was meant to come backlater, to save Sora in the nick of time, after
the Organization’s plan have been revealed.Even if I dislike how quickly he was brought
back though, the genuine friendship we seewhen Goofy is reunited with Sora, Donald,
and Mickey is incredibly sweet and heartwarming.It’s made incredibly clear just how much
Goofy means to all of his friends, and thisbrief, happy moment wouldn’t have been possible
if Goofy had been brought back at a more dramaticpoint.With Goofy back in tow, our heroes head out
into the middle of a massive canyon, wherethey’re surrounded by Heartless on all sides,
and see the leader of Organization XIII teleportin and unmask himself.At this point, Mickey finally remembers the
full truth of his identity; the leader’sname is Xemnas, and he’s the Nobody of Xehanort,
Ansem the Wise’s foremost apprentice.Mickey rushes off to confront him, and leaves
Sora, Donald, and Goofy behind to deal withthe Heartless, with each splitting up to take
on a massive force on their own.The battle against one-thousand Heartless.This is, without a doubt, my favorite part
of the Showdown at Hollow Bastion.As Sora, you have to defeat one-thousand Heartless
to proceed, all of whom are shown on-screenat once, and by this point in the game, you
have access to just the right amount of ReactionCommands, Limits, and Drive Forms to take
on the horde.The battle here is so satisfying, and even
as it shows just how fierce a fighter Sorahas become, it still makes him feel like a
small part of a massive battle, because Donaldand Goofy are taking on the same number of
Heartless, and even with that combined 3,000defeated, there are still countless others
that are making their way towards the centerof town, or have already been defeated by
the Final Fantasy characters working together.It’s also the perfect climax to this entire
sequence, delivering on the promise made whenwe saw the massive army of Heartless approaching
the town, that we’d get to fight that army,and help take them down for good.But as we’re about to learn, defeating Heartless
isn’t as simple a victory in this game asyou might expect, and every single Heartless
slain in this battle was just Sora helpingcontribute to the Organization’s master
plan.Sora catches up with Mickey and Xemnas shortly
after defeating the horde of Heartless, butfinds that Xemnas doesn’t have much to say.He doesn’t know anything about the Organization
kidnapping Kairi, nor does he know how tohelp Sora find Riku, though he believes Mickey
is more than capable of helping Sora withthat.Before Sora can ask any more questions though,
Xemnas disappears into a corridor of darkness,with Mickey following, and Axel appears behind
our heroes, ready to explain what’s going on.This twist is incredible.It reframes all of Sora’s actions thus far,
because every time he’s stepped into a worldand fought off the Heartless, ostensibly to
help other people, he’s been contributingto the Organization’s grand plan, and helping
build Kingdom Hearts for them.Their role in the story so far is finally
made clear, and all of their passive, subtlemanipulation is revealed to have been to make
Sora defeat as many and as powerful Heartlessas he can, all in service of making Kingdom
Hearts, so they can tap into its power, andregain hearts of their own.It also fits in perfectly with what we know
about hearts, the Heartless, and the Keybladeas well; ever since the first game, defeating
Heartless has come with an animation of theirheart floating up to an unknown destination,
and the idea that they would gather togetherand form Kingdom Hearts after being released
just makes sense.Xehanort’s Heartless, after all, created
his Kingdom Hearts in much the same way, justusing the hearts of worlds instead of individual
Heartless.And it tracks perfectly that the Keyblade,
a weapon themed around unlocking and openingthings, would “unlock” the hearts of the
Heartless too, as that’s its entire purpose.Sora doesn’t fully trust Axel here, in part
because he knows he did something to Kairi,but before he has time to ask Axel what happened
to her, Saïx, another member of the Organization,appears, and he tries to appease Sora by promising
to punish Axel for kidnapping Kairi.Sora doesn’t care about Axel being punished
though.He just wants to see Kairi again, and is willing
to do whatever it takes to be with her again.Sora’s desperation here makes a lot of sense,
given the utter lack of progress he’s madein reconnecting with Kairi or Riku, but having
to see him stoop so low as to grovel beforeSaïx, asking for a simple chance, is genuinely
sad.Clearly, the toll of being apart from his
friends is weighing on Sora heavily, and heis not responding well to that toll.And unlike Roxas, who only took such a low
position as a prelude to striking out to defendhimself, Sora doesn’t have the same courage
or willingness to stand up for himself, andhis own desires, even if he will always do
everything to protect his friends.Saïx summons more Heartless, and commands
Sora to extract their hearts, but Sora refusesto use his Keyblade, willingly letting the
Heartless surround him.At this point, Maleficent, who has been trying
to take advantage of the chaos.steps in, and in a surprising turn, helps
protect and rescue Sora, as she doesn’twant the Organization on her world any more
than Sora does.She sends Sora, Donald, and Goofy into the
Realm of Darkness, a murky void containingnothing but a small box, which holds Roxas’s
photo with Hayner, Pence, and Olette, anda bar of sea salt ice cream, two clues that
Sora believes must have been left for himby Riku.The ice-cream bar allows Sora to open a pathway,
and soon he and his friends have escaped theRealm of Darkness to the Gummi Ship, where
they reflect on what they’ve learned aboutthe Organization and its goals.Sora’s biggest issue is whether or not he
should use his Keyblade, now that they knowany Heartless he defeats will help the Organization,
but this concern, while genuine, is cut throughperfectly by Goofy, in one of his trademark
moments of wisdom.Goofy’s point here is a materialist one,
as he realizes that even if the Organizationis collecting the hearts Sora releases with
the Keyblade, the Heartless themselves area threat to people on their own.They swarm out into worlds, consuming the
hearts of innocent people, and so even ifSora is contributing to the Organization’s
nebulous “plan,” fighting to protect thoseinnocent people is still something he should
do, as he’s saving them from a cruel andarbitrary dark fate.Whew.Okay, that was… a lot.I think we need a bit of a break from delving
into the weeds of the story, so let’s jumpinto a different, more easygoing topic: the
music of Kingdom Hearts.This is the one aspect of the series that
I’m far from an expert on; I’m no musictheorist, and while I’ve done some music
criticism, I’m still a relative amateurcompared to others.Even as a basically a layperson though, I’ve
always felt that the music composed by YokoShimomura for Kingdom Hearts is some of the
greatest music to ever appear in a game, andthe more I listen to her work, the more secure
in that opinion I feel.Whether we’re talking about the relentlessness
and bombast of The 13th Struggle…The tragic melancholy of Roxas’s theme…Her many Disney world themes, which all seem
to perfectly capture the spirit of their setting…Or the battle themes for these worlds, which
are just as perfect…Her compositions always seem to perfectly
fit the tone and setting of the scenes they’remeant for, while still feeling distinctly
like her work, no matter what kind of aestheticshe’s going for.And I think I know what it is that makes her
music sound so unique.In so many of Shimomura’s compositions,
she uses Ostinato, or a continually repeatedmusical phrase to drive her music forward.This ostinato gives much of Shimomura’s
work a techno/electronica feel, and what Ifind fascinating about them is how little
she uses electronic instruments to providethat ostinato.In pieces composed for the main story of Kingdom
Hearts, ostinato is created using a pianoor a string section, as we can hear in The
Other Promise and Darkness of the Unknown,and in pieces composed for the Disney worlds,
they use the various instruments chosen tomatch the world’s musical aesthetics.Shimomura’s use of ostinato also makes her
music incredibly satisfying to listen to,since she’s constantly creating a familiar
melody, adding complex layers of differentmelodies on top of it, and then phasing out
the complexity to return to the familiar.By using ostinato as a familiar baseline,
it’s easy for her to compose music thatcan loop over and over again without getting
boring, and when you combine that with hermastery of weaving familiar themes and leitmotifs
