Welcome back to another installment in what I like to call, “A Filthy Casual’s Thoughts,” in which I’m finally taking the opportunity to play, or in some cases just watch, through the entirety of the Kingdom Hearts series. While I consider myself a fan of several gaming genres, in that I’m not drawn to any one type of game, I have been known to play games that require a lower level of commitment to play. That’s just due to my lifestyle. I find myself constantly setting up goals, making tasks, or keeping myself preoccupied in some manner. It would seem that my playing through Kingdom Hearts II would suffer because of it. And yet, the hype surrounding Kingdom Hearts III finally persuaded me to take a leap of faith, and I decided to play the games in spurts.
I chose to experience the games in the series in the order they originally released. In that regard, I last discussed my thoughts for Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, which I recommend reading before you go further. In that tale, Sora, Donald, and Goofy found themselves within the walls of Castle Oblivion, a strange place whose custodians are equally as strange as their surroundings. Sora lost his memories of Kairi and the promise they made to meet again, and having those memories replaced by a girl named Naminé who has the ability to reshape one’s memories. Sora, Donald, and Goofy are able to fend off the cloaked figures of Castle Oblivion and accept Naminé’s offer to restore their original memories, though it comes at the cost of losing their memories formed while in Castle Oblivion. Nevertheless, Sora and Naminé promise to find one another again, somehow, and Sora goes into stasis until the events of the next game begin to unfold.
Meanwhile, Riku and King Mickey have also found themselves in Castle Oblivion. With the help of a mysterious figure named DiZ, they’re able to defeat the likes of a Riku doppelganger, as well as fend off the chances of Ansem’s return, who had left a small part of himself within Riku’s heart. Mickey makes a neat remark about how the combination of light and dark within one’s being shouldn’t have to be a thing to be feared. By the end of their journey, they’re donning the same black cloaks as Re: Chain of Memories’ antagonists.
Okay, so I’m ready to jump into the story of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix (spoilers by the way) and… I’m not playing as Sora? It’s that blonde haired kid from the end credits of Re: Chain of Memories, the one with the ice cream bar and who hangs out with Axel, who also appeared in the last game. Turns out this kid’s name is Roxas; he’s spending his summer vacation in a place called Twilight Town, and Axel knows him, though Roxas has no memory of him. After performing a few odd jobs around town for a while (and slapping posters on the walls was the less tedious one to play) Roxas and his friends happen upon a vacant mansion in the middle of the woods. Yeah, an abandoned mansion in the middle of the woods totally doesn’t scream, “nothing unusual is going to happen here.”
Inside is where Roxas comes across Naminé who tells him that he is something called a Nobody. At this point, I actually made a mental note and put “Nobody” right next to “Heartless.” Nobodies, within the context of Kingdom Hearts, are strong individuals who have no heart but retain a body and soul. I thought it was rather strange for Sora to show up in Roxas’ dreams from the outset of the game so, I thought, these two characters must share a greater destiny with one another. This turns out to be true because I see before me the same stasis chamber where Sora went to sleep at the end of Re: Chain of Memories. Roxas then, from what I surmise, remerges with Sora which allows the latter to finally awaken. I do recall at the end of Sora’s story in Re:Chain of Memories that Jiminy Cricket had made a note in their journal simply inscribing the words, “Thank Naminé.” Problem is, Sora, Donald, and Goofy do, in fact, have no recollection of that name, nor the events that transpired before they went to sleep.
That’s when things really get moving. King Mickey shows up in Twilight Town, wearing the same black clothed disguise from earlier, and hands Sora a big bag of money. What a friend. Come to think of it; I never made use of that item. It was in my inventory the entirety of the game. Did I miss something? Was it just a key item with no monetary value? Anyway, what came next was rather neat. Yen Sid, the wizard who instructed King Mickey, and the three fairy godmothers give Sora some cool new threads. He was starting to look a lot like Pinocchio as a matter of fact.
After suiting up, I find that this team of blacked cloaked figures does have a name: Organization XIII, and Sora is tasked with visiting all these Disney worlds again to protect their inhabitants from both the Heartless and the Nobodies. Oh, and Maleficent was revived. Soooo… yeah, she’s back.
Now it’s time to set out for adventure on the Gummi Ship. Immediately, my mind kind of stops in place. If there’s anything I didn’t enjoy about the original Kingdom Hearts, it was definitely the monotony of the Gummi Ship sequences. I didn’t even touch the Gummi Ship customization mechanic. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts had soured me on that gaming concept a long, long time ago.
