I first played Kingdom Hearts II on the PlayStation 2 when it launched in 2005. It was among the first exclusive to Playstation franchises I had played since adding the first not-Nintendo-platform to my home. I was new to the console, I had a long period of disconnect from Disney, and I was new to RPGs, the most complex of which I had played up to that point being the Paper Mario franchise, and I had never played a Square Enix game before, despite knowing the cultural significance of the Final Fantasy franchise and its most popular characters. Statistically, all roads pointed 14 year old Evan in every direction away from Kingdom Hearts, but there were a lot of other kids that absolutely adored this franchise, and it’d been recommended for quite some time, so trying one of them was inevitable.
If I recall correctly, the initial draw for me to trying Kingdom Hearts II was a tie-in to Pirates of the Caribbean, at a time where Curse of the Black Pearl was new and still pretty hype. Additionally, watching anime series like Fullmetal Alchemist and Inuyasha on Adult Swim made obscure, convoluted japanese storytelling feel a lot more accessible.
Back when Hollywood Video and Game Crazy still existed, I had done plenty of renting of PlayStation titles once I owned a PS2 Slim in the winter of 2005, and struck gold with findings like Fumito Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus among others in the PS2 gold mine. The track record of picking up quality titles based on praise and glimpses in GamePro magazine continued when noticing Mickey Mouse in an edgy black hoodie on the cover of Kingdom Hearts II, despite the fact that I was a boy as adamant about only liking Nickelodeon cartoons as much as a Coke drinker dunks on Pepsi. Yeah, being a boy in the early 2000’s was weird. There was a lot misplaced masculinity complexes projected into fart jokes and green slime, and if caught dead watching any tame “lesser” content on Disney there was a feeling like I should be wearing a diaper and going on a cheap stinky Disney cruise to the Bahamas where everyone is all fake smiles, kind of creepy and drunk.
Despite having no context of the events of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the GameBoy Advance at this point, I dove into Kingdom Hearts II and the Twilight Town prologue with Jesse McCartney as the nobody, Roxas. While progressing through the metaphysical, existential trip with equal confusion alongside him, the game slowly pieces together just who Sora is, how he met Donald, Goofy and King Mickey Mouse, what a Heartless is, and what the heck is an Ansem and just what is inside of Kingdom Hearts, anyway? (Only the really die hard fans who stuck with this series will understand these details, a point I’ll touch on late when discussing the rest of the franchise.)
Without the context of the “chosen Keyblade wielder” and the events of Sora losing his memory in Castle Oblivion, Tetsuya Nomura conducts the opening of Kingdom Hearts II like some joyously joyless, JJ Abrams style, mystery box shenanigans as figures in black coats muse about an off screen hero, and a supposed lead character in Roxas broods along with the scoring by Yoko Shimomura. When the existential dread of Roxas’ story finally wraps after a debatably long first 3 hours, just about any player should have a grasp on the core gameplay of attacking, parrying, and magic usage so that, by the time Sora awakens, the tone abruptly shifts to a brighter one, a positive attitude I wasn’t used to in my video games apart from Mario and Zelda.
Memories of Disney
And as we put up with Donald’s petty squawking, we set off to discover the Disney worlds and their casts. It is here where the gameplay variety available to players opens up drastically.
I recall my first playthrough being one shared by many: visiting Disney worlds, mashing X to achieve victory, and uncovering the secret plans of Organization XIII and the true identity of Ansem, like a quality, but convoluted TV or web series that was the go-to example of a good crossover before the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever existed. The core remembrance of my first time around with Kingdom Hearts II is that of revitalizing the presence of Disney films in my life. Suddenly, the memories of The Lion King, Mulan, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast came crashing back in from my subconscious, scenes that I had buried from my bashful boyhood memory for being too “lame” or “boring” because young boys associate having, what is now known as, “the feels” while watching films as being something only meant for girls or “pansies” (unless we were connecting with Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, that may have been the exception).
Those “feels” were brought to light again, and within a couple months into 8th grade, I had made peace with the impact these films made on my childhood alongside Jurassic Park, Star Wars and the tales of Middle Earth. I rewatched those films of the Disney renaissance after rediscovering their distinctive narrative elements in some admittedly cheesy retelling with Sora, Donald and Goofy shoehorned in as supporting characters. It even pitched Disney films to me that I completely skipped or looked over like Hercules or The Nightmare Before Christmas that passed me by previously, and boy am I glad for Kingdom Hearts if only for blessing me with an obsession for Nightmare, alone. Bless you, Jack Skellington and your heart of solid calcium.
