Should I Buy? – Kingdom Hearts II

Tetsuya Nomura has had quite the rags-to-riches story in his career. He’s been working on the Final Fantasy series since IV, and really made his name as the character designer for Final Fantasy VII meaning that he was in part responsible for the radical shift in art direction the series took when it went into 3D.

Since the departure of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshitaka Amano and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy‘s creator, long time character designer and achingly good composer respectively) he’s pretty much the biggest name left in the company and the most prominent remaining guy who helped shape the early Final Fantasy‘s left.

It’s not really where he’s been spending his time though, as he’s the creator, director and lead designer of the new action-JRPG megahit franchise Kingdom Hearts. On paper it’s a silly concept, a gigantic Disney/Final Fantasy crossover in which a young boy wields a magic key across various Disney worlds as he tries to both find Mickey Mouse and hold back the forces of Darkness.

In execution though, it’s worked surprisingly well. See, while the kiddies get to relive their favourite Disney movies in non-terrible videogame form, the more mature players can instead appreciate its solid yet flexible mechanics and increasingly complex metaphysics…as well as being able to relive their favourite Disney movies in non-terrible videogame form.

Kingdom Hearts II is when the series really found firm footing. In it, Sora, Donald and Goofy awaken from a long sleep in Castle Oblivion after the Midquel Chain of Memories to discover that although Ansem’s Heartless has been defeated, the Heartless themselves are still around, and Organization XIII is leading a new kind of monster called the Nobodies in some vaguely sinister plot.

After an overlong and very boring tutorial section and a much more exciting introduction to the new status quo, the game promptly forgets about this for what’s at least a third of its length so Sora and co. can reunite with all their friends from the previous game. This isn’t such a blunder as it sounds, as the inherently nature of multiple small worlds means you get bite sized chunks of action that keep you from noticing this.

They also try to mix things up with the different worlds. Each gives you a character who’ll join your party while you’re there, a few unique Heartless and some mechanic to differentiate it from the others, even if its just a part of the scenery that can cause damage. It doesn’t always work, but it is the better for trying.

Adding Auron to a game is like adding Sean Connery to a film. Awesome, and not enough people do it

All the different locales are well designed and essentially compressed versions of what you remember from the films. Overall, the only place I’d say is ‘bad’ is the Pirates of the Caribbean world. The realistic artstyle is strange enough next to everything else, but the lack of any of the film’s actors makes it near painful.

The combat flows well, with lots of colourful and exciting action filling the screen. This game is easier than the original, though there’s still plenty of challenge to be found on the harder modes. It’s very easy for so much to be going on that you’re not so much fighting as hoping that mashing attack will end in some vague approximation of victory rather than death.

There’s plenty of options to keep things fresh like Limits, your plethora of magical abilities and the new Drive Forms and Reaction Commands which can take some getting used to but are also useful in addition to alleviating the monotony. Still, having to access these from a JRPG style menu on the fly can get more than a little distracting when you’re trying really hard to get turned into mincemeat.

Though the score is fantastic (if not up to Uematsu’s level), the voice actors don’t deliver as well. Whenever the original actor or someone similar enough could be found, like with Hades or Oogie Boogie it’s just as good as their movie versions but none of the other Disney people sound right. The original and Final Fantasy characters sound pretty darn good though.

Aside from the plot and the combat, there’s a plethora of mini-games to be had, mostly originating from Pooh’s Storybook. Nice a distraction as they are, they never rise above being a distraction. They do tend to get weaved into the plot just enough to make sure they don’t outstay their welcome though.

Another thing this entry delivers on is the boss battles. Only a few of them derive their difficulty from unfair gimmicks, the rest are simply really big, really fun enemies to hit with your Keyblade.

Once the game’s plot actually kicks in you might surprised at just how far it goes for a 12+ with its metaphysics and increasingly confusing backstory. Organization XIII are a Rogue’s Gallery of bosses as diverse and entertaining as anything out of Metal Gear Solid.

You might worry that Sora plays like some self-insert designed to be the big hero that makes everything right in the Disney worlds, but instead he plays as a Shonen manga-style kid hero and never really gets annoying. Donald and Goofy also make a nice pair of sidekicks and together they form a trio of heroes that really, really shouldn’t work yet somehow still does.

As to whether you can enjoy this without having played any of the other games, it holds up pretty well as a standalone piece. Sure, there’ll be parts where you scratch your head and wonder what they’re on about but generally enough information to get by and the ending is pretty conclusive if you ignore the vague sequel tease hook that we’re finally getting answers for in Kingdom Hearts 3D.

If you’re looking for a really fun, standalone action-RPG it’s a toss up between this and Birth by Sleep which is mechanically the better game if a bit lacking in content besides the plot and action.

NOTE: The menus are in English, just most of the screen shots easily available are from the Japanese only Final Mix+ version.

Price: (CEX) £15


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mitch Allan
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 12:20:53

    Eee, some much love for this game…
    I would agree that the most fun from this games comes from the big boss battles and other massive epics. The ‘defend the X’ and ‘Kill X many enemies’ SHOULD be really annoying and gimmicky, but I found it was always fun (except a certain time-limited boss, BUT WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT).
    This is one RPG that always makes me feel I’m playing as a genuinely epic hero saving all the little worlds I’ve come to love.
    Though I’d disagree and say I think Yoko Shimamura’s work as composer is on the same level as Uematsu’s. But I’m a Shimamura fangirl anyway.


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