Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary Reviews: Kingdom Hearts II

-------My Rating System-------

A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)

B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good or even great game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)

C(-)(+) A mixed bag. Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)

D(-)(+) Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase. (Sonic Heroes)

F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)


And so the Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary extravaganza continues. Today, we will be covering the second main installment and third game overall: Kingdom Hearts II. Ah, yes, I have particular memories associated with this game, especially leading up to the release. See, back in 2003, I didn’t frequent the Internet and thus wasn’t immediately aware of what games were coming out and when. Thus, I had my mind thoroughly blown one morning when my father awoke me to watch an episode of X-Play that he had taped that showed a trailer for Kingdom Hearts II – this one, actually. I couldn’t believe my eyes – suddenly, I was seeing a new, awesome-looking city. There were new characters, including a spiky-haired dude with two Keyblades – I swear, I couldn’t get over that – as well as another spiky-haired dude with two chakras who appeared to be battling the other spiky-haired dude. There were also numerous black-cloaked folks, a weird masked dude, stretchy white guys that I was pretty sure weren’t Heartless (which Mickey Mouse awesomely annihilated) and an amazing-looking new boss. The game looked like something out of a dream to my 7-year-old eyes. It was strange and, well, awesome to see that all of these new characters and enemies would be showing up in the sequel to what was then one of my favorite games of all time. I was overcome with excitement as well as immense curiosity as to what role they would play in the storyline of this new game…that wouldn’t be coming out until 2005. Oh, excuse Square, they meant 2006. Being the impatient little brat I was, I was filled with rage alongside hype until I finally got the game as a late present for my tenth birthday. Fortunately, it lived up to my expectations and became one of my favorite games.

Here’s why it’s still one of them.


(The below paragraph will contain spoilers for Chain of Memories.)

In Kingdom Hearts II, you begin not with Sora as you would expect, but with a new character named Roxas – he’s the guy with two Keyblades that I mentioned in the introduction. He’s just a normal teenager hanging out with his friends and trying to enjoy the last week of summer vacation, but unfortunately, things aren’t exactly going in his favor. He has dreams every night about Sora. He also seems to be the focus of a group of strange, white creatures who have started showing up regularly, a black-cloaked man named Axel and a girl named Namine, both returning characters from Chain of Memories. Roxas actually learns from Namine that these dreams are Sora’s memories, which Namine has had to put back to normal after changing them in Chain of Memories. This process has affected Roxas since he is actually a part of Sora and must rejoin with him so that he can become whole. This soon comes to pass and Sora wakes up to begin a new adventure. And this time, he’s not just going up against Heartless; there are now new enemies popping up known as “Nobodies”, which are the body and soul of one who has lost his/her heart. The lesser ones are commanded by the main villains, Organization XIII, many members of which actually appeared in Chain of Memories. On their way to strike down the Organization, Sora and friends find themselves once again caught up in the affairs of the various Disney worlds. Easily sidetracked, aren’t ya, Sora?

As usual, the storyline is fantastic. You’ll probably notice that Kingdom Hearts II is where the series’ continuity began to get quite convoluted, which some people don’t exactly care for. Personally, though, I actually appreciate the added complexity, finding that it makes the plot a lot more interesting, and everything else shines as well. The voice acting is superb and the characters are all really likable. This includes the new character Roxas, whose story is actually quite tragic and sad, and Axel is developed a lot more than he was in Chain of Memories, too. Oh, and the Organization are just as awesome as they were in Chain of Memories – even moreso, I’d say, if only for the fact that this game tells us exactly what they are and what they’re after. The writing does have a few more slip-ups than the original game, but not to the point that it’s worthy of complaint. Actually, for the most part, I found the writing rather good.

Aesthetically, Kingdom Hearts II fares pretty well. Graphically, it looks quite a bit better than its predecessor. Character models look smoother and the game makes use of more complex facial animations much more often than the first Kingdom Hearts. Simpler animations are still used, but mostly for side characters or for scenes where a character is far away from the screen. Environments also look better, and the soundtrack, once again composed by Yoko Shimomura with the vocal theme done by Utada Hikaru, is completely excellent. No more needs to be said.

So, with all that out of the way, let’s get into the gameplay. As in the first Kingdom Hearts, you’ll be spending most of the game exploring the Disney worlds and battling enemies with some rail-shooting segments on the side. We’ve got quite the variety of movies represented this time around, with some worlds returning and some being all-new. It is worth noting that, while some worlds do return, the experience will still be different as the layout is completely changed aside from a few landmarks, which is nice, and the storylines for the returning worlds generally follow the plots of the movies a bit more closely if they didn’t before. Anyway, returning, we have the worlds based on Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare before Christmas, Winnie the Pooh and Hercules – which is a good movie and I don’t care what any of you say. As for the new ones, we have Mulan (a personal favorite), Beauty and the Beast, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tron, and one of the most beloved of all, The Lion King. So yeah, be prepared. (Aren’t I so clever?)

