Wednesday, 20 April 2011

When Toei Met Nomura - A kingdom Hearts II Review

Back in 2001, two great companies aligned for the project of a life time. Something so epic, so heart felt, and so action packed, that it would make Star Wars look like a contrived children’s show. It’s good for Lucas that they fell short of the mark - but only slightly.

Together Disney Interactive and Square Enix gave birth to ‘The Kingdom Hearts Project’. A game series that followed the world travelling exploits of Sora, a plucky young hero gifted with Square’s signature gravity defying hair, and Disney’s a-typical none threatening weapon. He was followed around by Donald Duck and Goofy, and taken under the tender wing of Mickey Mouse.

Super Villain in the making, AKA:
A young Kamiki Ryounosuke

If you ask me, the kid is doomed to be the next psycho serial killer, but what do I know?
Along the way he would run into classic Disney characters, and fight alongside some of Square’s greatest (read: Emo) heroes, all the while searching for his lost friends, and inadvertently saving the worlds from cute little black things, called Heartless.

All in all, it was action packed, fun and engaging, and full of so many saturated colours that by the end of it you feel like you just sat through a Beetles induced head trip. It was great!
However, I was more than a little cynical when I saw it sitting on the shelf, shiny silver cover glinting in the artificial light of my closest EB Games, like some rejected Pokemon card. It looked so innocuous, so unassuming. That and I’d seen Donald Duck, Goofy and, of all things, Mickey Mouse looking morose on the cover, staring dramatically into the distance, like any battle hardened anime character learns to do by episode 2.

I rose my brow in little more than contempt. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought as I reached out to take it from the shelf for a closer look. Nothing can possibly be that dumb.

It was the beginning of a deep and eternal love. I kid you not.

1. Plot

The game follows on from Kingdom Hearts I, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (the most obnoxiously named game ever), once again revolving around Sora as he attempts to save the multi-verse, and several wayward Disney characters from the threat of total annihilation imposed by the Men in Black. Though it is a more mature plotline than its predecessors, it still retains the same Disney fairytale quality.

Men in Black - Oh, and one compulsory woman ...

Sora jumps from world to world, trying to find clues about strange people in black cloaks as well as find his still missing friends, Riku and King Mickey, master of the Universe (Whoever came up with this idea should be shot, now - it’s creepy, and scary, and he vaguely reminds me of George Bush). We see the return of many of the worlds from the original game, as well as a few new ones, though I will note that the diversity of the worlds is reduced from the first game, making for a more compact plot.

Unfortunately Cloud Strife is still in the game, being as angst ridden as ever, but what can you do? At least he looks vaguely adorable while doing it.

2. Game Play

Square is known best for creating Japanese RPG’s, and, to tell the truth, Kingdom Heart’s fit’s the bill completely. It’s a free-roaming Action/Adventure RPG, with a hack and slash style of combat.

The fight system is based on real time game-play, using abilities learned at every level to produce tactical combo attacks depending on button combination. There’s also the inclusion of ‘Drive Forms’, a state of combat that will temporarily make Sora faster and stronger.
The game, as an RPG, is also party based, allowing the player to fight alongside two CPU’s, whose attacks and tactics can be altered from the main menu. The game also offers Guest party characters, who can used instead of Donald and Goofy on particular worlds.

There is also the option to use ‘reaction commands’ during certain fights, that trigger special attacks or cutscene attacks, dealing more damage to the enemy than usual.

I will note that the controls in this game are far more polished than those in Kingdom Hearts I, and subsequently easier to use, though personally I don’t think that detracts from the challenge of the game.

3. Art Direction

Most people look at the cover of this game and think ‘pshaw - it’s just an anime with Disney characters’, and well… they’d be both right and wrong. The majority of the game revolves around Disney’s style, and even most of characters taken straight from Final Fantasy have under gone a redesign to fit their surroundings far better. In all it makes the game take on a childish yet slightly surreal look. For one I’ve never seen people with feet that big in my life - how do they walk!?

As far as cut scenes go, most play out in the style of a Disney movie and several are made to directly mimic the film they’re based upon. In all, while nothing special they’re easy to watch and in most cases entertaining.

I have had some people say to me that they find this game hard to play just because of the colour palette, and truthfully I can see why. The colours are bright. Not just ‘oh hey, every things happy’ - in some cases they’re bright enough to blind you for life (I’m fairly sure that Hercules glows). While it adds to the childish nature of the game, I do think it’s harsh on the eyes. As for lighting… Well. I’m not sure their design team’s discovered the meaning of that yet.


Mickey, what is that pose?

In all, I’m quite fond of Kingdom Hearts II, I have to be honest. I certainly enjoyed it more than it’s predecessors (The fact they’re supposedly ‘cute’ hero stands there and makes subtly sarcastic comments through parts of the game helps).

I love the game play - it’s probably my favourite aspect of the game, and rivals Zelda in it’s medicinal use for stress relief. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching small, adorable, black, chattering bug-things from the beyond fly through the air with pained little squeals as your protagonist yells ‘Take this!’ whilst diving at them with an oversized key.
Unlike most people I’ve encountered who like this game, I also have a love of the ‘Reaction Commands’. Yes I know a lot of people consider them cheating, that they made the game too easy. Personally, I just enjoy watching several Disney villains die in kick-ass cinematic take downs, before everything goes into slow motion.

On the other hand, I found the drive forms mostly useless and a tad defunct considering you can’t use them in half the boss battles that they’d come in handy for. It was fairly awkward to switch between drive forms as well, as you had to search through two menus to select them. Then in order for them to remain effective through out the game, you had to take the time to level up each Drive Form. There were five of them. Six if you count Anti-Form - the only redeeming thing about the drive system, and even then, only because they put way too much thought into it (Seriously, it‘s on a cumulative points system, affected by which forms you use, when, and how often).

Story wise, I quite like this game, the plot line is fairly in depth but still easy enough to play without really having to think about it every second. It’s got several compelling characters, and interesting twists to both plot and worlds (Including one world where the entire system is based around songs, of all things). However, even I can admit it’s utterly childish at times, not that that’s a bad thing, though.

Art, bah… Art. Someone should really, and I mean really, tell square feet don’t work that way. Every body has clown feet! Some even have flippers, for crying out loud! I’ll also be the first to say, that in some areas the animation really isn’t great, and that’s understating it, however, in contrast, half of the game has Pixar level animation so…

This isn’t a game for people who want grim dark, no matter how in depth and serious the plot line gets, the over all nature of the characters just wont let it get that bad, even in the games that have followed. It is however a game for people who are Disney fanatics, Final Fantasy fans and all round want a great, easy to play game with ups, downs and bad songs. Oh, and a healthy love of power rangers as a kid would help too.

I’d give this game an 8 out of 10, for sheer audacity and cute factor. That, and one day, Sora will take over the world - and worse, we’ll like it.

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