[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]
Okay, I haven't posted much for the last couple of days, and the reason for that is largely because I've been helping Mickey Mouse save the universe from heart-stealing world-eating forces of ultimate evil.
Kingdom Hearts II is a sequel to Square-Enix's succesful Disney-themed action RPG Kingdom Hearts, and like the original it's a release for the PlayStation 2. Kingdom Hearts II is ALSO a sequel to the GameBoy Advance title Chain of Memories, which anecdotally seems to have been significantly less successful.
You'll want to have played Chain of Memories, because Kingdom Hearts II picks up exactly where Chain left off. Sora's still encased in a giant white pod, having his memories reconstructed by a mysterious young girl named Namine. He's been moved from Castle Oblivion at the instruction of an enigmatic red-cloaked figure named DiZ, and is now connected to a world named Twilight Town, where his destiny is about to become entangled with that of a young boy called Roxas.
Over the course of a three-hour tutorial-slash-prologue, you'll meet Roxas, explore Twilight Town, and learn the fairly simple controls for this sprawling action RPG. Most of the main concepts from the original game return - you'll be jumping, running, and swinging a keyblade much the same as you did the first time around. These basic abilities are complemented by a largely useless collection of summons, which are annoying to use and not particularly effective, and also a new power - that of the Drive Form. By choosing the Drive command from the action menu, Sora can now change into one of six alternate costumes which bestow a range of special combat abilities on him, most commonly enhanced speed, damage, and combo attacks.
New to Kingdom Hearts II are reaction commands. Occasionally when fighting an enemy, you'll be prompted to press the triangle button to execute a special attack or defence specific to that enemy. This works into the existing battle system surprisingly well, and is almost completely optional - reaction commands make winning easier, but you can still punch through pretty much everything while completely ignoring the whole reaction system.
Two major elements of the previous games are completely absent. Firstly, the card-battling mechanics of Chain of Memories are thankfully nowhere to be seen. With all due respect to Chain, which was an interesting experiment, you'll be extremely glad that there's nary a card to be seen.
Secondly, while the original Kingdom Hearts could be called a platformer-RPG, Kingdom Hearts II features almost no platforming elements. You'll never need to jump to raised platforms, make timed crossings of floating islands, or explore difficult to reach parts of levels looking for chests. Pretty much everything this time around is at ground level. Well, except combat, which still transforms into the kind of anime-inspired feats of aerial superhuman skill that the first game delivered so well.
I actually liked the platform sections of the original Kingdom Hearts, but you're unlikely to miss them much in the sequel. The effect is that the game is much easier and friendlier to new players, and is also much more focused on its combat, which it delivers in both quantity and quality.
I've heard a lot of people complain about the Kingdom Hearts combat system, and to be fair, it does consist mostly of just mashing the "X" button a lot. But for all that, it's still surprisingly satisfying, and it certainly looks fantastic. As you level up, you gain new moves and abilities which you can equip to beef up your combat prowess. The number of abilities you can equip at a time is limited by your ability points (AP), which also rise as you gain experience, so there's a certain amount of strategic thinking involved in choosing what abilities you'll have available at any given time.
The real star of Kingdom Hearts II, though, are the worlds. Over the course of the game you'll visit an impressive roster of Disney properties. Environments from the original game are featured, including Halloween Town from The Nightmare Before Christmas and the 100 Acre Wood from Winnie the Pooh. There's also an expansion of some of the worlds that were only glimpsed or hinted at before, including Disney Castle, The Lion King's Pride Lands, and the castle from Beauty and the Beast.
These worlds are all good, but what's likely to really excite you are the completely new entries - the worlds of Steamboat Willy (rendered in black and white and featuring a projector-click background sound and copious film grain), Tron (complete with the original voice cast including Bruce Boxleitner in the title role), and Pirates of the Carribean (sadly NOT featuring the original cast, but with lots of endearing Jack Sparrow finger-wiggling).
