Three years after the release of Kingdom Hearts, the prodigal sequel Kingdom Hearts 2 released onto the PlayStation 2. As a young British child without a memory card, the opening hours of Square Enix’s Disney x Final Fantasy crossover are burnt into my brain stem, and, bar a future bout of dementia, I don’t think they’ll ever leave.
Following a lavish FMV recap of the first Kingdom Hearts and its canonical spin-off Chain of Memories, the intro of Kingdom Hearts 2 puts you in the role of a character you’ve never seen before: Roxas.
Now a fan-favourite character, the appearance of Roxas at the start of Kingdom Hearts 2 was incredibly controversial at the time. After all, fans were expecting to be placed back in the oversized clown shoes of Destiny Island escapee Sora alongside his pals Donald and Goofy. However, this entry in the still-weird Disney/Final Fantasy crossover boldly decided “to Hell with that” (or rather “heck”, being Disney and all), all the while crafting one of the best prologues gaming has ever seen.
Taking place over a few days, the Kingdom Hearts 2 prologue starts as a relaxing summer vacation between Roxas and his friends Hayner, Pence and Ollette. You’ll search for missing pictures, do odd jobs to earn train fare, and compete in the annual Struggle competition. Of course, it doesn’t take very long for the seams to crack, revealing that everything isn’t what it seems.
After waiting years to follow up on Sora’s story, starting as Roxas in this sequel is inherently confusing, especially if you — like most of us — didn’t play Chain of Memories. Who is Roxas? Why does he dream of Sora? If it’s confusing to you now, it was even more confusing to child me in 2005.
The mystery starts off simple enough — between days, Roxas dreams of Sora’s memories from the last games, glitched-out, static-filled scenes that cover some of the integral moments from the first Kingdom Hearts. Over time, the cracks widen, revealing that things aren’t only not what they seem, but something is truly wrong.
At integral moments in Roxas’ vacation, never-before-seen enemies suddenly arrive, slender Nobodies that slink around the environment. Immune to normal weapons like sticks and struggle batons, Roxas summons Sora’s iconic Keyblade, allowing him to fight the treacherous new foes.
There’s a melancholic feeling that blankets all of Kingdom Hearts 2’s intro as Roxas’ confusion about what is and isn’t a dream deepens. Just like the first line in the opening FMV says: “A scattered dream is like a far-off memory; a far-off memory is like a scattered dream.” That melancholic feeling only becomes exacerbated in replays if you know exactly what is going on with Roxas, and why he’s only a small part of KH2’s story.
Eventually, you discover that Roxas’ life is just a simulation, a facsimile of the real-life Twilight Town as Sora recovers in the real world. That doesn’t make Roxas any less real. He may be a part of Sora, but he is his own person with friends, feelings and desires. Still, there is no way he can coexist with Sora, and the universe needs Sora more than it needs him.
After reconnecting with Roxas’ short past, fighting through the mysterious Mansion where Sora sleeps, recovering like an anime Darth Vader, Roxas realises his fate. His summer vacation is over and he has to go away: no more Hayner, Pence, Olette, no more sea salt ice cream in the clock tower above Twilight Town, no more hunting for urban legends. No more Roxas.
Soon after, Roxas indeed goes away, and the affable Sora takes his place, unaware of the sacrifice that was just made for him. He reconnects with his trusty pals Donald and Goofy and heads to the train to leave Twilight Town. On his way, he meets the real-life versions of Roxas’ friends and starts crying, but has no idea why.
As much as I love everything about Kingdom Hearts, the first few hours of the series’ second game are truly special. Roxas’ story isn’t just well-written— every twist and turn is set up and properly executed in a way the franchise often fails to do afterwards. It’s Tetsuya Nomura at his finest, weaving together scenes that rely on emotion instead of spectacle.
There are few moments in gaming, especially PS2-era gaming, that pull at the heartstrings as hard as the witch Naminé telling Roxas he was never supposed to exist. Tetsuya Nomura manages to make a goofy (pun not intended) Disney crossover game genuinely heart-breaking, an achievement in itself.
Eighteen years on from its original release, Kingdom Hearts 2 is still, by far, the best game in the series, and its intro is still one of the best I’ve ever experienced. If you have yet to give often-corny, always-fun Disney x Final Fantasy game a chance, there isn’t a better time than the present.