Editor's Note: Kingdom Hearts II is a direct sequel. If you have not played the original Kingdom Hearts or Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, you have been warned that this review may contain spoilers for both of these games. Read at your own risk.
Fans of the original Kingdom Hearts have been waiting a long time for this highly-anticipated sequel. The delays were frequent, and for many, the GBA title "Chain of Memories" was hardly enough to quench the thirst for more of that mixed rush of nostalgia and innovation. After clocking a solid 35 hours into the game (which was enough to complete the game and earn a bonus ending movie), I have come to a simple conclusion about Kingdom Hearts II: it surpasses the original on every level.
Let me break it down for you.
He looks just like you.
At first glance, Kingdom Hearts II looks a lot like the first game. At least, that's what I thought during the first few hours of gameplay. Then I stuck the first game back in my PS2 and faced the facts: it's been four years, and the visuals of the first Kingdom Hearts are clearly dated. Indeed, the finished product looks much more polished than the somewhat choppy and pixelated demo I played a year earlier at E3. Let's talk about some of the highlights.
The expected eye-poppers are the FMV sequences, of which there are three: the opening, the ending, and for the hard-working gamers, a bonus video sequence that is likely hinting towards Kingdom Hearts III. These are sure to please; the characters and environments look better than ever in these sequences. The opening video is essentially an FMV recap of what transpired in Kingdom Hearts (as well as some select scenes from Chain of Memories, which looked really good). I won't spoil the ending stuff for you, but of course, they are graphically comparable to the FMVs of Final Fantasy XII. Which, in my mind, is pretty shiny happy stuff.
In-game cutscenes are a step above regular map/battle graphics, and this too is a big improvement over the first Kingdom Hearts. Especially impressive, to me, were the added effects in the early dream sequences with Roxas, the mysterious character that you use (instead of Sora) for the first few hours of gameplay. The artistic flair that combined the binary/data/static effect with the heartfelt scenes from the first title really left an impact on me.
The characters look much like they did in the first one, but sleeker and smoother for sure. Also, in stark contrast to the cartoony feel of the rest of the game, Port Royal (the "Pirates of the Caribbean" world) looks amazing. The facial designs on Jack Sparrow and company are the best I've seen yet on PlayStation 2. It seems to me that Square Enix is really pushing this system to its final limits before transitioning to PlayStation 3.
Character animation (be it for cutscenes or for battles against foes both large and small) is superb. The bosses in this game are big and bad, but graphically they are all works of art. The environments also stand out, in large part due to their accuracy in paying homage to the original Disney films. The landmark image of Pride Rock (in the "Lion King" world) looked outstanding both from a distance and when standing upon it.
The cutscenes, of which there are many, work wonderfully as an integrated package (weaving graphics, sound, and story). From a graphical perspective, it is the clever and varied use of facial expressions that stand out most clearly. It's immediately apparent that much work went into the graphical detail of this game. In some respects, it emulates (and surpasses) some of the original animated scenes from Disney. That's something worth bragging about.
Among all the subscores, I rank graphics highest, at a very solid (and very expected) 95%. Few games can touch the level of detail (and size) of this game from a graphical perspective. It's regularly been Square's trump card for the last few years (especially compared to smaller RPG developers), and I'm glad they're still willing to play to their strengths.
My fears, my lies...
I'm going to talk briefly about the sound in Kingdom Hearts II. Talking about music is my specialty, and believe me when I say that I could rant about this subject for many pages. That's why I'm going to force myself to keep this part short.
The voice actors for Kingdom Hearts II, many of which are celebrities, do a great job. I was disappointed that Depp and Bloom did not do the voices for the characters in Pirates of the Caribbean, but the impersonators did a great job. Watching the end credits flash the names of dozens of A-class and B-class celebrities was a dazzling experience. Again, lots of money was put behind this game, and the end result is outstanding. The disney characters will have you laugh and cry, and Christopher Lee does an excellent job at taking his character "DiZ" seriously.
Yoko Shimomura has returned to write the score for this game. I, for one, was not entirely impressed. Many have leveled a serious complaint against the synth quality in this game, especially in regards to strings. The best songs are the live performances, such as the orchestral version of Passion or Kaoru Wada's piano solo tracks. Also, a fair number of songs were directly ported from the first game, and that sort of recycling can become frustrating.
