The rich IP backgrounds of Square/Enix and the Disney Corporation were thrown together for the first time in 2002. The Square-developed game, entitled Kingdom Hearts, surprised players with a story that blended two very different flavours into a compelling whole. The extent to which that game drew on the respective company's products made for a breathtakingly large world, and a storyline twisty enough to satisfy even the most jaded RPG player. Unfortunately, weak gameplay detracted from the overall experience of the unique title. The sequel, Kingdom Hearts II, picks up the pieces where the original left off and makes noticeable improvements in both story and gameplay. Read on for my impressions of a solid RPG that does fan service like no other title out there.
The original Kingdom Hearts saw the protagonist, Sora, doing battle with a magical race of evil beings known simply as 'The Heartless'. With the help of Donald and Goofy the young man sought out his friends Riku and Kairi (taken by the villains at the beginning of the tale), as well as 'King' Mickey. When the curtain drew at the end of the tale, there were numerous plot threads left hanging; It was already obvious then that a sequel was in the works.
- Title: Kingdom Hearts II
- Developer/Publisher: Square/Enix
Four years later, and the next chapter in the tale has been released to the PS2. The title begins in a somewhat confusing place if you've never played the card-battle Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories title for the GameBoy. Suffice it to say that Sora has lost his memory, and the first several hours of the game are spent with an alternate persona for the first game's protagonist. This hours-long ordeal is something of an extended tutorial. You're introduced to the concepts you'll be using throughout the game, and slowly begin to crack into the simply enormous plot that flows throughout the title. If the idea of an hours-long tutorial mode isn't intimidating, you're already set to play this game. Your patience will be well rewarded, though, because once you're out of the introductory plot there's lot of great story to enjoy. Just as in the original, you'll find yourself traveling with Sora, Donald, and Goofy to various world representing Disney movies. Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King are among the properties on display. The Nightmare Before Christmas makes a return with the more traditional titles, and two new live-action pieces are introduced to Kingdom Hearts' stable of worlds. The Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as Tron, make appearances at points along the road to your ultimate destination. With so many worlds to explore, it's unsurprising that you'll encounter varying levels of quality. At one end of the spectrum, you have Mulan. The Chinese fable is one of the first worlds you'll explore out of the gate, and happily so: it's fantastic. You'll fight hordes of opponents (ala the Mongols in the movie), and battle alongside Fa Mulan to defeat the Heartless. The gameworld not only retells the story of the movie, it draws you as a player into the events of the film in an enjoyable way. Tron, similarly, does a fantastic job of getting you into the story. While you might at first see the inclusion of the MCP's system as gimmicky, it's explained in a wholly reasonable fashion. It also looks great. Of course, not everything can be perfect. The other end of the spectrum is inhabited by The Little Mermaid's world. It's a very dull, and generally disappointing experience. I'm a fan of rhythm games, but the attempt they muster is lackluster at best. Attempting to mash a button in a timed interval is not rhythm, it's muddling your game experience. Overall, though, the Disney elements in the game are tremendously satisfying.
I wish I could say the same about the Final Fantasy characters included in the title. As in the first Kingdom Hearts, the more staid RPG characters are standoffish in general, aiding you only when it suits their needs. Aerith, Squall, Yuffie, and Cid are important plot drivers, and clashes between Cloud and Sephiroth are fairly important battles in the latter half of the story. Despite that, the Final Fantasy characters are in general not as well treated as their Disney brethren. Many of them have odd or simplistic dialogue, and some characters (like Tifa Lockheart) come off as quite confused. It's very neat to see the FF characters step out of their normal roles, but the blend that I felt worked so well in the original title doesn't seem as polished here. The Disney characters definitely get the better end of the stick here, and for those of us who have outgrown some of the 80's Disney films that's more than a little frustrating.
Those (small) frustrations aside, the entire experience of Kingdom Hearts II is an improvement over the original. The plot is tighter, with the older protagonist necessitating a more grown-up story. The ramifications of Sora's actions from the first game are very thoroughly explored, and you get a real sense of connection between the young man and the individuals he encounters on his journeys. The worlds themselves are improved as well. They're a good deal 'tighter', with less meaningless space thrown into the mix. If they built a part of a level in this game, it has a point. This results in the worlds feeling shorter, but more fulfilling. There's no need to wander aimlessly through caverns in the Cave of Wonders; You go there, get what you came for, fight a boss battle, and leave. The level design and story dovetail tightly together. The result is a grand story that is also very approachable; It can be played in smaller bites and more completely understood overall. It's a testament to the team that weaknesses from the first game have been directly addressed here.
