Kingdom Hearts II
Disney and Square Enix. Doesn’t seem like the most obvious of collaborations, does it? A bit like My Chemical Romance doing High School Musical, or some such. And yet, cynicism aside, Kingdom Hearts worked. It wasn’t perfect, but cherry-picking the best bits from each company’s back-catalogue presented the opportunity to create a vast and diverse RPG adventure with a great principal cast and some brilliant cameos guaranteed to jerk a nostalgic tear with the legions of Final Fantasy and Disney fans.
So it is with considerable disappointment that Kingdom Hearts II feels a far lesser game than its predecessor.
As things begin, you take control of Roxas, not original protagonist Sora. Over the four or five hour opening chapter, he and his three friends discover there is something amiss with their home Twilight Town, and (as game protagonists tend to do) they set out to discover what’s going on. Right off the bat, proceedings are very slow, cutscenes are abundant and things won’t make a lot of sense – even to veterans of the PS2 original. That’s largely because of the GameBoy Advance title Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories which, rather than being a simple spin-off, is actually an intermediary between the two PS2 games, and sets up the scenario for this title. It’s an interesting and unusual move by Square Enix, which is probably more reflective of Nintendo handhelds’ success in Japan than anything.
Moving on from the prologue (which itself isn’t really explained for some time), we regain control of Sora (and his comrades in arms, Donald and Goofy) and enter more familiar territory. Maleficent, one of the first games’ many foes and scheming witch from Disney movie Sleeping Beauty is back, but Sora and co. agree an unstable truce with her in light of a new foe: Organization XIII, and their army of creatures called Nobodies. The cast is fairly large and the plot flits back and forth between different groups throughout. There are more double-crosses and ulterior motives than the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and unlike Square Enix’s other big series – Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which come in standalone episodes – you really need to have played the previous games to get the most out of the characters and story here.
The 3D real-time combat and exploratory gameplay makes its return, after a brief exodus in largely-card-game Chain of Memories. However, the game suffers from questionable balancing almost throughout. Because of Sora’s extremely dependable auto lock-on in combat you don’t generally need to worry about selecting which enemy to attack and in many cases even moving Sora yourself, which means that for most fights all you need to do is concentrate on hitting X (and occasionally triangle, when the game so chooses) and you’ll win, regardless of skill level. At the other end of the scale, some of the considerable number of boss battles are so absurdly difficult that you’ll need advanced precognition to have any hope of beating them in your first handful of attempts. This problem is exasperated in places by the need to play through short sections before actually getting to the boss, which is a thoroughly irritating element that really should have been resolved.
There are, as ever, an abundance of magic attacks you can use, but aside from healing (which wizard Donald usually takes care of) and your overpowered special move called Overdrive, there’s not a great deal of incentive to use them, since mashing X is generally quicker and more effective. It’s yet another area where more balancing was required, which is a shame as it means potential variety in the combat is rendered largely useless. The Gummi Ship mini-game also returns, but it has definitely benefited from a significant overhaul; now resembling something like StarFox, with its numerous diverse levels, huge bosses and sweeping camera angles. It’s also worth noting that the third-person camera has been vastly improved since the last game, easily standing alongside comparative titles now such as Final Fantasy XII or Rogue Galaxy.
You’ll travel across a variety of Disney worlds and some original locations in your journey – many you’ll likely be familiar with, such as The Little Mermaid’s Atlantis, Tron’s neon-drenched cyber world and the Pride Land from The Lion King. It’s something of a shame, however, that many of these locations are regurgitated from the first game. Given Disney’s considerable back-catalogue with literally hundreds of movies to plunder, it seems a little wasteful that we have visited many of these levels previously. On the whole the worlds tend to feel a little compact, without a great deal of opportunity for non-essential exploration, although the game itself is sizeable and will keep you busy for a good thirty hours or more.
As you would expect from Square-Enix, the graphics are utterly beautiful. They’ve done a stellar job of capturing the art style from each movie, and faithfully recreated an assortment of Disney worlds to a very high standard. The only real anomaly is Pirates of the Caribbean’s Port Royal, which with its interpretations of real-life actors and darker styling doesn’t sit comfortably alongside the likes of Goofy and Donald or Square Enix’s very Manga-styled characters. Furthermore, the audio is done to an extremely high standard, with Yoko Shimomura/Utada Hikaru’s excellent soundtrack (plus a few remixed Disney tunes), and a plethora of Hollywood talent on the voice cast, including Hayden Panetierre, Haley Joel Osment and Christopher Lee. Again, the only notable fly in the voicework ointment are the Pirates… characters, who quite honestly do an awful attempt to mimic the movie’s characters.
Kingdom Hearts II is a production of the highest level, and carries the infallible layer of polish we have come to expect from Squaresoft and subsequently Square Enix. It’s a shame that the pacing is somewhat inconsistent and that the combat feels so unchallenging and underdeveloped. If you enjoyed the original Kingdom Hearts you’ll find some enjoyment here too, but sadly it is not the classic it could have – and probably should have – been.