Kingdom Hearts II – PS2

Mickey Mouse: Bad Ass Warrior King

Mickey Mouse: Bad Ass Warrior King

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!

Hot tuna frittata?

Hot tuna frittata?

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.

And you'll stay there until you finish them all, young man!

And you’ll stay there until you finish them all, young man!

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 game gives Sora new duds for each world. This may not sell the game for them.

The game gives Sora new duds for each world. This may not sell the game for them.

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?

In case pressing X to attack strains your efforts, you also have the option of pressing triangle

In case pressing X to attack strains your efforts, you also have the option of pressing triangle

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.

It doesn't take much effort to see through Disney's attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a non-animated feature.

It doesn’t take much effort to see through Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a non-animated feature.

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.

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Kingdom Hearts – PS2

You hated him as an adult; now loath him as a child! At least this game also implies that he dies.

You hated him as an adult; now loath him as a child! At least this game also implies that he dies.

When you walk away
You don’t hear me say
Please, oh baby, don’t go!
Simple and clean is the way that you’re making me feel tonight.
It’s hard to let it go.

Sounds sexy. This music opens up the Disney-Square-Enix joint production, Kingdom Hearts, and when the dark tones start playing, you know that only a sleek, sexy story could follow. If these lyrics mean anything, you’ll never encounter any teeny-bopper heroes, cutsey cartoon characters, or teen idol singers signed under the Disney label. But seriously; have you ever listened to the lyrics to “Simple and Clean”? No one could have written them but the Langston Hughes of blathering nonsense.

Anyway, the story behind the game goes that after Square lost about fifty million dollars on “The Spirits Within,” a movie whose failure any Final Fantasy player could have predicted on account of it resembling a Final Fantasy game as much as the World Wrestling Federation resembles the book of Deuteronomy, they risked going under and had to sell the rights to many of their most famous characters, such as Cloud, Squall, chocobos and moogles, to the only organization that could afford them: Disney.  Suddenly owning all these video game characters, Disney puzzled over what to do with them, and finally decided, “Let’s make a video game?” Then they had to find someone with the expertise to make an epic game using Final Fantasy–and Disney–characters, leading them straight back to Square.

Played by a Billy Zane pissed off that they cut him from Back to the Future III.

Played by a Billy Zane pissed off that they cut him from Back to the Future III.

This story never really happened. But still, the concept of a game where the main character travels through a universe full of worlds populated with a bizarre potpourri of animation contains a brilliance and innovation only matched by its convoluted, mind-numbing confusion. The story opens with Sora and his two friends, Riku and Kairi. They live on an island that gets devoured by cutesy black monsters called heartless. They somehow tumble through outer space to land on separate worlds. Sora discovers his destiny to wield the “Keyblade,” a stunning swing-and-miss attempt by Disney to reduce the image of violence in games while still letting the protagonist use a sword, and Disney’s own Donald and Goofy task him with traveling from world to world, using the keyblade (more of a key-club, really.) to lock each one away from the heartless who want to devour those worlds too. And on the way, Sora looks for Riku and Kairi.

Anyone who has ever visited one of their theme parks (Tokyo Disneyland, 2008!) will immediately realize that Disney has always liked to think of their characters as coexisting in the same universe, so while the story feels a bit like a flimsy excuse to parade cameos in front of our noses the way my grocery store tries to entice me into buying their day-old pastries by stacking them up on tables by the front entrance, Disney does that. They buy into all their talk of “magic,” and they don’t view Peter Pan or Maleficent as any less fresh than Elsa or Simba or the princess from that kinda racist movie set on the bayou. Rather than look at it that way, I considered this game like one of those “re-envisioning such-and-such as an anime” videos you find on youtube. (Look up the one for Miyazaki films)

Most of the gameplay occurs in a hack-and-slash RPG style in which Sora mercilessly gives the heartless (and occasional Disney villain) concussions, contusions, and other forms of blunt trauma with his “blade.” Sora can learn skills, techniques and magic like in a Final Fantasy game, but the fast-paced active combat style doesn’t fit well with the menu system, which demands simultaneous use of the left analog stick and d-pad, and disables any useful right-handed action while scrolling through. I guess since I get through battles all right, I can chalk this up as adding challenge, but I don’t really admire heroes with narcolepsy, who slip into brief comas in the middle of battle. As a result, while Sora can perform neat attacks and spells, I almost only ever use the basic attack and the three spells you can add to a quick-cast menu.

