Review by Saboruto
This is (hopefully) the only KHII review you'll need!
First of all, let me preface this review by saying that I am completely biased toward this game. But really, isn't that the point? It's impossible to review something in an unbiased manner, since everyone's tastes in gaming differ. However, I WILL attempt to be as fair as possible in my review, and hopefully I will give you an idea as to what Kingdom Hearts II has to offer. I hope that, after reading my review, you'll be able to decide if Kingdom Hearts II is the game for you. Also, while I will attempt to keep my review relatively spoiler-free, minor spoilers will no-doubt be present. So, read at your own risk. =)
I won't lie, I've been itching for this game since the moment I first beat the original Kingdom Hearts a few years ago. So, I went into the game with high expectations. The first thing I really noticed was the opening cut-scene. The graphics are spectacular and really hook you. The opening song, Sanctuary by Utada Hikaru (the same performer that sang the theme to the original Kingdom Hearts) sounded so different from the previous theme that I didn't much care for it, but it eventually did grow on me.
After choosing to start a new game and watching the intro video, you're dropped into the mysterious world of Twilight Town, where you control a young man named Roxas. It took me about 4-5 hours to work my way through Twilight Town, which serves as the game's tutorial. But you never really feel like you're playing a tutorial, as your time in Twilight Town also yields a number of important plot points and information you'll need later. Twilight Town's pace is rather slow though, but the game really picks up toward the end of the tutorial episode.
At the conclusion of the tutorial, you lose Roxas and regain control of Sora, along with his travelling companions Donald and Goofy. From this point on, you'll be playing as Sora, but he keeps all the items, munny and abilities that Roxas gained during the Twilight Town episode.
Once you leave Twilight Town, you won't be back for a very long time. Your second world destination is Hollow Bastion, which has changed significantly since the original Kingdom Hearts. However, the whole Hollow Bastion crew is here, including Leon, Yuffie, Aerith, Cid, and Merlin the Magician. This is the point where the game really takes off and where the game really begins. You'll be fighting constant battles from now on, and you have access to one of the most important new features presented in Kingdom Hearts II.
Drive Forms are a simply awesome new addition to the game. Thanks to the magic of the three good fairies from Sleeping Beauty, Sora's new clothes allow him to absorb his party members for a short time to unlock incredible new powers. For example, his first Drive Form, the Valor Form, allows him to absorb Goofy (thus removing him from combat) to gain the ability to dual-wield Keyblades and gain a lot of offensive power. There are four Drive Forms in all: offense-based Valor, magic-focused Wisdom (which absorbs Donald), the versatile Master Form (which absorbs both of your party members), and the incredible Final Form which allows Sora to become a one-man army.
These Forms require the use of a new meter called the Drive Gauge. When you've amassed a certain amount of Drive power, you can switch Forms until your meter runs dry. While these Forms aren't required for normal battles, they're extremely helpful for boss fights and certain story battles.
In addition to Drive Forms, Limits open up a lot of battle possibility. Limits allow Sora to expend his entire magic meter in exchange for powerful combo attacks with his party members. This gives your world partners a much more significant role in KHII than they had in the original game. In most cases, you'll actually WANT to drop Donald or Goofy in favor of your world partner, since often they're tailored for the world they exist in. These Limit combos can rack up hits into the hundreds, so they're another powerful offensive tool.
Summons seem to have taken a backseat in KHII. There are only four summons (though the Genie from Aladdin has four unique forms, effectively increasing the number of summons to seven). The summons consume Drive power instead of magic, so in general I found it better to save my Drive meter for using Forms instead of summons. However, if you'd rather use summons than forms, you'll be pleased to know that your summons all share EXP and levels, and the more often you use your summons the longer they'll stick around to help. This is one of those very few areas of the game that I felt were a little weak or underdeveloped.
Much as in the first game, Sora can learn to use ever more-powerful forms of magic. However, magic works differently in this game. Instead of, say, ten points of MP like in the first game, Sora has a massive MP meter. Each kind of spell consumes a variable amount of MP. For instance, casting Blizzard may only consume a small amount of your MP bar, but casting Cure will consume all of it, regardless how much you have at the time. Magic is another thing that seems to be downplayed in this game compared to its prequel, since I seldom found myself casting the offensive spells and only cast Cure, Magnet or Reflect in limited situations. As a result, Wisdom Form seems a bit underpowered since it focuses exclusively on magic. However, I expect that if I played a game focusing entirely on magic I would find it to be a useful and effective tool. It's just that, between Forms and Limits and plain old Keyblade attacks, magic seems a bit unnecessary.
