Applause must be given to Square Enix and Disney for taking a chance with the original Kingdom Hearts. Taking both the family friendly series of the Disney movies and combining these with some of the dark themes of Final Fantasy must have been a risk.
Square Enix must have wanted a game for the family while having some of the themes that Final Fantasy seems to have, while Disney wanted a family friendly game that not only respected its franchise and fans, but also wanted to make sure that Square Enix, who was still Square at the time, didn’t get too dark and violent with the game. It took a team of both parties to find that perfect balance to make the original Kingdom Hearts work.
Kingdom Hearts came out for the PlayStation 2 in 2002 and upon release it was a massive success. Combining the worlds of Final Fantasy and Disney was something I don’t think a lot of people saw as a likely success. But the combination of a likeable new cast of characters, the exploring of the Disney worlds and solid gameplay helped not only garner it one of the highest selling games on the PlayStation 2, but one of the most beloved. While it did have issues among gameplay and padding towards the end, it was still a very good game with promises that the best was coming.
(photos taken from the HD remix version)
Then something happened that I don’t think people saw coming. The next game in the franchise, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, released in 2004, was not going to be on the PlayStation 2, but on the Nintendo GameBoy Advance. It was something that just doesn’t happen all that often, a vital story that continues on the overall plot in another exclusive and on a handheld no less. It wasn’t that the GameBoy Advance wasn’t a popular system at the time; it was that such a pivotal chapter in the Kingdom Hearts saga was in a handheld system and not on the PlayStation 2. Whenever a franchise releases a game on a handheld it’s mostly because it’ll be a side story or a spin off for fans to play as the main game is being worked on. You would want your main story to be in a main console, like the PlayStation 2.
It must have been weird knowing that whatever Kingdom Hearts II was going to be about, it would start in a confusing way as if you started reading a book from the beginning only to skip the next few hundred pages. After Chain of Memories was released the waiting for the next installment of Kingdom Hearts began.
The next game in the series, Kingdom Hearts II, was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005 in Japan and 2006 in North America. Square Enix promised that the gameplay would be better and the story would be expanded upon from Chain of Memories. Today, is Kingdom Hearts II the best game in the series?
Kingdom Hearts II starts in what is considered by many to be the longest intro to all of gaming. For me it took nearly three hours just to see the title card. The worst thing about it is that some of it is pure filler that makes no sense in the overall plot. Photos are stolen, completing side jobs to get money and learning about mysteries of a place you’ll never see again just keeps that introduction going and going. On top of that, because this is set right after Chain of Memories, the game introduces new characters and requires that the intro catch everyone up who never played the past games or those who need a refresher.
The whole intro is long and drags. You don’t even get to play as the series hero, Sora. Instead, you play as a completely new character named Roxas. You play out the final days of summer vacation as Roxas and his friends try to do their best to make the final week worth remembering. But as the days go on, Roxas is experiencing memories that aren’t his and some odd things begin to transpire. Eventually, he learns the partial truth and you go back to play as Sora. This is when Kingdom Hearts II truly begins and once it does, it doesn’t let go.
Once Sora is in control, the story picks up and it feels like the game didn’t miss a beat from the original. I would have to say that if Roxas wasn’t there, you could easily skip Chain of Memories, but considering that Roxas is a vital character to the overall Kingdom Hearts plot, he can’t be skipped. After you get your bearings and some help from Yen Sid from Fantasia and the three fairy godmothers from Cinderella, the quest truly begins. Unlike the original where the main goal was to find King Mickey and Sora’s friends, the new goal is to stop an exclusive group known as Organization XIII. Along the way, they learn more of what happened to Kairi and Riku, Sora’s friends, after the events of Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories.
The game sets you up with different characters and worlds. Some you will return to like Halloween Town from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Agrabah from Aladdin, to new worlds like Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean and The Land of Dragons from Mulan. For the most part, you will return to worlds you’ve already been from the first game and that is quite disappointing. With all the Disney properties that were out there at the time, it would have been great to see the game with a lot more worlds to explore on. And with Disney owning LucasArts, Pixar and Marvel they have no choice but to make more worlds for future installments.
While the lack of new worlds is disappointing, the gameplay makes up for it. It’s a cross between JRPG and hack-and-slash gameplay. Most of the time you are just pushing the X button repeatedly, but as you progress through the game, you’ll get new abilities and more Disney characters to summon to help you out. I never saw the summoning all that useful.
