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   Kingdom Hearts II - Staff Review  

Putting the Laughter in Slaughter
by Cortney Stone

BATTLE SYSTEM
INTERACTION
ORIGINALITY
STORY
MUSIC & SOUND
VISUALS
CHALLENGE
Variable
COMPLETION TIME
30-35 hours
OVERALL

4.0/5

Rating definitions 

   Kingdom Hearts was the little crossover that could. When Square Enix announced its partnership with Disney in creating a role-playing title based on a mix of Final Fantasy games and Disney films, skeptics jeered and longtime fans scratched their heads. Nearly five years later, Kingdom Hearts II has arrived in North America, bearing promises of outdoing its predecessor with better controls and a richer story, and -- perhaps the most incredible of all -- being two and a half times longer than Kingdom Hearts.

   In this sequel, Sora, Donald, and Goofy have returned from their oblivious slumber following the events of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. The dawn of their new adventure is streaked with the shadows of lurking Heartless along with the new threat of Organization XIII and the Nobodies. The trio of friends must dive deeper into the meaning of the heart, the complication of light and dark, and the mysteries of the interconnected worlds. The story of Kingdom Hearts II consists of some original content and many Disney stories rewritten due to the interference of the Heartless and the Nobodies. A fresh round of Disney stories appear in this game, and the few revisited worlds of Kingdom Hearts offer satisfying continuations of their respective Disney tales. There is also the heavy layering of distinct Kingdom Hearts content -- the issue of hearts and interconnected worlds -- and the overall result is a story full of heartwarming moments, silly humor, and plot twists. The story has a few dragging moments, odd perplexities, and campy bits, but the good far outweighs the bad, and it certainly surpasses the stories of other recent games.

   In between the bouts of silliness and boggling plot twists, there's much fighting to be done through the significantly improved battle system. The option to bash away still remains, but it is far better to take advantage of the new ways to fight: reaction commands with the triangle button, the Drive system, continuous aerial combos, and character combo attacks, better known as Limits. While all are mostly for fun and efficiency in combat, reaction commands can sometimes be critical, particularly in boss fights. A reaction command may unleash a powerful coup, or break or counter an enemy's devastating attack. As the game progresses, reaction commands become more of a necessity. There are a few points where one absolutely has to use reaction commands or face the consequences of a slow fight, a failure, or a brutal death. Overall, fighting is a lot more entertaining this time around; it can be extremely enjoyable at times.

Not the same klutzy kid he used to be Not the same klutzy kid he used to be

   Kingdom Hearts II is a real treat for the eyes. The worlds are quite wonderful; with the exception of Timeless River, which has its own brand of monochromatic charm, the colors and designs are very vivid and mostly true to their Disney originals. The game's menu adopts themes to fit each world, so each world completely saturates the screen. It's only one of many small special graphical touches in the larger aesthetically pleasing picture of Kingdom Hearts II. Another nice touch is that Sora's battle animations are quite amazing. He moves like an acrobatic honed fighter, somersaulting and twirling, no longer hindered by the adolescent awkwardness seen in Kingdom Hearts. It's also worth noting that Sora as a lion, fighting acrobatically with the Keyblade clenched in his teeth, is one of the most endearing sights in the game.

   In addition, a great soundtrack and quality voice acting surround these visuals and enhance the game overall. Remixes of Disney themes and music from the first game make up a portion of the soundtrack, but these are largely excellent, with the exception of the Olympus Coliseum theme. The new music for Kingdom Hearts II is certainly worth listening to, particularly the boss battle themes. Sound effects are consistently great, and voice acting is mostly good. Some voice actors are truly outstanding; only two voice actors are awful, but they show some improvement later in the game.

This game runs on happy faces! This game runs on happy faces!

   Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts II is not a completely great game. It is a mixed bag of failure and success in interaction. On the positive side, the camera can now be operated by the right thumbstick and the perspective is also higher up and further behind, meaning one can see more of the surroundings. There are also new abilities to equip and try out, and more armor and equipment slots and pieces. Sora can even equip more than one Keyblade to assist his Drive forms. Traveling via Gummi Ship is now a thrilling, twisting, turning joyride through space, and the shipbuilding system sports a sleek, less-confusing interface. The Moogle synthesis system has also been expanded significantly, offering an extensive item creation experience through leveling up and collecting even more recipes and materials than before.

   On the negative side, pesky minigames crop up here and there, including an extremely infuriating required one appearing at the worst possible time. Fortunately, some minigames are avoidable. The horrible Atlantica rhythm game and the mediocre tasks of 100 Acre Wood may be completely bypassed. It's sad to see the charm of these worlds marred in this manner, especially since the 100 Acre Wood games in Kingdom Hearts were actually fun.

   The greatest letdown, however, is that Kingdom Hearts II is not the game Tetsuya Nomura promised it would be. The original boast of it being two and a half times longer than the original is simply untrue. The main story takes approximately thirty hours to complete. The total game time may be beefed up with the overwhelming number of trivial time-killing side activities required to complete Jiminy's Journal and unlock bonus content in Standard mode. Nevertheless, this does not make the game as big as it should have been. In fact, Kingdom Hearts II is limited in some respects when compared to the first game. Worlds are too enclosed, too small, too flat, and too easy to clear. They lack the exploration and interactivity of those seen in Kingdom Hearts, where you could play with Jack Skellington's doorbell or walk on the walls and ceiling of a room in Wonderland in miniaturized form. There is also very little climbing or platform jumping, and the thrill of discovering hidden treasures has been mostly eliminated. While one could use magic or Trinity abilities to uncover secrets in the first game, chests in Kingdom Hearts II are mostly out in the open, with a few tucked in small corners.

   In spite of the flaws and limitations, Kingdom Hearts II is a great game. Failure to meet developer hype is not a detracting quality of the game itself, although the fact remains that more could have been done with it. Still, it's charming and intriguing, and it ends wonderfully. More than anything else, it's fun, and that is what a game should be.

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