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Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2) artwork

Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2) review

"Disney and Square. It seems like a video and mainstream match made in heaven. One is a giant in the movie industry, famous for their children’s movies that have entertained generations, monopolistic policies that endanger the lives of poor workers in third class countries, and for introducing some of the most memorable characters ever by way of world class animation. The other is a giant in the video game industry, famous for bringing roleplaying games, formerly a pursuit of just the hardcore..."

Disney and Square. It seems like a video and mainstream match made in heaven. One is a giant in the movie industry, famous for their children’s movies that have entertained generations, monopolistic policies that endanger the lives of poor workers in third class countries, and for introducing some of the most memorable characters ever by way of world class animation. The other is a giant in the video game industry, famous for bringing roleplaying games, formerly a pursuit of just the hardcore geeks and nerds, into the mainstream of all video game players (translation - lesser geeks and nerds). However, in Kingdom Hearts, it’s clear that only one company is living up to their end of the bargain.

Kingdom Hearts focuses on Sora, a young adolescent from the aptly named Destiny Island. You plan on sailing out from Destiny Island on the urging of your friends Riku and Kairi. Before you can depart though, a black storm full of creatures known as the Heartless ravages the island, and swallows the entire island up. You manage to escape somehow, and find yourself in Traverse Town, a sort of bastion of lost souls. Of course, your friends are lost, and with your new buddies Donald and Goofy (who conveniently meet up with you in the town), you set out to find them, and the source of the Heartless. Will you ever find them, or will you be forced to become a headless frozen head in a jar much like Disney’s cryogenic founder?

You travel from world to world, meeting up with other classic characters. Peter Pan, Alice, Ursula, Tarzan, the Beast, Belle, Hercules, Hades, and Ariel are but a few that you’ll meet. Not wanting to disappoint Square fanatics, midget-size versions of Wakka, Selphie, and Tidus are around, along with old standbys Squall, Aerith, Yuffie, and Cid. The Final Fantasy VII Cid. A few characters are missed though; you never get the chance to explore the Magic Kingdom, where Queen Minnie and Daisy live, and certain characters like the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and everybody else from Beauty in the Beast were axed from the game.

The story is straight out of a Disney movie: something horribly clichéd, done a million times, stolen from countless other titles, and generally reeking of simple dialogue and Afterschool Special moral decisions. This suits the E for Everyone rating that Kingdom Hearts received very well; the story is straightforward enough for anyone to understand, and with the Disney license, it of course appeals to children.

Of course, all of this childish appeal is eliminated by the often hellish gameplay. The action of Kingdom Hearts is very similar to an old Super Nintendo game, Secret of Mana. Think of the newer Zelda games, such as Ocarina of Time: an adventure game, where you wander around, slashing things with a giant key. Now, add some roleplaying elements in. You know, a hit point meter, experience points, magic, equipment, a full three dimensional environment, all the things the freaks with the pocket protectors want. And hey, while we’re going crazy with Disney’s characters, why not have Donald, Goofy, and other treasured Disney icons take up the fight also? What could *possibly* go wrong?

The answer is everything. No aspect of gameplay in Kingdom Hearts is done remotely perfectly. It is a colossal failure on Square’s part, seeing as they provided the majority of the programming muscle for this game. A flawless implementation of presentation values by Disney goes for naught while Square punts the ball out of the end zone. Never before had I been so disappointed with the gameplay in a Square game. And yes, I have played Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VIII, and Romancing Saga.

Where to start on this gameplay monstrosity? Well, why not at the most noticeable part – combat. Combat takes place wherever you happen to meet enemies. No separate screen or battlefield is loaded. A small menu in the lower left hand corner displays four options, which are attack, magic, items, and the always special, well, special. The left analog stick is used to move your character around the battlefield and your foes, while the right analog or control pad is used to shift choices on the menu. A small yellow cursor appears over the Heartless of which you will attack (if you choose attack), although an option to “lock-on” a certain opponent available as well.

The first big problem with this is that it’s hellishly difficult to use items in battle. Attempting to dodge enemy attacks with the left analog stick while going through three menus to use a potion on yourself to heal with the right analog stick requires the hand dexterity of a ferret eating trouser snake. If that line made any sense to you, then perhaps you’re the sort of gamer that would enjoy Kingdom Hearts. Adding to this large problem is that being hit by an enemy while using the potion will cause the entire process to be thwarted. You can try again, assuming that you survive the next blow.

Compounding problems is the elusive fourth menu option. This is used primarily for area effects and combo attacks. However, forget about using more then one combo; a fifth box does not appear. The combo option usually only flashes when appropriate, and also requires magic to use. This makes it practically worthless, since your magic is better spent on curing yourself.

Did I say magic? You bet I did buckaroo! Magic is the second option, although it is much easier to “bind” (as they say in computer lingo) a spell to your L1 key. In-game help details this process. Magic doesn’t play nearly as big of a role as you would expect in a game with characters primarily from the Magic Kingdom. Your magic meter is never large enough to get more then a few spells off, and by the end of the game, attack magic is virtually useless. It becomes a failsafe for healing, and for occasionally whittling down the hit points of a Heartless.

The targeting aspect sounds perfectly reasonable. It isn’t, due to a camera that causes more motion sickness then a Richard Simmons backrub. Locking on to a target will provide you with a severe case of whiplash when the Heartless start bounding around like middle school kids without their Ritalin fix, which all of them do. Auto-targeting doesn’t really help, as it still forces you to follow the same enemy around, flailing like a turtle on it’s back the second the creature walks out of range. Button mashing that hasn’t been seen since your sister fought against you in Mortal Kombat 2 reigns supreme in order to vanquish boss characters. And if you thought this paragraph contained far too many analogies and similes, just bear with me while I fume at the artificial intelligence.

