Review by luthien

Reviewed: 10/31/02 | Updated: 10/31/02

Beauty is only skin deep

We often hear it said, ''It's the little things that separate the good from the great''. That's true, but that assumes that you already have the big things right. In Kingdom Hearts, a lot of attention is paid to the details, giving one the impression of a carefully crafted, well-made game. But in reality, all the pretty pictures and sounds can't make up for the really big things that Kingdom Hearts lacks – good story and character development (the most critical aspect of any RPG, IMO), and a meaningful battle system (where you spend most of your time).

Gameplay 7/10 (pretty good)
All in all, this game was a smooth ride – easy-to-manage controls, challenging enough to be fun, but not so hard as to turn off a casual gamer, and good depth – lots of secrets, special items, and side bosses.

Kingdom Hearts is an action RPG with platforming elements. Although the platforming elements are executed poorly (read: bad camera), the third dimension of movement adds greatly to the depth of the game. There are now many more places where secrets can be hidden, and creative ways of getting from place to place, compared to past Final Fantasy games. The game starts out challenging, and becomes easier as it progresses. At the beginning, I was always low on munny, the currency in this game, and often had to seek out random battles to earn enough money to buy potions, ethers and weapons. Once you learn the Cure spell and equip the MP Rage ability, though, things get much easier. You will have an endless supply of magic and healing; furthermore, the best weapons are not bought, but given to you as gifts or rewards, later on in the game.

The main menu is intuitive to use – abilities and inventory management are a breeze. Changing party members is not as intuitive – it is part of the savepoint menu. However, you probably won't be changing party members much, if at all. Although you can occasionally switch in another character, depending on what world you are in, it's actually a bad idea to do so because Donald and Goofy will then fall behind in levels. This points out another weak point in the game – your party is pretty much always the same, and you only get to control one character throughout the entire game, which gets monotonous at times. The only interaction with the other members of your party is when they obscure your vision or actually physically get in your way. Sometimes you'll have to push Donald or Goofy off a cliff in order to get them out of your way, which is funny at first, but gets annoying quickly.

The real-time battle system in Kingdom Hearts is OK – I'm personally a fan of turn-based combat, but their battle system per se is fairly well done. The real problem comes when you pair the battle system with the camera. Camera angle is critical in a platform game with a real-time battle system, and I'm sure you've already heard how the camera in this game is bad. The nicest thing I've heard said about it is ''Yes it's bad, but you'll get used to it, especially since the auto-targeting system does a good job.'' However, for me, “getting used to it” was the real problem: it meant giving up trying to target specific enemies and execute specific strategies – basically, the giving up the joys of fighting with strategy and finesse. Instead, I’d get my character into the general vicinity of the bad guy, mash the 'x' button, and let auto-targeting take care of the rest – with an occasional frenzied foray through the menu to use an item or special skill. In fact, to spare my eyes, I'd often look off to the side of the television set as I mashed, and only look back when my peripheral vision noticed that I was low on health, or I had killed all the bad guys within reach. And lest anyone criticize my technique, let me add that it worked quite well. It's true that with a good fraction of the bosses, you will need to observe their behavior patterns and concoct some strategy for fighting them, but for pretty much all the regular battles, you can turn your brain off. Luckily (or unluckily) for me, I tend to notice storyline rather than gameplay, so I didn't mind mashing my way through battles to get on with the story. But it definitely could have been better, and it *should* have been, considering that you spend most of your time in battle.

Graphics/Sound 10/10 (Outstanding!)

The graphics and sound alone are enough to make this game a must-buy for any Disney fan. I was afraid that this game would make a mockery out of some of my favorite movies, but I needn't have worried – Kingdom Hearts remains true to the look, sound, and personality of all the characters and settings, and it's a pleasure and a treat to explore them all interactively (for a limited time, that on). The characters look awesome: lots of detail, facial expressions, and realistic motion. Voice acting is incredible too, with a top-notch cast and good synchronizing of the character's mouth and voice. Kingdom Hearts also does a terrific job in recreating the look and feel of the Disney movies in each world. All of this is obvious after a short preview of the game, but it's really the little things in this department that add the to the fun and charm of the game. For example, I love Donald's voice during battle – his quacking yell when he got hit, his ''Thank you'' when I cured him, his ''Sora!'' when he cured me – they always make me smile. Also, Donald and Goofy's victory dances after defeating certain strings of enemies are hilarious. Finally, little touches in the worlds – bubbles in the water, fog, lighting, etc. – make the environments seem real and live.

In terms of the music, I've heard good things and bad things from others, and I agree with both. The quality of music really covers a large range in this game. I didn't quite click with the theme song, although it wasn't too bad, and one particular background theme for a world became so irksome that I had to mute the sound until I was out of that world. At the other end of the spectrum, some music fit the mood of its world to a tee, and they enhanced the overall experience immensely.

