Last Time On – Kingdom Hearts
It’s the day of reckoning. The return to my Kingdom Hearts analysis, and this one is certain to be big. After the first game, we took a couple of detours to plots designed to build up the place we’re at now. Kingdom Hearts II, to this day widely regarded as the best the series has to offer. The height and climax of the Organization XIII arc, though one is to wonder whether the plot has any business taking credit for Kingdom Hearts II’s success. Kingdom Hearts I came presenting some not-fully-realized ideas hidden beneath some convoluted and scatterbrained plot points and storytelling nearing its end. It wasn’t irredeemable, especially when compared to Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days, both of which having only their most general concepts going for them.
One would hope that the quality of storytelling at least reaches the bar set by the first game. It’s by no means a high bar and the second main game in the franchise should have at least the same effort put into it as the first. It’s going to be an uphill battle, especially given the poor groundwork set by Chain of Memories. That bad fanfiction-resembling plot made Organization XIII out to be a joke. Five of the thirteen were killed and then, to top off how little they mattered, Sora’s memories of the events of the game were wiped. My amendment on that game changed these facts, salvaging Zexion and Lexaeus to be used in this plot and having Sora retain his memories. There really just isn’t a foreseeable point in him losing them.
In the same amendment post I also toyed with the idea of a version of the plot where Naminé was removed, seeing as she had such a negative impact on the quality of the plot. That shouldn’t really come into play here, it’ll really just mean that DiZ is taking care of Sora alone at the beginning of this game’s plot. DiZ is also not a good character but I’ll save that for now, seeing as I reckon I’ll have plenty to say by the end of this. The two most major changes to keep in mind are Zexion and Lexaeus being alive and Sora not getting arbitrarily mind wiped. You don’t have to worry about anything else. Well, except for the potentially narrative experience we’re about to go through. Let’s hope that’s not the case as we begin this amendment of Kingdom Hearts II.
What I Enjoyed
- Roxas & Axel’s tragedy – The start us off, I’m going to highlight the single best aspect of the opening sequence. We start the game as Roxas who’s been put into a data world as his memories are being manipulated by Naminé. Within this scenario, he’s slowly losing the person that he was before, who he had developed into during his time with Organization XIII. Now, he’s a figure who is being entirely molded by the whims of DiZ. While in the data world he’s certainly building a unique sense of self, yet it’s all guided and artificial. Roxas is trapped in an unfair existence, only being kept around until Sora awakens. DiZ makes this quite clear when he explicitly states that he doesn’t care what becomes of Roxas after Sora is reawakened. Even if that means nothing is left of Sora’s Nobody by the end of it. While the Organization also only wanted to use Roxas to further their own goals, he could at least be Roxas and not just some groomed version of himself.
When Axel shows up in this virtual setting, things become even more interesting. He’s the closest thing to a good guy in this scenario as a character who just wants his friend back. He’s frustrated at what’s being done to Roxas and how it’s taking away everything that he was. From his perspective, he’s really trying to save Roxas before he’s gone forever one way or another. Much later into the game, Axel gives his life for the sake of the person that Roxas became one with. Sora, the body which made Roxas whole. This death spurred Roxas into awakening once more to fight for his own existence. The one that Axel protected with all of his non-being. He battles with Sora in one last attempt to be Roxas and loses. Only upon this defeat does he realize that he isn’t truly disappearing. He’s becoming whole. It’s bittersweet but he can finally leave his existence to Sora without regrets, knowing that they’ll be stronger together. Knowing that they’ll be able to go onward together. It’s a genuinely well-written tragedy that turns Roxas, who on his own isn’t really all that interesting a character, into someone really memorable even after the game is done.
- They made DiZ a real character – This one is a shock even to myself, putting DiZ in the what I enjoyed section. Seems that, despite the fact that I’ve played through Kingdom Hearts II multiple times, I completely forgot just how much effort they put into DiZ’s story. He was presented awfully in Chain of Memories but here he’s a real three-dimensional character with complex morals and a believable goal. As I hinted at in the previous point, DiZ almost comes off as a villainous figure throughout the opening sequence. He perceives Nobodies as invalid existences and because of that he doesn’t care at all about the cruelty Roxas is put through. Furthermore, he even makes the call to dispose of Naminé, someone who has only helped him towards his goals for an entire year.
When his arc comes to a close at the end of the game, we come to understand why he acts in such a way. All stemming from a grudge against Xehanort, a student who learned from him while he still went by Ansem the wise. Xehanort acted against his will, created Heartless and became so infatuated with them that he even became one himself. He stole DiZ’ original name and tarnished it with his abhorrent acts. However, the Heartless Ansem was destroyed and all that remained of that treacherous assistant is Xemnas. Though just a shell, he was the only figure left for DiZ to take his revenge on. He dedicates everything to stopping Xemnas’ plans and getting some kind of petty vengeance against his old assistant, not even knowing how much of that assistant is left.
In the end, he realizes just how much that goal blinded him as it became a tunnel leading only to destruction. When he comes to understand this, he accepts it, for it’s the path he made for himself. He was the one who first researched the darkness and Heartless which reside within it. Xehanort was his assistant, only carrying on the work of his tutor. He took his anger out on entities who didn’t deserve it, dismissing all Nobodies as an extension of his resentment of Xemnas. Roxas and Naminé in particular were hurt because of his immoral attitude and all that remained with him after were regrets.
