Version tested: PlayStation 2
If there was ever a franchise that demonstrated the ability of a quality product to overcome initial hostility, it's Kingdom Hearts. When it was initially announced that Disney and Final Fantasy characters would be prancing through action RPG worlds together, it seemed like a combination utterly unlikely to please anyone. While the cross over between fans of the two pantheons of characters is significant in Japan, in the West it is far less evident - and more importantly, the target audience of previous Disney games was much younger than the target audience for Final Fantasy, which created immediate concerns over just who the audience for Kingdom Hearts would be.
Besides, this was the almighty Disney licence - arguably the most closely guarded stable of characters, settings, trademarks and brands in the world. It was hard to see how Square Enix would be able to create the more mature, teen-and-above focused stories that would justify the use of the Final Fantasy characters, while still keeping Disney's undoubtedly eagle eyed licensing executives happy. It's not that Disney doesn't do dark; it's just that Disney, as a rule, doesn't let other people do dark with its characters. What its own film-makers may be trusted with, third party game developers most certainly are not, a fact which has lobotomised the majority of previous games based on Disney franchises.
As such, the primary achievement of the original Kingdom Hearts title wasn't that it created a style of action RPG gameplay which, although flawed, was accessible enough to appeal to a wide audience. Nor was it the creation of a variety of environments which were designed for the game, yet familiar enough to be instantly identified with their source material; nor the assembly of an all-star cast for voice acting duties, including the excellent casting decisions made when voicing Final Fantasy characters who had previously been mute in all their game outings.
No, Kingdom Hearts' shining achievement was that it integrated the two universes in a way which pleased fans of both. Perhaps because Square Enix was contributing its own characters to the project as well, Disney gave its writers the creative elbow-room they needed to create an interesting story which avoided the saccharine pitfalls that have trapped previous Disney licensed games, and which would have so greatly disappointed the Final Fantasy fanbase. The first Kingdom Hearts game was, as a result, an immense commercial success - and one which spawned a fanbase extensive enough to guarantee that sequels would be forthcoming.
For the second outing of the franchise on PS2, there's a strong sense that the developers felt that large swathes of the gameplay weren't broken, and required no fixing. As such, Kingdom Hearts II will be instantly familiar in many key ways to those who played the first game. Combat remains an almost identical affair, for example; tweaked rather than overhauled. The camera, which was previously a frustrating manually controlled affair, has been fixed and is now far more useful and intelligent, and combat itself has been made more fluid with the introduction of a large number of new moves and combos. However, at heart the system is largely unchanged - you control one character (normally Sora, the hero of the first game, although you'll spend a while at the start in someone else's ridiculously large shoes) while two others from the Disney pantheon battle alongside you. Your control over your team-mates is minimal, but you can perform special moves which join your abilities with theirs and give you access to more powerful battle skills.
Although the tweaks to the camera and the addition of the various flashy new skills are welcome changes to the Kingdom Hearts formula, one rather less welcome alteration is that the battle system - which wasn't exactly complex to begin with - has actually been simplified to some degree in this game. It's entirely fair to point out that there are encounters in KH2 which can be cleared by repeatedly mashing one button on the pad, and, indeed, that's pretty much all you can do in the game for some time. It's not that other abilities aren't there - aside from the combos and special moves mentioned, you can also dodge or block enemy attacks, and even counter attacks with the right timing. The problem is that if you choose, you can finish off many encounters without ever resorting to such things.
In a sense, that might actually be a fair approach for the game to take. Given the wide appeal of the franchise, making the combat accessible to everyone isn't necessarily a bad idea - but for older or more experienced players, it's a little disheartening to realise that you could probably clear out an entire room teeming with enemies without ever actually having to think about what you're doing. You'd also come out on full health, most likely, since enemies drop health orbs very regularly. Admittedly, turning the difficulty up does make things a bit more interesting, but the game is still not terribly challenging. None of which changes the fact that you can still have a lot of fun stringing together moves and combos, and stylishly defeating the legions of foes which KH2 throws at you - but this isn't a game you'll be playing for any kind of sense of accomplishment from the battle system.
That being said, Kingdom Hearts II - like many of Square Enix' games - probably isn't a game you're delving into for the combat system anyway. This is a game all about characters, environments, and storylines, and given that, the slightly weak combat can be forgiven - especially since we'd far prefer to see a game like this err on the side of being too easy, rather than being too frustrating.
The developers do, however, win a significant positive mark for the other form of combat in the game - the Gummi Ship sections, which take the form of a space combat game played when you transition between different worlds. In the first game, these were utterly dreadful; they have been improved beyond measure in KH2, and now take the form of an excellent 3D space shoot-'em-up which draws many cues from Nintendo's Starfox series. The ugly, Lego-brick construction of your ship in the first game has also been improved, and this time around it's actually fun collecting parts to upgrade the ship and then trying out your new creation. The Gummi Ship sections in the original game were most definitely broken, and they have been comprehensively fixed - gold stars all round.
