Review by jeronimo80204

Reviewed: 01/26/04

"I've been having these weird thoughts is any of this real or not?"

“I’ve been having these weird thoughts is any of this real or not?”

These “weird thoughts” open the epic journey belonging to the first Disney/Squaresoft joint venture, 2002’s Kingdom Hearts, directed by Tetsuya Nomura. It features the unlikely pairing of virtually every Disney character put on screen to date and noted figures from the popular Final Fantasy series. The “weird thoughts” in question belong to that of the game’s lead character, Sora (expertly voiced by Haley Joel Osment); who lives on the Destiny Islands, a beautiful paradise that is unknowingly about to be invaded by a terrible darkness. His days are spent cavorting with friends Kairi, Riku, Selphie, Wakka, and Tidus; play-fighting, fishing, exploring, and daydreaming of faraway lands. Elsewhere, two very recognizable characters, Donald Duck and Goofy, are about to embark on an important quest of their own: to search for a “key,” its mysterious owner, and what is happening to their world and others near and far.

Soon after the tranquil title screen appears (complete with comforting “plinking” sound effects upon selection and an engaging rendering of Sora), the game launches into an impressive trailer, showing the grand scope of the game and the many worlds the player can expect to visit...all while bringing out the best in the respective animation departments of Square and Disney. It involves shots of Sora drifting through a watery element (and a perfect chance to pitch the creator credits), and cutting to highlights of Sora and company’s quest: meeting up with Donald and Goofy, falling down the White Rabbit’s hole to Wonderland, swimming alongside Ariel and Sebastian as mer-creatures, fighting off jungle animals with Tarzan, and flying through London with Peter Pan. It ends triumphantly with Sora wielding the keyblade with great prowess and confidence, while never upstaging the dramatic Disney musical score.

Sora is a great and believable character to play. He is like us, the players, in that he is wide-eyed, thirsty for adventure, an explorer, and wanting to complete and achieve the goals that are set before him. He is also impetuous, which accounts for him running into danger with an incautious concern for his friends’ safety during the opening montage. He is also uncomplicated physically: he is clearly a pubescent child whose body is about to go through some changes (part of which is evidenced in Osment’s brilliant “voice-cracking”) and is dressed as you would expect a hip teenager to, colorful shoes, baggy shorts with a chain dangling below the belt line, matching hooded T-shirt, and what appear to be bike-racing gloves on his hands. In the first level alone, the player is clued in to some distinct personality traits of the lead character. This portion of the game explores the notion that the friendship between Sora and Kairi has been long-standing and could even blossom into something more, giving a few years’ time, and that they are clearly very important in each other’s lives. The terrific storytelling not only sticks to these two, but extends to other members of the cast; Riku, who harbors a slight jealousy of Sora over Kairi’s affectations; Selphie and her schoolgirl crush on Sora; and finally, Wakka and Tidus, who live for playing and fighting - giving away no mystery of their young ages whatsoever.

Although there is little threat of danger on the island level, it is no less fun to play. Like every other level in the game, the developers went out of their way to create a fully interactive environment. There are tons of areas to run, jump, swim, swing from and explore, including a “secret place” located underneath an isolated tree which provides some mystery which comes to a head later on in the level. Soon, the island is invaded by creatures known as the “Heartless,” who intend to rob all neighboring worlds of their hearts (as in souls) and the complete domination of a heartless universe. Through the cataclysm, Sora is transported to a different world called Traverse Town, allies with Donald and Goofy, and the epic quest across worlds to defeat the Heartless begins. Each of these worlds is rendered to be as believable and interactive as possible. While there are some limits in all levels as to where the characters can move, the environments are all accurate to the smallest detail: the Dalmatian house in Traverse Town (minus 99 pups that are scattered to numerous worlds) is complete with furniture, lighting, and objects which all can be moved, treaded, or grasped. Most objects collected in the game, however, are merely represented as power-up icons would: brightly colored spheres or stars. However, those objects, which serve a story-telling function, such as the “drink me” glasses in Wonderland, are visible and tangible. At times, the texture mapping in the game can seem a bit cut-and-dried. For example, sections involving characters and settings in a Final Fantasy milieu will be rendered with mega-palettes that you would expect from Squaresoft while those involving Disney environments will appear a bit too cartoony and blocky. Aside from the inconsistencies in the bump mapping, Disney benefits greatly from Square’s animators as the transparency mapping of water (such as in Atlantis, for example) is a tremendous effect.