Finally, there's the subject of the new theme song. Performed by Ms. Utada (listed in the end credits as simply "Utada" for us Westerners), the song "Sanctuary" is an English remake to the Japanese theme "Passion." I thought the transition from Japanese to English with the first game ("Hikari" to "Simple and Clean") wasn't too bad, save for the trite lyrics. This job, however, was clearly rushed, and the final product is not half as good as the original Japanese version. Full harmonic backup parts have been cut, and Utada's stand-alone melody sounds flat in English. She stretches syllables to make up for the bouncy melody of the very syllabic Japanese version. I wasn't pleased. The song is still great, and it still works well with the FMV sequences, but I truly would've preferred the Japanese version this time around.
Though I was not too impressed by Shimomura's score, the astounding work by the voice actors does more than enough to keep the score above the B level. The sound and music of Kingdom Hearts II earns a 90%.
I began my review by saying that this sequel surpasses the original in every way. I stand by that statement, but if there's one place where I don't have to defend that statement, it's here. The simple hack-and-slash gameplay of the first title has been thrown out the window, and now Sora and his (ever-changing) crew have an arsenal of abilities at their side to strategically defeat masses of enemies and some very challenging bosses.
But first, a note about challenge. At the beginning of the game, one can choose to play any of three modes: beginner, normal, and proud. If you choose beginner, know that this game will be a breeze. Even normal won't prove a problem for veteran gamers. However, if you're the kind of person (like myself) that's into challenging action RPGs, Proud Mode is the way to go. The bosses are hard, and any mission involving a countdown based on gauge or time limit is suddenly an intense fight for survival.
(Also, for those interested in obtaining the bonus movie, you cannot unlock it in beginner mode. With a lot of work, you can do it in normal mode. If you choose the proud path, however, unlocking the extra video is easy as pie).
If you take the hard route, be on your toes. You'll need to climb the learning curve quickly to survive. Here's what I had to learn.
First of all, though the company may have the name "Square" in it, the emphasis is now placed on the triangle button. This magical button performs what the developers have called "reaction commands." It works like this: you're running around, fighting enemies, jumping towards various ledges, and then in the bottom-left menu a word appears with the triangle icon next to it. When that happens, hit triangle. 99% of the time, you'll be glad you did. The reaction commands usually involve a specific counter-attack for specific enemies, and many are key to defeating bosses. They also tend to create some awesome mid-battle flashy antics. For example, in Beast's Castle you get to swing around the chandelier in the dance hall; or, when you fight Cerberus, you save yourself from getting bitten by holding the dog's mouth open with your keyblade. The only complaint I have about the reaction command is that little skill is involved. It's usually not a matter of timing, and you aren't penalized for tapping triangle incessantly until a reaction command appears. I myself won more than one battle precisely by using the somewhat cheap "tap-triangle-and-pray" technique.
Battle dynamics have changed slightly, as the mp bar works in a strange new way. When mp hits zero, you auto-recharge. During that recharge time, however, you can't cast spells until you're back to full mp. Also, cure spells work such that they simply use whatever remaining mp you have. I found that a decent strategy was to use the majority of my mp on offense, then in that crucial moment of need, I pull out the cure spell. This method of play is certainly different from the first Kingdom Hearts.
But the real shocker is in the form of a new bar in your status corner: the "drive gauge." The drive gauge allows Sora to transform into one of three different forms (each form is earned at certain points in the game's storyline). The first is Valor form. When in Valor mode, Goofy is removed from the team (if he's not there originally, you can't use Valor), and Sora goes into an extraordinary offense mode. He wields two keyblades, moves faster, jumps higher, and generally destroys everything in sight. However, he can't cast magic unless he "reverts" back to normal mode. Wisdom mode removes Donald from the field, and now Sora floats and glides quickly around the ground and rapidly shoots some magical/ethereal stuff out of his keyblade. The third form, "Master" form, removes all teammates (Donald, Goofy, or whichever special third person you have) and allows Sora to wield two keyblades, do even more outrageous stuff than Valor form, and cast magic. Sweet deal right?