There’s a long list of impressionable media for any teenage boy whose life hurdle them toward high school, and I found myself becoming more engrossed in ones that would make me a bit more emotionally mature in some ways, and also immature in others (quite possibly culminating in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, but that’s a story for another day or maybe even another writer) but to have the purity of teenage angst be so effectively captured in Kingdom Hearts II with a Nobody who feels terrible about his place in the world, and spiteful of everything and everyone because fate has betrayed him and robbed his chance of being “somebody”, is a great entry point for kids like I was, who may have looked at it apprehensively.
Roxas finds an inner peace with his angst in supporting Sora for a greater good, ultimately making a selfless act to finish his narrative. It may have been the only way to get a teenage Evan in this game’s hooks and fully on board at all when jumping in with a totally childish goober like Sora. Easily, we can see Sora and Roxas being foils to one another like the conflict of childhood and teen years in the hearts of most young men. Apart from my self imposed subtext, however, it turns out the gameplay was richer than most games out at the time! Even if I didn’t realize just how much, until a long time had passed.
13 years later…
I’m a working man, damn it! And when I have spare time for games, it’s typically for demoing a new or unreleased game here on The Young Folks, and if it’s going to hook me, it’s because the gameplay mechanics are rock solid, and a great story if I’m going to even bother finishing it. In my spare time, however, I struck gold with the JRPG genre by falling in love with Persona 5 and NieR Automata in the past year, for example.
At about this point, the annual groundswell of the Kingdom Hearts III discussion was picking up yet again, as it had been briefly touched upon at past E3 and PSX events, and I hadn’t touched a Kingdom Hearts game apart from maybe glancing back at a copy of Dream Drop Distance for 3DS at GameStop in college, but decided to not buy it because, well, time, and the narrative had become notoriously borked by then.
This winter, however, for dirty cheap, I picked up Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix package for PlayStation 4 and dove back in, thinking I would casually pick away at the first couple games nostalgically, but most importantly Kingdom Hearts II.
At least until I ended up going to E3 2018 in sunny, smoggy Los Angeles, ended up playing the new Kingdom Hearts III for myself, and seeing all of these trailers and spin off tie ins confusing all non dedicated players of the franchise into a sinkhole of narrative puke.
When I returned home from E3 in June, I realized there was a hell of a lot to catch up on, and I decided I was going to try to dive back in and refresh myself on this series to discover what it was all about, to finish that playthrough of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix, and fill in the rest of the gaps afterwards.
As it turns out, I ended up becoming more enthralled with the gameplay, helped with the wonderful added features in the release of Final Mix to the west with additional challenges, boss fights and items.
Discovering just how much you can do is maddening, with customized magic commands like Reflega, Thundurga and Cura, allotting Sora literally every single AP boost slots, and accessory items galore for expanding incredible skills, defeating the Absent Silhouette, Data XIII and Mushroom XIII boss fights, and all the different technical ways to level up Drive Forms: Valor with physical hits, Wisdom with Heartless killed, Master with Drive orbs collected, Final with Nobodies killed and Limit is like, eh, kind of spammy.
Once I caught wind of the fact that KHII Final Mix had a great challenge of collecting certain items with a varied amount of gameplay to unlock the “Ultima Weapon,” I thought I may have the chance to finally defeat Sephiroth as a result, and take a stab at this “The Lingering Will” boss in the post game I’d heart so much about. Only one of those fights went well, by the way.
To achieve this Ultimate Keyblade, however, I took detours to complete the combat tournaments in Olympus, did some mini games with Winnie the Pooh, cleared all the musical chapters of *UGH* Atlantica *AAAAGGH*, found resources throughout the worlds, and collected one of each 60 item varieties in the game. Apart from the Little Mermaid sing-a-longs driving me mad for 40 minutes towards the end, I was astonished that there was not a heck of a lot of grinding needing to be done along the way to reach power level 99 and maximizing the Drive Forms, especially with the help of a variety of keyblades to use for every situation, including the Gull Wing received in Hollow Bastion, which multiplies your XP points by an impressive 100% when your health is low. This was a very rewarding chain of tasks to do, and because you can level up in so many different ways and locations, hacking at enemies stays varied and never gets obnoxiously boring. The efforts of leveling up also immediately gives players results with new incredible powers to the degree that when I finally went to defeat Xemnas, I could actually fly in the air. I didn’t even know that could happen back in 2005.
