Four years ago, Square Enix released an ambitious crossover game that mixed two unlikely franchises together: the worlds of Disney and the characters of Final Fantasy. The result was a massive success. Gamers, including those who weren't fans of either Disney or RPGs, embraced this hybrid, eagerly awaiting the next chapter of Sora's fight against the Heartless. A number of questions were raised in both the original and 2004's "extension story" Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and Tetsuya Nomura's Kingdom Hearts II answers most, if not all of them with a revamped camera and combat system. However, in the process it winds up removing a number of the features that made the game a well-crafted and well-balanced action/RPG.
If you haven't picked up Kingdom Hearts or Chain of Memories just yet, do yourself a favor and track those titles down, because they really are quite good. However, there's a secondary reason why you might want to take a look at them, which is immediately apparent as soon as you start a new game of Kingdom Hearts II (things are definitely much less confusing if you happen to have a bit of background with the previous adventures). The reason being, is that Kingdom Hearts II not only summarizes the prior titles via a number of quick expository cuts, but to a degree, it also explores a couple of existentialist arguments. This isn't to say that newcomers will be lost by picking up Kingdom Hearts II, but they will also find themselves swimming in details.
Fortunately, for the completely confused, Jiminy Cricket's journal provides an excellent fountain of knowledge about the adventure. Jiminy tracks everything from character connections in a particular area to major plot points, writing up summaries that can be accessed at any time. It even holds lists of enemies that you've defeated, as well as specific missions, item synthesis notes and treasure that you've found. It's a great thing to refer to if you're confused on the somewhat convoluted plot, and much better than the similar tool found in the original.
Anyhow, taking up shortly after the events of Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II introduces players to Roxas, a young boy living in Twilight Town on his summer vacation. A likable kid that enjoys hanging out with his friends and exploring the city, Roxas is also plagued by memories and images of someone he doesn't know. Seeking the cause of these visions leads Roxas to discover his connection to Sora and the Keyblade. Picking up the main story from there, the plot follows Sora and his search for his friends Riku and Kairi, as well as King Mickey throughout a number of Disney worlds. It also introduces new enemies, known as Nobodies, and an ominous organization controlling their activities called "Organization XIII". To go over any other plot points would spoil the 30+ hour main quest.
Fortunately, you won't be continually fighting the camera during this adventure like you did in the original game. Kingdom Hearts forced players to manipulate the camera via the L2 and R2 buttons, which wasn't as responsive as it needed to be in most fight sequences. Now, these controls have been locked to the right thumbstick, which allows players to rotate their view to suit their own individual needs. It isn't perfect, as you will still run into problems when you're running around walls or trying to track extremely fast opponents (many of whom you'll face in later levels and will discover that the camera will swing wildly), but it's still a welcome change for the fight sequences.
Speaking of combat, the battle system has been augmented with new options in the midst of a fight. Apart from the basic attacks and included magic, as well as the ability to parry incoming strikes, players will have access to "reaction commands," which are based on conditions that arise during a battle. For instance, an enemy may launch an attack by throwing an object or leaping at Sora and his party. By hitting the triangle command when the icon pops up on the screen, you can dodge incoming strikes or even reflect projectiles towards an enemy. You're not solely restricted to defensive uses of the reaction command either. For example, a tactic known as "Rising Sun" allows Sora to fly through multiple opponents at the same time.
Similarly, Sora now has a number of ways to inflict massive amounts of damage on his opponents thanks to the Drive and Limit attacks. Drives give Sora the power to absorb one or both members of his party, imbuing him with faster speed, different abilities and, perhaps more importantly, two Keyblades to wield in combat. Limit attacks allow Sora to join up with members in his party to unleash massive combos on any opponent. While triggering these attacks drains Sora's magic meter entirely, you can use it to clear out large swaths of enemies with fast moving strikes or multiple projectiles. These limit attacks also extend to the Disney characters that join your party. So, for instance, you can perform a destructive dance with Jack Skellington, release massive fireballs with Mulan or unleash a mighty roar with Simba.
Speaking of Simba, he's no longer a summoned character. Neither is Mushu, Dumbo or Bambi. In fact, of the Summoned characters from the first game, only the Genie fully returns; Tinkerbell rejoins folded into the Peter Pan summons, along with Chicken Little and Stitch of "Lilo" fame. Creatively each summon has a number of attacks on their own, and even includes things like the Genie being able to perform drive forms and limit attacks of his own. By contrast, Chicken Little throws baseballs and firecrackers.
You'll face a large number of Heartless and Nobodies throughout the adventure too. Unfortunately, thanks to the number of changes that have been made, fighting is way too easy and it really hurts things rather badly. Most fights can be hacked and slashed through by simply pounding on the X button, without needing to rely on most of the other combat elements. For instance, I managed to make it completely through Kingdom Hearts II without using offensive magic ONCE.
