What’s in a franchise? Does it lead to the degradation of creativity and originality? When does a franchise stop being a derivative of itself? Can the mixing of 2 different franchises lead to something so unique that the consumer would sell their first child to play it? These questions were asked by gamers, critics, and of course, the developers themselves, when Kingdom Hearts was first being introduced to the populace. Fans of the Final Fantasy franchise had their jaws drop at the first trailer of the game, some awe and some with disgust. Even the mention of the “bastard” hybrid creation of Square and Disney seemed to cause a high level of nausea among the RPG elite. Disney? Can that be right? Mickey Mouse shooting the breeze with Squall; Yuffie eating honey with Winnie the Pooh; Sephiroth drinking martinis with Hades, the Olympian God of the Underworld? What is the industry coming too? Was it just blatant use of intellectual property to increase profits? Were Disney and Square a new secret cabal bent on sucking all the money dry off of FF addicts and Disneyland Year-round pass owners? These whirlwind of questions surrounded the release of Kingdom Hearts.
The so-called "unholy blend" |
Yet, the storm of questions also brought a hint of change in the air. RPG fans from the older generation, slowly gravitated toward the Kingdom Hearts game cases and outspokenly commented on how “it’s their little brother’s birthday and guess they should buy this for them, you know, kids like this Disney stuff”. Although older fans may have been reluctant to praise the game outright, many critics flocked to preach the gospel of Kingdom Hearts. Younger gamers new to the RPG scene now had a game in which they can easily get into and then slowly become victims to the deep dank world of Japanese RPGs. It seemed that Kingdom Hearts had the right mix in their martinis to even please “THE Bishonen” of the FF World and the God of the Underworld himself. Although there were glaring faults within the game, they were easily forgiven by the intensity of the harmonious bliss created by the fusion of Disney and Square.
Now, it seems that this new franchise within a franchise has become a franchise itself. Kingdom Hearts 2 was highly awaited after an open-ended KH1 ending and cryptic fore-shadowing done by Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Unfortunately for many gaming forums, the “Wait”, caused an increase of sophomoric debates over what really happened to Sora and Riku. Expectations ran high for both fans and critics.
To those no indoctrinated to the world of Kingdom Hearts, I’d like to spend some time recapping the story:
Sora is the main character who lives with his best friends, Riku and Kairi, on an island well isolated from other “worlds”. Out of nowhere a powerful darkness engulfs their tiny island, which causes all of them to separate. KH1, chronicles the adventures Sora encounters while in search for Kairi. His venture leads him to meet up with Donald and Goofy, sent by King Mickey to investigate the growing threat of the heartless (the darkness created by people’s hearts). It seems that the Universe is made up of different Worlds that are not normally accessible to each other; each world representing a particular Disney movie. Yet, due to the heartless phenomenon, a door to each world has been open and each world is slowly being engulfed by the ‘great darkness’. Sora and crew later find out that the main goal of the heartless was to capture and collect the hearts of a select number of Princess Hearts from each world. Kairi, being one of them, has been captured to have her heart taken, which will lead to the opening of the world called “Kingdom Hearts”. This particular world is where the great darkness lives and once it opens, it will engulf the whole universe in darkness. Sora saves the day of course, but unfortunately sacrifices his own heart to save Kairi. In regular Final Fantasy fashion, the hero slowly disappears to the world unknown, leaving his love ones wondering what happen to him. I won’t get into the story, any farther than this. For a game that seems to market itself to little children, the story is highly complex, with some philosophical diatribes thrown in for good measure.
So, what happened to the hero? Well, it seems like he fell into hibernation stasis, slowly trying to gain back his memories with the help of an enigmatic blond girl named Namine. Now it becomes apparent that KH: CoM wasn’t just a marketing ploy to steal your money. The game actually explains what happens to Sora under his 1 year hibernation period, in which he reenacts certain past situations in COM. But if you didn’t play COM, you don’t have to worry, because Sora also doesn’t know what happened to him during that hibernation period, a side-effect caused by Namine. However, I do recommend people play the game or if you’re too lazy, read the script from Gamefaqs.com. It's really a must, since it explains who Namine really is and little bit about the infamous XIII Organization.
