Review by Ashley Winchester
"King of Hearts"
Sticky Situation Surrounding Sequels
Stop. Think back on every game you've ever played. Now, imagine what a perfect one would be like. Try as you might, chances are you'll fall short of Kingdom Hearts 2. Because to be honest, it's fundamentally impossible to conjure up anything that could ever compare to this, what I dare classify as the best game ever made (to date).
Sequels are problematic, let's face it. Whatever a company does, no matter how much effort and work went into the product, there will be a group of people inevitably disappointed, dissatisfied, and disgusted. Long has the world waited for this game since it first played KH. And waited. And waited some more. It waited because the director, Tetsuya Nomura, admitted that he jumped the gun when releasing the sequel's PR (how totally unlike Square) and insisted that he would only declare it finished when he deemed it such. You have to admire such tenacity really; it takes a truly dedicated individual to adhere to their own standards of quality and not churn out a flawed, deficient product just to make holiday deadlines or to take advantage of consumers-even more so considering we're dealing with *Square* here. Because of this, and because of seemingly everything else conceivable (fashion statements, quirks, books, etc), that which we've all waited for was worth every last second.
Clear as Crystal
Graphically speaking, Kingdom Hearts 2 represents the epitome of the Playstation 2 hardware capabilities. While it might be a visual achievement fostered primarily by unrealistic (read: cartoon) graphics, that which you see it unparalleled in the eye-candy department, hands down: Fantastic attention to detail, brand new/streamlined interfaces, giant-scale environments, colossal battles and all with little-to-no presence of jaggies. It's quite apparent Square can and will assert its' visual aptitude when the situation calls for it. SO extraordinary is most of the game's appearance you'll actually question Sony's decision to release a new console.
Of particular interest is the profound attention to detail, especially in the sky and in special effects. To put it one way, there are times when the game better resembles a horror product than it does a child's whimsical adventure (though truth be told, Konami can only dream of implementing this kind of stuff in its Silent Hill franchise). Though it's not really whimsical, or childish really as hinted some time ago, KH2 is quite darker and far more mature than either the original adventure or the Disney namesake would imply. Characters scream out with lifelike facial expressions, body movements, and personality. The hero, Sora, puts forth better acting than many people in Hollywood, with a fantastic array of emotions, quirks, and personality-far more than he displayed in the original installment. It would seem that with the groundwork already established, Nomura and company were free to fine tune anything and everything. The result is a profound ability to define the game world and its inhabitants with better expressions, realistic emotions, and more pronounced body language.
Perhaps the most impressive visual accomplishment in the game would be Port Royal, AKA the Pirates of the Caribbean World, arguably the sequel's it level, just as Nightmare Before Christmas was for the original. Words can't describe just how much the game characters resemble the real life actors. Orlando Bloom looks like Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp looks like Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley looks like Keira Knightley, and Geoffrey Rush looks like Geoffrey Rush. As in really. Real as in you'll wonder if the actual actors went through facial scanning procedures. Most importantly, however, everyone *acts* like they should: Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, for example, is recreated in all his flamboyant glory, complete with eye shadow, a cocky sway, and jovial hand motions. This one area alone reflects greater attention to detail and design than perhaps every movie tie-in game ever released, and it's only ONE part of Kingdom Hearts 2.
Without spoiling anything, there comes a point half way through KH2 that will cause a truly jaw-dropping moment of awe. Never in the history of videogames have I seen so many objects on screen simultaneously (without even a hint of slowdown to boot) and been able to *interact* with them no less. Some 5 years ago, this type of thing would have been impossible outside the realm of FMV, and even now it seemed impossible given the limitations of the PS2 hardware. Suffice to say that Kingdom Hearts 2 will redefine your entire concept of an epic battle...that is until the final fights which will utterly obliterate it.
As a final mention in the visual category, the often infuriating camera system that plagued Kingdom Hearts is nowhere to be found, instead replaced with an incarnation that works far, far better. While there are no guarantees of a totally stress-free run through, rest assured that most-if not all-of the original's are no longer present, ensuring a smoother, more satisfying experience.
