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Platform: PlayStation 2 Publisher: Square
Genre: Action RPG Developer: Square
Format: CD-ROM Released: 09/02

Reader Review
11/24/02
Phillipe Richer
Reader Review

When I heard the announcement of a game resulting from the collaboration between Square and Disney, I nearly fell of my chair. I was bewildered, uninterested, and turned off like no one. However, once I downloaded the trailer, my opinion of the upcoming masterpiece changed greatly. The trailer presented some awesome music, impressive graphics, and a high level of style. But could the game also offer charming characters, entertaining battles, and most of all, an intriguing plot? When I popped the disc into my PS2, I already had my answer.

While everything seems peaceful and joyful on Destiny Island, home of the protagonist Sora and his two best friends, Kairi and Riku, something of unimaginable power lurks beyond the secret door hidden within a cave. On a stormy night, Sora wakes up in a daze as darkness itself has engulfed his island. Battling in vain with the overwhelming power restraining him, Sora is cast away into a different world, leaving Kairi and Riku behind. Meanwhile, castle knight Goofy and court wizard Donald set off on a journey of their own to retrieve king Mickey and the wielder of the Keyblade, the only possible hope of survival against the ever growing force known as the Heartless. What will happen to Sora from that point on is a voyage across many different worlds, rescuing the hearts of others, and finding the meaning and purpose of his own.

Accompanied by two computer controlled and highly skilled companions, Goofy and Donald, Sora will face the Heartless with all his might, using physical attacks, magic spells and wit in hundreds of fast paced and completely open battles. As soon as enemies appear, the command menu turns red, and your key must start swinging. Pressing R1 locks-on the camera and Sora into a single enemy which will soon face a flurry of devastating key combos. By tapping triangle once an enemy has been locked on you can command both of your buddies to also concentrate their attacks on that particular enemy. If not, they will just attack whatever is in sight. You use L2 and R2 to rotate the camera or to switch between targets.

Eight magic spells and several special skills will become part of your arsenal over time, as well as a few items which you have previously equipped. The L1 button prompts a quick spell menu to which you can assign three spells, a must for boss battles where a quick Cura or Aerora spell can save your hide. To cycle between the Attack, Magic, Item and Special Moves command you must use either the D-pad or the right analog stick. Using the analog stick is much more appropriate during battles as you can move away from danger more easily while you get to that Hi-Potion.

Your two companions will act totally on their own, although you may assign items to them as you see fit and customize their personality to better suit the style of combat you prefer. Their innate personality seems to be much more offensive than defensive though, and they will take quite a bit of punishment during boss fights and the later encounters as their sense of evading and counterattacking isn't the keenest of all. Characters can equip one weapon and several accessories along with a variety of passive and active abilities. Each character has a set amount of AP (ability points) which you use to equip the various abilities they have learned. Those abilities range from special attacks, to MP restoring skills, to the more useful dodge and guard abilities for Sora. You may also summon various Disney characters who have their distinct attack or support abilities. Summoning requires MP and casts your two other pals away until the summon's MP gauge runs out.

Battles are often no more than a button mashing contest, although later on the ability to successfully analyze an enemy's attack pattern combined with well-timed evades and guards will be your only chance of salvation. You'll also need to use your head during boss battles which are very entertaining, very diversified, but also astonishingly challenging. At the beginning of the game, you are given the option between playing on normal or expert difficulty. I brushed my arrogance aside and opted for the normal setting, and I had more than my share of cold sweats. I hadn't died that many times in a very long while. Gameplay-wise, Kingdom Hearts is above anything you could expect, mixing action, strategy and fun into a nearly flawless formula.

Moving the cursor along that command menu may prove to be a bit frustrating at times, especially in those tough boss fights when you absolutely need a lift. The lock-on ability is very easy to use, though somewhat clunky at times. For instance, the lock-on message which appears at the top right corner when a target is selected isn't always easy to see. Also, instead of automatically selecting another target once you kill one off, the lock-on option turns itself off completely, forcing you to press L1 again. Overall though, everything from shopping, to jumping from vine to vine, to navigating your Gummi ship is done with commendable ease.

To travel to the many worlds, your crew will have to make use of their "Gummi" ship, a space vessel made out of "Gummi" blocks. You can customize your vessels by adding more defensive protection, more destructive lasers or broader wings. You acquire blueprints of other ships from the many characters in Traverse Town, and parts can be obtained either in treasure chests, during interstellar trips or in Cid Highwind's shop. The trips you'll have to make do not pose much of a threat however, and most blueprints are either too big or to exhaustive in "Gummi" blocks to build. That aspect could have been more polished, though there may be side-quests which I'm unaware of that might require a stronger vessel.