Kingdom Hearts 2 starts off with the player controlling another enigmatic character called Roxas, who is utilized as a "training character" for people coming to grips with the game for the first time. At first, he doesn’t seem any different from other ordinary 15 year olds, as we join him as he and his posse roam the streets of Twilight town trying to clear their tarnished name. We then later find out he is no mere teenager, but something more complex - maybe something not even human.
The tutorial part of the game ends after Sora, Donald, and Goofy awaken from their deep sleep, what happens to Roxas for the rest of the story is a spoiler and I’ll leave it to your imagination. Sora must not only defeat the Heartless from each world, but must also uncover the truth about the new heartless “Version 2.0”, called Nobodies. These Nobodies seem to be controlled by a mysterious group called the XIII Organization, which seems to be pulling the strings this time around. The black hooded members seem to know much about Roxas’ past, and happen to have some intricate plans concerning Kairi.
This time around it seems the characters are much faster at putting 2 and 2 together. The main character is no longer a country bumpkin, new to the ways of the world or in this case multiple worlds. Story-wise the game seems to be ready to baffle the players with intricate plot twists and outrageous revelations. The overall story is one of the strong points of Kingdom Hearts 2; by adding the secret organization, the game begins to shape itself into a more serious story-driven RPG. The only real weakness of the story is the world-trotting venture that Sora must take again.
The game story can be split into 3 parts: The Prologue, the Adventure, and the Climax. It's during the prologue in which we are introduced to the new protagonist Roxas and the secret organization. This is a very strong start for the game and lets the player know that this isn’t going to be the same old Kingdom Hearts. The Adventure section of the story is probably the weakest, although Sora’s return will be celebrated by many fans, the story really doesn’t move forward, and falls into a slump. There aren’t enough mid-way revelations or bump-ins with the Organization that will bait the player at edge of suspense. Although you’ll see Final Fantasy and Disney cameos along the way, it really doesn’t make for much pull.
Sora handles himself well in this incarnation of the series |
On the subject of FF and Disney cameos, I would like to express my amazement of the amount of Final Fantasy cameos. There is a lot more this time around, and to add gravy to the mash potatoes, they also fight along side of you during the plot transition, albeit for a short time, between the Adventure and Climax section of the game. The game also drapes itself with an even bigger assortment of Disney characters ranging in design styles. The new inclusions are characters from Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean; the unfortunate part is that the rest of the characters are recycled from the last game. With the exception of the new playable characters such as Tron and Captain Jack Sparrow, it feels as if you’re playing Kingdom Hearts 1 all over again; more on this later.
It isn't really until the Climax of the game in which the story opens up to the real mystery of the Organization and the origins of the Nobodies. At this point of the game, the kiddy gloves are completely taken off and the intensity of the situation is heightened by the XIII Orginization members. Each member has a distinct personality, which is represented in both their speech and fighting tactics. The focus is no longer on the Disney characters, but these original Kingdom Hearts characters. For good measure, the creators decided to give the players a well deserved ending wrap-up, but they also couldn’t resist leaving one little mystifying letter from King Mickey to Sora and Co.
Although KH is a game that bases itself on mixing franchises and using nostalgia to enrapture its players, its real strength resides on its ability to create original characters amongst the sea of commercial mainstream whores. The story may have lost its way during the middle of the game, but it gains back its sincerity through an insurmountable show of creative aptitude at the end. Veteran RPG fans will have nothing to be ashamed of when they get hold of this meaty plot.
To tell this moving tale of the heart, the developers took their skills to the limit. Working off the models of the past game, they brought it up to the next level. Square-Enix follows the same method of using low-res and high-res models interchangeably throughout the cutscenes. The low-res models are definitely an upgrade of the last game, allowing for more fluid motions and better details on facial features. However, when compared to the high-res models, it doesn’t even compare. It’s a sight to behold each character's mannerisms and body language. These more articulate limbed models proved that more attention was put into motion-capturing, which was done so well that the player can even tell that Sora has aged. His change in body language, although subtle, is well communicated to the player. The same goes with many of the other characters, each Disney and Final Fantasy character was given the same treatment.
