The few areas in which KH2 doesn’t succeed, really do nothing to hamper the overall joy of returning to this magical kingdom, brought to life by Square-Enix. by Vaughn Smith
March 31, 2006 – North American gamers have been turning a deep envious shade of Peter Pan green in light of the pre-Christmas release of KH2 in Japan. Without a doubt this Square-Enix developed epic adventure is one of the most anticipated games of 2006. But now the wait is finally over. Fans returning to the kingdom have a lot to look forward to, while new recruits should definitely play through the first KH and KH: Chain of Memories on GBA (if possible) before they embark. If you’re going to enjoy an “epic”, you have to do it right and that means playing the story from the beginning. KH2 will hold your hand and give you plenty of backstory to catch you up to speed if you ignore my pleas of playing KH first, but nothing beats going into a sequel with some emotional investment.
Unlike a FPS game review where upon I can reveal the story – which is generally nothing more than filler to give you an excuse to pull the trigger – things get decidely trickier when writing a review for such a beloved title like KH2. Dare I reveal anything remotely related to the plot and spoil any nuance of the overall experience. What I can tell you is that the Kingdom Hearts series revolves around a young boy named Sora, who joins with Donald and Goofy of Disney fame. Together they move from one enchanted magical land eradicating an evil entity called the Heartless which have infested the various lands. Using Sora’s keyblade as both a weapon and a key to gain access to these areas, Goofy, Donald and Sora have many adventures with Disney and Final Fantasy characters as they travel everywhere from The Little Mermaid’s Under the Sea to Jack Skellington’s Nightmare Before Christmas to Capt. Jack Sparrow’s Port Royal with many ports of call inbetween.
In keeping with the timeline and continuity of the series, players eager to return to the magic kingdom in KH2 will find themselves in Twilight Town after the events of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. The game begins with a lengthy prologue that will definitely be the first of many surprises the Square-Enix team has in store. As mentioned it’s impossible to delve into the story – at the beginning – without spoiling any of the surprises that await gamers eager to get their hands on the game. Once players get their hands on Sora, Goofy and Donald who have been asleep for a year, slowly regaining their memories removed during their last adventure, the adventure will begin anew and players will once again embark on a whirlwind epic journey through enchanted worlds of Square and Disney.
Drawing from the wealth of characters and worlds from Disney’s 80 year history, a big part of the games charm comes from the numerous cameos of world famous characters players interact with during their adventures. Kingdom Hearts II continues that tradition with an all-new star-studded lineup of beloved Disney and Final Fantasy personalities that are sure to captivate your imagination. Although we don’t want to give everything away, we can tell you that the rumors are true: gamers will be visiting the world of Tron for a very cool light cycle race as well as visiting a gold toothed pirate by the name of Captain Jack… In total the game features 12 Disney-based worlds, not including the Square created towns such as Twilight Town, Hollow Bastion etc. Players can expect to visit the following wonderful worlds during the game: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Disney Castle, Hercules, Lion King, Little Mermaid, Mulan, Pirates of the Caribbean, Steamboat Willie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Space Paranoids (Tron) and The 100 Acre Wood. One world of particular interest to KH fans is the Disney Castle, which is now fully explorable. Recently KH series producer Tetsuya Nomura went on record to say that designing the entire Castle level was an absolutely exhausting undertaking.
Not to be outdone, a variety of characters big, small, famous and infamous from the Final Fantasy universe will appear in a myriad of roles ranging from townsfolk to bosses and everything in-between. In the past some FF purists have balked at the ‘mixing’ of these two distinct worlds and haven’t been pleased with the way in which certain characters from the popular RPG series have been portrayed. Others who are just as passionate love the FF fan service Square Enix has provided within the confines of KH games and look forward to any appearance of their favorites. We can tell you that FF fans who dig the KH vibe won’t go away disappointed. Keep your eyes peeled for 17 characters from the FF universe including Yuffie, Cloud, Rikku, Paine, Auron, Yuna, Squall, Selphie and big bad Sephiroth to name just a few.
As in previous games, upon visiting some of the worlds Sora and his companions will find themselves physically altered to suit their new environment. For example, while adventuring in the Kingdom Under the Sea with Ariel the little mermaid, Sora will become a merman. While roaming the jungle with the Lion King, Sora will take on the appearance of a lion cub. During the Steamboat Willie stage (based on Mickey Mouse’s first appearance from 1928) the entire level will be in black and white and Sora’s and company character models will take on a more simplified look to complement the era. As you might guess you’ll have different powers at their disposal during these segments which will definitely keep you on your toes!
Speaking of powers, while Sora still swings that mighty keyblade in KH2 he has also learned some cool new tricks, including how to wield two keyblades at once. The battle system, which is in real-time, unlike the Final Fantasy series turn-based combat, has been upgraded. The first of which is a context sensitive use of the Triangle button that will allow Sora to improvise new battle moves at the touch of the button. If players are fast on the draw when the Triangle symbol appears it might help turn the tide of battle with a special move. During battles, enemies will drop glowing yellow spheres that Sora can use to increase the drive form meter. Once enough spheres have been collected, Sora can activate a ‘drive form’. There are 5 different drive forms available in KH2 and each allow Sora to fuse with one or both of his party members which grant him greater strength and power for a limited time. As players progress they will acquire the following drive forms: Brave Form (Goofy & Sora), Wisdom Form (Donald & Sora), Master Form (Donald, Goofy & Sora), Final Form (Goofy, Donald & Sora) and Anti-Form (dependent on damage taken during drive form). The powers granted during the drive forms range include wielding two keyblades, telekinetic duel keyblade attacks, projectile keyblade attacks, flight, increased magic, increased physical ability, glide and double jump to name a few. If Sora takes too much damage while in drive form he will transmogrify into the Anti-Form which….well, perhaps I’ve said too much. I’m getting into spoiler territory.