Because of Disney’s contribution to the visual medium, it is not surprising to discover that Kingdom Hearts favors an animation-heavy execution. Attention to detail is not only exclusive to the environments, it also provides explanation for the seemingly endless points of articulation on movable characters and objects. The laws of forward and inverse kinematics are followed to the letter. As a somewhat amusing example, Goofy simply turning his head provides a strong parent object. The face turns, nose wiggles, strands of hair wave, and the ears flop to and fro, all in succession. Sora’s clothing “moves” with him i.e. his belt-chain will rattle and bounce during jumps or running and the medallion around his neck sways appropriately. My personal favorite animation technique in the game (and the true sign of a Squaresoft property) is the trademark Squaresoft “hair sweep,” which the animators have down to the last follicle. In the game’s ergodic moments, voices are text-based and viewed in word balloons, yet the non-interactive sequences are when the animators shine by providing expert lip-synching and realistic facial expressions. The sequence where Goofy and Donald invite Sora to join them in their quest on the condition that there be “no sad faces” is priceless. Sora replies with a toothy grin, which provokes much laughter in the others. As detailed as the animation can be throughout the game, the physics of the characters’ movements aren’t always correct and are slightly exaggerated, keeping well within the game’s decidedly cartoonish parameters. Rather than a varying degree of jumps and hops from place to place, the characters bound up and down mushroom fields, for example; and always, ALWAYS land on their feet...except during a non-interactive sequence involving the trio falling down the rabbit hole in Wonderland and Goofy promptly falling on his noggin.

Speaking of those all-important non-ergodic moments, the cut scenes are definitely vital in the execution of the story. They are produced to be on par with that of a Disney film and the production values would lead one to believe they might even be lost cut scenes from old motion pictures. A goodly amount of actors who’ve supplied voice work to previous Disney productions return to their famous roles: James Woods as Hades, Tony Goldwyn as Tarzan, Brian Blessed as Ariel’s father, and so on. It is a treat to see these characters, beloved or despised, graduating from 2-D cell animation and rendered in 3-D and motion capture. The only drawback to these sequences (and there are MANY) is that the player is unable to forward through them, so saving the game often is key if the desire isn’t there to sit through five minutes of non-interactive sequences again and again. A few words about the original voice acting must be given: in capturing the audible qualities of these characters, the acting couldn’t be more spot-on. All of the characters’ voices have a nice pitch and the emotions detected in the voices are accurate in range and seamless with the facial expressions. The voices also succeed in describing what sort of character being dealt with: mysterious, fun and spontaneous, clever, or even immature. If Oscars were given for voice acting, Kingdom Hearts would be a sure-fire contender.