The first Kingdom Hearts proved that Square-Enix had an able body of modelers and designers to bring the 2D Disney characters of the big screen to the world of video game entertainment. Kingdom Hearts 2 should be given the same amount of praise by raising the bar. Although there are situations in which high-res Disney models still lacked the detail of their Big-Screen counterparts, such models include Beast, Mushu, and Simba. With these exceptions it is hard to find fault in the game’s Disney creations.
Final Fantasy characters, on the other hand, were given more of a loose conversion into the Kingdom Hearts world. Cloud, Yuffie, and Tifa are put into their Advent Children garb, while Sephiroth, Setzer, Yuna, Riku, Paine, and Squall were given total makeovers. Squall's new model is definitely an upgrade from the last game. Stylistically he has a more mature look and gains back his Asian Mullet hair-style. Aeries sports a new wardrobe not seen before, but keeps the tradition alive with an altered version of her old-fashioned pink dress with big clunky brown shoes. As a long time Final Fantasy fan, I was glad to see Setzer (the gambling Air-ship owner of Final Fantasy VI) and Vivi (the introverted little black mage of Final Fantasy IX) to be introduced into the game and well converted into the style of Kingdom Hearts. Square-Enix definitely proved that they respect the Final Fantasy name and what it means to their fans.
|There is no shortage of mystery in Kingdom Hearts 2
I would like to take a moment to explain about the new Disney characters and world introduced into the series, Tron, Captain Jack Sparrow, and “Steam Boat Willie” Mickey Mouse are the major new characters that Sora will meet. These characters add a level of diversity to the overall Kingdom Hearts design style. Tron is the weakest example due to the lack of characters within the Space Paranoid world (an underlying fault in the series). Tron is represented in a very minimalist’s fashion, yet it represents the virtual world created by the movie to the ‘T’. Sora and crew are luckily adorned with Tron-influenced costumes, which look very fitting on them. This world overall is the weakest of the new worlds in terms of level design, yet, it is very important to the new revelations addressed to the plot, since It is after this world that the story reaches a turning point. For fans of the movie, a mini-game revolving the Tron cycle bikes is inserted into the Space Paranoids world.
In the case of Captain Jack Sparrow and the characters that dwell within Port Royal (based on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean), their distinct realistic styles clash with the overall theme of Kingdom Hearts. Although it’s nice to see that the graphic engine is able to handle realistic character models, it just doesn’t seem to fit nicely to the overall theme. Its drab colors make Sora and crew stick out like a sore thumb, or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way this is more of personal opinion and graphically it is well done. The world itself reflects this change in character design, gone are the simple colors and one-dimensional textures used throughout most of the Disney worlds. Yet, the colors used are not as vibrant and give a washed-out look to them. By the way, for you Johnny Depp fans, Captain Jack Sparrow keeps all his eccentric mannerisms and distinct body language intact, it feels as if I’m actually watching the original movie.
The Timeless River World, or what I call Steam Boat Willie World, brings the player into the world of 1930's animation. This particular world contains the, oh-so-famous Mickey Mouse. The world is separated into 3 distinct shows representing the old film Mickey Mouse shorts of the 30's. The designers really put their all on this particular level, the use of badly recorded sound and grainy aged film fit the overall design of the world and allows the player to feel as if he or she entered into the world of old-time animation. It is hard to describe this particular world and the designs used for the characters, to people who have not seen these old Shorts. You just have see it to understand how remarkable it truly is.
Overall there is a total of 7 new worlds added to the Kingdom Hearts 2: Twilight Town, Pride Land, Timeless River, Disney Castle, Beast’s Castle, Space Paranoid, Port Royal, The Land of Dragons and The World that Never Was. There are 4 old worlds in Kingdom Hearts 1 that were removed: Traverse Town, Deep Jungle, Monstro, Neverland, Alice in Wonderland, and The End of the World. This means that KH 2 has only 3 more worlds than what KH1 had, which really doesn’t add much to the play length of the game. Oddly enough, these new worlds are extremely short in both size and in play length. There isn’t much to do in each world and in some worlds there are only 2-3 sections to explore. What really adds to the length of the game is the necessary backtracking that needs to be done for each world at the Climax section of the game. After the Space Paranoids world, you are pushed to visit each world again therefore adding to the overall length of the game. If you just play the main storyline you’ll finish the game in just under 35 hours, maybe even faster if you rush it.
