It has all ready been discussed ad nauseam on enough websites, newsgroups, bulletin boards and magazines but it bears repeating: Kingdom Hearts is a hell of a bizarre concept. The merging between corporate intellectual properties certainly seems like the recipe for a disaster along the lines of Square’s own Final Fantasy movie, or the Jetsons meet the Flintstones, but against some tall odds the game manages to work. It manages to work remarkably well.
The player controls Sora, a fashion savvy young teen who lives on a near deserted tropical paradise (subtly named Destiny Island) with his best friends Kairi and Riku, the obligatory effeminate silver haired bishounen (see if you can guess his role in the story). The three are the latest characters in Disney’s ever-increasing lexicon of potential direct to video fodder. That’s right, despite being designed by game director and frequent Final Fantasy character designer Tetsuya Nomura; Disney owns them. Also on the island are Tidus and Wakka from Final Fantasy X and Selphie from FF VIII, though Sora seems to be the only one to acknowledge their presence; their presence is more tutorial than narrative. As the game opens, after a lengthy and surreal intro, Sora, Kairi and Riku are in the midst of building a raft so they can see what lies beyondtheir island. Apparently they’ve lived on the island for their entire lives, leaving one to wonder how they manage to get their hands on such chic clothing. Meanwhile, in the Disney Kingdom, Donald Duck the mage is on his way to a routine meeting with King Mickey when he discovers that the King has disappeared leaving behind only a short letter. It explains that there is a threat on the horizon for the Kingdom and all the Disney worlds. Mickey has decided to investigate this threat himself, should he need to be found, Donald and Goofy the Knight should seek a man known only as “Leon”. Events back on Destiny Island soon separate Sora from his friends and whisk him away to Traverse Town, a kind of nexus locale where Square and Disney characters live side by side. This is where Goofy and Donald start their search for Leon, and it is here that Sora will team up with them to begin their epic and truly bizarre, cameo-filled adventure to defeat the Heartless.
As can be surmised from the description of the first 45 minutes of the game, Kingdom Hearts is very story-heavy for an action-R.P.G. Cutscenes are frequent and unfortunately cannot be skipped. Thankfully the story is both well written and very well presented so it is only an issue on replays or should you find yourself dying repeatedly on a certain boss. The high quality of the story may seem surprising considering the gimmicky concept of the whole game, but examining the pedigree of the title should clear any surprise or doubt. The writing team consists of Keiko Nobumoto (Head writer of Cowboy Bebop), Kazushige Nojima (head writer of FFVII,VIII and X), Daisuke Watanabe (co-writer of FFX) and Jun Akiyama (event director of Kingdom Hearts, Vagrant Story and FFVII). Though the overall tone of the story is lighthearted, it does take itself seriously in that there is real danger to the characters and the world. When it comes to the main story line of the relationships between Sora, Kairi and Rikku it has a feeling of melancholy to it and the actual conclusion to the game is surprisingly touching. Which isn’t to say the game is a brooding, pretentious, depressing affair starring Disney characters, just that there is a degree of thoughtfulness to it that some may not have expected. It’s best explained like this; the story is more Chrono Trigger than Super Mario RPG.
Of course this is a game we’re supposed to play, not watch, and aside from a few nagging issues, Kingdom Hearts plays fantastically. It essentially follows the Zelda 64 exploration/combat scheme, without (thank god) the auto-jump feature, and certain familiar character growth mechanics. Exploration gives full range of movements: jumping, hanging, swimming, rolling etc. The overall controls are smooth, though jumping can take more precision than feels natural. The only real exploration issue comes up in The Little Mermaid World where Sora is transformed into a merman (Donald and Goofy get it worse) and the constant need to move up and down a third axis feels too cumbersome and can lead to one too many collisions into rocks. Or it could just be my lack of spatial reasoning. Combat, as mentioned, handles in a similar way to the recent incarnations of Zelda complete with a lock on option which comes in two forms, soft and hard. Soft lock is automatic and will target the nearest enemy so that while swinging franticly with your giant key, as long as you’re close enough you will hit something. Hard lock is when you lock onto a specific enemy so as to not loose sight of him/her or if you’re really intent on bagging him/her yourself. Hard lock isn’t something to be used at all times however, as Sora will use more broad swings with soft lock and when facing multiple enemies it’s better to take them on all at once than one at a time. Unlike Zelda 64, you may find yourself facing dozens of enemies at once leading to some intense battles where you’ll make good use of the roll and parry options.
Sora will not be fighting alone, Goofy and Donald are with him for the long haul with occasional Disney characters joining for short periods of time. Since you only control Sora, good A.I is imperative. And while you may find yourself occasionally wondering just what the hell your companions are doing in battle, they usually get the job done. The A.I can be set so that they focus on offence, defense, protecting the wounded, item conservation etc. One fault is that even with item conservation set, Donald and Goofy love using items. This is problematic considering each character can only carry a certain number of items for use in battle (the amount raises with exp), the rest is put in the “backyard” for assignment when you aren’t being attacked by giant mushrooms or hell-spawn.
