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Kingdom Hearts

First Impressions - Tom fights Tidus and Wakka on the beach, then teams up with Donald and Goofy...

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

It's difficult to say how the average Disney-loving child will take to Kingdom Hearts, because with four hours on the clock I've been treated to some of the finest moments in a Squaresoft RPG to date, and I'm not sure how anyone south of 12 is going to feel about assigning battle behaviourisms to Donald and Goofy, and arguing politics about the multiverse with Squall from FFVIII...

Time to backtrack. When Kingdom Hearts was first unveiled by the powers that be, the notion of a Disney adventure built on Square's own terms sounded too good to be true. A Disney license introduces the celebrity pulling power that Final Fantasy never could, and so thanks to Disney we have the likes of Haley Joel Osment, Billy Zane and Lance Bass doing a surprisingly good job of voicing some difficult characters, but on the other hand, a Disney license suggests a facile storyline devoid of Square's usual thoughtfulness and intrigue, and our fears for the game's underlying mechanics looked to be confirmed when footage of a 3D platformer-esque action RPG emerged. Truth be told, we were a little worried that Kingdom Hearts would turn out to be... well, not good.

However, the end result is an intriguing concoction, and probably the best Disney RPG anybody could have envisioned. Our first few hours with the US version left us breathless.

The Little Mermaid zone turns you all into mermaids

He's a real boy!

Kingdom Hearts begins with all the panache and charm of Square's Final Fantasy titles. We're introduced to the game's youthful hero, Sora (Haley Joel Osment), through a beautifully animated CG dream sequence, which also gives you the chance to pick your path through the game (choosing a speciality and a secondary strength from sword, shield and magic staff), before you have to take on a towering shadow creature as the game's inaugural encounter. Once dispensed with, Sora wakes up on a beach. Hey ho.

Except, Destiny Island isn't some curious obscurity to traipse through, inflicted upon the gamer for reasons untold; this is Sora's home. It's in these first few moments of clarity that we're introduced to a pair of new Square characters; Riku and Kairi, and three golden oldies; Wakka and Tidus from FFX, and Selphie from FFVIII, each a younger version of their former self. The first hour or so of the game will be spent exploring Destiny Island, helping Riku and Kairi to build a raft by collecting objects from around the place and duelling with each of the characters to improve your fighting skills. From Wakka with his blitzball to Tidus with his sword, everyone wants a playful piece of Sora.

These wooden sword encounters help you to adjust to the fighting mechanics. There's a little menu in the bottom left of the HUD, and the X button performs the selected action (which can be manipulated with the D-pad or right analogue stick). At first you'll mash X whenever you approach an enemy, but before long you're jumping around with circle to help evade attacks, lunging in the gaps between enemy strikes and levelling up swiftly. Although health is still measured in hit points, Square has dumbed this area of the game down to make it a bit less cerebral for the nippers, so there's a simple green and blue power bar arrangement in the bottom right of the screen to measure health and magical ability, and the game plays an alarm sound whenever either drops too low - at which point you can administer a potion or ether to right yourself.

All the while this is going on, the game intersperses the action with some Disney segments which introduce you to Donald and Goofy, who find themselves charged with a mission to stop the destruction of the multiverse in the absence of the missing king Mickey. The duo set sail on the Gummi Ship for Traverse Town, a stop-off point for the refugees of doomed worlds, in search of a chosen one. These early sections of Disney dialogue allude to the style which will prove most prominent in hours to come - slapstick comedy and wacky Disney antics wrapped around a wonderfully ornate storyline, pretty gosh-darn far removed from what you saw in The Little Mermaid and Aladdin...

Sora adopts battle posture - that's one heavy sword

Spoiler alert!

Cutting back to Sora, you continue to explore the island and the hours advance. These early stages of the game cement Sora's obvious affection for Kairi, and Riku's solemn playfulness, with all sorts of dark premonitions and other Square-esque goings-on. Without giving too much away, the raft is finished and events unfold which eventually land you in Traverse Town, where you try to find Donald and Goofy, with varying degrees of success. Where I am now, Sora has received a magical weapon (the Keyblade), and has met up with the likes of Cid, Aerith, Yuffie and Squall - and each FF character is given some deservedly brilliant voice acting. Further on we're promised Lance Bass in the role of Sephiroth, and although that might sound frankly distressing, poking one's head over a better player's shoulder reveals that even he does a remarkable job.

Not everybody wants your help...

Disneyed production

As you can tell, production values have reached an all-time high in Kingdom Hearts. Aesthetically pleasing both in-game and during the obligatory CG sequences, the visuals are matched only by the typically rousing score and phenomenal voice talent. Ok, we know full well that none of these actors looked each other in the eye as they delivered their lines, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise - and that's fair praise from us. The quality is understandable given the field of talent. You can expect to hear from the likes of David Boreanz, James Woods, Jim Cummings, Dan Castellaneta and Brian Blessed before Kingdom Hearts' countless hours are out of the way.

Back to the graphics though. The first thing to do is address the Disney situation. As you might have guessed, translating some of the finest illustrations in the world to a videogame medium is no mean feat, but then Square has been doing that for years in bringing its artistic visions to life, and as such Donald, Goofy, Minnie, Alice, the Queen of Hearts and all the rest are just as charismatic and well-defined as their cartoon counterparts. Instantly recognisable, they form the underlying child's cartoon element, along with the visuals allotted to each of Kingdom Hearts' themed worlds, of which more a bit later. The Square characters are even better - each one seems quite at home in cartoon form, and each of the new characters feels right as home in such esteemed company.

Animation is uniformly excellent so far, although the way the game pauses your movement when you hit the ground after a jump is a little off-putting. We understand the need to have the player stop after striking with the Keyblade though - it's a fundamental tenet of the combat system. On the whole though, the gameplay so far has been fun, abstract, repetitive and occasionally draining. Duking it out with your chums on the beach is a good laugh, and racing across the Destiny Island landscape is also entertaining, but having to race around Traverse Town narrowly missing Donald and Goofy in each area is a bit silly, and having to battle hordes of little black creatures is, well, a level-building exercise, but no less draining for the reward.

Another problem at this stage is that the Disney zones - the first of which is Wonderland - are droll but a little uninspiring. Wonderland sees the player fighting to free Alice from having her head lopped off by collecting evidence of another wrongdoer, but the process here involves a silly tree-branch and multiple door puzzle, along with a lot of black-creature-whacking. However, reports suggest that things perk up after Wonderland, and we're willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt on the strength of the rest of it so far.

Magic lamp

So. Kingdom Hearts is not what we expected, but then we didn't really know what to expect. What you can expect though is a measured collaboration between Square and Disney, with all the brilliance and foibles that come with both, and a story that won't send you to sleep, where good-natured humour brushes shoulders with arcane magic and emotional depth at every turn. As a colleague pointed out earlier today, Kingdom Hearts is rather like a 3D version of Legend of Mana to play - Disney fans or not, that should certainly get you going.

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