Welcome to part five of Kingdom Hearts in Review! Every Wednesday for the next several weeks, I’ll be publishing a series of comprehensive articles looking back on each individual Kingdom Hearts game, examining a variety of topics ranging from the historical contexts surrounding each game’s release to their gameplay mechanics, and (most often) their narrative arcs. Two days ago, I covered Kingdom Hearts II’s incredibly divisive prologue. I ended up having far more to say about the game, so, behold: a special Friday edition of Kingdom Hearts In Review. This part will tackle the rest of my favorite game in the entire series.
Kingdom Hearts, as a series, could have easily ended with Kingdom Hearts II.
This was a realization that struck me as I wrapped up my most recent playthrough of the game this past summer - Kingdom Hearts II, within the larger context of the series’ history, serves as the chronological end-point of a story arc that begins in the original Kingdom Hearts and continues in Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days. (The latter would be released four years after the launch of Kingdom Hearts II, but serves to fill in the blanks regarding several characters and plot points introduced in KHII’s story – I can’t wait to talk about it next week.) It brings the long-running saga of Sora’s search for Riku to a close, all-the-while deftly juggling the introductions of several new characters, Disney worlds, and an entirely new species of foe to the series’ lore. It’s by far the most “epic” adventure the series has ever produced, producing iconic battle sequences set to one of the series’ most stirring soundtracks – and all of these reasons and more are why, in my opinion, Kingdom Hearts II remains the standard by which all other games in the series are judged (and is easily one of my top five games of all time).
I’ve already spent a lot of time talking about the prologue, but that’s only because it’s so good. That said, Kingdom Hearts II succeeds on all fronts – especially when it comes to Disney. It’s hard to say what Tetsuya Nomura’s logic was when it came to picking the Disney worlds that would appear in KHII, but it’s safe to say that the choices made were some of the most inspired of the entire series. After keeping them at arm’s length for the majority of the original game, KHII finally introduces two of the most iconic Disney properties of the ‘90’s: Mulan and The Lion King. However, while that might have been expected, there are plenty of worlds in the game that seemed to come out of nowhere – worlds based on Tron, Steamboat Willie, and Pirates of the Caribbean came out of left-field, each world prompting the game to experiment with different senses of style and visual aesthetic.
This is one of Kingdom Hearts II’s greatest victories – each world feels unique in its own way, imbued with an individual sense of personality and charm. KHII’s worlds felt as though they had achieved a step forward in terms of allowing the player to be completely and utterly transported into the worlds of the films they were adapted from. Visiting Pride Rock with Simba and riding a Light Cycle across The Grid were emotionally powerful moments far superior to the occasionally hollow corridor-fests that made up certain worlds in the original Kingdom Hearts. On certain worlds, changes were even made to gameplay mechanics in order to reflect the reality of those Disney IP – in Port Royal, pirates couldn’t be damaged if they weren’t exposed to moonlight due to the curse of the Aztec Doubloons. In the Pride Lands, Sora turned into a lion, completely and utterly changing the style of combat on that world. These adaptations were logical successors to the original game’s take on Atlantica – just with far better execution.
There were moments, of course, where the game’s reach exceeded its grasp – the decision to do Pirates of the Caribbean was perhaps a decade ahead of its time, given that the PS2 wasn’t exactly a console best suited to rendering hyper-realistic visuals (I’m tremendously excited that the world is getting a second chance in Kingdom Hearts III). Additionally, the developers’ decision to include Atlantica not as a full-fledged explorable world but instead as a minigame-based musical adventure wasn’t received well by many fans, even if I might have personally enjoyed it. However, the positives far outweighed the negatives.
Kingdom Hearts II’s main plot arc slips into the background once Sora’s adventure across the galaxy begins, but it comes roaring back in full force at the game’s halfway point, in which Sora and company’s long battle with Maleficent and Pete comes to a shocking if temporary conclusion in Hollow Bastion. Following a reunion with King Mickey several games in the making in which he continues to be vague and noncommittal about explaining his previous whereabouts or those of Riku, the Heartless unleash a massive assault on the city of Hollow Bastion, forcing Sora and his comrades into action.