The only exception to the good graphics is inter-world travel, where you fly an incredibly primitive looking space ship through an incredibly primitive-looking track. Luckily, these scenes are few and far between...

Storyline 4/10 (Disappointing)
I'm going to be harsh here, because my expectations were high going in. If you had lower expectations, you might have thought the storyline was ''not too bad''. Storyline is THE most important element of a RPG, as evidenced by all the beloved old RPGs with low-resolution graphics but compelling story, and Kingdom Hearts leaves one feeling very unsatisfied. The voice acting is terrific and the script is good, but these facts can't mask the emptiness of the underlying plotline.

You play Sora, a young boy who is thrown into a new world and discovers he is the keyblade master – the one who must travel to different worlds and defeat the Heartless, along with companions Donald and Goofy. As far as the main storyline goes, there were zero surprises in this game. You can pretty much guess in the beginning exactly how everything is going to end up, who is good, who is bad, etc. Actually, I take that back – I couldn't predict exactly what was going to happen because I didn't expect the storyline to be so bland and obvious. A lot of games have familiar characters and storylines – reluctant hero is thrown into a new world, and has to save the world from some evil force. I don't hold against Kingdom Hearts the fact that it follows the usual formula. However, it does absolutely nothing to develop this formula into a good story, the way, for example, FFX did. Because you travel to many different worlds, and each world has its own mini-story, there is no opportunity to develop a rich plotline with twists and details (some say the mini-stories make the plotline, but I would definitely argue that they dilute it). Instead, you start out with one basic theme – beat the bad guys and save the universe – and you get hit over the head with it again and again and again. Furthermore, since the mini-story of each world is constrained to follow the Disney movie that corresponds with the world, you end up with some watered-down, cheesy version of the story, where you already know what happens. And honestly, you really couldn't care less about what happens to their world, since you've hardly spent any time with the characters.

Speaking of characters, like I said: no character development. Because you're flitting from world to world, you don't get to ''bond'' with any of the side characters, or really care about their stories. You are an outsider temporarily helping their world out, and nothing more. I found this aspect quite disappointing because, for example, in the opening ''teaser'' for the game (the sequence you see if you remain on the save/load screen without hitting any buttons), you see Sora in all these different worlds, laughing, having fun, and appearing to share intimate moments with Disney characters – and it's not until you're actually in the world that you realize how shallow the experience is.

Furthermore, even the main characters that persist across all words – Sora, Donald, Goofy – were undeveloped. From beginning to end, Donald and Goofy remain exactly the same in purpose and personality. Sora isn't much better. Although he occasionally wavers between hope and frustration, he pretty much has the same attitude the whole time – he'll do anything to save his friends, and he's willing to help save the world in the meantime. Then again, we can't blame Sora...nothing happens in the storyline that would prompt an attitude change...

Finally, I put a lot of weight on how stories end, and the ending of the game was disappointing. Rather than feeling like you lived through an adventure that came to some fulfilling, if open-ended, conclusion, at the end of Kingdom Hearts, the feeling is ''What? That was it? I don't get it...''

After all this criticism, I will say that at times, I did enjoy the progression of the game. Basically, Kingdom Hearts is like Star Wars: Episode 1. It can't stand alone – all of its goodness is borrowed from the greatness of its predecessors. Because you already cared about the Disney movies coming into the game, you will be excited to see beloved characters in familiar worlds. I was always excited to go to a new world, explore it, see my favorite Disney characters doing their thing. Like the advertisement says, ''You never know who you will run into next...'' and that is exactly why I enjoyed the story as much as I did. But after an hour in a new world, the excitement wears off, and the remaining 2 hours are a chore (with the exception of the occasional, beautiful cut scene).

Replay 8/10 (Good, for an RPG)
Well, it is an RPG, so its replay value is inherently limited. I would say that for an RPG, it has relatively good replay value, since the worlds are rich with secrets and fun little details to notice, and it's worth it to go back to an old savepoint to try doing things differently. There are also a number of fun sidequests to do, but again, it's best to do those before the game ends, or from an old savepoint, rather than playing the whole game over.

Overall 6/10 (not an average, because story and gameplay are the most important…)
It was pretty good, but I really don't see what all the hype is about. Don't people care that there is no story? Perhaps my problem is that I came in expecting a lot, and was disappointed. Don't get me wrong – this game is pretty solid. In fact, I would even say that if you're a Disney fan, then I would recommend buying and playing this game, just because it's fun seeing your favorite characters and worlds so beautifully recreated. (If you're don't like Disney – if such people exist – this is not the game for you). BUT, keep in mind...the lower your expectations are (and make sure you keep them low), the more enjoyable your experience will be.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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