Kingdom Hearts 2
—> The following review will comment heavily on the events of 358/2 Days. Beware of spoilers.
Kingdom Hearts 2 is a bigger, bolder sequel that amps up the series’ characteristics in every level, bringing a more complex narrative and a more action packed gameplay. It has its obvious faults – at this point, it wouldn’t be Kingdom Hearts without them – but the game has its heart in the right place: the story it tells, although convoluted, is tragic and moving.
The plot follows Sora’s awakening after the events of Chain of Memories, and his fight against Organization XIII, which is trying to form Kingdom Hearts by collecting hearts released from monsters. He will travel through worlds based on a variety of Disney movies to help the people that are struggling there and unlock magical gates. However, in an excellent narrative move, the game doesn’t start with him, but with his counterpart, Roxas.
Picking his story from where the brilliant 358/2 Days left off, Roxas is now living in the peaceful Twilight Town, hanging out with his friends every day, enjoying his summer vacation, with no memories of who he truly is. The story begins with his group chasing a mysterious thief who is not only stealing things but also the words for them. As in the first game, the world presented here is already strange and fantastical from the outset.
In an excellent reference to 358/2 days, Roxa has to perform jobs and the days are counted as they pass. Although 358/2 Days was originally released after Kingdom Hearts 2, as the collection now too suggests, it is better to know its story before playing this game. Not having the knowledge regarding that game has its benefits, since a connection will then be formed between the player and Roxas – for both won’t know what is happening – but the dramatic irony of knowing beforehand that what Roxas is living is a lie, that he doesn’t have a heart, and that he is being used, establishes a more powerful connection to the character.
Roxas embodies perfectly the tragic nature of the creatures called Nobodies. They supposedly don’t have hearts, and so are unable to feel love, hate and sadness. They are shadows of their originals, with no purpose to their lives. Their organization, XIII, therefore, intends to form Kingdom Hearts so that they can acquire feelings and be whole again. They are beings lost by nature, in a desperate search for direction.
However, as the events of 358/2 Days showed, things are not that simple. Nobodies are not supposed to have feelings, but yet Roxas was able to grow close to two of his colleagues, Axel and Xion. They went every day to the top of a tower and ate ice cream together. Against all odds, against their supposed nature, they started to feel love towards each other: they became friends. But because of being doubles, their destiny was out of their hand. Xion ceased to exist, and Roxas was captured by Riku, who needed him to restore Sora’s memories.
With this knowledge, the events that kick-start Kingdom Hearts 2 may lose their mysterious aura, but become filled with pathos. The player knows that Roxas is walking to his demise, but is unable to change that. That way, it’s reinforced an ambivalent feeling towards the character: he doesn’t deserve to die – far from it – but his disappearance will mean that the hero, Sora, will be able to fight once more.
Watching him hanging out with his friends, Hayner, Ollete and Pence, is now a painful experience not because everything is mundane and boring, but because that friendship – for being an illusion – is cruel to Roxas. Roxas is a simple person, content with being close to the ones he cares about. But even that simple wish is denied to him. People tell him that he is not supposed to exist, that he’s just a part of another boy’s life, that everything that he feels is a lie. They deny him his friends. And, since the importance of friendship is one of the series main themes, that makes Roxas its most tragic figure.
Starting the game with him is so crucial to the narrative because it makes the player feel a great deal of empathy for the antagonists. Organization XIII may have cold, stoic members, but that is not their fault, it’s not their choice. And they are fighting precisely to change that. Yen Sid and DiZ both claim that because they have no hearts, they are just empty shells with no right even to exist, “doomed to fade away into darkness.” They should be purged, if DiZ has any say on the matter. However, there is Roxas there, feeling pain, love, anger and loneliness. There is Axel, wanting nothing more than being reunited with his friend, saying “He made me feel like I had a heart.” There is Xion, capable of self-sacrifice for what she believes is better for everyone. Yen Sid, Mickey’s teacher, and supposedly a source of wisdom and knowledge, say these feelings are a ruse. Roxas, Axel, and Xion beg to differ.
