Kingdom Hearts II

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I am sorry, but why are we going with numbers now? Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories might not have been adding a lot to the overall plot, but it was definitely a good sequel that could even replace the original in my opinion. Regardless, Kingdom Hearts 2 was going to be the bigger game and was also released for the original PS2, like the first title. While it would follow the concept of the original game, the developers made a lot of changes to create improvements, which got a mixed reception. With how much the original had aged, will these changes stand the test of time, or will it become a mess? I am eager to see how one of my childhood favorites has held up. However, I decided to go with the HD-remake for PS3 this time as the main focus. The reasons for this are the redone soundtrack and the game being based on the Final Mix-version, which includes more side-objectives and more narrative.

“We don’t have hearts, but we remember what it was like.”

Really, this is hard to create an introduction for, since there will be either minor spoilers for the previous titles, or even for this installment itself. Regardless, you will once again play as Sora fighting alongside Goofy and Donald to find their friends and save the worlds of Disney-movies, with Final Fantasy elements sprinkled all over. Like its predecessors, you will be taken to these different worlds, each including familiar characters that are facing some difficulties that you must deal with. A smart choice is how they took a note from Chain of Memories and gave most of these worlds a certain theme to tackle.

Roxas versus Sora

This was a great idea for me, as it gave a sense of closure to see how they sorted out the troubles they encountered and learned something from these situations, similar to a traditional Saturday. morning cartoon. Not all stories are equally well told, but most are good and none reach the point of being bad. Some retell scenes from the movies, while others have more unique stories, making the tales diverse and heartwarming. These conflicts are also often tied in with the main plot, which makes the overall story have progression and connects everyone to a greater cause.

The worlds themselves are very imaginative and you will be visiting old and new places from both the Disney- and Kingdom Hearts– universe. The interactions between the characters are great, with them feeling natural in their approach, while still featuring humor that will put a smile on your face. The main trio is still adorable and heartwarming, and everyone has a clear and well-thought-out personality to them. The villains have a lot of deep elements they tackle and the supportive characters throughout the worlds are a joy to interact with. The mix between the more cheesy tone and the more serious events are well presented, making the story have a natural flow when characters get to shine.

Halloween Town

However, while we are dealing with many cartoon-related moral-stories, the overall plot goes much deeper and becomes quite complicated. You will be faced with themes, such as duality, existentialism, corruption, and they are tied together with great narration. These different philosophies play a heavy role with the new characters you will meet throughout the game. By doing this, it creates a more personal take on the philosophies and makes them important to ponder over. It is amazing to see how much they actually want to go in depth, without giving an answer to these deep thoughts, but rather theories.

We also have the lore of the heartless and the new villains being in tone with these philosophies, so it feels welcome and used as an effective tool to express our character’s motivations. Complementing this are clever symbolism, such as Beast’s rose being an important element for Sora, or how Mulan starts off weak but becomes a valuable ally later on. While it is a demanding storytelling to take in, it keeps focus on telling it without much distraction and gives it a progressive flow, making it easy to follow. For newcomers, there is a decent journal that will quickly let you know the essential parts, should you need it.

Winnie the Pooh.jpg

It is wonderful how deep and still child-like this installment is in its story. It is a reason for why it helped my studies in college and gave me an A in philosophy. However, it does have minor faults. While most characters are intriguing, there is a minor selection of Final Fantasy-characters that feel wasted and just outright put in for the sake of pleasing fans. The story also starts off weak, but not to the point of bad, just far too slow. However, what is the biggest problem, is the story at times does not explain why certain events happen. Some examples are when I was suddenly alone against the enemy, when Donald and Goofy were right by my side one second ago, or when I could not use a certain ability.

While these are clear faults that can halt the story, how it has so many strengths is incredible. Great characters, a well-told plot, enjoyable humor, intriguing philosophy and morals, and being both magical and demanding in its approach, it makes it almost a whole package. It is impressive how much was added and how much care was included, despite some unfortunate negatives.

Story Score: 8.5/10

Button-mashing at its almost finest

Being back on the PS2 (and later on PS3), we again have an action RPG, similar to the first installment. You will play as Sora with your two companions being AI-controlled, being it Donald and Goofy, or a character from the world you visit. This entry, however, has much more emphasis on the action. While the command-list returns, which shows what the X-button will do, mostly you will use it for the attack-option. This is because it has become much more combo-heavy, with AP returning for giving you abilities as you level up.