That’s a theme throughout this game. Regrets, frustrations, and how to overcome them. Sora is manipulated into feeling such things by the Organization but he’s far from the only character who displays such traits. Plenty of the Disney characters do as well, though they all manage to best their trials. It could be argued that DiZ is the example of what it looks like when one fails to do so. The person Sora might have become if he let the Organization lead him astray. One driven by spite until they self-destruct because of it.
I do think there’s a lot of depth here, a shocking amount considering my initial perception of the character, but I do still have a couple of problems with him. The first is a minor gripe, where at the end he claims that the ‘Heart’ is beyond comprehension. This isn’t really a direct complaint of the character but that kind of line is straight up just an excuse to try and cover how nonsense the concept is. The other, more major issue, is how immemorable DiZ is. Though he does become a respectably written character, he only really shows up at the beginning and end of the game and he doesn’t really make an impact on any of the other characters. He gives Roxas a bad time but in the end people are going to remember Roxas fighting Axel and not DiZ being an asshole in the background. His arc is very self-contained, not manipulated by outside factors. His realization of his selfishness before his demise is a conclusion he comes to himself, there isn’t really much in the way of being influenced by outside sources. Because of his lack of character dynamics, he just kinda ends up being forgotten. One might argue that maybe that’s the point, that his lack of reaching out is why he ended up suffering the fate he did, but that doesn’t leave fond memories of the character once the credits are done rolling.
- More straightforward storytelling & Pete – Another potential surprise to have here, I actually like Pete’s place in the story. When he’s introduced he immediately casually drops the fact that he’s building an army of Heartless for Maleficent. Seeing as last Sora heard of the Heartless he’d shut them behind the door to darkness, this is a pretty big deal, dropped as if it’s basically nothing. Under many circumstances I might find this to be bad storytelling but this is Kingdom Hearts and honestly exposition being dropped straight is a breath of fresh air. It’s also in-character for someone like Pete, so it’s not like there’s a problem there. I see Pete as a sort of Disney rival, a way to make Donald and Goofy feel more relevant to the plot than they have been. A lot of the time they are kinda just there to introduce themselves alongside Sora without really having any major baring on what’s going on. Having a recurring enemy like Pete at least gives them some level of conflict, even if only for the first half of the game.
It also feels to me like this game was less stingy on just explaining important plot elements outright. Sure, at the end DiZ says the Heart is unknowable or whatever, but a lot of the other concepts introduced are done so in a non-obnoxious fashion. In fact, just shortly after the initial meeting with Pete, Yen Sid drops everything you need to know about Heartless, Nobodies and the threat of Organization XIII. This is especially good seeing as the narrative is presented in the form of a video game. Getting these plot elements out there early on lets the player focus on gameplay rather than worrying about interpreting a whole lotta nonsense. There are some things still left vague but a lot of that is foreshadowing for the next Kingdom Hearts adventure.
- Hollow Bastion – The first visit to Hollow Bastion essentially sets the tone for the entire first half of the game. Right off the bat it’s nice to see the Final Fantasy characters reclaiming and restoring the world that was originally theirs. The fact that there’s still darkness and Heartless rooted so deeply into the world, particular around the castle itself, also makes a lot of sense. This is where Ansem did his Heartless creation experiments and where those who aligned with darkness gathered in the first game. The darkness will not be removed from this place so easily and with the return of Maleficent it seems inevitable that another great battle will have to take place for this world to be truly reclaimed. It’s a neat little set-up and it pays off well come the mid-game when we get fights like the battle of 1,000 Heartless. Makes the frequent battles against Pete and the Heartless he summons mean more.
Space Paranoids just in its existence is also another nice piece of worldbuilding. It makes a lot of sense with regards to the data world Roxas was in. It shows us that it wasn’t just something DiZ pulled out of his ass, it’s something that he’s had experience with from his old study. Virtual worlds, methods of transferring people into them, it’s a lot more basic in Tron’s world but that definitely tracks. Radiant Garden is also some neat foreshadowing for Birth by Sleep but I’ll talk more about that particular subject below.
- Organization XIII – The Organization is presented so, so, so much better than they were in Chain of Memories. I had my doubts in the early sections of the game, where it seemed like they were shaping up to be more vaguely threatening than anything else. I mentioned earlier about Sora being manipulated into feeling doubt and rage by the Organization but that plan is initially presented terribly. Saix just tells Sora to keep defeating Heartless and the reaction to that is pretty much just ‘ok’. Then, Xemnas comes out claiming that this is the seed that will lead to Sora being eternally devoured by anger, which felt at the time like a massive disconnect from what was actually done. Thankfully, it’s only a few scenes later before this idea is built upon and it’s presented way better the second time around. In the second meeting between Sora and Saix, the latter makes it absolutely clear just how Sora is helping the Organization. He gets it into Sora’s head that slaying the Heartless with the Keyblade only furthers the Organization’s goal and even uses a captured Kairi to build upon his influence.
