May 01, 2006

Review: Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)

Listen up: I have a great idea for a new video game. It will be set in a world based upon the animated works of an American institution; perhaps the most influential and powerful entertainment force of the last eighty years. In that world, I want to place characters from the most popular Japanese role-playing series of all time. Despite the cutesy nature of the environments, I want to develop a serious narrative with themes of friendship, loss, and betrayal. To top it off, I plan to sell nearly five million copies worldwide.

Sound ridiculous? I thought so too, but the 2002 release of Kingdom Hearts for the PlayStation 2 clearly proved me wrong. It managed to merge the worlds of the Disney animated films with characters from the Final Fantasy series to create a solid, compelling gameplay experience. Word-of-mouth eventually trounced the initial confusion, making it a massive hit all over the globe. Gaming’s obsession with sequels guaranteed a direct follow-up in time, resulting in the recent release of Kingdom Hearts II.

Despite critical and popular acclaim, Kingdom Hearts was not without flaws. A glitchy camera system and uninspired combat marred the gameplay, while some of the Disney-themed worlds were woefully outclassed by others. Denying the urge to release a modified version of the original, Square Enix has addressed nearly every issue of the original, making Kingdom Hearts II a game that delivers on all fronts: story, gameplay, and unrivaled presentation.

Kingdom Hearts II picks up shortly after the original, with lead character Sora still searching for his missing friends, Riku and Kairi. His companions, Donald Duck and Goofy, are still in the service of King Mickey, who has disappeared on a covert mission. The three set out once again, traveling across fifteen varied worlds. Nearly a dozen are pulled from Disney films of the last two decades, most notably Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. However, some are pulled from less notable Disney films, such as Mulan and Hercules.

What makes Kingdom Hearts II a hit is the way that the original characters are merged with the various Disney worlds. Each film-inspired world has its own design rules, and the game never strays too far outside of the original work. For example, when adventuring in The Pride Lands (from The Lion King), Sora takes on the form of a lion, yet he still bears a visual resemblance to his human form. The costumes and character designs in each stage never seem out of place, and your command menu even changes to match the overall feel of the area.

Though some worlds of the worlds were in the original (albeit in different forms), it is with the new environments that Kingdom Hearts II truly impresses. Live-action films are finally recognized by the series, with areas based on Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron. Fans will be impressed by the visual re-creations of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, though sound-a-likes provide voice-overs. Of the new worlds based on animated films, Timeless River has to be the best. Based on Steamboat Willie, a 1928 short that was among Mickey Mouse’s first, the world is displayed entirely in black and white, with the sound of an old movie projector in the background. Presentation is clearly king in this game.

While Kingdom Hearts II is truly an epic experience, it often feels like more of an interactive movie than a full-fledged video game. The game can be completed in thirty hours, though there are several hours of additional quests available. Of those thirty hours, I estimate that ten of them were spent watching in-game cinematics. This is decidedly more than in other role-playing epics, even Xenosaga and Final Fantasy X. I do not personally see it as an issue, as the storyline is compelling and interesting, but some will long for a more open experience.

Compounding this is the fact that the game is rarely challenging. It took a full twenty-four hours of play for me to die in battle, though a couple of the final bosses require a bit of skill and patience to defeat. For those in need of a bit more, switch to “Proud Mode,” a more difficult version of the game. Additionally, you can opt to spend your time seeking out materials for enhanced weapons, or level your characters up to fight the infamous boss of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth.

Though Kingdom Hearts II features characters from the Final Fantasy series, it does not feature the same type of gameplay. Instead, Kingdom Hearts II is primarily an action game with role-playing elements. You still have to contend with hit points and magic spells, but you actually control Sora and make him hack and slash at his enemies. As your characters level up, they pick up new abilities that you can choose to equip. This leads to spectacularly long combo moves, which will be necessary to defeat later enemies.

Like other recent sequels (Resident Evil 4, Tomb Raider: Legend), Kingdom Hearts II adds reaction commands, which prompt the player to hit a certain button in a short amount of time to initiate an action. Nailing the commands is necessary when facing many of the boss characters. Also new is the Drive Gauge, which fills up over time and allows Sora to transform and unleash special moves when filled. They may be minor changes, but they add mightily to the basic gameplay mechanics of the original.

Visually, the game is among the top titles on the PlayStation 2. While other games strive for visual realism, Kingdom Hearts II aims for a vivid, cartoonish world in which fantastic things are possible. It succeeds mightily, with spectacular, detailed graphics that make great use of the game’s engine. Even while facing one-thousand enemies, the game ran smoothly and without issue. The PlayStation 2 should not be capable of such feats, but Square Enix has managed to squeeze every ounce of life out of the five-year-old system.

A cinematic game like this lives or dies by the quality of its voice over work, and Kingdom Hearts II comes through in spades. Many top games may employ the use of a dozen voice actors, but Kingdom Hearts II features nearly one-hundred! Among those included are several big-name actors, such as Christopher Lee, James Woods, Mena Suvari, and Zach Braff. Haley Joel Osment returns to voice Sora, and both the character and the voice have aged over the last four years, ensuring a strong, consistent match. Over the course of the game, I only noticed a handful of parts in which the acting could be improved. It truly sets a new standard for games of this length.

As with most games released by Square Enix, the original soundtrack is both extensive and well done. Nearly ninety tracks were compiled for the game, many drawn from or inspired by the original movie soundtracks. As with the visuals, the songs are never out of place in the respective worlds; consistency is key in the Kingdom Hearts universe. As with the first game, the theme song (“Passion”) was written and performed by Utada Hikaru, a major Japanese pop star (the English version, “Sanctuary,” takes its place in the game).

It can be easy to dismiss the Kingdom Hearts games due to their reliance on the Disney universe. But like the best Disney films, Kingdom Hearts II can be enjoyed on multiple levels. For example; while I’m amused by the content and visual references, I was often moved by the storyline and character interactions. The game is meant to be enjoyed by all ages, and even this jaded college student found it to be a genuine experience throughout.

Though the Kingdom Hearts series has little in common with Grand Theft Auto on the surface, I found an interesting parallel between the two franchises. Both are successful because of the immense amount of available content, as well as the strong execution of that content. All too often, games based on popular licenses are merely dumbed-down versions of their cinematic selves. Kingdom Hearts II proves that licensed games can carry emotional heft, while providing a cinematic experience that does not rely heavily on adult themes.

Grade: A