The only ones I found useful was Peter Pan and Chicken Little. The abilities are a highlight and the more you have the more attacks Sora can do. The Guard ability is pretty disappointing. It takes too long for it to get your keyblade up and once it does you can’t hold that position, pretty much making blocking attacks nonexistent. The window for the guard to be useful is so small that I didn’t even bother with it.
There are enemies in the game called Nobodies and when you fight them, you have a command reaction that will quickly let Sora get around the enemy dealing in more hits. This should have been a universal move for all the characters. There are certain enemies in the game where you can’t attack from the front, but from the back. With that command reaction in a separate button, it would have made battles more dynamic and unique instead of pressing X nearly all the time. While this may sound like I hate the gameplay, I don’t. I was just hoping for more from the combat. Thankfully, the abilities you do gain let you pull off more powerful and flashy attacks that make each battle exciting.
One scene in the middle of the game gets you face to face with a thousand Nobodies and it’s one of the most exciting parts I’ve seen in a game in a while. The fact that Square Enix manage to do something this epic on a PlayStation 2 is a testament to how talented the developers are at Square Enix, or at least Square Enix at the time. I’m hoping for something that will top it for Kingdom Hearts III on a PlayStation 4.
The presentation, for the most part, is top notch. Everyone is fantastic and each world feels like the Disney movie counterpart. I didn’t play on the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Final Mix version for the PlayStation 3. This is from the original release on a PlayStation 2 using component cables on a HDTV and even that was a great looking game. I know that the HD looks even better, but the original is no slouch.
If there is one thing that is off with the game it’s that the Pirates of the Caribbean music and voice acting feels off. You have this big orchestrated score that is fantastic throughout only to have the Captain Jack’s Theme on synths.
It’s quite jarring when it happens. The other thing is that Captain Barbossa is the only character to sound like Geoffrey Rush, but that isn’t saying much. The voice acting in the Pirates world isn’t bad, but it sounds nothing like their respective counterparts. And the fact that Steamboat Willie’s world has an old film static filter over the soundtrack shows how poor the way the Pirates of the Caribbean was handled; thankfully they fixed most of the problems in the HD Remix.
Unlike Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II doesn’t feel like there was any overly long padding involved. There is this one sequence before you fight the final boss, when you have to fight another boss. That boss is clearly there to pad out the game and easily the worst part of the game. It doesn’t make sense to have this boss.
It took me around 30 hours to beat Kingdom Hearts II, but the most heartbreaking thing about it is that you can’t take all your new keyblades, abilities, summons and drive gauge into a new game. This makes doing all the side stuff pointless to me. Unfortunately, it’s a tradition games refuse to give up on today. If you want me to continue playing your game well after I finish it, carrying over the upgrades and weapons I collected is a MUST. And for some bizarre reason, I can’t go back to the main menu after the Battle Report screen. This made me believe that my copy of Kingdom Hearts II had frozen. I even went back to beat the final section again.
One of the confusing aspects of Kingdom Hearts II is its ending. There is no cliffhanger, no big mystery that warrants a sequel. It ends in a way that is both satisfactory and definite. It wasn’t until I watched Gametrailers Kingdom Hearts: Timeline is when I saw that, yeah, a sequel is needed. It seems they didn’t see how big this game would become and created new games to not only expand on the story once more, but lay the groundwork of what is to come in Kingdom Hearts III.
The Verdict: 8.5 out of 10.0
In the end though, Kingdom Hearts II is a great game that borderlines on fantastic. A few annoying enemies, too long of an introduction, an out of place boss, some weird production decisions, and the inability to not carry over your stuff to a new game keeps it from being a fantastic game. And honestly, if I could carry over my upgrades and keyblades, I would forgive everything else.
If we are lucky, Kingdom Hearts III will be out in 2017 and if that release date is 2017, it’ll be my most anticipated game of that year. I don’t have a PlayStation 3 anymore and I wish that Square Enix would release both Remixes to a PS4. I know that Kingdom Hearts 2.8 HD Remix is coming in 2016 for the PlayStation 4, which comes with a HD version of Dream Drop Distance, but if they announce a mega-pack for Kingdom Hearts that has all the HD Remixes for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, I will be getting it for PlayStation 4. It’ll be a while before Kingdom Hearts III comes out and if you never played any of the series before, I would recommend that you do.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Jesse Webster is a Senior Writer for MONG and wants to settle a score against Matador.