Coming off Level 5's sub-par Dragon Quest 8 follow up (Rogue Galaxy), it was a bit of a shock to rediscover that action-RPGs can actually be fun. After plodding through the most repetitive dungeons imaginable, romping around in KH2's contained-yet-expansive environments is an absolute joy. As the first game offered, Kingdom Hearts 2 takes place over a multitude of Worlds, most of which represent different Disney movies, though a few are original entities created for the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Regardless of origin, these worlds consist of a series of rooms which the hero, Sora, and his two mainstay cartoon companions (Donald Duck and Goofy) explore. On the whole, everything is considerably larger this time around and as a result, the player has an optional Mini-Map feature for ease of navigation.
Far too often in action games, approaching the boundary separating one room from the next automatically prompts an area transition, thus putting an immediate and unwanted end to your fight. In Kingdom Hearts 2, however, you can truly go amok while fighting and not feel the slightest bit reserved. When engaged in combat, be it your attacking or getting hit by an opponent's, the game will remain put even if you're so close as to see the text indicating the next room's name. This might seem like a trivial issue at first consideration, but rest assured that when you're put into some intense situations, it's truly magnificent to know you won't be thrown out of a room by cheap game mechanics.
Unfortunately there are a few minor gripes and disappointments. For starters, exploration is no longer encouraged; rather everything basically adheres to the game's pre-set path. While hardly a staple of the original, many fans will recall scaling previously unreachable heights (with new powers) or finding out-of-the-way treasures via sheer cunning and exploration. Think back to the hub world, Traverse Town, for example, and all the hidden goodies atop buildings. This time around, most every treasure chests is in plain sight. Equally disappointing is the decision to eliminate Trinity Points. Finally, on the whole, Worlds and their respective rooms are still far too small on the whole. It's difficult to say if storage limitations foster this problem, or if the design members simply want to keep things simple, but it really would be nice to have more to explore.
Solid as Sora
The English dictionary is currently incapable of facilitating a suitable word describing the action contained in KH2's fights. Wild, Crazy, Surreal, Awesome there are bits of uncouth explanation we spit out without a moment's hesitation. No, this game deserves a word all its own, something that can adequately sum up the situation. Consider the final areas in the original Kingdom Hearts, recalling how intense those fights were and how many kick-ass moves Sora had at his disposal. Now picture that from the start. Excited? Just wait until you get to the end of *this* game; Sora will have more acrobatic tricks and viewtiful style than all of modern Tokyo combined.
As if were possible to believe, KH2 actually plays better than the first. Through the use of a thorough Ability customization system, you can alter the two AI controlled characters. As before, Donald's forte centres around magic, Goofy's offense. As before, progressive Leveling Up awards new abilities and powers, all of which must be equipped by expending Ability Points (also earned through character growth). While some might be inclined to vent over the thought of being picky over what abilities to use, it's a fair way of balancing the gameplay and preventing total exploitation and a diminished challenge (speaking of, there are three difficulty modes available from the start).
Once again, battles are menu driven, though truth be told the sheer simplicity makes it astounding no one thought of this sooner, or recreated it for that matter (Rogue Galaxy tries but ultimately fails). Imagine a real time RPG and you'll get KH: The game operates on a task bar of sorts, that is to say a small command window on the bottom left hand side of the screen that dictates the action button's current function. At the top is Attack, with options for Item use, Magic use, Summoning, Partner Attacks, (etc) falling below or in a reverse menu accessed simply by pressing Left on the control pad. Scroll through and choose in real time, no pauses or interruptions whatsoever.
Unlike the original game, however, there is now a special button (Triangle) assigned to the true-multitasking. Labeled as the Reaction Command, this button serves as a multi-function trigger, depending on the situation such as speaking with Non-Player Characters. During combat, a command will sometimes pop up indicating the timing of an enemy-specific action-reaction at your command. Essentially lifted directly from Zelda Wind Waker, you can execute stylish counters, dodge massive attacks, and launch ferocious combos with proper timing. The only real issue is that for many battles (especially boss-related ones), the timing ultimately boils down to mashing the button so that you'll automatically hit it when the prompt appears: there are often so many things to distract your attention during intense fights that it's distracting to pay attention to the trigger (and hence the mashing). Let it not be said, however, that these triggers aren't amusing: watching Sora leap hundreds of feet into the air or reflect a massive shock wave is definitely eye-catching.
