Monday, June 15, 2009

Kingdom Hearts II review

I have tried and failed to complete the first Kingdom Hearts game several times for various reasons - the broken camera and poorly implemented battle controls being the main culprits. Yet I still picked up Kingdom Hearts II when I saw it for £5 in Woolworths the Christmas before last. It promptly got added to my backlog of games that I may get around to playing one day, and I thought little of it for well over a year. The box caught my eye a few months ago though and something compelled me to give it a try. This time, the game got its hooked into me and I completed it a few weeks ago. I've had some time to mull the experience over now and so it is time to deliver my verdict. Warning: There may be some small spoilers in this review but I'll try not to go into too much detail.

Format: PS2
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: Action RPG
Region: PAL
Price: Around £10 these days

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Taking into account that this game is running on what is now last generation hardware, it still looks great for the most part. The worlds that are based on Disney animations (including Atlantica, Beast's Castle and the Pride Lands from The Lion King) look just like the feature films that inspired them, except of course they are now in full 3D. Not only do they look great, they are also incredibly well animated. There is one world that you visit that lets the side down, however. When the game was first announced and I started to read about it, there was one new addition that I couldn't wait to check out - namely Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean. To be able fight alongside Jack Sparrow. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan sounded great - but unfortunately the technical limitations of the PS2 let the side down. The characters just don't look natural, and this is really due to the fact that they are recreations of life actors rather than cell shaded drawings. Unfortunately the graphics are not the only area that Port Royal is disappointing...

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Yes, the voice acting for the Port Royal sections is underwhelming as well. Johnny Depp was unavailable or simply too expensive to hire, and the actor they cast to try and imitate him just doesn't convince at all. It's a similar story for Will Turner. Thankfully, the rest of the game has amazing voice acting, with a huge array of familiar voice talent, both from film (James Woods, James Earl Jones, Chris Sarandon), TV (Hayden Panettiere, though few had heard of her when she made the game), other games and anime (Tara Strong, Corey Burton). Most of the actors who played characters in Disney films reprise their roles, and even when somebody else subs in for them, they are usually extremely talented people in their own right (for example Dan Castelleneta, aka Homer Simpson plays the voice of the Genie instead of Robin Williams).

The music is also a brilliant fusion of familiar Disney melodies and new compositions created by composer Yoko Shimomura, although sometimes the tunes can sound a little synthy (surprise, Port Royal again). Utada Hikaru also reprises her role from the first game and delivers an amazing opening tune (check out the video below - and be sure to come back for the rest of the review!).

Game Mechanics: 9 out 10
Kingdom Hearts 2 is an action RPG through and through - full of fast paced battles against hundreds of opponents. Thankfully the major problems of the original game - the camera and the controls, have been fixed this time which immediately makes it far more enjoyable than the first game. You control Sora directly but you also have up to two companions helping you out (Donald and Goofy most of the time, and a guest character that takes the place of one of them during one of the Disney themed worlds.

You fight off the enemy Heartless and Nobodies with the help of your keyblade, a sword that is shaped like a key, and also doubles up as a story device to unlock paths between the various worlds. As well as your basic attacks you can also cast spells, summon various characters to help your out or change into one of three forms. As you level up you get the opportunity to spend AP (action points) on new skills that augment your character, be they new attacks, or just something that makes the enemies drop more money. You have to manage both the equipment and skills of yourself and Donald and Goofy, so there's plenty of opportunity for character development.

The length of time spent in each world without a break is typically far less than the first game as well - you rarely stay anywhere for more than an hour or two. This helps keep the pace of the game flowing and ensures that you won't get bored because there's always something new to see or explore just around the corner. Like in the first game, you travel between these worlds in a Gummi Ship, and Square have listened to criticism again and radically improved these sections. Now they are just like and on rails shooter such as Star Fox or Panzer Dragoon. All in all Kingdom Hearts II feels much more polished than the original, eliminating any little niggles that were present and transforming it into the classic that the original should have been in the first place.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
On the outside, to people who hate Disney or Square-Enix or both (they do exist), Kingdom Hearts II may seem like one big repulsive cash-in, and I was skeptical myself initially, but Square-Enix have skillfully woven a cohesive story around multiple Disney and Square franchises and delivered a game that could appeal to fans and non fans alike. Personally, while I have played the majority of the Final Fantasy series, I haven't watched a Disney animated film in years (with the exception of those produced by Pixar).

Disney stalwarts Donald and Goofy return to help you out once again

Value & Replayability: 8 out of 10
Action RPG's are usually a good deal shorter than their turn based counterparts by their very nature, but Square-Enix have crammed a lot of content into Kingdom Hearts II. The main storyline will take you in the region of 40 hours to complete. Then you have optional battles in the underworld and a whole log book of optional challenges and content to find and beat. If you beat the game in Hard mode then you will automatically get the chance to watch the hidden teaser for Birth by Sleep, otherwise completing all the side quests is the only way to view it (or you could just go and watch it on YouTube if you can't be bothered). Considering that the game can be picked up for a tenner or less anyway, you will more than get your money's worth.

Some of the worlds featured in KHII are repeats of those that were in the original, so the game lose a mark or two for that, although they have been changed significantly.

Overall: 8 out 10
Leave your cynical gamer persona behind and just be prepared to have fun in this fast paced and slickly produced Disney/Square love in. You don't really need to have played through the first game - I had only played part of it and I still managed to piece together what was happening with the storyline. The series shows no sign of dieing anytime soon with two spin off games for the PSP and DS on the way, and the inevitable Kingdom Hearts III. I would like to see the world's from the various Pixar films explored in a future game, I think they would fit perfectly.

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