Something very special is going on when Donald Duck and Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth run into each other on the street and it doesn’t seem strange at all, but in Kingdom Hearts II, the sequel to Disney and RPG powerhouse Square Enix’s 2002 collaboration, exactly that happens. Sora, Donald, and Goofy are back and have found themselves caught up in a plot involving not one, but two enemy factions. Besides the always-pesky Heartless, once again under the command of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, Sora and company must contend with the enigmatic Organization XIII and their army of Nobodies. The heroes’ quest to thwart the forces of evil and rescue Sora’s missing friends spans a handful of worlds based on classic Disney movies, including old favorites from the first game and a selection of new locales. There are even a couple of worlds based on live action Disney films (Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron), which opens up the possibilities of this franchise in a way I hadn’t even thought of.
Each world has its own micro-story which more or less follows its respective movie’s plot but makes a few key changes to connect it to the games larger meta-plot, making the game feel at once both episodic and epic. Along the way you’ll meet or fight along side practically every Disney character you can think of, but not all the familiar faces are copyrights of the house Mickey built; characters from Square’s Final Fantasy series play a much larger role in the story this time around. Leon (Squall), Cloud, Aeris, and Yuffie return and are joined by FFVIII antagonist Seifer (who at one point utters a line of dialog that is destined to go down in history as one of gaming’s worst), FFX’s Auron, the ditzy trio from FFX-2, and a few surprises.
After a lengthy and bizarre (and somewhat tedious) prologue, Sora and his anthropomorphic animal friends will hop from world to world in order to solve the personal problems of everybody they meet. This involves watching cut scenes, fighting, and not much else. Kingdom Hearts II is an action RPG, with emphasis on the action. Said action is always fast, flashy, frantic, fun, and usually consists entirely of tapping the X button repeatedly. There are other abilities to use, such as magic and summon powers, but mindlessly hacking away with Sora’s keyblade is easier gets the job done faster. Depth is added with a trendy new context-sensitive button which lets a quick-reflexed player perform special moves depending on the situation, like sliding under a large enemy to slash at its belly, swinging around another type of enemy to tie it into a knot, or to take down a boss in a spectacular cinematic sequence. This sort of thing has been used a lot lately in games like God of War and Resident Evil 4, but never has it been as well implemented as it is here. Sora can also morph into more powerful forms of himself to do more damage, and can team up with a party member to unleash a devastating limit combo. The transition between worlds is once again accomplished through the Gummi Ship space-shooter minigame, but this time it is more like Panzer Dragoon and less like watching your fingernails grow. Truth be told it is actually kind of fun now.
The ship editor still left me baffled, but the hardcore need something to keep them busy and since customizing your ship is totally optional I was able to ignore it without a problem. As Sora emerges victorious from more and more frantic battles, he gains higher stats, new items and accessories, and new abilities to use in combat. Sora starts with only a simple 3-hit combo, but before long he is a whirling, dual-keyblade wielding force of destruction. Because Sora becomes so powerful so quickly, veterans of the first game are probably going to want to start playing on the highest difficulty setting. The difficult “Proud Mode” is still only marginally more difficult than the first Kingdom Hearts was on Standard, but at least chopping through the game won’t be quite so mindless. There are also a few extremely difficult optional boss fights and mini-games, so although lack of challenge in the main game is a strike against Kingdom Hearts II, it isn’t the biggest. That dishonor goes to the stunted level design. The levels in the original Kingdom Hearts game were complicated and involved a fair bit of exploration and backtracking. This led to the player often wondering cluelessly about, hoping to trigger an event.
Although it was noble of Square Enix to address these complaints, they overcompensated so much that the sense of exploration has been killed entirely. Now the worlds are completely linear, with invisible walls to prevent the player from venturing anywhere other than the most direct path toward the next objective. Revisited worlds are shadows of their former selves. Even with the addition of Christmas Town, the Nightmare Before Christmas level is a ghost of what it used to be (pun intended), and the Little Mermaid world has been reduced to a series of terrible rhythm mini-games which are more like cruel jokes than anything. Some people I’ve talked to prefer the oversimplified level designs in the sequel over what existed in the original, but I just can’t help but feel like this is a big step backward in terms of making me feel as if I am actually stepping inside my favorite movies. Despite all its flaws and oversimplification, it is never a struggle to have fun with Kingdom Hearts II. The controls are fluid and the menu system is deep-yet-accessible. The game play is sweet and digestible, and there is a lot of it. The main game should take around 30 hours to complete and there are a few worthwhile side quests and mini-games to keep you occupied after that.
While it might not seem as advanced as other recent top-tier games in terms of polygons and whatnot, Kingdom Hearts II is undeniably gorgeous. The onscreen lightshow is always more interesting than what is actually being done with the controller. Every action is accompanied by a mesmerizing explosion of lights and particles, so even though you’re really just pounding away at the X button the effects will keep you constantly dazzled. Even with all this glitter and sparkle constantly flashing, the frame rate never stutters. In fact, it even holds up when Sora faces off with as many as one thousand enemies at once (yes, a thousand!).