One of the big weaknesses of the original title, combat, has also gotten some love since the first time around. In addition to the magic and summons that were possible in the first game, limit breaks, drives, and context-sensitive actions have been added to the battleground. Limit breaks are interesting combo moves you can perform with your partners. Goofy, Donald and Sora can hook up for 'Trinity' maneuvers, and each guest star from the Disney gameworlds offers their own thematically appropriate move to help the spikey-haired protagonist take down the baddies. You use limit breaks by filling up a bar, which is just one of the many meters you fill during combat. Your drive bar also fills as you fight, eventually enabling you to enter a function-specific mode. For example, 'Valour' steals Goofy's strength and turns Sora into a dual-wielding dynamo. 'Wisdom' enhances Sora's magical abilities (by borrowing Donald's) and turns his keyblade into something like as submachine gun. Context actions are new to the game, but have seen use frequently in recent titles, and frequently allow Sora access to the 'Trinity' moves. All of which sounds good ... but at the end of the day these new elements aren't that helpful. They look great to be sure, further fleshing out the fantastic imagery of Kingdom Hearts and giving you the impression of options. The reality, however, is that the air combo moves Sora performs just by bashing the 'X' button are so effective as to make much of this superfluous. Some boss fights can get a little tough, and benefit from use of flashy fireworks, but generally speaking you can achieve victory with your thumb firmly on the attack button. The combat still feels more developed than in the first game, but don't expect God of War complexity to the fighting.
Outside of combat, they've continued the push for improved gameplay. A particularly onerous element of the original game was the 'Gummi Ship' rail shooting sequences. They've been revamped from their utilitarian roots into something a lot more enjoyable. It's not an attempt at a full-fledged game within a game; Holding down the fire button will still get you through relatively safely. At the same time, there's a good deal more to do here. Treasures and mini-bosses abound, and the occasional reorientation of the map adds some stylistic changes to the experience. On foot, the camera has been overhauled since the original as well. Fighting with the often asleep-at-the-switch cameraman was another frustration of Kingdom Hearts. The result isn't a watershed, but it's yet another rough edge that's been smoothed out in this incarnation.
For all the complaints that were leveled at the first game, the graphical presentation was a subject avoided by even the stoutest of detractors. Kingdom Hearts looked great, and its sequel goes about improving on the original in a very calculated way. The PS2 just isn't the graphical powerhouse it once was, in comparison to what we're seeing on Microsoft's new console. What were cutting-edge graphics in 2002 look a little dated. The art team has tackled this frustration by honing in on the 'look' of each character, place, and situation with a dead-on push for accuracy. The original's art style tended to blend the game worlds together; The art direction for Tarzan's jungle was generally the same as Alice's Wonderland. With the sequel, the movies are evoked more fully by conjuring the artistic style of the animation into electronic life. The rocky surrounds of Isle de la Muerte have a fundamentally different stylistic base than Beast's castle or 'The Timeless River', the black and white old-timey cartoon world. The game sounds just as good as it looks, the well-earned reputation Square/Enix has with composition once again reaffirmed. The title piece is the most evocative, in typical Jpop fashion, but the moment-to-moment pieces recall the film soundtracks quite successfully. Aurally, my biggest complaint is one I had with the first title as well: Almost all of the musical elements evoke Disney moments and ignore the sound history written by Nobuo Uematsu for the Final Fantasy series. Whether a deliberate decision or not, I would have preferred more than just 'One-Winged Angel' to make an appearance within the Kingdom Hearts series.
The second title to bear the Kingdom Hearts name accomplishes exactly what a sequel should set out to do. It recaptures successful elements of the original, and shores up weak elements of the first game's vision. What we're given, then, is a melding of Disney and Square storytelling in a way that recaptures innocent times through a more adult lens. It's very hard indeed to grow up in America without watching at least one Disney film. That cultural building block makes the image of Sora fighting alongside the Beast, Peter Pan, or Jack Skellington a very hard one to ignore; In fact, it lies at the center of Kingdom Hearts' appeal. For all the fighting and angst, any story that features Mickey Mouse is going to have a happy ending somewhere down the line. In an industry cluttered with amoral vigilantes, objectified women, and escort missions, it's nice to occasionally play a game where you know the good guys are going to win at the end of the day. The game does have a prerequisite though: while the GBA title can be skipped you're definitely not going to get the full effect out of Kingdom Hearts II if you don't play the original. Beyond that, Disney-haters and Final Fantasy foes should look elsewhere; Unless you've got the hate on for Donald Duck you're probably going to find at least one moment in this epic quest that will make you smile like a kid again.