The Mechanics of Kingdom Hearts II

It's no surprise that I'm a Kingdom Hearts fan. I love Disney, I love RPGs, and I love Final Fantasy! Of course I never played a Final Fantasy game until after Kingdom Hearts, but going back to experience the games KH featured only helped me like KH even more! It's just an enjoyable game series for me, and it's a series I have continued to discuss with friends as the years go by. The story of how I got into KH is actually pretty long and complicated, so I'm not going to focus on that today, but instead I figured I would take a look into something I never really gave much thought. Despite being such a big fan of Kingdom Hearts II, I never actually really paid much attention to the game's mechanics! In fact, it wasn't until lately that I realized just how deep the gameplay actually is, and how challenging the game is when it asks you to put your all into it. It's also a much more enjoyable experience, and has made me realize how special KH2 really was.

Now, as a disclaimer... I am NOT an expert on Kingdom Hearts II, nor do I know the ins and outs of it like the back of my hand. Again, despite it being one of my favorite games, I'm just now fully appreciating what it all had to offer. Of course that's also partly because growing up I didn't have access to Final Mix, but now that's no longer the case, and it makes a world of difference in the long run.

That being said...

As a teen playing KH2, I didn't know what I was doing. I hardly played any RPGs in general up until that point, AND I went into KH2 shortly after finishing KH1 (which I had assumed would be turn based). I really had no idea, and I ended up spending most of my time just hacking my way through every enemy and winning by luck. I knew that I needed to use Cure to heal myself and stay alive, but I also never really felt like I could die with how easy things were. I got destroyed the moment I tried playing Proud mode back then, and quickly gave up on doing another playthrough of the game because of that. So instead, I spent most of my time just grinding levels, and messing around on my normal mode save. Jump ahead to today however, and now I have finally completed a playthrough on Critical Mode, and have been forced to truly learn the game -- something I feel that Normal NEVER allows you to actually do.

Again, KH2 is easy on normal. You don't need to know much about the game's mechanics. Button mashing will beat most fights, and simply level grinding can overcome any challenge. On Critical Mode however? Not really going to work!

While KH2 does seem pretty basic at first glance, there's actually a lot that goes into it's battle system and gameplay in general. First of all, the choices you make at the start of the game will go on to determine how strong/weak you will be in different areas, and even control the order of what abilities you will learn. Being Critical Mode defense was the biggest deal for me, as you receive very little HP throughout the entire playthrough. By the end you only end up with 50% of the max health you would've had on Normal or Proud, and often there are attacks that will one shot kill you if you aren't looking. This even applies to normal enemies out in the world, and not just from bosses. 

There are abilities to help prevent you from getting comboed to death, or stop you at 1 HP when you take a critical blow -- but these become unlocked late into the playthrough IF you picked the right options. If not? You're going to struggle even more.

Abilities in Critical Mode

Now, getting back to your other abilities... Critical Mode starts you out with 80 AP, and a wide verity of abilities to instantly turn on and activate. These are the tools you need to survive and win, but only if you understand them and what they can do. Combos are different depending on if you are on the ground or in the air, and using abilities to extend or add to these combos can really help give you an edge; however, what keyblade you use also determines what you should be doing. Some keyblades continue to add to your air or ground combos, while others might stay away from physical attacking altogether, and focus more on magic. So really turning on different abilities as you see fit, and picking specific keyblades are really what you need to survive the game, but in general you want to activate everything you can... Or do you?

See, the game actually gets pretty tricky with it's abilities. There are so many, and some don't always play nice with others. Different finishing and attacking abilities might want to be swapped around if they don't fit with your play style, or match well with the enemies you are facing. But then, other abilities are ones you want, yet they aren't abilities for Sora himself -- they are party member abilities. The problem here? Donald and Goofy don't gain as much AP as Sora when leveling up, so the game forces you to decide which AP up items to give to who, and when you actually need them. This puts a whole other level onto party building in KH2, because now you have to decide if your support is more important than yourself, and how you will use said support. Both Donald and Goofy also have abilities that only activate when they aren't in the active party, so that's something you need to consider too -- who to replace, who to keep in, and what abilities you really need to have active when doing so. None of these are choices you really need to make in Normal mode.

On top of the abilities, you also have the different pieces of gear. Your equipment has a wide verity of effects, and often you'll want to change things up to give yourself an edge. 20% protection boosts to specific elements are nice, but maybe that's not something you will always need. 

Donald and Goofy have much more limiting slots than Sora, so their gear needs to be planned out even better, and many items can only be gained by using the crafting system in general. So not only do you need to think about what gear you want to use, but you need to figure out how to get said gear when you are able to. It's actually a lot more deep than I feel most people give it credit for.