Many of these worlds have little aspects that set them apart. Much of Mulan’s world, for instance, has you playing through missions in which you must keep the Morale gauge from fully dropping by picking up orbs dropped by enemies. The world based on Hercules once again features fighting tournaments – which are awesome – and the world based on The Lion King actually features Sora transforming into a lion himself, which completely changes his moveset. The Winnie the Pooh world, just like in the original game, is a kind of mediocre (and thankfully optional) mini-game world, and then we have the world based on The Little Mermaid. If you read my review of Kingdom Hearts I, you’ll know that I wasn’t quite fond of this world, to say the least. Well, in Kingdom Hearts II, it is…a rhythm game. Yes, in this world, there’s going to be a musical, and as such, you’re going to be playing music mini-games. I…never really cared too much for the songs of the movie myself – well, to be honest, I’m not much of a fan of Disney music in general, but that’s just me – and the songs they made for the game are just awful. I mean, “A musical for everyone to have a lot of finny fun”? Really? Not to mention that I can’t at all see how it fits into the storyline. “Hey guys! Let’s put saving the universe on hold to SING!” But eh, I guess the gameplay style is pretty inoffensive, and hey, it’s optional, so there’s really no reason to complain. It’s worth noting, by the way, that you will be going to each of the Disney worlds a second time. Each time, it continues the story that began in your last visit, and – I’m not kidding – it’s always at least twice as engaging as whatever direct-to-video cash-in that Disney threw together themselves.

Square: A black-cloaked guy with a cool name attempts to enrage the Beast so that he will turn into a Heartless.
Disney: Christmas and a villainous CGI pipe organ played by Tim Curry.

Square: Scar's ghost haunts the Pride Lands and Simba doubts himself as a king. Naturally leads to character development.
Disney: Romeo and Juliet. With lions.

Square: Jafar returns and Iago becomes a good guy.
Disney: Same as above, but with terrible writing, horrid animation and singing from Gilbert Gottfried.
As for how the game plays, it places the focus almost entirely on combat, unlike the first game. Platforming elements and exploration are still there, but aren’t nearly as emphasized. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the combat of Kingdom Hearts II is an absolute blast. It was already fun in the first game, but Kingdom Hearts II not only refines it, but makes it flashier, faster and a crapload more satisfying. Sora has become much more skillful with the Keyblade since the original game, giving him access to a ridiculous array of powerful Abilities as he levels up that are incredibly fun and satisfying to use, and combat in general is a lot faster and more fluid than before. While, again, it may come off as button mashing, it still isn’t shallow. You still have magic spells that you can use, and being limited in your Ability Points and the amount of items you can have equipped at once still add elements of customization and strategy. Oh yeah, and then there are the Reaction Commands. See, every now and then, you will be prompted to press the triangle button, which causes Sora to perform an action that may attack or daze an enemy or even let him use that enemy as a weapon. It works really well and it’s just another thing that makes combat that much more fun.

Oh, yes, and then there are the amazing Drive Forms. These actually gained a lot of prominence before the game’s release and for good reason: they are freaking awesome. Excuse me for regressing to a ten-year-old boy, but two out of those three Drive Forms let you use two Keyblades. At once. Mother of all that is good and holy, that’s awesome. Anyway, so aside from that, what are the benefits of these Drive Forms, you may be asking. Well, it sort of depends on which one you’re using. In Valor Form, Sora’s physical attacks become much stronger and much faster and he also gains a higher jump and some awesome finishers. However, this comes at the expense of being unable to use magic. Wisdom Form actually allows you to use the Keyblade as a gun, which is a bit weaker but allows you to use long-ranged attacks, and magic is much more powerful in this form. Master Form is the best one and you probably won’t use either of the others once you get it. It’s kind of like both forms combined, except better than both of them. Oh, and in Master Form, you can create a tornado that sucks nearby enemies in and causes them to take damage until they are finally thrown out and inevitably killed. The Drive Forms actually level up the more you use them, and some of the level-up bonuses are abilities that can be used to enhance Sora’s base form as well. Don’t expect to be able to use Drives all the time, though; the Drive gauge will constantly deplete as you use them and you will need at least three full bars of it to use Valor or Wisdom Form and four to use Master, so it’s not a game breaker. Regardless, the Drive Forms are a very fun addition to combat. Other additions to combat include a changed-up system for summoning as well as devastating Limit Breaks that consume all of Sora’s MP. I tend not to make much use of these, so I can’t really go in-depth on them, but I will say that they’re nice additions that some people may find worthwhile.

Oh, yes, one more thing: the rail-shooting Gummi Ship segments have been thoroughly improved since the last game. You are given a wider variety of weapons, they're faster-paced, there's more going on, and they're actually challenging this time around. Gummi Ship courses also offer extra missions now, and you can customize or even build your own Gummi Ship just like before. I still wouldn't quite say it's anything amazing, but it's pretty nice.

Kingdom Hearts II only has one problem, and that is the boss design. The first game’s bosses were actually really fun and even pretty challenging, but in this game, I couldn’t help but feel like most of them were pretty easy or even lackluster. The biggest offender, I’d say, is the battle with Jafar. For most of the battle, he just sits in one place and lets you bash on his head with some occasional weak or easy-to-avoid attacks. There are definitely some thoroughly enjoyable exceptions – I swear, the final boss of this game has to be one of the best ever – but, in general, I couldn’t help but find boss design to be a bit lacking.

The Good:

+ Fantastic storyline
+ Excellent voice acting
+ Awesome soundtrack
+ Several new worlds
+ Decent gameplay variety
+ Combat is amazingly fun
+ Drive Forms are a great addition
+ Gummi Ship has been improved a lot

The Bad:

- Boss design is generally a bit lacking


Playing through Kingdom Hearts II again was a really fantastic experience. I’d honestly say that the game is almost perfect. It’s an absolutely excellent game that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who enjoys RPG’s. Even if you’re not much of a Disney or Final Fantasy guy, there is a lot to love in this game. The next Kingdom Hearts game on the list is the first DS installment, 358/2 Days. See ya.

Grade: A

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