Kingdom Hearts II (Playstation 2)

A note going into this: I have not played the first Kingdom Hearts and my copy of it is in another state right now. As for why I jumped right into this instead of waiting for a chance to go through KH1 first, well, I wanted something shorter between Final Fantasy X and XII, and when I heard KH2 features Auron slugging it out with Hades, I just had to take a look.

And after going through it, I'm not exactly shaking in anticipation for a shot at the first game.

First of all, it takes three hours of bullshit to get into the actual game. Chasing down a photograph thief, goose hunts around town, grinding a skateboard minigame for enough money to advance the plot, and people banging on about summer vacation and Nobodies and Heartless and Sora and other shit I either didn't understand or care about. Also nice to see that Setzer has gone from piloting an airship against a mad god to trying to bribe a kid into throwing a Nerf bat match against him.

The actual game could charitably be called "scrappy". The combat, the story, the level structure, even the visuals, all of it a wreck of barely connected chaos. Core gameplay ranges from boring to infuriating because instead of giving you defensive manuevers like dashes and rolls, you're at the mercy of button prompts that might as well appear at random and then give you a hummingbird's heartbeat to press them assuming you don't get knocked into the air by some off-camera dipshit while waiting for a chance to counter the enemy you're locked onto, a block button with an awkward delay in when you press the button and when Sora actually gets his guard up, and automatic abilities that only seem to trigger when the game engine is in a good mood (i.e. dashing up to the enemy you're locked onto). The game also needed a way to interrupt your attacks so you're not locked into a Keyblade swing while the enemy is winding up an attack.

Combat mechanics appear to be designed with a platformer in mind, where the camera generally covers the entire field so you can see, for example, an enemy your character has their back to telegraphing their attack, or which direction a laser canon is firing from. But this is a third person hack-and-slasher where you can only see one section of the field. Having what is quite possibly the worst camera I've hassled with since Shadow of the Colossus and Sora's tendency to lock onto an enemy on the other side of the room over the one directly in front of him sure didn't help.

Port Royal (the Pirates of the Caribbean level) was especially horrendous. The enemies there have a gimmick where they're only vulnerable in moonlight, but because your attacks have knockback you're constantly pushing them into shadows. And since your attacks go right through them when they're in shadows, you can't push them back into the light. And when you try to lure them into the light, your idiot teammates hold them in the shadows like you're in Raid Finder with an especially incompetent tank.

And since I brought WoW into this, I just want to say that whenever Maleficent emit that sickly green haze while casting magic I thought "When did she sell her soul to Sargeras?"

Adding to the game's messiness is how it keeps changing its rules. The beginning of the Mulan level makes you collect orbs the enemies drop to fill meter that drains as fast as you gather orbs or else Game Over, but about halfway through it's abandoned and is never seen again, not that I'm complaining. Protection and escort missions are dumped on you at random. One boss is a guy with a guitar who at certain points in the fight starts spawning giant musical notes made out of water, and you have to kill a certain number of them in a certain amount of time or else get a Game Over because... reasons.

And there was one boss in the latter half of the game, the wind guy with the spears. The only way I could get near him without getting ripped apart was with the Beast's combination attack, and I was cursing at the game trying to figure out what it wanted from me (admittedly, when I first got to him it was two in the morning and I had a bad headache). What you're supposed to do is stand just out of range as he executes an attack while mashing the triangle button so that when the prompt appears you'll copy uses of a Dragoon-esque jump attack, then use those to damage him. The thing is, this attack absorbtion mechanic comes completely out of nowhere and isn't used anywhere else in the game. It's like somebody left the design documents out, then somebody else who thought Drawing spells out of enemies in Final Fantasy VIII needed a comeback inserted this for shits and giggles.

Some bosses later in the game take fucking forever to kill because of how long it takes to make them vulnerable, and how short their vulnerability period lasts. The reaper boss in the Port Royal revisit seems to be the brainchild of somebody who didn't think the common enemies were irritating enough. The "boss fight" with Shenzi, Bonzai, and Ed where you just chase them around a canyon while they do nothing to actually threaten you was a waste of time on par with Neverhood's Hall of Records. And I only discovered towards the end of the MCP fight in the TRON revisit that there seems to be a way to instantly knock out Sark, but it's still only temporary so you'll still need to do that several times during the fight, along with however many times you have to find a gap in the MCP's barrier or knock out a new one, then mash triangle to fire a beam while hearing that godforsaken "IS THIS THE BEST A USER CAN DO?" every ten fucking seconds. And for crying out loud game, how many times do I need to make Jafar dizzy by punching him in the stomach and spinning him by his genie tail? Making me do it six times while he pummels me with off-camera debris is just wasting my time.

