Welcome to part four 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. Last week, I covered 2004's Chain of Memories, a decidedly experimental game in the series’ history. This week, it’s time for a deep dive into my favorite game in the franchise: Kingdom Hearts II.
As I was writing this piece, I realized that I had written over five pages in text whilst in the throes of passion over this beautiful game. Rather than force you all to sit through all of it at once, I made an executive decision to split my analysis of Kingdom Hearts II into two shorter halves - the second half will go up this Friday. For now, behold my analysis of the game’s prologue, one of the most divisive moments in the series’ history.
I have an ocean’s worth of feelings about Kingdom Hearts II.
It’s hard to contain myself when writing about this game. I want to write about the manner in which it deftly juggles its main plot elements with its integration of Disney properties. I want to write about the way it brings several long-running characters arcs to profoundly satisfying conclusions. I want to write about the Battle of the Thousand Heartless, and the Xehanort reveal, and the ending.
So I’m going to write about all of those things.
But first, we need to talk about the elephant in the room. We need to talk about one of the most iconic moments in Kingdom Hearts history, one of the best sub-stories the series has ever told - and one that’s divided members of the Kingdom Hearts fanbase for years.
We need to talk about the Prologue.
Back in 2005, when the game launched, fans who had been anticipating Kingdom Hearts II were stunned when the game opened not by picking up from the cliffhanger that ended Sora’s story in Chain of Memories, but rather by introducing a new protagonist entirely – Roxas, played to absolute wondrous perfection by Jesse McCartney. Roxas served as the player’s avatar for the game’s first few hours, as players were introduced to the new world of Twilight Town through the lens of what they were initially led to believe were the final few days of Roxas’ summer vacation with his friends, Hayner, Pence and Olette. Of course, as the prologue went on, it would be revealed that none of what we were seeing was exactly what it appeared to be – and Roxas’ story would end up dovetailing with Sora’s in more ways than one.
It’s a prologue that was met with a great deal of backlash when it was released. I’ve met many people over the years who rank the first game above its sequel solely because of the way Kingdom Hearts II opens – and it needs to be acknowledged that this opening is, in every way, shape and form, audacious. Due to the structure of Roxas’ story, Kingdom Hearts II spends hours denying the player a simple glimpse of a Disney character outside of a flashback to the events of the first game. For the game’s less hardcore audience, that basically meant that everyone who bought the game to spend some time with Mulan, Simba and Jack Sparrow had to sit through roughly two to three hours of narrative set-up through the eyes of a character they didn’t even know. I genuinely feel for those people – if you aren’t invested in the series’ lore, I imagine it can be a slog.
Personally? I feel that Kingdom Hearts II’s prologue has only gotten better with age. In fact, I’d go even farther and say that Roxas is, perhaps with the exception of Riku, the most fleshed-out character the series has ever produced – which is ironic given that so much of his personal growth and very existence is defined by his relationships with other characters.
KHII’s prologue plays out as a tragedy in six acts, each one depicting a day in the final week of Roxas’ “summer vacation”. The game begins by introducing us to Roxas and his group of friends as they navigate their interpersonal friendships and try to figure out the most exciting way to spend their final few days of freedom. However, it isn’t too long before the larger concerns of the Kingdom Hearts universe find their way to Roxas, as characters introduced in Chain of Memories such as Axel and Naminé slowly make their presence known in his world, and the player is introduced to the Nobodies – living husks left behind when a person becomes a Heartless.
Roxas serves as a fresh pair of eyes through which the player discovers an entirely new corner of the Kingdom Hearts universe, as he is eventually revealed to be not only a Nobody himself, but Sora’s Nobody. The decision to place the player in his shoes for the game’s opening hours accomplishes a variety of narrative tasks:
- Firstly, it allows the player to understand and empathize with the game’s villains, Organization XIII – their sole goal in existence is to re-attain hearts and become “people” again, and the emotional weight of their existential struggle is embodied best in Roxas, who, over the course of his six-day crucible, has to reckon with the fact that the entirety of his life is defined by his relationship to a boy he barely knows.
- Secondly, the fact that Roxas is as oblivious to his own nature as the player is for most of the prologue means that the player learns about Nobodies in lockstep with Roxas – the player absorbs all of the narrative context needed to understand the game’s new additions to the universe as their avatar does. It’s a handy way of delivering eons worth of exposition in a non-invasive manner.
- Thirdly, it raises a number of new questions, most of which would be summarily answered by the end of the game, but some of which would only find resolution in some of the series’ later titles. Over the course of the prologue, we learn that Roxas, prior to his time in Twilight Town, was a member of Organization XIII and seems to remember none of it. By the end of the prologue, the details of his time among the Organization still remain largely unexplained, raising questions: how did he end up in Twilight Town? What was his relationship with Axel, who possesses a burning desire to see Roxas return to the Organization with him? When did he encounter Riku, as he’s shown to have done in a flashback, and how did that battle end?
And finally, if the Prologue strikes your fancy, it absolutely emotionally annihilates you by its conclusion, as it’s revealed that this entire Twilight Town has been a digital simulation designed to comfortably ease Roxas into understanding the necessity of his impending “death”. It’s explained by Naminé and DiZ that Roxas’ existence is the only thing keeping Sora from waking up from the coma he was thrust into at the end of Chain of Memories – therefore, for Sora to live again, Roxas must reintegrate with him, and thus, lose his own sense of identity as he simply becomes part of Sora once more. By the end of the prologue, Roxas doesn’t seem to have truly embraced his fate – rather, he seems more resigned than anything else, despondent at his lack of an identity of his own. The moment that he fades away into nothing as Kingdom Hearts II’s title card finally appears onscreen is heart-rending – a profoundly tragic opening for anyone who walked into this game expecting fun time with Donald and Goofy.
That said, it can’t be denied that when Sora, Donald and Goofy finally emerge from their slumbers just seconds later, it’s a powerfully uplifting moment. After hours of misery and dread, there’s something about Sora – and Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of the character – that just injects an explosion of positivity into the room. Waking up from the year-long sleep that he willingly undertook at the end of Chain of Memories, his excitement to see his two friends completely overpowers his sense of confusion over the fact that he remembers nothing of what occurred in that game. The tragic undercurrent of the proceedings – that, in order for this joy-filled reunion to take place, Roxas had to die, and Sora doesn’t even know – is quickly swept away as Sora’s one-track mind leads him right back to his mission: find Riku and bring him home. Nothing else matters.
Especially not a Nobody.