Kingdom Hearts II - Staff Review  

A Loss of Some Disney Magic.
by Dallas "Scandallas" Richardson

40-60 hours


Rating definitions 

   In 2002, Squaresoft and Disney did the unthinkable and collaborated on the Japanese-style Action RPG, Kingdom Hearts. Many critics believed it would fail to please either Disney or Final Fantasy fans. However, the game delivered and sold far better than anyone expected. A sequel was inevitable. Now, Kingdom Hearts II has arrived and gives gamers more of the same. This is both positive and negative, as the game retains the Disney charm and Final Fantasy style but fails to improve on the lackluster gameplay in any major way.

   The original Kingdom Hearts followed the main character, Sora, on his quest to defeat the Heartless and find his best friends, Kairi and Riku. Sora receives the legendary weapon, the key-shaped Keyblade, and teams up with Disney characters Goofy and Donald, who are in search of King Mickey. The trio of characters hops from one Disney-themed world to the next in search of their friends, solving each world's problems in the process. The game ends with the defeat of Ansem, the self-proclaimed creator of the Heartless. However, the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II hints that there is much more to the Heartless than was initially assumed.

   The CG introduction does a decent job of summarizing the story of both Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2004. Chain of Memories followed Sora and friends as they entered Castle Oblivion and first encountered the Organization XIII. Players unfamiliar with the Kingdom Hearts story should start with the original game, as they would be quite lost playing through the sequel. This game caters to fans of the original game. In Kingdom Hearts II, players again take control of Sora, and the Organization jumps into the foreground to play a very important role in the story.

   Unfortunately, the plot runs into some major pacing problems in the earlier parts of the game. It begins with an introduction that lasts over three hours. In this section of the game, players are introduced to new characters and the new enemies. It can be a bit annoying, since far too few battles occur in this part. Players will run around, doing different tasks, watching several cutscenes along the way. When the game finally kicks off, the pacing problems worsen. As deep as the game's story is, sadly, players will have to go through a lot of fluff to get to it. Each world has its separate story and connect with the main plot. The only thing that links them is that the Heartless have caused problems. It makes the game feel like a collection of side-quests instead of one seamless story. Players even have to go through some of the exact same worlds and stories in the original games. It would have benefitted the game if these worlds were cut out altogether. The story doesn't start to pick up again until about halfway through, and even then players are forced to revisit the same worlds again to continue. Near endgame, the story reaches its climax, as everything is hastily explained in the last few hours of this forty-hour quest. It is then that things get very interesting. It's regrettable that the game requires players to go through so much superfluous material to get to the real heart of the story.

Great Boss Battle Boss battles are a highlight of the adventure.

   The battle system is nearly identical to that of the original game, but some improvements have been made. Battles still occur in real-time, and players perform actions by selecting them from the on-screen menu. A small improvement over the original is the new Reaction command. At times a triangle may appear over an object, asking the player to press that button to perform a specific action. It makes battles a bit more interesting and less monotonous, since some enemies' weaknesses can be exposed with Reaction commands. For instance, a certain ball-shaped Heartless may try to jump onto Sora, but by pressing triangle when it appears, Sora will grab onto the enemy and bounce him, causing massive damage. Another addition to the battle system is the Drive Gauge. The gauge sits under the MP bar and fills as enemies are defeated. When full, Sora may fuse with Donald or Goofy for a limited amount of time and become much more powerful. When fused with Goofy, Sora wields two Keyblades and has bolstered strength. With Donald, Sora has greater magic. The new additions to the gameplay help keep battles from being too repetitive.

   In spite of the new additions, the gameplay is still a bit shallow. Kingdom Hearts II can be considered a button-masher as battles can be won by constantly pressing the attack button. This is due to the fact that the game lacks any sort of difficulty. Even on its hardest setting, Proud Mode, Kingdom Hearts II is still a breeze to play through. It's great for the countless children who will play this game but disappointing for just about everyone else. Players will find little motivation to use either the Reaction commands or the Drive Gauge, save for the fact that they are quite flashy. The gameplay is far from terrible, however. Boss battles are amazing and by far the most interesting part of the battle system. Each boss has a weakness that requires some thinking and good timing with Reaction Commands to figure out. Some of these contests are quite memorable. Battles, like the fight against Xaldin and against the final boss, are a great combination of cinematic-like style, precise timing, quick thinking, and fast-paced action. It's too bad that the rest of the game lacks that same production quality.

   The game's score is consistent with the different worlds characters will visit. Each world has a theme that follows the Disney movie in which it is set. For instance, in the Lion King world the music has an appropriate African Savannah tune in both exploration and battle. Some worlds feature remixed versions of the movies' score, like the world of The Pirates of the Caribbean. The music does a great job of recreating the feel of each Disney movie. The original music is decent as well. Sadly, very few of the original tracks are orchestrated and are not nearly as memorable as some Final Fantasy tunes.

Deja-vu This looks all too familiar to fans of the original.

   There are few voice acting issues in the game. The quality of the voice acting is great; there is just not enough of it. It's regrettable that Square Enix failed to put more time into adding more voice-acted cutscenes. Many times, gamers will be treated to a short cutscene, followed by a longer, stagnant scene. In the following scene, characters lack energy, as they just stand around and talk, and gamers will have to read through the text dialogue. Even in important plot-driven scenes, players will have to read some text. Luckily, many of the original voice actors from the Disney movies reprise their roles in the game. On the other hand, Disney characters not voiced by their original actors are very noticeable, because the new actors sound nothing like the originals. The fact that players will have to read dialogue through most of the game, and that some of the original voice actors are absent, gives the game a low budget feel. Reading text can get annoying for gamers used to RPG's like Final Fantasy X, where there is very little of it.

   On the surface, Kingdom Hearts II's graphics look exactly the same as the original Kingdom Hearts. It is only when the game is running that players will be able to see the difference. This game is much smoother than the first, as character movements are more fluid this time. Also, there is a noticeable difference in the level of detail. Environments and character models are more refined. That is about the extent of the graphical upgrades. The game still does well converting 2D Disney characters into 3D. Any major graphical upgrades would possibly hinder the Disney look of the game.

   Enjoying the game comes down to one thing: whether gamers are fans of Disney or Final Fantasy. Gamers not in either category will find it mildly enjoyable for a while. Children who watch Disney movies and young adults who play Final Fantasy will most likely overlook the weak gameplay and poor storytelling and find something enjoyable in this game. Others will wonder what all the hype was about. The problem with Kingdom Hearts II is its bipolar nature. Trying to make a game fun and easy for children but deep enough for adults is a difficult task, and Kingdom Hearts II fails. Strip away the Disney and Final Fantasy license and what is left is a mediocre RPG that lacks depth in gameplay but tells a memorable story.

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