When it comes to actually fighting, again, there's a lot of ways Sora can be customized so this is constantly evolving throughout the game. You have your basic air and ground strike attacks, but you also have different levels of magic and different kinds of magic to use. Different enemies react differently to each type, and often you'll need to figure out what to use and where. 

For example, one boss might rely on your ability to simply out last it, and to do so you may need to freeze it in it's tracks. (Pirate's second boss fight comes to mind.) Previously magic didn't seem too useful to me outside of heal, but it really can give you an edge if you use it right! Or rather, sometimes it just lets you simply survive.

Health management does play a big role in Critical Mode, as you die so quickly. While items and Cure help keep you going -- the Drive Forms also become key. Each has different stats and abilities assigned to them, and once again are best used in different situations. Activating a Drive Form will also recover your health and MP to max (as this game has an MP recharge bar), so sometimes pulling off a Drive at the right time will prevent you from dying, or give you the little extra boost you need to continue on. KH2 Final Mix added in the Limit Form which restores Sora to his Kingdom Hearts I skill set, and can be activated without party members. Not only can this form save Sora when he has no friends to help, but it can be leveled up to unlock the Dodge Roll ability that was missing from KH2 -- which leads us to another thing... Leveling up the forms!


Each form has a specific way to level it, and doing so increases Sora's abilities while also making the forms themselves stronger. Initially you'll have weaker forms that last for a short period of time, but eventually they'll reach a point where you can use them for extended lengths of time. Exploits (like returning to the world map, or NPC areas) can be used to recharge your gauges to keep your forms going, but eventually you won't even really need to use this. Once the forms have been upgraded, you can simply use them pretty much anytime you need -- as long as you don't over do it.

On the flip side, forms are a double edge sword. If you use them too much, you can turn into Sora's anti form, and basically turn to the dark side. This Drive has very strong skills attached to it as well, but you are unable to heal or revert from it on your own. This means you must SURVIVE as you take the offensive with your new found power. If you can't hold out until Sora reverts back so you can heal... Then you lose. So yeah, it's strong, but the risk of dying is much greater.

Boss fights in KH2 rely on your knowledge of the game, and each one is unique. Some require you to memorize patterns and figure out counters to attacks, while others test your reflexes and ask you to dodge or block (or even strike back) projectiles. 

The game doesn't tell you what you can or cannot do, and often it can take many retries before you realize what needs to be done. The reaction command system (which are special attacks triggered during fights) can often save you in some cases, but even their uses aren't always clear. Sure you do a flashy move, but what did it really accomplish? Often it's not always what you think. Same goes for party members, and Limit Break attacks. It uses up your MP to use one, but sometimes you're better off doing just that to finish a fight. Some fights require specific party members, and others it's really up to you on which party members you'd like to use. But again, this relates to your abilities you have equipped to them as well, and how you've decked out their equipment. There's a lot of freedom here, that's simply just overlooked. Sure, maybe you can brute force some things, but there will always come a time where this just isn't the option, and planning is what will make all the difference.

So Much More

Really, this is all just scratching the surface of the game. Different types of keyblades, gear, Drive forms, ability load-outs, party setups, gear, crafted items/gear, combos, finishing attacks, other abilities thrown in, magic, summons (which are also a thing of their own that I didn't explain above), Limit Break attacks, and more! This game has so many systems put in place, yet for most players it amounts to how fast they can mash the X button to kill the enemies around them. 

Playing through Critical Mode, I finally had to take a step back and actually understand how this game really works. It's not all about power and flashy attacks -- it's about using the tools you are given to get through it. The game never asks anything of you that is physically impossible, and it encourages you to keep trying until you find a solution to your problem. Sure, level grinding will help, but even that only gets you so far when you still die in a few hits. The real answer is, you have to improve yourself and actually learn why you are dying. Learn how to avoid and counter attacks, and figure out what you should be doing differently. 

Road blocks like the Roxas fight force you to realize that brute force isn't your answer, and fully mechanic based boss fights give you no choice but to figure out what to do. Then you have the data fights and secret bosses that put things on yet another whole different level -- it's not easy, and it's not meant to be. When looking at everything the game has going for it, it's actually pretty impressive. What seems like a simple "kids" game based on Disney, in reality can be one of the most fun and challenging JRPGs on the market. And to step it up, you can even activate the no EXP ability to challenge yourself even more!

Bottom line... I appreciate the game a lot more now that I've given Critical Mode a chance, and I strongly recommend everyone to at least give it a try once! It makes a huge difference. Definitely the way I'll play KH2 from now on.

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