into her music, it’s incredibly easy toargue that Yoko Shimomura is the greatest
video game composer of all time.That’s just my hot take though, and diving
any further into this topic is out of my depth,as my familiarity with music theory and criticism
is honestly pretty limited.If you’re interested in diving into Shimomura’s
mastery of leitmotif in more detail though,David Russell, one of the geniuses behind
Project Destati, has a series of video essaysexamining the motivic connections between
different pieces of music in Kingdom Hearts,and they’re really, really good.“Nobodies are a new threat in Kingdom Hearts
II, and Shimomura seemed to give these creaturesa motif to imply their presence in a few tracks
from throughout the game.The track ‘Tension Rising’ could be called
a general Nobody battle theme.It plays for most of the Nobody-influenced
events throughout the game, like the TwilightThorn confrontation in Roxas’s Station of
Awakening, and most of the relevant Nobodyevent battles.Pay attention to this track’s most defining
characteristic, the echoed synth texture,and notice how Shimomura calls back to this
theme by making this texture an element inthe battle theme for the Organization’s
stronghold, in The World That Never Was.”If you’re completely unfamiliar with the
concept of leitmotifs though, Sideways hasyou covered.While he doesn’t have any videos on Kingdom
Hearts as of the time of this writing, hehas plenty of videos on leitmotifs, and this
short video of his on the difference betweena theme and a leitmotif is a fantastic primer
on the subject.“So I don’t know when people started confusing
these two but a theme and a leitmotif arenot the same thing.People tend to think that it’s just music
that represents something in a story, whichisn’t really true.In order to understand what a leitmotif is
specifically you first have to kinda go overthe difference between a theme and just a
regular motif.”Even with the help of these excellent videos
though, there is a lot of depth to Shimomura’smusic that I feel has yet to be explored.For example, I think her use of ostinato is
a huge factor in what makes her music unique,but even as she sounds unique from other composers
in general, her music still sounds like apart of the Japanese Orchestral music tradition,
and can’t be separated from that schoolof music.What makes her and other Japanese composers’
music sound so unique from Western orchestralmusic is something I’ve been trying to put
my finger on for years though, but I don’tknow enough about music theory to define specifically.Thankfully, there are other people out there
asking these questions though.Adam Neely, for all he knows about music theory,
is just as clueless as I am when it comesto what makes Japanese music unique, but in
an interview with Patrick Bartley, the organizerof J-MUSIC, I think the heart of what makes
these two traditions different is gotten at,even if a full explanation isn’t reached.“Adam: I dunno, there is a feeling to it,
but I can’t say what it is though.“Patrick: Well you know it’s a constant
work in progress for us to but that’s whywe’re constantly exploring these themes.And if I just think about the opening theme
[begins sounding out music][clip of band playing the music he sounded out]“Patrick: That one interval with the sixth
is so important to me because it’s a feelingof the blues.And I think the Japanese have a very interesting
way of dealing with the blues that I got veryattracted to.“Adam: Interesting.“Patrick: And I’m not even talking about
like, stereotypical pentatonic stuff.No, I’m talking about the straight up feeling
of the stressed and de-stressed melodic tension.There’s like a bubble-gummy poppy song by
Perfume from the early era, the Complete Bestera as Perfume fans know it, it’s called
‘Sweet Donuts.’The chorus goes [starts singing ‘Sweet Donuts’].If I take it out of the context of the lyrics
and take out the context of the rhythm,it goes [hums],I’m like ‘Oh. Wow that’s some other thing.’It’s the simultaneous feeling of the optimistic
rhythm with the really melancholy melody,and that’s what creates that feeling of
J-pop, and it’s very deep.Because the blues is all about that uplifting
feeling too, right?“Adam: Right.“Patrick: So you got a lot of melodies in
J-pop that go [hums].[clip of band playing a similar melody]“Patrick: There’s a certain like, I feel like
going down to that seven, and thenoming back up to the E is like,
‘Ah, things are gonna be alright.’“Adam: Yeah!“Patrick: You know that feeling?There’s a whole bunch of ways to interpret
that but I feel that way when it comes to that.‘Cause like it’s a sadness but you know
we gonna be alright.This is my world that I live in, and I think
a lot of people identify with J-pop ‘causeit makes them feel like they’re going into
a world that understands them.And they feel like they’re going into a
world where people are like, ‘Oh, this isa song that’s talking about my life and
my struggles,’ because the music and themelody is about that struggle, but it’s
also about the optimism.”That’s about all I really can say about
Yoko Shimomura for now though, but I hopethat I can further explore what makes her
music so great in the future.Until I have more to say though, I’m more
than happy to let her music speak for itself,and you’ll be hearing plenty more of her
work in the background of these videos.After the Showdown at Hollow Bastion, Kingdom
Hearts II is ready to move into its thirdact, but before doing so, it takes the time
to revisit a bunch of Disney worlds, and eitherfollow up on or properly conclude their stories.This, unfortunately, is one of the weaker
sections of the game, as most of the worldsrevisited don’t really have a meaningful
story to tell, and seem to only exist eitherat worst, to fill time, or, at best, to allow
Sora, Donald, and Goofy to spend more timewith the world’s characters.Of course, these revisits do generally open
up more of the world’s areas to explore,and all of them are fairly solid from a gameplay
perspective, but the lack of creativity andmeaningful story in most of them means that
even the additional gameplay often feels somewhatperfunctory.And if I’m being completely honest, I think
that the game would be better off if the revisitsto The Land of Dragons, Port Royal, and Halloweentown
were removed entirely, as these worlds allfeel the most meaningless to revisit.My reasoning for cutting each revisit varies
from world to world, but for a world likeThe Land of Dragons, it’s pretty plain and
obvious.Simply put, there’s barely any story to
the revisit, and the only meaningful additionto the gameplay is the final boss, a giant
Heartless dragon.Almost all the time spent revisiting this
world is following a black cloaked figurearound familiar environments, with a few hints
that this figure is Riku, and beyond that,the story just consists of Mulan and Shang
flirting really shyly and nervously, which,while better than how Disney handled their
romance in Mulan II, is not enough story tojustify a whole world.Port Royal’s revisit is likewise clearly
something the game would be better off without.The best thing revisiting this world has to
offer is time spent with Luxord, one of thebest members of Organization XIII, and watching
as he plots, cons, and schemes his way acrossthe world, outmatching even Jack Sparrow at
manipulation and trickery.The story itself though is just Luxord recapturing
the chest of Aztec gold, and while this doeslead to a pretty good boss fight against a
cursed Heartless, it doesn’t add anythingnew to our understanding of the world or its
characters.Halloweentown also shares the weaknesses of
the previously mentioned worlds, and noneof their strengths.There’s no new areas in Halloweentown to
explore, the story follows Jack hatching yetanother scheme to try and take over for Santa,
this time by tracking down a present thief,and all we get for that trouble is one pretty
fun boss fight, and a cute scene where Soraimagines dancing with Kairi (though admittedly,
good SoKai content like this is worth a lotof hassle).Finally, while I wouldn’t go so far as to
outright cut its revisit, Olympus Coliseum’ssecond-time-round is an intensely disappointing
affair, breaking from the first visit’ssubversion of our expectations to give us,
you guessed it, a mini tournament-arc whereHades manipulates an edgy Final Fantasy character
to try and kill Hercules.This story is a paint-by-numbers recreation
of the world’s story from Kingdom HeartsI, its only saving graces are that tournament
arcs are fun to play, it provides a satisfyingconclusion to Hercules’ arc of struggling
with the burden of heroism, and it has thegods of Olympus themselves ordain Sora, Donald,
