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SummaryThe brilliant partnership between Square and Disney produces yet another solid game.
The GoodLet me start off by saying that the first problem I mentioned in my review of the first game, has been fixed. Back then I addressed that I was not really a fan of young characters and even though Sora, Kairi and Riku weren't that bad, their childish behavior sometimes ticked me off. In this game all the main characters are slightly older and let me just say that they aged well. The best part are their voices, which are now fantastic and really professional. The design is a lot better too: Kairi now wears some more decent clothing and Sora no longer looks like he got his clothes from the bin outside the circus tent. To summarize it: This was a very minor detail, that vastly improved the presentation for me.
Also quite enjoyable is the fact that while the first problem I addressed was solved, the first praise I handed out is also still present. The fighting in Kingdom Hearts 2 is simply fantastic, it's fluent, fast and just a lot of fun. The addition of "Reaction Commands" is also very nice, the idea is that by pressing the triangle button and the correct time (such as in the middle of a specific enemy attack), Sora performs a cinematic ability that does a lot of damage. The best part about this quick-time event, is that you are not severely punished for messing up. You take damage instead and only rarely does it instant-kill you.
The biggest selling point to people however is likely not how fluent the combat is or how the characters have improved slightly, but the fact that there are a ton of new and nostalgic Disney movies to visit. The level progression is also very nice, instead of starting with old familiars, you get to do some completely new worlds first. Eventually you do find your way back to Agrabah and Halloween Town, but there are completely different stories going on there, so it feels a bit fresh again.
Aside from some levels you might have anticipated, such as Ancient China from the Mulan movie and Beast's Castle from Beauty and the Beast, there are also some levels that came as complete surprises to me. I was, for example, completely shocked when I suddenly found myself walking around the freaking Pride Lands as Lion Sora. I'd love to go into more detail, but hey, they wouldn't be surprised if I'd spoil them.
Graphic-wise the game has also improved, which is especially sweet since I already called the first game "one of the best, if not the best, looking game on the ps2". The most notable update are the faces, which on reflection looked kind of uncanny in the first game. The HUD is also a bit different and by default it changes in theme based on the level you are in, which is a nice little touch. There were also some levels that had a different kind of animation than the standard Disney style, one of which was originally live-action, and these were also neatly presented to us.
KH2 also provides us with a good update to the enemy roster. Not only do the ever as lovely Heartless get a lot of new units, but there is also a whole new faction to fight. "The Nobodies" might not have as much charm and variety as the Heartless, but they are still fun to fight in a different way and their more Humanoid leaders proved to be intriguing villains. Unless you plan to grind, you won't find yourself killing a lot of the same enemies over and over again, and that is a real good thing.
One thing that Kingdom Hearts 1 never managed though, was to provide me with scenes that genuinely got my adrenaline pumping. Some parts were frustrating and the final boss had me quite tense, but I was never really 100% immersed into the game. While Immersion is definitely not the strongest part of this series, there were a few moments and the Battle for Hallow Bastion in particular, where so much story-events were happening at once that I lost complete awareness of my surroundings and could only notice the game itself and my heart pounding with excitement.
The Gummi flights which earned some vicious beating from me in the past, have really been improved in this game. In the first title, they were just kind of bland and thoughtless. You just had to go forward in your insanely slow ship and hold down X to kill everything. This time around however, the flights are fast, filled with different enemies and even challenging. Flying around feels more like Starfox 64, but mixed with the races from F-Zero. I also like how you unlock new blueprints by doing well in these flights, so you don't have to make your own ships or buy blueprints if you don't want to.
Unlike the flying sections though, the overall gameplay had its difficulty turned down a notch, which is an improvement you can only grasp if you actually played the first game. KH1 was plagued with some downright insane boss-fights that were preceded by long cut-scenes that you had to watch every time you died. I managed to beat this entire game and every main boss by simply going through all the story missions, I never had to stop and grind for hours on end or waste brain cells trying to comprehend the Synthesis mechanic.
Finally, I'd like the praise the journal in this series. I never really talked about it before, mostly because I forgot it was there in the first game (as with Jiminy as a whole), but this time I did stop and take a look every once in a while. The book nicely records your overall progress in each world, which is especially useful after picking the game up after a long break from it. The book is also slightly out-universe, so it describes events and characters in more detail than you actually discovered and in some cases Sora didn't even discover at all (such as some things that Roxas did).
The BadLet's start off where the game does to, the opening cut-scene. Seriously Square Enix (and Disney), these opening songs are starting to get booooooooooooooooooooring. I am not a big fan of JPop, but I could respect the opening montage in the first game to a certain extent. Now that i have played every single game in the timeline (up until KH2 and with the exclusion of Birth By Sleep), these songs are starting to get incredibly grating. I just want to start playing and seeing as how these scenes have little to no relevance to the actual story (though this around they do show some scenes from Chains of Memories).
