Kingdom Hearts II Hands-On

Square Enix shows off a demo of the next entry in its Kingdom Hearts series.

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Square Enix recently dropped by our offices to show off a two-level demo of Kingdom Hearts II, its upcoming sequel to 2002's impressive blending of Disney and Square's unique properties. While a sequel was a no-brainer given the original game's success, Kingdom Hearts II is being crafted to be more than just a by-the-numbers sequel. Although much of the game's story is being kept under wraps, Sora is back (and looking a bit older), as are Donald, Goofy, and a host of characters from the Disney stable.

Kingdom Hearts 2 will reunite you with Sora, Donald, Goofy, and a whole raft of Disney characters.
Kingdom Hearts 2 will reunite you with Sora, Donald, Goofy, and a whole raft of Disney characters.

But along with all the good folks making a return, there's plenty of bad ones on hand as well, with the reappearance of the Heartless and a good helping of villains from Disney's pantheon. We got a very brief taste of how this is all turning out in the demo, which let us check out some locales we became familiar with in the original Kingdom Hearts: the Olympus coliseum and the Beast's castle.

The Olympus coliseum level features cameos from Hercules, Meg, Hades, and our trio of heroes in cinematic sequences in between segments of gameplay. Even though the demo was in Japanese, we were able to get the gist of the action. As usual, Hades is looking for a way to stop Hercules in the coliseum. Given his reputation in the pantheon of Greek gods, it's hardly surprising to see the flamingly coiffed god use whatever underhanded means he can to stop Herc, which results in Hades trying to summon a warrior capable of challenging the son of Zeus.

As luck would have it, Hades' summons brings Auron, everyone's favorite trench coat-wearing hero in FFX, into the picture. However, Auron isn't down with helping Hades and turns him down, which doesn't endear him to the short-tempered god. As they start to duke it out, Sora arrives on the scene and helps the warrior get away. But, seeing as the level is set in the underworld, the only real option for dealing with Hades on his home turf is to run like the wind. This approach works until the gang meets Cerberus, hell's biggest three-headed lap dog, which results in an epic boss fight that closes the level.

The Beast's castle level finds the trio of heroes checking in with their old fur-bearing, cape-wearing homey and his old lady Belle. However, there's trouble at home as the Beast doesn't appear to recognize Sora and the gang, going so far as to toss them around like laundry. When the trio finds Belle, she fills them in on the weirdness going on at Casa Beast. Apparently, the furry one has imprisoned the entire castle's staff in a dungeon. Belle is obviously concerned and pretty spooked, which leads Sora to offer his services. The level then follows the gang as they head to the prison and talk to the dresser (apparently the only member of staff not locked up) who fills them in on the staff's location. After a bit of exploration, the level ends with a fight against a boss who is firmly planted in front of a door, preventing you from entering a room.

You have to take the good with the bad, unfortunately, as the bad guys will be returning in force, too.
You have to take the good with the bad, unfortunately, as the bad guys will be returning in force, too.

Although both levels were brief and the game is still very much a work in progress, the gameplay is shaping up pretty well. There doesn't appear to be too much that's radically different from the core mechanics of the first game. You're still going to control Sora for third-person exploration and combat, but there are plenty of refinements. The camera is being worked on to make it easier to use in combat, for instance. Artificial intelligence is being tweaked for your partners and enemies. Some of the new twists include a "drive" ability, which lets you merge with one of your party members. Although the feature was enabled in our demo, the exact mechanics of it weren't complete. For the purposes of the demo it was possible to merge with Goofy, resulting in a new costume for Sora and the ability to dual-wield swords as well as a wealth of new combo options.

The triangle button, an all-purpose action input, was used during combat quite a bit more. This was most noticeable in the boss fight against the creature that was blocking the door you needed to go through. After beating on it for a while, you had the option to hit the triangle button and knock it loose from its perch on the door so you could beat it senseless.

It plays similarly to the previous game, but Kingdom Hearts II will give you some new moves to work with, too.
It plays similarly to the previous game, but Kingdom Hearts II will give you some new moves to work with, too.

Finally, as Sora is helping Auron to escape from Ares, they end up in combat against some foes without Donald or Goofy to help them, which changes the fight dynamics a bit. The sequence leading into the fight doesn't bode well for the bravery level of your party members as, in the cinematic before the battle, Donald and Goofy take their sweet time watching in horror as a door blocks them from Sora. A little less horror and a little more "running through the gap to back Sora up" would have probably been more useful here.

The graphics in Kingdom Hearts II are looking outstanding, even in rough form. Highly detailed character models for the main characters in the game really nail the Disney and Square characters perfectly. We're especially impressed with the scope of the characters against each other and certain elements in the environments that help give you perspective. For example, when you start your fight against Cerberus, you're little bigger than a flea next to him, which looks cool and also keeps you on your toes in terms of gameplay. The environments follow suit and offer a winning mix of sparse detail but excellent color usage, as well as more ornate sections that show off the game's impressive art design and powerful graphics engine.

The sparse but disturbing underworld caverns you travel in aren't heavy on detail but do use little touches, such as flowing mist and odd rock formations to create an impressive area to explore. The Beast's castle, on the other hand, was a much more detailed space, featuring massive staircases and attractive art on the walls. The special effects used during combat and the cinematics are as slick as ever, using rich color, lighting, and neat mist effects to underscore the action. The transformation sequence for Sora is nicely done and, more importantly, fast. At the moment, it appears that the sequences for spells are being kept brief, which helps keep the pace of the fights zippy.

What new mysteries await in Kingdom Hearts II? Sadly, we'll have to wait another year to find out.
What new mysteries await in Kingdom Hearts II? Sadly, we'll have to wait another year to find out.

The audio in the demo wasn't anywhere near done (especially for our territory, considering everyone was speaking Japanese), but Kingdom Hearts II is already sounding quite good. The bits of music we heard, including some variations on the original tunes in the first game and others that were unfamiliar, all work well together and complement the visuals. While we shouldn't comment too much on the game's Japanese voice considering we'll never hear it in the US, we will say that Donald Duck doing his thing in Japanese is extremely cool.

Despite the fact that our time with the game was all too brief, Kingdom Hearts II seems to be heading in a positive direction. The gameplay is being tweaked to address players' issues with the original, and the visuals are at the very least meeting the high standard set by that game as well. The story has us intrigued, especially given what we've seen of the trailer and the way surprising cameos were implemented into the first game. All told, we'd say you'll want to keep a lookout for Kingdom Hearts II when it ships next year for the PlayStation 2. Stay tuned for more.

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