Hands-onKingdom Hearts

Check out our impressions of this RPG, which features characters from both Final Fantasy games and Disney movies.

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We received the final Japanese version of SquareSoft's Kingdom Hearts, an RPG that features characters from the Final Fantasy series and various Disney movies. The first thing you'll probably notice about Kingdom Hearts is the familiar character design, which has been handled by well-known Square designer Tetsuya Nomura, who also provided characters for Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Parasite Eve, and The Bouncer. The game's lead character, Sora, looks very much like a character from a Final Fantasy game, but like the game itself, Sora has certain Disney-like characteristics, like his incredibly large Mickey Mouse-style shoes.

The game begins with a CG introduction featuring Sora, his friends, and a brief glimpse of what happens later in the story. After the introduction, the game launches into a real-time sequence that shows Sora tumbling toward a large stained-glass window of Snow White, the seven dwarves, and various furry creatures. Walking forward into a small sliver of light causes three rocks to appear with three different objects on top of each--a sword, a shield, and a wand. At this point, you'll have to walk over to one of the objects and basically pull it out of the rock. We chose to grab the sword and shield--both of which had Mickey Mouse emblems on them--and suddenly the rocks collapsed and Sora fell to a new stained-glass window, which featured a portrait of Cinderella.

In this new area, you'll get your first taste of combat as a group of black, shadowlike insects known as the heartless, which emerge from the ground. After drawing his recently acquired blade, Sora is ready to attack. Combat in Kingdom Hearts--which at this point in the game is in real time as opposed to the traditional Square turn-based style--is quite similar to the combat system in the Nintendo 64 Zelda games. You can decide to fight freely and simply engage enemies based on the direction you're facing or choose to lock onto a single opponent via the R1 button on the PlayStation 2 controller. Sora can use his sword by simply pressing the circle button--pressing it repeatedly will cause him to launch in a combination of four or five strikes. He also has an air strike, which can also be turned into a combination if timed properly.

After taking out a series of the heartless, a set of stained-glass steps appear, and they allow you to walk up to a platform situated high in the darkness. When you reach the top, you'll be confronted by an enormous tentacle-equipped beast--presumably the leader of the heartless. This monster causes other small heartless to appear and attack you, but just as quickly as the battle starts, it ends. After three or four combinations directed at the hand of this beast, the platform collapses and Sora falls into the darkness.

But as if it were some sort of dream, Sora wakes up on a tropical island where his friends--Riku and Kairi--are waiting for him. Interestingly, this island also has a few familiar faces, including Waka and Tidus, both of which have been redesigned to fit the general art style of the game. This island seems to be a tutorial area of sorts because nearly every character you converse with is willing to help hone your fighting skills. You'll discover a few new elements of the battle system if you challenge any one of these characters. One of the most important elements to the battle system is the parry, which, if timed correctly, can be used to nullify an enemy attack and even occasionally stun enemies, leaving them open to a quick combination. These training sessions are also incredibly helpful for teaching you how to perform dodge-and-strike attacks--standing still and swiping at your enemies will almost always result in a defeat.

On this island, you'll also become familiar with some general control features. Sora can jump, run, climb trees, and even pick up some objects in the environment, such as barrels and boxes. In one section of the island, Riku actually puts these skills to the test by challenging you to a race in which you have to jump around a dilapidated bridge, climb up a ladder, run down a zipline, jump across a series of treetops, touch the checkpoint, and then make your way back. Generally, it takes a little time to get accustomed to the timing of jumps and even attack combinations, but there aren't any significant problems.

Kingdom Hearts looks excellent from an artistic standpoint--all the Square characters are represented in the traditional Square style, while all the Disney characters look identical to their big-screen and TV counterparts. In fact, because the game has an almost cel-shaded look (but without the hard edges), sometimes it seems as if you're watching a cartoon. The facial animations, particularly the lip-synching and general expressions on the Disney characters, are very well done. While we've seen only a few of them, the level of detail in the environments seems to be on par with those in Final Fantasy X. It's also worth noting that most of the textures in the game are incredibly clean and crisp, lending themselves well to the cartoon look of the game.

As far as sound goes, there's a significant amount of voice acting in the game. Sora and his friends all have voices, as do the Disney characters. It's quite an experience just to hear Donald Duck and Goofy speak in Japanese. The music in the game is subtle at the beginning, which helps add to overall feeling of mystery and confusion, but when you make it to the tropical island, you'll be greeted with the typical Caribbean-style tune.

Undoubtedly, Kingdom Hearts is shaping up to be an interesting game and a nice departure from the standard Final Fantasy-style RPG. The controls are very easy to get into, and anyone who enjoyed Ocarina of Time's lock-on system will probably find Kingdom Heart's to be equally well executed. The menu system is also really easy to use, since you'll have all the primary functions located in a menu--which you can navigate using the second analog stick or the D pad at the bottom-left side of the screen.

Kingdom Hearts is currently available in Japan. The US version is scheduled for release in the fall.

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