This way of antagonizing Sora without just fighting him is great, it forces our hero into a situation that he hasn’t really had to handle up until this point. Following his heart and the Keyblade has gotten him where he needs thus far but now he knows that doing so only helps the Organization. It makes the Organization feel in control, well and truly playing the Keyblade master to act how they wish. To push this even further, the Organization establishes control over the Heartless, thus ensuring that they hold all of the cards. At that point, they can summon Heartless in the various worlds and lead Sora around in circles forever. Never getting anywhere and knowing that he aids the enemy for each he slays until his mentality slowly wears down to nothing. Even if he dies or gives in, that just gives the Organization an opportunity to take Roxas back. This is the set-up for the latter half of the game, where the themes of doubt and frustration become extremely prevalent, and I like it a lot.
Even smaller details like how careful Mickey is throughout the game and how easily the Organization can go between the worlds add a lot to their looming presence throughout the game. A lot is done to ensure that the Organization feel in control, even after one of their members is defeated during the battle in Hollow Bastion. That same scenario sees the fodder Nobodies easily overwhelming fodder Heartless, which may not seem like much but it does really push that they are the greater threat in the moment. ‘Threat’ being the key word, one that was sorely missing from the description of the Organization in Chain of Memories. After how disappointing Ansem was in the first game, it’s good to see that the writing for antagonists has been improved by several steps.
- The hidden complexity of Xemnas & Birth by Sleep foreshadowing – Xemnas is a character who is difficult to understand as you’re experiencing him. Just within the story of Kingdom Hearts II, he definitely feels like a character who wasn’t fully explored. Not just because we come to know him as the Nobody of this mysterious assistant Xehanort but because of how secretive he is. His plans are vague and a lot of what he says reflects that. I don’t understand what Xemnas means when he says he wants to make a new world using his Kingdom Hearts. I didn’t understand at first when he was talking about sewing the seeds of rage in Sora’s mind. Even the other Organization members are aware of this aspect of Xemnas’ nature. In 358/2 Days it was mentioned during a discussion between Saix and Axel that Xemnas has an agenda beyond just the restoration of Nobody’s hearts and there’s one particular cutscene in the middle of the game that only pushes the mystery further.
We see Xemnas infiltrate Hollow Bastion and go deep down into a secret chamber which we learn is called the Chamber of Repose. Xemnas calls a vacant suit of armor his ‘friend’ and Xigbar voices confusion as to who this friend is. This raises a lot of questions like who did the armor belong to and why does Xemnas consider them a friend and treasure them enough to visit and talk to them on a regular basis? This doesn’t seem particularly consistent with the image we gain of Xehanort either, an assistant who stopped at nothing in his quest for darkness. Didn’t seem like the sort who would have friends, even less friends who were apparently Keyblade wielders. Xigbar also hints towards other Keyblade wielders before his fight but we still don’t know exactly what he’s referring to.
This is all, of course, foreshadowing for the prequel Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, but Xemnas becomes so much more interesting in hindsight after experiencing that game. Xemnas isn’t actually the body of Xehanort, the body itself belongs to one of the protagonists from Birth by Sleep named Terra. I won’t go into the specifics here but all you have to understand is that his body was taken over by the original Xehanort, beginning a struggle for his heart. However, Xemnas has no heart, he’s just a shell and he’s not a shell of Xehanort. He’s a shell of Terra. That’s why he calls the armor ‘friend’, because that armor belongs to one of the other protagonists from BBS; Terra’s friend Aqua. Ventus, a character who I’ve mentioned in previous amendment posts, was also their friend.
This odd ritual of Xemnas’ begs the question of if there is an internal struggle going on within him. If, within the antagonist that we fight at the end of the game, there is a good that he’s pushing back against. This isn’t played into at all in Kingdom Hearts II on account of the narrative trying to push the stupid ‘Nobodies have no emotions’ nonsense but there’s so much potential here. Potential to make Xemnas into a complex character who can’t tell the difference between the side of him that wants to use the Keyblade wielders to further his goals and the side who yearns for his friends. Does he seek Ventus because that’s another potential Keyblade wielder or because he wants to free the boy who’s so dear to him? This conflict could have been intensified by Roxas, who had Ventus’ appearance, but it’s a little too late for that one. Maybe it could have happened in 358/2 Days but we’re beyond that now. The point is, Xemnas has the potential to offer a lot to the story and I hold an unjustified hope that it’s explored more in Kingdom Hearts III.
- The ending – I almost wish that I had a ‘what I don’t understand’ section for me to talk about this ending. Honestly, this ending teeters on the fence of like and dislike, I really can’t make heads or tails of it. First of all, I don’t understand how Sora and Riku end up in the realm of darkness after their fight with Xemnas. While we were told multiple times that The World That Never Was is close to or on top of the realm of darkness, that doesn’t explain how a portal to there just kinda appeared. Nor does it explain the door to light that appears to get them out of there. Nor does it explain how Kairi’s message managed to get into the realm of darkness. Hm. I will admit though, it’s nice for Sora and Riku to have this scene along after Sora spent the entire game chasing after him and Riku had to stay in the shadows the whole time. So close and yet so far apart for the entire adventure, only now finally getting the chance to really take in that they’re together again. For the first time since the beginning of the first game really. It’s a nice payoff to wind down after all of the chaos that happened in the final world.
