In order to understand why I consider Kingdom Hearts 2 one of my greatest disappointments, some historical context is necessary. I buy the very first Kingdom Hearts game six months after its initial release, having at first passed it over as a baby game for silly babies in soiled diapers. A significantly less prejudiced friend had bought it and insisted we play it together. I was prepared to have myself a good laugh at what was sure to be Squares ultimate sell-out move of all time, and I did until the smarmy bastard started playing it when I wasn’t around and forced my hand into buying it so I could miss the no doubt VITAL plot elements of Halloween Town. I was mesmerized by this strange world were Donald Duck wielded the lightning like a vengeful, feathery God. To me this series along with Devil May Cry IS Playstation 2, games that molded my expectations of what a game for the console should be like (and we’ll see if I write about THAT series future the next time this theme rolls around).
Please don't be half as bad as I expect you to be.
Kingdom Hearts woved me with its graphics, its music and its deceptively interesting worlds, full of hidden little nooks and corners to explore. Back then I didn’t complain about things like a missing mini-map: I just learned to navigate the gameworld. Add to that a secret ending that blew my mid-teen mind with all the endless potential and awesome stuff it promised and Square had me hooked, had me spending day in and day out scouring the internet for any word of a sequel. What I got… was Chain of Memories.
And boy do I love Chain of Memories. To you nay-sayers already hitting the back-button, I welcome your slings and arrows. I won’t deny that the changes made to the battle system to accommodate the lower horse power of the GBA were jarring, or that the worlds were very bland or that their recycled stories were boring. But I can’t lie, at the time I found it a worthy “interquel” as they come. Don’t know if I’d still feel that way now, but back then I loved how it expanded Soras roster of attacks and spells and how the card-system forced you to limit what resources you brought into the field. You had your set and you better make sure it was built well enough to tackle whatever challenges came your way. Did you mix it up with healing items or spells? Did you go all in on offense? Switch between different pre-set decks for different situations, and you had a feature I could spend oh so much delightful time mixing and playing around with.
This screen. Bane of my spare times existence. Sweet mother of so much sweet loot.
And as bland as the “in-world” storyline was, the story taking place outside of it more than made up for that. The Organization wasn’t like the squabbling group of barely co-operating Disney villains. They had personal motivations, cool uniforms, (I was a teenager and hoodies and matrix-coats were cool, sue me) and seemed to be so much more personally involved in the plot than the Disney villains lackadaisical repeat performances, save of course Maleficent who is always awesome. These guys played Sora like a fiddle while plotting against each other, there were backstabbings and betrayals and sadistic bad-touchy villainy, and one of them was even a woman! And she did things! In a Kingdom Hearts game no less! (everyone screaming Birth By Sleep don’t worry I love Aqua too but still, come on)
And they weren’t the only ones going through interesting developments either, the heroes felt that much more interesting this time around. Donald and Goofy were valuable assets to Sora rather than just glorified meat-shields/potion banks. They balanced Soras naïve optimism with calm, easy-going maturity and cynical skepticism, not as his side-kicks, but as his friends. They were a team. And to top it all off they took Riku, who I couldn’t stop groaning at during the first game and made him likable! Mostly by relentlessly dumping in his face how DUMB he had been during the first game and what a tool he was, and while he paid for that and emo’d about it I was okay with it because holy hell, making Mickey Mouse the “Yoda” of the Kingdom Hearts-verse, surprisingly wise, affable AND powerful in the force was the best move they could have ever done.
Everybody chill- the mouse's got this.
Mickey helping Riku cheer up and move forward instead of moping around was the second most heart-warming part of Chain of Memories, next to finally rescuing Namine. They actually made me sympathize with a willowy maiden who just sat around waiting for a rescuer because she didn’t spend much screen-time whining about her predicament, she was surrounded by some seriously wicked child molesters AND when she had openings she did not fuck around- girl TOOK those suckers even if it meant giving a guy a metaphysical stroke (Riku Replica is the saddest replica ever get out Xion) because she had had enough of his stalkery ass. Add to that another mystery opening up (the ‘other side of Sora’ and the whole existence of DiZ) and how could I NOT be super-hella-ultra jazzed for Kingdom Hearts 2? I expected the rest of the Organization to be just as wily as these guys, the stakes to be raised that much higher and be that much more personal and moving, the twists to become even more twisted, the gameplay to be just as intriguing and offer as many interesting options as Chain of Memories, but with even more lush and detailed worlds than Kingdom Hearts 1, and for Donald, Goofy, Mickey and Riku to come together as an awesome team!
I got a game where some of the antagonists had less than five minutes screen time total.
I got a game where the prologue is the biggest fuck you to any player ever who just wants to enjoy a game about cartoon bros being cartoon bros.
I got a game where Sora runs around and whines, is manipulated by personality-less douches the game somehow expects me to feel SORRY for and swings between moods so wildly I wonder if the kids hadn’t gone schizo from the pressure of saving the universe. I got a game where triangle-button became the “win this battle” button. I got a game that utterly crushed my expectations… and you know what?
