Now we're getting to the more complicated side of things. Kingdom Hearts II, for better or for worse, represents a paradigm shift in tone and story structure that set the course for the series from that point onwards. Weirdly enough, the game doesn't begin with Sora and the gang. Instead, we are introduced to a character named Roxas, who lives in the eternally dusk-lit villa of Twilight Town and is spending the last days of his summer vacation playing with his friends. However, he's been having strange dreams, lately: dreams of a boy called Sora, his friends Donald and Goofy, and other strange people he has never met. After a series of bizarre encounters with strange, white-robed creatures known as Nobodies (this game's new enemy type, and the remains of those who became Heartless), Roxas discovers that he is able to wield a Keyblade of his own, and not only that, he was once a member of the sinister Organization XIII. Roxas is also Sora's own Nobody (since Sora briefly became a Heartless in Kingdom Hearts), and Riku, DiZ, and Namine are all trying to reunite the pair so that Sora can awaken from his slumber.
This soon comes to pass: once they finally meet, Roxas disappears from existence and Sora reawakens with no memory of what occured in Chain of Memories. Sora, Donald, and Goofy then set out on another journey to battle against the Organization and prevent their maniacal leader, Xemnas (the Nobody of Ansem/Xehanort's Heartless, who was the villain in the first game. Like Thanos, Xehanort will return), from accomplishing his goals. The prologue of Kingdom Hearts II probably has a lot to do with the series' reputation for being so gosh darned complicated. I actually find the introduction to Roxas to be really effective: it's incredibly melancholic and tonally very different from what you would expect from a Disney tie-in video game. The rest of the game, with Sora and company exploring new Disney worlds, fighting against Organization XIII and looking for their missing friends is more in line with what you would expect from a Kingdom Hearts sequel, but if you skipped Chain of Memories before heading in, you're going to have a really difficult time with that opening.
Gameplay-wise, though... I may be putting myself out there a bit by saying this, but I think Kingdom Hearts II is the peak of the series. Sora still locks on to enemies, hits them with a giant key, and uses magic spells, but the sheer number of abilities at the player's disposal makes combat way more fast-paced and frenetic. Combat is just so much smoother than the slightly clunky system from Kingdom Hearts, with Sora zipping effortlessly from enemy to enemy. This, plus the addition of Drive Forms (temporary transformations that dramatically boost Sora's stats and grant him enhanced mobility) turn Sora into a Keyblade dual-wielding machine of death: yes, that's right, Sora can briefly dual-wield Keyblades in this game and it's awesome. The addition of Nobody enemies in addition to a bolstered roster of Heartless makes combat more varied and exciting, and pressing the Triangle button during certain context-sensitive situations can trigger a Reaction Command that performs a flashy special attack. Some of these Reaction Commands play like quick-time events with a big cinematic sequence playing out, although the button timing on these is fairly generous.
The world design in Kingdom Hearts II ditches the procedurally generated shenanigans of Chain of Memories, but also loses some of the verticality of Kingdom Hearts' levels. The environments on display here are more like long, linear tunnels filled with combat encounters, with the occasional out-of-the-way treasure chest to nab. As Sora levels up his Drive Forms, his mobility options open up dramatically: the high jump, quick run, double jump, and glide functions are all unlocked via this method, and they allow for Sora to reach otherwise inaccessible areas and find rare goodies. The level design does have some moments of utter brilliance: Port Royal, based on the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (yes, really), has a neat mechanic where Sora can only damage the skeletal pirate enemies when they are exposed via moonlight. However, the focus of the game's design was clearly the battle system, with environmental design a secondary concern. I can't knock the game too much for putting an increased emphasis on combat, considering the unreliable camera and finicky platforming were strikes against the original; however, I feel like a more even balance between exploration and combat wouldn't be remiss. Hopefully we see some of that in Kingdom Hearts III. The Final Mix cut of Kingdom Hearts II adds collectible puzzle pieces that further incentivize players to level up their Drive Forms, as well as the new Cavern of Remembrance area: a truly massive dungeon that will require a fully mobile Sora to traverse, and is filled with the kind of navigational challenges the main game is sorely lacking.
Gummi Ship missions have received a massive overhaul in Kingdom Hearts II: they're way faster-paced and true to their shoot-em-up inspirations this time around. You can still customize your ship and trick it out with laser cannons, missiles, and other doodads, but now new, more powerful ships become available as the player advances through the story, making it a lot easier to speed through these segments if you don't particularly want to engage with them.The path to each new world has its own linear shooting gallery, which must be traversed before the world can be visited. Once that's over with, players can tackle a set of sub-missions that require the player to try for a high score or destroy a certain number of enemies, sometimes with specific ship configurations for added challenge. These missions were present in the first game, but they're a lot more fun now, and present a fun diversion for those looking for a shake up from the Keyblade-swinging madness.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts II is just about everything a sequel should be: while there's certainly a discussion to be had about the direction it took the story, just about everything else has been streamlined and improved across the board. The presentation is top-notch, with even more fabulous visuals and one of the best soundtracks in Square Enix's catalog (the excellent final boss music, Darkness of the Unknown, being a particular highlight). The voice cast does a pretty amazing job: Jesse McCartney turns up as the voice of Roxas, and man, oh man, is it surreal to hear the late, great Sir Christopher Lee's voice in a Kingdom Hearts game... but he nails it, giving weight and dimension to DiZ's character. But we're just getting started. As you may well know, players who gain a certain percentage of completion in Kingdom Hearts II are treated to a special ending scene after the credits. A scene featuring three armored, Keyblade-wielding warriors, and cryptic text telling of a "Keyblade War." We'll get there... eventually. But first, it's time to go back to a Nintendo handheld.