Back to complaining, a door to light, huh? I thought the only door leading in and out of the realm of darkness was the door to darkness. Are you telling me that all this time there was this other, way easier to get through gateway just lying in wait? We spent the entire game being guided by the Keyblade and revealing gateways and yet, when a gateway is most needed, that plot element isn’t used at all. Alright, I admit, we know already that light is a force which brings together. That’s well-established at this point, so I can fathom how the light could bring Sora and Riku back to the Destiny Isles where their friends are. Riku even hints towards exactly that being the case in the post credits. It’s not even totally unheard of, it’s kinda similar to how the Beast was brought to Hollow Bastion by following Belle’s light after his own world was taken.
The whole realm of darkness/door to light situation may even be representative of Riku’s own heart. He and Sora were brought to the realm of darkness because doubt still remained within him after he’d immersed himself so deeply in darkness. With the aforementioned theme of doubts throughout the second half of the game I wouldn’t be surprised. Then, once getting to speak to his friend again and achieving a calm the likes of which has been missing since he left the isles, light finally awakened in him once more. The light of he and Sora combined connected with Kairi’s as a princess of heart, creating the door which brought them back together. It’s all just theory and I kinda get the feeling that this ending was made to be theorized about. It’s for that reason that I put this ending in the what I enjoyed section after all.
I’ve determined that my problem with the door to light is in how convenient it is. Perhaps this is only in hindsight, though, as someone who knows about Aqua’s struggle in escaping the realm of darkness. Though, the fact that such a thing hasn’t appeared for her is justified by the truth that there’s no light on the other side for her to connect to. Terra and Ventus aren’t exactly available at this point, after all.
What Needs Changed
- The opening sequence – My primary issue with the opening sequence is I don’t think it’s even clearly justified why Roxas has to be put into the data world in the first place. If that’s just the easiest way to contain him or for some other reason. I personally came to the conclusion that perhaps, in creating a scenario that’s entirely unique and unrelated to Sora’s memories, it would become easier to remove those memories. The ever-looming atmosphere of vagueness is a real problem in this sequence as they clearly try to not reveal too much but we also get the gist of what’s happening within the first couple of cutscenes so… Shrug!
This lack of clarity leads to the initial section of the game, where photos of Roxas have been stolen along with the word photo itself, feeling more weird and pointless than anything. It’s not really a mystery on account of the fact that it’s missing several key components of a mystery and it isn’t explained well why the photos were stolen. I think it’s because the Nobodies of the Organization want to separate Roxas from his virtual memories so they can bring him back and continue to use him but I guess the writers decided they wanted to be real stingy about revealing that Roxas was a part of the Organization. Keep in mind that this game came out before 358/2 Days, so that isn’t information we’d usually have going in, but that doesn’t really justify the bad storytelling.
The next big issue of the opening sequence regards Hayner, Pence and Olette. I think everyone who’s played the game expected these three to be here and they really are just total non-characters. In any given scene they’re either completely bland, just there to be Roxas’ friends, or way too on the nose with their analogies. “Maybe the thief wants to steal the real Roxas!”, “We can’t be together forever,” yeah, I wonder. I feel like these characters would have been better if they were actually just one character who has all of their singular traits. You can make something three-dimensional with enough two-dimensional shapes, after all.
The most upsetting thing about these three is the fact that I can’t even say their dullness doesn’t make sense. They’re data, they literally do exist just to be Roxas’ friends and DiZ or Naminé can presumably make them say things that hint towards what’s actually going on. I don’t know why they would but it’s a possibility. My problem with it, though, is the fact that they are based on real equivalents. Just gives me the message that the actual Hayner, Pence and Olette are exactly this bland as well. In this case, making characters so bare feels less like thematic cohesiveness and more like laziness. If they were more like characters then I could care more when Roxas does inevitably have to be separated form them.
While we’re on the subject of the Twilight Town residents, I have to talk about Seifer, Fujin and Raijin as well. Seifer in particular is such an important character in the game he’s from, only to be used here as a generic bully. He literally only exists to be this immature boy who’s constantly trying to one-up the main character gang. It’s a complete disservice to the character as he was originally and I think it would have been much better to just use another group of generic original characters. If you’re going to use these generic tropes, don’t slap them onto preexisting characters who could be represented so much better. Vivi also ranged from being not a character to a puppet, which is another huge disservice. They make Vivi a melee fighter! Vivi, the character who is designed to resemble a token black mage! Unbelievable.
Another gripe I have regards the fact that Roxas has to entirely return to Sora for the latter to be whole again. I made my own reason for it in my Chain of Memories amendment in the idea that Sora could easily become a Heartless again so long as his Nobody is separate from him but nothing like that is really presented here. I understand that some of Sora’s memories got implanted into Roxas during and after the events of Chain of Memories and now they need to be extracted again. However, I would think that just means that Sora and Roxas only need to go back to the states they were in before that game. Sora seemed fine before his memories were altered, well enough to defeat Ansem at least, and Roxas ‘existed’ before then as well. I don’t see why Roxas has to disappear here from the knowledge that’s been given to us. I might be willing to overlook something like this in a another story but Kingdom Hearts has all the time in the world to throw around convoluted nonsense so I would like to think they’d fit in a proper explanation somewhere. This lack of understanding once again lessens what should be an emotional impact when Roxas returns to Sora. I will say that I think this opening sequence is head and shoulders above that of the first game but there’s still a lot of ways it could be better.