and Goofy “true heroes,” much to theirjoy and satisfaction.The failings of these individual worlds isn’t
all that makes the revisits weak, however,as even in many of the stronger revisits,
there is a lack of a consistent throughlineconnecting them all together.This is something Kingdom Hearts II is weak
about in general (the first visits to Disneyworlds are only strung together by a vague
notion of opening pathways between each world),but it’s particularly noticeable here, as
the game wants to have its cake and eat ittoo, by keeping each revisit’s story limited
to affecting only the individual worlds, eventhough the worlds are framed as contributing
to Sora’s renewed search for Riku, and huntfor the Organization’s homeworld.There’s all kinds of ways I feel these revisits
could be improved.You could simply not include revisits to certain
worlds, focusing instead on a smaller handfulof worlds in order to make them the best they
could be.That would break the symmetry they have going
on, where pretty much every world has twomajor visits, but Disney Castle and Timeless
River only get visited once, and are all thebetter for not having more story forced upon
them.Or, you could use the revisits to explore
Organization XIII in more detail, and havethem be the primary antagonists in each world,
rather than secondary antagonists who happento benefit from Sora continuing to destroy
Heartless.You could even go the opposite direction and
remove the idea of the Organization entirely,focusing entirely on the episodic story of
the world, an approach which is actually takenwith two of the stronger revisits, and while
I think that this approach is the weakestsolution, and that the game would absolutely
benefit from more time spent exploring thewhole of Organization XIII, it would at least
be more narratively consistent than havingthem serve as this unexplored background threat,
passively benefiting from Sora’s continuedadventures.I think maybe the most frustrating things
about these Disney world revisits though isthat they clearly come from a place of both
love and ambition.The developers obviously wanted to spend more
time in each Disney world and have it be moreexpansive, and it’s easy to see how a second
visit would allow them to use the assets they’dcreated multiple times, in order to expand
each world’s scope without increasing theirworkload.It’s smart development, purely from a resource
management perspective, and it honestly sucksthat this desire to cleverly increase the
game’s scope backfired in the way it did.It does go to show that limitations really
do breed creativity though, and the care andthought into the following revisits, which
are worth exploring on their own, shows theserevisits weren’t inherently a bad idea,
and could have been handled excellently.The revisit to Beast’s Castle begins as
Sora, Donald, and Goofy arrive at the worstpossible time: Belle and Beast’s special
date night.Beast makes it abundantly clear that these
goofballs are barging in on a night that wassupposed to be special, but ever the fool,
Donald insists on crashing the party, somethingBelle, Lumiere, and Cogsworth are too polite
to deny.It turns out Sora, Donald, and Goofy’s presence
here is invaluable though, as just when Belleand the Beast are about to dance, Xaldin barges
in, ruining the party with a team of unwelcomeNobodies.The Nobodies are easy enough to defeat, and
once the battle is over, and Beast confirmsBelle is safe, he realizes that Xaldin must
have been after his rose, and charges offto his bedroom to find it missing.And Beast…Doesn’t take it well.I love this scene, and it may actually be
my favorite scene in a Disney world in theentire series.Beast’s struggle to control his anger is
not won so easily, and in this moment, whenhe’s lost something truly precious to him,
it makes sense that we’d see him backslide,despite all the progress he’s made.And he backslides hard, lashing out harshly
at Belle for something she had no controlover.But just because it makes sense for his character
doesn’t make it right, and Sora steppingin to defend Belle the way he does, and refusing
to Beast to push the blame on her, shows thatthe game understands that the Beast’s outburst
here is wrong.Even after being scolded by Sora though, the
Beast continues to make mistakes, and outof shame for his own outburst, chooses to
try and isolate himself from the people whocare about him most.He asks Belle and Sora to leave the castle,
so that he can once again live alone, andBelle accepts his request, quietly returning
to her room to pack her things, while Sora,Donald, and Goofy give the Beast a moment
of privacy.They speak with Lumiere and Cogsworth.who both have realized that taking care of
the rose, which represents the Beast’s onehope of finding true love, has become a key
part of his daily routine, and means a greatdeal to him.With this knowledge, Sora returns to the Beast
and tries to motivate him to fight for himself,and retrieve the stolen rose.After getting Beast’s fighting spirit back,
Sora, Donald, Goofy, and the Beast head tothe castle courtyard to face Xaldin, who has
managed to capture Belle while they were busy.He offers the Beast a choice between Belle
or the rose, but Belle refuses to be a damselin distress, and smacks Xaldin, distracting
him long enough to grab the rose herself,and run back to the castle while Sora and
the Beast take on the castle’s invader.Xaldin is easily the second hardest boss in
the game, and the brutality he shows as aboss matches the brutality shown by his character.Sora is still able to defeat him though, and
with his defeat, Beast’s Castle is safeand secure once again, with Xaldin’s sinister
whispers never to haunt the castle halls.Far more important than that though, is the
Beast’s closure with Belle.Once they’ve reunited, the Beast apologizes
for his outburst, and with a little help fromhis friends, finds the courage to ask her
to continue living with him, which she naturallyaccepts.Our time in this world is closed by the two
of them dancing under the starry sky together,and we hear Lumiere and Mrs. Potts whisper
that they believe Belle will be the one tohelp end the Beast’s curse.By comparison, Agrabah is not quite as strong
a revisit as Beast’s Castle, as it doesn’thave the thematic depth or natural continuation
present in that story.What it lacks in depth it makes up for in
spectacle though, as it opens with Jafar beingfreed from his lamp by the peddler, making
good on the promise of his return establishedduring the first visit.Sora, Donald, and Goofy arrive in the peddler’s
house, and find it transformed from a dusty,dilapidated shack to an opulent hall of riches,
filled to the brim with treasure and gold.Aladdin arrives and informs Sora that the
peddler is responsible for freeing Jafar,but he arrives is too late, as the peddler
has swiftly disappeared.And then, in one of the game’s best moments,
our heroes remember Jafar, and remember him vividly…After this excellent bit of comic relief,
Sora, Donald, and Goofy set out to find Jafar,relying on Iago for information.Iago is hesitant to tell them anything he
knows, seemingly because he’s afraid ofJafar, but he eventually folds, and points
them towards an abandoned town in the desert.Sora hops on the magic carpet and heads to
the town, where he finds a “water clone”of Jafar, and chases him down.Exploring the ruins on carpet is a lot of
fun, thanks to carpet’s high speed and tightcontrols, and eventually, Sora makes his way
into a large tower where Iago believes they’dfind Jafar.The inside of the tower is completely abandoned
though, and it’s now that Iago finally tellsthe truth: Jafar pressured him into leading
everyone there, so they’d be far from thecity when he tried to conquer it.Sora and Aladdin are naturally upset with
Iago, but before they can confront him, theclumsy bird knocks over a vase, making the
tower collapse, and Sora has to fly out ofthe ruins on carpet in a fun little escape
mini-game.Once in Agrabah, Sora heads to the palace,
where Jafar has captured Jasmine.Having learned not to underestimate Sora and
his friends, he fires a bolt of magic towardsAladdin, but Iago flies in and takes the hit,
sacrificing himself for his friend.Jafar ain’t fucking around though, and decides
to just transform into his genie form, growingto gargantuan size and hurling buildings towards
Sora and Aladdin.This leaves Sora to board the magic carpet
and take on Genie Jafar on his own, and thefight between them that follows is incredibly
fun, and incredibly memorable.After claiming victory, Aladdin calls on Genie
to rebuild the town, and then talks to Iago,who, of course, is okay after taking that
bolt for Aladdin.Given his willingness to stand up for his