Battle isn’t an exclusively hack & slash affair. Being an action-RPG, magic and item use are vital. But battles are real time all the way, meaning you have to navigate those menus while avoiding a clobbering. This is done by using the right analog stick to make way through the menus and the left for all of your running needs. While it may seem initially disconcerting, it soon becomes second nature and the option for shortcut keys for whatever you designate should lower your stress level if, like me, you can’t focus on more than one thing at once. One of the few flaws with the realtime menu navigation is that when curative spells are used, Sora will stop dead in his tracks in order to cast it. Those few seconds are more than enough time for someone to attack you and cancel the spell. While you can argue that it’s part of the strategy to time when to cast the spell it’s just flat out frustrating to have already cast it then get killed before it’s done its stuff.
At the start of the game you are given a choice as to what will be your strength and your weakness from three areas: attack, defense and magic. From here your stats increase in a standard experience system. In addition to exp you also earn AP points which are used to assign specific abilities to the characters (half MP usage, dodge ability etc.), individually or as a group. Think FFIX, and you pretty much have the picture.
The only real flaw in both exploration and combat (especially combat) is the camera system. Though placed fully in the hands of the player, it requires far more attention than it should. It will stay behind enemies obstructing your view, get stuck on an object when you try to move it around, etc. It doesn’t kill the game but it is distracting. Square should have gone for a system that would have ignored the physical constraints of the game world, but they instead opted for a “the camera is really there!” route which will invariably lead to these problems.
An odd addition to the gameplay are arcade style levels in-between each Disney World, and by Disney Worlds that is meant quite literally, each “level” has it’s own small planet that you must travel to by way of the Gummi ship. Though the levels are not much of a challenge, even in the final hours of the game, they are welcome distraction due to the fact you can customize your ship however you see fit with parts you collect through battles and the storyline. If you’re not up to spending time on your ship there is a list of pre-made ones that can be constructed if you have the proper parts. And for those who grow weary of the lack of difficulty, they can rest assured that each path between planets needs only be traveled once, the option to automatically warp to any previously visited location is received early on.
The game length will vary depending on desire to do side quests or your skill in the genre. Experienced gamers looking to rush through can expect to finish the game in under 20 hours, but if one takes their time, or just doesn’t have the reflexes, it can take up to 40. Speaking of side quests, the game may not have the 200 hours one can milk from FF X, but there are enough to either offer replay enjoyment or to make the first play through really last. And for a change there is an endgame reward for completing three specific side quests: a little bonus video that may not add much to the story, but is visually incredible, even by Square’s high CG standards.
The CG use in the game is sparse, used only for the intro and ending. It’s clear that as Square begins to take the PS2 to new visual heights, the reliance on pre-rendered cinemas while eventually wither away to nothing. However Kingdom Hearts is not the prelude of things to come as FFX was. While graphically the game is well put together it is by no means pushing the PS2 anywhere it hasn’t been. The concept seems to be not to adapt the 2d world of the Disney characters into a 3d one, but to adapt the 3d to the 2d look sans cell shading. Polygon count and textures are technically low, but they do a surprisingly effective job of keeping the visual richness of the Disney films. The best way to describe the look is adequate but polished. Like FFX the main characters in cut-scenes have two models, high polygon (where the perfect lip synching and carefully animated eyes show Square’s animators’ prowess) and low polygon (where the faces are just a series of different textures to indicate a few different mouth movements). The only complaint as to the visuals is the disparity between the two models; the high-polygon looks fantastic whereas the low-polygon look acceptable but plain. Hopefully in the future (since it’s a technique Square will likely keep up with to avoid potential slowdown) they will find a way to do a more convincing low-polygon model that will complete the illusion.
Though not fully voice acted as FFX was (voice acting is strictly for the cutscenes and battle grunts) it does a uniformly excellent job. Donald is just as incomprehensible as he was in English and Hades sounds eerily like James Woods has been brushing up on Japanese. The only criticism goes to Winnie the Pooh, who sounds less like the unassuming child-like Toa guru he does in English, and just a whiny jerk-off.
Yoko Shimomura (Legend of Mana, Parasite Eve, Super Mario RPG) provides a solid soundtrack, even if it’s not as distinctive and memorable as her earlier works. Like the graphics, it is only as good as it needs to be. Though many popular Disney tunes show up here and there, for the most part it is original work. What is most memorable about the soundtrack are not any individual composition, but the wide variety of battle tunes. Each world has it’s own battle theme that flows naturally from the exploration music and back. It is something hopefully more traditional console RPGs will adopt.
Though looking at the individual elements of Kingdom Hearts would only seem to indicate an above average adventure, it’s the fact that all the elements work together in perfect synergy to form one of the most enjoyable games currently available on the PS2. There will be some who will refuse to play the game because of its association with Disney, but it’s their loss because they’re missing out on a wonderful experience.