In the first Kingdom Hearts, Donald Duck, Goofy and a little boy with big feet prevented Disney villains from obtaining ultimate power. Eventually, as it is with most Square RPGS, a greater bad guy was revealed to be behind a bigger plot, but Sora and friends prevailed with the help of a giant Key and light philosophy. Other stuff happened in-between, but that’s the gist of it.
The ‘other stuff’ is pretty important for explaining what happens in Kingdom Hearts II. Following Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, the series has transcended from a weird crossover special into a sprawling mythos, no longer definable in simple terms. Going into KH-II means understanding Organization XIII, Nobodies, real Twilight Town, virtual Twilight Town, the nature of human memories, the Realm of Darkness, Roxas, Naminé, Christopher Lee, whose Nobody belongs to who and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.
Although the overall plot isn’t as complicated as I remember, keep in mind that prior to this replay I finished Chain of Memories and then watched the Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days cutscene ‘movie’ as a primer. Without all of that to prepare me I would have been completely confused, especially at the beginning.
That’s because you don’t start as Sora, but this walking embodiment of cognitive dissonance named Roxas. He hangs out in a strange town we’ve never seen with people we’ve never met, skateboarding and collecting ‘munny’ to spend on his summer vacation. Meanwhile Sora, Donald and Goofy are suspended in stasis pods in what looks like the White Room from The Matrix.
It all comes together in time—albeit slower if you skipped that GBA game—and soon the duck, dog and JRPG fella are awake again. Sora is still voiced by Haley Joel Osment, whose post-pubescent low pitch sounds strange when Sora is lamenting “Dunald! Goff-ey!” Sora himself skips over the awkward transition while in suspended animation. If only middle school had been that simple.
Since Sora’s clothes no longer fit, he pays a visit to the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, who not only upgrade his getup but give him the ability to transform in a pinch. The various Forms are badass when they are maxed out, adding more sugar and caffeine to the ADD hack-and-slash gameplay I fell in love with in KH-1.
The Disney Villain Legion of Doom takes a backseat, as our heroes are preoccupied with stopping a group called Organization XIII from wrecking havoc on the universe. The Organization is made up of Nobodies, empty shells left behind when a person devolves into a Heartless. Nobodies are usually creepy Silent Hill-esque monsters with zippers for fronts called Husks, but sometimes a human’s heart was so strong in Heartmorehood that their Nobody resembles a humanoid with special powers, crazy anime hair and more metrosexual accessorizing than twelve Square games combined.
It gets interesting when the Organization’s goal clashes with the Disney antagonists, leading to a war between Mouse Villains commanding Heartless armies and the Organization utilizing Husks. It’s like a Marvel or DC special except with Winnie the Pooh and Little Mermaid musical numbers.
The Worlds have more of a creative touch this time. Some of them are familiar haunts, but many are new, with innovative twists to keep things fresh. At one point Sora and company get beamed into TRON to carry on a very aesthetic fight against the Master Control Program. In another instance they travel back to a Steamboat Willie World, where their designs resemble 1920’s characters. The strangest World of all is probably Port Royal, where the cast from Pirates of the Caribbean are done up in that photorealistic, plastic CGI style akin to Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. This contrasts with the default way the Disney trio are still rendered.
The in-World stories range from following Disney movie canon to presenting “What if?” fanfic scenarios. Personally I found the original plots more endearing than the familiar ones. For example, one of them involves an incredibly fun hack through the Underworld while fighting alongside a weakened Hercules. Fledgling king Simba gets haunted by Scar’s ghost. Over in the Beast’s castle, The Organization seeks to turn him into an exceptional member.
As endearing as the Worlds are, the level designs themselves put me off. KH-1 had sprawling layouts that required a lot of jumping, climbing and exploring to find the next objective. Here the topography has been flattened down, eliminating most of the platforming elements. Each World is literally a series of linear hallways that connect one cutscene to the next, with no way at all to get lost. There are collectible maps that can guide you, but since every segmented area is a straight corridor the maps aren’t necessary.
Certain KH-1 Worlds, particularly Hallow Bastion and Agrabah, had frustrating falls and jumps. You will no longer get pushed seven stories off a tower while fighting Heartless in Kingdom Hearts II. But with the complexity diminished, there isn’t much to see in each World, despite most of them having to be visited twice.
A couple of other pet peeves bug me as well. Sora now has Reaction Commands at his disposal, where tapping Triangle during certain conditions, such as being under an enemy or jumping in the air at the right moment, allows for unique and devastating critical attacks. Reaction Commands are helpful under duress and the animations are a sight to behold, but calling it something other than what it is doesn’t stop this old grump from decrying “quick time events!” I’m not a fan of the push-X-to-win, Dragon’s Lair style whack-a-mole that’s become prevalent in modern gaming. The big scene where Sora is attacked by 1000 onscreen enemies isn’t so intense when all it amounts to is button mashing.
Finally, invisible walls are everywhere in this game. Aside from the usual ones that keep players from falling into subspace, the designers snuck them around collectibles so they’re impossible to grab without special abilities. Even if you’re savvy enough to plot a jump at the perfect angle, you’re guaranteed to fall short of collecting that puzzle piece unless you have High Jump or Glide.
In short, Kingdom Hearts II is rather linear compared to the previous games. There’s an acute sense of hand holding throughout the first half. It’s after you can return with unlockable abilities that exploration becomes a real option.
Despite these problems, I still had a lot of fun replaying Kingdom Hearts II, discovering the connections and subtexts that I missed the first time through. The story is entertaining once it’s decoded, and I daresay more detailed than KH-1. The collectibles and bonuses are well worth trying to find.
There’s no rest for the weary, however. I’ve still got a few more of these to play through, and if I wait too long between games, I’ll be spending late nights with the Kingdom Hearts Wiki. Apparently the next twist is going to involve time travel. Ha ha. Who’s got some Ritalin?
FINAL GRADE: B