Kingdom Hearts 2 is the third game in what is currently a trilogy (the second game being Chain of Memories for the GBA). It is perhaps one of the most bizarre concepts to hit the RPG market: Disney characters mixed with Final Fantasy characters in an action RPG. Back in 2002 the first Kingdom Hearts was released with an air of trepidation. Donald Duck mixed with Cloud Strife? Such a mix had not been attempted since the creation of brunch. It proved to be a success (the game, not brunch). Now Kingdom Hearts 2 seeks to recreate that success while tying up some loose plot lines from the original game.
Kingdom Hearts 2 begins with the player controlling Roxas, a teenager who lives in Twilight Town. The summer days are soon ending, and Roxas and his friends are looking for something to do. Some very bizarre things start occurring, and Roxas discovers he may not be who he thinks he is. Soon the characters from Kingdom Hearts 1 (Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy) will arrive and you'll enter a war against the darkness inherent in every creature's heart. The characters will fight to keep hope alive as they search for the friends they lost in the first game with the help of notables from both the Final Fantasy and Disney franchises. Your enemies in this game will consist of Disney villains, some enigmatic guys in cloaks, shadow creatures called the Heartless, and the Nobodies: white, very flexible creatures who defy the laws of physics and look pretty cool.
Kingdom Hearts 2 has one of the longest beginning segments to date. It will take you about 5 hours of gameplay to pass through it. Fortunately, the opening is extremely interesting, packed with an engaging story that doesn't give you enough to know exactly what's going on, but just enough to keep you interested. Unfortunately, after the opening, things are toned down a bit. Much of the rest of Kingdom Hearts 2 is taken up with visiting Disney Worlds and going through a mini version of the attached Disney story. For instance, the Lion King world will take you through Simba's return to the Pridelands and subsequent defeat of Scar, with the main Kingdom Hearts characters thrown in. Some gamers may find themselves bored rehashing these probably familiar plot lines. Also, while the plot does pick up again near the end of the game, the concepts started in the opening are never fully developed, making the ending feel somewhat out of place, maybe even rushed. Even so, the characters are fun, and fans of either Disney or Final Fantasy (or both) will find a lot of value in seeing their favorite personalities interact in new environments and situations.
The script is varied. At times you feel like you're taking an advanced level philosophy course. At other times you feel like you're watching Pee Wee's Playhouse. Basically, the parts with the story are more mature and the parts which focus entirely on the Disney aspect are more silly. So be prepared to cry, sometimes over a heartfelt reunion, sometimes because the script has insulted your intelligence.
On the whole, the story will certainly carry the player through the game, but may not leave them satisfied at game's end. And I can't stress enough how much those who jump right to Kingdom Hearts 2 without playing the first one will be missing in terms of story. Playing through Chain of Memories is very helpful as well. If you haven't played those games, I would advise you to pick them up first. They are easy to find, and it's well worth it. You'll be saving yourself from a lot of confusion and the story will matter more to you.
The game progresses fairly non-linearly after the opening. You'll get to choose in what order you explore the different worlds. The first time you enter a world, you won't be able to fully complete it. Even if it seems like there's nothing more for you to do there, you will have to go back to every world at least one more time in order to fully complete its story. Along the way are some major plot events that, no matter what order you've been playing in, you'll end up witnessing. Once you reach the final world, the game goes back to a linear progression until the ending, though you are always free to leave the last world and finish side quests. You'll always have access to a journal which tells you what happened in each world and what's left to do in the world in case you forget or feel lost.
The fighting in Kingdom Hearts is real time, not turn based like many other RPGs. You also won't enter a separate battle screen for fights. In this way, it plays as an action game, though the controls are much simpler. In a fight, you hit X. That's the basic gameplay. But it's actually pretty cool. Seriously, simply by hitting the X button over and over you will do some amazing combos. I'm talking hitting guys into the air, then leaping up and smashing them several ways to Sunday as you use their quickly dying body to stay afloat. It's somewhat like the Dynasty Warriors series in this respect, but it looks cooler. This may seem like overly simplistic gameplay to some. But remember the early days of gaming, when there was but one button for attack, and one for jumping? I would argue that Kingdom Hearts attempts to recapture that simplicity. And there are some things thrown in to make it more complex, which I'll now cover.