In cinematics, this gives the Final Fantasy characters a chance to shine in a largely Disney-dominated game. Leon, Cloud and Yuffie return from the first game, in addition to new characters such as Tifa, Yuna, Rikku and Paine. Even Sephiroth makes a brief appearance during the battle, although simply to taunt Cloud and allude to their shared background. Meanwhile, following an interlude in which Sora dispatches a member of Organization XIII and Goofy nearly dies from a falling rock to the head, the heroes come face-to-face with Xemnas, leader of Organization XIII.
And this meeting is where it happens.
This meeting is where the seeds are planted that will one day sprout and transform Kingdom Hearts’ main storyline into a nigh-inaccessible, virtually incomprehensible Gordian Knot that even the series’ most devoted fans will forever struggle to untangle.
For the sake of your amusement, I’m going to do my best to sum up the reveal right now. Wish me luck.
(Takes deep breath)
Mickey recognizes Xemnas as the Nobody of Xehanort, a scientist who served as an apprentice to a scholar by the name of Ansem the Wise. Xehanort would later rebel against his master with the aid of Ansem’s other apprentices and take Ansem’s name as his own. He would then later remove his own heart, along with those of the other apprentices. Xehanort’s Heartless would become Ansem, antagonist of the original Kingdom Hearts. His Nobody, Xemnas, would depart with the Nobodies of the other apprentices and start Organization XIII. Ansem the Wise would go into hiding and become DiZ, working to unravel Xemnas’ plans over the course of the next few years.
There. That is the simplest that the lore of this franchise will ever be again. Enjoy it. Just wait until we get to Birth By Sleep.
I think it’s somewhat amusing that, within the context of this reveal and its place in Kingdom Hearts II, the name “Xehanort” carries little weight. This game came out five years before the series’ definitive version of the character would eventually make his debut. In KHII, the name Xehanort is nothing more than a whisper – echoes of a dead man long passed. Xemnas responds to it with a shade of veiled amusement; when Mickey confronts him in earnest at Hollow Bastion, he reminisces upon the many years that have passed since he “abandoned” that name in favor of his current persona.
It’s a far cry from the state of Kingdom Hearts lore as it exists today – in which the name “Xehanort” has become to Kingdom Hearts what “Voldemort” became to Harry Potter. The reveal of Xemnas’ former life, in Kingdom Hearts II, seems to appear out of thin air – up to this point, Kingdom Hearts had been a series that seemed to be little concerned with its villains’ backgrounds. In the original game, Ansem was barely a character; rather, he was a couple of lines of vaguely menacing dialogue during the game’s introduction that were summarily forgotten about until he made his grand final-act return at Hollow Bastion. Marluxia, for all of his grand posturing in Chain of Memories, was similarly underwritten – he was a plot device designed to test Sora, and it’s telling that there were plenty of characters introduced in Chain of Memories who have gone on to leave far longer-lasting impressions than its core villain ever did. The only reason Ansem’s brief return in Reverse/Rebirth resonated at all was because of the effect that his presence had on Riku – but even then, he carried little menace in his own right.
With this track record in mind, the decision to give Xemnas a history with vague ties to Mickey was, at the time, surprising. And considering that it was a scene that received minimal follow-up during the game’s finale (more on that in a minute), one wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to question why it was ever included at all from a narrative standpoint. When divorced from the context of the series’ later entries, it feels like Nomura attempting to provide a one-word answer to some of Kingdom Hearts’ ongoing mysteries. Why did Ansem, famous scholar, turn to the dark side? Xehanort. Why is DiZ so vindictive towards the leader of Organization XIII? Xehanort. Who plunged Radiant Garden into darkness, transforming it into Hollow Bastion? Xehanort.
And once again, examining it solely from the lens of Kingdom Hearts II, it feels hollow, if only because Xemnas, A.K.A. “The Artist Formerly Known as Xehanort”, dismisses his former life out of hand. If the name doesn’t even carry weight to its former owner, why should it to us? Because Mickey Mouse is still reeling from this revelation? If that’s the only reason we should be invested, then that’s a hell of an emotional leap you’re asking your audience to make.
But of course, this one scene with this one reveal would turn out to be the most important scene in the entire history of the franchise. Because, as it turned out, Tetsuya Nomura wasn’t thinking about the character arcs that were featured most prominently in Kingdom Hearts II when he wrote this scene. He wasn’t thinking about how this would factor into the game’s final hours and the degree to which it would tie everything together.
