Review by ShadowGuardian9

Reviewed: 04/12/06

Kingdom Hearts II is one of the greatest games ever made.

If there’s one RPG that caught the world by surprise, it was Kingdom Hearts. An odd combination of Disney and Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts caused some people to shake their heads at its mixture of classic Disney stories and epic Final Fantasy battles. Despite some worries, Kingdom Hearts was a phenomenal experience. Using a unique real-time battle system and an expansive story, Kingdom Hearts seamlessly combined the charm of Disney with the storyline depth of Squaresoft. It was a masterpiece and definitely drew in a following. After a GBA game and years of anticipation, Kingdom Hearts II hit stores with fans eager to explore Sora and friends’ next adventure. However, the sequel makes a few changes as well. It’s been a long road coming, but does Kingdom Hearts II follow in the footsteps of its legendary predecessor?

Graphics 10/10

The first Kingdom Hearts was a cinematic and action-packed experience thanks to its fast combat and beautiful cutscenes. Kingdom Hearts II is by far one of the most cinematic games ever to be released on the Playstation 2. From the start, the player gets to see an incredible opening cinematic recapping the events of the first Kingdom Hearts and the Chain of Memories GBA game. After witnessing this beautiful opening scene, the game begins with some rich and detailed environments to explore. The new characters that you meet up with right off the bat are distinctly animated and their appearances define their colorful personalities. As the plot thickens and the new character Roxas begins his adventure, new enemies appear for him to fight. Once the game exits the opening world, Sora, Donald, and Goofy begin their travels across the worlds. Each world is based off of a Disney universe and Kingdom Hearts II, like its predecessor, does a superb job in retaining the Disney atmosphere in each world. When entering the world of Beast’s Castle, you see ornate and royal furnishings throughout. When entering the world of Tron, the world glows with bright, flourescent lights. When you enter a world, you immediately are captivated by its charm. As each world’s intricate story unfolds, Sora and his crew enter some of the most cinematic combat sequences ever to graze a console. The battle system puts its emphasis not only on fast-paced action, but beautiful cinematic flair. During battle, Sora’s abilities are over-the-top and stunning to watch. Using different enemies’ powers against them with the new Reaction Command adds depth to the battles and also increases the flow of cinematic excellence. The Reaction Command’s use with teammates is no short of incredible; you can team up with your allies to unleash Limit Breaks, which are special attacks that not only help in battle, but make Sora and the player feel even more connected with each Disney world. The Final Fantasy characters make special appearances as well (some even as teammates) and their placement in each world only increases the stunning cinematic finesse that Kingdom Hearts II produces. Kingdom Hearts II’s graphics are some of the best around and are simply stunning to view.

Audio 10/10

From the start, Utada Hikaru’s new theme song “Passion (Sanctuary)” takes the stage as the theme of Kingdom Hearts II. Although it’s not as beautiful as “Simple and Clean,” Sanctuary is an excellent theme song and is very appropriate for Kingdom Hearts II elaboration on the storyline. An all-star cast of colorful characters is backed up by an all-star voice cast. Haley Joel Osment returns as the now older Sora, dimensionalizing the difference in Sora’s appearance with his attitude. Throughout the different Disney worlds, the voice acting remains just as good as the first, with the original voice actors and some stellar performances. The Final Fantasy characters are voiced equally well, with returning favorites like Steve Burton as Cloud Strife along with new voice actors like George Newbern as Sephiroth. Jesse McCartney does a great job with the new character Roxas, introducing him with a good personality. Throughout the game, some epic scores are presented during battle. The cinematic scope is realized as some excellent orchestral scores arrive during the climactic battles. Familiar Disney themes arrive in worlds, escalating the Disney charm. Sound effects are full of force and powerful effect, differentiating themselves from another depending on attacks and enemies. The audio is extremely well done, thanks to a great voice cast, some epic music, and great sound design.

Story 10/10

The game picks up about a year after Chain of Memories. The game does a good recap of the past games, although it’s recommended to play the others first to get the full story. The game begins with a young boy named Roxas exploring his town with his closest friends. As Roxas is adventuring and discovering some of the town’s mysteries, he gets himself wrapped up in some strange happenings. With the arrival of some odd characters and enemies, Roxas’s motive in the rich tapestry of Kingdom Hearts II develops and Sora’s journey begins. Sora’s adventure begins with him awakening from a deep sleep and returning to his goal of finding his friends, Riku and Kairi, and helping Donald and Goofy find King Mickey. After obtaining some new equipment and information, Sora discovers that the Heartless still exist. With that, a new group called Organization XIII have a new plan up their sleeve with some creatures known as Nobodies. With some familiar allies and new enemies, Sora’s journey of finding the secrets of Organization XIII begins again.

