Over the course of history, there have been many incredible pairings. Peanut butter and jelly, Bonnie and Clyde, and Adam and Eve are just a few of these monumental duos. Some may consider the fusion of Squaresoft and Disney's talents to be another one of these incredible pairs about which I have been talking. When one looks at it on paper, it seems to be a foolproof idea. Just think about it: the kings of the role-playing genre and the masters of animated movies collaborate to create one ultimate game. How could anything go wrong? Let me count the ways.
Kingdom Hearts starts off with an unnecessary MTV-style cutscene. When I say cutscene, I really mean music video because it is all flash and no substance. Nothing is explained about the plot, we just see a kid swimming with "cool" camera techniques to impress us. It seems like more a graphics demo than an attempt at a narrative. After a couple minutes of having to endure the horrible techno-pop song that plays with the scene it finally ends. It turns out the cutscene was nothing more than a young child's dream. How original.
The child dreaming was Sora, a rather uninteresting and bland lead character. He lives on Destiny Island with his friends: Kairi, Rikku, Tidus, Wakka and Selphie. Wait a minute, did I just say Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie? Apparently, the inclusion of Disney characters wasn't enough for Squaresoft. They had to throw in random Final Fantasy characters that contribute nothing meaningful to the plot. God forbid someone deems this game as "kiddy." With the inclusion of our favorite Final Fantasy heroes no one will think of this game as childish!
All seems well until the evil Heartless attack the island. The Heartless are almost as bland as Sora. Our insipid hero ends up being split from his friends and embarks on a quest to find them. He teams up with another legendary duo, Donald Duck and Goofy, to find his friends and help the duo find Mickey Mouse. They travel from world to world (all of which are based on Disney movies) to accomplish their goals.
Visiting Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan and one of my favorite movies off all time, The Nightmare Before Christmas, should have been a dream come true for a Disney aficionado like myself. Disney movies have always been heavy on humor and delightful musical numbers, something that seems to have been lost in their digital translation. The absence of musical numbers can be forgiven, but there is no excuse for the lack of humor in this game. The only real attempt at humor is the frequent banter between Donald and Sora. Too bad all the jokes fall embarrassingly flat. The strongest scenes in the game are deliciously evil meetings that all the villains of each world have. Some may argue that villains are usually the best parts of Disney movies. In Kingdom Hearts there is no argument; they are the only good parts of the plot.
In each world, you experience what is essentially a stripped-down version of the movie's plot and, because of this, the storyline lacks any sort of cohesion. How does delivering a book for Cid Highwind and escaping with Pinocchio from a whale affect the grand scheme of the plot anyways? The fact that you must do all this pointless stuff just to find some people is ridiculous.
The combat is fairly unique. It's sort of a mix between action-RPG titles like Zelda and the more traditional party and spell casting elements we have seen in countless other Squaresoft titles. All of the combat is real time, but when you go to use an item or look for a spell to cast, the game does not stop. Healing potions are only helpful occasionally because you have to brave an endless amount of menus to actually use the potion. Either you end up too late in healing your allies, or in the process of finding the potion you take plenty of damage from attacking enemies. To make things worse, your AI-controlled allies constantly waste potions on one another, making being properly equipped for a tough battle a challenge. At least there are 3 button shortcuts that can be used for spells, but you'll never use any of the other spells because it takes too long to get to the menus.
Almost every world you go to is infested with enemies. Does Sora use a sword to thwart the villains? Of course not; this is a Disney game. He uses a key instead of a sword. Ironically, you battle the horrible camera angles more than you battle the Heartless. When you lock onto an enemy the camera angles changes, but is it too bad that other objects usually obscure your view. Odds are there won't be a view at all because the camera does a horrible job of actually showing the enemy. There is a fair amount of platform jumping in the game, but when you try to set up the camera for the best view, it inexplicably changes to the same frustrating view you just tried to get rid off.
Combat is essentially broke down into this: hit the attack button repeatedly, go through 3 different menus to try to use a potion, and then attack repeatedly again. It is all so mind numbing and dull. In the earlier parts of the game there are some fun moments where you can deflect an enemy's projectile with your keyblade and hit him back. But with the exception of that a few bosses, the combat is a nuisance rather than anything resembling fun.
Unfortunately, there is too much of an emphasis on battling in Kingdom Hearts. Almost every area has respawning Heartless. This may not seem bad, but in some worlds you just wander aimlessly from area to area trying to find the right place to go, and all the while enemies are popping up everywhere.
There is more to Kingdom Hearts than dull combat and cumbersome menus. There is a plethora of mini-games of varying quality. The largest mini-game (quite an oxymoron there) is the Gummi Ship. While in most role-playing games you have to walk to get the next town, in KH you fly your Gummi Ship from world to world. You can customize your ship with a variety of different parts found around the world, but why bother? You will probably spend more time trying to find the right parts and equipping them than you will ever spend flying it. The flying portions are embarrassingly bad. Enemies attack you while flying and there are a couple obstacles to dodge, but overall it's almost impossible to die unintentionally. The most alarming part about it is that even Starfox 64 had superior graphics than what is seen in this train wreck.
Some of the other mini-games are more gratifying. The tree-surfing portion with Tarzan is fun, and so is finding all 101 Dalmations. The whole Hundred Acre Wood (Winnie the Pooh's world) is chockfull of mini-games, and most aren't that bad. These satisfying portions just make the Gummi Ship look horribly amateurish.
The one thing that cannot really be criticized in Kingdom Hearts is the graphics: they are phenomenal. All of the Disney characters look incredibly faithful to the source material. While they may not be as...animated as their movie counterparts, they are definitely close. It is amazing how each world manages to closely mimic the art style of the movie upon which it is based. The most eye-popping portion of the game is the trip to Halloween town. While it is nearly impossible to emulate the 'claymation' style of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Squaresoft still delivers in terms of graphics with my favorite Disney movie. The ground, fog, and incredible character models made me feel like I was in Halloween Town. The view distance in KH is equally amazing. There is practically no pop up whatsoever, even in the largest areas.
As I side note, I noticed that, strangely enough, there is not a single African-American in this game. Not even a random townsperson NPC is African-American. And I thought Disney stopped being racist after the Song of the South fiasco.
If for some reason the graphics do not impress you, the voice acting will. The original voice actors voiced most of the Disney characters and an A-list (for a videogame) cast was assembled for the new characters. The distinguished Haley Joel Osment voices Sora and the incredible Mandy Moore voices Aeris. Yes, the latter was sarcasm. Oddly, the fan favorite Sephiroth is voiced by our favorite N*Sync boy, Lance Bass! While a couple of the casting choices were strange, the voice acting never gets boring or annoying. In fact, I wish there was a lot more of it. A few memorable Disney tunes are in Kingdom Hearts, but most of the music is original. The original music is pretty good, but I really wish there were more of the classic tunes to hear.
Kingdom Hearts is a strange game. It is obviously geared towards kids, but the combat is too frustrating to be enjoyable for the little ones. The graphics and voice acting are unparalleled, but the gameplay is mind numbingly boring. Even the inclusion of some of Final Fantasy characters wasn't enough to amuse me because they were nothing more than gimmicks. It is shame that the 2 greats, Disney and Squaresoft, could not create a good game. They couldn't even create a mildly fun game. It should be a crime to waste such potential.
© 2002 Squaresoft and Disney