Sora fight.jpg

These abilities can range from more combos to defensive moves. It is simple to get a grip on, with X to attack and create combos, square for secondary combo-attacks and forms of defense, and triangle for Quick Time Events. QTEs with the triangle are, however, shallow and while it can give you a different special-attack against normal enemies, it more often feels like a clear button-masher. You never have to be precise and there is no penalty if you keep hammering X. The same can be said when bosses demand it, and they feel more like cutscenes where you must push triangle. It was a neat idea, but underdeveloped.

Other new additions to Sora’s commands are the Drive and Limit-attacks. You now have a third meter called Drive, which fills up by attacking enemies. This makes it possible for Sora to transform into different forms by merging himself with Donald, Goofy or both. These are incredibly fun to play with and each form includes different playstyle and attacks, as well as make our hero stronger until the bar is empty.

These drives can also be leveled up themselves by different means, which is interesting, but annoying. To give an example, the Master-form can only be upgraded by collecting drive-orbs from enemies, which are random. You can also occasionally turn into Heartless Sora at random. This form is fast, but can’t use items or revert back, will make the supportive characters disappear from the party, and has low defense. It is not too common and thankfully this form is far from bad, just a minor inconvenience that is interesting.

Siege battle

A limit is an attack that empties your magic-bar totally. This attack is devastating and can be used with either one or two of your main trio, or with the character you meet in the worlds. Unlike the first game, these new characters you meet are just as well implemented as your main companions, making it easy to find a playstyle you enjoy and never feel like a character is useless. Adding to this variety is the ability to create your own equipment, and keyblades that have interesting secondary abilities.

Because of all of this, the game might sound quite demanding. However, it is not. The game is very easy and only a few times did an enemy or a boss give me a hard time due to an unexpected difficulty-spike. I can only think of one boss that really tested my skills and it was a blast, but the rest felt like grander versions of normal fights. The battles in general consist of plenty of enemies to fight against, but as long as you remember your Limit and Drive, you will never fall. It is definitely enjoyable since you will be taking on plenty of enemies at once, but due to how strong you are, the enemies won’t be a threat with the exception of two that could be rather annoying. This makes the combat a clear button-masher for the most part, but at least an enjoyable one due to many options and customizations in attacks you have, the variety of enemies, and the lack of grinding.

Pirates.jpg

While the physical part of the combat has gotten a huge upgrade and has become more combo-heavy and fast-paced, the magic and summons are next to useless. They are usually slow, weak, or feel limited in their creativity compared to the melee-attacks. I only had to use heal a lot, which also took all of my MP similar to limit-attacks. After a while, I changed it to only using healing items which, while I could only hold a certain amount in any battle, made it more interesting and challenging. However, it almost seems like the developers saw how poor magic was, as MP will refill itself over time when the bar is empty. I even started and played through a new game with a focus on magic, but then the game became a slow and tedious ride.

The areas are somewhat explorable, but rather open in their design to make fights easier to have control over, with the camera thankfully being mapped to L3 for moving it in every direction. While the levels might not have much to them, they keep focus on the combat, which is enjoyable. Backtracking can happen, but levels are short and easy to navigate, making this hard to become noticeable. Some also try to be somewhat creative without being unbalanced, such as how you can’t use magic in Hades’ underworld. Unfortunately, the first part of the game drags on for 3 hours with long tutorials and mini-games that can be easily forgotten. Luckily, most levels are enjoyable. Except for Atlantica, where you have a poor man’s version of a rhythm-game, that is not even in sync with the music.

Axel showdown

Speaking of which: when the game throws in mini-games, it becomes a terrible mess. They range from shallow “press triangle to make a monkey jump” to an unbalanced light-cycle ride where you play a form of rock, paper, scissors while driving a motorcycle. None of them are worthwhile, but luckily these only appear once each and are often short. The worst offender, however, is the gummi ship. I hated the shallow on-rails shooter in the first game and it is not much better here. It tries to be more visually appealing, with a lot of camera-movement and enemies seeming faster, but it is still easy and even gives you plenty of blueprints for new vehicles to make. This makes the concept of a ship that you can create yourself worthless. It might have been better to just acquire a new vehicle. The only real new elements added, was charge shots, changing to rapid fire, and a scoring system. None of them gave these segments any reason to be enjoyable and it is a shame you have to play these parts before you land on 90% of the worlds.

Kingdom Hearts 2, fortunately, focuses on its easy, but fun combat. The fights are always a blast, despite that enemies could have been a bit more creative and the bosses more demanding. There are a lot of issues when the combat is not a focus, but these diversions are not common. I just wish more focus would have been given to making it more interesting than an enjoyable button-masher.