Then, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the “Hallelujah Chorus” sounds at the behest of glorious relief: the Gummi Ship sequences in Kingdom Hearts II actually don’t suck! Gone is the slow and dull corridor space shooter of the first game, in which you had to squint your eyes to ascertain whether enemy ships were on the horizon, or if that was just space debris getting in your way. Kingdom Hearts II gets rid of all that junk and offers a high-speed, on-rails, thrill ride. Sure, the concept is the same. It’s very linear and over in a couple of minutes, but the rehaul clearly shows. The fast-paced motion of the ship is one thing, but it’s used to great effect when coupled with all the dips, turns, and camera sweeps as you have to figure out what to shoot in the next frame. It felt reminiscent of Star Fox 64, and I love that linear space shooter to death. Granted, I went out of my way to clear every Gummi Ship sequence as they appeared so I could keep the story moving, and I, once again, did not customize a Gummi Ship to my preferences, but I was glad of the overall improvement nonetheless.
As you would expect, a lot of enjoyment from the game comes from getting to travel to the worlds I’d visited before to see what has changed. On top of that, I was really enjoying the new combat system. It did several things better in this sequel in regards to speed, variety, and ease of flow. Sora can leap and bound from one Heartless or Nobody in quick succession with the Keyblade, so seamlessly that I would only resort to locking-on to larger targets to hone in on their weak spot. I like that the MP gauge could be slowly replenished over time when I needed it, but I took liberties to make Sora a more effective wielder of the Keyblade than relying too much on using magic. The fact that you can customize your combo-chain preferences was very liberating as well, especially in regards to how many Drive Forms, that is the ability to fuse with one or more allies to create new powers, there are. After pivotal encounters, or completing key points in the game’s story, I’d take my time to inspect and equip what new abilities I had unlocked. The fact that I could also prioritize Donald and Goofy’s use of magic was greatly appreciated too. I set them to use offensive magic sparingly so that, Donald especially, could heal me when I needed it most, as I would have Sora be the powerhouse. For that reason, every time I would come to possess AP Boosts, I would channel most of them into Sora to open up a lot of proficiency in combat prowess. I didn’t really bother to spend AP Boosts on guest characters such as Aladdin, Mulan, or Simba, as I felt the limited time I spent with these characters didn’t warrant their use.
Speaking of which, there are a whole lot of characters who are able to be summoned. I only ever made use of the feature once with Chicken Little, and that was only when things were really getting dicey for me. Yet, other summonable characters include Stitch, Peter Pan, and Tinker Bell, and Genie. And, I have to admit, I absolutely hate Dan Castellaneta as Genie. I wanted to skip every cutscene he appeared in while I was in Agrabah. The guy is always performing the character at an intensity of 10. I mean, there’s no comparison when it comes to the comedic antics of Robin Williams, but even he knew when to dial it down in the Aladdin movie.
On that subject, I did like some of the interpretations that Kingdom Hearts II made with the Disney characters. I was especially fond of Mulan, and Tron, possibly because they were some of the new Disney intellectual properties that appeared for the first time in the Kingdom Hearts series along with Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. And don’t get me started on the visual aesthetic of the black-and-white TV flashbacks to Disney cartoons of yore. When Sora, Donald, and Goofy step directly into the “Steamboat Willie” animated short they adopt the same beloved rubber hose animation style, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear the music and sound effects become muffled to a near one-channel audio stream. Even The Little Mermaid sequence with Ariel was relegated to a musical interactive mini-game in which you perform such classics as “Under the Sea” to timed button prompts. Perhaps this change was due in part because some players felt the same scenario in the original Kingdom Hearts halted gameplay with a jarring swimming mechanic. I didn’t mind it so much, but I can see how this would make for an effective sacrifice. To summarize though, I think Kingdom Hearts II did a great job at using just enough of its Disney tie-ins. It makes me curious just how much they’ll be expanded upon in Kingdom Hearts III what with today’s technology.
But back to the plot at hand. While Sora defeats the remaining members of Organization XIII, he comes to know a little more about Roxas. He also learns that Riku is alive and well, but King Mickey is hesitant to explain just where, or how, Riku is doing. Furthermore, Axel has gone out of his way to take Kairi away from her home on the Destiny Islands and is brought to Twilight Town. From there, Kairi winds up in the clutches of Organization XIII. About halfway through the game is when one of my favorite sequences takes place. Two separate armies of Heartless, one led by Maleficent and the other by Organization XIII, begin an all-out war in Hollow Bastion. Sora actually fights off this army single-handedly in a fully playable segment that made me feel all powerful.
Afterwards, a revelation is revealed to both Sora and myself. The Ansem who was defeated in Kingdom Hearts was not the true Ansem at all, but the Heartless of the big baddy of all: Xehanort. But wait! That’s not all! The Nobody of Xehanort is simultaneously acting as the leader of Organization XIII; an individual who calls himself Xemnas. It’s also revealed that Xehanort was once an apprentice to the real Ansem, who is really referred to as Ansem the Wise. Okay, damn guys. I’m still reeling from this mind blown moment. No joke, I had to double facepalm myself when writing this out.