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Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2) artwork

Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2) review

"It's rare that a game comes along that reminds you of the best moments in your childhood and yet is still fun enough to keep you interested beyond mere nostalgia. Kingdom Hearts does just that through solid action-RPG gameplay which balances the timeless history of Disney with the unequaled gaming pedigree of Square. In this tale, you play the role of Sora, a young boy who lives on a small island and dreams of exploring the world beyond with his two best friends, Riku and Kairi. He has been havi..."

It's rare that a game comes along that reminds you of the best moments in your childhood and yet is still fun enough to keep you interested beyond mere nostalgia. Kingdom Hearts does just that through solid action-RPG gameplay which balances the timeless history of Disney with the unequaled gaming pedigree of Square. In this tale, you play the role of Sora, a young boy who lives on a small island and dreams of exploring the world beyond with his two best friends, Riku and Kairi. He has been having visions of creatures known as the Heartless, who have gotten loose and are spreading through the skies, wiping out every world in their path. Itís Soraís destiny to wield the keyblade, a mysterious weapon that can stop the Heartless. It doesnít take him long to confront these monsters, get separated from his friends, and start a quest to save countless worlds across the galaxy.

Sora quickly meets up with Goofy and Donald and starts their journey from world to world in search of their friends. Most worlds are based on a Disney movie. This includes recent movies like Aladdin and Tarzan, as well as classics like Alice in Wonderland. Thereís also a couple other unrelated worlds that are developed specifically for the game, and the surprising inclusion of Halloween Town from The Nightmare before Christmas, which isnít a Disney movie but is a very inspired choice for this game. In many cases, the plotline of the movie is matched up with the plotline of the game, making each worldís story a bit of a mish mash of both. In almost every case, this works very well. Youíll find yourself facing off with Captain Hook, battling his legions of Heartless while fending off his attacks and flying around like Peter Pan. The battle ends exactly how the movie Peter Pan did, as Captain Hook runs across the seas being chased by the crocodile. Itís just as goofy as the movie was, but you still canít help from getting a smile on your face as you watch it and remember the first time you saw that scene in the original movie. In the few cases where the world doesnít use its movieís plot for inspiration, the story still nails the feel of the movie perfectly.

Square is known for the graphical polish on their games, and Kingdom Hearts is no exception. Each world looks just like it should, and each character looks like they were ripped right out of their respective cartoon and plopped right into the game. Even The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was animated with stop motion puppets, looks spot on as a videogame. No matter where the character comes from, he or she is rendered perfectly.

Unlike Final Fantasy, all of the action in Kingdom Hearts is in realtime, and is pretty entertaining throughout. You start pretty weak, but your skills ramp up quickly as you level up. While you do collect summons and magic spells, youíll get the most mileage by hacking away at the Heartless with your keyblade. Fortunately, battles arenít always just won by wailing away on the X button. Several enemies require some skill to pick out their weaknesses, and many of the great boss battles in this game are surprisingly difficult. You have to be careful to not just wander into a battle swinging away, or youíll find yourself at the Game Over screen. Donald and Goofy are AI-controlled, though you can tweak their settings a little, and are very useful in battle. Donald is a magic-user, and is good about casting defensive and healing spells on Sora. Goofy is a good defender and attacker, with a lot of hitpoints, so he makes an effective tank throughout the game.

Beyond Donald and Goofy, most worlds will give you the option to add a new character to the group to use in that world. Most of them are competent fighters, though you might find that you canít do without Donald in your party. Youíll also collect other Disney characters as summons, including Simba, Tinkerbell, Mushu, and Bambi. In each world, youíll run into hosts of familiar faces from Square and Disney. Each cameo is a treat, and several of your favorite Final Fantasy characters may just try to challenge you to a fight. Itís with a lot of love that each character is presented, and the regularity with which your favorite characters are introduced keeps the game fresh throughout.

While the character roster is impressive, it's the voiceover talent that will make your jaw hit the floor. Many of the cartoons' original voiceover artists reprise their roles, including James Woods as Hades, Chris Sarandon as Jack Skellington, and Sean Astin as Hercules. In the cases where the original actor wasn't used, the voice actors used still sound terrific. As the Genie, Dan Castellaneta does the best Robin Williams impersonation that you'll ever hear. Even the new characters have some star power as well, including Haley Joel Osment and Billy Zane. Haley Joel Osment turns in a great performance as Sora, and captures Sora's mix of innocence and fighting spirit with all of the skill that you'd expect from an actor as gifted as he is.

Given that so much of this game is a reminder of the kid in all of us, it's a bit of a shame that the gameplay isn't geared towards a child. An experienced gamer won't have much of a problem beating Kingdom Hearts, but the controls and enemies are far too complex for a younger player to take on. For example, very early in the game you'll encounter a type of rotund Heartless who's impervious to attack from the front. You have to hop over it and hit it from behind, or jump up and smack it in the head. As it wears down in health, it will start charging at you and can do some major damage. This isn't terribly difficult to counter, but a youngun would get repeatedly wiped out and have to call for mom and dad to step in and take care of it. It would have been nice for Square to add an easy mode that would allow a young boy or girl to tackle the Heartless.

Navigating the menus in Kingdom Hearts is not exactly easy to do, and in the heat of battle becomes frustratingly difficult. The way the menus are set up, you're expected to be able to drill down several layers to pick the proper spells, items, or summons while you're in the middle of combat. In a turn-based RPG, this would be an acceptable setup. However, all of the action in Kingdom Hearts is in realtime, so diving through a menu while you're also dodging, attacking, and blocking incoming fire is virtually impossible. A few shortcuts are available for spells, but some more user testing would've helped Square realize that using items and casting spells is just too much to ask the player to do while fending off the Heartless' relentless attacks.

The camera is another feature of Kingdom Hearts that should have spent more time in development. It is simply awful, and requires more babysitting than a newborn with colic. You'll find your thumb constantly moving to the right thumbstick to get the camera focused on something other than the wall. At best, the camera is a nuisance during platforming. At worst, it will cost you your life during a boss battle. You can lock onto a particular enemy, which does give the camera a better idea where to aim. However, it never quite keeps up with where the enemy is, and you'll still have to do a quick visual sweep to find out where you're supposed to be attacking.

Despite those few shortcomings, Kingdom Hearts excels brilliantly at mixing the best parts of Square with the best parts of Disney. What's more impressive is that this game keeps the epic feel of Final Fantasy even though the gameplay is totally different. While Kingdom Hearts isn't perfect, its heart is always in the right place, and the blemishes can be easily overlooked.

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Community review by skrutop (August 02, 2006)

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