Kingdom Hearts Preview
We take a look at the upcoming Disney/SquareSoft collaboration.
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Final Fantasy and Disney--the very notion of this combination may seem absolutely absurd to some, but when you actually see it executed in Square's new role-playing game, Kingdom Hearts, it almost seems like a natural fit. But to call Kingdom Hearts an RPG, or even a typical Square RPG, would be incorrect, because, like its premise, Kingdom Hearts is quite different from what you would normally expect from the creators of the Final Fantasy series. For instance, the battle system is in real time, as opposed to the turn-based system featured in the Final Fantasy games. You also have much more control over the lead character; you can make him climb over rocks, jump over chasms, and perform other actions. Even the overall structure of the game and its levels bear a stronger resemblance to a platformer than an RPG. Though this could've been a conscious decision by Square to make Kingdom Hearts appeal more to the younger audience, ultimately it seems like Kingdom Hearts will appeal to the older crowd as well.
The game's protagonist, Sora, is an appropriate amalgamation of the Square and Disney universes. Since the character designs were done by Square's Tetsuya Nomura, most of Sora's upper body and head distinctly resemble those of a Final Fantasy character. But his arms, legs, and his oversized shoes are akin to something you might see in a Disney film. Other characters in the game aren't quite as unique in design, which is understandable because it's only Sora who must travel through different Disney worlds, such as Wonderland, the coliseum from Hercules, and even the jungle from Tarzan, to rescue his friends, help Donald and Goofy save King Mickey, and destroy the heartless--shadow creatures that have started invading both Sora's and Disney's universe.
Kingdom Hearts begins with a CG introduction that gives a look at Sora and some of his friends and generally sets the tone of confusion for the game, as Sora questions whether or not what he just experienced was a dream or was real. After the introduction, you get the first taste of the Final Fantasy and Disney combination with a brief cutscene that shows Sora plummeting toward a stained-glass representation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. As you walk forward toward the top of the window into a small sliver of light, three stones appear from behind. On top of each stone, you'll see an item: a sword, a shield, or a wand. These items essentially represent Sora's character statistics, so the items that you choose will have a slight effect on Sora's abilities when you start the game. After selecting an item, Sora is sent plummeting toward another stained-glass window depicting yet another well-known Disney property, and it's here that you'll get the first opportunity to try out Kingdom Hearts' battle system, which, as previously mentioned, has little in common with most Square RPGs because it's in real time. Square has chosen to use a proven method to ensure that combat is as effortless as possible.
On the second stained-glass window, a group of shadowy, insectlike creatures, known as the heartless, emerge from the ground to confront Sora. Equipped with a Mickey Mouse emblem sword, Sora is able to attack these creatures head-on. If you've ever played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, then Kingdom Hearts' battle system should be immediately familiar. Like Zelda, Kingdom Hearts uses a lock-on system, where you can lock on to individual enemies to focus your attack, but here there are actually two types that you can use. The first lock-on option, which is indicated by a circular yellow target, means that your attacks will be executed in the direction of that particular enemy, but they won't necessarily be focused on that enemy. This is helpful for taking on larger groups of five to six enemies. The second lock-on can be executed by pressing R1 on the PlayStation 2 controller, which causes the yellow target to turn blue. This means that all of your attacks are focused on a single enemy, and wherever that enemy goes, your attacks will follow.
When you've targeted an enemy, Sora can execute a flurry of sword swipes, which are performed by simply pressing the circle button repeatedly. Since the heartless that appear in this portion of the game aren't particularly difficult, you should have no problem defeating them within a matter of seconds, and once you do, a slightly more difficult challenge awaits. As you progress through the stained-glass area, you'll eventually reach a section with a long stained-glass stairway leading up to a remote platform in the darkness. After reaching that platform, Sora is confronted by an enormous shadow creature, which is presumably one of the heartless boss characters. During this battle, Sora can choose to lock on to a couple of different areas on the creature's body, but in this case, several well-placed strikes to the creature's hand is enough to fend it off. The boss fight tutorial ends, and Sora is once again sent plummeting into the darkness.
But instead of landing on another stained-glass window, Sora wakes up on a tropical island where his friends and some familiar faces from Final Fantasy X are waiting to help him sharpen his combat skills even further. There are essentially three different types of combat training on the island, but the two most important exercises occur with Waka and Tidus. With Waka, you'll get a general feel for how to dodge long-range attacks and then move in on the enemy for a few quick swipes of your blade. When fighting Tidus, you'll learn the importance of parrying. If you happen to time your attack so that it's executed at the same time as the enemy's, then you'll perform a parry, which causes the opponent to be stunned, leaving him open to attack. You'll also learn in any of the three battles that it's always helpful to use jump attack combinations, because they'll let you avoid an enemy attack and move in closer at the same time.
When you're done with Sora's basic combat training, you'll get the opportunity to become familiar with some of his other actions. Sora can do just about anything your typical platform character can do. He can run, jump, climb various objects such as trees, race down zip lines, and even pick up items like barrels and crates. Most of these skills are tested in a race against Riku, one of Sora's friends located on the other side of the island. In this race, you'll be asked to jump across portions of an old bridge, go down a zip line (assuming you can get it to work), jump across a series of treetops to touch the star marker, and then run back. It may sound easy, but it takes some time to become familiar with Sora's jumping abilities and how to time jumps properly. You'll often find yourself coming up a little short when jumping from tree to tree, but with some practice, you should be able to win the race with no problems.
After the race, it's time to solve one of Kingdom Hearts' first puzzles. In the amount of time that we've spent with the game, it seems a majority of the puzzles require you to go find a certain item or number of items and then return them to a specific character. On the tropical island, you'll have to gather a variety of items ranging from mushrooms to sheets of cloth, and many of these items are hidden, so you'll have to do a little exploring to find every last one of them.