First of all, magic. Magic is basically an attack that you make separate of your normal attacks, but which can be worked into combos. There's also a couple protective spells. You'll find cure, for instance, to be indispensable. Using magic takes up MP, which recovers slowly over time, and faster as you defeat enemies.
Then there's the Summon and Limit abilities. These are abilities that use up all of your MP in order to either summon a powerful helper or unleash a powerful attack. These are good for turning the tide in a hard fight, or for just annihilating normal enemies.
You can also enter what is called Drive Mode. When you enter Drive Mode, your friends literally combine with you. Your costume will change, and you'll gain a ton of new abilities depending on which Drive you use. For instance, one Drive lets you float around the battlefield, shooting constant beams of energy at your opponents, while others give you the ability to take control of two swords at once for some truly devastating and awesome looking combos.
But the thing which really makes the game exciting are the reaction commands. Those of you who have played God of War or Resident Evil 4 should be familiar with the concept. Basically, at certain points during a battle, a signal will go off telling you that you can perform a reaction command. If you hit the triangle button at this point, you'll start a special move that generally requires you to hit the triangle button either as fast as you can or at certain points during the move in order to pull it off. But whereas Resident Evil and God of War had them only in very specific situations, Kingdom Hearts 2 has one for nearly every enemy, and one or more for each boss fight. This is what keeps the fighting interesting, as you keep an eye out for the commands, and eventually try to learn what triggers them so you can use them as often as possible. Plus, like every other attack in the game, they look really really cool. This makes the boss fights especially entertaining, as you'll be constantly repositioning your character in order to try to get the most out of the commands.
Also, one can't forget about the computer controlled NPCs which fight alongside you. Aside from the coolness of being able to fight alongside Auron or Jack Skelington, the AI for the NPCs is well done. They attack when they need to attack, and heal when they need to heal. Often times, it is the NPCs who will save you when you're on the brink of death. And if there happens to be something you want to change about their tactics, you can do so. You can even change how often they use individual attacks or items. NPCs can't fall into pits and die, nor can they hold you back from advancing. They'll always appear in the next room with you, no matter how far behind they were when you entered it. The only thing the NPCs are not good at are dodging. Sections which require you to jump over, say, a rolling spiked log will obliterate your NPCs. Fortunately, their performance won't affect yours. They don't need to survive these sections in order for you to pass them. And NPCs will recover from unconsciousness on their own, coming back to full health when they do, so don't worry about having to play the medic of the party.
The enemies in the game, while they don't level with you, will increase in power the further you progress. This means that you won't be stuck fighting enemies so weak that they die at the sight of you, and you'll always have to pay attention. Despite this, I want to stress that this is not a hard game. While some bosses can be a bit tough, I encourage everyone who buys this game to play it on Proud mode (Hard mode). The learning curve for this game is so simple that you'll be an expert at it by the time you've done the first couple worlds. Proud mode will keep things challenging enough to keep you interested and you should still be able to beat the game with a minimum of leveling.
The leveling system is fairly simple. Near the beginning of the game, you'll choose to specialize in magic, attack, or defense, and that will decide how your stats are raised each time you gain a level. Characters also learn new abilities as you grow in power. Abilities, or skills, are equipped on your characters and take up skill points to equip. Thus you have a limit on how many abilities you can have at a time. Some abilities are combat oriented, adding more moves to your combos. Others do things like increase the amount of money and treasure enemies drop. You'll choose your abilities based on how you want to play the game.
Another gameplay element that hasn't been mentioned yet is the gummi ships. Before those of you who played the first Kingdom Hearts groan, I'll tell you they've improved on the gummi ship to the point where it is playable, though perhaps still not a huge draw. Basically, the gummi ship is a space fighter you will design yourself and then fly between the worlds in sequences that mimic Starfox. Some people will like it, some people won't. I personally found it to be unexciting, since it's nearly impossible to die in these levels. Fortunately, you don't have to do each level more than once, if you don't want to. And for the people who do enjoy it, there are extra missions for each sequence that you can go back and try to complete.
Never once in Kingdom Hearts 2 did I ever throw the controller down and scream "It was the control's fault! Cursed game developers, why do you hate me so?" I've done this recently with other games. But then, I've seen some god awful control schemes in the last couple years. Especially amongst action RPGs and adventure games where players are expected to keep track of and control in real time their magic, items, abilities, and allies while doing regular attacks and brushing up on their cooking, all while not trying to get pummeled into the ground by enemies seven times faster then themselves. Kingdom Hearts 2 does not fall into this trap. Not even a little bit. The controls are simple and easy to learn, and better yet, easy to use.
