Kingdom Hearts II Reader Review
Sequels. Love 'em, loathe 'em, they're everywhere these days. Some very good, some utterly dire, some just hovering somewhere between complete genius and blatant cash in. The latter a neat entry into my review of Kingdom Hearts 2.
Following on from Chain of Memories more than the original, you begin your quest once more to find King Mickey, Riku and stop all the bad guys across a number of themed worlds - from old favourites, to those we only had a passing chance to look at and even to brand new scenarios. Of course, it's all an excuse to whisk out your Keyblade and knock the living... umm... whatsit out of countless hundreds of Heartless and Nobodies. And generally have some fun along the way. Oddly, unlike past entries, the plot really doesn't seem to hold this game together that much - it can get a little bewildering at times, and requires you have a good knowledge of all that happened in the past titles to ever hope of piecing together the fragmented jigsaw pieces that make up the story.
Most of the original complaints seem to have been cleared up in Kingdom Hearts 2, and mostly for the better. Worlds might be smaller, but they are far more detailed, easier to navigate, progress more logically and just look far more stunning visually. The graphics of Kingdom Hearts 2 are something of a revelation at the end of the PS2's lifespan, crisp and clean and even with dozens of Heartless on screen at a time, and huge battle areas, there isn't a hint of slowdown. Even the Gummi Ship segments are far more fun, hugely satisfying shooter segments that seem to blend classic linear progress and hundreds of enemies on-screen with a good dose of fun and charm - on a par with the best of the space shooter genre. Make no mistake, that a lot of effort was put into any niggle you may have had in the original Kingdom Hearts. Music is better, the menus are far more detailed and offer more customisation, shortcuts are far easier...
And the combat. You cannot talk about Kingdom Hearts 2 without mentioning the superior enhancement that has been lovingly bolted onto the combat system. No noticable slowdown, hotkey commands that respond to how the battle around you is progressing and what you are fighting... and boss battles that are not just inspired, but works of art themselves. Even the earlier boss fights have much more to them. The problem is, tightening up the combat system may make it far more intuitive, but in doing so you suddenly realise that combat is... well. Rather simple. The game suffers from this refreshing interface, by making most fights a little too easy. They are fun whilst they last, make no mistake, but no matter which option you choose to play in at the start, it will be some time before the average player is bested by the creatures the game throws at them.
Many of the new locales are a joy to behold, special note should be thrown at the Pirates of the Carribean segment which is absolutely, for me, the pinnacle of what makes thiss game so great - detailed, enjoyable, fanservice of the highest order and shamelessly so at times (Aeris, for example, has a new dress that accentuates her figure a lot more. I'll bet the designers had a ball doing that!). Of course, you would then balance this out with the likes of Olympus Colliseum, or should that be the Underworld... a little too offbeat, the plot lost for a moment whilst you end up wondering what the heck they were thinking. It is also noticable that there isn't the usual Square-Enix level of continuity between the stages, often dialogue and points being repeated over and over again, leaving you wishing that they would just get on with it. And for every little surprise the game holds for the player, there is another which can be seen from ten miles away. The flow is choppy, but most will ride the waves here and get over the rough ride. Still, others may find themselves a little seasick as a result.
It is the plot of Kingdom Hearts 2 however that has suffered most from the improvements. Whilst is peaks and dips at regular intervals, even with a knowledge of the past titles, it really can get a little bewildering at times. To say it isn't as strong as its past entries would be a gross understatement - whilst it bolsters towards the end, by that point you may find it all too little, too late. Those new to Kingdom Hearts will probably never really get the story this game unravels, which is a shame as you would think that based on past experience, Squuare-Enix would have put some effort into making it more accessible for those taking their first plunge into the series. Those who have been here before and followed the story closely may however find it a little too spongey and soft in places. It never really seems to get the balance right, which is a crying shame in a title which has improved so dramatically.
In most respects, Kingdom Hearts 2 has all the hallmarks of a classic sequel. It is much neater, has a lot of hidden depth, has more fanservice than should be allowed in any title and has some of the most memorable boss fights that you'll see in years. Where it fails, however, is that it just isn't a patch on the original - not in terms of plot, dialogue or just plain charm. Maybe it's not so fresh anymore, or maybe there was far too much going on that they just forgot to add Tinkerbelle's magic dust to lift the mixture a little.
It simply ends up as one of those unusual titles that on first glance appears to be aimed at the mass market, but when all is said and done the only ones who will truly understand and love this title are the fans. There is no compromise, there is no middle ground. And maybe that is this games biggest fault. Whilst it's a beautiful game and you can lose yourself in it for hours at a time, it really is a game that seems to rely on past knowledge and plays to a very select audience... some may just leave early and wonder if they should demand their entry fee back...
8 / 10