Version tested: PlayStation 2
Collaborations are all about give and take. On paper, this one shouldn't work - Disney's output must be among the most universally enjoyed and recognised in all of cinema while Square-Enix caters for stat-happy but significantly smaller console audiences with its (mostly) glorious catalogue. But in the end, this is exactly why it does work. With legions of mutually exclusive fans for each of the two parties, Kingdom Hearts II is able to enjoy a much greater target audience than almost any other videogame. Characters courtesy of industry legends of both RPG and animation creation; the technical expertise of one of gaming's most prolific talents; recreations of some of the most memorable settings and moments ever committed to film. To be frank, there was never any real danger of this going wrong and sure enough, Kingdom Hearts II delivers where it counts.
Aside from how downright beautiful the game is (and this is one of the most impressive PlayStation 2 titles you will ever see - the stunning intro cinematic sets the scene superbly and the quality is maintained throughout), the first thing you'll notice is how much the pace and structure of the game has changed. While the original was happy to open with a bizarre scavenger hunt, KHII turns the tables on experienced players by dropping them into the oversized shoes of Roxas. His story pans out as you work out what you're doing for the first couple of hours before Sora takes over and rightful order is restored but as the narrative progresses, you'll learn more and more about this mysterious character Roxas that opened your adventure.
And it isn't too long before the Keyblades start to fly, either. With greater control over the camera and a much more fluid and showy battle system, Kingdom Hearts II symbolises everything an action RPG should be. Combat is admittedly pretty simple, using only one button until abilities are learned for counters, guarding and rolling, but your mind will never have time to dwell on this - you'll have too much on your plate trying to get your head around just how many enemies Square Enix expects you to deal with at once. And it's times like these when the game is really at its best, throwing legions of flying foes, rooms full of towering enemies and even at one point forcing you to take on a thousand opponents at one time. It's crazy, relentless and oh-so-flashy and we wouldn't want it any other way. Sora can also activate Drive abilities to merge with either Donald or Goofy to become more powerful, gain new skills and even dual wield Keyblades for a limited time. Which, we can officially tell you, is pretty damn awesome.
While returning to the locations featured in the last game is still entertaining, it's the new worlds that really steal the show. Pirates Of The Caribbean proves to be the game's real coup, showcasing a fantastic set of enemies, quests and cut-scenes that could very well be straight out of the movie, but that isn't to say that the others are letdowns. Far from it, in fact, and from the illuminated glory of Tron's Space Paranoids world to the epic battles that take place when you visit Mulan, the quality of locales is constantly high - with one exception. Atlantica is no longer a true world, adventuring ditched in favour of a slightly broken rhythm action mini-game. It just about works but it's more a chore than anything else. Aside from that, spot on.
Although worlds, characters and combat have obviously improved between games, it's the method of travelling between locations that really stands out and takes the 'Most Improved' medal. The Gummi Ship sections that were once nothing more than an ugly joke now take their cues almost directly from Lylat Wars - it's a frantic space blaster that looks the part and isn't far short of being worth the asking price of the game on its own. As before, new parts can be earned to create your own personalised craft and there are even novelty bonus ships available to the best pilots. You can throw hours at this section of the game without even realising and you won't regret doing so for a second.
And so we come onto the story. Kingdom Hearts II's narrative may be the very reason that the word 'tenuous' was introduced. As before, you'll find yourself traipsing from place to unrelated place and dropping into the action of the film - it isn't until things start to unfold about Roxas and Sora later in the game that it really catches its stride. Towards the end, things start to tie up a little more acceptably and although simply visiting film sets and helping out the cast may not seem wonderfully relevant at times, it'll all make sense in the end. Well, sort of. A cautionary word to newcomers, however. To best enjoy the story, you'll want to have played both the original game and the GBA card spin-off Chain Of Memories. It's not essential but there are a surprising amount of references and continuations - who would have guessed that the lowly GBA stopgap would have set the scene for one of Square Enix's biggest games of the year?
All in all, Kingdom Hearts II represents an incredible technical achievement as well as a meaty dollop of fan service for Square Enix and Disney fanatics alike. But it runs thicker than that. What the game might lack in freedom is more than made up for by the absorbing cinematics and exhilarating action when enemies burst onto the screen, not least the bosses - quick time events may be all the rage these days but when we say that moments are comparable in quality and impact to the knife fight with Krauser from Resident Evil 4, you know you're onto a good thing here. A delightful and robust action RPG (with the emphasis on the former), Kingdom Hearts II is remarkably accessible and just about lives up to the enormous hype that has surrounded it. It's pretty simple, very linear and slightly lazy in places but there can be no denying that it still manages to earn a place among the most beautiful and exciting adventures of recent years for gamers of all ages.
That's universal appeal for you.
8 / 10