Review by Halron2

"It gets an extra point 'cause you get to play as Donald."

Much has already been said about Kingdom Hearts. Many people have talked about how unexpected it was that Squaresoft and Disney would get together to make a game where characters from both companies' pantheon would be cast. Unexpected as it really was, it's pretty understandable and not actually shocking, in this era of giant mergers and the like (I mean, Square and Enix are the same thing today, who would have thought that?). Obviously, the fact that the game brought Squaresoft and Disney together alone practically guaranteed a huge hit and, allied with the technical expertise we've come to expect from Square, it was clear that this game was a granted success. It did become a hit, many people out there love it and have been describing it as one of the greatest games ever made. But, to be quite frank, I can't really agree with that.

In Kingdom Hearts, you play the role of Sora, a young boy. As the story begins, he is living in his home in the small Destiny Islands. He has never been to any place beyond the island, so he, his childhood friend Riku and a girl named Kairi plan to build a raft and explore new lands. Their desire is about to be granted in an unusual fashion, as one day during the night dark creatures appear on the island and, after some fighting, Sora gets transported from his home to Traverse Town, which is another world. At the same time, in the Magic Kingdom, the court magician Donald Duck finds out that King Mickey has disappeared, leaving behind only a letter in Pluto's mouth. So, Donald and his friend Goofy set out to complete the mission King Mickey assigned for them: to find the one who bears the ‘key'. Not to much surprise, Sora will receive a big key-like sword called Keyblade, and he will tag along with the Disney duo. Their mission is to find Mickey, Sora's friends and to destroy the Heartless, the dark creatures who are destroying various worlds.

During the playing of the game, the three friends, who meet rather quickly in Traverse Town, will encounter some of the most famous Disney and Final Fantasy characters. Perhaps because Kingdom Hearts is directed by character designer Tetsuya Nomura (who also did the character designs for the game), we only have characters from the Final Fantasy games he worked on (VII, VIII and X), which somewhat limits the appearances from the series' cast. Disney easily takes the cake in the cameo department, with a huge cast of characters, including heroes, heroines, villains and side characters that all star in the game. This generates the first point of interest in Kingdom Hearts: the nostalgia factor. For anyone who has seen the movies (and just about everyone has) or played the games (also a huge number of people), this game quickly turns into a series of ‘hey, look who's there!' events.

It's needed to say that the Disney characters are much more well represented than the Square characters. One of the main reasons behind this is that the Final Fantasy characters' designs have lost the realistic edge featured in their original games (except for Final Fantasy VII, which sported its ultra-distorted character models), to immerse them into this animation-oriented-world. Yes, Kingdom Hearts' designs are aimed at a younger audience. I wouldn't go as far as to say that the game was meant for children, but more for young adolescents. This is also evidenced by the fact that the Disney movies featured here aren't from really recent outings (except for Tarzan, a 1999 title), so that most people who will actually play this game will have grown up with all or most of the game's characters.

And so, Sora, Donald and Goofy all travel together looking for King Mickey and Sora's friends Riku and Kairi. Their travels will take them to many different worlds, most of them mirrors of Disney movie settings. The choices for the worlds is a strong point in Kingdom Hearts, featuring many of Disney's most interesting settings and at least one surprise in the form of Halloween Town, from A nightmare before Christmas. Each of the movies' original design and feeling are well represented in the game and this will certainly add to the nostalgia factor mentioned above. The only thing to complain about here is the fact that some of these world are incredibly small and take no time to complete, although in all of them many different adapted versions of scenes from the movies are included. As the game progresses and you get closer to the end, you'll be taken to more ‘Final Fantasy-like' settings, which are also pretty interesting in their own right.

One thing that has been said a lot, specially by people that don't really love the game, is that Kingdom Hearts is more of an action game than an RPG, really. While it surely does include many RPG elements, there are many evidences showing that this game is practically an action game. First, we have the combat-intense engine. Kingdom Hearts is all about fighting. You will meet a puzzle here or there and some story-oriented missions (like finding the right pieces to make the raft, right in the beginning of the game), but the core of its gameplay is fighting. This is what you'll be doing during most of the game. Unfortunately, the game's combat isn't really that exciting. In essence, all you have to do is push R1 to target an enemy and then X to attack it. When the enemy is dead, repeat. And that's it. It's true that it flows well and the insanity of having legions of enemies against you at a time is somewhat interesting, but, in fact, it's little more than button-mashing frenzy. You could play parts of this game without even looking at the screen, just pushing the X button constantly and all is solved.