And don't get me started on the awful rail shooter segments, or the singing minigame they use for the Little Mermaid world. And not just because this "Quickie" is already running on the long side.

If you're expecting me to call the game outrageously difficult, it's not. For all the cheap hits you take you have tons of HP to tank them and by the time your health gets low enough your MP will have recharged so you can fully heal yourself. I beat most of the bosses on my first try with good old fashioned brute force, and I'm pretty sure spear dude was the last time I died in the game. The game was like a swarm of gnats; it couldn't harm or defeat, only annoy.

Can I also complain about the visual design, or is that beating a dead horse since everybody already knows Tetsuya Nomura overdesigns the hell out of his characters? But even Lulu's belt dress in Final Fantasy X is sane compared to the crap in this game. Why does Pete have a zipper over his crotch? Besides the, um, creepy implication of its placement, wouldn't it chaffe the hell out of his sensitive bits? And why does Cloud having fucking bandages wrapped around his sword, and why weren't they sliced off the first time he hit something with it?

Sora, Donald, and Goofy retain their default looks for some levels while changing appearances to match other levels - turning into monsters in the Nightmare Before Christmas level, taking on a digitized look in the TRON level, etc. But for some reason this doesn't include Port Royal which features realistic humans and a duller palette, so it's like three characters in Casablanca showing up in full-color clown costumes.

When I heard it was Final Fantasy meets Disney, I was expecting actual crossovers. Like Red XIII meeting up with Simba to discuss their daddy issues, Faris and Mulan running into each other and thinking the other's a man, or at least have the Light Warriors running around the Steamboat Willie level (or would that make people think of 8-Bit Theater?). And if FF12 was released just a year or two earlier, Vaan and Aladdin could get into hijinx trying to steal the same trinket. But the only level where this is the case is Hercules' level, where he and Auron mirror each other as heroes who only see themselves as failures, plus Auron being dead means he gets tangled up with Hades. Funnily enough, it's also the only level where your extra party member is a Final Fantasy character; the last stretch of the game teams you up with a Kingdom Hearts original character and every other level teams you up with that Disney movie's main character. In fact, it's the only level outside of the two home base levels that even has a Final Fantasy character in it, so it feels weirdly out of place.

As for the rest of the levels, your first visit through them is usually a heavily watered down retelling of that world's movie, the exceptions being that Agrabah is based on Return of Jafar, Halloween Town is a pseudo-sequel, and Beast's Castle seems to be what Beast and Belle were up to before Gaston stormed the place. After you clear them all, you defend one of the home base levels alongside some of the blandest Final Fantasy characters the series has to offer (plus a blandified FF7 Cid), then you retread the Disney levels, in almost the same order, to deal with the Organization XIII chronies causing trouble. Again, Olympus is different as the retread has you retrieving an effigy of Auron that Hades imprisoned part of his soul in.

Let's talk a little more about Auron's appearance in this game. You know, the thing I came for? Imagine how miffed I was when the game let me run down two corridors and have a fight with Cerberus with him before he just disappears. You don't get him back until much later in the game, and only then for the boss fight against Hades where he's completely useless unless you're clairvoyant and reactivate all his abilities before exiting the party selection screen that pops up beforehand because the game disabled them during his downtime (I only found out about this later when I was testing levels to see which was best for grinding and was wondering why I couldn't use Bushido anymore. Though if you do know to turn them back on, he's a freaking monster in that fight). Then when that's done, you get a cinematic where Auron acts uncharacteristically snobbish. Also, while it was hilarious to see him hand fucking Hercules his ass one-handed... the people who made this were aware that he can use his left arm, right?