There is some danger with these drives. First, without the backup help of your teammates, it's easy to forget that you... need some backup help, especially in terms of healing (note that your allies' AI in this game is far superior to KH1). Second, each time your transform, there is a slight chance that you might end up in a dark/rage/heartless/death form. In this mode, all you can do is attack. There's no magic, no items, no reaction commands, and no ability to revert. You will not return to normal until the drive gauge slowly counts back to zero. This isn't always a bad thing, as the dark Sora is a violent little beast that can attack very rapidly. However, if you're in need of healing, or you're up against a boss that requires reaction commands, forget it: you're probably going to have to restart the battle (unless you're incredible at running and dodging).
As if this feature weren't enough, there are also new "limit" commands that allow Sora to do special moves with his allies. The limit knocks out a full mp bar, and the limit only lasts for a short amount of time (counted down by another bar in the top-right corner of the screen). But, these limits are truly spectacular. Each special world-based character has a collection of special moves that can be performed alongside Sora. In this limit mode, you are in control of both characters by using X and triangle to execute various combinations, ending with a grand finale that usually does massive damage to everything in sight. Donald and Goofy also eventually learn limits to perform with Sora, though theirs are not as spectacular as the ones I have previously mentioned.
Working in the same manner as limits are the summons. I rarely used the summons, as there was so much else to do, but the few times I did use them, I found them to be helpful. They are more of a novelty this time around, however. My favorite summon was "Stitch", though I did appreciate that Genie could imitate Sora's three drive forms (though Genie would then use up your drive gauge as a result).
Of course, the standards are there too. Shops, synthesis, ability points and ability assignment, various customization features, what have you. Most of what was good in Kingdom Hearts I is back for your enjoyment (the Dalmations, fortunately, did not return). Paying attention to item and ability customization is a key to victory, perhaps moreso than in the first title.
So those are just the mechanics of the gameplay. Now then, what if I told you that Kingdom Hearts II is filled with minigames, objective-based missions, and puzzles that were flat-out fun? Well, that's what I'm telling you, so you'd better come up with a positive reaction quickly (I'd suggest hitting the triangle button).
Remember that pathetic attempt at a shoot 'em up (henceforth referred to as "Shmup") that was the Gummi Ship in Kingdom Hearts? It's back, and it's back with a vengeance. This time around, it passes as a decent Shmup, rivaling the latest titles from the genre's hottest Japanese developer Cave. Okay, maybe not rivaling, but the point is that this is a really fun mini-game. And, though you're only required to play the missions once to travel to a new area, the game offers multiple mission modes with different enemy and course set-up (and secret bosses) to let you discover all new things to do. You are ranked A-E (you can also earn "S", which is above A) for these missions, and scoring high can land you new models for ships. There are standard ships that come in increasing levels (Highwind, Falcon, and Invincible are the common three), and then there are the novelty builds such as Tonberry and Cactuar. Of course, you can design your own custom ship. Unfortunately, designing your own ship is still just as confusing as it was last time. I couldn't make a half-decent ship myself.
There are a number of times when moving from one area to another requires more than just bashing enemies. Sometimes there are time limits. Sometimes you have to protect a person or an object from being damaged. Sometimes you have to hold up a "morale gauge" (this was early in the Mulan world and was not easy for an early-game quest). There are lots of fun new challenges to keep the game interesting and worthwhile.
Yeah, and that Winnie the Pooh world is back. This time the mini-games aren't an enormously tiresome and tedious task. They are short and sweet with clear objectives. Be happy about it. Also, Atlantica (the "Little Mermaid" world) is a mini-game world as well. There's no fighting, just rhythm-based music games that start easy and get more and more difficult with each chapter. These two worlds are optional, but are worth doing if only to see the humorous and touching cutscenes with your favorite Disney characters.
A small complaint I have is that, compared to the first game, I feel that the worlds in Kingdom Hearts II are somewhat smaller. Though you do eventually re-visit each world for further plot, my mind remembers the worlds of Kingdom Hearts being much larger and more complicated than the worlds of Kingdom Hearts II. I didn't really mind that so much, actually; but a part of me misses trying to figure out how to reach the highest level of buildings in Agrabah.
Innovation is the name of the game with KHII. Square Enix really did it right with this one. I was frequently challenged by the missions, and some of the near-end-game bosses were fearsome fights (with mid-battle surprises that force you to adjust quickly...I won't spoil it for you, but I promise you'll like it). Gameplay gets a 93%.
They are merely collecting data.
