Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Kingdom Hearts 2

Or: "I have to kill Xemnas how many times?!"

Well, I've beaten "Kingdom Hearts 2". Not completely - I didn't do the journal missions, and Sephiroth cut me to pieces with five blows - but I figure that'll give me something to do when I replay it. The big surprise here is that I really, really enjoyed it.

It's not that I disliked the first game, mind you. I thought it was a lot of fun. But I tend to prioritize story and characters over gameplay (big surprise, huh?), and "Kingdom Hearts" fell a bit flat in that respect. But the sequel provides a much more intricate storyline; it's not sophisticated on the level of a "Final Fantasy" game, but it certainly holds its own. This is largely because - in contrast to the previous game - "Kingdom Hearts 2" actually follows the basic plots of the Disney films it appropriates, inserting Sora and his companions into stories rather than trying to twist the setting to suit their presence. Ariel makes her deal with Ursula, Belle and the Beast are falling in love, Mulan is trying to infiltrate the Chinese army as a man, etc. At the same time, the Heartless are active on every world, and serve to tie all the separate narratives together. We also have the introduction of the Nobodies and Organization XIII, which serves to thicken the plot. In fact, they practically double the game's length: after defeating the Heartless on every world, you have to go through the sequence again, as Organization members arrive to cause more trouble. On top of that, we have body-switching, false identities and memories, revelations about the past and, of course, the unforgettable Battle of Hollow Bastion and the final fight against Xemnas... a lot's going on.

Character-wise, practically everyone gets bigger and better roles this time, from the Final Fantasy characters to Mickey to the inhabitants of each world. Even Kairi is marginally less annoying this time around, by virtue of actually doing something. Pete is an excellent choice for main villain in the first part of the game, considering the character's history. My only complaint is the return of Maleficent - considering she only plays a minor part that could have been assigned to anyone else, and also taking into account the fact that her resurrection is never properly explained, I don't see the point. We don't even learn what happens to her and Pete, which is a major disappointment. I do have to admit, though, that this game actually moved me to tears on two separate occasions: the first is when Sora boards the "ghost train" at Twilight Town, and the second is during the conclusion, the last time we see Roxas and Namine. There's a deep, understated poignancy in those moments that really got to me.

I still find the whole fortune-cookie-philosophizing to be annoying, though it's less amorphous than the previous game, in which Ansem's door to darkness turns out to be a door to light that's somehow infested with millions of Heartless (so, is it light or darkness? Pick one and stick to it).

All the basic gameplay elements of the previous game are present, but much improved: the Gummi Ship sections were refreshingly simple and enjoyable, the boss fights were all the more interesting thanks to the addition of Reaction commands, and leveling up is still a relatively painless process. I did think all the Drive Forms and Summons were a bit over the top - I doubt I used a tenth of the available support, simply because I didn't need it.

It's plainly obvious that the creative team went all-out in providing new and enthralling game worlds, specifically worlds you wouldn't necessarily expect to see based on the first game (Port Royal, the Pride Lands, and especially Space Paranoids - side note, Corey Burton does an amazing job recreating David Warner's voice for Commander Sark. I could barely tell the difference). There's a section called "Cornerstone Hill" where you go back in time to Disney circa "Steamboat Willie", and it's just the cutest thing ever. Atlantica was... well, it was different, which counts for something in a game already full of diverse elements. The musicals were tolerable, but hard to enjoy considering you have to be focused on reflexive button-pushing.

Final thought: this might be the slash addict in me talking, but someone should really tell Tetsuya Nomura that Sora seems to be much more interested in Riku than Kairi. For future reference, the hero should save the crying and the hand-holding and the drop to his knees for the girl, his supposed love interest. Unless you're trying to say something else. Which you probably aren't. But still, that's two games now where Kairi's pretty much an afterthought.

"Kingdom Hearts 2" is a fantastic game, one that tries (and succeeds) to give its players a wide array of experiences for a solid 36 hours of fun - and it's worth every minute.