Now if fellow veterans of the first game remember that bosses like Ursula, the Trick Master, and the Parasite cage were rather hard to beat without using fire spells or other magic to weaken them, you'll understand why the lack of magic in this one makes the game feel so stripped down. In KHII, you can literally pound the mini-bosses and main enemies into submission by hitting X over and over and over again. There may be a few times in each fight where you'll dodge them with a reaction command or perhaps choose to inflict more damage with a summon or a limit attack, but for the most part, you can pound the X and crush your opposition.
What's worse, you don't need to fear taking damage, because for the most part any destroyed enemies will drop enough health orbs to heal Sora back to full life. This becomes even more unbalanced when you start gaining a number of the more powerful abilities. To put it in perspective, at the beginning of KHII, you can pull off a three-hit attack, but by the end of the game, you're essentially pulling off 6-8 hit combos without touching the ground and even damaging every opponent around you with area effects (the explosion ability is a major damage culprit). Unfortunately, the level of enemy difficulty doesn't ramp up to meet Sora's ability, so after a while combat is simply reduced to a level grind. Oh and did I mention that your partner AI is absolutely terrible (you can't issue AI commands anymore, nor are they smart about what they should attack or pick up as it relates to beneficial items)?
This isn't a one-time thing either; this is the way the entire game is structured regardless of which difficulty level you've chosen at the start of the game (and for the record, I beat it on "Normal Mode" and then played for another 20-25 hours on "Proud aka Hard Mode").
One example of the severe button mashing, for example, is that I placed the controller on my desk, lightly pressed X and had a conversation with a co-worker. Three minutes later, I'd cleared all of the opponents in a room and leveled up, without actively controlling the game. What's more, because the ability to button mash is so prevalent, boss fights take a fraction of the time. I clocked every major fight that I had in this title, and most of them came out under the five-minute mark, including the final boss. This is extremely disappointing and not particularly appealing as far as fostering a replay once the thing has been beaten.
There's also another casualty that results in the focus on the combat system, and that is that a large number of the previous game's RPG elements have practically disappeared. The original KH was somewhat akin to a Final Fantasy title, in that you'd sometimes needed to collect certain items and use them in specific places, but items in Kingdom Hearts II are practically useless -- unless you care to synthesize other objects with the Moogle shops or you find yourself getting stuck with "plot device" items. (Again, remember what I said about the health orbs; I never found that I needed to use a health potion either, because there were plenty of orbs lying around to heal any damage.)
To its credit, Kingdom Hearts II does feature a number of new worlds to move through, such as Space Paranoids (aka Tron), Timeless River (aka Steamboat Willie) and Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean. Beautifully rendered, you really feel as though you've stepped into a completely different world as soon as you enter these areas. These are also supported by appropriate environmental sounds -- the echo of Sora and Tron's digital footsteps are awesome. Another extremely cool feature of these first two worlds is that Sora, Donald, and Goofy wind up changing their visual appearance to match the look and feel of the world itself. For instance, Sora is drawn in the old style of the 1930s cartoons, while Donald and Goofy return to their original characterizations when they debuted. Similarly, Space Paranoids gilds each character with glowing lines and helmets to fit into the digital environment, much like Tron and his fellow programs.
These worlds are visually striking and extremely appealing to adventure through, but as a minor aside, you won't find appearance changes in every world. For instance, Port Royal doesn't have it at all, making the distinction between the realistic enemies and character models of the Pirates world and the animated characters of Kingdom Hearts seem more like the videogame version of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
One other hiccup with the worlds is that they feel incredibly small. Other worlds that you've already adventured in from the original are compressed even smaller -- with Halloween Town and Atlantica in particular becoming shadows of their former selves. In fact, Halloween Town almost exclusively focuses on Santa's workshop, whereas Atlantica has been completely stripped of every piece of action and instead reduced to a series of weak rhythm games. You'll want to return to the Gummi as quickly as possible to escape this section.
And yes, the Gummi ship does make a return in Kingdom Hearts II, but instead of coming off as bland and stupid, it plays more like Panzer Dragoon, where you can paint a group of targets and fire off homing missiles. Each travel point between worlds has a number of stages that you can play through, fending off enemy spaceships, land-based enemies, and even turrets on opponents that can fill most of the screen. By successfully killing certain foes, you'll also collect objects which you can choose to add to your ship or implement in newly created blueprints. You can even acquire "teeny ships," which are helpers that increase your firepower. While it's still on rails, the later stages allow you to control which direction your shots go by allowing you to manipulate the camera. This is the way the original title's Gummi section should've been.
I understand the eagerness of Kingdom Hearts II -- Myself, and many other guys in the office like me, were really excited when the game arrived. Plus, as someone who's played and beaten the original PS2 game in addition to the GBA title a number of times, I was definitely looking forward to the sequel. Unfortunately, once I and some of the others actually started playing through it, it became an obvious letdown.
The reason? The combat is way too simple and while the number of attacks and abilities are plentiful, they're ultimately unfulfilling and boring. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful title with a great story and fantastic presentation, but because of its major combat flaws (and that fact that it turns its back on exploration and most RPG elements), it does the game a great disservice