I want a bit more time with Gran Turismo 5 before I post a review; the size of the game makes me very nervous about sticking scores to it before I've seen a greater proportion of what it has on offer. My last few sessions with the game haven't fundamentally changed my view, but they have added some new positive and negative factors.
In the mean time, I thought I'd do a post about an old game that I've been replaying recently; Kingdom Hearts. Released on the PS2 way back in 2002, Kingdom Hearts was a game that, by all rights, should have been an abject disaster. The idea of a Disney-based action RPG developed by Squaresoft - and featuring a number of iconic Final Fantasy characters - was pretty much heresy and was widely mocked before the game's release. Winnie the Pooh and Sephiroth do not seem obvious candidates, after all, to appear in the same game.
And yet, Kingdom Hearts and its direct sequel went on to be two of the defining games of the PS2 era. Indeed, I would personally argue that Kingdom Hearts 2 was the single best game ever to see release on the PS2 (and it's up against a lot of tough competition there). More recently, the series has been come known for a series of good-but-not-great handheld titles, many of which are inexplicable to anybody not intimately familiar with the series's complicated lore.
With Square-Enix having given its clearest indication yet that the company does intend to develop a proper Kingdom Hearts 3, I thought I'd go back and revisit the earlier titles. This basically means playing through the original Kingdom Hearts, the PS2 port of Chain of Memories (the plot-critical interim game originally released on the Gameboy Advance) and Kingdom Hearts 2. I've not touched these games since finishing KH2 back in early 2006, so I had wondered whether I was applying a degree of rose-tinting in my memories of the game.
Now that I'm half way through the original Kingdom Hearts, I'm already able to answer that question. No, I wasn't rose-tinting. Kingdom Hearts (KH1) is a truly awesome game, which has stood the test of time shockingly well.
The first surprise was how comparatively good the graphics are. Now, ok, I have my (US 1st-gen 60 gig) PS3 applying its hardware upscaling, which smooths some of the edges a bit. But the game's bold graphical style obscures any technical limitations. What really struck me is how an 8 year old game looks as good as, and in many cases better than, any game I've seen on the Wii. Square always were the masters at pushing the PS2's hardware to its absolute limits and I don't think this is demonstrated anywhere more so than in the Kingdom Hearts games.
The sound, and particularly the music, has aged well. A few of the sound effects are slightly grainy, and the music is clearly a product of its time (and the PS2's less than stellar sound hardware), but a lot of effort went into creating the audio side of the game. The game's opening theme and its core orchestral score are fantastic (I prefer the Japanese opening "Hikari" to the English "Simple and Clean", but both are great). Most of the background music in-game is cleverly adapted from various Disney themes and, while it gets a little repetitive over time, it works extremely well.
The gameplay is showing a few rough edges. The control system feels quite antiquated, with targeting and camera control in particular being a pain in the backside. I do recall that KH2 made some welcome enhancements to the control system. Ultimately, though, after an adjustment period, KH1 feels perfectly playable.
The combat system is the same deceptively complicated system that I remember. At first glance, it looks like a button masher. Most of the early enemies can be defeated by chaining physical attacks. However, the further you get into the game, the more the combat system opens up. By the mid-point of the game, a decent player will be dashing around the field chaining physical attacks, dodge-rolls, special moves and magic in an incredibly fluid way. The real time battles are as good as any I've seen in an action RPG, with the boss battles in particular carrying real tension at times.
The storyline is perhaps the most controversial elements of Kingdom Hearts. There's no denying that some of the Disney-world storylines are trite and irritating (much like most non-Pixar Disney movies for the last two decades or so). You can expect to hear a lot of rubbish about "believing in yourself" and "following your dreams". However, as you press further into the game, you realise that Square have managed to create a pretty decent meta-narrative to surround these, which takes a far darker slant. The meta-narrative is, admittedly, difficult to follow unless you take care to follow all of the journal entries and the like, but it is there and is real. The series doesn't really get into its cleverest narrative plans until Chain of Memories and KH2, but even in KH1 you can tell that there are larger ideas moving behind the scenes.
But to end on a downer, if there's one thing I've taken from my Kingdom Hearts replay thus far, it's how far Japanese gaming in general, and Square in particular, have fallen since the days of the PS2. I struggle to think of a single Japanese game for the current console generation, with the possible exception of Valkyria Chronicles, that has matched the breadth, depth and ambition of Kingdom Hearts and its sequel. I'm hoping and praying that Kingdom Hearts 3 can change this, but after seeing the thirteenth and fourteenth installments in the Final Fantasy series, I'm not optimistic.