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Kingdom Hearts II

Platform(s): PlayStation 2
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Release Date: March 28, 2006


PS2 Review - 'Kingdom Hearts II'

by Alicia on April 3, 2006 @ 12:49 a.m. PDT

Kingdom Hearts II follows Sora, Donald, and Goofy on their continuing quest to find their friends and King Mickey. It has been a year since the events of Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories, the story begins in Twilight Town, a quiet burg nestled between night and day. Sora and friends are joined by a vibrant new cast of characters, including the king himself! In the effort to help Mulan and stop the villain Hades' devious plots, they will encounter countless dangers both familiar and brand-new.

Nearly 10 years ago, Sony Computer Entertainment America released a little Squaresoft game called Final Fantasy VII into the unsuspecting North American market. I was still in high school then, and for the first week or so after its release, just about every class I was in spontaneously had two or three students go missing. Rumors started floating around, insinuating that people were disappearing from class so they could lock themselves in their bedrooms to play FF7 for hours on end emerged. Everyone talked about how amazingly good the game was, not so much as an RPG but as a title where you could do just about anything. The battles were RPG, but then there were all kinds of action sequences built into the staggering array of mini-games included in the game. Between that and the game's staggering production values (for the time), it's no wonder that it turned a generation of PlayStation owners into addicts.

I bring this up because playing Kingdom Hearts II powerfully reminded me of what it was like to play Final Fantasy VII for the first time, all those years ago. KH2 is a title offering a rich diversity of game activities along with a story full of incredible spectacle, and the two blend in that special way that can keep a gamer entranced for hours on end. This is a game that can make you lose sleep, destroy your productivity, and keep you delighted for the entire long trip through its main storyline and staggering array of side-quests. KH2 is in some ways a game that represents the full potential of video games not just as a way for gamers to test their skills and smarts, but as a way to let players completely immerse themselves in the feeling of a vast, fantastic world.

Core gameplay in KH2 has received quite an overhaul since the original title. The basics will be familiar, with Sora fighting his way through real-time battles aided by AI assistants Donald and Goofy. In each of the Disney worlds you visit, guest characters will join the party to help you fight. As Sora levels up, he gains access to new Abilities that give him special properties in combat. Which Abilities he unlocks depends on the combat style you select in the beginning of the game: Strength, Protection, or Magic. The experience "tracks" from the first game are gone, as are the in-character questions that determine difficulty level. Instead you'll select from one of three difficulty levels before beginning play: Beginner (extremely easy), Standard (a little easy), and Proud (sporadically easy).

That's about it for what's remained the same, though. A lot of the fine details of the original Kingdom Hearts battle system are simply gone, replaced with the new Reaction, Drive, and Limit systems. Level design has changed radically, too, eliminating most of the platformer-like feel that the first game's levels often had. Instead the game plays out more like your typical action RPG, with plenty of items and hordes to seek out but very little in the way of trick jumps or puzzles. Perhaps as a trade-off, KH2's mini-games are much faster-paced and a bit more challenging than the original game's, though still nothing that'll leave you throwing a controller across the room. Finally, the way Summons work has received a much-needed overhaul that makes them quite a bit more useful.

The new systems all interact with each other, and deserve to be discussed together. The Reaction Command system allows Sora to perform context-sensitive moves by tapping the triangle button at the indicated time. Sometimes these commands combo with each other, requiring a timed sequence of triangle taps, while in other cases you can boost damage by rapidly tapping triangle. Most enemies and all bosses have movement patterns that give Sora a chance to perform at least one Reaction command against them, and some bosses have complex patterns of several. You can equip Abilities that boost damage generated by Reaction commands, as well as Abilities that allow certain other types of commands to become Reaction commands. Many boss fights and certain in-game challenges are essentially impossible to complete with using the Reaction commands that are part of that particular battle. Reaction effects are usually accompanied by spectacular visuals, particularly in boss battles, although sometimes they're as simple as a dodging move. They bring some much-needed variety to the way KH2's battles play out, and always leave you looking forward to what the next challenge will be like.

The Drive system allows Sora to combine with Donald, Goofy, or both of them when they're in his party to power himself up for as long as his Drive meter lasts. Each form is unlocked in the course of playing through the story, and has its own special abilities. Using Drive forms regularly allows them to level up, and lets Sora extract new abilities from their use. When in Drive mode, Sora can do radically enhanced damage, and sometimes gains wholly new abilities like Wisdom form's ability to shoot short bursts of magic and slide around magically instead of walking. Other forms, like Valor and the Master form, behave a bit more like what you'd expect from a powered-up Sora that wields two Keyblades.

As it stands the Drive system is a little bit broken, with only the random chance of failing to execute a Drive properly and the time it takes to make the transformation discouraging you from Driving through every fight in the game. As it stands, you'll probably Drive through most of them. Fortunately, running around as the various Drive forms is enormously fun, and the game is careful to set up a lot of battles where the Drive command is disabled. This helps keep Drives feel a little special even toward the end of the game.

Limit commands are the final new element of the combat system. Most Limits are team-up moves that let Sora spend all of his MP on executing a devastating multi-hit maneuver with one or more friends. Every guest character has a unique, spectacular Limit attack with Sora, and he has multiple team-ups with Donald and Goofy. Most of the Limits have a particular hitbox and timing that you need to adjust to in order to use them well, and the duration of the attack lasts as long as the limit gauge in the upper right-hand corner. Each Limit has a combo counter that you can easily pump up into three-digit counts if you get good enough at using a particular Limit. They're one of the more interesting elements of the new combat system, since using the wrong Limit during a fight just wastes your MP bar in return for painfully little damage, and can immediately cost you the game in a timed battle. The Limit command also controls Summons now, which can be leveled up to increase their damage and the duration of the Summon. You don't get anything from leveling up Summons, though, so they remain more a mechanic to play around with than something you need to use seriously.

While the game's soundtrack is not terribly remarkable, essentially what one would expect from an RPG's score, the graphics and voice acting in Kingdom Hearts II are absolutely staggering. For the graphics, it's simply a question of the sheer performance the game somehow manages to wring out of the PS2, while also showcasing the beautiful Tetsuya Nomura design work that helped make the original Kingdom Hearts famous. From a battle where the PS2 somehow moves a thousand Heartless around the screen simultaneously to the startlingly realistic approximations of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in the Pirates of the Caribbean level, Kingdom Hearts II is the kind of game that makes you forget you're playing it on the weakest, oldest hardware on the market right now.

The voice acting is amazing not just for the sheer number of original voice actors reprising their original roles on the Disney side, but high-quality work from the likes of Haley Joel Osment and Christopher Lee among the game's original main characters. After playing a game like this, if nothing else, it should be impossible to fault Square Enix or the localization team for failing to go the extra mile in terms of production values.

Kingdom Hearts II isn't necessarily the kind of game you replay obsessively, or even take an instant liking to, but once you sink into the fantastic world it presents, it's hard not to get addicted to its immense variety and kinetic pace. Completing the journey through all hundred hours of gameplay it offers is the sort of thing you discuss fondly with gamer friends and reminisce years on down the road. Being able to inspire this kind of intense devotion is what turned Final Fantasy VII into the perennial classic it's become, and there's no doubting that Kingdom Hearts II will be regarded just as fondly ten years from now. It's a testament to the easily-forgotten fact that there's much more a game's lasting appeal than the cold specifics of difficulty curves and engine design.

Score: 9.0/10

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