The keen reader may notice by now that I did not begin my entry today with a twenty-page instructional guide on the cleaning, gutting, and harvesting of sperm whales. Odd as that may seem, I have a very solid justification for that decision; nobody wants to read boring irrelevant shit just to get to the interesting part of the article. Likewise, my primary criticism of Kingdom Hearts II stems from that same philosophy. Normally in a game that involved a substantial amount of story, I’d begin by describing a brief summary of the most relevant points of the plot. However, this game doesn’t really have any. The overarching plot once again focuses on Sora. Once again, the primary conflict involves the race of Heartless swarming through the ragtag amalgamation of worlds that any other game would have the decency to call a galaxy. Square-Disney introduces a mechanic in which a strong-willed person who becomes a Heartless actually separates into a Heartless and a “Nobody,” which as you can surmise from the name, also has no heart. The strongest of the Nobodies have formed an organization to protest that they have no right to exist, and Sora must stop them (yeah, I’ll get to that later). So slide your disc into your PS2, select the “New Game” option, and then prepare yourself for the non-stop thrill ride of watching some other kid spend his last week of summer vacation in the most average, mundane way possible…for three solid hours!
While I feel Kingdom Hearts II generally improves upon its predecessor, even in the area of storyline, the game needed plenty of editing. While the character Roxas needs an introduction, that introduction does not need to occupy the first three hours (two if you know the secret) of the game, and they definitely could have set either a faster pace or a less mundane story arc for us to follow. No one wants to whack a ball for a crowd endlessly in order to earn pennies toward a train ticket so Roxas can ride to the beach with his friends (which the game never bothers to tell you that you don’t actually need to do: your friends will make up the difference). See, unfortunately, once you pass that part, the game paces itself quite nicely, and since the first game appealed more to Final Fantasy fans more Disney, they instituted a darker, more adult storyline. However, in order to get that far, you almost need to have a fetish for the Lion King in order to summon up the patience to slog through this pointless hazing in order to get to the actual game.
The game itself plays quite nicely. They sped up the irritating gummi ship sections and got rid of the gummi ship builder from the first game that worked with the learning curve and intuitiveness of ancient Sumerian cuneiform. The different worlds feel larger and more fun to go through, and you visit most of them twice for shorter episodes. This game pretty much only suffers from the writing skills of a burgeoning romance novelist who recently suffered a series of strokes rendering the language portion of their brain as useful as a lump of mashed potatoes. I loved the moment when Mickey showed up like Yoda and went all epic-warrior-king on the heartless, but while the darker story makes it better than the original, their tolerance for “dark” ends with well-tanned guys with beards. Don’t believe me; try to find a copy of “Song of the South” on DVD.
Already a short game to begin with, they could have shaved probably 40 minutes off the total play time if they hadn’t insisted on every single character chiming in at least once with a chorus that names the protagonists. “Sora. Donald. Goofy.” Because the player might forget, and the game can’t keep our interest in any better way than by constantly reminding us of this, seemingly to the exclusion of actually giving names to the members of Organization XIII. I understand that the Tron world has to sound computer-y, but I feel someone at some point during the editing process should have caught the potential double entendre in Tron repeatedly talking about his many “user friends.” And ending each episode with “we did it,” “way to go,” or just a raucous chorus of laughter from a gathering of characters reminded me of the cliches that resonate through the creative writing class assignments of the most inept writers our language has to offer.
They didn’t get rid of the Winnie the Pooh world, but they made it more tolerable by comparison to the Little Mermaid level. Rather than swimming through the sea fighting Heartless, they turned it into a music/rhythm game. Still, that could work, right? Alan Menken’s genius score for the film certainly…what, now? They introduce original songs? Songs that first-semester musical composition students use for toilet paper. Songs that challenge me to find as many interesting ways as possible to say “bad writer” in one entry. You get to do “Part of Your World” and “Under the Sea,” but they’ve cut and hacked them like a drunken lumberjack so they don’t sound good anymore. They even marvelously missed the point of rhythm games, as the triggers don’t line up with any discernible beat in the music.
The first game ran with the idea that Sora couldn’t “meddle” with the natural course of events in any world, and merely had to get in, lock the keyhole, and get out. Kingdom Hearts II on the other hand has an ankle-deep puddle from trying to flush that notion down the drain as fast as possible. Sora deposes Scar, bargains with Hades for the fates of the dead, single-handedly rescues China from the Mongol hoards, and deletes both Commander Sark and the Master Control Program. Near the end, Maleficent appears, willing to fight off a swarm of heartless and allow Sora to go on to defeat the final boss (presumably for her), and when Sora protests, Mickey says, “They’re doing what their hearts command. We can’t interfere.” Unless, of course, they do something antagonistic, in which case they can interfere liberally. The final boss has his own heart’s command (never mind that he allegedly has no heart) and Mickey and Sora fully intend to interfere with him. And that raises another issue: The Organization of nobodies, according to the exposition, has no right to exist. They have no hearts and no recognition as people, and only want the same shot at life that everyone else has. In order to accomplish this, they need to destroy the Heartless. But the game tells us to fight them, so we must stop their, uh…evil?
Munny has as much value in this game as in the last: absolutely none whatsoever. The synthesis requires so many rare items that trying to level up your synthesis moogle garners the same wasted-time feeling as the game’s prologue. In a miserably failed attempt to make the menus easier to navigate, they’ve added “reaction commands,” triggered at special moments with the triangle button. While they look impressive in battle, they pretty much amount to just a fancy name for quick-time events, or in the events that occur outside of battle, slow-time. (I can’t tell you the hours of enjoyment I get from, instead of talking to an NPC, “approaching” or “persuading” them with the not-necessarily-timely use of a single button press.)
Magic has less relevancy than before, and I got to the end of the game before I realized I had never bothered to see what “magnet” magic did. Summon spells have a little more application than before, but still require navigation of convoluted menus in real-time, so Sora’s best option usually involves mashing the attack button and maybe hoping for a reaction command. They’ve added a “drive” feature, which allows Sora to briefly change form into…well, mostly himself, but usually much better at bashing enemies with his key club…I mean, “blade.” However, this relies on using Donald and Goofy’s power to make the transformation, and the game likes to remove them from your party on any pretense, making one of the most useful and interesting additions to the game completely inaccessible half the time.
But keep in mind that I focus on the negative because it makes more interesting reviews. I actually do like this game, and quite a bit. It seems geared more toward the Final Fantasy crowd, as I mentioned, which means you can find easter eggs, like naming all the regular nobodies after Final Fantasy III/V/Tactics job classes (although the fact that they can make the nobody dancer grab me, flip me around, bash my head, and toss me halfway across the battlefield, but the FF Dancer class usually trips over their own feet so often for the most mediocre effects that I won’t use it even as a challenge kind of pisses me off) I like the darker tone and the faster pace, watching Riku go through the mother of all awkward adolescent body changes, and having Jack Sparrow as a playable character. The story, while not well-written–the Disney movie worlds all have some lame lesson about hearts and no connection with the plot of the Organization–feels complete enough that I don’t really feel they need to make a Kingdom Hearts III (especially as they won’t release it for anything except the PS4). And let’s not forget that no RPG would feel right without a gigantic final boss monster and a fight on a field with no visible ground.