friends in the end, Aladdin finds it withinhimself to forgive him, though Iago still
feels insecure in their friendship, lamentingthat it doesn’t feel like there’s anything
a bird like him can do to help his friends.Sora tries to cheer Iago up by telling him
that friendship is just about enjoying spendingtime with someone, and I mean, in a casual,
everyday context, that is pretty important,I don’t disagree.But for a series that defined true friendship
as being there for your friends, and nevergiving up on them, stating that friendship
is just about liking being around someonefeels… unsatisfying, especially since Sora
answering that it’s about being there foryour friends when they need you, regardless
of what you can do, would be just as goodat soothing Iago’s anxiety here (if not
better, because, goddess, who would enjoyspending time with someone voiced by Gilbert
Gottfried?).Even more odd though is that Iago’s failure
to be honest with Aladdin is never addressed,despite being the core issue of their friendship;
you’d think that since Iago lying is partof him backsliding on the path to redemption
that it’d be addressed in some meaningfulway, but instead, taking that bolt of magic
for Aladdin seems to have magically solvedthat problem, which, I gotta be honest, is
pretty unsatisfying.The last moment on this world kinda makes
up for those deficiencies though, as we seeAladdin give a word of encouragement to Sora,
who we know desperately needs it.This moment is incredibly sweet, and while
we’ve yet to see Sora and Aladdin actuallytalk about his search for Riku, Aladdin comforting
Sora like this suggests a deeper level offriendship beyond the surface we see, and
serves fitting end for our time in Agrabah.If there’s a stranger Disney world in all
of Kingdom Hearts than this game’s revisitto The Pride Lands, I don’t know about it.The revisit here focuses on telling a new,
completely original follow-up story to thefirst visit’s retelling of the film, and
as bizarre as it is, it manages to have morethematic consistency than the direct-to-video
sequel Disney themselves put out.Immediately upon arrival, Sora, Donald, and
Goofy are accosted by Shenzi, Banzai, andEd, who relentlessly mock their friend Simba,
calling him a “fraidy cat” and a weakking.Sora decides to check on Simba, and on his
way to Pride Rock, encounters a dark ghostof Scar.At Pride Rock, he learns that these ghosts
have been haunting The Pride Lands, and Simbahas failed to act against them, leading his
lionesses to lament his weakness and indecision.And, unfortunately, Sora finds Simba in just
as sorry a state as the lionesses warned.Simba is lying around, inactive, despite a
crisis facing his people, and when Sora triesto talk him into doing something about the
ghosts, he lashes out, yelling at Sora thatit’s none of his business.Simba is quick to apologize after this outburst,
and explains that he’s lost, and doesn’tknow what a good king like his father would
do.With a little push from Sora though, he decides
to go to Rafiki for advice, hoping to findsome answers, but Rafiki refuses to tell Simba
all he knows, believing it is a king’s dutyto stand up to a threat like this, whether
he understands it or not.Even as he pushes Simba to act though, Rafiki
doesn’t seem to believe that Simba is trulyready to act decisively, and is certain Simba
will fail.Simba doesn’t heed Rafiki’s warning though,
and sets off with Sora to find the hyenas,hoping they’ll know more about how to deal
with Scar’s ghost.They find the hyenas at the Elephant Graveyard,
and after fighting them, try to make themtalk, but they don’t know anything about
Scar’s ghost, and simply taunt Simba forbeing afraid, causing Scar’s ghost to appear,
and Simba to run away.Sora is able to track Simba to the Oasis with
the help of Timon and Pumbaa, and tries tocoax him back into action, reminding him that
he needs to forge his own path as a ruler,instead of trying to be exactly who his father
was.Simba still refuses to take action though,
and as a last ditch effort, Sora, Donald,and Goofy all hide behind a nearby rock, waiting
for Scar’s ghost to appear, and “speaking”for it, trying to goad Simba into standing
up to the ghost.Simba rediscovering his motivation comes just
in time, as Timon brings word that countlessghosts of Scar are haunting The Pride Lands,
and they return in time to see them converge,transforming into a massive, animal-like Heartless.This boss is probably my favorite boss on
the metric of pure spectacle, and defeatingit with Simba is a lot of fun.The Heartless’s defeat also helps cement
Simba’s place in the Pride Lands as a decisiveking, as he’s finally stood up and taken
action to defend his people from a ghost oftheir past.Scar’s ghost may not be the most subtle
metaphor for being weighed down by past trauma,but it sure is an effective one, and it allows
Simba to experience a character arc that’sa natural follow-up to his arc from the original
film.The last world our heroes return to is Space
Paranoids, and this revisit is one of two(the other being Beast’s Castle) that works
as a natural extension of where the world’sstory previously left off.Sora, Donald, and Goofy arrive in Hollow Bastion,
and quickly find the town overrun with techno-Heartless,who the MCP has been mass producing using
the town’s defense system.The Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee has
a plan though; Cid is working to encode oneof Merlin’s spells into a computer program
to destroy the MCP, but in order to deliverit, they need the help of Tron, who hasn’t
been responding to their messages.That leaves a clear task for Sora, Donald,
and Goofy, who enter the system to track downTron.They find Tron trapped in the Game Grid, fighting
desperately against Heartless, and are ableto help him defeat them.After they’ve all caught up, Tron is surprised
to learn that Leon, Merlin, and Cid are allworried about him, and wanted to keep him
safe, as well as get his help eradicatingthe MCP.Tron is more than happy to help stand up to
this fascist program, and tags along withSora to the I/O Tower, where he can receive
Merlin and Cid’s program.This sequence is intercut with short scenes
of the Final Fantasy characters up top workingtogether to get the program finished and into
Ansem’s computer, and they manage to makeit there just in time to deliver the program
to Tron at the I/O Tower.This magic program serves as an upgrade for
Tron, both in-narrative and in-game, and comeswith flight routines for the solar sailer,
which Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Tron can useto get to the MCP.After fighting their way to the MCP’s control
center, Sora and Tron confront Sark, who standsready to defend the MCP.Sark is handily defeated by our heroes, but
the MCP decides to transfer all his powerto Sark, reviving him and making him grow
massive.The boss fight that follows involves disabling
Sark so that Tron can deliver his viral payloadto the MCP, and the battle is pretty straightforward,
leaving Tron and Sora to emerge victoriousafter de-rezzing the MCP.The MCP’s eradication signals a new era
for this system, and it leaves one last taskfor Tron: to say goodbye to his friends.Tron’s goodbye here is genuinely touching,
not just because he’s a lovable character,but because his departure and leap of faith
into the core of the system has an additionallayer of meaning, when you read the world
of Space Paranoids as a metaphor for the relationshipbetween a video game, its designers, and its
players.Tron himself makes perfect sense as an analogue
for a game designer, fighting tooth-and-nailagainst an oppressive system that demands
perfect efficiency and profit over the experienceof ordinary users, and with the defeat of
that system, he’s able to step in and takecontrol of that system, making it the best
it can be for ordinary people like Sora andhis friends.Tron’s dive into the heart of the system
also represents the leap of faith an artisthas to take when putting their work out into
the world.Tron, like any artist, doesn’t know if the
system he’ll create will be perfect, buthe’s gained strength and self-confidence
from his connection to the Users, or peoplewho’ll experience his creation, and is willing
to take that risk, and put his whole beinginto the system he’ll create.And Tron?Tron’s been hurt before when putting himself
out there, represented by Xehanort’s Heartlesstaking over Tron’s system and corrupting
it, but like any artist, he’s still willingto put himself out there anyway, and hope
against hope that the people experiencinghis work will receive it as kindly and gently
as Sora, Donald, and Goofy.Finally, before Sora, Donald, and Goofy depart,