When the game goes back to focus on its protagonist, Sora, the narrative loses some of its strength. The Disney worlds are again wasted, having little to no impact on the main plot, although now their themes at least share more thematic resonance with the overarching story. Captain Barbossa, for example, doesn’t feel anything and seeks to change that – which he views as a curse – making him a direct double for the Nobodies’ plight. Ariel has her love to a man constantly denied by her father, while Beast and Belle’s love are put into question, both mirroring – even if a bit loosely – Roxas’ problems regarding his feelings being denied by DiZ. Meanwhile, Hercules, Simba and Mulan are all struggling with their identities as hero, leader and female warrior, which – also loosely – ties with Sora’s journey of self-discovery regarding his role as hero, and the sacrifices others have to make for that to happen.
The game’s story has some glaring problems, however. It is unnecessarily convoluted with some twists and revelations that do more harm than good, breaking the consistency of some of the series’ elements, besides being confusing as hell. Without naming anyone, of course, it’s revealed, for example, that a certain character wasn’t actually that character, but the heartless of another character, calling himself by the wrong name all along for reasons, and that the Nobody of that first character is also not the Nobody of that character, but of the other character, although his name is an anagram of the first character’s fake name, although all Nobodies have anagrams of their original counterparts. And this nonsense doesn’t even stop there, becoming more and more twisted as the story progresses. The conclusion, although emotional and efficient, also suffers from artificiality, since Roxas arch is tied with the wrong character, with a happy ending that feels forced and out of place. If the game had, instead, treated Roxas’ ending with the sadness it deserved, it would have been much more powerful.
But the game’s narrative has its good share of adrenaline-filled set-pieces to make up for that, with gigantic battles happening now and then, in a scope the series has not seen before. Some scenes even manage to be hilarious, sad and tense at the same time, as, for example, the “fake death” of a certain character before a climactic event: it’s tremendously funny because it’s illogical to think anyone would believe the thing is for real, but still filled to the brim with emotion because the characters all fall for it and become as angry as they are allowed to be in a Disney themed game – going to battle with fire in their eyes. The whole scene is not Kingdom Hearts at its best, but it’s definitely Kingdom Hearts at its most Kingdom Hearts: absurd, but moving.
Moving on from the narrative aspect of Kingdom Hearts 2 to its gameplay, it’s important to notice how the combat system is revamped to be more action-oriented than the first game. Levels and stats are not nearly as important as before, since Sora’s abilities are now tied to beating certain bosses and enemies. He has also gained what is called “forms”, which have their own abilities and combos. The combat is all about reading your enemies and knowing when to block, when to parry, when to dodge and when to attack. Stats matter a lot less than the player’s ability to perform combos and understand the monsters’ weaknesses. It’s a more dynamic and flashy combat system, with Sora performing visually complex attacks that require quick input from the player. The Final Mix version of the game has some exclusives bosses that will truly test the player’s mettle, requiring a good understanding of the game’s systems, such as the benefits and disadvantages of certain forms, the usefulness of some spells and the right time to block and dodge.
But Kingdom Heart 2 is still filled with questionable design decisions. The world based on The Lion King, for example, removes the complexities of the combat system and adds nothing in return, becoming a boring affair. Atlantica is now a bizarre minigame that is too easy and uninteresting: the player only needs to press the right button at the right time a certain number of times to succeed. It was a good idea to take advantage of the musical aspect of Disney’s creations, but the execution is certainly lackluster: everything is slow and off-beat. Keeping the Gummi Ship Stages is also problematic. Shorter and more action-packed, with a rotating camera that moves like in Star Fox, they are certainly more interesting than before, with the added benefit of looking like you are driving through actual space and not in the middle of a bad acid trip as in the first game. And there is the fact that the editor interface for the ships is not atrocious anymore. Overall, it’s definitely an improvement, but scrapping the idea altogether would have been much better: the stages still feel out of place and are not nearly as polished as in a Star Fox game, for example. They break the pace of the action, and are a constant annoyance at the beginning. At least, now, the exploration doesn’t reward gummy parts anymore, which makes exploring more relevant, but also highlights how the whole Gummi thing is an unnecessary ordeal.
Kingdom Hearts was always a series about ambivalence and so it’s perfect that the games themselves are also ambivalent in their qualities. The story in Kingdom Hearts 2 is complex in both a good and a bad way: developing tragic characters intertwined with philosophical discussions about “self” and the nature of emotions, but also bringing bizarre twists that do no more than turn things confusing. It has a strong combat system, but on-rails segments that have no reason to exist. It has a lot of Disney worlds, but they never matter too much narrative wise, although being thematically connected. So, in a nutshell, Kingdom Hearts 2 is one of the best Kingdom Hearts games to date – for better and for worse.
March 29, 2019.