To throw yet another dynamic into the loop, almost every world will see the hero of said location becoming a temporary stay in the player's party. Serving as a nod to each world's story, a dream come true for Disney fanatics, and a general way to keep things fresh, the constantly changing party roster returns. This is truly one of the most pleasing aspects of the game, as not only do you get to traverse the various Disney locations, but you get to directly interact with their characters as well. Each character has a different reason for joining your group, usually dictated by their goals and intents in their respective movies. While in your party (it's completely up to the player: because only 3 characters can be in battle at once, Donald or Goofy must be substituted out when a world-specific character comes in) the world-specific hero will assist with their own unique set of skills and abilities.
On Matters of Money
One major flaw with the gameplay, or perhaps oversight is a better way to phrase it, lies in the Item department. For starters, the game allocates mass quantities of HP and MP restorative goods, yet the overall mild difficulty and quick availability of the Cure spell renders them totally useless after a short period of time. Not surprisingly, the entire function of currency (called Munnie) is totally skewed: save for a scant number of equipment related products you can purchase, it's basically pointless. All shops in the game sell the same thing, and outside of equipment that means the exact same items you've stockpiled (Tents, Potions, and Ethers).
One potential area ultimately fails because of its limited scope: the Moogle Invention System. By collecting materials (minerals, metals, rocks, etc) found in treasure chests or dropped by defeated enemies, Sora can visit a Moogle Shop and trade them in for use in item synthesis. Unfortunately, there are very few things to create, and most require a truly extensive amount of fighting to procure. The element is far better implemented than in the original-this time around you can find secret recipes-but rather pointless given the near useless utility for 95% of the game.
Driven to Perfection, Combo Crazy
One of the many new gameplay elements present in KH2, Drives represent different super Forms Sora can take by fusing with his companions. Offering heightened powers (dual Keyblades for example), additional abilities, and dramatically faster action, Drives level up with repeated use, allowing you learn new abilities, increase their duration, or strengthen their power. It should be noted that, while under the influence of this magical rage, Sora is capable of extraordinary feats and displays of strength, hence the need to cap its use for fear of exploitations. There are a number of different Drives (including one secret Form) all of which have their own unique attributes and manner of earning experience points.
Another new gameplay element is the aforementioned Combo Attack feature.
Similar to using Drives, Sora can temporarily expend his Magic Gauge and one of his two AI companions for an amazing feral rampage with the remaining one. Combos are incredibly useful, and come with their own Hit Counter to keep track of your multiple monster mashing melees for fun. Each character has one-or more-Combo attack options, many of which evolve over the course of gameplay events.
Gummy Glory and Stage-Specific Spectacles
A typical situation for Disney (and more recently, Square as well): selling out. Let it be known that the worst element of the original Kingdom Hearts (i.e. the notorious Gummi Ship) was in fact the product of a greedy deal made with the Lifesavers-brand candy folk, specifically its Gummi Savers line. Unfortunately the only profits to be had were on the maker's side of things, as few would argue that the player experience benefited from the atrociously random, ugly, and out of place shooting-game fest that transpired before and after each stage. Rather than remove the element however, the programmers opted to do something better-make it fun.