The item and magic menus are very well done, especially for a system which could easily feel clunky. You get a quick menu (activated with one of the trigger buttons) which can hold four commands, relating either to items or magic. Generally, you'll want to fill this with one powerful curative, and the rest of the slots with the offensive magic you use most often. The ability to heal yourself and cast your more desirable spells is something you're going to want to be able to do with a minimum of button pushing. The quick menu makes this possible, and the limited space on it means you don't have to scroll through pages of spells to find the ones you need. Magic and items not on the quick menu take a bit longer to access. You'll have to use the control pad to navigate a command window and manually select the item or magic you want. This isn't difficult, though I won't lie and say that it doesn't cause some tense moments during boss fights, where you're scrabbling to get to that one item before the boss gets in a final hit. But these moments are good ones, where the challenge is fun and exciting, not hard and frustrating. Drives, Limits, and Summons are all accessed via the command window, as is the option to switch NPCs in and out of your party during a fight. The command window is always onscreen, by the way, large enough to be easily read, but not large enough so that it gets in your way.
The only trouble I had with the controls was with the targeting system. During battle, you can hit one of the triggers to lock on to your nearest target, which will concentrate all your attacks on that enemy. However, there is no way to switch targets once you're locked on. And since locking on always locks on to the nearest target, it can be difficult in a large battle to lock on to the target you want. Fortunately, this doesn't affect the game too much, since your character will move as you attack so that they are always in a position to hit the enemy, but there are some boss fights where it would have been very helpful to have (for instance, when fighting the three headed Cerberus). Anyways, it was a a feature I missed.
One of the more notable achievements of the Kingdom Hearts series was its ability to mix several different art forms into one game and never have them clash with each other. The character design is excellent. The characters move very well through the worlds, with smooth animations and some absolutely mind boggling attack sequences. As mentioned previously in the gameplay section, the combos in this game are incredible to watch. You simply won't get tired of them. This game will bring out a lot of "wow" moments in a player, as they watch themselves perform or get pummeled by acrobatic gravity-defying combo after combo. It evens puts some action games to shame.
One should keep in mind that this is not Advent Children. The graphics are excellent, but they are not realistic. The graphics lack texture, instead going for a more colorful cartoon style. There are a couple exceptions, most notably the Pirates of the Caribbean level, where the characters gain more realistic skin textures.
There are also two cinema scenes in the game, one at the opening, and one at the ending. These two scenes are so beautifully rendered that you'll wish Square Enix put in more of them. Which was a small matter of contention for me. With all the high level graphical work they've been doing with games lately, I really do think that Square Enix could've afforded at least a couple more cinema scenes. Fortunately, the character models are fluid and mobile enough that important moments and scripted action sequences still feel like cinema scenes, even if they lack the same graphical quality.
Square Enix games have always boasted great music, ever since the first Final Fantasy. Kingdom Heart's music is the work of female composer Yoko Shimomura (Parasite Eve). First of all, credit has to be given for remixing the various Disney themes into something recognizable yet new. In particular it is fun to hear the battle themes for each level, noting how music from the movies inspired them. When the music isn't remixing Disney tunes, it is generally sweeping the player along with a wonderful orchestral quality, immediately and appropriately setting the mood for each world. The game has so many genres of music in it, it's impractical to list them all here. Suffice it to say you'll hear everything from jazz to classical, and all of it will be good. Well, actually, there's one disclaimer on this. There's a Little Mermaid world where all you do is perform musicals (again, by hitting the X button), and I have to say that the musicals were somewhat painful. But it's a small complaint in a world of praise.
The opening song, for those of you who loved the first game's Simple and Clean, is once again performed by Utada Hikaru, and I can pretty much guarantee that you'll download it and listen to it about 17 times in a row.
You will be surrounded by sound during your playthrough of Kingdom Hearts. Large battles will ring with the sound of your Keyblade smashing into multiple enemies at once. Your Keyblade will make different sounds depending on what it's hitting, too. Characters will often speak during fights, taunting you, or reacting unfavorably to you beating them into the dirt (which is understandable). Don't be expecting much atmospheric sound, like wind rustling leaves, or water cascading gently over humble slopes. This isn't Shadow of the Colossus, it's Kingdom Hearts, and such sounds would've seemed out of place with the comical graphics. All in all, the game leaves nothing to be desired in terms of sound.
