The happiest place on your PS2.
When GR honcho Ben Silverman emailed the order to cover Kingdom Hearts II, his subject line asked an important question: Are you Disney people? The truth is that I'm not, in any way possible, Disney people. Some people can't stomach Busby Berkley musicals; others dislike snuff films. I can't abide by Disney. And digging those cute characters would seem to be a prerequisite for enjoying Square's latest mash-up of Disney and Final Fantasy.
But huge production value and the sheer absurdity of the enterprise pulled me into the game. If the original managed to be such a massive cult hit, warts and all, then this should be a PS2 classic.
[image1]And even this non-Disney person will admit that it comes damn close. In Kingdom Hearts II, Square has fixed the original's most glaring problems and delivered a storyline that, while not chock full of sense, is endearing and twisty enough to pull players through fifty hours of gameplay.
Don't expect to learn exactly why Final Fantasy and Disney characters are fighting side by side. In fact, explanations of any sort are in short order throughout most of the game. Players initially explore as Roxas, a teenage resident of Twilight Town. He's been dreaming about the original's trio of Sora, Donald and Goofy, and soon enough it's evident that there's a mystical link between him and the hero of Kingdom Hearts.
What follows is part Matrix and part classic Square. The Heartless are back, with new counterparts the Nobodies in tow. There's a mysterious group called Organization XIII, the return of Malificent (Sleeping Beauty's queen) and loads of subplots, all of which enforce ideals of friendship and honor without much subtlety. After Roxas' three-hour prologue, players will once again find Sora traveling from one Disney world to another, each of which is recreated with occasionally stunning detail.
Eventually, the plot works something like a long episode of Quantum Leap with permanent guest stars Goofy and Donald. Sora & Co. jet to a world, encounter a familiar Disney character in the midst of some crisis, then help them out of it to the tune of winsome theme music, somehow always before Dean Stockwell can arrive on the scene. Threads about Sora's past and future, Organization XIII and Mickey's crazy black outfit are woven roughly into the story, too, though they take many hours to grow to fruition.
No doubt in a nod to younger players, the storyline is quite linear. Though Sora can revisit worlds by hitting the universe map at almost any one of the plentiful save points, the basic progression from one story point to the next is fully directed. Occasionally the crew will reach a branch where they can hit one of a couple worlds first, but there's not much wandering to do or reason to go back to a cleared world.
[image2]That is, unless you're so taken with the look of the place that you need more. It's possible; the Steamboat Willy and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds are gorgeous, even if the linear level design prevents much exploration. Other locales, like Hercules' Colisseum and Ariel's underwater home, are disappointing only because they recur from the first game. (And the recurring worlds are noticeably front-loaded.) The cutscenes and voice-acting hold up to the visual standard, making the many plot-heavy segments entertaining enough to bear.
Also making the game a pleasure to behold is the camera, which bears the most obvious improvement. It works just like a third-person camera should, generally keeping a good distance from Sora's back and swinging around to follow targets in combat. The graphics engine is already a step up from the original game, and this camera lets us see more of each world.
Kingdom Hearts II adheres strictly to the action side of the RPG playbook, so combat is wild and filled with the mashing of hapless buttons. It's not so inspiring at first, as Roxas and then Sora have a pretty limited range of one-button combos. But new skills add moves to the chain, and after a few hours the spiky-haired kid can unleash the fury like Hulk Hogan (the crazy one, not the lame one with the hot daughter.) Most of the time, said fury roams at the behest of the X button, which frequently feels simplistic.
But Sora isn't limited to simple combos; he's also got a load of context-sensitive reactive moves triggered by the Triangle button. In various contexts, a message will flash that a Triangle move is available, at which point the window of opportunity to execute it is very brief. Fights then become a matter of trying to learn what combos and situations will make a reactive strike possible, then desperately stabbing Triangle, hopefully in time.
Against a boss or a few foes, the system works like butter, but get into the fray with twenty flunkies and it turns into button soup. Visually it's all very impressive as the game rarely stutters, but it's easy to feel like the fight isn't entirely in your hands. The saving grace is that, unlike the very strict mechanics of God of War, Kingdom Hearts II lets you get away with just pounding the Triangle button when it seems appropriate. (That may also be a huge drawback, for those who want to be hardcore.)
[image3]There are also Limit attacks, which join the forces of two or more characters (typically Sora and a guest star rather than Donald or Goofy) in a display of wildly impressive battle flourish. And Drive battle modes allow Sora to take new forms augmented with loads of violently destructive skills.
With all those forms of attack, the game could have become a mess of meters, gauges and RPG detail, but Square keeps things relatively brief. In fact, the RPG aspects are so light that they can frequently be ignored altogether. The only times you really need to brave the (admittedly well-designed) menus is to equip new abilities or weapons. There's a decent item synthesis option, but most useful ingredients appear halfway into the game, making it a novelty more than anything else.
In another slight improvement, the Gummi Ship segments, which bridge old worlds and new, have been made playable. Each is like an old-school arcade shooter “ think R-Type or Einhander, with an acceptable difficulty. While each encounter need only be played once, I actually found more replay value from the optional extra levels than anything else in the game. Unfortunately, the Gummi Ship editor is still obtuse and lousy. It's optional as well, proving that at least Square knows half a smart design decision when it sees one.
Poor mechanics like the Gummi editor are few and far between, though. Kingdom Hearts II is a blast - playable by nearly anyone, smarter than you'd expect, and built to a consistently impressive standard. Cartoon and RPG fandom isn't even required, as the story is outlandish and creative enough to ensnare even those wary of Disney.
Oh, to hell with it. Hakuna matata!