- The irrelevance of the Disney worlds – The Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts I were surprising in how much they were actually integrated into the overall narrative. Between the Disney villain alliance and the Princesses of Heart plotline, the various worlds became a part of the story that couldn’t just be ignored. This is not the case in Kingdom Hearts II. I can’t really blame the narrative team for this because I’m fairly certain that the worlds were picked based on two criteria. The first is that each Disney world must have a romantic couple for Sora to look at and be like “man I sure wish I could kiss Kairi”.
That isn’t a joke, every single Disney world that isn’t Space Paranoids has a scene dedicated to a Disney couple being together. Mulan and Shang, Beast and Belle, Will and Elizabeth, Hercules and Megara, Ariel and Eric, Aladdin and Jasmine, Jack and Sally and Simba and Nala. Heck, you could even make an argument for Cloud and Aerith in Hollow Bastion. I’m fairly certain this is meant to pair with the theme of doubts and frustrations as the message that you can overcome such things with the help of those important to you. That or it is just some very two-dimensional set-up for Sora and Roxas getting to be together with Kairi and Naminé in the end.
The other criteria I’m pretty sure was just “what would be a cool and unique place for Sora & co. to visit” rather than “what would make for the best narrative”. Again, not something I can blame the narrative team for seeing as this is a video game. I do still think that the Disney worlds could be implemented into the narrative, though, so I will go over each of them in the rewrite section.
- Maleficent – The first of two characters who are so very almost there but just not quite. To start off, Maleficent revives near the beginning of the game in a way that entirely cannot be justified. I will make the statement that Maleficent has to be revived for the first half of this game to work. Even though there’s no fight with her, she raises the stakes on the battle for Hollow Bastion simply by being there. I know there are people who don’t believe she should have come back at all but I do think she adds more than she takes away to the story. The revival itself isn’t a problem, it’s how it’s done. From what’s said in the cutscene, it seems like Maleficent is able to revive herself if others remember her. Presumably, this happens over time or she would have just revived instantly, though she basically pops up immediately the moment the three good fairies think about her. It feels rushed just for the sake of getting her back into the narrative as quickly as possible and it’s just really underwhelming. In the first place, Maleficent was overshadowed by Ansem before she was killed in the first game, so you’re going to have to do a lot to make her revival feel impressive. It is not, in fact, an excuse to bring her back in the most lazy way possible.
Once the second half of the game hits and the Organization gains control of the Heartless, Maleficient immediately shifts sides. There’s no transition at all, Maleficent goes from “Heartless! Ignore those white husks and attack the key bearer!” to sacrificing herself for Sora within the events of the battle for Hollow Bastion. I guess there’s really no risk on her end if she can revive through memory but it’s still such a jarring heel-face turn. Not made any better by the fact that her self-sacrifice doesn’t even do anything in the scene where she does it. Once again, though, I can see what this adds to the story. It’s not a hard analysis to make, it’s a standard fighting a greater enemy-type scenario and it helps to make the Organization feel even more dangerous. They could have played into the fact that the Heartless turned to ally with the Organization and use that to make Maleficent need Sora’s help rather than making her out to be this selfless figure. Make it clearer that she’s acting for the sake of her own goals, aiming to use Sora as her new lackey since the Heartless were wretched from her command. Such a minor change could make her character feel a lot better and it’s frustrating.
What makes things even less forgivable is the fact that they make the same mistake again! At the end of the game, Maleficent stands between the protagonist group and a wave of Heartless that was spawned by Xemnas’ Kingdom Hearts. She doesn’t have to do this and she definitely shouldn’t do this, there’s no gain in trying to make Maleficent out to be redeemable in any way. Leave Donald, Goofy and Mickey behind to fight the Heartless swarm, give the Disney trio a cool moment to act together instead of creating a heroic image for who should be an irreconcilable villain. This second stupid moment makes even less sense than her stand against Saix because she presumably still want the Heartless to be her army. Why is she going about the business of fighting her own army? It’s unknowable.
- Kairi – The other character who is very close to good but only barely doesn’t hit the mark. Kairi is portrayed as a lot more independent and proactive in this game which is super cool, it shows how she’s changed and developed in the time we haven’t seen her. Sora and Riku haven’t been around for at least a year so she’s become more capable and self-sufficient This would be great, if only she weren’t punished literally every time she faces danger. When she leaves Destiny Isles to go looking for the boys she gets kidnapped by Axel, and then double kidnapped by Saix, thus turning her into just a damsel in distress. The plot then necessitates Sora finding both Riku and Kairi again. This puts us back where we were throughout the first game. It’s one step forward and two steps back, I’d say.
The next time Kairi faces danger, she leaps towards a Sora who is struggling against a horde of enemies. She displays bravery and selflessness and is instantly swarmed by Heartless and needs saving. It’s like the narrative is insistent on turning her into a damsel. Why could her Keyblade have not manifested here as a response to her putting herself in danger for Sora’s sake? Why is her Keyblade instead just handed to her by Riku, who just so happened to have a spare flowers Keyblade in his inventory apparently? It’s just so disappointing. I’m getting Orihime flashbacks here Nomura, c’mon.