The voice work for the majority of the characters is excellent. With Disney providing the majority of the American voice actors, we get such notables as Haley Joel Osment (Sixth Sense) and Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings) and, of course, many of the original voice actors for the Disney characters. Then there's the other side of the coin. The Final Fantasy voices aren't near as good. The American voice actors don't know what they are doing with these Japanese style characters, and it shows. Most of the time, they try to sound cool by being extremely monotone, but rather than cool it just comes off as boring. There's nothing as depressing as hearing a bad ass like Sephiroth talk about destroying you in a voice that suggests he's just woken up from a long nap. Well, maybe the fact that then he proceeds to make good on his offer, but I digress. In any case, it's disappointing that they couldn't pull it off, considering how good the English voice work was in Final Fantasy X, Radiata Stories, and other Square Enix games.
Here is where the game is lacking the most. As previously mentioned, Kingdom Hearts 2 has a good number of worlds which the player will visit during their playthrough. Yet these worlds are lacking in several areas. For one thing, they are all very small (The Little Mermaid world has only two screens). In many you'll cross huge distances without actually seeing any of the inbetween. And all of the worlds are essentially dungeon crawls with a mini game or two thrown in. There is no puzzle element. The worlds are also extremely straight forward and linear. There are few branching paths, and when there are it is clearly marked which way you are supposed to go, or even blocked until later points in the game. Finally, these worlds are nearly devoid of life. There's one unintentionally hilarious moment in the game when, in Agrabah, Aladin gestures to the forever empty streets around him and proclaims fervently "I love the people of Agrabah!" There are no NPCs beyond those that have a distinct role to play in the adventure. At times you feel like your characters are the only living things in the universe.
This was surprising and disappointing to me, because the first Kingdom Hearts had very few of these problems with the world design. In fact, it was one of the selling points of the game and one of the things I was looking forward to seeing in this one.
In any case, despite these issues, the worlds will keep you entertained on your first time through, but you'll have little desire to go back and explore them. Don't be expecting an adventure game out of Kingdom Hearts 2.
Despite the lack of exploration value, there are reasons to go back to the worlds. Mainly, the mini games. There's a lot of mini games. It's like the Mario Party of RPGs. Nearly every world has some kind of mini game to participate in. There's a score that you need to beat for each mini game, if you want to get 100% completion. These scores are not easy to beat, so fans will have a lot to keep them occupied. There's also plenty of new Keyblades to find, and the majority of your accessories and weapons you'll have to build by hunting down enemies who carry the right materials. And of course, there's also a couple special boss fights which only the most hardened players will be able to defeat.
My one complaint with the content which will be shared by long time Square Enix fans, is that once again there wasn't enough Final Fantasy. While there are well over fifty prominent Disney characters, there is a total of 16 Final Fantasy characters, with all but one of them coming from the post Playstation era. Of these 16, only one fights on your party. In particular, it would've been nice to have seen some of the older Final Fantasy characters.
There is no new game plus feature in Kingdom Hearts 2, and beating the game won't unlock features that you can use in a second play through. And the levels are always open, so you don't have to worry about missing anything your first time. For these reasons, the game has low replay value. However, there are enough mini games that you can continue playing the game for a long time.
There is one small piece of unlockable content. If you complete the game on Proud mode you'll unlock a secret bonus video. You can also unlock it by getting a 100% completion on normal, but this is much much more difficult. As mentioned earlier, Proud Mode isn't really that hard, and as the video is awesome, I recommend playing the game on this mode.
Despite some issues that make it hard to revisit, Kingdom Hearts 2 is still a game that you will enjoy. It's fun to play, though it's not for people looking for a button mashing challenge, or an adventure game with platforming and puzzle elements. It is a game for people who are looking for a good mix of action and RPG. It will appeal to those who want to see Donald Duck set things on fire with arcane magic. And for those of you who, like me, can't get enough of the Final Fantasy characters, it will provide you with a quick fix. But the main reason to buy this game is to tie up the story from the previous Kingdom Hearts. If you haven't played the first game, I would urge you again to go out and buy it before playing this one. Assuming you enjoy Kingdom Hearts 1, you won't be able to resist buying Kingdom Hearts 2.