Yoko Shimomura, the acclaimed composer of soundtracks such as Super Mario RPG and Legend of Mana, accepted the difficult task which Kingdom Hearts presented. Mixing both new tracks with classic Disney compositions surely was not an easy feat, but Shimomura-san accomplished that task superbly, blending familiar songs with her own style into a whimsical ensemble of tracks. From the opening dance remix of the excellent song "Hikari" (Simple and Clean in English), to the soothing Traverse Town theme, from the eerie Halloween Town composition to the quirky and cheerful Little Mermaid music, everything is catchy, pleasing, and overall excellent. The vocal song was much more meaningful and catchy in Japanese however, since the English lyrics were chosen mostly to follow the music's flow. That is why you get more moaning and more "baby" as filler, but the song is still far superior to "Melodies of Life" from FFIX or the dreadful "Eyes on Me" from FFVIII. Overall, it's a delight to listen to, and standing still simply to hear a track once again will be a common occurrence.

The voice-acting, featuring well-known personalities such as Haley Joel Osment, David Boreanez and Mandy Moore, is beyond incredible. It's a spectacular production, a marvel to listen to and the standard for all future similar projects. No voice is out of place, no one speaks overzealously or too timidly, and each emotion is perfectly characterized in all instances. Even the Disney characters sound amazingly close, if not exactly the same, as they did during their movie appearances. James Woods as Hades, Dan Castellaneta as the Genie and Gilbert Gottfried as Iago are all splendid. Once again, it's indescribably good. And of course, as could be expected from Square, the sound department did a fantastic job throughout. Nothing was left behind in the production of this giant of a game.

The quality of the presentation, the imposing presence of each cut-scene and the mesmerizing production values can be felt every second of every moment. The role played by the Square characters and that of the Disney cast is always done in good taste, never overbearing their small purpose or stealing the spotlight unto themselves. In fact, Square could've decided to simply create new characters to fill the hundred or so places occupied by the many Square and Disney characters, but the charm and charisma of the game wouldn't have been the same.

From my first encounter with Squall and Yuffie in Traverse Town to my great swim alongside Ariel in Atlantica, every occasion of my experience was a joyful, invigorating, and unforgettable one. Whether you hate or love Square and Disney, you must raise your hat to both companies for successfully mixing so many franchises into such an uplifting storyline. It's not as simple-minded as you might think, and compared to many shallow or excessively cheesy plots present in many RPGs, the flow and feel of the story is magnificently deep and touching.

Not all dialogues are accompanied with voice acting however. During sequences of less importance, good old text will carry-on the story. It's as good of a translation job as it gets. There are absolutely no typos to be seen, and each individual's personality is distinctly reflected through those events. Even when you are treated to the surreal voice-acting, text is displayed at the bottom of the screen in bold white letters.

Many diversions are instilled in Kingdom Hearts should you choose to enjoy the game without continuing with the storyline. After certain key events, your party will acquire more "Trinity abilities". You can then scour the world to find the Trinity marks of the corresponding colors to obtain various items. You'll also be rescuing the 99 dalmatian puppies, retrieving pages of the Winnie the Pooh book, fighting in the Greek colosseum and synthesizing special items into powerful accessories in the moogle's shop. Doing everything there is to do and seeing everything might bump your game file to up to 50 hours, but most gamers should be swept away for sadly only 30-40 hours. Distinct Disney personalities may also join your party when you visit their own world, lending a big hand in battle and helping you navigate through their land. Aside from all that though, your heart and soul won't allow you to function without many subsequent playthroughs - so just give in and brace yourself for another exploration through the depths of the heart.

I think we have come to a point in time where we simply expect great visuals, not lending much thought and consideration into the process of creating those breathtaking graphics. You must, once again, give proper compliments to the whole team of artists who worked on Kingdom Hearts. The characters, the special effects, and the enchanting surroundings are nothing short of extraordinary. Aerith looks more gorgeous than ever, the FMVs and high quality cut-scenes all achieve the highest level of greatness and every surrounding area is as engulfing as it should be. Character movements are so fluid, so spectacular that you would think you're watching a quality anime.

Square comes off strong once again, and you can feel the tremendous production values in Kingdom Hearts. The overwhelming atmosphere of the game, combined with challenging and exciting gameplay, an amazing musical score and the most fabulous cast of personalities ever gathered, both fictional and real, combine to create one of the best experiences this very planet has to offer. Give in to the temptation and give your mind all it desires.



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© 2002 Squaresoft and Disney
Graphics: 100%
Sound: 100%
Gameplay: 94%
Control: 84%
Story: 95%
Overall: 92%

Click to Enlarge
Sora and the Genie--just one of many Disney characters in the game.

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Sora and Goofy work to solve a problem.

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Not to be outdone, many of Square's stars make cameos as well.

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Including Final Fantasy VII's very own Cloud...

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