Review by CoolMyth

Reviewed: 01/10/06

The collaboration between Disney and Square Enix continues.

In the year 2002, Disney and Squaresoft (later Square Enix) came together to unleash Kingdom Hearts (KH) on the Playstation 2 (PS2), an action Role-Playing Game (RPG) having both Disney and Final Fantasy characters. The game shocked the worldwide gaming and RPG community for what seemed to be an impossible event. Critics came fast and furious, the most common being they cannot see how Disney and Final Fantasy characters can co-exist. However, sales figures do not lie, millions of the game sold worldwide and now the Kingdom Hearts series can now be said to be one of the three main pillars of Square Enix, together with the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series.

In 2004, the second game Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (KH: CoM) came on the Game Boy Advance (GBA), continuing how Kingdom Hearts ended. In Christmas 2005, Kingdom Hearts II (KH2) was released on the PS2 in Japan, continuing the story of KH: CoM . What can gamers expect from the continuation of this popular action-RPG? Note: This review is based entirely on the Japanese version, in lieu of possible additions to the English version of Kingdom Hearts II later on.

Graphics:

The graphics in KH2 retained the cartoony style of KH, with a few surprises, even though the producers of the game had indicated the graphics had been overhauled with a new graphics engine. Donald Duck and Goofy retained how they looked, together with most of the characters that appeared in KH. Environments are colorful when they shall be and darker-themed areas are also well-portrayed. Do not expect all areas in the game to be of the same graphical style, the surprise will be particularly the newly added world of Port Royal, based on the movie, the Pirates of the Caribbean. The unique characters of that world are almost life-like, sharing similarities with the characters from the upcoming Final Fantasy XII and possibly better in my opinion. Let your jaws dropped when you see how the two differently designed characters come together.

A notable mention of the graphics will be how Sora can retain his Drive Form appearance in certain cut-scenes, provided Sora is in that drive form before that cut-scene. Another will be that the retained command menu on the bottom-left now has an individual design to it based on the world that your party is currently at. And finally, one of the unique worlds in the game will definitely surprise you, which is a nice throwback to the early years of Disney.

To talk about graphics, the Full-Motion Videos (FMVs) have to be mentioned as well. In line with the original KH and also Square Enix's company policy to reduce the number of FMVs to lower production costs, FMVs are only present during the opening and the ending of the game. Do not be disappointed by the lack of FMVs in between cut-scenes, as most likely you will not be missing them at all. That being said, the FMVs themselves are very detailed, from examples such as the lush greenery and water tides present in the opening FMV. Expect the same high production values originally present in KH.

Gameplay:

Being an action-RPG, one of the important components of gameplay will be its battle system. This is where the most impressive improvement lies. Our main character (and mostly used) Sora will learn new battle and support abilities not present in KH, designed to combat against the enemies he will face in the game. Beside that, a new Drive system is implemented in KH2, where Sora can now "merge" with either Donald or Goofy or the both of them together, to become a dual-wielding keyblade fighter in what is called a Drive Form, indicated by a different colored Sora.

There are 5 Drive Forms in all, some obtained along as you proceeded through the game. Every Drive Form has its own unique fighting style and combos that you can execute during battles. Be prepared to see possibly, some of the fastest and craziest fighting moves ever known in an action-RPG, from these Drive Forms. Drive Forms can be levelled up as well, though you need to know how each Drive Form gains experience individually. By levelling them up, you can unlock and improve Sora's abilities, for example, the ability to glide. The ability to change into a Drive Form is dependent on how much the Drive bar, next to Sora's hit-points(HP) is filled.

Battles occurred as they are in KH. Enemies will pop up as you proceed from area to area and no loading time is present from non-battle to battle mode. Overall, there are less enemy encounters compared to KH although in some battles, you will fight more enemies than you thought possible. An interesting addition will be the availability of special requirements in battle, more visible in the battle tournaments in one of the world. Some of them might just force you to reconsider another strategy to what is often a normal battle. Also, if you felt that you were easily getting lost in KH, be glad (or sad?) that now there is a Final Fantasy X-liked map system in place telling you where you are now, available once you acquired that map for that area. There's also less ledges and high places to reach to so it is less likely you will get lost in KH2.

The next change will be its MP system. Sora, Donald and Goofy will have 100 magic points (MP) right from the start and there will only be slight increases throughout the game. Peharps the most surprising change will how the magic spell to heal HP "Cure" is executed. Cure now requires all MP present to execute and once all the MP of Sora is depleted, a new pink bar replaces the blue MP bar and a countdown begins before your full MP bar comes back. During this countdown, you cannot use any magic spells. To counteract this, you can use items to replenish either HP or MP Therefore, unlike in KH, you cannot continuously cast Cure as much as you will like, which brings a new strategy involved in KH2. Fortunately, it is not so bad as it sounds, although some of the most difficult boss battles in the game will have you clutching your hair.

Another change will be the summon system, a reference to the summons present in the Final Fantasy series. However, this time there will only be 4 summons instead of the 6 originally present in KH2 and summons are peharps even less useful than they were in KH2. Now, they basically served as something for novelty and you most likely will use them to fill up Jiminy's Journal.

