A Look Back...
I never played Kingdom Hearts II when it was released almost ten years ago. At the time I was entering my teenage years and the whole concept of goofy JRPG characters saving the world(s) with Donald, Goofy, and Mickey seemed childish and uncool to me. I had played the first Kingdom Hearts, but I was a kid back then so of course I enjoyed it, I am too old for that stuff now, I thought to myself. Things have changed recently: three years ago I picked up Re:Coded for a flight on a whim and had a good time with it. A year after that I dug out my copy of Kingdom Hearts and enjoyed it. Now, with the upcoming release of Kingdom Hearts III I have found myself with a desire to play what I missed in my foolish teenage angst. I am ready to plug the gaping hole in my gaming history and play Kingdom Hearts II.
This article will chronicle my experience playing Kingdom Hearts II for the first time. I am playing it on the PS2 ( I don’t have a PS3 so I can’t experience 2.5 ReMix). I also watched a Let’s Play of Re:Chain of Memories so I would know the story.
Once Upon a Time
The game starts with a beautiful intro video and a rather confusing cutscene with two men in black coats speaking about unspecific pronouns. A kinda sorta recap of the first game follows in a dream sequence and our new protagonist Roxas wakes up from his dream about “him”. This “him” is Sora, the protagonist of the first game. However you will not be playing as Sora at the start of Kingdom Hearts II, you’re playing as Roxas. Who is Roxas, you might ask? Well the player doesn’t know at this point, but he looks a little like Sora and has the personality of a screen saver. The first world in the game is Twilight Town which did not appear in the first game. The town believes Roxas and his friends stole some photographs so they set off to clear their names. In the process of hunting for clues they discover the culprits are a new enemy called nobodies, basically the shell of someone left behind when they lose their heart (if this last sentence sounded ridiculous to you I understand). These Nobodies are only stealing photographs of Roxas, which is creepy. Roxas catches and beats up the nobodies, but we still have very little information about why they were taking the photos in the first place. After Roxas clears his name he does some mediocre jobs, conducts research for a school project, and dreams a bunch of stuff.
This whole section in Twilight Town is mediocre at best. It is slow, boring, and the only exciting things that happen are in Roxas’s dreams. Twilight Town is boring, but it’s redemption comes from making the rest of the game seem so much cooler. This isn’t odd for a RPG; many opening sections are similarly tedious: the player character makes a lot of money for no reason, he does a bunch of meaningless tasks that show off the basic mechanics of the game, and the opening town eventually gets destroyed setting up the rest of the game. Kingdom Hearts II mirrors this structure, but the game doesn’t do enoigh to make me care about the town. Twilight Town lacks personality or warmth. In a story sense this works because of the revelation that Twilight Town is a made-up world for Roxas to play in while Sora recovers is kinda interesting, but gameplay wise being in the town is boring and low-stakes.
The idea of Twilight Town is sound, it’s a contrast to the rest of the game, I just wished they shortened it significantly.
Okay, he doesn’t suck, he just sucks in comparison to Sora. Roxas is uninterested and bland. He doesn’t have any agency. Rarley seeming to care about what hes doing, Roxas makes me feel empty. If he doesn’t have any strong feelings about anything going on around him why should I? Any connections with the other denizens of Twilight Town he is supposed to have don’t feel real. Maybe this was intentional. Maybe it serves to contrast Roxas with Sora who has such a stong bon with his friends. Roxas isn’t game-ruining, he’s just boring, like the rest of Twilight Town. Roxas serves as a functional vehicle for the gameplay and plot to crawl through, but nothing more.
However, there is a purpose to this: the whole time playing in Twilight Town I couldn’t wait to play as Sora with his allies Donald and Goofy. You know you will play as them because they are on the box and in the opening cut scene! Twilight Town is like waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland, it isn’t fun waiting in line, but once you get on the ride you forget all about the line. When you finally do get to be Sora, it doesn’t disappoint. Sora feels, animates, emotes, and plays better than Roxas.
A nice little example of the differences between Roxas and Sora is the way both of them open chests. Roxas taps the top of a chest with his keyblade and it opens. A perfectly adequate way to open a chest, but nothing to write a blog about. Sora, on the other hand, does it with much more pizazz. His Keyblade lights up and he flips and spins the weapon before firmly bringing it down on top of the chest. The whole thing movement has more personality to it and makes you recognize that Sora is comfortable and confident with the keyblade. It’s a minor diffrence, but after playing for hours as the bland Roxas, I got very excited seeing Sora do this. The rest of Sora’s gameplay is similarly improves on Roxas. When Sora fights it feels faster and more playful, there are more flourishes and attitude to his movement and strikes. Watching Sora react to my commands brought a smile to my face. This is why I think the opening, although I never want to play through it again, is effective for first time players. The game is a bit of a slog during the opening hours; it isn’t bad, it just isn’t as much fun as the rest of the game. By having this bland set up it makes the rest of the game, or at least the parts I have gotten to, feel so much better and exciting. By being forced to play as Roxas the player sees how cool Sora is! By fighting alone against the Nobodies, we learn to appreciate Donald, Goofy, and the Disney allies later in the game. I don’t ever want to play the Twilight Town segment of KHII again, but I do think it belongs there because it makes the rest of the game better.
Expanding the Scope
The Kingdom Hearts games have always felt big; they are in essence games about traveling to a multitude of worlds and the never ending war between light and darkness in people’s hearts. The plot for the first game however, was pretty simple in comparison to the later games. It was about a boy who wanted to expand his horizons and see new places. In The process of doing this he stopped a few villains from conquering/destroying the universe. Sora succeeded; he saved the world(s) and saw some new stuff. Good Job! You win! I felt pretty satisfied at the end of the first game. I am not gonna wade into the argument about whether Kingdom Hearts was meant to be stand-alone game, but by Kingdom Hearts II Square was dead set on expanding the universe and creating a complex tale on a much more epic scale.
The amount of new characters Kingdom Hearts II introduces in the first 5 hour is a testament to Square’s desire to make the series into a more involved tale. We get a new (temporary) protagonist in Roxas, tons of new NPCS from Twilight Town, a host of villains the player may have never seen before in Organization XIII, and some mysterious wild-cards in Diz and the hooded figure with him. This is in contrast to KH1 which featured only a few new characters. Off the top of my head there was Riku, Ansem Seeker of Darkness, Kairi, and Sora. Everyone else the player could have seen before in either Final Fantasy games or Disney Movies. The player knew where all the pieces fit in the first Kingdom Hearts because all of the characters acted like their counterparts in other media. Kingdom Hearts II is able to add much more mystery to its plot by introducing so many new original characters.
In KH2, existing Disney character’s roles are pushed past their film characterizations as well: Yen Sid, Micky’s stern master from Fantasia, is relieved to be the mouse’s Keyblade master. This simple addition adds a lot to the lore of the series. The Keyblade now carries with it a tradition of masters and apprentices. It makes the whole Keyblade thing seem much older and mystic than when it was just Sora who had one. Yen Sid being a retired Keyblade master adds a history to the weapon and makes Sora inheritor to an ancient fight of light against darkness. From what I understand this is heavily expanded upon in Birth By Sleep, but that is for a different First Play.
Until Next Time...
I am only ten hours into the game and I plan on continuing this series until i finish the game. So far, despite my criticisms about Twilgiht Town i am really enjoying my time with the game. Look out for part 2 of this article series coming soon!