Review by echoshifting

"It's pretty, alright, but what about the game?"

Before I begin my little review of Kingdom Hearts, the latest thing from Squaresoft, it should be made perfectly clear that I was looking forward to this game with an anticipation that I find to be fairly uncommon. After all, most games that are hyped excessively are treated as such by marketing guys because the game itself suffers from serious flaws…best to “ambush” the public as quickly as possible, make a quick buck and get out. This is the case in most entertainment media, so I’m usually pretty wise to the scam. As a fan of most of Square’s games, however, and as a genuine sucker for Disney flicks (yes, we do exist), I couldn’t help but excited about Kingdom Hearts. I was just having trouble deciding if I was more excited to see some of my old Final Fantasy pals again or to visit a few of my favorite Disney movie locales in a Squaresoft game. The concept seemed flawless, and the early press on the game looked great. I preordered the game and, on the day of its release, rushed home and sat down for a lengthy gaming frenzy.
I am sad to report, therefore, that in my opinion, the game is a devastating lost opportunity. It’s true that there’s a lot to like here, and I can’t dispute some of the positive press that the game continues to receive (but let’s face it: the scores it’s been getting on many sites has been upped a rank or two by that fancy Squaresoft label). However, I personally found the game’s flaws to be so overbearing that they made the game practically unplayable.
I’m going to assume you’ve read a few other reviews by now, and there’s a plethora of information available on the game in various places, so I’ll spare you the story synopsis and get right to the juicy stuff. Yes, it’s Final Fantasy meets Disney, you play Sora, a young boy looking for his friends across space and time, bla bla bla. Go catch up someplace else if you need to. All set? Good.
As long as I’m talking about story, though, I think it’s worth pointing out that the plot in this game is incredibly stupid. Squaresoft critics are rolling their eyes now and saying “well, duh,” but let me say it again: the story is stupid. It would come as little surprise to anybody if the script for Kingdom Hearts was weak, but it should come as a shocker that the plot itself is devoid of life. Anybody who’s played a Final Fantasy game released in the last decade will gladly agree that the scripts for these games have always been weak, but that the underlying plot in the game…the storyline itself…has invariably been strong; it pushes the games along, and makes you want to get to the next place to find out what happens next.
Kingdom Hearts has the opposite problem: the script is decent (even the voice acting is good…a far cry better than Final Fantasy X), but the plot is awful. Square’s scribes attempted to weave a unique Final Fantasy story into numerous Disney stories, and what happens is the story they created (which is shaky to begin with) ends up taking a back seat to the plots of each of the movie settings you play through. You almost feel like you’re taking a third-party tour through each of the Disney movies featured in the game. For example, the Tarzan world still features a battle of wills between the hunter, Tarzan, and the leader of the ape tribe. It’s basically a dumbed-down version of the movie, and all your character does is tag along for the ride.
Speaking of dumbed-down, the combat system is so simple and flawed it’s almost embarrassing to play. It is a completely stupefying experience to play through a few battles in this game, coming from Squaresoft, one of the industry leaders, after completing games with such excellent combat systems as Devil May Cry and Mark of Kri. You had better get used to mashing that X-button, because you are going to be doing a lot of it in Kingdom Hearts.
There are many other factors that work against the game’s combat system as well. The game’s camera and targeting system are both abominable. Kingdom Hearts’ camera makes the recently scorned Mario Sunshine camera look nimble and dexterous in comparison. The camera makes no effort whatsoever to stay centered behind your character, and it is constantly getting stuck on various objects. Even with the camera set on “auto,” I spent an aggravating amount of time just trying to see where I was going. Additionally, the manual controls for the camera are the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons…not the right analog stick. This is a mystifying decision, since the right analog stick’s function is duplicated on the d-pad. This prevents the user from manually moving the camera up and down: it only moves left and right, and as soon as it even comes close to a wall, you’re done. Sometimes, you have to switch into the extremely limited first person view just to see something that’s right in front of you. There isn’t even a one-click button to move the camera behind your character (UPDATE: I have received notice that pressing the L2 and R2 buttons simultaneously will indeed center the camera behind your character. Thanks to Dan Lopez for the correction).
The game’s buddy system also does a stand-up job of working against the player ever having fun in a battle. You have virtually no control over the other two characters in your party (who are almost always Donald Duck and Goofy); in fact your control is limited to setting their AI priorities in a menu. These priorities cannot be changed in the middle of combat. So, you are basically left hoping that they knock off a few opponents for you, and, admittedly, they usually do. More often than not, however, they just get in your way and make it impossible to tell what you are doing. Since all of the game’s main enemies look more or less identical, combat is invariably a mess. The only times I enjoyed the game’s battles were when Goofy and Donald were dead and I could concentrate on what I was doing.
Another baffling design decision was to keep your teammates in your field of vision all of the time as you move from place to place. It is almost impossible to get a clear shot of Sora, the main character, moving around, because Donald and Goofy are always directly behind him, between you and the camera. Why did the designers choose to do this? Constantly looking at the backs of your buddies is annoying as hell and even gave me a headache; it is often difficult to see where you’re going, and it’s easy to miss important items with them obscuring your field of vision.
The non-combat tasks are equally mundane, and are usually limited to aimless wandering around in a restricted area, searching for items a character has requested that you find to move the game along. In the first area, Kairi (Sora’s friend) wants you to find some supplies to help her build a raft. The next day, she wants you to find supplies to carry on the raft. When you reach the Alice In Wonderland world, you need to find some evidence that Alice didn’t commit some unnamed crime. When you get to the Tarzan world, you have to find some slides so Tarzan can help you find your friends…are you seeing a pattern here?
All the game consists of is a series of these idiotic hide-and-seek tasks interspersed with long strings of battle sequences as you run from one location to the next. Pretty brilliant game design, eh? To further your frustration, the hide-and-seek tasks don’t usually allow for combat opportunities, so once you run into one, you have to find all of the required items before participating in combat again…after that it’s run to the next area, and maybe back to an area you’ve already visited to trigger a new story sequence, and so on ad nauseum. Yes, this really is the entire game. I’m not joking.
A major complaint that Square’s detractors tend to have with the Final Fantasy games is that they aren’t really role-playing games, per se…they’re adventure games. Well, let me tell you, they might as well call Final Fantasy the spiritual successor to the Wizardry series in comparison to Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts is so completely devoid of role-playing elements that I am actually offended that it was ever presented as such. Oh, you’ll level up all right…but the act itself is limited to a brief message in the corner of the screen telling you that one of your characters has leveled and possibly gotten an attribute bonus or a new skill. That’s it. The game does not spend any time explaining what exactly makes your character more powerful, and there is no character customization involved whatsoever. In fact, if you visit any of the already numerous FAQs on this game, all they will tell you about in preparation for an area is what level you should be…not what items or skills you should focus on to master it. Your character’s level is a measure of raw strength, that’s it. Being able to cast spells and summons does not make this a role-playing game, and the game’s incredibly linear design doesn’t help much either.
I have a laundry list of other minor quips that don’t really deserve too much detail. Even though the game pretends to allow you to change out members in your party every once in a while, doing so is stupid, because then whatever main character (Donald or Goofy) you leave out will fall behind in levels, and you won’t be able to activate the Triforces you come across (small circles in the ground where you can get secret items and such, but only when Donald and Goofy are both in your party)…yes, it’s true, you’ll actually be robbed of certain secrets in the game just for experimenting with area-specific characters, like Tarzan and Peter Pan. For being an action game hero, Sora’s moves are sorely limited, even as you gain new abilities. The game’s enemies are generic and repetitive. The targeting system is pointless and derivative. There’s no way to turn off the subtitles. And so on and so forth.
I guess what I’m getting to is this: under any other coat of paint, this game’s flaws would have been inexcusable years ago. The fact that it’s a Squaresoft game is going to sell copies and net it some good reviews. And yes, it’s true, if you play games for presentation, you aren’t going to be disappointed with Kingdom Hearts. It’s a long game, and it’s got fantastic visuals and great sound. Heck, if you can look past the game’s flawed gameplay, I’m sure you’ll have a great time exploring the game’s locales and running into a constant stream of familiar characters. But if you’re like me, and you play games because you like to play games, do yourself a favor and stay away from Kingdom Hearts. Your money is better spent elsewhere.
Scores follow.

