Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2) review
"Why does everyone like this game so much? "
Why does everyone like this game so much?
I don't get it. I mean, I understand the concepts of taste and opinion, but saying 'I like Kingdom Hearts' is, to me, like saying 'I enjoy stabbing my skull with screwdrivers.' Is everyone just ignoring the shocking flaws that plague nigh-on every aspect of the game's design and execution, covering their ears and shrieking loudly over any mention of them? I just... don't understand.
Even the base concept is inherently abhorrent. Square make decent RPGs, and Disney make decent films... now there's an idea. Behemoths in their respective industries, you would hope that a videogame combination of the two would transcend the medium and become the kind of astonishing experience that can be enjoyed by all.
Kingdom Hearts instead takes the weaknesses of each company, and mashes them together into an absolute tragedy of a game; a tasteless slideshow of hollow nostalgia and hideously-flawed gameplay. The worst of both worlds.
The most foreseeable failing comes from that which Square and Disney share: the vile machine that they use to pump out the tiresome drivel that passes for a storyline in their games and movies. For Kingdom Hearts, they apparently had the beast going at overdrive, churning and crunching a horrible brew of textbook cliches and patronising fanservice. Finally, with a mighty bellow, it spits out the tale of 14-year-old Sora (cheerful, headstrong, strong sense of justice, secretly a bit of a bell-end) and his chums; one love interest (Kairi), one guy who might go evil (Riku). Suddenly ripped away from the island home he shares with these two and some Final Fantasy characters, Sora finds himself, alone, in a strange situation; apparently vicious creatures known as the Heartless have been travelling from world to world (read: Disney universe to Disney universe), wreaking all sorts of havoc. Sora, being the Chosen One to wield the Keyblade (a weapon that can destroy the Heartless, or something), sets off with some new buddies - Donald Duck and Goofy Dog (or whatever he is) - to defeat the Heartless, find Kairi and Riku, and generally save the world(s).
And so begins a loathsome journey from world to world, meeting new people (mainly from Disney films and Final Fantasy games), learning new things, killing new things, and so forth. It's held together by the development of the main characters (about as sincere as a McDonald's advert, naturally) and a story about the Disney villains banding together to harness the power of the Heartless, but largely the game is made up of a series of vignettes based vaguely on the stories of the films the worlds are based on. You'll save Alice from execution in Wonderland, help Peter Pan rescue Wendy, and suchlike
Kingdom Hearts does recreate these worlds very well, and the graphics are it's only real saving grace. Square and Disney are both famed for their gloriously rich, colourful styles, and Square translates Disney's famously beautiful hand-painted vistas into it's own lavish 3D locales (and some of the customary spectacular FMVs) in a way that will shame neither studio. Every area looks just as you might remember it; Aladdin's Agrabah is a confusing maze of sandstone buildings and fruit stalls, Atlantica is an undersea paradise, and Tim Burton couldn't be disappointed by Halloween Town's camp spookiness. Character designs are universally superb, although Square's exquisitely-decked originals don't mix well with Disney's epic army of diverse faces. Environments also occasionally look a bit static, a bit Renderware even, but these are tiny gripes; the game looks as beautiful as you would expect it to.
The game's sole stroke of pure genius comes in the fact that the characters never burst into needless songsmithery, although to be fair, Haley Joel Osment (voice of Sora and the only child actor in Hollywood who isn't a dickhead) could probably handle whatever lyrical abomination that Disney handed him; he does a likably convincing job with Kingdom Heart's lacklustre script at least, as do most of the other voice actors. The Disney voices are similar enough to the film originals, despite the fact that few of the original actors reprise their roles - because they're dead! Ha ha!
Making up for the lack of any brain-gouging singsongs are the techno-mince opening theme 'Simple and Clean,' and the abominable level themes. Remixed versions of the films' theme songs, he who can survive fifty repetitions of 'Under the Sea' without flying into a blind rage is a better man than I. Other than these, music is bearable enough, and usually complements the action well. The variety of battle themes is nice, and a lot of the cutscene music is quite absorbing.
I'm sure that none of this is very surprising. Everyone knew that Kingdom Hearts would be a feast for the eyes and ears; it delivers, more or less. The real question was always the gameplay: would Square be able to pull all these disparate elements together into an enjoyable action RPG, a genre with which they'd only casually flirted with before? The answer is: No. They haven't. Kingdom Hearts is horribly flawed as a game, plagued by a mindless and poorly-implemented combat system, worsened by the kind of design atrocities you just don't expect in a game like this, by a studio like this.
Despite it being an action RPG, Square saw it fit to bestow KH with those random battles they love so much. These are bearable in a Final Fantasy game, but that's because they usually require very little actual effort; there's the minor annoyance of being pulled from your exploration, before you settle into the routine of waiting for the menu to appear and selecting 'Attack.' In Kingdom Hearts, it's a different story; after a while you begin to dread going anywhere, because you know it's going to turn into an agonising slog through endless Heartless gimps.