- The Goofy death scene – I have to talk about this. There is no getting around this, I absolutely have to discuss the single worst scene in the game. The scene where Sora, Donald and Mickey are absolutely convinced that Goofy was killed by a random falling rock. Keep in mind, this scene happens right after the party defeats Demyx, the first Organization member that they overcome in the story. Goofy survived this encounter and he has survived other massive fights, like the battle with Ansem for example. You then mean to tell me that he could be killed by a not-that-big rock. I feel like I cannot fully express just how idiotic that is. Demyx was right there, why not have him bring Goofy to near-death? It would have made the first Organization battle of the game even more memorable and it would have been a great way to build up Sora’s manipulated-into-frustration plot. What makes this even worse is that Goofy is fine in literally the very next cutscene. Was this meant to be a joke? A fun Disney haha? In the middle of the big war in Hollow Bastion, which most of the game has been building up to? They could have at least waited until after the battle of 1,000 Heartless to reveal that he’s alright but we don’t even get that. Nothing is gained from this moment, it’s a complete waste of time. In fact, I would say it takes away from the battle that preceded it. An absolutely awful moment that I cannot run through the mud deep enough.
- Riku looking like Ansem – A very specific gripe but one I take a lot of issue with. I do not like that Riku’s form changed to look like Ansem due to his struggle against Roxas at all. Ansem may have been the one who introduced the darkness to Riku’s heart but he’s also an enemy that Riku already overcame. He made the darkness his own in Chain of Memories, that was the point of his entire arc in that game and just making him look like Ansem feels like doubling back on that. I’m left with the impression that the Ansem form was used for nothing more than some cheap shock factor. I personally would have much preferred a form resembling Riku’s own Heartless, an anti-Riku of sorts. So visibly on the edge of becoming a Heartless and even willing to do so if it means saving his friends. Instead he’s… just… Ansem.
Then, he suddenly isn’t Ansem because Xemnas’ Kingdom Hearts exploding makes him better! Therefore making it all pointless anyways! Riku talks about needing the power of darkness to finish the fight against the Organization but he could use the darkness before he transformed and he still uses darkness after he turns back. It makes no sense! On top of that, despite his claims of needing the form’s power, we don’t even get to see him fight using it. I would have at least liked for him to get a shot at fighting Saix alongside Sora. In fact, while we’re at it, let Kairi be a part of that battle, too! Both of them were antagonized by Saix at some point so they deserve a chance to wail on him while they have the means to. For as big a role he plays in the plot, Saix’s fight isn’t nearly as memorable as it could have been. Imagine how much more hype would be generated if it were Sora, Riku and Kairi fighting him. Could have been so cool but Square couldn’t afford to code two more party member characters I guess.
Shockingly enough, I think a lot of the problems in this game can be fixed with some rather easy changes and more clear explanations. A lot of it doesn’t feel all that bad, the hardest part is going to be getting all of the Disney worlds in line. Let’s begin with the opening, which I’ve already offered some explanation for. Make it clearer why Roxas has been put in the data world and why he has to fully return to Sora at the end. The character himself and his arc are fine, in fact the latter is amazing, there’s just some elements here that need to become a little less vague. Next on the changelist are the data world characters.
I would remove either one or two of the Hayner, Pence, Olette trio and give the personality traits of those removed to whoever’s remaining. One of the big issues with this trio is that they’re just that, a trio. They can’t really be separated from each other, they’re only a character as a group of three. That’s why my initial suggestion was to just turn them into one best friend for Roxas to have, since you’d basically be getting the same effect from that one. They have to be made into individual characters who can stand on their own, if that happens then it’s easier for us to invest in them and get sad when Roxas is torn from them. Same with the Seifer gang, Fujin and Raijin aren’t characters. They practically don’t exist and the group as a whole is basically just a disservice to their original counterparts. Replace them with OCs, make them actual characters and we’re good. Vivi too, if that wasn’t clear.
To determine the role the Disney worlds should play, we have to understand the arc we want Sora to go through as he’s going to each of them. For the first half of the game, it’s preparation for the big battle in Hollow Bastion, but that’s difficult to tie into the various worlds. I’m going to push it a little bit and say that Sora’s first visits to the worlds should revolve around the idea of him becoming more responsible regarding his position as the Keyblade wielder. Even after everything that happened in the first game, Sora’s goal remains to find Riku and return home to his beach world. For lack of a better term, it’s like he doesn’t fully understand how key of a role he plays in the worlds. He doesn’t just save the worlds themselves but the individuals within them, he’s beyond the point of just going home and laying back like his adventure never began. He has a responsibility now, friends to visit and places to protect. A binding force who might be capable of bringing the worlds back together in a way that hasn’t been seen since they first split.
That responsibility feeds into the battle for Hollow Bastion because Sora’s never fought in a big war before. In a type of battle where he isn’t just responsible for his small group but for everyone who’s fighting on his side. That’s the role he must bear as the most effective warrior against the Heartless. He needs to be more of a leader, a guiding light, and those and the skills he has to gain throughout the Disney worlds. That makes Mulan’s world a good first step, where Sora finds himself in the middle of a war between the Chinese army and the Huns. There are no war-like battles in the world as it currently is but I would lean into that aspect more, seeing as there aren’t any PS2 hardware limitations on my typing fingers. The lamest part of this world I think is the fact that the Hun army is actually just Shan Yu and a bunch of Heartless so I would certainly make the Hun army more a thing. In a more war-like scenario I could even take advantage of the fact that Heartless can be made of the soldiers who fall in battle, thus making Shan Yu’s army exponentially stronger the longer any battle goes on. It could be a terrifying, overwhelming scenario- perhaps a little too much for the first Disney world, huh.