The story finally brings together all the loose threads and plot holes from the original game and the Gameboy Advance-only Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Just as in the first game, you'll be playing each world as a unique scenario bridged by an overall storyline. Joining the Heartless from the previous game are an army of new enemies called Nobodies. There's also a shadowy group called Organization XIII which is manipulating the course of events from the shadows. Almost every character from the first game makes an appearance here, as well as an entire host of new characters. World by world, the story is revealed and the plot constantly twists and turns. All in all, the plot is probably the strongest point in Kingdom Hearts II's favor. I found myself constantly eager to advance the plot and see what would happen next.
As for the worlds you'll be visiting, there's an excellent cross-section of very well-designed and unique Disney worlds to visit. The environments of each are faithfully and excellently represented, and you really do feel that you're playing the movies. Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean, Timeless River from Steamboat Willie (Mickey Mouse's black-and-white debut), Space Paranoids from Tron, Agrabah and the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin, the Beast's Castle from Beauty and the Beast... all perfectly resemble the movie settings. One strange and interesting twist is that the world from The Little Mermaid is no longer as it was in the first game. Instead, you'll find yourself playing button pressing games reminiscent of Dance Dance Revolution to sing songs both from the movie and new songs to fit with the plot of that world. MINOR SPOILER: You'll literally be "singing" Ursula to death in this game. It's very strange, but it provides a fun little diversion from the waves of Heartless-fighting you'll be doing in the other levels.
Speaking of fighting, let's discuss combat for a bit. The most noteworthy thing is that the difficulty seems lower than the original game. Fights don't last as long and the game is generally pretty easy. Luckily, a lot of new additions serve to help spice up the battles in KHII. Foremost of these is the Reaction system. Most enemies in the game have special attacks that Sora can "react" to by pressing the Triangle button at the right moment. Reactions vary by the attacks they're reacting to. When fighting Dusks (the most basic of the Nobody enemies), Sora can use the Reaction command "Reversal" to quickly and automatically whip around behind the attacking Dusk enemy, confusing it for a moment and putting Sora into an offensive position. Some Reactions are offensive, and some are defensive, and in normal battles they're generally nice but unneeded. But during boss fights, Reactions are critical to stopping the boss's worst attacks and dealing massive and spectacular damage. MINOR SPOILER: For example, at the end of the Beast's Castle world, you'll find yourself fighting the entire ballroom (the one Beast and Belle had their famous dance in). The chandelier comes crashing down to impale you and the pillars try to whack you. But if you time it just right, you can use a Reaction command to hop on the chandelier and ride it around the room, stunning the boss and dealing big damage. Reaction commands offer a great deal of variety and help to add fast-paced action and strategy to major battles.
Speaking of the boss fights, every one of them is unique and amazingly fun. The amount of variety in the boss battles of this game is staggering. Every fight requires different strategies and apt use of the spectacular Reaction commands for victory. Should you fall in battle during a boss fight (and as I said, the game is fairly easy so this probably won't happen often), there's even a chance that King Mickey will rush in to save you. During this time, you fight AS King Mickey, who can deal good damage and will eventually restore Sora and his party to full health before leaving again. On the whole, most of the boss fights are simply epic and are some of the game's biggest highlights. And even the story battles are massive; there's a point in the game where Sora has to fight and defeat one thousand Heartless enemies by himself. It's moments like these that really set KHII apart from any other game.
Sidequests & Other Activities
Square Enix really outdid themselves in this aspect of the game. The number of sidequests, mini games, items to synthesize and treasures to find is almost overwhelming. Most notable are the Gummi Ship levels. Square Enix really listened to input from the fans when they revamped this aspect of the game. The graphics and level designs of the Gummi levels are excellent, and playing the Gummi levels is actually a fun and exciting passtime instead of the dull interruption it was in the last game. The Gummi Ship minigame is so detailed and rewarding that it almost qualifies as a full game in its own right.
Additionally, a lot of work was put into the item synthesis aspect of the game. Your moogle now gains experience and levels from synthesizing items for you, and with each level the moogle learns new synthesis recipes, techniques, or gains the ability to work with new materials. Most of the endgame weapons and equipment have to be synthesized, and many require you to find recipes in treasure chests hidden throughout the worlds. In general I found the synthesis system to be more detailed and rewarding and less frustrating than in the first KH game. You won't need to spend days collecting materials like in the last game, since most of what you need will be picked up in the course of normal gameplay. And the amount of items and equipment you can synthesize is impressive without becoming overwhelming.