The graphics are among the best featured on the PlayStation 2, with an absolutely fantastic level of detail, including special costumes for Sora, Donald and Goofy when they visit many of the worlds. All environments are visualised in the style of the movies they draw inspiration from, and are filled with recognisable sets and memorable moments. Characters are animated with faithful attention to the source material - Jack Skellington's showy and expansive arm gestures are depicted just as well as the exhausted flying style of Iago the Parrot or the loping run of the Beast. The only world that noticeably suffers in the animation department is that of The Lion King, but considering the huge amounts of attention to animal movement that went into the original film of that, it's perhaps forgiveable that it was not all successfully transferred to this game.
The sound work is also exceptional. Utada Hikaru returns to design new original music for much of the game, including the catchy new title song, Sanctuary. This time around, you won't catch as much of the music from the original films used as background music (although Halloween Town still has the "This is Halloween" instrumental playing), but you probably won't miss it much.
Also, as if to compensate, the underwater world of Atlantica consists entirely of rhythmn-based minigames themed around a variety of Little Mermaid songs. It's a great idea that makes good use of some of the memorable music that accompanies many Disney movies, but it's unfortunately a bad implementation. The versions of Under the Sea and Part of Your World that are used are truncated and feature appalling vocals, while the other three (presumably original) songs vary in quality from the putrid Swim This Way through to the surprisingly good music for the fight against Ursula. The minigames that accompany the songs are also less than engaging, so it's probably a blessing that Atlantica as a whole is an entirely optional part of the game not required to reach the ending.
The game's list of voice talent is amazing, including Haley Joel Osmont returning as Sora, Christopher Lee as DiZ, and the entire English voice cast of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Wherever possible, Disney characters have been voiced by the actors from the original movies, or failing that the TV shows or direct-to-video sequels. Names like Zach Braff, Bruce Boxleitner, Pat Morita, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, and James Woods fill the credits, alongside veteran voice actors such as Tara Strong, Dan "Homer" Castellanata, John "Bender" DiMaggio, Kath "Phil and Lil from Rugrats" Soucie, and Tress MacNeille (who has played the voice of Daisy Duck in pretty much everything since 1999).
If there's a problem with Kingdom Hearts II, it's that it has too great a focus on minigames. Pretty much everywhere you turn you'll find some minor task to perform that uses different gameplay mechanics. Luckily, most of the minigames are well designed, fairly fun, and, most importantly, optional. While there are some fairly challenging goals set for completists who want to revisit the many, many minigames, you'll never need to achieve them to progress, and - in a burst of good sense on Squeenix's part - most of the minigames don't even give you power-ups or other things that aid you on the main spine of the story. Usually the sole reward for achieving the challenge goals is getting a little orange Mickey Mouse icon next to the challenge's listing in the Jiminy's Journal section of the menu. (Contrast this approach with Final Fantasy X-2, which had a similar obsession with minigames but without the redeeming features.)
The GummiShip minigame returns from the original Kingdom Hearts as well, and while it's NOT entirely optional, the mandatory parts are very easy. More importantly, it's actually kind of fun now. Square Enix has developed the shoot-em-up subgame from its first incarnation into a really enjoyable rail shooter that sees you blasting your way through absolute legions of space-faring Heartless. Once again, there's almost no connection between the upper levels of this minigame and the main quest - there's no reason to come back for more except for the fun of it. I actually found it good enough to stand as a game all on its own - I played through all the way to the nightmarishly hard final boss of the gummi routes just because it was enjoyable to do so.
As far as content goes, the game probably has about 30 to 35 hours of play just in the main plot, which extends to a total of 70 or 80 hours if you're going to complete everything the game has to offer. Very little of that length feels repetetive or padded, with the possible exception of completing the synthesis material lists, which is a process which can be aptly described as "farming" (and is, again, entirely optional).
All in all, Kingdom Hearts II stands as an exceptional triple-A game that benefits from a combination of fantastic creativity, professional execution, and insightful game design. While it may not be the ideal entry point into the series for new players, it's a worthy follow-up for existing fans and one that'll get you excited about the franchise all over again. Definitely worth your money and time.