Graphics: As mentioned, Kingdom Hearts' graphics do not disappoint. This shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone, though...Square's games have always been a joy to look at. Cinematics are few and far between, but it doesn't matter because the in-game stuff is so great. 9/10

Sound: While the voice acting is certainly spectacular, the music is not. It's a bit befuddling as to why exactly the designers didn't bother licensing any of the tunes from the Disney movies they're using here, and instead came up with bland, boring and repetitive tunes that grate on your nerves more often than not. 7/10

However...

Gameplay: As I mentioned, if you completely ignore the game's presentation, it would have been a sorry excuse for a game years ago. The camera is almost completely non-functional, the combat is bland and repetitive, the non-combat tasks are terrible and grating...the list just goes on and on. The only reason to play this game is the sense of discovery...the gameplay itself is less than worthless. 2/10

Story: Just awful...as in really, really bad. The first game I've played in some time where you spend the majority of the game not really feeling like a hero...more like a spectator is you move through the various worlds. Incredibly lazy story design from Squaresoft. 4/10

Replayability: There's plenty to do, but once you've done it all, that's it. Apparently there's an extra ending for beating the game with everything, but I haven't seen it so I can't tell you whether or not it's worth it. If you're thinking of this as an action game, it's plenty long, but if you think of it as a role-playing game, it's too short, so it's all in the eyes of the beholder. 6/10

Buy or Rent? Well, if you're a Squaresoft fan, you've already bought this, and this review isn't really designed for you anyway. For the rest of you, make sure you rent before you buy. It's an interesting idea, to be sure, but behind all the hype, it's just another shoddy action game.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10


Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 09/22/02, Updated 09/23/02


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