Another addition to the fighting engine is Sora’s newfound ability to execute a link attack with a special guest character fighting alongside your party. These attacks will vary widely depending on what level you are currently playing and whom Sora is teamed up with at the time.
In terms of actual combat, KH2 isn’t that far removed from the original. Square-Enix seemed to be reluctant to alter it significantly so there will still be lengthy episodes of button mashing the X button. Overall the difficulty appears to have been lowered to accomodate players with average skills, which is usually not the way a sequel works, but in Square-Enix’s defense, I would advise KH veterans to play on Proud (the hardest difficulty) which should provide a decent amount of challenge in the long run.
Combat is much less frustrating an experience when compared to the original Kingdom Hearts, due to the overhauled camera system which allows you to control the camera with the R analog stick at any time. This should please critics of the originals flawed camera system, which wasn’t maneuverable and often left you with the worst possible view of the action. You’ll also discover Square-Enix is offering a new ‘perspective’ this time out. While the game is generally played from a third person view allowing the player to see the action from a ‘behind the character’ position, you’ll also find yourself playing in first person view reminiscent of FPS (first person shooters) thanks to a little help from Chicken Little.
Summoning Disney characters to assist Sora in battle returns in KH2 and you’ll have four to choose from. Summoning a character is dependent on your drive meter so Sora won’t be able to use drive form and summon simultaneously. This also means summoned characters won’t be available to help indefinitely; once the drive form meter depletes, you’ll be on your own.
- Chicken Little: When summoned, the game switches to a first person perspective so that Chicken can hurl baseballs in rapid succession at enemies.
- Stitch is the extremely destructive Disney anti-hero and he isn’t any less behaved in video game form. Once called into action, Stitch will break through the “fourth wall” of gaming and appear to crawl around the screen (including the menus!) while casually shooting enemies with his plasma blaster. His link attack with Sora consists of a ukulele jam session where buttons must be pressed at the correct time to execute the ultimate in musical destruction.
- Genie from Aladdin has his own version of Sora’s keyblade, which he’ll use with reckless abandon to smite his enemies. He can also mimic any of Sora’s available drive forms, which can result in a devastating damaging attack.
- Peter Pan & Tink are quite handy. Peter will fly around and attack enemies while Tink will heal Sora. This summons is actually quite special as it furthers the storyline of KH2, but sorry, I won’t tell you why!
Visually the game is graphical tour de force on the PlayStation 2 and who would expect any less from the artisitic geniuses responsible for the Final Fantasy franchise? These talented folks know how to wring magic out of the PS2, that’s for sure. The stunning amount of detail which brings each area to life would make Walt Disney proud. Not only do the environments change dramatically from one world to the next, but as previously stated often the main characters will morph into other forms to complement their new surroundings. One of my favorite new worlds this time is Space Paranoids, the Tron world. You’ll appreciate the attention to detail as the characters will be outfitted with the glowing light suits lifted right from the movie. Moving to and fro these worlds once again involves the Gummi ships….groan. I wasn’t a big fan of the Gummi ship levels in the first KH but they have been revamped for KH2 and in contrast are quite tolerable.
Unfortunately I was surprised to find that some of the worlds which appeared in the original Kingdom Hearts were reduced in size, only allowing movement within a much smaller area. I’m not sure if this was done to increase the flow of the game or due to size limitations, but it was noticeable. A good rule of thumb in game design is always the give the player more. If you’re returning to the same area found in an earlier game, give the player more to see, not less! There is only room for disappointment if you go in this direction. It’s not a particularly big issue or one that hampers the overall enjoyment of the entire experience but I question the reasoning behind it.
Featuring a large cast of Disney voice actors (and some decent soundalikes) some of which have been yanked directly from the shows, you won’t have any trouble recognizing most of your favorite characters, which goes along way in tying the game together with the wonderful world of Disney. The Square character actors aren’t as well known but you’ll find Haley Joe Osment (“I see dead people….” er, make that “Disney people”…) as the now, slightly older Sora. For a game that features as much spoken dialogue as it does and requires that a fair chunk of the dialogue be lifted from the movies and then sandwiched into another plot, it doesn’t seem particularly fair or prudent to point out when it falters. Some of it ain’t great, but I’ll take that over reading dialogue balloons any day. I think Square-Enix did a great job of making it appear seamless for the most part.
Where the first KH felt like more like a like an RPG in terms of item use, exploration and experimentation, KH2 feels more focused and linear and definitely falls more into the action adventure genre. Realistically, it’s doubtful Final Fantasy purists are expecting KH2 to compete, but the RPG elements which bridged the two genres back in 2001 appear to play a minor role. Whether this will marr the experience for some or not make a lick of difference, remains to be seen. Ultimately Kingdom Hearts II is all about the journey and I really can’t see many fans disappointed in what Square-Enix has created. KH2 is an engaging fantasy action title which delivers on its promise of providing a good 25+ epic adventure for Square and Disney fans alike.
- Explore both new and familiar worlds from Kingdom Hearts, plus new Disney worlds to the Kingdom Hearts franchise, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan.
- A more advanced battle system that allows for a wider range of commands, powerful new combos, and cooperative attacks with members of your party, introducing another layer of strategy.
- An all-new “Drive” command that lets Sora change into a variety of new forms, altering his skills and abilities.
- A revamped camera system that keeps you in the middle of the action.
- Brand new transportation system that takes Sora and friends from world to world in the style of theme park rides.
- Cameo appearances by popular Final Fantasy characters.
- A large ensemble cast of Disney characters and a new cast of original characters designed by renowned artist Tetsuya Nomura.
By Vaughn Smith
CCC Site Director