Short, small worlds are unfortunately a big check against the series. Added the feeling of emptiness to each world, just adds another ding to such a well designed game. The game makes you feel as if you are being pushed by an invisible hand through each world, since there really isn’t a time for you to catch your breath and take a look at your surroundings. This does have its benefits, since it doesn’t allow the story to drag and not cause the player to lose interest.
The world of Mulan is a great inclusion to the series |
Other than the much more dark and enigmatic storyline, the game also introduces a much more robust battle system that again blurs the line between RPG and Action games. We live in the time that its really hard to determine what is what, and it’s coming to a point that games are no longer categorized in clear-cut genres. With a now controllable camera and reaction skill button, the battles seem more dynamic. Although the reaction button may not seem that much of an addition, it actually allows for the player to change tactics depending on the enemy and situation. The reaction button plays a huge roll during boss battles, which basically allows the Sora to take advantage of the boss’s weakness. This makes battles a sight to behold, allowing Sora to do amazing gymnastics feats, while kicking the celluloid out of enemies. Everything about Sora’s movements feels right, and the controls themselves are highly intuitive, which is only marred by unfortunate camera control. You can control it now with the L1 and R1 buttons, but it still feels stiff. It is my personal opinion that the right analog should have been used for camera control. Changing the pitch would have added a much more natural camera movement. It is sure an upgrade to the past camera issues, but it still fails to reach player comfort levels.
Other than the changes stated before, combat controls have pretty much stayed the same. The left analog is meant for movement, and the digital controls are meant for navigating the in-battle menu. The use of shortcut keys (hold L2 and then pressing the corresponding button) was kept and not much modified. The only real change is the use of the reaction button (Triangle button), which allows for the use of summons, magic attacks, or co-ops during particular situations in battle without the need of pressing the shortcut button. This allows for a much faster battle pace than before. It almost feels like you’re playing a button mashing game, which at times I did during regular enemy fights.
What really adds to the battle is the inclusion of 2 new items of importance; a more robust/varied co-op system and the amazing drive abilities. The co-op system was used lightly in the past kingdom heart game, but this time around it takes to its full use. Co-op moves take up a full MP bar (the game regenerates MP automatically even during battle). Once co-op is activated, Sora will do an independent attack, while his partner does his own thing. These independent attacks vary depending on who he is partnered with. The third character in battle (this is 3 character battle system), will disappear during battle. A combo counter will start ticking off and at a particularly assigned number, the co-op mode will end. At the end of the co-op session both the Sora and his partner will do a team up attack. These attacks vary in cinematic quality, while some look like a limit-break on steroids, others are nothing special. The reaction button can help activate the co-op mode, but you can choose who you can partner with, using the menu system.
Drive mode allows Sora to combine himself with either Goofy, Donald, or both. There are 5 forms that he can transform into, these forms are: Brave, Wisdom, Master, Final, and Heartless. Each form has its own set of moves, which upgrade as you level them up. The game adds a new bar (aside from HP and MP) called the Drive Bar. The bar has be charged 3 times to transform to any of the forms. As you level up, the bar can be charged even more. The Brave form has a set of physical attack specials and combo upgrades, while Wisdom form turns the keyblade into a long range projectile weapon and gives him the ability to hover. These forms all have their pros and cons, however, these two forms are nerfed after you get the master form, which is basically a combination of brave and wisdom. The heartless and final form are another set of secret forms, that I won’t explain since they are tied very closely to the plot of the game.
These driver forms also include a new addition to the series, dual wielding keyblades. Dual wielding keyblades don't add much to the gameplay other than Sora's combos change in style; however, that is a good enough reason to dual wield weapons. The real reason why Sora is able to wield two keyblades is part of the story, which is necessary since according to the story there can only be one keyblade per keyblade wielder because each person only has one heart. I won’t delve any further into this since it’s very much a spoiler. These new set of moves per each form allows Sora to able handle the battle all by himself, which is a good thing since he will be without the aid of his AI partners after the transformation.