After that we open the game with Roxas and boy does this mean the start of the four most boring hours of your life. As Roxas you don't really get to do much, you are no longer a badass member of Organization XIII, you are a boy on summer vacation. While there are a few scenes where you fight stuff, the three and a half hour that are left are spend doing chores for some money, making homework and learning just how much Twilight Town sucks (if that wasn't already apparent after 358/2 Days). And after four hours where does all this stuff lead to? NOTHING, you just trade Roxas with Sora and only two or three events you took part in are ever addressed in the rest of the game.
I am sorry, but I just can't get over it how much this game made Roxas suck. He has some scenes after the opening hours, but the damage was long done. I also warned people back in my review of 358/2 Days that I was going to bitch like hell if Xion was not addressed anywhere in the story and 'lo and behold, she is nowhere to be found. The series has this weird habit of making the entire universe forget about characters when they die under certain conditions and this is just shooting yourself in the foot because characters having to deal with the death of a friend is much more interesting than characters not remembering a fellow character and therefore not giving a damn.
Okay, so you might wonder what, besides the first four hours of the game, is wrong in Kingdom Hearts 2. The answer is: Relatively little, but let's go over it anyway.
Story inconsistencies are nice to start with because there are a lot of these. I won't go over all of them, but the one that bothers me the most is how Maleficant is brought back into the story. She is dead at the start of the game, but then she is brought back because. and I am serious here, some people remembered here. This wouldn't even be catastrophic if she wasn't mentioned and thus remembered a hundred times before this happened. Another thing that doesn't really work me is the Destiny Islands because now there is suddenly a whole mainland just off-shore, granted this was mentioned briefly when Sora sees Kairi's and Riku's boat, but give me a break, the world was called "The Destiny Islands" and everybody referred to the world as an island. Finally, there is the "Proof of Existence", which is a room that shows which members of Organization XIII are still alive. A nice idea, if it wasn't for the fact that it was a big deal that some members MIGHT have died during an operation in 358/2 Days and nobody knew who.
Whoever is in charge of designing the weapons and armor also needs to learn how descriptions work. The statistics of all the items are there, but most weapons have a side-effect that is often more important than the actual strength and magic points. However, these descriptions are just too ambiguous to help you decide which one to use. Quick lesson here: "Activates during a critical moment", among a lot of other similar statements, means absolutely nothing. If it is open for interpretation, then you have clearly failed describing such an essential part of the game.
Early in the game and quite a few times afterwards, there was the tendency to throw a lot of tutorials at me, none of which I ever remembered. Not only does a pop-up filled with text take me out of the experience, but it's also a terribly way to get me to memorize it. Throw in some visual hints during gameplay and let me play out the tutorial instead. I was just very annoyed when I wanted to do something like switching the magic spells on my quick-select and not knowing how to do that, or having to shut off the system in the middle of a boss-fight because I needed a character I didn't have in my party and I couldn't remember how the swap characters mid-battle.
Organization XIII is an interesting group of characters and because they are so colorful, it would have been a lot more fun if we got to battle all of them in one solid game. Some of the really cool ones, like Marluxia and Vexen were already taken out in Chains of Memories, which is even worse because Chains of Memories is barely playable. However, I would not have minded if we didn't fight them at all either. What I mean is that I never really figured out how the Organization is in any way evil, they are just a group of people with a common problem, working towards fixing it and improving their lives. Their methods might not always be very ethically correct, but nobody is going to tell me that Demyx and Luxord were genuine bad guys. I also never really saw where Sora made the connection that XIII is bad and judging by some of the lines, it seems more like unintended racism to me (as in the writers accidentally wrote out racist scenarios).
The Bottom LineThere is a lot to say about Kingdom Hearts 2, but in the end I can only say that it's a really solid game. While the game has a really tough time getting started, once it's moving forward, it becomes a very enjoyable whole. The overall story and the stories in each individual world are really interesting to follow, gameplay has remained just as fluent as the first game and has even improved slightly and graphically its all very good. There are some nitpicking issues with the story in the game and series as a whole, but most people will likely ignore or not even notice these.
While a lot of people might be attracted to a story about travelling to different Disney Worlds, the audience for this game is cut down severely due to the fact that the game is fairly entrenched in the Kingdom Hearts lore. Some themes get barely any explanation and Jiminy's journal doesn't have any sort of summary for the previous games in the timeline. However, if you liked the first game, then you will almost certainly like this one. I can practically guarantee that!