No; rather, Nomura was playing the long game, planting a seed that would grow in due time. A single name: “Xehanort”, one that would go on to define the next solid decade of Kingdom Hearts content. A word that would go on to serve a number of purposes in a number of forms: character, verb, meme, etc. There would be later be an entire game dedicated to the tale of Xehanort, with a famous Vulcan tasked to bring him to life. He would become the fulcrum upon which the entirety of the series would hinge, a catalyst for all that had ever been and all that would ever be.
Encountering this scene for the first time, it’s your average plot development. Coming across it again during a replay of the entire series? It’s a scene that hits much harder, if only because you know how important Mickey’s realization is, even if Sora and his allies don’t quite understand it just yet.
To them, at that moment? He’s just a name.
The final chapter of Kingdom Hearts II – The World That Never Was – is one of my favorite conclusions to a video game I’ve ever experienced, partially because (in the moment) it feels like a conclusion. It’s certainly an ending of a kind, if not necessarily a definitive one.
Throughout the entirety of the original Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories, and KHII, Sora is driven by a singular mission, one that has driven him from world to world in pursuit of his ultimate goal. In the pursuit of this mission, he has met princes, witches, aliens, gods, mermaids and monsters. He has been swallowed by a whale, he has lost an entire year of his life to a coma, and perhaps most extremely, he has even died in the pursuit of this single, unifying goal. And finally, after over a chronological year of Sora’s life, Kingdom Hearts II, in its final moments, concludes the only way that it could have, as Sora finally reaches the end of the road and does exactly what he had always set out to do:
Bring Riku and Kairi home.
But it’s not an ending that comes without cost. Rather, it’s one that Sora and his friends need to earn, and every single narrative thread laid out over the past three games comes back into play in order to make that victory possible.
The first arc that Kingdom Hearts II brings to a close in spectacular fashion is none other than the redemption of Axel, whose first interaction with Sora in Chain of Memories set him on a path that, in hindsight, was only ever going to lead him to one place. Up to this moment in the game, Axel has been floating on the edges of KHII’s most significant happenings, having seceded from the spotlight following Roxas’ tragic sacrifice in the game’s prologue. The majority of his appearances have tracked his struggle to cope with the “death” of his best friend, and the reality that what remains of him lies within Sora, who continues to persist in his battle with the Organization. At one point, it appears that Axel has developed a plan – to capture Sora, once again turn him into a Heartless, and in doing so, return Roxas to the land of the living. He even kidnaps Kairi in order to lure Sora into a trap, placing her back in danger after all of the work that Sora did in Kingdom Hearts to return her to safety.
But at the end of the day, he can’t bring himself to do it.
As Sora crosses through a gateway en route to The World That Never Was, he is besieged by a horde of Nobodies intent on ensuring that he never makes it to the Organization. As things appear hopeless, Axel arrives, apologizing for his actions up to this point and choosing to assist Sora in combating his legion of oppressors. When it becomes clear that Sora stands no chance of making it through the gateway alive, Axel makes the only choice that he can – to save him (and by extension, Roxas), by immolating the entirety of the Nobody onslaught in a massive burst of flame. This ensures that Sora, Donald and Goofy make it to their destination.
The price is that Axel expends so much energy in the process that he can no longer sustain his form – expressing his desire to see his friend again in the beyond, he fades into nothingness, having sacrificed his own life for Sora’s. It’s a beautiful end for the character, who, perhaps more than any other character save Roxas, demonstrates that the Organization’s belief that Nobodies lack the capability to love is one with no merit. Sora, at that point, can’t understand Axel’s actions – but he feels the weight of his loss nonetheless.
The second character whose storyline comes to a close in this game is one of its lesser-developed ones: DiZ, whose mission of vengeance finally leads him to reunite with King Mickey as his identity is revealed at last. Revealing himself as Ansem the Wise, he unspools his grand master plan – to use a device to digitize the entirety of Xemnas’ artificial Kingdom Hearts, constructed from the hearts that Sora has been freeing throughout his war with the Heartless. However, in the midst of his endeavor, he learns that it’s a fool’s errand; the human heart is too complex to encode, much less thousands of them.
Ansem, in the face of this defeat, is a man who is struggling with the weight of everything he’s done to reach this point. His efforts to destroy Xemnas have cost Roxas his life, stripped Sora of his memories and forced Riku to succumb to the darkness he’s been battling for so long. And in this moment, as he realizes that it’s all been for nothing and his machine is about to explode, he apologizes to the two boys, begging Sora not to save him for fear that the impending blast will kill them all if he leaves.