While the ships themselves are still hideously out of place, the mini-game is now a legitimate part of the product, and one which many players will actually find themselves returning to over and over-not out of necessity mind you, but out of enjoyment. Battles now resemble full-out interspace wars with dynamic camera shots, white-knuckle gameplay, all new collectibles, boss fights, and more advanced gameplay options. Enemies come at you from all angles-and all sides: unlike the straight forward tunnels the original featured, you're practically in a Star Wars Tours For all intents and purposes, this is a full blown shooting game included free of charge. Combat is no longer limited to just one dimension, rather it often turns to the side or even behind meaning it's now actually helpful to improve your ship's overall design. Additionally, as present in Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, there are now actual missions to participate in (thus encouraging replay value for entertainment's sake) that award valuable and rare items. All in all, the GummiShip experience is something you must truly play for yourself to understand; but rest assured that once you've actually seen it, you'll wonder how on earth these very same programmers deemed the original game's shooting sections worthy.
Though it's worth mentioning that in addition to the shooting spectacle, the game offers a positive onslaught of other, often optional, mini-games as well. Starting with the very first world (where players will need to take up odd-jobs to get some quick cash), KH2 offers a number of unique little jaunts that make for a better overall experience. Each of the game's worlds features one or more unique games, sometimes games within games. Ever since Square put forth Final Fantasy 7, programmers and players alike developed a profound interest in these tedium tearing tid-bits. Serving to break up the often monotonous elements of a game, small distractions can go along way as to making the overall experience more fulfilling; unfortunately they often take a lot of creativity and effort to concoct, and hence it's easier for game programmers *not* to include them.
Rest assured, Kingdom Hearts 2 will be known as the one that stole Final Fantasy 7's thunder. There are more mini-games included in KH2 than in a typical session of a Made in Wario, and best yet, each world has their own unique gimmick, sometimes even games WITHIN games. Atlantica, for example, is in preparation of a musical concert which you can assist. The Hundred Acre Woods hosts a number of brand new fun festivals. Perhaps what's most amazing however, is the presence of Mission Battles that take place throughout the game: these fights require Sora and friends to complete a specific objective for victory. While most of the time it's simply slaughtering all of the opponents, occasionally you'll need to guard a defenseless damsel, box up baddies, even sail the skies. Better yet-many of the boss fights have mini-game elements to them as well (just wait until you experience Port Royal's final creature) which means there is far more to fighting than simply button mashing. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for the awesome creativity splattered throughout.
SHE Has Returned
For better or worse, most people find it difficult to adjust when an established game series suddenly throws a different composer into the mix. Think of what Star Wars would be like if John Williams had opted to stop half way through. Think of the general reaction when space-opera fans realised that Xenosaga Episode 2 wouldn't see the return of Yasunori Mitsuda. Think of what it would be like playing through a sequel to Kingdom Hearts with the prospect of someone *else* orchestrating Kingdom Hearts. Fortunately you don't have to, as visionary music goddess extraordinaire, Yoko Shimomura, returns. Mixing a number of old tracks with loads of brand new ones, this wonder woman manages to do with sound what the programmers did with computer code: pure brilliance.
It is no mistake that Square commercially released the first game's soundtrack in *North America* (a rare occurrence as any game music fan knows) and seems likely such will happen this time around as well. Everything from the beautiful piano composition that accompanies the title screen (a slightly remixed Dearly Beloved) to the bombastic action oriented battle themes will captivate the player and only draw them further into the product. Truly one of the best soundtracks to ever come out of a game composer and plaintively obvious this woman has genuine musical talent.
Anyone who missed out on Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (i.e. 99% of foreign gamers) and the GBA-exclusive Chains of Memory will be at a minor and major loss respectively. Restricted to only those players with unrivaled gameplay skills, the Japan-only Final Mix featured a bonus movie entitled Deep Dive. Showcasing a moody and mature unknown world, the footage appears in sporatic segments throughout KH2 and has a major bearing to the game's darker plot.
Unfortunately, unfamiliarity with Chains of Memory is quite problematic. Despite the game being 90% rehash, the actual new content presented is required playing to understand who many of the characters in KH2 are. Unlike the story link employed by say, the Matrix game/movie, CoM literally serves as the introduction to the first 5+ hours of this game as well as most of the new characters. In fact, too much of the game's story seems to stem from Chains of Memory which makes the game positively annoying: rather than saving all the important plot revelations and disclosures for this proper effort, Square commissioned a sub-par hand out last year that basically alleviated it from half of the story/setting work in this game.