they return to Hollow Bastion to find thatTron has enabled a part of Hollow Bastion
that’s not been used in a long time.He activates a mechanism that causes sparkles
of light to float down from the sky, and uponseeing this sight, Aerith remarks that this
town used to have a name far less dreadfulthan the name “Hollow Bastion.”Once upon a time, it was called Radiant Garden,
and thanks to Tron and the Restoration Committee’sefforts, the town has finally been restored
to its former beauty, and no longer must carrythe legacy of darkness left by Xehanort and
Maleficent.Before we move on to the finale of the game,
there’s one more world I haven’t talkedabout.A certain storybook world, filled with kind
and lovable characters, and no danger or combatwhatsoever.It’s the 100 Acre Wood, a world that’s
focused on how fictional characters can takeup residence in our hearts.This theme is admittedly not new territory
for Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but Kingdom HeartsII approaches that theme differently from
other stories, which tend to focus on thepersonal relationship between Christopher
Robin and the characters of his own imagination.Instead, Kingdom Hearts II approaches these
characters the way most people encounter them,as characters in childhood stories that stick
with us long after we’ve grown up.Sora specifically serves as an audience surrogate
in this story, allowing us players to experienceforming a more direct relationship with these
characters than any other piece of Pooh mediaI’ve ever seen, due to our unique connection
with Sora as a player character.Admittedly, that’s a lot of interpretation
without summary, but the 100 Acre Wood iscomposed as a series of short vignettes, meaning
there’s not much that needs summarizingto begin with.The main throughline of this world is that
after the 100 Acre Wood’s book has its pagestorn out by the Heartless, Pooh has been left
unable to remember Sora, Piglet, or any ofhis other close friends.After collecting all the book’s pages, Sora
then has to work with Pooh’s friends tohelp jog his memory, with them all coming
together and trying different things to helpPooh remember them, with his memory usually
returning after Sora completes some minigameor another.What’s most remarkable about this thread
of lost memory is how Sora, in particular,responds to it.When he first realizes that Pooh doesn’t
remember him, he’s shocked, and as he goeson, helping Pooh remember every other friend
in the 100 Acre Wood, he gets more and moredisappointed as Pooh still doesn’t remember
a thing about him, even as he fully remembersothers.Haley Joel Osment does particularly good work
selling these emotions; his performance makesit clear just how much it hurts Sora to be
forgotten, even as he’s genuinely happyPooh is able to remember his other friends.And then at the end of the story, when Pooh
finally remembers him, Osment makes it clearjust how touched Sora is.Our time in the 100 Acre Wood ends just as
it did in Kingdom Hearts I, with Sora sayinggoodbye to Pooh and all his friends atop a
hill under the night sky.Pooh doesn’t want Sora to go, but Sora has
learned even if he has to be apart from hisfriends, they’ll always be in his heart,
and he promises Pooh that he’ll always bein his heart too.In between revisiting each Disney world, our
heroes have been getting updates from Chipand Dale as they track a strange energy reading
that grows stronger and stronger with eachworld returned to.Eventually, the signal grows strong enough
that they’re able to track it to somewherein Twilight Town, which they’re somehow
picking up twice on their scanners, leadingSora, Donald, and Goofy there to investigate.Once there, Goofy remembers the clues left
by Riku after the Showdown at Hollow Bastion,and the trio follows the photo of Roxas to
the abandoned mansion it was taken in frontof, where Hayner, Pence, and Olette are lying
on the ground after being attacked by Nobodies.They learn that Hayner and his gang
were at the mansion tosearch for Kairi, and that they believe there
is a second Twilight Town that can be accessedthrough the mansion.Olette tries to explain their theory to Sora,
pointing out that he has a munny pouch andtrophy crystal that matches a munny pouch
she made, and the crystal from the Struggletrophy, two items which are supposed to be
one-of-a-kind, and while Sora isn’t ableto follow her logic, it tracks well with Roxas’s
experiences at the beginning of the game.Sora’s confusion is rendered moot by the
arrival of King Mickey though, as he has trackedAnsem the Wise here, and believes he made
his way into Organization XIII’s strongholdthrough a portal in the mansion.At this point, everyone heads inside, eventually
finding their way down to DiZ’s computer.They’re able to successfully guess his password
based on the other clue left for them by Riku,a bar of sea-salt ice cream, and Sora, Donald,
Goofy, and Mickey step through a portal tothe other Twilight Town.We don’t get to see much of this other town,
but one clear, familiar detail is that inthis world, the computer is smashed to pieces,
just the way Roxas left it at the beginningof the game.It doesn’t take long to find the portal
to the Organization’s world, and when ourheroes step through, they find themselves
in an empty space between the worlds, wherethe Nobody insignia floats freely among the
ether.They’re attacked by a massive swarm of Nobodies,
who keep coming and coming, no matter howmany Sora is able to take down, and it takes
the sudden arrival of Axel, who fights alongsidehim, to turn the tide of the battle, though
Axel has to put his entire being into a massive,fiery attack in order to clear the way.Axel’s sacrifice comes as the conclusion
to a character arc we’ve seen throughoutthe game, albeit only in fragments.When we first met him as Roxas, we saw a man
torn between loyalty to his superiors, andloyalty to his one and only friend, whose
loyalties were tested when Roxas didn’tremember their time together at all.Axel’s rage over this was incredibly impactful,
and that alone would’ve cemented him asa fantastic character, but we see even more
of him as Sora, and watch as his desperationto be reunited with Roxas pushes him to make
mistakes, and do things he later comes toregret.It’s only fitting then, that this “Nobody,”
who supposedly has no heart, and no abilityto feel emotion, would strike out against
his superiors for their betrayal, and useevery ounce of passion he had left to save
the one person closest to Roxas, and let Soralive.Axel’s dedication to his lost friend also
impresses the other members of the Organization,who respect his decision to go out entirely
on his own terms, though we learn from themthat Axel connecting with Sora may have unforeseen
consequences.After pressing forward a little further, our
heroes finally arrive at the Organization’sworld, a place called The World That Never
Was.This sprawling, dark metropolis sits below
a large, glowing, heart-shaped moon, witha large, intricately designed castle floating
in between the moon and the city streets.The visual design of this world is just spectacular,
somehow perfectly blending the aestheticsof steampunk, cyberpunk, and Star Wars into
a single, cohesive whole, and even 14 yearslater, the look of this world continues to
impress me.Sora, Donald, and Goofy press on into the
world, with Mickey running off ahead to fighton his own, and after battling their way through
a seemingly endless number of Heartless, theycome across a short, hooded figure, wielding
a familiar Keyblade.Donald and Goofy are stopped by a couple of
Nobodies, and the hooded figure steps towardsSora, pulling him into a familiar stained-glass
battle arena.Sora is facing down Roxas, wielding Oathkeeper
and Oblivion, and he must defeat this powerfulother in order to proceed.Simply put, this is the best boss fight in
the game.Roxas matches Sora’s speed, power, and agility
perfectly, and while he does have a few tricksup his sleeve that Sora doesn’t have access
to, he still puts up an incredibly fair fight,and holds his own against his other half.Even after we beat Roxas in the boss fight,
their battle is still a struggle for Sora,as the two of them fight desperately against
each other to prove their existence, withSora only managing to seize victory very narrowly.This last battle between Roxas and Sora is
one last chance for Roxas to fight for hisown existence, and to assert himself as his
own person, separate from Sora.He may lose this fight, in the end, but he
proves himself a worthy counterpart to Sora,and accepts that if he has to be subsumed
by another person, Sora, a truly kind andheroic boy, is a good person to have to be
subsumed into.As Roxas starts to fall to the ground, we
