Such controversy, such confusion. Questions shot forth from one end of the country to the other. What has become of Square? Why are our sacred characters being defiled with the presence of Disney? You’d think uproar of this nature would be over matters of another kind. But nevertheless these were the thoughts of most Squaresoft fans. Many reacted with faces contorted with apall. In fact, I can remember one instance while working at Game Stop, where a manger from another store had come in and overheard talk of Kingdom Hearts. He proceeded to rant and rave about how Square had “sold out”, going off about how gaming was in for a turbulent ride to its downfall.
They couldn’t have been farther off…
Kingdom Hearts is hands-down one of the coolest games I have ever played. Pushing the PlayStation 2’s graphical potentials, Kingdom Hearts has the look and feel of perfection. Though many may question its “childish” and “cartoon” appearance, comparing it to Final Fantasy X’s level of realism, it was in fact the maker’s intention to produce such an animated look. Each model accurately represents the Disney character and landmark, down to the last polygon. It’s as if the animations had just leapt from the 2-D page into a 3-D world. Vivid and bright colors decorate every world (okay, fine…with the exception of Halloween Town), breaking from Square’s history of less-than diverse color schemes in Final Fantasy titles. Facial expressions are animated remarkably well, eyes opening and closing, eyebrows rising, and lips curling into smiles or frowns. Mannerisms have been flawlessly incorporated into the model’s movement; from the sway of their arms as they walk to the tapping of impatient feet during a stand still, all are fluid and natural looking. The controls are phenomenal, utilizing every button of the PlayStation 2 controller for optimal performance, including a revolutionary on-screen menu seamlessly integrated into the game play, controlled through the D-Pad and right analog. At first it may seem awkward, but players are able to master the menu quickly, switching between movement and menu without a second thought. The game also reintroduces mini-games in full where they’ve been absent since Final Fantasy 7’s motorcycle race and Gold Saucer. Standard to most RPGs is the tournament, and in addition there is the Gummi Ship stages set between worlds for an interesting new twist at transportation in a game. Although it isn’t as enjoyable as it could be, the Gummi Ship does at first provide a fun break from the game’s main style of play. Thankfully the ability to warp from world to world is achieved fairly early in the game to alleviate the redundancy that this form of travel does have.
The game’s story revolves around three childhood companions, Sora, Riku, and Kairi. It is their fondest wish to escape their “trapped” lives at Destiny Islands and discover new worlds and places beyond the tiny island and surrounding ocean they have known all their lives. As of late, they have begun construction of a raft to float out into the unknown and begin an adventure they have so far only dreamed of. Unfortunately, a drastic turn of events begins with the appearance of a mysterious and unnatural storm. Shadow-like creatures appear and Sora finds himself wielding a strange weapon he’d later discover to be known as the Keyblade. During his final moments on Destiny Island, Sora finds Riku willingly embracing the strange darkness that consumes their homeland. Magic explodes all around them, and when Sora awakes, he finds himself in a strange new land…the adventure he had longed for about to come in the form of a long, unforgettable journey.
The story is exceptionally strong, even with the integration of the Disney worlds. In fact, each world acts as a pocket to the main story and each pocket a sub-story of its own. The plots to the films we know and love are seamlessly blended with the presence of Sora, giving an interesting new twist to it. All the while, the main focus of the story continues to develop and though at first it may seem average and toned down from Square’s usual plotlines, it quickly becomes apparent that under the surface there is much darkness to be found. The story is riveting and tightly woven so that no loophole can be found. It satisfies all audiences and tastes, especially the Final Fantasy devotee who may have been less than pleased over having to save Alice from the Queen, rescue gorillas with Tarzan, or scour the Cave of Wonders with Aladdin. Although for those who are familiar to the Disney films present in the game, the experience is nostalgic and welcomed. More than often players will find themselves drooling to know what happens next, thinking up the answers on their own or trying to solve the puzzles with what they know. Although the game does not have a groundbreaking or even unordinary plot, it is nonetheless strong and enjoyable, and far from mundane or plain.
As previously stated, the control scheme to Kingdom Hearts utilizes every aspect of the PS2 controller. Its straightforward use and quick-access structure make it easy to learn and even easier to use. There are no combination button sequences to be pressed, no complications…simplicity yet effectiveness was obviously on Square’s mind. The on-screen submenu is controlled through the D-Pad and/or right analog to access items, attacking, magic, or varying commands such as examine, lift, or alternate forms of attack. These options are selected with the X button, as well as R3 for even quicker interface. Spells can be allotted to three of the four main PS2 buttons, Triangle, Square, and X, and can be cast when one of these buttons is pressed in conjunction with L1. The back L and R buttons rotate the camera accordingly, and R1 locks on to a target, which can be shifted amongst multiple enemies using the R2 and L2 buttons.
For what it’s worth, the original compositions of the game are fantastic. There are upbeat tunes keeping to the pace of battle and sorrowful melodies reflecting the event’s mood, all done with Yoko Shimomura’s expert touch. Unfortunately there are very few original songs in comparison to the majority of Disney songs, all which have been given the enjoyable “Yoko Shimomura” makeover. The theme to the game, “Simple and Clean”, is phenomenal in all its incarnations, whether it be the intro’s techno version, the orchestral, or the plain original. Another track that displays Kingdom Hearts vast array of emotional tones is “Destati”, which one would think got lost from an epic and stumbled upon Kingdom Hearts. Oh, and the voice acting? Superb. Though there has been dispute over the actual voice-actors for some of the roles, there is no dispute over their performance. Haley Joel Osment does a phenomenal job as Sora, and David Gallagher does equally as well in his role as Riku. David Boreanaz, Christy Romano, and even Lance Bass portray the Final Fantasy characters accurately as any fan would imagine they sound.
Despite first appearances and many claims, Kingdom Hearts is not a game for young audiences only. In fact, at some points the challenge to some bosses and obstacles is so great that questions arise as to whether or not younger players can even undertake those parts of the game. Although the game is speckled with quirky Disney humor, especially wherever Donald Duck is involved, it carries with it a serious overtone depicting the grimness of the human heart and the darkness within all. Towards the end, the game seems to drop all ties to Disney’s well-known lightheartedness and veers towards the Final Fantasy nature of things, that of seriousness and maturity. So in a sense, the game has something for everyone; romance, rivalry, adventure, humor, exploration and expansiveness, a slew of sidequests and hidden bosses, all wrapped up in one neat little box for you to carry home. Square has always earned its stars through innovation and ingenuity, and with Kingdom Hearts it’s no different. The game is a welcomed break from typical gameplay and typical plotlines, and should be willingly embraced by all who carry an open mind. If the heavy presence of Disney and what is perceived to be its childish antics can be dismissed, them Kingdom Hearts is truly a worthwhile experience that will forever hold its place amidst the gaming universe.