The control scheme for Kingdom Hearts II is decent, save for one nagging problem: the camera. Personally, I was never bothered by it, but if you didn't like the way the camera worked in the first game (with all the spinning and losing locks on enemies), then you're going to be mad all over again: the camera functions pretty much the same way it did last time. In my mind, it only makes sense that you get lost easily because of the camera. After all, if you were Sora, you'd get lost in the intense pace of the battle. Also, a first-person mode is possible, even for battling, by pressing select: I did not find it very helpful.
One of the best features about the control in KHII is the "auto-limit" and "auto-summon" option in the abilities menu. By turning these features on (at a cost of one ability point), one can simply hit triangle when the limit or summon is possible, and flash, it starts! This is a time-saver if you know you want to use the ability on a regular basis. However, it can become confusing since the magical triangle button is also regularly needed for other reaction commands.
If they had found a decent solution for the camera problem (which bothers my co-workers more than it does myself), I'd give control a higher score. This seems to be the one place that could have used more than a little improvement. Thus, I'm throwing down a B-level score of 85%.
This is my story, and you're not a part of it!
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Kingdom Hearts II, the plot and character development shine like a diamond in the rough. A whole bunch of Final Fantasy characters appear in this one, some of which not Nomura's creations. You get to see the majority of these characters do battle at certain points in the game, so if you're an FF fanboy (or fangirl), this is your dream come true.
Of course, the list of Disney characters is about six times the length of the Final Fantasy characters, so I won't even attempt a complete list. The new additions are quite useful, and the returning characters are spectacular as well; some of them even play a new and exciting role in the overarching story. Each and every character is truly memorable.
Let's talk about the original plot now. If you didn't keep up, some stuff happened in this place called "Castle Oblivion" during Chain of Memories, where Sora encountered some strange, black-hooded folks and was put to sleep for awhile. I won't spoil the whole game for you, as you really ought to play Chain of Memories before diving into KHII. Anyway, you start the game as a boy named Roxas in Twilight Town. Roxas keeps having dreams of Sora, Kairi, Riku, and the whole gang. In his dreams, he witnesses what happened in the first Kingdom Hearts.
Through some events that I won't spoil for you readers, Roxas takes a bow and Sora becomes the main character again. Sora and his crew decide to continue their search for King Mickey, Riku, and Kairi. After spending some time in Twilight Town, they're shipped off to the various worlds. As they go, they run into Organization XIII: they're those black-hooded guys.
There's a lot more that happens, and I really really don't want to spoil the experience for you all, but let's just say that Nomura and the other developers at Square Enix broke tradition and did some very unique stuff in this game. And, unlike the transition from Chrono Trigger to Chrono Cross, it all somehow works.
Oh yes, I don't suppose it's too big a spoiler, since screenshots of him are everywhere. King Mickey is around a fair bit more this time. He plays a major role in the plot, and in my mind he's the fighting equivalent to Yoda from Star Wars: tiny and agile, able to do all sorts of crazy flips and spins. Go Mickey, take charge.
The game's ending is certainly satisfying, as is the entire plot. It feels more cohesive than the first, as the worlds do play some relevance to the overarching story (especially Tron's world, which came as a big surprise to me). Some of the twists in the plot are predictable, but others aren't.
Being able to re-live the classic Disney films while also going through a whole new story with Sora and his friends is a marvelous experience and a formula for massive sales. It worked with the first title, and I won't be surprised when it works again here in the US. Yet again, Square Enix did it right, and this title has a plot even deeper and more interesting than its predecessor. 92%. Good job, gentlemen.
Light and darkness are eternal.
I know it doesn't matter what I say about this game. It probably won't change many minds. The game's going to sell exceedingly well, partially because it crosses genres and appeals to a large audience, and partially because Square Enix made one amazing game. I'm already convinced that the only game that stands a chance at topping this one for the year will be Final Fantasy XII (and based upon initial reports, XII probably will be the RPG of 2006). As is, I am wildly pleased by every little thing this game had to offer, and I consider myself fortunate to be one of the millions of gamers who will laugh, cry, and fight their way through this exciting title. My only worry is that S-E won't be able to outdo themselves when it comes time to develop Kingdom Hearts III, because in my mind, this may be as good as the series can get.
I humbly award Kingdom Hearts II a 93%. It's not the best game ever, but it is one of the best we've seen this decade, and perhaps the best in its genre. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.