Kingdom Hearts II Import Impressions
We venture into the Magic Kingdom once again with Sora, Donald, and Goofy in the final Japanese game to see how the anticipated sequel has shaped up.
Square Enix recently gave Japanese gamers just what many wanted for Christmas with the release of Kingdom Hearts II right before the holiday. Fans have been clamoring for the sequel to the megahit that combined Disney and Square characters into one massive action role-playing game since it was first announced in 2003. We picked up an import copy of the game and have been exploring the unique new adventure that offers a fair share of surprises right from the start. Spoilers follow.
SPOILER: The big surprise at the game's beginning is also a spoiler, unfortunately. So if you're looking to be surprised, you may want to skip to the next paragraph. When you start Kingdom Hearts II, you'll find yourself controlling a new face in the KH universe--a young boy named Roxas--and exploring Twilight Town and Sunset Terrace. The game's prologue revolves around Roxas and his journey to discover the truth behind the odd memory flashes he's having (which are scenes from the original Kingdom Hearts and the Game Boy Advance's Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories). You'll eventually have to choose from one of three themed keyblades, which will affect how your character develops, as in the original game. The end of the prologue finds Roxas making some unpleasant discoveries about his past and coming across Sora, Donald, and Goofy, who are exactly where we left them at the end of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories--having their memories restored in the flowerlike pods seen at the end of Sora's story in the GBA game. So as not to ruin things too horribly for folks hoping for some wonder out of the KHII experience, we'll be vague in a few spots from here on out. One of the cooler parts of playing a Kingdom Hearts game is that much of the experience is in coming across the various characters making cameos. END SPOILER
Once you start the game, you'll explore your new digs and interact with some new faces that will make up your posse for the lengthy prologue. The prologue will be broken up into six game days. Your time will be spent performing tasks that will ease you into the various game mechanics you'll need in the adventure. You'll perform odd jobs around the rather spacious town; you can choose to run around on foot or ride around on your snazzy skateboard, which you can perform some simple tricks with. The jobs are very basic tasks that get you used to the refined play mechanics. You'll engage in some light combat during a competition against some familiar faces and ease into the way the game plays, which isn't too far from how the original KH handled. The last few days require some travel and more sophisticated battles against the familiar ebon heartless and the new ashen enemies, called nobodies. The end of the prologue, which lasts a little over three and a half hours, will reward you with a proper intro screen that flashes the Kingdom Hearts II logo, to let you know the proper game has begun.
Once the main adventure gets under way, things move along at a good clip. Sora will hook up with Donald, Goofy, and Jiminy Cricket and get brought up to speed on what's been going on. The one key thing to note about KHII's story is that it draws pretty heavily from events some players may not be familiar with, namely the Japanese-only Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, which featured a cinematic that foreshadowed some of what's going on, and the GBA's Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which introduced a number of characters and events that will figure prominently in KHII. Though the game appears to be pretty good about introducing characters some players may not be familiar with, we can't be totally sure until we see how this is all handled in the US version. Once you're in the swing of things you'll get tricked out with a snazzy new outfit and gain the drive ability, which, as we've seen demoed, lets you transform into a powerful dual-keyblade-wielding butt kicker, albeit for a limited time.
The early part of the game also reintroduces you to the Gummi ship. While most players found the Gummi-branded mode of transportation to be a bland diversion or annoyance in the original game, we have to say we're mightily pleased by the makeover the vehicle sequences have undergone. As before, you'll use the Gummi ship to unlock the paths to new worlds in short shooting segments. This time out, though, the rail-shooting segments are more dynamic and you'll be contending with foes from all directions, which will cause the game camera to change on the fly. You'll earn new Gummi ships, each with unique attributes, as well as parts you can use to create your own custom craft in each level.
As for the different worlds you'll visit, they appear to unlock in the same fashion as in the original game. You'll travel on a basically linear path in between worlds, and it will eventually branch out to different forks that give you a choice of which way to head. Upon arriving on the different worlds, you'll typically have a look around, which usually hooks you up with a local character you can choose to swap into your party. In keeping with our habits from the original game, we tend to drop Goofy at the first chance we get. From what we've gathered so far by exploring the Mulan-themed Land of Dragons and Beast's Castle, you'll need to talk to locals, engage in some mini quests that require you to face off against the heartless and the nobodies, and make your way to a boss, so you can eventually use Sora's keyblade in the world's lock. Once that's all sorted out, you move on to the next challenge.