Actually, I looked on the Kingdom Hearts wiki and found out the first game's extra party members are all Disney characters. Now I'm left wondering what, um, favors Nomura had to perform to get this level to happen, and if Auron's sparse use in the level is because he couldn't upstage Hercules as part of the agreement. And given the warmer disposition he displays when nobody's looking, his bizarre attitude at the end was probably because somebody wanted him remolded into the Disney "tough guy with a soft heart who acts like a jerk to hide that" archetype.

And by Baast, the writing in this game. At best it's espousing Disney messages about the power of the heart and love and friendship and heroism comes from the heart and it's better to help others than ask for help and Auron's strife is what makes him strong and Dr. Finkelstein's invention was stealing Christmas presents because it wanted to know what joy was and Sora radiates so much positivity that it can even bleed into a program like TRON and other saccharine drivel that made me want to puke into a bucket. At worst, it's being one of the most incoherent game stories I've ever seen. I admit not having played the first game means I'm missing parts of the picture, but I'm sure that even if I had played KH1 this game's story would be nonsense. Initially the main antagonists are Pete and Maleficent who are trying to take over the Disney universe with their army of Heartless, which I understand is a person who's been consumed by negative emotions. But they gradually fade from the plot as it becomes about Organization XIII, who are a team of thirteen Nobodies, which is a person that gets created when another person gets turned into a Heartless, who I guess are actually responsible for the deluge of Heartless in the Disney worlds? And the main villain becomes this brillant professor friend of Mickey's, but then it turns out it's actually that guy's Nobody, but then it turns out it's actually that guy's apprentice's Nobody, but then it turns the guy we thought was the apprentice's Nobody is actually another character who got mutated by Darkness and the apprentice's Nobody is actually oh god my nose just started bleeding.

And while all this crap was being dumped on me, the same question kept running through my head: did the game really expect me to take this shit seriously when it was being explained by Mickey Mouse and Goofy?

Is there anything I can praise, or at least not bash about the game? Well, the soundtrack isn't half bad, although I'm hesitant to give it too much credit for that until I know how much of it is remixes of songs from their respective movies; I recognized a few songs like "This is Halloween" and "He's a Pirate", but most of it seemed original (and obviously the music for the Kingdom Hearts original levels is going to be new). Some bosses like the Hydra and Oogie Boogie have neat ideas that were ruined by the engine's jankiness. I enjoyed beating the hell out of Squall and Yuffie at the end of that one Underdome cup. Call me biased because of who the guest star is, but Olympus really does give a glimpse of what the game could have been had it been allowed to be the Disney/Final Fantasy crossover it was touted as instead of a Disney game with cameos from a handful of Final Fantasy characters. Auron was fun in what little time he got, and considering this game found a way to make Cid Highwind boring, I should just be happy they didn't screw him up that much. Even if it did make me die inside a little bit each time I heard him say "Sora."


Mulan (G)

Yeah, I guess Kingdom Hearts II put me in the mood for some Disney movies. If that was the intent of the game, well done, I suppose.

I've only seen Mulan once before, back when it first hit theaters. I remembered liking it but my memories of the actual film were dominated by what I had just seen reenacted in Kingdom Hearts II. Heck, I didn't even remember the cricket. The only thing I did remember was that Mulan was outed as a woman when she was injured and taken to the infirmary, and not when Mushu called her a girl within earshot of the Captain.

Mulan's intended message is "Women can, nay, should be more than baby factories" with brains over body and parental honor as additional themes, but spends most of its runtime being another war of the sexes story. And the tune of "I'll Make a Man Out of You" is nice, but the actual words are kind of shit.

It starts off slapsticky when Mulan trashes the matchmaker's house, but the scene where she steals her father's gear and runs off had some powerful imagery and music. Then Eddie Murphy as the dragon shows up and throws the emotion to the curb, where its later gets its teeth kicked out by the three comic relief soldiers. At least the three soldiers are consistently funny, but Mushu alternates between funny and irritating.

And I'm sure this is going to sound like a bizarre thing to complain about in a cartoon, but this movie's grasp on physics is distractingly loose. When the soldiers stop Mulan, her horse, and the Captain from falling off a cliff with a bit of rope tied to an arrow, instead of being tense or amazed all I could think was "Buuuuullshiiiiiiit!" If the force of gravity on a half-ton horse and two full-grown humans on it didn't yank them all off the cliff (or at least the arrow/rope out of their hands), it would have broken the rope. Later on eight men are trying to beat down the doors of the imperial palace with a stone statue five times their collective size, as if the thing was made of styrofoam. Again, I know this is animation, but that doesn't mean you can set your laws to Looney Tunes when you can't think of any other way to progress the story.