Kingdom Hearts II’s story is much more complex than the first Kingdom Hearts. The major departure is Sora’s personality. Now older, Sora is no longer the scared, nervous boy he was in the first Kingdom Hearts. He’s more eager to journey and fights on because he wants to, not because he feels like his destiny is forcing him to. This departure from Sora’s original personality is an excellent transition between the two games. However, the discoverer of destiny is Roxas, who is pulled into the mysteries. Familiarizing the player with the destiny theme is accomplished by playing as Roxas at the beginning, similar to what happened at the beginning of the first Kingdom Hearts. I won’t spoil what happens throughout the story, but more secrets arise and the enemies are quickly elaborated into characters that truly make the story complete. Kingdom Hearts II has the happy charm of Disney, making it accessible to many people, but beneath the charming exterior lies one of the deepest and most engaging stories around. An amazing philosophical romp through light and darkness itself, the story of Kingdom Hearts II follows the excellent path that the first game created, while adding new twists along the way. By elaborating and uniting the stories of previous games, Kingdom Hearts II does a phenomenal job of presenting a powerful narrative for the player to explore. One note of mention is that it’s best to have played the previous Kingdom Hearts games to get the full story, or at least the first Kingdom Hearts. However, the game does a respectable job of recapping the previous games, so even newcomers to the series will be able to jump into the excellent story quickly.

Gameplay 10/10

Kingdom Hearts’ real-time battle system garnered it praise. Using a menu and moving simultaneously was a great system. Kingdom Hearts II basically follows the same formula. However, the battle system has some new additions that will surprise those who played the original Kingdom Hearts.

The first Kingdom Hearts used the left analog stick to move, with the right controlling a menu. Kingdom Hearts II leaves movement on the left analog stick, but now the camera is mapped to the right analog stick. This makes the camera less of a headache, as you can pan in and out or rotate the camera on the fly. Scrolling through the menu is now only on the D-Pad. You can’t run and scroll through the menu as easily now, but it works well. The X button is used to perform the selected action on the menu. The circle button is used to jump, and the square is used to perform certain abilities that can be determined with the stats. Locking on is still well-placed on the R1 button. The system allows the game to play out more like a 3-D platformer, keeping the fast-paced action fluid and the combat well done.

The triangle button will quickly become a close friend in Kingdom Hearts II. The triangle button is now the Reaction Command, a context-sensitive action that can do different actions depending on the situation. In the first Kingdom Hearts, you had to scroll down the menu to find the action that could be used. Kingdom Hearts II streamlines the process by making the triangle button the action command button. This makes exploration and interaction with the environment much faster. Even better is the Reaction Command’s use in combat. Certain enemies can be defeated using the Reaction Command. Counter an enemy’s attack by pressing the triangle button at the right time. Like exploration, combat is much faster and much more fluid. Using Reaction Commands, combos can be seamlessly linked together, adding cinematic flair to the combat. The combo system is so seamless that you can literally stay in the air for minutes in a single combo. Certain boss fights allow for mini-cutscenes to arrive with the Reaction Command, making the already stunning game to be even more epic. The combat is so deep and complex thanks to the Reaction Command that the random battles rarely get tiresome. You’ll actually want to fight the many enemies that arrive because the combat is never the same twice. The Reaction Command streamlines battle and exploration in every way, making the entire game much faster and much more action-packed. Kingdom Hearts successfully bridges the gap between combat and cinematic, thanks to its excellent battle system.

A brand-new addition to combat is the Drive Gauge, a special gauge that exists with the HP and MP gauges. The Drive Gauge is slightly similar to the Charge Gauge of the original Kingdom Hearts, although this one is separate from the MP gauge. By attacking enemies or gathering special Drive orbs, Sora can gain energy to transform into a Drive form. The Drive forms are super-powerful alter modes of Sora that have heightened abilities in areas, along with some special skills. These modes offer up an ally on the field to power up Sora in a specific field, whether it is Strength, Magic, attack range, or other special areas. These modes can be leveled up like normal Sora and some can even be equipped with items or weapons. The Drive forms are tons of fun to use and make the fast gameplay even faster and even more fun.

Another new addition is Limit Breaks, a special team ability where Sora and a party member can attack together. When both players’ MP is spent by selecting the Limit option from the menu, Sora and a teammate (equipped with the special Ability) can perform a powerful team ability, like a loud roar with Beast or a raining firestorm with Mulan. This ability not only provides some beautiful cinematic essence to battles, but also (when timed correctly) can do some serious damage to enemies. With so many allies to select throughout, these Limit Breaks are incredibly versatile and lots of fun to perform.