So - that storyline, characters and environments stuff, then. As you'd expect, the game draws in a variety of new environments taken from Disney properties which weren't covered last time around - most notably Tron, Mulan, and Pirates of the Carribean. All three of those are excellently realised, and boast characters and mini-plotlines which tie in superbly with the movies which inspired them - in fact, Pirates of the Carribean is one of the highlights of the game, and we also hugely enjoyed the uniquely stylised Tron "Space Paranoids" environment, although we're not sure how many people in KH2's target demographic will have the slightest concept of what Tron actually is. Another highlight also takes its inspiration from the past, though - the even further past, in fact, with the Timeless River section adopting the black and white styling of Steamboat Willie and even turning Sora's companions back into their original character designs. It's a nostalgic and beautifully put together section of the game which is a clear illustration of the deep affection the designers feel for the franchise with which they're working.
Several environments from the first game also make a welcome return, albeit in entirely redesigned form - same movie inspiration, totally different gameplay. Agrabah (from Aladdin) and the Pride Lands (from The Lion King) are notable favourites; in fact, the only part of the game which actually registers as a disappointment is Atlantica, from The Little Mermaid, which has gone from being one of the most interesting and unusual environments in the first game, to being a rather dull rhythm-action mini-game. We're not entirely sure what the thinking was here - the mini-game isn't dreadful by any means, but it's certainly going to be a let-down for players hoping for a new environment on a par with the Atlantica section of the first game.
Although Sora is, once more, the main character of the game, you start out playing as Roxas - a seemingly normal and likeable enough young chap who just happens to be troubled by memories and visions of people he doesn't even know. You set out to uncover the source of these visions - which puts you in contact with Sora, and the game's plot begins in earnest as the player takes over Sora and starts exploring the various worlds out there.
Like the original game, Kingdom Hearts II presents its storyline in the form of a number of connected vignettes rather than a single epic tale. Each world you visit has its own set of characters and problems which must be solved to progress, which can feel slightly disjointed at times, but does gradually lead you by the nose through the main story arc of the game. Once that gets properly going, which admittedly is quite a few hours into the action, it unfolds a satisfying and interesting plot that will please fans of Final Fantasy, of Disney and of Kingdom Hearts itself greatly. It might have been nice to put a little more of the main plot arc near the start of the game to get players more involved, but on the other hand, overwhelming newcomers to the franchise with information would have been off-putting; given that difficulty, Roxas' introductory arc isn't a bad way at all of setting the scene for the game.
One caveat, however, is that this is still a game which isn't entirely friendly to franchise newcomers. While you could certainly pick up the game and enjoy it from start to finish without having played its predecessors, there are a large number of story points and references which only make sense if you've played not only the first Kingdom Hearts game, but also Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, the GBA title which fills in the gaps between the two PS2 games. This reliance on material from previous titles is alleviated somewhat by having an excellent in-game encyclopedia, maintained by your companion Jiminy Cricket, to which players can refer to find out what they missed out on in story terms in the previous games - but it's still slightly inelegant, and while relying on information from the first Kingdom Hearts is fair game, it rankles slightly that Square Enix expect players to have picked up the stopgap GBA card-battling title as well.
That being said, the storyline is by no means weak - and it's supported not only by a cast of excellent characters, both from the Final Fantasy and Disney universes and original Kingdom Hearts characters, but also by brilliant voice acting. Many top Hollywood actors return to reprise their roles as the various Disney characters, and Square Enix has not skimped on the acting budget for its own characters either. While we're on the topic of sound, the music in the game is also superb - with a special mention deserved for the absolutely fantastic title track, once again performed by top Japanese artist Hikaru Utada.
Defending the Kingdom
In terms of style, presentation and production values, Kingdom Hearts II stands head and shoulders above almost every other title on the market. Money, care and attention to detail have been lavished on every aspect of the game, and it really shows. Great characters, an involving storyline and a good set of sub-plots in the various worlds you'll visit make for a game experience which is hugely enjoyable - with the one major caveat that the combat system is excessively easy. If you can deal with the fact that there's not a lot of challenge present in the vast bulk of the game - or if you're not great at action games, but want to enjoy the RPG aspects of the game - then Kingdom Hearts II is a very easy title to recommend. However, not everyone will be able to overlook that issue. It's that alone, in the final analysis, which prevents this from being a near-perfect sequel to the excellent but flawed first game; as it is, this second game remains in the excellent but flawed category. Third time lucky, perhaps?
8 / 10