We then go to Beast’s world, the Beast himself being a character who bears responsibility for a lot of things. He’s responsible for his own monstrous form as well as the curse applied to his servants. He’s responsible for the rose that acts as his timer and he’s responsible for Belle, the princess of heart that he once allowed to be captured. All things considered, he’s spinning a lot of plates, not to mention the fact that he’s being directly manipulated by one of the Organization’s members; Xaldin. Darkness worms its way into Beast’s heart, the same Beast who survived his world being consumed by darkness thanks to his love for Belle, serving as a warning that none are safe from the darkness. One must remain vigilant and in control or else all that they hold responsibility for will come crashing down upon them.
Beast’s world is kinda lame because it feels like they backpedal a lot just so the movie plot can take place. In the last game, Beast already loved Belle enough to survive the destruction of his world, now it feels like he’s taken like 100 steps back. I feel like this world could have been made more interesting if Beast did fall to the darkness and split into a Heartless and Nobody but that might just be my own need for narrative spice. No better way to warn the protagonist about the burdens of responsibility by showing the ultimate price of failing to uphold it. Hey, the Enchantress must’ve been real confused when the world was taken by darkness, though.
Pooh’s world is not one I wish to cover in any depth. I do not want to go into the intricacies of how Pooh’s loss of memory plot is parallel to Roxas’ own situation at the beginning of the game. I won’t do it.
Olympus is pretty self-explanatory, this is the place where Sora would be learning the responsibility of being a hero. Learning that being a hero isn’t all glory and cheers, it’s difficult and tiring even for a demigod. A reminder to be humble because no one is invincible. Hercules being defeated by stress is so extremely relatable though. Sora already has the heart of a hero, he gave himself up for Kairi and he has the feat of taking down Ansem under his belt, it’s just a case of learning that heart can be worn down given enough time.
Disney Castle doesn’t actually really offer anything to the overall plot and Timeless River is more of a joke world than anything. It sends you down the road of a heart attack by introducing the possibility of a time travel plot (but there’s no way Kingdom Hearts would do that, right?) and then saved it by not taking itself seriously at all. I would say it’s thematically cohesive to tie something silly in with Disney Castle, seeing as the Disney element of Kingdom Hearts is meant to be more lighthearted than the rest of the plot. Just a fun, high-Disney time that I’m thankful didn’t go a direction that it could have.
Pirates of the Caribbean world, responsibilities of a captain. Specifically, a pirate captain. Some interesting lessons to be learned here, not the type you’d first expect from Kingdom Hearts. I’d actually want Sora to learn something like ‘not all games can be won through fair play’ or something along those lines. If you fight fairly then you’re just setting yourself up to lose everything to a cheater some ways down the line. If Barbossa is to serve any kind of example then if you lose everything in a battle then that means not just your crew but your life. It’s a good chance for Sora to learn how serious the situation he’s setting up for is. The upcoming battle won’t be easy, the reality of it is that people might actually die, and if he isn’t willing to put away his morals then he might be responsible for those deaths.
For as much as Atlantica is just a bad minigame world, it does add something fairly nice to the story. There’s no Heartless invading, it isn’t a big action world, it’s a place that’s actually seen long-term peace thanks to Sora’s actions. It actually gives the sense that everything Sora does isn’t just for naught, that peace can be brought to the worlds with enough effort. Some worlds are finding peace in the aftermath of everything and this is one of them. After a world like PotC, this could act as a refresher for Sora’s mentality, reminding him that not everything is dark and hopeless. It also does make sense to have a world focused on musicals when that’s been such an important aspect of Disney movies since forever. Doesn’t mean we have to like it, though.
Agrabah has the really weird plotline of Aladdin not taking Jafar’s lamp away from a merchant who found it because apparently being proper trumps the potential threat that lamp poses. It should be Aladdin’s responsibility as Jasmine’s husband to prevent such things from happening, I would imagine. Also, since he is close to Jasmine now, I don’t understand why he has to go to the cave of wonders to get treasure to buy the lamp. I would think that the message here should be prioritizing the greater good over social etiquette, especially on account of Aladdin’s origins as a street rat, but what do I know. We’ll just say that it’s a responsibility for danger that could pose a threat to the people at large and call it at that. It would absolutely be better if he went back to the cave of wonders to find a way of becoming a more suitable husband/leader for princess Jasmine by making himself seem less like he’s off the streets but we won’t mind that.
Halloween Town’s message would be responsibility for one’s actions, seeing as the whole idea is that Jack’s thoughtlessness could ruin Christmas. That one should admit their mistakes and use those mistakes to improve going onward. Somehow fit that in to the extremely boring Oogie revenge plot with a side of Maleficent wanting to destroy Christmas town because EVIL! I actually do have a better idea for what Halloween Town’s plot could have been. In the first game, I turned this world into a place where the Ansem reports and knowledge about the Heartless was core. It was a place to learn about some of the deeper elements of the plot, so I reckon it could be nice to do something similar here. Perhaps Dr. Finklestein could be experimenting with the idea of returning a Heartless to its Nobody and seeing what happens. The downfall could be something silly like using the wrong Heartless, either way it would be a new a refreshing idea. It would also act as foreshadowing for the reveal in Dream Drop Distance that if a Heartless and its equivalent Nobody are both defeated then the original person will return. Y’know, just so it isn’t coming out of nowhere.
