McMillan’s Codex #32 by C.T. McMillan
Kingdom Hearts 2
The difference between Western and Japanese roleplaying games (RPG) is staggering. Where the former focuses on character growth and story arc, the latter prefers steadfastness of character. Both have their merits, but in terms of escapism, WRPGs give you more opportunities, whereas JRPGs tend to be restrictive. Before I discovered Elder Scrolls, I played Kingdom Hearts 2 (KH2), from the developers of Final Fantasy (FF). Even at 14, I noticed problems.
To the uninitiated, KH is a blend of FF and the Disney mythos. Some of the characters and settings are from The Lion King, Mulan, and many others. The worlds you visit include Space Paranoids, the Pride Lands, and Halloween Town, each a faithful recreation of their respective movies. Most of the player interactions are with Disney characters and the story has strong themes of friendship and purity of heart, something shared by the Japanese elements, which is, in my opinion, the game’s main problem.
Having watched a lot of anime and read a ton of manga, I would like to think I have an understanding of Japanese story tropes. There is always an air of moral ambiguity and dimension around the antagonists, a side that either justifies why they are villains or makes them good. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Liquid Ocelot wants to destroy the Patriot System, an AI that controls the war economy like an invisible Big Brother, and your mission is to stop him. Why? The characters argue the System is good for keeping the peace, but at the cost of wars to consume resources and maintain the status quo? In fact, most of the Metal Gear villains are more sympathetic than the heroes.
The villains of KH2, Organization XIII, are called Nobodies, the remains of people once they go Heartless (the shadow side of the soul made corporeal). XIII travels around the Worlds to create Heartless and gain the power of Kingdom Hearts (the sum of the good hearts released when Heartless are killed) in order to make themselves whole. You play Sora, who joins Donald and Goofy on a quest to stop the Nobodies by murdering them without question.
The Nobodies of XIII are people with the capacity to feel. The first one you meet, Axel, cries and has an emotional breakdown in his search for a friend. The only reason the Nobodies are considered bad is … we are told they are. Sure, they may not be whole in a spiritual sense, but they are humanlike and possess emotions. If you just told them they do not have to have hearts to be whole, such information would safe everyone a lot trouble. KH2 is like a Nicholas Sparks story where the characters do not communicate and are surprised when someone dies over a matter that could have been resolved over the phone.
For what it is, the story is not bad. There is a lot of detail to digest, and you will not understand unless you pay attention. The cast is large. A lot of these details are not important, but the Japanese tend to be very fond of their supporting characters and details. That being said, KH2 is a straightforward story about a hero trying to reconnect with his friends and save the world. Then you have the fusion of FF and Disney in a melting pot of East and West. The game is so out there and strange, and yet it finds a way to make sense.
The lack of character personalization is not as jarring an issue as one would think. Since JRPGs are more concerned about keeping their characters steadfast, the linearity of the narrative and lack of customization is too be expected. As a protagonist, Sora is well rounded and likable because he just wants to hang out with his friends. His appearance depends on your subjective response, and if you do not like him, then you simply won’t play the game.
Personalization has more of a practical use in JRPGs. KH2 is action-oriented, with combo-based, real-time combat. The weapon you use is called a Keyblade, which is exactly what it sounds like. As you progress you gain a new one, each with different effects. When you level up, you have access to abilities that modify your attacks and movements. There are a lot of options like a guard break, various aerial attacks, and some passive ones like scan where you can see enemy health bars as you fight. Choosing your abilities allows you to tailor the combat to be as effective as possible. Once you work out the perfect formula, fighting is very satisfying as you easily overtake the enemy. If you are thrown in to the air, there is an aerial recovery that will put you right back into combat without skipping a beat. The gameplay is as fun as it is gratifying.
While these elements are not necessarily congruent with the roleplaying genre, Kingdom Hearts 2 works better as a straightforward action adventure that can be enjoyed for its gameplay, wholesome themes, and creativity. Disneyphiles and Final Fantasy fans alike will find a lot to enjoy. The version I played was on the PlayStation 2, but there have been HD updates of the original games for last generation consoles, including the spinoffs. If any of the above interests you, consider picking up the updated editions.
C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer. He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.