Fantasy games certainly aren’t strangers to hordes of special visual, lighting, and sound effects. The most awe-inspiring: the shadowy ball of energy and the storm effects that surround it which herald the inevitable arrival of the Heartless. There are fire and magic effects galore, along with force fields and sparks derived from the collision detection of a sword striking a random area in the environment. The non-interactive sequences make great use of lighting effects; such as direct lights highlighting various objects of power to select from, and creative omni lighting, such as that emanating from the floor in a castle that illuminates the entire scene, from Sora’s face to the birds flying away from the area. The characters also cast nice soft shadows...but only on the ground and only directly beneath them. The shadows change direction according to the direction the character is moving, but the global light source always stays the same and thus the shadow’s placement. There are as many sound effects in the game as there are lighting effects. For each fire or lightning blast, there is the accompanying explosion of sound. As impressive as the translucent mapping of the ocean water is, so are the sounds that come from that area: the tide rolling in and lapping at the beach or even diving in, which creates a huge splash of sound. Footsteps can be heard tracking through the sandy beach, there is “clomping” heard on castle floors, and the texture of grass can be keenly detected by the effect of characters passing through fields of grass. There are great battle sounds found throughout as well: “swooping” sounds as Sora flips up onto a platform, the aforementioned sword-clanging upon collision detection, and amusing battle comments from Sora and other NPC’s. (“Hiyaa!” “Ugh!” “Come on!” “See ya!” etc.)

So does the game play as well as it watches? Playability in Kingdom Hearts, as it turns out, is slightly easier than the average fantasy RPG with an intended ease of use for children and older. The command menu is omnipresent on the screen with choices of attack/talk, magic, items and a fourth option present when encountering an inanimate object: throw, lift, open, or examine; all toggled with the right analog stick or the D-pad. Even more options can be explored by opening a menu executed by pressing the start key. This brings up sub-menus cataloging items for the characters in the party, equipment, abilities learned, customizing controls, status of party attributes, configuring game settings, and a wonderful feature that has Jiminy Cricket compiling a journal of people, places, and things discovered along the way. L1 and R1 shortcuts can be created for complicated button functions that occur later when Sora achieves new levels and learns new abilities; such as dodge, fire, and examining an enemy’s health (HP).

It’s hard to say exactly what displays of artificial intelligence are present in the game. The enemies all seem to select their own placement within the level and formulate an attack plan. Some will hide during battle and sink into the floor, only to reappear behind you. This can be easily timed, however, and doesn’t prove to be too challenging of an enemy’s defense. On other levels, the enemies will actively try to find you (the keyblade Sora wields turns out to be the magnet attracting the baddies), but are easy to avoid. In the event that the player doesn’t want to take evasive action, the battle systems are simple to get the hang of. There is a dramatic music change upon the occurrence of an enemy and lasts until the enemy is either defeated or evaded. It breaks down to real-time combat with Donald and Goofy fighting independently, yet following Sora everywhere else in the level. In fact, other than battle sequences, they rarely leave his side. There are numerous, random spots throughout the game where the trio can perform a “trinity” maneuver. When all three are in place, the fourth option on the command menu will read “trinity,” and upon selection, the trio are able to teleport great distances or even unleash a devastating attack on a powerful foe.

Control over camera angles is one touchy spot that is possibly the one feature that needs the most improvement on. Using the L and R buttons, the camera does a limited sweep over the surrounding area. In 1st person perspective mode, a 360 degree sweep is virtually impossible. An important function to keep in mind during gameplay is the target lock feature, which locks on to an enemy target to strike only that target or can be used to lock on to an inanimate object for purposes of striking, lifting, etc. This prevents the player from getting lost as the camera repositions itself to accommodate rapid movements. A few times in the game, the characters are caught fighting behind things and the intent for this is hard to figure out: an attempt to inject realistic feeling into gameplay, perhaps? Whatever the reason, it’s not fun for playing, it disrupts gameflow and can even get your character killed if the player can’t see where the fight is taking place.
Aside from that, the game is easy enough to play and comprehend. It adheres comfortably to classic RPG elements such as controlling the advancement of characters as evidenced by the advancement in stats, an astute inventory of equipment, a fully interactive and engaging story, hundreds of NPC’s, and an enormous world(s) full of rewards which are reinforced by experience points gained through battle and finding powerups. The theme of the game is clear from the very beginning of the game...the tutorial section, in fact, when Sora and friends are exploring ideas of breaking away from the norm, identifying how each of them feel about friends, fears, and what it truly is that they respectively want. Plus, have faith that even Goofy himself...can be a badass.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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