Action is a tougher proposition than turn-based for Square. When it comes to Final Fantasy, the developer has plenty of experience wielding tortuously complex storylines and injecting gameplay into the fold (by means of elaborate, winding roads full of random encounters). But at times, Kingdom Hearts feels more like a mixture of Jak & Daxter and Zelda, encased in a plot rich with Square's usual effortless grandiosity. And Disney characters.
It's an interesting blend, beginning with a bizarre dream sequence set to catchy pop music, which introduces us to Sora, the plucky star of this particular adventure, and subsequently his friends Riku and Kairi. This abstract sequence also aligns your Sora to the particular methods you plan to use - a two-tone combination of might, magic and defence.
Waking as waves lap up on his face, Sora's first few steps in the game world see you exploring the aptly named Destiny Islands, as a trio of young friends plan to set sail on a raft and see the world. Rather like the intro, this dream rapidly evaporates as Things Go Awry™. Sora finds himself snatched from his idyllic upbringing and thrust into Traverse Town on the edge of the cosmos, armed with a sword in the shape of a key and a lot of questions.
And it's here that Disney comes into play. Square's collaboration with Walt's great company has given the Japanese giant the opportunity to mix the superbly rounded comedy characters from every Disney film imaginable (from Snow White to The Lion King, no-one is exempt) with its own imaginative creations (cameos include Squall, Cloud and various other FF heroes, not to mention subtler inclusions like Mog the Moogle).
The way that Square introduces Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Pluto and various others is, naturally, through the firm's award-winning and film-powering cut sequences. Each of the Disney folks is voiced superbly, really living up to their 'traditional' counterparts. We're shown Donald's discovery that (King) Mickey has disappeared, leaving only a cryptic clue about a keyblade. Donald, who appears to be some sort of wizard, is quickly forced to jet off in search of Sora, with Goofy and Pluto in tow.
However, it's not until Donald, Goofy and Sora all stumble into one another in Traverse Town that things really kick off and the game throws up its first real boss encounter.
Unlike Final Fantasy though, combat is in real-time, and is based to begin with on your ability to dodge and wield successful counterattacks. Before long though, Sora will develop greater attacks and even magic skills, and by the end of the game you're performing sho-ryu-ken dragon punch style attacks at the sight of your enemies, the Heartless.
All the while, you're flanked by a pair of party members. After all, an action RPG hardly negates the familiar party aspect, does it? The good news is that but for a few instances of wall-hugging and aimless stupidity, Sora's AI-controlled companions hold their own to a reasonable level of success, and you can modify their behaviour using the in-game menus. In fact, there are almost too many ways to change their behaviour - you'll probably just tweak it occasionally and otherwise steer clear.
I know what you're thinking
You're thinking that apart from an oddly assorted jumble of Disney characters invading your traditional FF posse, this is a simple game of travelling from town to town, fighting enemies and dispatching bosses. Ad nauseum. And to some extent, you're right - you do travel around fighting evil... But instead of moving from town to town and keep to keep, Sora and co. travel via space ship between zones, which are being gradually swallowed up by a consortium of evil.
These zones, each themed around a Disney movie, present various challenges to overcome, and represent a feast of nostalgia. The first zone is based around Alice in Wonderland, for example, and starts as you fall down the rabbit hole and have to negotiate a tiny door using "eat me" growers and shrinkers. Then you find your way into the Queen's court, and have to exonerate poor Alice by searching for the guilty party in the surrounding woods.
Later zones have you fishtailing your way through The Little Mermaid, rapping with Simba in The Lion King and crossing paths with venerable nasties like Captain Hook.
Not quite up to scratch
Unfortunately, these zones don't quite live up to the magnificent premise. The first two hours of the game (Destiny Islands and Traverse Town) are vintage Square, with plenty of FF characters around to smooth things over as well. Meeting up with child-like incarnations of Waka, Yuffie and others is charming (as is the voice talent), and having practiced your way to a decent level of combat skill and beavered around Destiny Islands and Traverse Town getting your bearings, you'll be itching to get into the battle proper.
And sadly you won't enjoy it as much. The Alice in Wonderland zone is the first, and arguably the worst in the game. Admittedly it brings the various tenets of Lewis Carroll's story to life vividly; namely confusion, agony and depression, but this isn't necessarily a good thing. The jumping puzzles merely show up the somewhat questionable jump mechanics (with one of those irritating pauses whenever you land - dammit, we want smoothness!). It isn't until you end up walking upside down on the ceiling and generally behaving like a local that things smarten up.
However, subsequent zones almost make up for this. The overall story takes a much heavier handed grip on events, you meet a lot of interesting new characters and (spoilers aside) it's a lot of fun. The only things we didn't like post-Wonderland were the terrible shoot 'em up sections which linked the various zones, and the inclusion of Saturday morning rejects The Chipmunks. Other than that, the pace is fine, the story is engrossing (and the voice acting stupendous), and it's a case of gradually venturing closer and closer to that revelation, negotiating a pack of zones which vary in quality from the very good (the offbeat, Tim Burton inspired Nightmare Town sections) to the mediocre. Actually, your enjoyment of the zones actually rather depends on your appreciation of the film - here at Eurogamer for example, Tarzan naysayer Rob found that to be one of his least favourite zones. Can't please everyone.
My Kingdom for an RPG
Whatever your take, you can't argue that it looks absolutely stunning. Cut sequences are extraordinarily detailed, so Square has used a lot of in-game cut-scenes to pad them out, but you can hardly complain when it looks this good. Cleverly, the developer has matched FF's often sci-fi noir darkness with Disney's friendly colour schemes and cartoon-esque environments. Texturing is varied and comfortably pastiche, while character modelling and animation is smooth and beguiling.
And you know it sounds good. I've tried to mention the voice acting as much as I can, but don't take my word for it, consider the cast; Haley Joel Osment (Sora), Billy Zane, David Boreanaz, Mandy Moore, Brian Blessed, Jim Cummings and even Lance Bass, who puts in a particularly fine turn as Sephiroth. Furthermore, the soundtrack mixes tuneful Disney extracts with Square's typical serenity and ambient bliss.
So if you fancy leading a ragtag band of enthusiastic young adventurers through a DVD library's worth of Disney films, in a game which adheres to Square's phenomenal presentation values, then you should definitely buy Kingdom Hearts. The combat system is a stark departure, Final Fantasy fans, but you'll still feel quite at home - we haven't dipped to the brutish levels of 3D action titles here. And typically of Square, the adventure is brimming with cute moments and distractions, in the form of cameos and sub-quests all over - try keeping an eye out for Dalmatians, for instance.
Kingdom Hearts isn't perfect - it's as cryptic to begin with as any game ever conceived by Square, and it lures you in with some tremendous combat mechanics and a unique selling point (Disney), but it also tries to piss you off with a vacuous opening zone and the Chipmunks. The biggest crime here though is that of Square Europe. It's another diabolical PAL release, on a par with FFX for borders and so on. And 60Hz? Ha! If you can put up with these hardships though, this is the best thing since Final Fantasy X.