In a surprising move, Disney and Squaresoft teamed up to make the now-famous Kingdom Hearts, which combined a Final Fantasy-style quest with Disney characters and locations. A sequel was soon released: Chain of Memories, but it was for the Game Boy Advance. Now Kingdom Hearts 2 has emerged, proving to be leaps ahead of the original in many aspects.
The player yet again takes the role of Sora, a 15-year old boy who traveled across many worlds with Donald Duck and Goofy in previous games. Wielding the magical Keyblade (a cross between a key and a sword), Sora must seal off various worlds from the evil Heartless and the mysterious Organization XIII. However, the game does not start this way. Instead, the player has control of an eerily familiar boy named Roxas for roughly the first three hours of gameplay. While this prelude sequence sets up the story nicely, Kingdom Hearts veterans may expect too much too soon and get bored.
The base gameplay has not changed much from the original game. The player must choose a primary attribute (strength, defense, or magic) near the beginning, and this attribute levels up faster than the others, as well as giving new abilities. Almost all actions, including combat, take place in real time. The same on-screen menu returns, allowing the player to access magic, items, drive forms, and limit breaks while busily engaged in combat. The shortcut menu has been expanded to hold four spells, or even items. Party members still follow the main character around onscreen, and one can even change members during battle without having to find a savepoint.
Two new inclusions to KH2 are drive forms and limit breaks. During a drive form, Sora merges with one or both party members to assume a new form with different powers. For instance, the Valor form lets Sora wield two Keyblades at once and raises his strength, while the Wisdom form changes Sora?s base attack to a ranged short and increases his magic power. Eventually, the player will be able to use limit breaks. Limits are performed with another character, usually from another world. Each move is unique, and often somewhat cinematic. Jack Skellington?s limit, for instance, involves a strange but showy dance with damaging explosions. While fairly powerful, limits also drain Sora?s MP completely, so one must use them wisely.
Just as with the original, KH2?s appeal comes mostly from nostalgia and charm. Serious players may seem put off by the lighthearted atmosphere and abundance of Disney characters. Cameos abound, and even more Final Fantasy characters join the mix. Travel to the Pride Lands, Disney Castle, and even the Space Paranoids from Tron. Each area is fairly lengthy, usually taking an hour or two to complete. Fortunately, there is enough new material to keep the player interested and wondering what will come next; and with an average of about 30-40 hours for completion, it?ll take a while to see it all.
Graphics look similar to those in KH1, but look a bit nicer. However, this is in no way a hindrance, as the visuals look very sharp and fit well with the game?s feeling. Certain worlds, such as the Land of the Dragons (Mulan?s China), actually use their source movie?s animation style for certain visuals. During many cutscenes, characters? faces become more detailed and lip-synch very nicely. While definitely not stacking up to the awe-inspiring graphics of next-gen systems, KH2?s engine still makes the game look excellent.
Sounds are even better than the original game. Most of the voice actors have returned, including Haley Joel Osment as Sora. Disney managed to get many of the original movie actors, including Jodi Benson as Ariel and Bruce Boxleitner as Tron. Whether it comes from a big-name celebrity or unknown performer, the voice acting is superb. Some of the battle sound effects can get a little repetitive over time, but they are compensated for by the great music tracks.
Though a great game, Kingdom Hearts 2 is not without its share of problems. Combat gets somewhat repetitive over time, as it mostly involves jamming on the attack button as much as possible. The gummi ship levels, though vastly improved upon from the last game, still aren?t very fun and are easily ignored. The game?s Standard difficulty rating is too easy, especially for Kingdom Hearts veterans. KH2?s progression is decidedly more linear than KH1, allowing for a little less exploration. Finally, the storyline can be rather confusing if one hasn?t had access to a Game Boy Advance and played Chain of Memories; CoM is not really a prerequisite, but it sure helps to have background knowledge.
As with the previous game, Kingdom Hearts 2 has much violent content, but manages to keep it looking rather cartoony and bloodless. The Pirates of the Caribbean level alone is responsible for two of the three ESRB rating reasons: mild blood and use of alcohol. A red stain can be seen on some of the pirate gold, and there is a scene where Captain Barbossa ?drinks? a bottle of wine. On that note, a few levels, most notably the Pirates level, might be a little too scary for younger players.
The magic usage could be looked on as detrimental, but it is hardly occultic. Spells follow the standard Final Fantasy elemental tree: fire, ice, lightning, gravity, and healing. Summons are back, but instead of drawing runes and performing a dance as is standard in modern Final Fantasy games, a Disney character simply appears to help you out. These range from classic movie characters such as Peter Pan to the adorable alien Stitch. Furthermore, some areas are a little questionable, such as the realm of Hades from Hercules.
Many good messages are shown throughout the game. Sora is the epitome of fairness and justice, demanding that evildoers be stopped even at the risk of his own life. Friendship and helping others without personal gain are key themes which permeate the entire story, exemplifying moral standards. Finally, though the villains attempt to blur the distinctions between good and evil, the two sides are quite distinguishable.
Kingdom Hearts 2 is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, with good gameplay variety, a decent story, and truckloads of great characters. Though the slightly repetitive gameplay, scary moments, and magic usage may turn away some players, KH2 still stands as a great sequel and stand-alone game which all Disney fans can appreciate, and gamers are sure to enjoy.
» By Joe Severyn, Plain Games. Published 5/6/2006 10:38:26 AM.