Speaking of familiarity, unfortunately Kingdom Hearts 2 also looses some points for originality as a whole. And yes, I realise the absurd irony here given that 90% of the game (i.e. everything Disney) is blatant rehashing in the first place. Specifically, however, although Sora's adventure takes him to many all-new worlds, it also sees the return of a host of prior ones. In some cases, such as Atlantis, the gameplay and controls are totally altered thus making it a legitimate inclusion, but with respect to other areas (such as Aladdin's ancient Arabia) there is a definite feeling of been there, done that. Despite new locations in old worlds, it's just not as enthralling revisiting old characters as it could be exploring with all-new ones. Some people may jump at the prospect of interacting with these characters once again, but think of it this way: What about Disney (owned) movies like say, Toy Story? What about James and the Giant Peach? What about The Incredibles?
The other main problem with Kingdom Hearts 2 seems to be the actual game itself, as odd as that sounds. Without getting too specific and spoiling anything, the first five hours of play are quite surprising-QUITE surprising. It's unfortunate, then, that when the adventure formally starts, things return to normal. While the story is fantastic (with even more twists and turns than the original game), I can't help but feel it's confined by the Disney presence. With the first Kingdom Hearts, this wasn't as noticeable given the limited nature of the game's plot. With the sequel, though-especially after you tackle the game's final World, you have this gigantic, complex scenario with dark undertones, but instead of seeing its maturation throughout, you have to put up with bits and pieces in-between the far more childish Disney creations. It's almost as if Tetsuya Nomura really wants to create the next level of Final Fantasy games, but now has his hands tied in light of the game's joint-venture existence. It might sound rash, but I'd truly prefer if the inevitable Kingdom Hearts 3 drops Disney all together. To be fair, however, my own dislike with Disney ultimately fails to quantify given the fantastic job done to the licenses.
Perfection Personified (In A Game's Guise)
When I look back at my history with videogames (some 15 years now), its all too apparent that even Square masterpieces of the past-Chrono Trigger, Xenogears-have been retrospective failures in their inability to invoke the excitement, sadness, tension, happiness, anger, and flat out amazement that product dishes out on a constant basis. In fact, I'm not sure how much longer the industry as a whole can continue to exist, because after finishing Tetsuya Nomura's magnum opus, it's quite apparent that 99% of the competition shouldn't even be in business. If a team of *human beings* can put forth something of this caliber, there is no excuse why any game should offer less. I'm actually at a loss, currently, trying to consider just what Square can add for the inevitable Japan-only Kingdom Hearts 2 International version. How can you improve upon a product which does everything flawlessly? Save for including that which everyone *really* wants (i.e. the ability to play as any of the Final Fantasy characters sprinkled throughout the game), it's difficult to say how this game can actually get any better. Though knowing Nomura's obsession with perfection I'm sure it will.
In the 3 years since the Disney-Square venture, Kingdom Hearts, released, it's difficult to determine the success. In the gaming world it was an unquestioned triumph both license-wise and entertainment-wise. In the outside world, however, neither Sora nor his suffering would even register as a blip on radar, despite all but the actual Final Fantasy character cameos belonging to Mickey's Maker. Was it a desire to keep the series stable and not sell-out to advertising nonsense? Was it the more restrained, stunted prominence the game enjoyed in Japan that prevented the ambition? In the end it's difficult to say really, but one thing is quite clear: Kingdom Hearts 2 is the product of an enormous amount of time, effort, and dedication; regardless of how it fares in the larger scheme of gaming, it is by far one of the best examples of modern programming and effective licensing to date. While not without flaws, they are mainly design related (room size, money issues) as opposed to gameplay setbacks or programming shortcomings. Obviously there is always room for improvement on ANY product, but far too often you'll pay for a product that can't even meet benchmark standards with what it DOES offer: Broken combat engines, poor control, bad graphics...Kingdom Hearts 2 perfects seemingly everything it does and that's about as good as it gets for now.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/24/05, Updated 12/30/05
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