Kingdom Hearts II is a really messed up game. It's got awful pacing, the grievous re-usage of almost all the content from the first game, and a narrative so incomprehensible it makes the Star Wars prequels look logical. Still, I'll be damned if I've ever seen a better Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) combat system. It's like my good friend Tim Spaeth's irrational love of Too Human's combat, except mine is totally rational and sensible. The one area where Kingdom Hearts II really succeeded for me was with it's bosses, which I've mentioned before. It's got all shapes and sizes of boss, and it does them all extremely well.
However, the battles against the members of Organization XIII are what stand out to me the most. Unique, flashy, and tough as nails, these fights represent exactly what a boss should be. I recently played through Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix (which unfortunately was never released in America) simply because it had a boss rush section (the data battles) where I could fight all of them PLUS the five deceased members from Chain of Memories at leisure without having to worry about keeping separate save files. That's right, I leveled all the way to 99 and dealt with the all-Japanese text just so I could fight these guys and feel the magic again. And yes, I threw up in my mouth a little when I typed that.
What really stands out is that while they're all physically similar (only difference is size and hair style/color) the battles against them are all vastly different. That's in stark contrast to a lot of bosses like the ones from the 2008 Prince of Persia, which look different but are all essentially the same. Each Organization member has a very unique attack pattern, and the strategy for one doesn't carry over to any of the others, I think. Everything that separates them is rooted in style and design.
I'm going to focus on the Organization members that appear in the original game since the extras were made as optional bosses, which means they aren't exactly balanced. While the rest certainly have their moments of cheapness, I don't think they go quite as overboard as the optional ones. We fight against seven members of Organization XIII in Kingdom Hearts II, but I'm going to skip Axel since the two fights against him are really just pushovers. So we're left with six cases, counting the final boss.
Demyx's battle is known mainly for it's silliness and implausibility. Why do I have to destroy the dancing water in thirty seconds? Why does not doing so kill me? Regardless, the fight is memorable for it, and that's a good thing. Instead of some random bubble spitting asshole, Demyx is the Dance Water Dance guy.The non Dance part of the fight is no slouch either, as he is very capable of doing damage otherwise. The toughness of this fight is a bit surprising given that Demyx is portrayed as a weakling, and actually represents the moment where the ultra-sharp difficulty spike makes its first appearance. That spike culminates with....
The fight against Xaldin is notorious for being difficult, and rightfully so. This is one of the few battles where Mickey will appear occasionally if you die, which is the developers' tacit admission that this is too hard. Not only does he have very fast, very powerful moves that can shred you in a few hits, but he tops that off with two attacks (the spear flurry and the wind tunnel) that are essentially undodgeable, at least at the point in the game when you fight him. In fact, I think this fight would have been much better served by being later in the game, as then it would have been challenging and not cheap. I actually think his data battle in Final Mix is easier than his original encounter, simply because you'll have the glide ability and will likely have the reflect spell leveled up.
Still, I like this fight, and if you'll permit me to get a little bit less serious for a second, I'll tell you why. The story problems and the infamous "Belle elbows him in the stomach and runs away" scene notwithstanding, he's just a flat out cool as shit enemy. Having appeared much earlier in the game, there's already a sense of accomplishment in getting to finally face him, and then the guy whips out six spears and proceeds to bat Sora and the gang around like ragdolls. Is it cheap? Absolutely. But this is one of those times where it just works, simply because the difficulty makes it memorable and the cat-and-mouse game of forming a strategy to beat him is so intense. As they say (whoever "they" might be), the bigger the mountain, the more satisfying it is to reach the top.
This one is interesting in that he uses no melee attacks in a game that is almost entirely centered around melee combat. Unlike most of the other enemies in the game, he's constantly trying to stay away from you. Your target lock is also nearly worthless since he moves around so much. While a teleporting boss is nothing new, such an elusive enemy under these circumstances was a lot of fun to fight. This battle is also a bit better about turning up the difficulty through a higher skill requirement rather than cheapness. His desperation attacks, while powerful and hard to dodge, aren't as cheap as Xaldin's. Avoiding them takes dexterity, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
There's a very fine line between challenge and frustration. Is the game hard or is it hard to play? Does the player have a fair chance to avoid damage? Xaldin steps over this line ever so slightly, while Xigbar manages to walk the tightrope with sniper-like precision. See? See what I did there?
I always like it when there's a boss that attempts to go against the defined structure of the rest. Both the boss and the player are given time meters, and the first one to run out dies. His time bar can be further depleted by winning his games or simply doing damage. It's an ingenious mechanic for a fight against an enemy whose powers are supposedly based around gambling, although in his initial battle it isn't entirely important. He can be beaten easily by just attacking him and keeping up the pressure, without having to win any of his games.
While the true design of this fight is somewhat obscured in this here it shines brightly in his data battle. Now you have to win at least some of his games, especially the last one. The increased importance of the minigames lends itself better to the "gambler" persona as opposed to just bashing him to death, and the animation for beating his final game is just so damn satisfying.
A straight-up brawl. Occurring soon after the fights against Xigbar and Luxord, this fight serves as a nice contrast to some of the battles from earlier. This is an extremely physical fight, as everything rides on just getting in his face and pounding him when he's not in berserk mode. There is one major design flaw here, however. If you have the glide ability Saix is one of the easiest bosses in the game, since he has no aerial attacks. So only when fighting him "properly" do we get the full effect.
In any case, this is still a good boss even though it's simple compared to the others. Such simple battles can be problems if they are overused. However, when placed in contrast to more complex fights a slugfest like this one can feel refreshing.
Final bosses are usually meant to be pure spectacle. While Xemnas' first few forms certainly fit that description, to me the one that really stands out is his final appearance. The fight feels like one that should end a great game, as there is a constant tone of a desperate, epic struggle against an all-powerful enemy. That feeling is at its highest when Xemnas grabs Sora and just starts choking the life out of him. This is also the battle's (and possibly the game's) most tragic moment, because here is where a suitable narrative would have really come in handy.
There are few actions more visceral than trying to strangle the life out of someone. When Xemnas does this I should be seeing and feeling both the apex of his hatred towards the player character and Sora's determination to defeat him. Instead, the story surrounding the two characters is so shoddy it's little more than a guy in a bathrobe doing a weird magic trick. Don't get me wrong, I still like this boss just like all the others I mention here. However, this battle is also a constant reminder of what might have been had the writing been even close to the quality of the combat.
As it happens, I'm submitting this as my first one-a-day entry. Not sure how long I'll actually be able to keep up, but hopefully it will motivate me to post updates here a little more often.