And then the machine goes critical, imploding in a burst of light and releasing all of the encoded hearts back into the world. When the light fades, Ansem is nowhere to be seen.
This conclusion to Ansem’s story doesn’t land as strongly as it should in the moment, if only because the player barely has the context to understand the weight of his actions. Throughout Kingdom Hearts II, we witness him acting as DiZ only briefly; in that time, he expresses a troubling amount of prejudice towards Nobodies, disregarding Roxas and Naminé’s existences with little remorse while preparing to eagerly send the boy off to his demise. Later games would do a much better job of introducing us to the Ansem who existed prior to Xehanort’s machinations – the eager scholar who wanted to uncover the mysteries of the universe. In Kingdom Hearts II, however, his final act rings slightly hollow, but still ultimately succeeds thanks in large part to a grounding performance by the late Sir Christopher Lee.
And finally, while Axel and Ansem both found closure in a very definite sense, Kingdom Hearts’ most fully defined character found his own measure of peace – peace that, thankfully, didn’t come at the cost of his life.
I speak, of course, of Riku.
Since the moment he, Sora and Kairi all left Destiny Islands in the original Kingdom Hearts, Riku has spent the better part of the series grappling with his demons. He succumbed to the darkness willingly, after all, seeing it as the quickest route to power – his intentions were pure, but his methodology aided in the destruction of countless worlds and resulted in the suffering of untold amounts of people. Even after his reckoning at the end of Kingdom Hearts, he continued to fight his darker impulses in Chain of Memories, those impulses manifesting in the form of a remnant of Ansem that he later dispatched in a moment of profound catharsis.
However, Riku would eventually temporarily lose his battle with his inner darkness, as his fight with Roxas would push him to a limit where he would need to call upon Ansem’s power to win. Once again, there were good intentions involved – it was his defeat of Roxas that resulted in his being placed in the Twilight Town simulation and Sora’s subsequent revival. But as a result, Riku found himself permanently trapped in the form of Ansem, unwilling to return home due to fear of being judged for his moment of weakness.
Those fears were later unfounded, as, upon their reunion in The World That Never Was, Sora accepted Riku wholeheartedly, regardless of his flaws. And then, in his final moments, Ansem the Wise granted Riku an unexpected boon, as the burst of light from his encoding device cast away Ansem’s visage and returned Riku to his former self. It’s a profoundly emotional moment to see Sora, Riku and Kairi reunited in their own forms – and it’s a moment that comes just in time.
Perhaps the best scene in all of Kingdom Hearts II comes at the end of the game. Sora and Riku, having teamed up during the game’s final battle, have defeated Xemnas. The door to his artificial Kingdom Hearts has been closed – yet, with a cost, as Sora and Riku are now trapped in the Realm of Darkness with no way home. Resigned to their fates, they park themselves shoreside along the Dark Margin, a twisted beach we’ve seen numerous times throughout the game. Expecting that they might spend eternity in the Realm of Darkness, they ponder their fates, having a conversation that they’ve been putting off for far too long.
“To tell you the truth, Sora…” Riku admits, “I was jealous of you.”
Sora, befuddled: “What for?”
“I wished I could live life the way you do. Just following my heart.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got my share of problems too.”
Sora hesitates. “Like… wanting to be like you.”
Riku laughs. “Well, there is one advantage to being me. Something you could never imitate.”
Sora, genuinely interested: “What’s that?”
Riku, simply genuine: “Having you for a friend.”
In this moment, Sora relaxes – as though the unspoken competition between these two boys has finally come to a fulfilling close. He smiles.
“Then I guess… I’m okay the way I am. I’ve got something you could never imitate too.”
It’s at this point that a Kairi Ex Machina comes into play, as a message in a bottle that she sent at the beginning of the game finds its way to the two boys, the connections between their three hearts forging a new door back into the world of light. But by that point, their emotional journeys are already finished – Sora has triumphed over his own sense of self-doubt, saved his friend, and reunited the family he’s built for himself. And Riku has gained something even more valuable, finally dropping his guard and allowing himself to be vulnerable with the person whose respect he wants the most – in this sense, he’s finally re-entered the light.
And as the two wash up on the shores of the Destiny Islands and find themselves greeted by the love of those they hold most dear, the end of this game can’t possibly feel more definitive. After all, it ends in the only way it truly can, as the final two words of the game serve as the perfect coda to Sora’s long adventure.