It's difficult to imagine how the idea for Kingdom Hearts might have dawned on someone. For a game to combine the brooding, self-important characters of the Final Fantasy series with the lighthearted, often silly characters from many of Disney's most famous animated feature films seems ridiculous, if not impossible. But here it is, as plain as day: Kingdom Hearts, an action adventure game that's sure to appeal to fans of either Square's previous games or Disney's cartoons, at least on some weird level. Though the actual gameplay of Kingdom Hearts isn't as noteworthy as the concept, and the plot wavers between being predictable and incoherent, you'll still enjoy making your way through the game's various settings, stumbling onto more Square and Disney cameos than you ever thought you'd see in one place.
Having Donald Duck and Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife in the same game--much less battling it out--demands some explanation. What the heck is going on in Kingdom Hearts? Well, it seems that a nefarious force is drawing on the life energies of a number of interconnected worlds using a shadowy, monstrous horde called the Heartless. Though, "monstrous" perhaps isn't the best way to describe a group of bad guys who look like a cross between the black mages of Final Fantasy and Looney Tunes' Marvin the Martian. As Sora, a fresh-faced kid with strange clothes, big feet, spiky hair, and a voice provided by The Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment, you'll become the unwitting savior of all these troubled lands as you search for your missing friends. With the help of none other than Goofy and Donald Duck (who happen to be looking for Mickey Mouse) and armed with your trusty keyblade, you'll visit a number of strange-but-familiar worlds before your quest is complete.
Along the way, you'll run into some of Disney's most famous characters, and you'll also meet some of Square's finest. But make no mistake--there's much more Disney here. So while you shouldn't expect to run into every one of your favorite Final Fantasy bit players, if you're a big Disney fan, you'll be in for a real treat. Square fans can take heart from the fact that Kingdom Hearts by all means bears the characteristics of a Square game, complete with all the sorts of character building, secret items, minigames, and impressive boss battles they've come to expect.
Kingdom Hearts isn't a role-playing game like last year's Final Fantasy X, but it does have plenty of role-playing elements. Your characters gain levels, spells, and special abilities as they proceed in their quest, and you can go out of your way to find special items or go back to town and shop for better equipment. Yet the action all takes place in real time, and there's plenty of it. You'll be fighting the Heartless in virtually every scene of the game, and when you defeat a pack of them, another pack will often materialize right then and there. Kingdom Hearts also has a good number of platform-jumping sequences and a few puzzles to solve. It's a linear game, though sometimes you get a choice of where to go first. It's also a pretty long game--not as lengthy as Final Fantasy X, but certainly a lot bigger than your average 10-hour action adventure.
Though Kingdom Hearts succeeds on most levels, its gameplay can get tedious. By default, the camera tries to stay behind Sora as he runs around, but you'll be able to move more nimbly than the camera, which will cause you headaches. You can switch to a manual camera--which complicates things but gives you better control over the perspective--but the camera will still wig out when you get too close to walls or other obstacles. The worlds you'll visit are mostly themed after various Disney animated films--Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, to name a couple. Yet despite the unmistakably different visual styles of each of these settings, the course of the gameplay tends to be about the same in each one. While there's an overarching story story in Kingdom Hearts, it sometimes takes a backseat to an abridged version of whichever Disney movie that world is based on. To help the hero of the world defeat the villain and restore order, you'll basically need to run around from one small area to the next, fighting the armies of the Heartless and the occasional boss.
There can be a lot of backtracking in each sequence, but you might not realize it, because you often won't get clear instructions on what to do next. You'll just have to run around and see what happens, and since the worlds are all relatively small, you'll still stumble upon the next checkpoint eventually. There's nothing like hitting a dead end to make you realize you were probably supposed to go the other way. This doesn't really make for a satisfying sense of exploration, though you'll love first setting foot in each new world.
