Kingdom Hearts II Hands-On: Square Enix Party 2005

We strap on our keyblade and roll with Donald, Goofy, and the rest of the gang in a new demo of Square Enix's highly anticipated sequel.

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MAKUHARI MESSE--One of the busiest booths on the floor at the Square Enix event this weekend is the Kingdom Hearts II area, which lets attendees try out the latest work-in-progress version of the highly anticipated title. The game once again casts you as Sora, a young boy who gets to hobnob with the best and brightest stars in the Square Enix and Disney universes. The demo on display at the event lets players explore four areas from the game and chill with such luminaries as Minnie Mouse, the Beast, Aladdin's crew, and Mulan.

The four playable areas in the demo were Beast's Castle, home of the furry behemoth from Beauty and the Beast; The Land of Dragons, from Mulan; Disney Castle, home of most famous mice around; and Agrabah, the stomping grounds of Aladdin. For the most part, the levels covered variations of the same theme: dealing with heartless (those shadowy bad guys from the first game) and helping people, which was fine. The key to the demos was the atmosphere, which appears to be on point for the sequel.

The Land of Dragons stage, which features Mulan as a member of your party, mimics the visual style of the movie perfectly. The level focuses on a tough boss fight against a massive, multicolored dragon that is determined to stomp Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Mulan. The key to defeating it is to mash its horns. Unfortunately your foe is airborne, and getting up to his horns requires some judicious use of conveniently placed air drafts. When you see one and the dragon is near, you simply have to run into it and press the triangle button twice--once to hop into the draft and another to send yourself up into the air. If you time the leap properly and can aim yourself in the right direction, you'll land on the dragon's back and can start punching his vulnerable horns.

The only problem is, like any good boss, he's not going to just fly around and take it. The dragon will perform all manner of dives when you're on his back, all designed to shake you off. If you can manage to hit the triangle button at the right time when you're near one of the smaller horns on his back, you'll be able to hang on for dear life and resume horn punching when he settles down. Defeating him is a lengthy process that requires a deliberate play style and smart use of the new unified move attack that lets you use Donald and Goofy to unleash powerful offensive moves, and the new transformation ability that imbues Sora with elemental powers that enhance his moves. The nice thing about the battle is the old-school feel: The dragon has a set pattern of movement and attacks that change as it nears defeat, so if you're careful and patient you can take him with no problem.

The Disney Castle's centerpiece is protecting Queen Minnie from incoming trouble. You'll have to keep tabs on her health bar, which is displayed as you go about your business. Agrabah has you exploring the city and encountering some familiar faces.

The play mechanics in the game haven't changed drastically from the original Kingdom Hearts. You'll still have the same basic menu structure as in the original game, with four options: fight, magic, item, and unified move. Fight lets you attack with close combat moves. Magic lets you cast whatever spells you have available. Item lets you go through and use whatever you have handy in a battle. Finally, the unified move lets you perform a group attack with your boys, though if you press to one side on the D pad, you'll be able to transform into a powered-up form of Sora that's overflowing with elemental energy. As before, you'll need to have charged your drive gauge by beating on folks in melee combat before you can start to get too adventurous.

Control should be equally familiar. You'll use the left analog stick to move, R1 to lock onto a target, square and circle to attack, and X to jump. The triangle button will serve a variety of context-sensitive actions as determined by your surroundings. L1 provides a shortcut to your magic menu, which will come in handy during fights, and R3 will reset the camera behind Sora.

The visuals in the game are easily on par with the original Kingdom Hearts and do a fantastic job of making characters based on different art styles mesh seamlessly together. The level of detail has been improved over the first game, resulting in Sora and the gang's more ornate clothing. Special effects, a highlight of the original game, are amply displayed and show off some improvements over the last game. The camera is still more problematic than what we'd like it to be when playing in close quarters, but, as with the original, you could get used to it.

It was hard to make out too much of the audio in the game, as the hall was bustling with activity. That said, Donald Duck's voice tends to cut through any noise whether he's going off in English or Japanese. Thusly we can at least confirm that Donald is certainly on point in the sequel.

Based on what we played, Kingdom Hearts II is, unsurprisingly, shaping up to be an epic experience that should be a fine successor to the great original. The levels we played were well done but didn't approach some of the madness we've seen in the trailers, which leaves us hopeful that the best is yet to come. As it stands now, the visuals are strong, the gameplay is solid, and the Disney content is looking top-notch. Our only nitpicking concern is the camera, which is still hairy in places, but other than that, Kingdom Hearts II seems poised to surpass its predecessor on just about every level. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more on the game in the months leading to its winter release.

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