This wouldn't be that bad if the combat mechanics were fun, but, as you've probably guessed, they aren't. Deciding that real-time battles were no excuse not to have a menu, KH uses context-sensitive ones for combat and exploration. All magic and abilities are accessed through these menus. Most other games deem menu navigation a good time to pause the action, but KH grants you no such luxury; this tends to make things a little difficult. Case in point: fumbling fruitlessly through the item list to find a potion for your dying self, while a gang of merciless scumbags beats down upon you. You'd gladly fight them off, but you can't - because you're stuck in the item menu, you tit!
This menu chicanery means that it's hellishly difficult to attain a reasonable level of fluency with the controls. Outside of combat they're functional enough, but Sora's clumsy movement and jerky jumping means that anything fancy becomes nigh-on impossible. Lucky then that Square tossed in a few jumping puzzles for your enjoyment; after the millionth jump missed by the millionth tiny iota, you'll be slashing your wrists with the shattered game disc.
We all know what always comes with bad control. Since R2 is H-H-HIJACKED for the menus, camera control is relegated to the shoulder buttons. Left to it's own devices, the camera twirls uselessly about the place, getting stuck in walls and behind objects. There's a lock-on system that keeps one enemy or object vaguely in your field of view, but that just takes it into all sorts of worthless angles to keep track of the targeted beast. Manual manipulation is far too sluggish to be of any use in battle, so you're usually forced to just lock onto one of the goons you're fighting and just keep jumping about so none of the other bastards hit you, while hammering X again and again and a-bloody-gain until it's dead, hoping Goofy and Donald haven't gotten their stupid selves killed.
Ah yes, your trusty companions. First things first: why is Donald the wizard? He's supposed to be a rage-fueled maniac, always a minor annoyance (say, some squirrels stealing his food) away from going on a killing spree. And yet, in Kingdom Hearts, he's a stupid wizard that always wanders blithely into fatal danger and never heals you when you need it. Goofy is a little better, somehow managing to be a soldier that fights with a shield, but he displays the same shocking ignorance as Donald. There are a few options to change the tactics that they use, but it's rare that they ever become as helpful as they could be. It's difficult to put your faith in a slack-jawed beast and a duck who wears no trousers, but it's even harder when you know that they're both idiots.
The enemies you go up against are likable enough. Despite their ideological simplicity, the Heartless are well-designed; from the squeaking, scampering rodent to the massive dreadlocked behemoth with the huge heart-shaped cavity in it's death-black chest, they're always impressively realised. Boss battles often threaten to become absorbing with good attack-the-weak-point-now ideas; however, the aforementioned control debacle and endlessly spawning henchgoons makes most of them maddeningly difficult to defeat. As such, they're usually as unpleasant as the rest of the game.
Kingdom Hearts' overall structure is pretty good. The world-linking system could have become an excuse for stage-by-stage drudgery, but the game is relatively non-linear, with involving level design and some cunning puzzles. However, moving from world to world quickly becomes a gigantic chore. Why? Because of the hateful, hateful method of transport - the Gummi Ship.
Perhaps the worst mini-game known to man, the game's Gummi Ship shooting sections are absolutely without any merit at all. An insult to the modern 3D space shooter, the terrible controls and terrible level design will simply rend your very soul from your body. It even looks bad; bland obstacles textured with what looks like blobs of vomit and faeces and bile, you'd think these sections were developed by another team altogether. Seemingly unaware of the astonishingly poor quality of the whole concept, the game provides a whole range of options to customise your stupid ship by collecting pieces from about the gameworld, with the level of depth only a masochist would appreciate. I cannot express through mere words how terrible these Gummi sections are, and I can only assure you that you will thank the Lord Christ for the Warp Drive teleport option.
Aside from the Gummi catastrophe, Kingdom Hearts' mini-games and sub-quests are faintly enjoyable. There's 101 Dalmatians to be found (in groups of 3, which kind of defeats the point), a Winnie the Pooh storybook to explore, a series of battles to fight in Hercules' Coliseum, and many more. All of which are engaging enough, if you can bear the game's shocking faults and manage to absorb yourself in it.
But really. Why should you have to make an effort? This could have been a superb game, one that overcomes it's tacky premise to be a thoughtful, heartfelt story, backed up by the kind of quality gameplay you'd expect from Square.
Instead, it's a game as hateful and soulless as the Heartless abominations it vilifies. The only reason anyone would play it are to point and stare at the pretty graphics and to ejaculate uncontrollably at the sight of Sephiroth from FF7, or Gepetto from Pinocchio, or whichever other character it seduces the mindlessly nostalgic mind with.
Community review by autorock (September 11, 2004)
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