The character models and environments recreate those from the movies they are based on down to the minutest of details. For a game that undergoes a complete palette swap every couple of hours, Kingdom Hearts II looks amazingly consistent. All these spiky-haired anime people look right at home among the inhabitants of Disney’s wide world. The only exception is the uber-realistic Pirates of the Caribbean world, in which our heroes look like the stepped out of a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Animation is also key, and this is where the Kingdom Hearts series bests every other game on the market. Everything from the unique mannerisms of Captain Jack Sparrow to the hypnotic, rubber-band-like acrobatics of the Nobodies is perfectly captured. It all goes to show that a game needn’t be cel-shaded to bring cartoons to interactive life.
The audio is just as detail-oriented as the visuals are, if not more so. All the clangs and clomps of combat are well done, but subtler things like the hum of a film projector in the background of a world based on Disney’s classic black-and-white cartoons really take it to a whole different level. Even things as minor as the sounds Sora’s feet make as he walks across different surfaces are worth paying attention to. The music is also pretty good as well, with themes from the movies being adapted into background tunes in the game as well as the inclusion of some serviceable original stuff. Even the J-pop intro by Utada Hikaru is more catchy than annoying.
Almost all the voices in the game are authentic. Square Enix was able to get most of the talent from the original films to reprise their roles (James Woods steals the show as Hades), and when that wasn’t possible they got sound-alikes so good one can’t even tell the difference. The cast assigned to Sora and his friends is a veritable who’s who of teen stars, including that kid who saw dead people in that one movie as Sora and that one guy who sings that annoying song on MTV as someone else. Even Christopher Lee (the bad guy from those hobbit movies) steps in and does some decent work as the masked DiZ. The voice actors assigned to the Final Fantasy characters seem bored and contractually obligated, but otherwise everybody’s performance is top notch. Kingdom Hearts II is the new standard-bearer for sound in videogames.
The ESRB rated Kingdom Hearts II E10+ for Everyone Ages 10 and up, for mild blood, use of alcohol, and violence. I think this is a fair rating, except I don’t remember seeing any blood. The “use of alcohol” is probably a reference to the wine barrels and liquor bottles in a pirate ship the player visits. This game follows the plots of the following Disney movies: Beauty and the Beast Mulan Hercules Pirates of the Caribbean The Little Mermaid Aladdin The Nightmare Before Christmas The Lion King Steamboat Willy Tron If there is anything from any of those that bothers you, then it will probably at least briefly appear in Kingdom Hearts II.
It would be impossible to discuss the plots and possible issues of every one of those movies, but I’ll try to mention as many big points of religious interest as I can. Sora and company visit a Christmas-themed world in which Santa Claus, not Jesus, is regarded as the central figure. The worlds based on Aladdin and Hercules heavily deal with the mythology of their respective cultures, including a full tour of the hell-like Greek Underworld complete with a few boss fights with the god of the dead. The focus of Kingdom Hearts II’s game play is squarely set on violence, and most of the player’s time will be spent whacking enemies with a giant key. The majority of the adversaries are inhuman creatures but there are also a few human or human-like bosses and in one level Sora and company fight undead pirates. The narrative makes it very clear that the head bad guys have no hearts and thus are without feelings or humanity (making it okay to kill them), but they certainly seem human to me. When an enemy is destroyed it bursts into a pile of coins and power-ups. I don’t recall seeing any blood.
Also, like anything Disney, there is a strong emphasis on the supernatural. It’s all straight out of a fairy-tale with mermaids, genies, wizards, witches and the like. The closest thing to real “occult” material is in the Pirates world, where there are Aztec-cursed coins, which turn the pirates who stole them into immortal zombies. The story also has some pseudo-spiritual things to say about the nature of the human heart, which don’t always line up with what the Bible says. For example, the title “Kingdom Hearts” refers to a sort of collective heart of the universe to which human hearts return after being separated from their bodies. The player’s character can use magic to heal himself, shoot lightning bolts, or draw in enemies like a magnet. There is no language, sexual content, or ethical issues in this game. I feel that the E10+ rating is accurate, and anybody who loves Disney movies will probably find nothing here that would offend more than his or her favorite movies.
At one point in the game a guilt-ridden character asks Sora how he will be able to face everybody when they return home. Sora says “like this” and makes a funny, googly-eyed face. This little scene sums up what Kingdom Hearts is all about: facing the scary things in life with humor and optimism. Sora is in a very dark situation, but he never stops being a kid who is excited to see new places and go on new adventures. Sometimes it can get overly sappy, with the characters teaching each other about friendship and even *groan* the “true” meaning of Christmas, but in the end that’s the essence Kingdom Hearts. It’s a great game, but it isn’t the culmination of the Playstation 2 it was hyped up to be. It’s been polished to a sheen, and the game play is as streamlined as can be, but compared to the original it is too easy and simplistic. Fans of Disney, fans of Final Fantasy, and especially fans of previous games in the series are definitely going to want to buy this right away, and I encourage everyone else to rent it with an open mind to see if you want to step into Mickey’s world.
Gameplay: 16/20 Graphics: 9/10 Sound: 10/10 Control/Interface: 5/5 Stability: 5/5 Violence: 6.5/10 Language 10/10 Sexual Content/Nudity: 10/10 Occult/Supernatural: 5.5/10 The Cultural/Moral/Ethical: 10/10