move back in time, seeing Xemnas induct acatatonic Roxas into the ranks of Organization
XIII, and then move forward to Roxas and Axel,sitting atop Twilight Town’s clock tower,
sharing an ice cream as friends.I think that this conversation makes it as
clear as it needs to be that Roxas, Axel,and Naminé all have feelings, and all have
developed hearts of their own, even if Roxashimself isn’t able to answer that question.The friendship between these two Nobodies,
two people whose existence is defined by asingular, debilitating trauma, shows that
even in the face of severe dissociation, it’spossible to form a genuine connection with
others, and that connection can help you heal,and restore your ability to connect with your
own heart.This subtext is made even more explicit in
later games, but it’s still incredibly clearnow, and reinforces the idea that no matter
how a person was created, or came to exist,their personhood, and right to exist on their
own terms, matters, and cannot be erased,no matter how hard some people may try.After defeating Roxas, Sora returns to Donald
and Goofy, and they make their way to theOrganization’s castle.As they create a bridge of light and start
to ascend its heights, we cut to Kairi, imprisonedsomewhere in the castle, and see her trying
to bargain with Saïx to set her free.Saïx, being as unfeeling and cold as ever,
doesn’t listen, but that doesn’t meanhope is lost, as Naminé opens a dark portal
inside Kairi’s cell, and pulls her throughto another part of the castle, rushing down
a walkway with her, trying to escape.Before they can make it to safety though,
they’re confronted by Saïx, who refusesto let Kairi leave.But Saïx doesn’t anticipate what happens
next, as a black hooded figure takes out hisNobodies, and prepares to attack him.Riku guides Kairi further down the castle,
and as they fight their way out, he givesher a flowery Keyblade, which she uses to
fend off the encroaching Heartless and Nobodiessurrounding them.It’s at this point that Sora finally catches
up to them, and is somewhat shocked to seeXehanort’s Heartless fighting alongside
and helping Kairi.He doesn’t get much time to think about
this though, as Xigbar, one of the membersof Organization XIII, drops in, and does his
best to stop Sora, in one of many boss fightsagainst the last members of Organization XIII.As Sora and Xigbar duke it out, we return
to Mickey, who is ahead of the rest of ourheroes, climbing the heights of the castle,
and defeating Nobodies every step of the way.As he ascends the ramparts, he runs into DiZ,
saving him from an ambush of Nobodies, andhelping him to his feet.DiZ, finally done hiding himself from the
world, sheds the cloth wrappings on his face,and reveals himself to be Ansem the Wise.This reveal has been telegraphed through the
story so far, making it not much of a surprise,but it still is a significant reveal for Mickey,
who was never able to put it together thatDiZ and Ansem the Wise were the same person.Ansem the Wise decides to start explaining
himself to Mickey, starting first and foremostwith the fact that he hid himself because
he’s been motivated by revenge.This may be the first time Ansem the Wise’s
motivations and backstory are being discussedin a cutscene, but it’s far from the first
chance we’ve had to learn about him, ashis story has been revealed through the Secret
Ansem Reports scattered across the game.In these reports, we learn that the “Ansem
Reports” of the first game were all writtenby Xehanort after he took Ansem’s identity.These Secret Reports detail the story of Ansem
the Wise, and tell of his betrayal by Xehanort,and a handful of his other apprentices, who
all became the founding members of Organization XIII.While Xehanort took on the dual identities
of Ansem, Seeker of Darkness and Xemnas, conductingexperiments on the darkness of the heart and
creating the Organization respectively, Ansemthe Wise was left stranded in the realm of
darkness, where the only thing that preventedhim from succumbing to the dark, and transforming
into a Heartless, was anger and rage, whichhe channeled into an obsession with revenge.This obsession granted him dark powers, allowing
him to create corridors back to the realmof light, where he took on the moniker of
DiZ, allied himself with Mickey and Riku,and took residence in the mansion in Twilight
Town, planning to use Sora to enact vengeanceupon Xehanort and his Organization.This story, of a man obsessed with revenge,
who ruthlessly tosses aside those in his way,is pretty fantastic, and Ansem the Wise’s
character journey as outlined by these reportsis not only good storytelling on its own,
but also a subtle way to ensure the introductionof Xehanort stealing Anem’s identity doesn’t
undo one of the most interesting themes ofthe original game: the corruption of a “wise
and benevolent” patriarch.In Kingdom Hearts I, long before we actually
met him, Ansem was built up as a respected ruler.Leon and Aerith both talk about him in reverent
terms, believing his research and leadershipwere their best chance of stopping the Heartless.And this image holds right up until we meet
Ansem, a nihilistic, obsessive man who possessesRiku and uses him to his destructive ends.We learn the truth even more clearly in Ansem’s
Reports, where we see that his experimentson the darkness of the heart involved transforming
innocent people into Heartless, and creatingartificial Heartless of his own.With all of that going on, it’s easy to
see how Xehanort having stolen Ansem’s identityand been the one to do all the cruel experiments
could undo that thematic journey; it verywell could have turned out that Ansem was
a perfectly wise and benevolent ruler after all.But Ansem the Wise’s story doesn’t fall
into that pattern.We do see in flashbacks that before his betrayal,
he was a wise and kind ruler, unwilling toperform Xehanort’s experiments on innocent
people, but from the moment we meet him asDiZ, we see a selfish, and cruel manipulator,
willing to use Roxas and Naminé to his endswith no concern for their desires or wellbeing
at all, and learn the depths of his obsessionwith revenge from these reports.His fall is even more complex than the supposed
fall of “Ansem”/Xehanort’s Heartless,too, who was driven to the dark by a compulsive
need to uncover the secrets of the heart.Instead of something so simple, Ansem the
Wise shows how easy it is for someone to takethe hurt done to them by others, and unleash
it on those around him.His obsession with revenge upends and destroys
Roxas’s life, reinforces Naminé’s harmfulviews about herself, and forces Riku down
a path of self-destruction, making him anavatar of the very darkness he seemingly conquered
in Chain of Memories.That is, until now, when Ansem meets up with
Mickey.It may be too little, too late, but he has
come to the Organization’s stronghold notto finish his revenge, but to stop them from
acquiring Kingdom Hearts.With Mickey’s help, he begins to ascend
the castle once more, pressing on in hopesthat doing the right thing now will, in some
small way, make up for some of the harm he’sdone to others.We return to Sora after he’s defeated Xigbar,
and follow him as he makes his way up to whereRiku and Kairi are.Riku attempts to leave Kairi with Sora, at
this point, not wanting to let his friendsee him like this, but Kairi refuses to let
him hide from the truth, and brings Sora overto show him that “Xehanort’s Heartless”
is actually his friend, Riku.It’s with this reunion that we finally see
the massive weight on Sora’s shoulders lifted,as he’s reunited with his closest friend
after searching with nary a hint or hope thathe might find him.It’s… it’s really touching, and Sora’s
willingness to weep openly at finding hisfriend again, at being reunited with someone
he so clearly loves, it gets to meEvery. Single. Damn. Time.These two share a bond that goes incredibly
deep, and I love that Sora isn’t afraidto be vulnerable when expressing how much
that bond of love means to him.Now that they’re reunited, one question
remains: why has Riku taken on Xehanort’sHeartless’s form?While Riku was able to conquer his darkness
back in Castle Oblivion, and could freelyuse it without losing himself to it, that
changed when he was asked by DiZ to captureRoxas.Despite all of Riku’s skill, he was no match
for Sora’s Nobody, and when he was beaten,he decided to subsume himself in the power
of darkness, letting even the darkness fromXehanort’s Heartless come out.When he did so, he was transformed, gaining
the power he needed to win, but losing partof himself in the process, and becoming unrecognizable
to the world around him.With this story, the meaning of “darkness”
in Kingdom Hearts is fully solidified as ametaphor for depression, self-harm, and isolation.Because of DiZ’s demand he capture Roxas,
