Compared to Sony’s first console, the PS2 has hosted relatively few indisputable classics. The original PlayStation birthed Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, revolutionized RPGs with Final Fantasy VII (not to mention Suikoden, Final Fantasy Tactics, Parasite Eve, etc.), and don’t get me started on Metal Gear Solid. Especially in the role-playing genre, the PlayStation 2 has introduced far fewer landmark masterpieces.
Before Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid 3, and RE4, there was Square’s initially feared and later lauded partnership with Disney. Sure the dialogue was an overload of sugary-sweet and the camera was hell, but few can deny Kingdom Hearts was a spirited adventure through gorgeously realized Disney worlds. The game became an instant blockbuster and a sequel was quickly promised.
After years of waiting, Kingdom Hearts II has found its place in every faithful geek’s library. So how does it stack up to the original?
First off, you can ignore IGN’s ignorant review regarding the blasé difficulty and mindless button-mashing. That critique triggered me to play through this stunning sequel on Proud mode, the hardest of the three settings; and let me tell you, I couldn’t have done it without the miraculous rescues of Mickey Mouse. Kingdom Hearts II isn’t without its flaws, but a deficiency in challenge is not one of them.
The game picks up pretty much right after the first adventure, starting off with a nifty sequence of prologues where you control a weaker, slightly less cool looking version of Sora, in the form of Roxas. The intro works to quickly summarize the original’s plot via dreamlike montages, as bizarro men in black (you’ll later learn called Organization XIII) monitor our substitute protagonist. You must play through six days as the boy in the rather sizable KH-original world of Twilight Town, a sloping city of trains with a mini coliseum called the Sandlot. You’ll have a wide array of peculiar tasks to complete, from revamped RPG clichés (earning money via cheesy minigames and competing in a tournament where the object is to knock as many orbs out of your opponent) to intriguing story-driven investigations (the seven ghostly mysteries of Twilight Town).
Eventually you regain control of Sora, who’s quicker, stronger, and has a bigger repertoire of abilities than trainer-bot Roxas, and you learn that the Heartless have returned alongside a creepier, ganglier form of evil known as Nobodies. The theory is that when some wicked supervillain, à la Maleficent (making a succulent return), sucks the goodness out of someone to create a dark Heartless, the empty husk becomes a Nobody.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, which you’ll be happy to know is much more refined and enthralling this time around, you can pretty much boil a good chunk of the game down to A) Sora’s quest to return home after hunting down the missing Riku; B) Donald and Goofy’s search for King Mickey, who’s been hopping around the universe, supposedly fighting Heartless; and C) the save-the-Disney-worlds-from-evil shtick you remember from the first title. Only a few of the worlds are merely weak reenactments of their better film inspirations (Mulan and Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m glaring at you). The majority, however, integrate the Kingdom Hearts plot, themes, and baddies nicely. The cornier villains (i.e. Steamboat Willie, Oogie Boogie) will often team with the evil Organization XIII or Maleficent for a dastardly one-two punch.
This time through, Kingdom Hearts II puts the emphasis on hardcore fisticuffs, instead of a blend of action and exploration, which was what really took you to the heart of the worlds in the first adventure. While the production design of each world is consistently eye-popping (from the manga explosions and mountainous vistas of the Land of Dragons to the black-and-white simplicity of the Timeless River and the retro-futuristic flashing lights of Space Paranoids), you rarely get the impression that the backdrops are more than just scenery.
You can’t climb, swing, and platform, there’s no side paths to discover en route to the final destination, and sometimes major portions of travel are interrupted by pesky load screens. This isn’t so bad in worlds like Beast’s Castle, where the entire location is set within the confines of the imposing Gothic palace; other times, such as in the Land of Dragons, the instant teleportation/load screen pulls you out of the narrative flow, making the design far too obvious.
That hiccup aside, Kingdom Hearts II is a polished beat-em-up that would send The Warriors crying to mama. In this department, there’s no comparison to the original hit. With a handily repaired camera giving players complete control, frustrating death-by-camera will be the least of your problems. Now there is a score of “reaction-commands” activated by the triangle button that can give players the upper hand during the elaborate boss fights via use of the environment (i.e. swinging a chandelier into a foe) or using the enemy’s attacks against them (i.e. bouncing back enemy gunfire).
The game also introduces a series of flashy super-moves to keep your epilepsy in order. As you level-grind through the worlds, Sora and company gain several customizable abilities, such as Action, Grow, and Support. You also have a fancy new Drive meter which fills up as you slaughter the Heartless (or take damage, depending on your ability settings). Once it reaches the maximum, you can transform into one of many new forms or merge with Donald or Goofy (or both). The Donald-Sora combo (called Wisdom) is particularly cool, giving you boy-band blue duds, a magic wand that fires like a machine gun, and gliding super-sneakers so you can perform Ice Capades around the Heartless.
You can also drain your entire magic bar at once by performing powerful “Limit” techniques; these allow you to combine forces with various Disney characters to set forth deadly sorcery or lightning-fast swordplay. Summons also eats up the entire bar, placing you in control of such characters as Stitch, Chicken Little, and Peter Pan. In some cases this allows you to zoom into first-person mode for extra shooter carnage. After wasting your magic bar, you must wait for it to recharge, adding an interesting dynamic to fights depending on spell use (and believe me, if you fancy strategy over level-grinding and button-mashing, you will take advantage of the long-range capabilities of magic). The cure spell was heavily neutered from the first KH; it now eats up the entirety of the magic bar, so overuse is essentially impossible.
Kingdom Hearts II is extremely fun, but it sometimes feels like it belongs in a different genre than the first. Though this title improved upon almost everything—the camera and dreadful Gummi Ship are fixed, the combat is the deepest I’ve ever experienced for a button-masher, and the story is mature and mostly free of cheese—the lack of exploration is a real bummer. That said, boss fights haven’t been this fun since Shadow of the Colossus (many merge minigames with fisticuffs, like one bout with Oogie Boogie that has you tossing presents at the sack of bugs while dodging explosions, electricity, and wind-up punching gloves), and the production value is through the roof. In each world, the command controls and enemy anatomies adapt to fit the mood and style of the universe (i.e. killer jack-in-the-boxes in Halloween Town, umbrella bats in Beast’s Castle, human pirates in Port Royal, etc.), and often Sora and the boys adopt new outfits or they morph to “fit in”. The ambient music and battle themes constantly change for each world, with several catchy boss themes mixed in, so it never feels repetitive. Kingdom Hearts II is a beautifully designed game; it just may not be what every fan expects.