Something that surprised me was how much adult humor there was. Innuendo galore, the entire skinny dipping scene, and the full name of Mulan's male persona being "Fa Ping".


Aladdin (G)

A trend I've noticed with Disney movies ever since I did that quickie for The Princess and the Frog a few years back is they think it's enough just for a story to have a moral while forgetting how they convey that moral is just as, if not even more important. Mulan had that problem, and Aladdin is mired in it.

Yes, Aladdin is loaded with iconic imagery: the talking tiger cave, the intense carpet ride through lava and a crumbling cave, the catchy musical numbers with some huge set pieces to accompany them, a sword fight against a giant snake, and Robin Williams as the Genie. Visually and audially, it's a gorgeous film. Though I'm still not sure if the monkey or Iago is more annoying.

But the story has problems right from the start. Namely, why is Aladdin the only one who can enter the Cave of Wonders? Because literally the only reason given is "He's the hero of the movie, so shut up." It could have been as simple as having him be descended from one of the creators of the cave, but even that was too much for the writers to come up with. Or what if anyone could enter, but everybody else Jafar sent in got killed because they couldn't resist touching the forbidden treasure and Aladdin was the first person to reach the lamp? And speaking of that, even as a kid I wondered why, after being told to "touch nothing but the lamp," it was okay for Aladdin to touch the magic carpet. And here's something I hadn't noticed before: when Jasmine outs "Prince Ali" as the market boy and demands to know why he lied to her, how come she doesn't ask him why he's even alive, when Jafar said he'd had him executed earlier?

Aladdin wishes to be a prince, and the movie becomes about being yourself and not lying to people as Aladdin tries to cover up that he's really a thief. But, uh, Jafar really got to be a sorcerer and a genie when he wished for that, why isn't Aladdin really a prince? I think the message they wanted to convey wasn't "Aladdin shouldn't pretend to be a prince" but "Aladdin shouldn't pretend to be Prince Ali, i.e. another person altogether" but it's not conveyed well. Especially when the end rolls around and Genie offers to turn him into a prince again for his third wish. What, did the first time not count and the second time would be for reals? Maybe when Jafar used his sorcerer powers to change Aladdin's clothes back into a those of a thief he somehow undid Aladdin's wish, but it seems weird that a sorcerer's magic can overwrite a genie's.

I'm also wondering why, instead of having this dilemma of whether Aladdin should use his last wish to be a prince again or to free Genie, Jasmine couldn't take the lamp, wish for Aladdin to be a prince again, then hand it back for Aladdin to free Genie.

I guess that's what happens when you treat your stories as skeletons for A/V porn.


The Return of Jafar (G)

This has always been my least favorite of the three Aladdin movies, although calling this a movie is a bit generous as it's really just a pilot for the TV show. The story is dull and has little purpose beyond setting up the TV series and adding Iago to the main cast. The movie rehashes "Arabian Nights", and the four new songs are tuneless trash on par with that calendar RiffTrax short (don't ask) with 1.5 of them being given to Gilbert Gottfried. Because that's a voice we all wanted put to music, right?

And if you thought the Genies' rules were inconsistent in the first movie, just try pulling some sense out of them after this. Aladdin had to use up one of his three wishes to be rescued from drowning, but Jafar is free to stop Aladdin from going splat among some jagged rocks, conjure flying horses, and offer a bunch of treasure to Abis Mal in exchange for a different wish. Apparently the genie is also free to interpret its master's wishes as it likes... which I guess would explain why Aladdin wasn't *really* a prince in the first movie, if Genie decided "I wish you to make me a prince" meant "I only want to look like a prince." And if a genie dies when its lamp is destroyed, why they didn't just destroy Jafar's lamp at the end of the first movie instead of launching it into the desert?

I guess overall it's far more forgettable than offensive. But the only slightly positive things I can say about it are that Jason Alexander as Abis Mal got a few chuckles, and the animation, while obviously a downgrade from its predecessor, is at least better than the music.