Kingdom Hearts was a strange concoction. Whoever thought wacky Japanese whatsits would go well with Disney's cabal of rubbery, bright-eyed characters? It's like mixing a bag of Skittles with a bag of M&Ms and unleashing unholy terror on unsuspecting party guests (how's that for alliteration?). Under scrutiny, though, it's a match made in heaven. Both Final Fantasy and Disney are wildly popular names in Japan and the various products trundled out before consumers in big wheel-barrows of capitalistic resplendence are a testament to their rampant adoration. The idea was pure money-in-the-bank. Looking even beyond the financial boon, history tells us that the two art styles have a surprising amount in common. Trace manga/anime style back to its modern roots with the works of Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) and you'll find he was influenced by Disney and other American cartoons of the era. Those more affected by Western animation style chide the Japanese for their doe-eyed depiction of characters while conveniently side-stepping the same oversized oculars of Mickey Mouse. To whittle this all down to a single point: Kingdom Hearts is less like Skittles and M&Ms; more like peanut butter and jelly. It's a combination that
. At least in theme anyway, but we'll get to that.
The original game left us on something of a cliffhanger. No real answers (but a few new details) were offered in the Gameboy Advance offering, Chain of Memories. Kingdom Hearts II's prologue treats us to events in parallel to CoM, following a boy named Roxas and his experiences in Twilight Town. Without giving too much away, he isn't really who he seems to be ! That's a shocker of a revelation for any RPG! Really, though, Roxas is a fairly likable character and while the prologue itself can take around six hours or more to plow through, it should be noted that you'll soon enough step back into the over-sized shoes of more familiar protagonist Sora. He returns to a world where the mysterious black-hooded members of Organization XIII are controlling new enemies known as Nobodies, noteworthy for their silver/grey sheen as opposed to the purple and black of the Heartless. You'll end up fighting both throughout your journey and their dual existence figures prominently in the storyline.
Some familiar characters return (like your ever-ready companions Donald and Goofy), but there are plenty of new faces to see and worlds to explore. Those worlds that reprise from Kingdom Hearts generally have you playing through the original story of the movie, albeit in a compacted version with all the dramatic scenes. New vistas are always more exciting, though, and Square-Enix deserves props for digging into the vast Disney vaults for some inspiration. Among the most interesting are worlds devoted to Pirates of the Caribbean, Tron, and the Timeless River. The last being a tribute to the monochrome glory days of Disney's early Mickey cartoons, including a Donald/Goofy/Sora makeover befitting the period. It's all quite fun visiting these places, but that brings me to a persistent problem I had hoped would be resolved after the first game.
Each individual world has so much potential, but many consist of a scant 5-6 rooms/areas (give or take a couple). You can blow through each world in about an hour and there isn't any room to explore. It often feels like you're being guided around on rails through a Disneyland ride rather than truly experiencing the characters and atmosphere each one has to offer. The same kind of disjunction can be found in the level design. You can't interact with anything in the background and long distances are traversed via a loading screen. Take one of the early examples in Land of the Dragons, inspired by Mulan. The army camp is two areas away from the top of a distant mountain and just the same from the Imperial City. It just feels so claustrophobic.
That aside, the battle system has been given a boost. The camera still doesn't follow the action perfectly, but it has improved somewhat. New additions include different Forms Sora can change into using Drive (a meter that builds up as damage is dealt/received) and special, context-sensitive attacks via the triangle button that will give you an advantage if you get the timing right. New partner-based Limit Breaks and exciting boss fights make battle even more fun and dynamic. Another area that needed its share of improvement are the Gummi Ship interstitials that you need to traverse in order to open up pathways to new worlds. They're a lot more enjoyable this time around and the construction process has been streamlined enough not to get too frustrating.
As with the first game, the presentation in Kingdom Hearts II is about as top-notch as it comes for a video game. The star power remains, with many of the actors who originally played the Disney characters reprising their roles. Teenage actors like Haley Joel Osment (Sixth Sense), David Gallagher(7th Heaven), and Rachael Leigh Cook (Josie and the Pussycats) fill in the roles from the Final Fantasy side of the universe. Even veteran actor Christopher Lee lends his pipes to one of the new villains, DiZ. All in all, it's a verifiably stellar cast and more than most Hollywood productions would hope to garner. What's more is that they aren't just there for show and end up adding quite a bit to the experience – the voice acting is absolutely awesome. Of course, it wouldn't matter much if the characters looked and felt like Pinocchio before he became a real boy. The animators were clearly up to the challenge, with models that look and move just as well as their 2D counterparts. There's no disappointment here. The music is exquisite, as well. The theme song "My Sanctuary," by Utada Hikaru, rounds out an excellent, dreamlike soundtrack that evokes just enough of the Disney magic while not being afraid to toss in the harder tones and rifts for dramatic scenarios. Rounding out the presentational package is a smooth GUI.
Kingdom Hearts II shapes up to be a pretty engaging game overall, even if it's mostly due to its charm. Level design and the battle system still need some tweaking, but it's hard to get upset over that when you start marking out over your favorite Disney/Final Fantasy character showing up. It does start to wear a little thin about 2/3rds of the way through when you have to start revisiting all the places you've been to before, but at the same time, there are plenty of things to collect and find that mitigate the regurgitation of content – completing all versions of the Gummi Ship levels, gathering all the different keyblades, item synthesis, Pooh book pages, and a bunch of other things too numerous to mention here. Even considering the flaws, Kingdom Hearts II is an excellent, fun, and whimsical game that once again proves how well Disney and Final Fantasy can play together.