Disney. Love them or hate them, it's impossible to ignore them when they're shoving this week's promotion at MacBastards in your face every time you flick the telly on. But I did try to ignore them for a long time, back in the pre-Pixar days when their movies were saccharine and twee and filled with offensively large amounts of Elton John. Then along came Kingdom Hearts, and eyebrows were raised. A Square-developed action RPG mixing Disney favourites with Final Fantasy stalwarts? That could never work, surely? But it did, and we were amazed to discover quite how well the two had been integrated - the light, floaty Disney side sitting quite comfortably on top of a darker, edgier storyline than you would usually expect from the masters of mush. Even the missus liked it - praise indeed!
Four years later (and having endured a quite horrific PAL conversion delay), the sequel finally found its way into my PS2 and the missus and I prepared for another roller coaster ride of fun. What we actually got was quite unexpected.
Once Upon A Time....
Rather irritatingly, the story picks up not where you left it at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts but after the end of the card-based Gameboy Advance title, Chain of Memories. This leads to some initial confusion for the GBA-less (or the cardophiles), and a quick read of a plot synopsis is highly recommended before even beginning. Once you've done that, we join new-kid Roxas for an introductory section before taking control of Sora, Donald Duck and Goofy again in their continuing battle against the forces of Darkness. The Heartless return as your standard enemies, but this time they're joined by the Nobodies - a bunch of new-freaks-on-the-block with unclear motives and some kind of plan to make use of Sora for their own purposes. What follows is another whirlwind tour of the worlds of Disney in an attempt to beat back the forces of evil and rescue your friends, still missing since they disappeared into the darkness at the end of the original game.
The basic gameplay is mostly unaltered from the original title. Sora and pals flit from planet to planet helping the residents with their Heartless-based problems, which usually translates to 'whacking things with a key quite a lot'. Combat is real time and fast-paced, with the AI taking control of your friends (and performing pretty well most of the time). Fighting is a simple mix of button-mashing physical combat and magical spells, and earned experience will enhance your team's attributes and allow each character to customise and improve their skills to their own tastes. Team-based combos can be unleashed for greater effect if the conditions are right, with different combinations of characters producing different results, and a handful of Disney favourites tag along as special 'summon' characters who replace the rest of your team for a short while in order to help you out of a tight spot.
To break things up a little, the much-hated-in-the-first-game Gummi Ship stages return as a means of getting from world to world. However, this time they're vastly improved, becoming mind-meltingly fast on-rails shooters with some seriously big enemies and a vast amount of firepower on display. Getting from place to place isn't quite the chore it used to be, and you find yourself returning to try and beat your scores even when you don't have to.
As you would expect for a SquareEnix title, Kingdom Hearts really looks the part and the presentation of the game is top-notch throughout. The characters are as close to their Disney originals as you could ever hope, the voices are mostly very good (poor Pirates of the Caribbean impressions and Mena Suvari's ear-wrenchingly bad Aerith aside) and the few FMVs that are in there (most of the cut-scenes use the game engine) are eye-blisteringly beautiful. The soundtrack also deserves a special mention, featuring a great selection of original works and remixed Disney favourites that's epic when it needs to be and very easy on the ears the rest of the time.
... And The Beast
So what we have here is a game which technically beats its prequel in every respect. So this should be the greatest Kingdom Hearts yet, correct? Well... no.
Problems begin to crop up almost immediately. The introductory stages are terribly drawn out and at times plain boring, forcing you to play various excitement-free mini-games to raise cash while teaching you the basics of the game. Considering most people will have already played the first game, this extended hand-holding seems dreadfully over the top.
Once into the game proper, it quickly becomes apparent that the storyline is terribly lacking this time around. Sora and friends spend a large amount of the game just wandering around the various worlds with no real purpose or story progression, each individual world having its own mini-storyline which has no real bearing or impact on the main tale. Indeed, unlike the first game the inhabitants of the various world appear to be too tied up with their own issues to even notice that they appear to be being overrun by Heartless and there's no real feeling of danger or peril, just a case of "drop in, whack a few monsters, head off again with nothing really changed". The main story doesn't really get going until the very end of the game and by this point you've left the Disney worlds behind. The feeling that the Disney sections have been shoehorned in to pad out a fairly lacklustre plot is undeniable, and it's a shame after the far superior integration of the two in the first game.
The worlds themselves are prettier but very much smaller than last time, and far more constrained in their design. There's very little exploring or jumping around to do as most of the time you're simply running from A to B, fighting identikit beasties along the way. While beautifully realised, you soon discover that the worlds themselves are very sparsely populated. There are only a handful of NPCs and the worlds seem curiously lifeless because of that - Agrabah's supposedly-busy market being a prime example of an area which was crying out for some crowds in order to bring it to life. In addition, some of the worlds just plain don't work (the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean stage being the prime example) and given the huge amount of Disney IPs available it's a shame that we end up revisiting several of the worlds that we had already been to in the previous game, albeit with slightly redesigned maps. If more worlds had been like the brilliantly inspired 'Steamboat Willy' section, I'd have been a much happier bunny.
However, the greatest flaw is the main gameplay itself. Most of the time you'll be fighting and there are a huge amount of options and approaches that you can use in your battles. But sadly, they're pretty much all redundant - almost every single enemy in the game can be beaten purely by using standard attacks. While it's possible to summon friends, fire off magical attacks and perform multi-character combos, you rarely have to. Instead you find that you're just jumping and hammering X like a maniac, any ideas of strategy completely vanishing because the monsters really aren't very difficult to beat and there's a vast amount of free health and magic on offer every time you down one. Combat becomes very repetitive very quickly, and any attempt to diversify your gameplan quickly fails because ultimately it's slower and less effective than using standard attacks.
You almost feel that the developers sensed this and tried to spice things up with some variety, as they appear to have gone mini-game mad. There are dozens of them and sadly most of them are terribly easy and terribly dull, serving little purpose other than to annoy you by breaking up the game flow with extra loading and explanation screens.
Despite all my whining, it's hard to actively dislike Kingdom Hearts 2 - especially as many of the actual gameplay criticisms can be equally levelled at the original game. The PAL conversion is good this time (despite the lack of a 60hz mode), it is genuinely beautiful to look at and good fun in short to medium bursts, but ultimately you need to be either a Disney or a Square fanboy to forgive its shortcomings and actually make it through the 40 or so hours it takes to reach the end.
It isn't so much a bad game as a disappointing one. Disappointing that they haven't really progressed in any area aside from the technical ones, and disappointing because several of the things which made the original so good actually appear to have regressed. It's definitely a worthwhile purchase if you liked the original and worth a shot if you like your RPGs fast, furious and action-based.
It's just a shame that this time around it feels so.... heartless.
7 / 10