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.
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.