The only real weakness to Sora’s drive forms are the limit put upon how long he can stay in that particular form. As you level each form the bar timer increases, allowing the player to wreak more havoc. The way each form levels up depends on the type. Brave form levels up as you attack enemies, Wisdom levels up by defeating enemies, and Master form levels up by gaining Drive form orbs that increases drive form bar, which is necessary to transform. Interestingly, these Drive forms also affect the Geni Summon. Geni will randomly change forms that Sora currently possesses; all of this allows Sora to be demon in the battlefield.
The drive forms are a gladly appreciated addition to the series, the only real issue with the forms is that battles can be won without them. There is never really a need to transform to any of the described forms due to the relative easiness of the game. I ended up using the forms to only check what each form did; however I never found my self actually taking the time to transform, which is real weakness of the game. The game does so well in presentation that it flounders in gameplay due to how easy the game is. I decided to switch to Hard Mode (aka Proud Mode), and I notice a slight jump in difficulty, which I decided to stick with for the rest of the whole game, but even in Proud Mode I never found that much of a challenge. Sora, Donald, and Goofy were enough to handle the hordes of Heartless that faced them.
|The series never skimps on presentation
What adds to the decrease of the challenge is due to the better AI. In the last game I always had Donald using too much magic and dying on me, yet, this time around he never died once. Goofy and Donald understood their job better and can handle things by themselves. Also add to the fact that MP regenerates after battle and then refills after the battle, Sora and crew are never out of MP for their magic or attack skills. Witht he MP bar almost always being full, Sora can now be the magic wielder this time around. The only time Sora doesn't have enough MP for magic is during summons. The MP bar has to be full for the Summon to occur, and when it does the MP bar slowly depletes, which ends the Summon. During the Summon stage, Sora is unable to cast magic, but this doesn't matter since the Summon and Sora can handle things by themsleves. Add all these together, you have a very powerful character.
In the positive side, the player can choose to play in many different ways, but because the lack of difficulty there is no reason to mix things up. Players can easily play the game without really using summons or Sora using either drive form or magic. Most fights end up with Sora just doing physical keyblade combos, Goofy doing his shield attacks, and Donal healing when necessary. The real difficulty came from the optional boss Sephiroth, who gives you a keyblade worthy to be called the Fenrir. Extra fights like the Underworld colliseum fights were not much of a challenge, especially when you compare it to the KH1 colliseum fights. I normally don’t ding on games whose difficulty is on the easy side (since difficulty is so subjective); however, KH2 is undeniably easy and it definitely takes away any need to take advantage of the new systems introduced to the series.
Other than an upgraded combat system, KH2 developers also went to work to increase the quality of the gummi ship mini-game. The gummi ship mini-game was horribly slapped on in KH1, yet this time around it is actually enjoyable. The mini-game no resembles what I should have been, a decent shooter that allows you to upgrade you ship with different parts. Parts are awarded after each mini-game or during the destruction of of enemies. These parts add speed, firepower, homing shots, and shield upgrades. Yet, there really isn’t much of a reason to upgrade your ship, since getting from world to the next doesn’t bring much of challenge.
Item synthesis is a new addition to the game that really doesn’t add much to the game at all. Item synthesis allows you to make useful items like potions and ethers, and the occasional armor. Item sythesis is very easy to and their is no worries of failing. Unlike Star Ocean 3's item sythesis system, it is a very simple system that allows for the combination of 2-3 items to create a new item, without the need to worry about crafting skills like alchemy, smithing, or cooking. Complete-ists will have a hard time understanding why they should farm the areas for items since most of the items of the game can be found or awarded by defeating enemies. It's very hard to find any good things to say about KH2's item sythesis, since it doesn't give much to the game at all. Maybe the developers should have learn a less or two from the SO3 development team. The only real reason to do item synthesis is to the gain the most powerful weapon in the game, that being the Ultima Weapon. Getting the Ultima weapon isn’t easy, and find the items necessary to make it takes a lot of work. There are those who argue whether Fenrir is better weapon than Ultima, but it doesn’t really matter since both can be used during the drive forms.