However, there weren't only just changes made to the battle system. There are some newly added components to the battle system that really made this game shine. As usual, players of KH will know Sora and co will visit other worlds and characters unique to that world can join you in battle. This remained unchanged in KH2. But now, you can perform cooperative attacks with these characters that will cause huge damage to the enemies you face. The Triangle button now serves as a battle command to start these attacks, perform every hit and finally the final move of the attacks in present of a combo count that takes note of the number of hit you performed and a Limit Gauge that determines the length of your final. Something to know is that you can perform co-op attacks with Donald or Goofy or the both of them as well, once they learned the necessary ability to do so.

Another notable addition is the Reaction Command ability, indicated by an on-screen Triangle button that you have to press in the midst of an intense battle. This allows you to perform special and unique manoeuvres or attacks to certain enemies, or evading certain enemy attacks that can turn the tide of battle. This will only appear in most boss battles and some random enemy encounters. The final boss battle in particular will really make your jaws drop.

With so many options and commands available, you might think of how this will come together. Now, you can press left of the D-pad to access a different command menu with some different options like summon instead of magic and using items on your party members instead on Sora that you control. That being said, you do not control Sora alone in KH2 unlike in KH. Be prepared for some surprises.

Another facet of the gameplay will be the Gummi Ship system, used to traverse between worlds. Graphically, the areas between worlds now looked different and often have certain themes to them. Gummi ship battles are now often intense and there are now systems in place so that you can gain gummi parts or models. Again, you can chose to build your own Gummi ship piece by piece or you can actually chose from different Gummi ship models that you will gain as you proceed through the game. Overall, the entire system is more improved than what it was in KH.

Of course, as in all RPGs nowadays, there are mini-games present almost in all the worlds, ranging from performing skateboard stunts to a Xenosaga-liked pasting posters and Final Fantasy VII-liked motorcycle chase. Most of them are easily accomplished though trying to complete the challenges as listed in Jiminy's Journal will take quite some time.

Story:

First of all, I have to admit I do not understand Japanese so it will be fair for me to say I fully understood the story. But then again, a picture tell a thousand words and based on what I have gathered from other gamers who understand Japanese and played the game, the story is as good as you might expect, though the execution of it is debatable.

Peharps the start of the game will bring a shock to most gamers, reminding some of Metal Gear Solid 2 possibly. Do not be surprised as you played through the first few hours of the game. That being said, it is highly recommended that you have played KH and KH: CoM before embarking on KH2 as you might not appreciate some of the story behind it.

As you proceed on with the game, you will once again visit unique Disney worlds where Sora and company will again be involved in the stories there loosely based on the actual movie it depicts. Some worlds from KH are retained but all of them have their areas redesigned. Disney characters and villians that you know will appear as they are in the movie with you, the gamer, playing a part in seeing the story there develops.

Being a collaboration with Square Enix, there are cameos of Final Fantasy characters throughout the game. Without revealing too much, most of the Final Fantasy characters in KH will reappear in KH2, with some having wardrobe changes. There are also newly added Final Fantasy characters as well and they fit in nicely in the places where they appear.

Every new development in the story will be noted in Jiminy Cricket's Journal, which also gives you other stuff like descriptions of every character in a particular area, enemy description etc. Trying to fill up them is a challenge but for those playing on Normal, it will be necessary to unlock a secret movie after the ending.

The main crux of the story will only be present in the start and the second half of the game, continuing what was done in KH: CoM. The execution however is rather linear and really gives a feeling of "go to this area, see a cut-scene" and continuing the whole process. Also, I personally felt that there is too many cut-scenes in this game. But, without revealing too much, shocks and twists are aplenty as you might expect from an RPG so the story help to redeem itself somewhat.

Music:

The music in KH2 is handled once again by Yoko Shimomura. Some of the tracks are retained, like the Hollow Bastion theme and the Hundred Acre Woods theme. Some of them are remixed, such as the tune that plays leading to the "start" screen. As with most RPGs currently, there will be a main vocal track, once again sang by Utada Hikaru called "Passion" that is present only in the FMVs in the game. Expect the vocal track to be well-blended in with the FMVs as you will expect.

The music is soothing and intense when it shall be, generally very fitting for all the areas. However, there are no tracks similar to "Destati" from KH in KH2, which might be a disappointment for some. None of the unique tracks in this game, other than the Disney ones, really remained in my mind.

It is to be noted that in one particular world, the story proceeds along like a musical and Sora and company will join in the singing as well. It will be interesting to see how the songs will turn out in the English version, which in my opinion, was pretty well-done in this version. Some may like it, some may hate it, I did not mind it.

Replay Value:

The replay value in this game generally lies on trying to understand more on the story or trying a different approach on some bosses or having a different difficulty mode. Otherwise, there's no New Game Plus here as what is getting more and more common. Play this game again for those who want to relive some important events in the game.

Overall, the game is very well-done, in particular the improved battle system. A misgiving I had was that every area felt less "alive" than it was in KH. Whatever happened to trinity marks, breaking boxes and barrels and jumping and gliding to new areas? Every world now consists of almost plain areas, with treasure chests visible and there is less interaction involved with these areas unlike in KH.

Highly recommended for RPG gamers who want a great amount of story, memorable villains and impressive battles in their game.


Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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