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Kingdom Hearts II (PlayStation 2) artwork

Kingdom Hearts II (PlayStation 2) review


"Once in an extremely rare while, youíve got exceptions. Mission Impossible II kicks the firstís ass. Aliens is arguably better than Alien. And Kingdom Hearts II is an improvement in every conceivable way."



WARNING: This game takes a long time to get started. A very long time. LikeÖthree hours. You will spend these three hours playing as a character named Roxas. Not Sora. Roxas. The game will not bother to explain, either, and youíll spend most of that three hours clueless as to why youíre playing as some pointless kid and not, you know, the guy from the last game. Just giving you the heads up, because, when I started playing, I was wondering whether Iíd bought the right game or not. ďI could have sworn I was supposed to be playing as a guy named SoraÖcan see him on the box and everything.Ē

Moving on. First, an opinion.

Kingdom Hearts sucked.

Being fair, a lot of people hated the game without ever playing it, but you canít really blame them. Disney movies are generally labeled as being kiddy and saccharine (which just is not true; Pixar kicks ungodly amounts of ass, and most of the animated features in the 90s were straight up masterpieces) and Square games are generally labeled as being filled with angst and girly men, so the combination doesnít appeal much to the Ďhardcoreí gamer-whatever the hell that means.

Now, a fact. Somewhat.

Sequels usually suck.

Not just with games, every type of media included. Enderís Game? Great book. The, what, fifty sequels it has? Crap, crap I say. Batman (the first one, not the new one, which has nothing to do with the first four despite anything Zigfried says)? Great movie, if just for Jack Nicholson. The sequel? Michelle Pfeiffer was hot, but leather and S&M fetishes can only carry a movie so far.

Once in an extremely rare while, youíve got exceptions. Mission Impossible II kicks the firstís ass. Aliens is arguably better than Alien. And Kingdom Hearts II is an improvement in every conceivable way.

Start with the story itself; the characters, the plots, the details. The first Kingdom Hearts wasn't so bad in this regard; you got to interact with some of Disney's better movies; classics like Aladdin and the Nightmare Before Christmas, sort-of classics like Hercules and Tarzan. Square fans got their fill fighting against familiar faces; dealing with Cloud's superior reach and devastating combos, going Keyblade to Gunblade with a manlier version of Squall, ignoring Sephiroth's ambiguous sexuality long enough to kick his ass.

Kingdom Hearts II does it better.

It gives you better worlds, lets you rumble in the Pride Land with the Lion King, fight on snowy mountain peaks with Mulan, hack the system with Tron. You may not like Square. You may not like the games they make, their style; Iím not always down with it myself, Iíll admit. But thereís something so unspeakably badass about swashbuckling sword by key-shaped sword alongside Jack Sparrow, going through a shorter but passable version of Pirates of the Caribbean, fighting enemies and participating in events and seeing things from a more interactive perspective. The graphics are near-perfect; the incredible photorealism that those gaming magazines havenít been able to shut up about for months. The voices are good; not close enough to be indistinguishable from the original characters, but close enough that you wonít give a damn either way, savvy?

But itís more than appearances and circumstances; the means are just as good as the ends here. Kingdom Hearts II boasts one of the best battle engines ever to grace an Action-RPG. Itís the same system from the last gameÖat the core. You still have control over one character, Sora, with the computers controlling two characters for back up. You still take out the enemy in the manly brawler method; pressing X, then X, then X, then X again to execute combos. You still get more skills as you level up, you still spend AP to equip them and give Sora the custom touch. You can still call up the occasional summon to bail you out. Itís basic stuff; youíll pick it up fast if you played the first, if you havenít, wellÖthose first three boring hours will get you acquainted, trust me.

Even if you are familiar with the system, Kingdom Hearts II has some new tricks for you to learn. Dig, if you will, Soraís new threads. Note the smaller shoes, the less puffy pants, the more prominent black color scheme. Better than before, no doubt. But it serves just as much function as it does form, gives Sora the abilities toÖchange.

!VALOR FORM!

Goofy disappears, Soraís costume takes on a fierce red color scheme, and a second Keyblade appears in his spare hand. Red lighting crackles about him as he crouches, bouncing back and forth in an anxious twitch. He moves faster. Jumps higher. Stats increase. His combos hit twice as hard, twice as fast, and end with a launcher that sets the enemy up for aerial bashing.

!WISDOM FORM!

Donald disappears (thankfully), Soraís custom takes on a calmed blue, but no second Keyblade this time. You donít need it. Sora doesnít walk in this form; he glides across the floor, firing magic bolts in rapid succession, ducking, dodging, rolling, and sliding around the enemies, pelting them from afar, not a single worry of running out of MP.

!MASTER FORM!

The best of both, both of Soraís partners disappear as he turns bright yellow; a second Keyblade floats at his side, not in his hand. Enemies canít touch you; youíre too quick. They canít stand against you; youíre too strong. You can clear a room in seconds, swirling around in a hellish magic maelstrom that crushes everything in sight.

These alternates forms, these Drives as the game calls them, they can alter the course of any fight. But there is balance, there is a gauge that drains and limits your time, and this same gauge determines how long your summon stays around. So each major battle becomes a choice of tactics; do you enlist a summon for some heavy damage, or switch to a form and get the job done yourself, but risk running out of time and leaving yourself vulnerable? Gamble, guess, gamble.

And thereís more choice to make, still. Every major battle, even a few of the minor ones, canít be won with the use of Reaction Commands. Theyíre nothing too complex; they just require you to hit the Square button at certain times. But the effects are various.

Maybe itíll be something as simple as putting cursed Aztec gold back in the chest, so you can break immortalityís hold on the boss and finish him.

Maybe itíll entail you getting treated to seeing some acrobatics courtesy of Sora; watch as he runs straight up a building and leaps off, clashing blades all the way down.

Maybe itíll have you go into a feline frenzy with Simba, slashing and striking stomping enemies all around, clearing them out with a deafening roar.

It keeps the battles fluid, cuts down on the monotony, and gives you some sweet scenes to view. Much better than just pressing X and hoping for good results. Itís fun to play and itís fun to watch; nothing tops off a hard boss battle like a few stylish, Devil May Crying moves.

Hell, the Gummi Ship doesnít even suck anymore. In the last game, the Gummi Ship was this stupid minigame you had to play before going to a new world; basically a wanna-be 3D shooter that had you pegging enemies that, with some imagination, could be interpreted as enemy ships, all the while streaming through repetitive and bland environments.

No more boring scenery; this time youíll find yourself flying down a hellish highway, over psychedelic mountains of purple and yellow and orange, attacking a massive fortress in the sky. No more lame enemies; they come in all sizes, have attack patterns, gang up on you, cling onto your ship, make you actually pay attention to whatís going on, even throw the occasional boss your way. Itís engaging to play, like a watered-down but not too watered-down Star Fox.

They made the Gummi Ship not suck. Now that is an accomplishment, and itís one of the many accomplishments that makes the first boring three hours such a damn shame. 95% of the game rocks, 5% is boring as hell. And you have to get through the 5% first.

ButÖand as much as I usually loathe people saying shit like thisÖit does get better after that. Really. Endure. Thereís a lot to love here. Granted, this might not be your thing, you might hate this game at first sight. Fine. But, at the worst, you still canít deny whatís going down here.

Kingdom Hearts II is what a sequel should be.

Rating: 8/10

lasthero's avatar
Staff review by Zack Little (April 11, 2006)

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