Clearly, there are RPG-elements in the combat too, like using spells or items, but, still, these tasks are most likely to be performed by your pals Donald and Goofy (or some other Disney characters that can be used in their respective worlds), specially because the item and spell engine isn't really user friendly (spells are somewhat easier because you have a shortcut for three set spells with the L1 button). The side characters are controlled by a somewhat stupid AI, that can be irritating sometimes (like when they take a huge time before healing you) and really helpful in other situations (keeping bosses busy and saving your life more than once with healing items and spells). You can set orders for them (although you can't change them during combat), but these won't strictly be followed. In the end you don't really have much control on what your friends do during combat, which means that combat is still pretty limited to attacking, attacking and attacking.

Many of Sora's abilities (acquired through leveling up) are equipped automatically, so you don't really ‘use' them, but there are some key usable combat abilities to employ, such as the Dodge roll and Guard, which are still ‘action' commands. But, still, fighting is pretty much button mashing for the most part. The bosses do require some ‘strategy' from some point on, but it's mostly about learning their attack patterns and how to avoid them, which will probably get you killed a couple of times, just like in any action game. Another factor that adds to the ‘action game feeling' is the division of the game in worlds. These ‘worlds' are nothing more than stages, while Traverse Town serves as some kind of headquarters where you can buy stuff and so on.

The worst aspect of the gameplay, however, is, by far, the gummi ship mini-game. Yes, Square still insists on the mini-game fiasco and, in Kingdom Hearts, it is worse than ever. This gummi ship is the transport that takes your party from each world to another. So, whenever you travel between worlds, you are forced to play an utterly terrible excuse for a spaceship shooting game. This mini-game is so ridiculously easy that staying in the middle of the screen not shooting anything will take you through most of its ‘levels'. To make matters worse, Square seems to believe this game is an incredible experience, including in the game a gummi garage, where you can build new models of ships and also upgrade the one you have. Another frustrating thing in the Kingdom Hearts gummi scheme is that many of the secret items you can get in this game by doing side-quests and the like are gummi ship parts, which are, by all means, useless. It is true that, after some point in the game, you aren't forced to play the mini-game when traveling to worlds you've been before, but it does little to hide the fact that the gummi ship mini-game is a ridiculous joke.

Kingdom Hearts also includes a series of side-quests, but none of them are really that interesting. While the mission to look for the 101 dalmatians is an interesting idea, the locations of most chests is pretty obvious, which makes it far too easy. Also, re-exploring the worlds looking for dalmatians and trinities (special places where the three main characters can use special abilities learned as you advance in the game to get rare items) is more tiresome than fun, because it means basically fighting the same enemies you already have, all over again. Another wasted feature is the 100 acre wood, the world of Winnie the Pooh. Definitely the most irritating ‘stage' in the game, where there is no fighting to be done, just a series of completely utterly dumb mini-games to be played and nothing else.

Another factor that has been overly discussed about Kingdom Hearts is its supposed challenge. I mean, anyone who calls the game ‘challenging' must have their brains checked. Kingdom Hearts' difficulties come from its action aspects, thus I believe we have to judge its challenge by an action game standard, not an RPG standard. It is true that you will most likely die many times while playing the game for the first time (unlike many an RPG), but which action game can be completed without dying once in the first run? So, yes, some bosses will kill you a couple of times, specially the ones you fight alone as Sora (and in such occasions you will probably learn to value Donald and Goofy's help), because Sora takes a long time to cast a healing spell or use a healing item (not to mention the unfriendly sistem to do both). It is likely many players will die a lot while trying to heal themselves or dealing with the awkward camera angles the game offers (another rather weak point here), but what kind of challenge is there when you have infinite continues? You die, you use the continue and re-start on the same battle you died!