Genie fighting monsters in a psychadelic whale bowel. Because it makes sense.

Genie fighting monsters in a psychadelic whale bowel. Because it makes sense.

While traveling between worlds, the game becomes an over-the-shoulder perspective space shooter. This accomplishes very little except padding out the game for time and adding useless junk to find in each world.  These segments mostly consist of holding the X button for a steady stream of lasers and wiggling the analog stick ever so slightly to prevent impaling your ship on objects that will do as little damage as possible, then let you pass right through them. After finishing the first three worlds, you get a warp drive that lets you bypass this part, making it even less relevant to the game. You have the option of making custom ships by collecting blueprints, finding gummi blocks, and putting together or customizing existing models. However, the default ship provides as much challenge as deer hunting via carpet bombing with napalm, and at that point upgrading to an atom bomb really won’t cause any noticeable difference. Plus, I’ve conducted Korean-language ATM transactions more easily than using the gummi ship building interface, an extra-convoluted program that rival Adobe products for being non-intuitive.  While the player can mostly ignore these gummi-Galaga sections, it does intrude on the main quest by making gummi blocks the most common prize in hard-to-reach treasure chests. So when you finally have the proper skills and abilities, backtrack to old worlds, and get the platform-leaping aspects (honestly, why does anyone still make platformers?) right, the game rewards all your time and effort with an item as relevant as a Playboy magazine at a strip club.

Do I get the adult, powerful, many-antlered Bambi? Nope. I summon a baby deer to aid me in battle.

Do I get the adult, powerful, many-antlered Bambi? Nope. I summon a baby deer to aid me in battle.

I don’t want to mislead you into avoiding this game. It does have good qualities to outweigh the bad. You get to fly in Neverland and you turn into a mermaid…er, mer–Sora and swim through Atlantica. You can summon Mushu, the Genie and…for some reason, Bambi (and not the adult, mega-antlered, fearsome Bambi. The young, little Bambi).  I did enjoy the half-dozen Disney heroes as playable characters, especially the Beast, and major Disney villains like Jafar, Ursula, Maleficent and Hades carry a certain amount of weight.  Since playing a Disney character binds you to them for life, most original actors reprise their roles; however, one absence stands out, and without Robin Willaims’ manic ad-libbing, I feel a little awkward every time the Genie tries to crack a joke, even Sora tries not to make eye contact until the moment passes. Then act three arrives and Square says, “Fuck this Disney shit,” the plot turns dark, and the rest of the game riffs on themes of darkness, despair, and nihilism.

Pooh (n), winny the: Small yellow bear with honey fetish. See also pooh (v)

Pooh (n), winny the: Small yellow bear with honey fetish. See also pooh (v)

Oh, and don’t forget the absolute necessity for any action-adventure RPG where a heroic warrior fights his way through demons to conquor encroaching oblivion; Winnie the Pooh. No really, didn’t Aragorn have to defend Minas Tirith’s carrot gardens from bouncing orcs? I think Luke Skywalker’s biggest test on Dagobah required him to free Yoda’s head from a honey jar.  Okay, so the Hundred Acre Woods level doesn’t fit, and I can’t quite envision Pooh as belonging in an epic fantasy story. Sora doesn’t fight any heartless; instead he just plays the lamest mini-games since blitzball.

Played by Lance Bass. Because when I think "Sephiroth," I think soft pop music for pre-teen girls.

Played by Lance Bass. Because when I think “Sephiroth,” I think soft pop music for pre-teen girls.

On a final note, Kingdom hearts has some amazing optional bosses. I believe during my review of Final Fantasy VII, I described Sephiroth using the phrase “anemic guinea pig.” Well, this game finally does him some justice. To all those people on forums claiming Sephiroth’s difficulty compares to the final boss, well, no. Final boss fights need to display flashy effects and epic, cinematic moments. The final boss tells a story, but has to let the player through relatively easily. No one needs to fight Sephiroth. So by removing any and all requirements (seriously, you get nothing for beating him except bragging rights), Square finally made him hard as all fuck to beat. Oh, and they cast ‘N Sync’s Lance Bass to voice him. So I guess the anemic guinea pig still fits.