Kingdom Hearts II does offer some brand new worlds to explore. From the beginning, you arrive in Twilight Town, a quiet town that is bathed in eternal sunset. Although it shares much in common with the first Kingdom Hearts’ Traverse Town, Twilight Town begins the story in a new way. Some classic Disney-themed worlds are here to explore. Some will prove their familiarity like the Nightmare Before Christmas’s Halloween Town or The Little Mermaid’s Atlantica. However, these have many new twists to make it feel much less like a rehash. The new worlds are very well designed, both in structure and cosmetic detail, like Mulan’s Land of Dragons and Pirates of the Caribbean’s Port Royal. Each world finds a special way to distinguish itself in gameplay, whether by a binding rule or different enemies. The levels always find ways to surprise, both in gameplay and storyline. Even some of the most quirky levels, like the Steamboat Willie Timeless River level, don’t feel slapped on. Each world feels integral to Sora’s adventure, which is essential in exploring the storyline of Kingdom Hearts II. The levels are linear, but the game adds new surprises along the way and return visits to some worlds offer some new battles or challenges. The worlds capture the Disney charm perfectly and offer excellent gameplay options and diversity.

There’s plenty of cameos throughout Kingdom Hearts II, and while not all can be used as true party members, Sora will encounter some familiar “fantasy” characters to aid him in the tight spots. However, the Disney characters along with other special characters are phenomenally used in both the story and combat. Everything that the character was famous for is captured in an excellent way, drawing out the charm that made each character significant in the first place. Every time you see a character you’ll feel a sense of kind familiarity and it stays with you throughout the entire game. This unity of story and gameplay is Kingdom Hearts II’s true essence and makes the entire experience a fantastic one in every possible way.

Compared to other RPGs, Kingdom Hearts II is rather light on the stat-tracking and number-crunching. Most of the game itself is based around skill. The high-intensity action hides some detailed ability and stat systems, despite being rather simplistic compared to other, more traditional RPGs. A prime example of this action-over-stats system is the newly improved Gummi Ship system. No longer is the game a slow-paced trek through empty space; this time the Gummi sequences demand attention. Fortunately, they are worthy of it. The Gummi Ship customization is still deep and the actual sequences between worlds are reminiscent of classic shooters like StarFox. The game follows some rapid-fire and lock-on weapon systems, along with some more detailed tweaks depending on the actual craft. The enemies are aggressive and much more diverse, demanding some good maneuvers during encounters. The entire Gummi sequence is extremely fast and smooth, a high-speed game that will bring back fine memories of fast racers like F-Zero. The Gummi Ship sequences can be skipped with a built-in warp to past worlds, but even when you have to travel through the fights, the journey is much less a chore and is actually a fun minigame.

The gameplay itself is rather simplistic, but the diverse enemies provide some serious challenge. Each Heartless, Nobody, and enemy will surprise in their complexity. Even the low-level enemies provide challenge and demand well-timed Reaction Commands and expert reflexes. The bosses, especially, are filled to the brim with challenge, while also providing some of the most epic sequences ever conceived in a video game. Some bosses demand insane amounts of reflexes and skill, but the game balances it out with some excellent ally AI and abilities. The entire game feels well tuned to the utmost detail; everything in this game is purely excellent in its execution. No part of the game feels overly difficult or slapped together. The gameplay of Kingdom Hearts II is some of the best ever designed with the end result being one of the greatest games of this generation.

Replay Value 10/10

Kingdom Hearts II, like its predecessor, has a lengthy story, clocking at 30 hours without any side-quests. Every step of the way the plot thickens and the suspense grows, drawing the player in. The story is so engaging that you’ll want to continue down the twisted road that Kingdom Hearts II creates, then return to its intricate pathways. Outside of an excellent story, Kingdom Hearts II has plenty of side-quests, minigames, and treasures to keep the player occupied long after the final boss. Finding new weapons with the Item Synthesis or fighting other enemies to gain experience will constantly get you to come back to this phenomenal game, that is if the excellent story doesn’t keep you coming back already.

Final Verdict 10/10

Although it’s been years since the first Kingdom Hearts was released and the expectations have grown to tremendous levels, Kingdom Hearts II has not disappointed. The graphics are pristine and gorgeous to look at and the audio is top-notch. The gameplay’s focus on fast action and seamless cinematic beauty is impressive in every way. The story continues to be a heartfelt narrative, expressing important themes and interesting characters. With a ton of side-quests and treasures, Kingdom Hearts II’s longevity is filled with many objectives to explore and complete. Kingdom Hearts II continues the fluid and cinematic feel of the first game, while adding some new gameplay elements and even more flair to combat. Kingdom Hearts II is simply one of the best games ever created, surviving the expectations by providing some of the most satisfying gameplay and epic storyline ever seen. How Disney and Square were able to successfully surpass the excellent original is a mystery, but the end result is a superb continuation of the incredible Kingdom Hearts narrative. A phenomenal achievement in absolutely every way, Kingdom Hearts II is one of the most cinematic, beautiful, epic, fast-paced, and above all else, fun examples of interactive entertainment ever created. Do not miss this game, for it is part of the Pantheon of gaming and deserves no less than the highest recommendation.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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