Riku relapsed, letting the power of darknessovertake him, believing that this relapse
into harmful behavior was the only way todefeat Roxas, and by proxy, the only way to
bring Sora back.After this, Riku’s shame, over who he thought
he’d become, and what he’d done to himself,was immense, to the point where he made Mickey
promise not to tell Sora or Kairi anythingabout him.From there, he spends the rest of the story
alone, travelling from world to world, fightingthe Organization with no help or support,
and staying away from the people who lovehim.He only reached out to them in subtle ways,
trying to guide Sora with a photo and barof ice cream, hoping that these hints would
lead Sora to take down the Organization onhis own.That small act of connecting with Sora was
enough to bring them back together though.And despite Riku’s fears, Sora doesn’t
care about his darkness or shame.All he cares about is being with his friend
again, and showing him that he is loved.In the end, Riku learns that no matter how
far he felt he’d fallen, his friends, histrue friends, would always be right there
for him, ready to help him back up, and keephim walking on the right path.Sora, Donald, Goofy, Riku, and Kairi all press
forward, climbing higher up the castle, andentering a graveyard for the fallen members
of the Organization, while further on, Mickeyand Ansem begin the process of encoding Kingdom
Hearts.Sora has two boss fights ahead of him, against
Luxord and Saïx, the two penultimate membersof the Organization.Luxord, while being a fantastic character
and great boss battle all around, serves aslittle more than an obstacle here, but in
fighting Saïx, we see a side to the Organizationthat hasn’t come up in a while.Outside of Axel, this scene is the first time
we’ve seen anyone in the Organization longfor a heart, and it immediately throws Saïx
into sharp relief from the others, as he seemsto be very lost without a heart to guide him.It’s here that the rest of his characterization
comes into clear focus as well, as we’vefrequently seen Saïx denounce Axel, and act
harshly towards his former colleague, allbecause Axel openly refuses to deny the pain
of living without a heart.With Saïx’s own longing made clear though,
we can now see that his disdain for Axel isbecause he feels the same exact pain as him,
but is forced to act as if he doesn’t inorder to blend in with the rest of the Organization.Saïx’s background and motivation for feeling
and acting like this won’t be expanded uponuntil the next game, but for now, it’s clear
that there’s a lot more going on with himthan what appears on the surface.After Luxord and Saïx’s defeat, Sora and
his friends ascend further up the castle,and meet up with Ansem the Wise and Mickey.Ansem has been using a strange machine to
encode Kingdom Hearts as data, but it is startingto overload, which he realizes is because
encoding something as complex as a heart,let alone the entirety of Kingdom Hearts is
foolhardy, something he never realized duringhis scientific studies of the heart.Ansem tries to shoo everyone away, planning
to keep his machine going until the very end,but he’s interrupted by Xemnas arriving,
furious at his old master for trying to destroythe thing he and his Organization worked so
hard to create.Ansem refuses to stop encoding Kingdom Hearts,
however, and while he claims that he and Xemnasboth have no understanding of the heart, it
seems that he’s learned a little more aboutfollowing his heart, as he stands by his machine
until the very end, and ensures its work iscomplete, even as it explodes in his face.While Ansem’s machine may not have been
able to fully encode Kingdom Hearts, whatit did was quite enough, as all the hearts
it encoded are released, rendering KingdomHearts useless to Xemnas, and causing a swarm
of Heartless to begin to swarm the castle.This explosion also releases Riku from Xehanort’s
Heartless’s form, and with Riku back tohis normal self, he, Sora, Donald, Goofy,
Kairi, and Mickey press on with a newfounddetermination, climbing the rest of the castle,
and going forward to face Xemnas.The massive swarm of Heartless isn’t a threat
that can be ignored, however, and it threatensto overtake Sora and his friends just as they’re
about to reach the top of the castle.They’re saved by the most unexpected of
allies though, Pete and Maleficent, who havefound a common enemy with Sora in Organization
XIII.The two villains stand together against this
horde, and while this heroic act isn’t enoughto redeem them, it does show that even people
like Pete and Maleficent can, occasionally,do the right thing, and stand up to the forces
of darkness.Thanks to their heroic act, our heroes arrive
at the Altar of Naught just in time to hearXemnas bemoan the loss of his precious, the
mass of collected hearts he and the rest ofthe Organization were going to use to become
whole.He beckons the Keyblade wielders before him
to return into the world and collect morehearts, a request that they all answer with
a resounding no.Xemnas’s overconfidence here speaks to his
biggest character flaw, his belief that nomatter what he or the other members of the
Organization do, they would be victoriousin claiming Kingdom Hearts, and could use
it to fill themselves with the rage and angerhe believes will make them whole.What’s more interesting than Xemnas’s
overconfidence here though is the way he speaksto Sora, Riku, and Mickey, asking them genuine
questions about why they fear the dark, andloathe those who sit on the edge of nothingness,
unable to be part of either light or dark, like he.This question fits perfectly into the thematic
framework of the game so far, where Nobodiesrepresent dissociation and disconnection,
and darkness represents anger, obsession,and depression.Mickey and Riku’s respond that they shun
darkness out of fear, and nothingness becauseit “messes up their worlds,” which both
reflect clearly on how society views and treatsthose who suffer from mental illness and trauma.Society, as it currently exists under capitalism,
does everything in its power to push thosewith severe mental illness and trauma to its
fringes, because we represent its greatest failings.We do, indeed, mess up the world, because
if you believe the world to be fundamentally,or even mostly, just, the pain those of us
with profound trauma experience on a dailybasis, or the suffering and/or difficulty
inherent to mental illness of all stripes,especially more stigmatized mental illnesses
like schizophrenia and other illnesses withpsychotic symptoms, is a direct contradiction
to that view.So severe mental illness and severe trauma
have to be hidden at the fringes of society,where no one living a “normal” existence
can see it.That’s the biggest reason why I’ve decided
to be open about my plurality in this essay.I refuse to be pushed down, and made invisible,
just because my existence makes some peopleuncomfortable, and I want to make people question
their base assumptions about the world andits justice, because I’ve always found that
the only way to have a just world is to goout and make it that way, not to accept it
as it currently exists.Even if Mickey and Riku answer
Xemnas with ideas that conformto our world’s status quo, Kingdom Hearts
II as a whole doesn’t agree with those assumptions.This game instead positively affirms the struggle
of the mentally ill, and the existence ofplural systems, made most clear in how Nobodies
like Roxas, Axel, and Naminé can recoverfrom their trauma, and rediscover what it
means to feel by connecting with others.Those three show a positive image of justice
and recovery, and make it clear that Xemnaswanting to take the rage and hatred of Kingdom
Hearts will never make him, or any other Nobodies,feel whole.It will only fill them with empty rage, anger,
and obsession.Xemnas doesn’t realize this in his arrogance
though, and thus, the final confrontation begins.Xemnas first draws Sora into a duel, facing
him in front of a massive skyscraper, in oneof the most fun and engaging boss fights of
the game.Sora emerges victorious, and returns to his
friends, and Xemnas retreats into the remainsof Kingdom Hearts, hoping to absorb what power
it has left.Destiny is never left to chance though, and
it delivers the door to Kingdom Hearts rightto Sora, Riku, and Mickey, granting them entrance
into the multi-stage boss battle that finishes the game.This battle, for the most part, is pure spectacle,
with Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Riku chargingforward as Xemnas launches skyscrapers at
him, assaulting the engines of his mightyship, and ascending its heights to find Xemnas