Graphics & Sound
On the whole, the game is much more visually and musically impressive than the first game. The graphics are much cleaner and the character models are more detailed. Just take a look at Port Royal, if you don't believe me. Jack Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are almost photorealistic. And in many of the worlds, Sora and friends take costumes to blend in with the locals. This is used to extremely good effect. For instance, in the Pride Lands, Sora is in the form of a lion cub (complete with spiky hair and his trademark necklace, and wielding the Keyblade in his mouth!) while Donald is a bird who looks suspiciously like Zazu from The Lion King and Goofy is a turtle similar to his form in the original game's Atlantica level. The characters don the neon-lighted suits from Tron and their costumes from the previous game's Halloween Town, and they even go retro with a 1930s animation style in black-and-white for Timeless River. The only shame is that this isn't used more often. I would've loved to see the characters dressed appropriately for Port Royal, Agrabah, the Beast's Castle, or Land of the Dragons from Mulan. Sometimes, Sora and company stand out like sore thumbs from the world they're visiting, as is the case in Port Royal. But even then the graphics work. Sora looks more cartoonish and less "real live human" when standing next to Jack Sparrow, but since Sora's from a totally different world it makes enough sense to avoid knocking the player out of the immersive spell the game weaves.
And the voice acting is extremely good, with most of the Disney voices being represented by the official Disney actors. In cases like Port Royal, where the characters aren't portrayed by their original actors, the stand-in voice actors are extremely good and the overall feeling of the character is true to the movies. The only character whose voice I felt was disappointing was Aerith. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but her voice actor's performance seemed weak and "anime-ish". But that's the only complaint I can justly make about the voice acting.
As for the music, much of it is carried over from the first game, but it's clearly been re-recorded. Hollow Bastion's music is the same as before, but subtle differences indicate that it's been reorchestrated for the sequel. Same thing goes for Agrabah and Halloween Town. But most of the music is new for this game, and it's been used to excellent effect. Almost all of the world music fits the feel of the world perfectly, though some of it loops a little too quickly for my tastes (for instance, Halloween Town's theme may get a little old by the time you move on to the next world). On the whole, though, the music is excellent and meshes beautifully with the game.
My first play through the game, I did everything the game had to offer. I synthesized every item, played through every tournament in the Olympus world, and filled in every entry in Jiminy's Journal. My final playtime was just over 70 hours. But the biggest testament to this game's excellence and incredible fun is the fact that, as soon as I had beaten the last boss and watched the (epic!) closing credits, I immediately started a new game on Proud Mode (hard mode). Seventy hours of gameplay in just under a week, and I still hadn't had my fill of Kingdom Hearts II.
I can't recommend this game enough. There are certainly a few minor flaws with the game (though the camera control is SIGNIFICANTLY better than the first game, at least!), and there are a few things that I would've changed or done differently, but those are all minor. And in the end, the important thing a game offers is its fun value. It could be the most beautiful, epic game in the history of videogaming, but if it's not fun it's not worthwhile. Kingdom Hearts II offers the beauty, the wonder, and the sense of epic story, yet it still manages to remain fun from start to finish. Never before have I played a game that so engaged and enchanted me. Ultimately, after playing KHII from start to finish three times over, I have to pronounce it my all-time favorite game thusfar. If this game is representative of how much an excellent game can be improved upon in a sequel, I can't wait to see what Kingdom Hearts III has in store for us! If you like "action/RPGs" and you enjoyed the first Kingdom Hearts, there's absolutely no reason not to pick up KHII and let it cast its spell on you, too. If the first KH wasn't really your cup of tea, then the sequel will almost definitely disappoint you. It took the formula from the first game and gave it a grand polish, but at its core it's still Kingdom Hearts.
Story - 9.8
Excellent, involved story with plenty of twists and dramatic moments; plot never drags and there are only a few gaming clichés
Gameplay - 9.4
Lots of combat options including summoning, Drives, magic, Limits, Reactions, Combos...; once in a while combat gets stale but the pace picks right back up again; the boss fights are beyond amazing and the story battles are just as good
Graphics - 10.0
The graphics are universally excellent and prove just what the PS2 is capable of; characters are well-modeled and completely true to their Disney movie counterparts; environments are rich, detailed, and fit their worlds perfectly; abilities, summons, magic and Limits are all suitably spectacular
Audio - 9.8
Other than Aerith, the voice acting is spot-on; the sound effects are all crisp, clear and fit everything nicely; the music is true to Disney tradition, and while it occasionally gets repetitive it never grates on the nerves
Challenge - 8.0
The game has its moments but is generally pretty easy, though Proud Mode ramps up nicely; even at its most difficult it never gets frustrating; the learning curve is relatively steep, but the Twilight Town tutorial does an excellent job of teaching the basics of gameplay
Fun - 10.0
The game quickly draws you in and never lets you go; it offers so much variety, so many mini-games, so many unique worlds to explore, and so many characters to meet that you find yourself totally addicted and you can't stop playing; this is the pinnacle of the action/RPG genre! If you love action/RPGs, Kingdom Hearts II is the promised land that you've been waiting for.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
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