While you can look around the environment in a first-person view (while standing still), the camera presents a few problems when you're searching for items, because it's just not versatile enough. You can rotate the camera left and right by pressing the L2 shoulder button or the R1 shoulder button respectively, but if you're in tight quarters, you can barely rotate the camera at all. In some cases, the camera is just in a horrible position regardless of whether or not you can change its position, especially during portions of the game that require generous amounts of platform jumping. Hopefully Square will take the time to examine the camera system and make it a little more useful and effective in the US release. When you're done with gathering items and honing your fighting skills, the more exciting portion of the game begins.
In an earlier cutscene, you learned that King Mickey Mouse had vanished from the castle and that Donald and Goofy had set out on a quest to find him. Shortly thereafter, a strange storm hits the tropical island, causing Sora to get out of bed and rush down to the docks, but the island is being overrun by the heartless, which Sora can't attack with his wooden sword. After reaching the docks, Sora sees his friend Riku standing out on a small island, surrounded by the same pool of darkness that surrounded the heartless boss character, which happens to appear when Sora reaches Riku. Once again, you'll have to fight and defeat this creature, and once that's done, you'll finally reach the Disney portion of the game.
Upon defeating the large shadow creature again, Sora is engulfed by a pool of shadows. The next moment you see him unconscious in an alley, only to be awakened by a familiar Disney character, which happens to be one of Mickey's closest companions. You're now in a new town inhabited by Final Fantasy and Disney characters alike. You'll see moogles walking down the street, a few dalmatians, a talking cricket, and several characters from both Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII. This town essentially functions as the hub of the game: It's where you can buy items and recoup your energy, and it's also where you'll receive your first magic powers and your first set of party members.
Just like everything else, the magic system in Kingdom Hearts is pretty straightforward. On the bottom left side of the screen you'll see a small menu that gives you the option to attack, use magic, use an item, or activate something within the environment. You can cycle through this menu by using the D pad or by using the right analog stick. Whenever you want to use magic, you simply highlight the magic option, select the magic type that you want (the first spell you receive is fire), and then press the circle button. Sora will swipe with his sword, which will cause a small fireball to appear. Though there's not anything particularly wrong with the magic system, the menu system can be a little cumbersome. Whenever you select the "use item" or "activate" options in the menu, you have to manually place it back to the default attack, so there are moments when you'll forget to switch it back and you'll wonder why Sora isn't using his sword.
Before you get to use any magic, you have to meet up with your first two party members, Donald and Goofy--both can be quite useful. Donald is the magic user of the group and as such is a little more adept at long-range attacks and staying away from the main battle. Conversely, Goofy is nothing but a melee fighter, and he'll charge at his opponents with his large Mickey Mouse shield until he sees them dead. The computer controls both, so you won't have to worry about their movements over the course of a battle. However, you are responsible for healing them, so if you see that either party member has low energy, you have to select the use item option in the menu, select the health potion, and then select the appropriate party member. Needless to say, it's somewhat strange to look over to the side of the screen and realize that you're fighting alongside Donald Duck and Goofy, but that's part of the game's charm. When you go into individual Disney worlds, you'll see how well each has been adapted to suit the general design of the game and how unique it is to be fighting alongside the Disney characters.
When you finally get out of that first town--by defeating the local boss--you'll be shown a map screen that shows your position in relation to the other Disney worlds that are apparently just floating around in space. To travel from one world to the next, you simply move the cursor over and select that world. You'll then be transported into this Star Fox-like shooter sequence where you fly around and shoot at various objects in Donald and Goofy's Gummi Ship. This part of the game must've taken Square all of five minutes to construct, as the Gummi Ship is made up of about 15 polygons, while the objects in the environment are made up of even fewer. In any case, you have to go through this part of the game any time you switch between the different worlds of Disney.
The first world you'll visit is Wonderland, where you'll have to reenact some of the scenes from the Disney version of the book, such as drinking the shrinking potion, visiting the Queen of Hearts' court when Alice is on trial, and even exploring the nearby forest with the Cheshire Cat. As interesting as that level is, they seem to get better as you progress through the game. In the Tarzan jungle level, you'll get to fight a jaguar inside of a tree house, and moments before the jaguar makes one last effort to kill Sora, Tarzan jumps in and causes the jaguar to go jumping out the window. Later on in this level, you'll get to do the tree-surfing scene from the movie and swing from vines, and at one point Tarzan will even join your party--though your party can only support up to three characters at once, so you'll have to get rid of Donald or Goofy if you want to have a different Disney character come along.
Interestingly, these two levels are actually quite different from each other structurally. The Wonderland level seems to be more puzzle-oriented, while the Tarzan jungle level is more action-oriented, requiring you to go through several platforming-style puzzles before you reach the end of the level. Worlds farther out seem to be just as interesting. You'll travel through the streets of Agrabah from Aladdin, go under the sea with the mermaids, fight in the coliseum from Hercules, and even venture through Halloween Town--fans of Disney will go absolutely crazy over the different themed levels.
While you may find the premise to be absolutely ridiculous, if you take the time to get into the game, you'll find that Kingdom Hearts is actually executed quite well. There's plenty of voice acting, and it seems to be well done. In fact, if you have the means, it's worth importing the game just to hear Donald speak in Japanese. Though not entirely on the same level as Final Fantasy X, the graphics are incredibly vibrant, the Disney characters all look great, and some of the environments truly look amazing. You could go so far as to say that the game has a cel-shaded look, though it doesn't actually use cel shading. But as entertaining as the game may be, it still has some rough edges. The camera needs much more work, especially for the jumping puzzles in later levels, and the jumping could be refined a little more as well. Hopefully Square will address these issues before Kingdom Hearts ships this October.