After a solid 40 hours into a nostalgic and gameplay rich playthrough, I was damn well ready to continue this journey deep diving into the lore, and once I finished KHII Final Mix, I immediately watched the cinematic summary of the Nintendo DS title 358/2 Days. This title would fill in the blanks of Roxas’ backstory, his friendship with Axel, and a girl named Xhion who holds all of Sora’s memories and creepily shares the same face as 3 other characters. The whole 2 hours was super off putting, if not somewhat intriguing for the unnecessary, self contained twists at least, but I shrugged off the unnecessary complication to the parts of II I’d seen before and moved along to the truly uncharted territories.
Lower on the list, the next in release order, I booted up the remaster of 2010’s PSP title, Birth By Sleep: Final Mix, and was immediately turned off by the change in gameplay like the D Link system, command gauges, drastic and changes to the UI. Because the game suggests you begin playing as the champion Terra, the game’s controls first appear to feel like a tank. In presentation value, the upscaling in general looks nice, but the wonky animations on Ven’s lip flapping and the duller than a butter knife voice acting made for a hard first impression. I know at least the gameplay will probably have minimal effect on Kingdom Hearts III based on the demo I played, but having discovered the stilted dialogue, and the fact that I would have to play it 3 times with 3 different characters and likely grind for points in a Mario Party rip off because, well, reasons, I had to wonder if it’d really be worth it to play through this game, or if I was just too far removed to be properly invested in a prequel like this.
At 1AM I suddenly realized I might have to skip it.
Within 3 hours time in a single night, I went from being certain I’d pick up the II.8 HD Remix disc to fill in the gaps, to writing it off completely.
Thanks to insanely talented YouTubers like King K, SuperButterBuns and the masterfully hilarious and super NSFW Clemps (I’m serious about that, but if you’re cool with it please watch him, holy crap, you will have such a good time), I feel like I don’t need to sink an additional 80 hours into this franchise to only be bored and confused by games that, from what I already recall of past reviews, don’t reach the same heights as Kingdom Hearts II. I’d rather those folks clue me in with their all-in passion for the series, and humorous commentary to boot.
At the very least, Kingdom Hearts II was impactful to me at two points in my life, first for emboldening my ability to be a positive person in my teen years. It set the stage for being, at least mostly, comfortable in my own skin, not necessarily with its broody Nobodies, but for rekindling the relationship I had with Disney in one stage of my life, and in another showing me the growth in which gameplay can evolve within a single playthrough.
Years later, I truly appreciate it for its masterful gameplay, and I can’t wait for III considering that it looks to be about the proper progression of that aspect, but from a narrative perspective, I have reached a point where I almost have to wonder if I’ll be more interested in understanding Aqua’s character and Terra/Xehanort’s baby face through the eyes of Sora, the same way I did about him through Roxas. All this is basically making me realize that I’d rather be the kind of player that insists on not knowing absolutely everything about everything in this franchise because… TMI man. This is true of big franchises in general, (see Lindsay Ellis’ take on the 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake, she hated it!) but the Kingdom Hearts franchise really takes the cake on over explaining so many things that didn’t even need it, that it makes even more layers of confusing things.
All I needed to hear was:
*SPOILERS FOR SEVERAL YEAR OLD GAMES ON PORTABLE CONSOLES, BTW*
“Oh, the real bad guy is Xehanort, and there’s about 5 versions of him so he can make sure he’s seen and created a Keyblade War, only 3 of which you’ve already know about, two of which you actually have defeated but probably not really, and there’s time travel.”
Nah, I’m outtie. See y’all in January, you can fill me in later.
Jokes aside, I may give Birth by Sleep one more attempt and just write off the narrative, but the way gaming has evolved, and my taste in them along with it, I’ve been spoiled for choice, and may find something that itches that Action RPG patch on my back with a completely different franchise by even Square Enix itself (looking at you, Octopath Traveler). There’s tons more for me to explore, and Kingdom Hearts, I realize all these years later, opened the gates for me to not only the Disney films of past, but the heights or RPG games I look forward to in the years to come, and no matter what happens between myself and this series, I have to thank Tetsuya Nomura for creating one of the few games to do more than one thing for me in a lifetime, which I feel will be a rarity in the games industry when all is said and done.