The Gang's All Here
The Disney and Square cameos in the game, a highlight of the original Kingdom Hearts, whether as party members or non-player characters, are numerous and draw from a variety of sources. You'll see a number of familiar faces from the original game return as well as some new ones. We have to say we're quite pleased by the characters we've seen in the game. You'll find a healthy number of faces drawn from the Final Fantasy games as well as all manner of folk from the entire Disney movie catalog. So far the cameos, especially the Final Fantasy ones, are capably walking the line between fan service and making sense with the game's narrative, which is no mean feat. We've yet to see exactly how the Tron world gets thrown into the mix, but we're hopeful it will be done right.
The RPG mechanics from the first game remain intact in KHII and will let you earn experience to increase the levels of Sora and his party of two additional characters. As everyone's level increases, you'll be able to use action points you gain to purchase new abilities for them. Besides the expected stat increases from leveling up, you'll gain the ability to wield different types of magic and assign spells to your buddies. Though some of the spells you'll be able to cast are taken from the first game, there are some new ones as well. If all of the above doesn't provide you with enough power to face the challenges that present themselves to you, you'll find shops in most areas. While some will simply let you purchase health-restoring potions, others will feature more specialized wares, such as weapons, armor, or trinkets, which you can purchase with your accumulated "munny" to further buff up your party.
As far as the adventuring goes, the core mechanics from the original Kingdom Hearts have been tightened up to good effect in KHII. Exploration is a breeze, and combat has been smoothed out quite a bit, thanks to an improved camera system that, while not perfect, isn't as trying as the original game's. You'll be able to set the behavior of your AI-controlled buddies to ensure they're useful. While we haven't messed around with the AI settings too much, it appears that Donald and Goofy are a little smarter. One interesting new wrinkle to combat is the context-sensitive triangle button, which has come into play several times already. Whether you're using it to avoid a boss attack, roll behind a normal enemy, or simply leap up to a moving tram in Twilight Town or Sunset Terrace, the multiuse button feels like a smart addition to the combat system.
The visuals in the game are outstanding, though you'll notice a few spots where they strain against the limits of the 5-year-old PlayStation 2 hardware. Sora and the gang are all lovingly rendered in impressive detail and smooth animation. Though part of the adventure appears to have you revisiting familiar locales, they've all been touched up to one degree or another, ensuring the game looks fresh. The art direction in the game is great and in many ways feels more at ease with blending the Disney and Square sensibilities into a cohesive package. The game's color palette also looks to have been fleshed out with greater color variations that lend a lot of character to the locales we've seen so far.
A new aspect of the visuals we've noticed is a better sense of scope in some areas, which gives the game a grander sense of scale. We've found a number of areas with more open space, although they're sparsely populated so they end up feeling emptier than we'd like. Still, we dig the attempt to beef things up. The core graphics are spruced up by a host of special effects that add a good layer of polish to the already sharp presentation. Aside from the third-person stuff, we're pleased by the new look for the Gummi ship levels, which are much more dynamic than those seen in the original game. Finally, the cutscenes we've seen are sharp and have a more assured cinematic feel.
The audio we've heard so far is top-notch across the board and complements the impressive visuals. You'll hear an abundance of excellent voice acting that suits the narrative. The sound effects draw on many of the familiar effects heard in the original game and throw a few new ones into the mix as well. However, as good as all of the above is, the anchor to the experience is the game's lush soundtrack, which is once again being handled by veteran Yoko Shimomura. In keeping with KHII's more sophisticated story, the tunes in the game have richer sound that gives the music an air of gravitas that works well with the narrative's epic scope.
Based on what we've played so far, Kingdom Hearts II seems to have all the right elements to please fans, as well as the gameplay to let it stand as a solid sequel. Anyone looking to import should be warned that there's a hefty amount of Japanese to be found in the game. While veteran players should have no trouble making their way through with some trial and error, most folks, especially those looking to follow the story, will want to steer clear unless they've got an above-average knowledge of Japanese. In the meantime, fans may want to pick up Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the GBA to get ready for KHII's US release early next year.
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