The combat in Kingdom Hearts is pretty fun, though it can get very repetitive. Initially, you can only execute a short combo using your keyblade. You'll soon by joined by Donald and Goofy, who'll fight autonomously by your side. It's nice having company throughout most of the game, but these two (and the others who'll join you) are basically there just to draw some of the enemies' attacks away from you and provide occasional healing. You can customize their behavior in battle, but you'll still often have to fend for yourself. Later, you'll gain access to numerous special abilities and magic, including some visually stunning Final Fantasy-style summoning spells. Your foes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but you'll defeat most of them just by pounding on the attack button until they burst into little orbs that give you money or a little health or magic power if you run over them. And since you'll only fight a few types of opponents within each area, and since they'll usually just keep coming no matter how many you defeat, you'll eventually see the Heartless as just an obstacle--run right past them, and you'll save yourself some trouble.
The boss battles in Kingdom Hearts are probably the highlight of the gameplay. On the one hand, they're all over the map, ranging from very easy to quite difficult. In the latter cases, you'll be frustrated by having to sit through pre-fight cutscenes again for every time you're beaten. But there's quite a bit of variety in the encounters, and some of them are so undeniably impressive that you'll go into each one eagerly rather than with dread. The tactics you'll need to use to succeed will vary quite a bit, but simple logic and good reflexes will come into play much more frequently than puzzle solving or guesswork. Actually, in a nod to the Final Fantasy games, one perfectly viable tactic for getting past the game's toughest battles is simply to spend a lot of time wasting Heartless beforehand. Gain enough levels and those hard fights become a breeze.
One aspect of Kingdom Hearts' gameplay that doesn't fare nearly as well are the shooter sequences in between each of the worlds. What's all this third-person sci-fi shooter stuff doing in the middle of this game? Well, maybe it's not really any more out of place than anything else, but the problem is it's just not executed effectively. The shooter stages are just pale imitations of Nintendo's Star Fox games, and they'll leave you stuck on rails for several minutes at a time as you blast away at a bunch of indistinguishable opponents. The psychedelic backgrounds and abstract shapes almost make these sequences seem even more boring than they are. At any rate, your depth perception will be all out of whack in outer space, and for some reason you'll find yourself missing your targets often. The fact that there's a rather involved but decidedly convoluted ship design feature built into the game, letting you customize your ship or even build a new one from scratch, seems like a waste--the only thing you'll want is to get the shooting stages over with as quickly as possible, and since they're all easy, you will.
If nothing else, the shooting stages clearly stand between you and the next chance you'll have to meet one of the game's colorful characters. There's no denying that the production values of Kingdom Hearts are one of the best things about it, if not the best. Though virtually everything you'll see in the game is rendered in real time, Kingdom Hearts looks terrific, and most all of the characters--especially the Disney characters--look really impressive. The Disney characters, though they're fully 3D, generally manage to capture the detailed facial animations and expressive movements of their cinematic counterparts--an amazing feat for a game, considering that Disney's animators are some of the best in the world.
For that matter, the voice actors who provide their speech also do an outstanding job for the most part. Not all the dialogue is in full speech, but a lot of it is, and all the spoken dialogue is excellent. Kingdom Hearts is loaded with noninteractive cutscenes, and for better or worse, they are probably the finest moments of the game. You'll enjoy watching the strange interactions between characters you'd never thought you'd see in the same place. You'll be able to tell that a lot more effort went into some cutscenes than others, and Square's writers don't have the same penchant for humor that Disney's writers do, but all in all there's a very good chance you'll like watching Kingdom Hearts even more than playing it. Despite the excellent speech, the rest of the audio in Kingdom Hearts is a little disappointing. The sound effects are simple and subdued, but the music can be very grating. The compositions effectively match each of the worlds you'll visit, but each music loop is so short that you'll have long since grown weary of it by the time you've done what you needed to do in the area.
Kingdom Hearts is still great, largely because it successfully captures the spirit of both Square and Disney in a single game. The way it pulls this off can't be described as easily as it can be experienced, so if you find the idea the least bit intriguing and are willing to put up with a few shortcomings in the gameplay, then you should give Kingdom Hearts a try. Like the Disney cartoons that inspired the game, it can be recommended to pretty much anybody.