Kingdom Hearts - Review

Two Wrongs Make a... Wrong?
By: Red Raven

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 1
   Interaction 2
   Originality 3
   Story 2
   Music & Sound 3
   Visuals 4
   Challenge Unbalanced
   Completion Time 20-50 hours  

If you happen to be five years old.
The intense drama will leave you at the edge of your seat.
When news first broke that Squaresoft was teaming up with Disney to make an RPG, one question came to mind: were they insane? It hardly seemed prudent for the financially challenged Square to contribute to another Disney-licensed monstrosity whose previous spawns were "games" in only the strictest definition of the term - one needs only spend a short while with the various versions of Aladdin and The Lion King to know Disney has no business in the videogame industry. The concept itself too seemed absurd - Donald Duck and Goofy as party members - and it was doubtful at best that even the best people in Square would be able to pull it off. So then the question is, did they pull it off?

Put simply: no. Valiant effort which did manage to exceed some abysmal expectations, but Kingdom Hearts nevertheless failed to make two wrongs equal a right. This is somewhat ironic, as the reasons Kingdom Hearts failed have nothing to do with the "two wrongs" and everything to do with poor design.

One of the biggest offenders in the design department is the battle system. Sora and company explore each of the various Disney worlds in 3D, and real-time battles crop up in each and every room between you and the place you need to go. This is worse than random encounters in the traditional sense, as now you know there will be exactly five fights - without fail - between the initial save point and the next plot point, and five more getting back to that save point. How many battles will there be if you decide to backtrack or happen to get lost? Well, how many rooms did you go through?

All of this would not be so bad if the battle system was even remotely enjoyable. As it is, battles devolve rather quickly into simply mashing the X button and praying the camera can keep up - a prayer which goes unanswered the majority of the game. Locking onto enemies with the L1 button results in some camera-related gymnastics which obscures the other six opponents trying to kill you, while going commando often results in Sora hitting air as he falls off of the huge tower into oblivion. Luckily enough, your immortal Disney compatriots can usually take out most everyone themselves, letting the player concentrate on mashing X in the general direction of one enemy at a time. The AI gods are fickle however, and so regardless of your limited programming options available, Donald and Goofy are far more prone to use all their items and spells against the small fry and simply lie down and die before the colossal bosses than they are to be useful in a more meaningful way.

The camera, of course, does not help in this regard.
This will happen quite a bit.
The poor design follows the player outside of combat as well. Leveling up happens automatically in the midst of battle, usually leaving you confused as to who exactly leveled up, what stat increases they received, what new spells/abilities were learned, and all the other pertinent information generally useful to keep track of when playing an RPG. Perhaps the design team understood this, as managing your characters and equipment is basically optional and mainly consists of equipping your plot-granted items and abilities every half hour or so. The necessity to "Exchange" an empty slot in Sora's item inventory with an item in Stock (a process which allows you to actually use said item during combat) is also quite surprising. This process is exceedingly complex, and can take literally five minutes of pressing X before one realizes that one has to scroll down to Sora's empty slot, hit X, highlight Exchange, hit X, scroll down to Stock, hit X, find the item, and hit X. Restocking Sora's six-slot inventory with Hi-Potions and Ethers after yet another hard boss battle became almost an adventure in of itself.

The many Disney and few original worlds you come across in your travels are, for the most part, pleasant to look at and listen to. The 3D character designs are identical to their 2D source material, and the voice acting easily rivals the Metal Gear Solid series, as far as talent and casting goes. The music was done by the immensely talented Yoko Shimomura of Legend of Mana fame, although these Disney remixes fall somewhat below the music she produced previously. Unfortunately, the worlds themselves are tremendously empty and painfully uninteresting. Each Disney world is basically a recreation of that particular movie, with all the soul surgically removed and replaced with plastic jumping puzzles and large open areas to do "random" battle. The initial stages have some diversity (offering two different ways to reach the plot point), but this steadily devolves as the game wears on until at last the player is able to navigate each area perfectly without even have seen the level before. "Getting lost" eventually becomes "falling off the ledge and having to walk through the same five rooms and battling the same set of enemies again." Getting to each new world requires the use of a Gummi ship, a space vehicle of dubious function and curious product placement. Put simply, I have no idea what the designers were trying to pull off with the Gummi ship. It might have been understandable if it were some kind of overly-elaborate loading screen or some programmer's strange homage to the original Starfox, but the fact that players are encouraged to puzzle out the construction of their own Gummi ship leads one to believe that the designers actually took the concept seriously - a thought almost as incomprehensible as actually spending the time to figure the process out.

to crossover fanfiction that has spun completely out of control.
Just say no.
It is becoming exceedingly difficult to judge the merit of a game like Kingdom Heart's plot, when it so universally mirrors "love is the answer" camp found in countless other RPGs - Sora's tale of mystery, deception, betrayal, and sacrifice is by no means innovative nor particularly compelling. The search for Kairi and King Mickey never seems terribly urgent and the constant Disney/Final Fantasy-related cameos serve no real plot-related purpose other than distraction. Indeed, the actual "plot" of Kingdom Hearts is about two hours long, supplemented with some 20 hours of various Disney movie summations (with a dash of Heartless haphazardly thrown in for flavor, of course). Even so, one would have to be quite jaded to assert the plot has no redeeming features, and perhaps it would be a bit unhealthy to be constantly immersed in postmodern nihilistic ruminations anyway. In this sense, Kingdom Heart's plot is only thick as necessary to glue the rest of the game together, and for fans of Disney's other productions this should be more than enough.

As a fan of Square, however, Kingdom Hearts is not enough by any stretch of the imagination. This patchwork amalgamation was by no means entertaining to play, and was (temporarily) saved from resale only by virtue of my desire to warn others about its numerous failings. Several million people disagree though, and their voices have seemed to convince Square that a sequel was necessary. Indeed, a video trailer of this very sequel is revealed once a player unlocks all the secrets in Kingdom Hearts, and judging from the general tone of this trailer, it appears as though Square shall receive greater freedom in the sequel's direction rather than being shackled by rigid, childish tradition as it was is this game. Good news to be sure, but it means little to those disillusioned persons whom bought Kingdom Hearts under the assumption that Disney's capital and Square's talent would birth a game worthy to be called a classic. As it stands, Kingdom Hearts is but a curious roadside distraction, a sort of non-fatal car accident on the freeway, which commands your attention only as long as it takes to make it through the traffic and back out onto the open road.

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