I want to thank Kingdom Hearts 2 for that.
This strange urge comes partially from the fact that somewhere along the line we must all meet with disappointment and betrayed expectations in order to properly harden our hearts to the world. There are plenty of things wrong or half-assed about Kingdom Hearts 2. The mechanics it introduces such as Drive are ill explained and end up underused, it heaps on abilities that you have no reason to use strategically as you can just equip everything and mash the attack buttons until the enemy is dead, the stages suffer from bland level design where you often just walk around on empty backdrops with no interactive parts (which prepared me for Final Fantasy XIII’s pretty but soulless corridors), none of the villains feel threatening or properly explained (why are the Disney villains back, why are they so useless, why do the Organization have so little screen-time etc)… and even if the game was easier to control and navigate, it was still a bland snooze-fest.
Whereas Kingdom Hearts 1 had been lighthearted but gradually building up to the mysterious and bizarre environments at the end by the journal excerpts one picked up here and there, and Chain of Memories started with us neck-deep in an amnesia mystery where every answer just seemed to lead deeper down the rabbit-hole, Kingdom Hearts 2 just felt like jumping around from dark to light to high to low with no sense of build-up, as its characters dialed up the melodrama without ever feeling like they earned it.
But… in one way, Kingdom Hearts 2 also taught me not to let my expectations run away with me. After Kingdom Hearts 1 and Chain of Memories I was expecting nothing less than a balls to the walls dramatic finale in which every character arc would come to fruition, every Gun putting a hole in Schrodingers forehead. Every story would be tied together and every gameplay element be brilliantly linked in a way that made them all necessary to win. I saw the scene where Donald and Goofy give Sora the thumbs up as they charge into a massive army of behemoths, drake and soldier heartless, and thought that was how the whole game was going to be like, and the final battle against whatever mysterious entity was pulling the strings of the Organization was going to involve every single Disney and Square hero and heroine charging balls to the walls into the mouth of darkness.
Kingdom Hearts 2 on the Playstation 2 was never going to be able to do all those things. I had heard a rumor that KH 1 was going to have the Disney princes saving their princesses alongside with Sora and thought they were saving that for 2, not realizing that was never gonna be an option due to Disney’s veto. The processing power of the PS2 was never going to be able to give me the Thousand Heartless battle my imagination craved. I thought the reason Sora could wield duel keyblades was because he was becoming stronger in “the force” and by the end he would have a veritable shield of Keyblades following him, but that turned out to be due to his convoluted connection with “other halves”, explained only in the portable console interquels and prequels. I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, the Gummiship was going to be like in Final Fantasy 6 and 7, a base in which we would gather allies and chat with them, perhaps have some kind of minigame where we could practice magic with Donald, combat with Goofy, minigames with a resident moogle, and the whole series would conclude in that installment. I was, in short expecting them to blow their entire creative load on Kingdom Hearts 2, and it was going to be best game ever.
This, but with two Keyblades tied together instead of nunchucks.
We didn’t get that. When I finished playing Kingdom hearts 2 I just sat down and asked myself “is that it?” Expect it wasn’t- Nomura was going to take this series on some of the craziest turns I’ve ever seen, spreading it out over every format known to man, and adapting and experimenting with the formula in order to fit it the best he could to that format. I can’t think of a series that’s done that before or since save the Mario franchise. I wanted something simple and straightforward, and Nomuras plans were anything but.
Some would say his decision to turn the franchise into his own personal Frankensteins monster has been to its detriment, that they cannot abide spending the kind of money they have to in order to follow the story and that so many unplanned installments have spread the storyline far past what it can support. All I can say is that I’ve liked some and disliked some, but in the end Nomura has made filthy amounts of money with the franchise seemingly without losing too much of the core audience, so whatever plan he has seems to be working just fine.
Now I still feel justified in calling Kingdom Hearts 2 a disappointment. The mood felt inconsistent, the story never grabbed me since the stakes never felt high enough to warrant the characters emotional drama and the combat was the epitome of style over substance: flashy but boring and far too simple. But it taught me things. It taught me that as you grow up, you will be disappointed and you will have to face those disappointments as they come. You can cling to the past and be angry about it, but in the end you’ll just hurt yourself by lingering on what could have been. In the end I took those disappointments and channeled them into something productive- shortly after Kingdom Hearts 2 I started participating in the fan-community and discussed why I disliked it, how I would have done things instead, and in those talks I was stimulated- I even saw counter-arguments that I took to heart. Nowadays I’m merrily channeling my creative sparks into my own writing and I’m all the happier for it. Kingdom Hearts 2 taught me to handle disappointment with grace, and gave me the insight that in the end, you always have the option to reject canon and substitute it with your own.
Which is why I’m currently writing my own cross-over fix-fic for Mass Effect 3 instead of throwing myself into a dead-horse debate, because hey- it may be silly, childish and awkward all around in case anyone here ever finds and reads it, but at least in this way... I'm having fun. It's my experience, I'll cheese it up if I want to.