Goofy got his own movie. Donald didn’t. I have surmised that this sole reason is why Donald insists on dying every single time a Heartless breathes on him in the game. The chaotic pain of not receiving a staring role, while other lesser stars such as Goofy and his own nephews (Huey, Duey, and Luey, the Ducktales movie) carry lackluster films, has obviously thrown him into a deep depression. This case of the doldrums is so deep, he offers absolutely no resistance when enemies strike him, and he actually seems to delight in his demise; why else would he refuse to gain any sort of respectable hit point level as the game continues? Sadly, his life is only continued by the “potions” that his good buddy Goofy infinitely uses on him, sucking away at your munny supply.

If there was an adjective better then “infinitely” for the previous sentence, I would enjoy knowing it, because that is the depths of which the stupidity of the characters in Kingdom Hearts stoops. Seriously. They never stop using expensive potions for no good reason, despite what customizable fight settings you use. They never stop rushing headfirst into battle, even if they only have a single hit point. They never hesitate to splurge all their magic in one battle with minor enemies when the boss lurks around the corner. They never stop making you slam your thirty five dollar Playstation 2 controller into the ground, reducing it into a substance not even suitable for pig slop.

Kingdom Hearts fans will insist, “Well, maybe the combat isn’t so tight. Maybe the camera has as much control as a Volkswagen Bug in a hurricane. Maybe Goofy and Donald should consider Hooked on Phonics instead of saving the world. But damn it, at least this isn’t a kiddie game because it’s really hard! SO STOP MAKING FUN OF ME FOR PLAYING A GAME WITH TINKERBELL IN IT!!! I’M TELLING MOM IF YOU HIT ME AGAIN!!!”

After I stopped hitting the little idiot, I would counter with a few vital points. The difficulty in Kingdom Hearts is not due to the actual challenge in the game. Rather, the challenge comes from dealing with all the flaws inherent in the gameplay system. Hey, if you’re trying to kill a boss with tons of hit points when he’s bouncing all over the room, giving you motion sickness with the targeting, while your helpers insist on using every single one of your potions the second you’re hit, well, then I suppose it is pretty challenging. This is what normal gamers call frustration, not difficulty. Besides, motion sickness vomit is the worst sort of vomit.

You might be thinking that Kingdom Hearts has the worst combat system in existence after reading this. And you would be correct. There is no redeeming value; it’s not fun, and it simply delays you from the enjoyment of interacting with the characters in the game. You might also be thinking to yourself that perhaps there’s a whole bunch of neat equipment and gadgets and mini-games that might save this wonderfully presented game from the trash heap of eternity!

Well, you’re wrong. Have ye learned nothing yet of the plague which is Kingdom Hearts? Your main weapon is a key. Not a bastard sword of undoing, or a death axe of massively ultra slaying, a freakin’ key. Thankfully though, the fact that the main enemies are the Heartless eliminates the would be plot hole of requiring a weapon that strikes fear in the hearts of enemies. At least you get a variety of keys; Donald gets a few different planks of wood (also known as staffs) and Goofy uses several shields of varying colors. Nothing like pine and a blunt metal surface to vanquish evil!

If the weapons weren’t bad enough, armor consists entirely of small stat bonus and elemental resistance “accessories.” The amount of accessories you can equip grows as your level does, but it’s still only around three or four (depending on the character) at the end of Kingdom Hearts. For a second though, think of the fragile young psyche of Sora. How can he possibly give his all for fighting the Heartless when he must worry about his accessories like a Malibu Barbie?

If you enjoyed the rest of the gameplay for some perverse reason, well then yes, the mini-games are a lot of fun. You can enter fighting tournaments at the home of Hercules, Olympus Coliseum. You can use gems and shards dropped by enemies to make more lackluster weaponry and accessories at the Moogle Synthesis Shop. The only entertaining side quest in finding torn pages which restore pages in the Hundred Acre Woods, home of Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, and the rest of the gang. When a demented clown who commonly reviews porn games insists that the only entertaining extra is a journey helping a sickingly sappy nice honey suckling bear find his friends, you know Kingdom Hearts has serious issues.

If Disney had not been involved in Kingdom Hearts, it might have been one of the most universally panned games ever. Honestly. However, they were involved. Therefore, the plushest, most lavish cartoon graphics that I have ever seen are present. There is no doubt that each character is who they claim to be. Perfectly rendered character models adorn every single aspect of gameplay, all fit to scale with their surroundings, nothing out of place. Mere words can not truly describe what Kingdom Hearts sounds like, nor can the still pictures which accompany magazine articles or the back of the case.

This rebuffing of gameplay failure continues to the aural aspects. Games with perfectly orchestrated background music, full length lyrical theme songs, and famous Hollywood actors providing the voices for characters they are known and loved for do not occur often. All are present in Kingdom Hearts. It is truly an audio and visual feast of epic proportions. Often, I was spurred on to finish the game solely on the basis of these values, wanting to see one more scene with Hades, one more adventure in Wonderland, one last romp through Neverland.

Kingdom Hearts is a good reverse argument to all the grizzled video gaming nerds, errrr, veterans, who insist that pretty graphics and audio can not save a game with shoddy gameplay. Despite stomach turning combat and the complexity of a Dr. Seuss book, Kingdom Hearts can still manage to entertain, if only for a little bit, regardless of it’s deep flaws.

sgreenwell's avatar
Community review by sgreenwell (January 16, 2003)

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