sitting on a throne, waiting to challenge them.Xemnas is no match for the combined might
of three Keyblade wielders (Kairi, sadly,doesn’t get to join the fight, which, for
shame, Nomura, for shame), and there is asmall break in the fight, as we watch Xemnas
beg Kingdom Hearts for its rage and anger,and see Sora try to remind him that there
is far more to a heart than just those emotions.Kingdom Hearts does not grant him his wish,
though, and he begins to fade away, unableto remember his own heart having felt anything
but darkness.With Xemnas gone, Sora and his friends start
to celebrate, but have their victory cut shortby the Organization’s castle beginning to
collapse around them.Riku tries to open a corridor of darkness,
but is unable to, having had his connectionto the light restored.A portal does open though, and after everyone
but Sora, Riku, and Kairi walk through, wesee Naminé standing in front of it, waiting
to say goodbye to someone.The battle against Xemnas isn’t over though,
and just before Sora and Riku can escape,Xemnas strikes out at them from his flying
fortress dragon.God, that’s such a cool phrase to say.Flying fortress dragon.God, how fucking cool is that?This game’s final boss is so cool.Riku is able to fly a Nobody ship away though,
and the fight begins anew, as Riku and Sorafly around this massive beast and destroy
it, locking it in a single place to face Xemnasonce again.This phase of Xemnas is the last spectacle
driven part of the fight, as he launches Soraand Riku into space, and forces them to launch
skyscrapers at his dragon in order to openhis throne room and face him directly.As with most of the spectacle focused bosses
in this game, I think it’s great and a lotof fun, but I also think it’s worth noting
just how much better the spectacle of KingdomHearts II’s final boss is than the final
boss of Kingdom Hearts I.This battle feels fun, responsive, and fresh,
and it manages to pull off the same generalconcept of flying around a massive airship
battle arena way more effectively thanKingdom Hearts I ever dreamed.After bringing armored Xemnas down, Sora and
Riku are transported to an endless void ofnothingness, where Xemnas makes his final
stand.He drips with ego and overconfidence in this
scene, being as bold as to claim himself aseternal as nothingness itself, but Sora and
Riku fight valiantly, and it’s through theirfriendship and teamwork that they’re able
to claim a victory.The fight isn’t over for Sora and Riku,
though.They’re beset by hundreds of Nobodies, and
while we don’t watch their battle, whenwe return to them, we see that they’re both
completely exhausted, Riku even more so than Sora.Despite Riku’s wishes for Sora to move on
without him, Sora picks up his friend andwalks him carefully to safety, making it down
to a familiar beach, and taking a moment to rest there.They talk openly about their friendship through
all of this, with each of them revealing thatthey’ve felt insecure compared to the other,
Riku feeling like he needed to prove himselfbetter than Sora, and Sora always feeling
outmatched by Riku at everything they ever did.Our two boys rest by the water, and Riku decides
to take a page from Sora, and think positivelyfor a change.He realizes that their battle has made the
realm of light safe, and while they may betrapped in the realm of darkness, what they
see before them is just a peaceful, emptybeach, and so maybe, living in the dark realm
wouldn’t be so bad.Sometime later, a message in a bottle washes
up on the shore, and Riku hands this bottleto Sora, as it’s the same message Kairi
sent out to him far back at the beginningof the game.As they enter the newly formed portal of light,
Sora and Riku emerge far above Destiny Islands,crashing down into the ocean just like we
saw in Sora’s dream in the opening ofKingdom Hearts I.They both swim to shore, and find that their
friends are all here, waiting for them to return.With that final shot, Sora fulfills his promise
to Kairi, a promise he made so long ago, toreturn her lucky charm, and bring it back
to her safely.The other promise, that Naminé made to Roxas,
about them being together, is also kept intheir reunion, as the two of them will be
able to be with each other every day, throughthe connection Sora and Kairi share.All that’s left is for the credits to roll,
and one final scene to play, where Sora, Riku,and Kairi all get a letter from King Mickey,
and we’re left with the promise of adventure to come.I wasn’t exaggerating for a moment when
I called Kingdom Hearts II a masterpiece.This game has a massive, sprawling scope,
with a story spread across numerous Disneyworlds and 30 hours of gameplay, and yet at
its core, it’s focused on telling a thematicallyresonant, character-focused story, one that
puts just as much emphasis on the quiet momentsshared between friends as the huge action
spectacles.Even in the Disney worlds, which are often
unrelated to the larger story, Kingdom Hearts IIdoes its best to make the worlds about
the actions of their characters, and not justa fun place to explore.It may not always succeed at keeping the focus
on its characters, or making those characterscompelling, but you can tell from the first
Disney world on that there is a much clearerfocus on storytelling than there was in Kingdom Hearts I,
and that heightened focus absolutely pays off.And, well, I can’t help but spill even more
of my strong feelings here, because fuck.Kingdom Hearts II resonates with me personally.From the beginning, in its story about a plural
boy suffering from deep dissociation, to theend, where a boy suffering from depression
and prone to self-isolation is reunited withhis friends, who all affirm they care about
him, and that he didn’t have to fight thesebattles on his own.For a game about as silly a concept as mashing
up Disney and Final Fantasy characters, KingdomHearts is not afraid to confront real emotional
complexity, and challenge its characters withobstacles that feel palpably real.I can’t say I have no criticisms of the
game of course, with possibly the biggestand most obvious one being that Sora doesn’t
quite have a character arc here, as his unwillingnessto stand up for himself when confronting Saïx
is never resolved, and another issue beingthat we rarely get to see Organization XIII
succeed at being the sinister, shadowy organizationthey make themselves out to be.These are ultimately minor complaints though,
because the character work and emotional logicbehind the game’s story are genuinely well-realized.Every single decision made for this story
is guided by a commitment to the game’sthemes, and the emotional reality of its characters.I can only think of a handful of other games
that come close to matching the depth andcomplexity of this game’s story, and literally
zero that do so with the same amount of animeflair and bombast that makes Kingdom Hearts,
well, Kingdom Hearts.I love this game, I love its gameplay, I love
its characters, and I love its themes, andI can only hope that I’ve been able to capture
why they all mean so much to me in this thirty-eightthousand word video essay.Kingdom Hearts II is a masterpiece, and is
and will always remain, one of my favoritegames of all time.Holy shit.Wow.I cannot believe that I am done with this
thing.I know it’s been a long time coming since
the last Kingdom Hearts video, but hopefullywith the scope of this one you can see why
this one was just an ordeal to get through.Thank you all so much for watching.I wanna give a special shout-out and thank
you to all my Patreon supporters.You all helped me make it through all the
time that it took for me to make this video,and I also wanna thank anyone who has supported
me directly with one-time donations on Paypalin this time, because I also greatly appreciate
that.You all are the reason I’m able to do this
at all.If you liked this video and want to help support
the channel, you can leave a like, you cancomment, you can subscribe, all those normal
things that YouTubers ask you to do.And then if you wanna go above and beyond
and help support me financially you can doso at my Patreon, and I also have a Paypal
for one time donations.The addresses are on the screen, and also
there are links in the description.Thank you all so much for watching this massive
video essay.I’m just really glad I was able to put this
out there, and I hope that the emotional honestlyand vulnerability of this video is…If you’re plural and Kingdom Hearts has
also meant things to you, I hope this videokind of helps get into why.I guess just one last thank you, so much,
everybody.I love you all.

Tags:

video essay,media criticism,kingdom hearts ii,kingdom hearts,sora,roxas,riku,kairi,axel,namine,plurality,#pluralgang

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