Will Square have more for the series in the future? |
While on the subject of keyblades, I’d like to bring up that keyblades play a much bigger role in the world of stats. Some give Sora a special attack, while others just increase combo hits, attack stats, or magic stats. Some keyblades are better than others, but it all depends on how you play. If you use a lot of magic, then a keyblade with magic +2 modifer will be in order; however, if you are like me, a keyblade with Strength +7 is right up your alley, even if you have to sacrifice HP and magic. Since Sora can dual wield, you can mix up keyblade combinations. Each keyblade has its own distinct visual style, which adds even more to the quality of presentation in this game.
Presentation is what Square-Enix does best, and they definitely don’t hold back when it comes to music and voice acting. Each actor does his or her best with each of their characters, and the voice actors from Final Fantasy: Advent Children play their own respective roles in KH2, while voices actors from the last game also come back to their respective roles. The new actors voicing the XIII Org and Roxas also do a superb job, but please keep in mind this is all refers to the Japanese version. The real issue with voice acting is odd liberal interpretation Japan took for the Disney characters. Growing up with Disney (although I hated the movies when I was a kid), imbedded some type of adverse reaction toward a Japanese speaking Mickey Mouse. It took some time to get use to, but it grows on you. Seeing that this will change in the American version, I expect many players to have a level of nostalgia toward these Disney characters. Without the usual English voices it’s hard to generate any type nostalgia toward the characters, which to me is a good thing since it doesn’t add an artificial variable to the quality of the plot and presentation to the game.
Square-Enix also does a great job with music. The new theme song Passion by Utada Hikaru produces a mix emotion of hope and despair that mimics the attitudes of Sora and Co. There has been some talk over whether Hikari (Japanese version of Simple and Clean) is better than Passion. Although Passion isn’t as upbeat as Hikari, it does have a more adult feel to it and a level of complexity that matches up with the darker plot. Either way, Utada's song successfully adds to the emotion impact of the series. There are those gamers who don't understand the importance of a good theme song, but to this reviewer, a good theme song can help reflect the overall theme of the game to the player, and might help strike an emotional cord in the player. A game’s music always sticks to player if it is done correctly. There isn’t one J-RPG gamer that isn't emotionally moved by Aeris' theme song, or the Opera theme from FFVI. Utada gives the KH series a needed theme song that is hardly forgettable and will always been seen as the KH2 theme.
There are certain video game melodies that become part of the historical fabric of the video game culture, and this particular theme will have the pleasure to be part of it. The English version will be a different matter. Passion has already been translated in English and is being sung by Utada. I haven’t heard the English version, but I have a feeling it would sound very similar to Bjork's singing style. Whether this will affect the emotional impact of the game is to be seen. Each world has its own Disney score and does very well to mimic the original feel. The rest of the music in the game does a nice job to keep up the adult complexity introduced by Passion. It is really hard to see any fault with KH2’s music, it is just done perfectly.
I had a hard time reviewing this game due to how much I really loved the game. It did everything that a RPG should do, and that is to draw the player into the world - it did just that with me. This game screams perfection, but because it tries so hard to be loved that it unfortunately falls flat in some areas. I’ve expressed that difficulty is a subjective matter, but it is really hard to just let that slide. KH2 does it best to give a player a much more upgraded experience, but the newly added game mechanics are never given enough time and motivation to shine due to the lack of importance it has in KH2’s combat system. The easy boss battles and simple AI make battles into a ONE button mini-game. The combat system isn’t as shallow as it was in KH1, but you never see a reason to take advantage of all the added new feature. This makes it seem as if combat is simplier than what it truly is. It is my personal belief that its difficulty was toned down to allow younger players to enjoy the game, this may or may not be true. Yet, combat isn’t the only aspect of an RPG, it’s the story and its presentation; and KH2 does a great job there.
KH2 is a good example of a mainstream RPG, that being so, entails for different features to take the forefront instead of others. It’s a mainstream RPG that lacks the difficulty that veteran RPGers are looking for, but it does make enough strides to allow veteran RPG fans to enjoy what the game offers. Those new to RPGs won’t understand my apprehension toward the game, but that is understandable. KH2 has to be taken for what it is, an Action – RPG(lite) with a strong plot and high production values. Everyone owes it to themselves to the play and finish the game, whether or not they find the game too easy. Don’t let anyone change your mind from playing this game, play it yourself and enjoy the experience.
Copyright © by Anime-Source.Com All Right Reserved.