I really enjoyed Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories, so it’s no surprise that I also enjoyed Kingdom Hearts II. It retains the atmosphere of the first two games, tweaks the combat of the first game, and ties up story issues introduced in the first two games (and itself).
The wonder of Kingdom Hearts is how it blends disparate worlds together in a way that’s fun, interesting and doesn’t require much suspension of disbelief. The main antagonist, Sora, is a kid whom has been separated from his friends. He seeks them out and learns that he is the destined wielder of the keyblade, a weapon which can lock or unlock any door, even the doors between worlds. Using this tool, he searches for his friends while helping King Mickey’s servants, Donald and Goofy, save the universe from the plots of dark powers.
The Disney characters play a very important part in game series. Most of the worlds and many of the characters are based on Disney movies. There’s Agrabah (Aladdin), Olympus Coliseum (Hercules) and Land of Dragons (Mulan) amongst others. They even have Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course, there are other locations, too. Touchstone Pictures’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is represented by Halloween Town, and Hollow Bastion and Twilight Town are original locations.
The cast also includes Final Fantasy characters and originals. Squall Leonheart, Cloud Strife, Sephiroth, Tifa, Yuffie, Yuna, Rikku, Paine, Setzer, Seifer (and his two buddies), Vivi, Cid and Auron all have a part to play. Most of them don’t play major roles, but they all serve to add a sense of somber realism to the setting, reminding you that the game has its serious side too (note: this does not apply to scenes involving Yuna, Rikku, and Paine, as they exist solely for comedic purposes).
I must say that the game is gloriously beautiful. The franchise worlds mirror their movie counterparts and even add original locations which would have fit just as well in the original movies. They even capture the feel of the characters: in fact, this is true for the entire cast. Nobody just stands around during a scene: they’re always animated, active, doing something. It brings the game alive. It helps that they got some excellent voice actors: the regular Disney VA cast do their own voices, the Jack Sparrow VA does a passable job imitating Johnny Depp, and the original voices are all pretty good too; except for Aeris. It sounds like the VA wasn’t given very good direction with her.
The original characters include the aforementioned Sora, along with the members of Organization XIII, and some other characters. They serve to tie everything together. Sora, as the protagonist, visits the worlds and interacts with all of the characters: he is even called the key that binds everything together. Organization XIII, as the villains, give the story impetus.
And what a story. It’s every bit of hope and wonder that Disney tries to instill with its tales of heroism and the power of the heart, of light against darkness, combined with the epic feel of a Final Fantasy game. It should feel cheesy, and I must admit, it is just a little bit silly. However, they execute it with such seriousness and with such careful attention to character personality, that you genuinely care for the characters and their struggles as Sora progresses through the game. At times, it gets a little confusing: Organization XIII’s motivations don’t sync perfectly well with their actions, and sometimes it seems that characters in-the-know are being intentionally obfuscative. But most of the games mysteries do get resolved, so you can rest assured that the designers had something in mind when they made the first game. No matter how bizarre things seem, they almost certainly do eventually make sense. Of those matters that don’t, they are explored in the other games of the series.
Combat is a blast. Kingdom Hearts II, like KH1, uses an action-RPG system. You control Sora as you move around engaging in battles in real-time throughout the dungeon. Enemies suddenly appear from the ether to attack you. Sora has a lot of options at his fingertips. His weapon, the Keyblade, is a melee weapon with which he can combo, both on ground and in the air. As he gains levels, he unlocks new abilities, which enable him to end his combos with powerful moves called Finishers, drastically increase the number of attacks in his combos, and even reduce the number so that he uses his Finishers more often. He can also learn to quickly dash along the ground, jump higher, double jump, glide through the air, block and counterattack. If he wants to avoid melee combat, Sora can surround himself with fire, zap enemies with ice or lightning, gather them together and damage them with Magnet or use Reflect to bounce their magic spells back on them. He can heal with the Cure spell or with items, and all of his magic spells and items can be hotkeyed to a shortcut menu. His bag of tricks also expands to include Drive Forms, Summons and Limits, which he can access at the cost of one or two of his AI-controlled allies (Donald and Goofy, or one of those two plus the story character of the world that Sora is in). Drive Forms give Sora a bunch of special abilities, including devastating attacks, some of which break the conventional rules of combat, like enabling him to free cast spells while moving. Summons let him invoke the power of some Disney characters, whom come to his aid bearing special abilities that, under the right circumstances, can turn a battle around instantly. Limits are special powerful attacks that Sora uses in conjunction with one or two of his allies, making Sora effectively invincible and devastating the enemies. Finally, Sora has Reaction commands, special actions he can perform in battles under certain circumstances, which let him do anything from dazing an enemy to grabbing it, activating its laser, and spinning it in a 360 degree arc to annihilate all its friends.
All of these abilities will be necessary to win battles. As much as he has, Sora will be constantly harried by a variety of dangerous and interesting foes. Even regular enemies usually have special tricks, such as teleportation, an invulnerable frontal guard, or near-immunity to knockback. Bosses are a whole magnitude more dangerous: each has a unique attack pattern, often consisting of multiple phases, and many put special conditions on the fight. Beating one boss prepares you for the next only in that you learn to expect increasingly complicated chains of attack and think more creatively. Everything you’ve learned culminates with the final boss, whom is one of the most impressive foes I have ever faced in a video game. The designers’ hearts went into making his battle as awesome as it is, and even with maxed stats, you cannot just brute force your way through the battle against him (at least, not on the hardest difficulty, which is the difficulty on which I played).
Kingdom Hearts II is a fitting end to the main story of the series. It’s passionate, with endearing characters, awesome worlds, and impressive combat. It’s a great example of how lightheartedness and seriousness can work hand in hand and how RPG combat can mesh with action elements. It’s the best of Disney, the best of Final Fantasy, and its own thing all at once: it’s Kingdom Hearts.