Falls short of its predecessor
The "sophomore slump" is a colloquial term used to describe works in media which do not live up to previous debut work, either in the same franchise, by the same author or artist, and in many cases, both. "Kingdom Hearts II" is a perfect example of the "sophomore slump". It is not as fun, charming, or epic as its predecessor, and in many ways feels like a step back compared to the original "Kingdom Hearts".
"Wait a minute" , I hear you cry, this can't be a sophomore slump because it's the third Kingdom Hearts game. And you are correct: A "bridge" game was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2004 titled "Chain of Memories", which was meant to link Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. However, COM follows a different style of gameplay compared to the console games, so technically, KH2 is the second game to have the gameplay style of KH1. I would still have to consider it a slump, regardless if it's a sophomore or junior slump.
Anyways, back to the game at hand. Kingdom Hearts II, at first glance, seems like the perfect sequel. You have more characters, new worlds, a brand new story, and even some new gameplay features to spice it all up. However, a closer inspection of all of these elements reveals that they aren't as perfect as you would want them to be, especially if you were a fan of KH1.
Let's get the positives out of the way: the production values are still as good as they were, and in some areas, even better. The graphics are more detailed and fleshed-out this time around, and the game can have much more enemies and characters on-screen than before, as demonstrated by a mid-game battle sequence where you fight 1000 creatures at once. Again, the voice acting and music is as good as it ever was. Finally, I absolutely loved the Lion King themed world. In this world, Sora is, for some reason, transformed into a lion cub and holds the Keyblade in his mouth in order to attack. In lion form, Sora can run EXTREMELY fast, and can even drift around corners as if you were playing an arcade racing title. This is a great twist on standard KH gameplay.
Where did this game go wrong? Too many areas, but I'll start.
The story is incredibly confusing. The player doesn't even start off as Sora, they start off as a character named Roxas, who is voiced by the pop star Jesse McCartney (no relation to Paul). In these scenes, you will do such fun things as work random jobs and explore a boring city that's always at sunset. Then, in a "Matrix" style plot twist, you find out that none of what you are playing through is even real, but rather a computer simulation. The reason that you actually were in the computer is too confusing and unsatisfying to even remember. When you go to Hollow Bastion, there's a little town there that wasn't even mentioned in the original game. The game's ending is extremely unsatisfying. The story overall lacks the charm and joy of the original game.I will say, however, that the story did "get" me for one brief moment when it appeared that a major character had accidentally died, but the darkness of that moment soon, and suddenly turned back to light far too quickly.
There's more. For gameplay, a new mechanic called "Reaction Commands" was added. Basically, a Reaction Command is a context-sensitive special attack that is activiated in battle by pressing the Triangle button. You then execute the attack, by watching the cutscene of Sora attacking and pressing the Triangle button when the game tells you to until you are done. Here's the problem: That's all you do. All you are pressing for the entire duration of the event is Triangle. You can't screw up the event by pushing something else, but you can miss the cue and press it too late. Had they programmed the events to where you were forced to press different buttons at the correct points in time, then there would have been an element of risk and strategy involved in using the commands. Instead, you'll end up mashing the triangle button as much as the X button. This "feature" makes the combat almost insultingly easy compared to the first game.
Finally, the level designs have seriously gone downhill. In the first game, the levels were more explorable, and you had to look at the map in order to figure out where you were supposed to go next. Here, however, there's rarely any places where you can branch off of the beaten path and explore on your own. It is essentially a straight shot from beginning to end, and as a consequence, the worlds feel smaller than they were in the first game. This, combined with the combat, makes the game an absolute push-over in the difficulty department. I could probably count the number of times I died playing this game on one hand.
Finally, I absolutely hated the POTC themed world. Not only is it based on a franchise I don't particularly care for, it's based on a live-action movie as well, which causes the visuals in the world to take a dramatic hit compared to the more animated areas in the rest of the game. It's just so uncomfortable to see Jack Sparrow realistically rendered alongside a cartoon Sora and Goofy. There was also a world that consisted entirely of rhythm-based minigames, and while I LOVE rhythm games, the reward for completing this world was pretty useless.
The Bottom Line
KHII ultimately is not as good as the first game. The first title had a freshness about it, a certain "magic", if you will, that this followup, try as it might cannot capture. With its poor level design, easy gameplay, and lackluster story, I'm honestly surprised as to how anyone could see that this sequel is better than the original game.