Lion King, responsibility for the kingdom, easy enough. Not allowing people to be misled by rulers with harmful intentions and taking down such treacherous figures by whatever means necessary. The best thing about this world as it is is the fact that Scar actually does end up becoming a Heartless, though it isn’t really visually apparent nor does it produce a Nobody. Well, at least not as far as we know.
That’s the first half of the game, after this the battle in Hollow Bastion happens and we get our big payoff. Goofy is either brought to near-death by Demyx or doesn’t get knocked out at all and Maleficent doesn’t put herself in the way of Sora and Saix. Maleficent does end up saving Sora but only due to her need of allies in a time where her faction has been worn thread thin. She does this through teleportation and not by letting herself get eaten by Dusks. Then, we move on to the second half of the game, which regards frustrations and doubts. Sora is no closer to finding Riku, he knows that using the Keyblade is helping the Organization and he’s left wondering if this is the cycle he’ll be trapped in forever.
The revisits are simultaneously easier and much, much harder to summarize than the initial visits. The theme of doubts and frustrations is already so obviously present in the game that there are places where I don’t have to write them in. Examples are Beast’s frustrations due to his manipulation by Xaldin and Hercules’ doubt after his failure during the first trip to Olympus. Simba’s connections to this idea are also made pretty clear through Scar’s ghost. However, then you have worlds like Land of Dragons where Mulan’s arc is already over. She already revealed that she was a woman and became the hero of China. So, when we return there, it just feels kinda disconnected and like there’s nothing left. Sure, in that world Sora hears about Riku and that gives him a strand of hope among his own doubts but the world itself doesn’t add anything at all.
There are worlds that I can try to connect to Sora’s arc but even if I do it feels like a stretch. For example, I could say that the Heartless who takes the Aztec medallions in the Port Royal revisit is an analogy for Sora’s own greed. His want to both do good and slay the Heartless while also chasing after the Organization, two aims which are conflicting with each other. It doesn’t really work, though the idea of a Heartless making use of the PotC’s unique element in the cursed gold is admittedly really cool. Then there are some not-so-cool ideas like going back to Agrabah and fighting a really lame version of Jafar. Another character who could have been made more interesting if he were split into a Heartless and Nobody but I digress. I suppose it’s fair that Sora doesn’t have to develop in every single world he goes to but it is disappointing that some of these revisits do add so little to the overall plotline.
My next call to order is for the narrative to quit dunking on Kairi. I can forgive the initial kidnapping by Axel, just being more independent doesn’t mean she should be on the level of an Organization member. I’m way more upset about her getting dog-piled by fodder Heartless and needing Riku to both save her and hand her a Keyblade. It makes it feel like her achievement of becoming a Keyblade wielder isn’t her own, it was just something she was loaned. By someone who arguably couldn’t even wield a Keyblade at that point, even. Just let her be a cool character, that’s all I’m asking, if Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t give me badass Kairi then I’m gonna be real sad.
Change Riku’s appearance to be more Heartless but less Ansem. Let him and Kairi fight Saix alongside Sora. Cool Destiny Isles trio fight, makes the Saix battle way more sick and gives Riku and Kairi a chance to get back at this blue-haired bastard.
I think that’s about it. I would consider maybe having DiZ show up around the middle of the game, perhaps during the battle for Hollow Bastion, just as a reminder that he’s a real character and not some kind of hallucination. It would give him a chance to interact with some more characters and maybe make him a little more memorable come his demise later on. I don’t think I could push Xemnas’ character any further than it currently is, though I would very much like to. I just don’t think it would work that well seeing as this game is meant to be experience before Birth by Sleep. I think deeper Xemnas characterization would be better placed in Kingdom Hearts III, if such a sequel truly has to exist.
Much to the surprise of everyone, I actually think this game was written well. Pretty much every issue was minor or easily fixed apart from arguably the irrelevance of the Disney worlds. Even then, though, tying in the themes of those worlds to the overarching story is less of a necessity and more of a nice touch. I think the game well enough proved that by crafting an enjoyable plot despite how little the Disney worlds individually added. Any major problems I could conceivably think of, like how garbage a lot of the memory manipulation stuff is and how the Organization can only feel so threatening with so many of its members missing, are all products of Chain of Memories. That game was literally so bad that it also managed to be everything bad about this game. It’s impressive in a way, though I am certainly more impressed with the jump in writing quality this game displayed. Kingdom Hearts I had some good ideas but you had to dig to get to them. This game does a much better idea of putting its ideas forward and the writing benefits so much from the clarity gained by that. Even the opening sequence, which had to directly make up for the horrendous scene-setting done by Chain of Memories, managed to pull out some great storytelling between Roxas and Axel. I give the writing team for this game props and regards for making those 13 hours of cutscenes not totally unenjoyable. I’m just left with one question; how long is the Kingdom Hearts III cutscene movie going to be?