Gameplay Score: 5/10

Beautiful imagination and combining different art styles

Representing the diverse worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy is definitely a tricky task, but Kingdom Hearts 2 is a fantastic showcase on how to do so. This is a beautiful game with huge attention to colors and minor details, such as how every chests and command-menu is different depending on what world you are in. Characters have gotten a huge facelift, with much better models, and even making the more realistic characters look good and make them blend naturally with the more cartoony worlds. It is amazing to see different art-styles co-exist without it being awkward. The enemies as well have gotten a lot more creative designs and some can be outright unsettling. The worlds themselves represent different environmental themes, such as Tron’s data-world or the wild Pride Land of Simba, with all worlds being imaginative and always a treat with nice details around.  Some worlds even give our characters costumes, which are adorable. The cutscenes really give it all an incredible atmosphere, and attacks are impressively animated and hypnotizing!

Drive form

On a more technical level, it is also impressive. Clothes react to weather-effects, the lip-syncing is better implemented, characters have good animations that give our heroes more ways to express themselves, and everything runs at a good framerate. While most cutscenes are presented with in-game graphics and lip-syncing that are good, they can at times change too quickly to the stiffer models where mouth-animations consist of two frames. At least the movement-animations are still believable and the better lip-syncing is more common. One thing I noticed is how the camera makes these scenes feel much more like a movie than just a scene to tell a story, which is a good move. The two CG-scenes are unfortunately not good and I would much rather have them with in-game presentation, but this is a minor complaint

The soundtrack is on par with the presentation with plenty of compositions that range from more symphonic to more chiptune inspired, with tracks from both Disney and Final Fantasy-world being used. The newer tracks are also gorgeous, with some even making me shed a tear. I can count only one track that I could not stand, but that is again a minor annoyance that is easy to overlook when there are so many fantastic music tracks that really can make it a contender for the best soundtrack on the PS2, if not of all time. The voice acting is plentiful, impressive, and includes more familiar voices, such as Christopher Lee. There are a few minor lines that could have been redone, but most are stellar. Some scenes, however, have an awkward silence to them, and it is a shame some could not have a better use of the fantastic soundtrack.

While it certainly has minor faults, these are only what keeps the presentation from reaching a perfect score. With such fantastic soundtrack, intriguing cutscenes, impressive voice acting, and imaginative attacks and worlds, you really will feel lost in this gorgeous world. Kingdom Hearts 2 represents Disney’s and Final Fantasy’s broad styles fantastically, both in inhabitants, environments, and atmosphere.

Presentation: 9/10

Collecting throughout the world

There is a lot to come back to, but it varies in how much of your time these extras are worth. First of: there is a difficulty-setting that gives you a chance to get a better ending the harder the difficulty is. Secret endings were a pain to get in most Kingdom Heart-games, so this is a good thing to see. The few puzzle-pieces scattered all over the worlds are also a neat extra to search for, and many will be creatively located which makes it a small puzzle to find out how to reach them. There is also an incredible huge focus on lore and collecting pieces of papers, from Ansem’s reports to Winnie the Pooh’s pages. Both are a joy to find, with the first having more emphasis on the overall plot and the other as a fun in-game secret. Filling up Jiminy Cricket’s diary for more insights into the world and characters is also a good treat.

Agrabah.jpg

However, doing the gummi ship missions is something I never cared about as it is incredibly shallow and grind-heavy. The same can be said for the other mini-games you can tackle again, which is simply not worth it. The secret bosses are unfortunately a mixed bag, as these fights are incredibly hard, making grinding a necessity and tasks you to get the best weapons in the game. They are the most enjoyable fights, but a drag to get to with the necessary preparations, which is a shame. Fighting heartless repeatedly can only be fun for so long. Similar issues also apply to a cave where you will have to pretty much max out all of your Drives to venture through. The options are there and some are nice and provide a great feeling of accomplishment, but they are certainly more time-consuming than needed.

Extra Score: 6.5/10

Verdict

Kingdom Hearts 2 improves on a lot of the elements of the first installment, making it a more enjoyable experience. Its fantastic story and wonderful presentation are what will keep you going as both are imaginative and impressive. The combat is certainly fun and has many elements to make it worthwhile, despite being too easy and shallow in some aspects. It is unfortunate that plenty of the minor elements that are not a part of the physical combat fall flat, and it could have gone just a bit further with its concept. What is here, is still a memorable tale that should please those who wants to simply get lost in philosophy and fantasy. As a side-note: The extras for the PS3-version are well worth it with the redone soundtrack and more content, but the PS2-version is not a bad choice at all.

75/100

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