An ‘action' game with infinite continues (which doesn't even take you to the last save), plenty of save opportunities in the middle of the stages, not to mention the fact that you recharge HPs and MPs completely by just touching the save point (Final Fantasy X, anyone?). Is that challenging? I know a lot of people are thinking ‘Sephiroth!' and the like and, okay, the fight against the black-caped menace is hard and all, but, I mean, what action game offers infinite leveling up possibilities? To the weak-willed gamer, this is only a matter of leveling up. And the game can perfectly be beaten without leveling up frenzy. Which means, Kingdom Hearts joins the resources that make both RPGs and action games easy in one title. And people still call it challenging!

Okay, enough bashing the game. Because, while the gameplay is full of big and small issues that disappoint, its technical aspects are a true wonder. Few games have developed its graphical intentions as well as this game has. While I wished a little more approximation between the Disney and Square styles had been employed (most of the game is all Disney – including the new characters – and the end is all Square), it is still spectacular. I've seen people complain the worlds aren't detailed enough and so on, but it's a meticulous recreation of the original Disney worlds, which aren't really detailed-filled as Final Fantasy settings. It's kids animations and the backgrounds are simple. The Disney characters received outstanding versions and most of them are completely faithful to their original incarnations. There are also plenty of examples of how the designers valued details that add incredibly to the visual domain of Kingdom Hearts, like different designs for the main characters in some worlds, the different forms that the Keyblade may take (which are related to either Disney or Square mythology) and much more.

The only downside is the fact that Kigdom Hearts is much more Disney in the design than Square. The only new character that is Square-oriented in its design is the final boss, which is a total rehash of the Sephiroth model, both in his common form as in his last monstrous appearances. By the way, the last boss battles feel just like playing an action version of a Final Fantasy game, given the striking similarities in design. While I don't really like the designs for the Final Fantasy characters featured in the game, the one that does stand out is Sephiroth himself, who looks great, and also Cloud, who seems to have stolen Vincent's cloak. Of course, all the featured videos are spectacular. All in all, a remarkable visual offering, which makes sense, since the game director was a character designer to begin with.

The sound department also achieves wonders. The most interesting thing about it is that it integrates the original new music perfectly with classic Disney tunes, such as Under the sea from The little mermaid. There are works from various composers in this game (including Nobuo Uematsu's outstanding One-winged angel), but it all works perfectly as a whole. The new music (which comprises the vast majority of the soundtrack) done by Yoko Shimomura is pretty exciting, with themes for each world that are faithful to the original movies' feel and, what's best, a different fighting theme for each of the stages. There is a huge amount of interesting music in this game and it's all very fitting for a Square-meets-Disney affair. On the bad side, mention must be made to the horrible opening and ending songs, actually one song arranged in two different ways. While the ending version is somewhat less irritating, the opening is just dreadful. It scores some points for being unconventional (at least it isn't a sappy love song as seen in recent Final Fantasy games), but it still just doesn't work so well.

Also, there's voice acting. And I must admit that Kingdom Hearts' acting is great! There is a good number of stellar appearances, with many original voices from Disney movies (like James Woods doing Hades from Hercules) and also for the new characters, and the end result is impressive. Of course, the ridiculously corny dialogue doesn't help in most occasions (specially when it's sappy babblings about the ‘heart'), but the acting still manages to impress. The Final Fantasy characters are kinda disappointing in this regard, however, specially Squall and Cloud, who are too great characters to have so bland voice acting as featured here. It just doesn't have the same punch and charisma of the Disney characters. Of course, Donald's voice acting alone is definitely one of the most fun elements of the whole game.

In the end, Kingdom Hearts is a disappointing title, even if it still achieves huge accomplishments in technical aspects and in overall design. The union of Disney and Square isn't really fully explored (simply put, it's much more Disney in the end, which is not necessarily a bad thing), and the nostalgia is pretty much the greatest element the game has to offer. Obviously, the companies' reputations and the technical prowess employed here are easily the main reason why the game was and still is so successful. Still, it's not a bad game. I had fun playing its for the most part brainless kinda button mashing frenzy, that's certain. But, it isn't nearly the most exciting action game, nor the most compelling RPG I've got my hands on.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 07/23/04

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