Where Kingdom Hearts 3 Needs to Improve: Kingdom Hearts 2(.5 Final Mix) Review
Where Kingdom Hearts 3 Needs to Improve:
Kingdom Hearts 2(.5 Final Mix) Review
I’ve been playing Kingdom Hearts 2 for the first time over the last month or so in hopes of preparing myself for Kingdom Hearts 3. As a fresh high school graduate with time on hand, I played the first Kingdom Hearts game somewhere at or close to its North American release in September of 2002. I remember this game and Metal Gear Solid 2 as some of, if not the first examples of me getting emotionally invested in video game hype leading up to the actual release of the game. Kingdom Hearts was mashing together the familiar loveable Disney characters and worlds that made up much of my childhood entertainment with Final Fantasy, of which three (Final Fantasy 6,7 and 9) earmarked a large portion of my teenage entertainment. It’s a pretty simple concept really, combining the forces of Disney with the post-PS1 Final Fantasy’s sending fans into a hallucinogenic dream state. Not everyone grew up with Disney animation playing such an important role, but many did. Not everyone fell in love with overtly sensational, though often whimsical JRPG’s either, but that era of Final Fantasy is especially beloved by millions. It was two great tastes tasting great together. The mega-corporations pupils turned into dollar signs and the fans saw an unimaginable mashup. Though some people (me, I was that obnoxious person desperately wanting this to be Final Fantasy 7 with a Disney cherry on top) were not, and are still not in love with the gameplay switch, the first game in many ways set a new president for Square RPGs. Trading traditional turn-based gameplay into a character action based game gave the characters and the story the spotlight giving Kingdom Hearts a distinctive difference with other Square JRPG properties.
Before I committed myself to Kingdom Hearts 2 I wanted to dip back into the first game for just a little bit and let me tell you, that first game doesn’t age well. The action is incredibly boring, the worlds are all made up of linear hallways and the enemies are largely the same for the whole game. I’ve heard for some time that Kingdom Hearts 2 is a big step up, especially when it comes to the action, so I was curious to see what it was like. Happily, the fights, and there are plenty, are much more involved and interesting. This isn’t Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, but it isn’t supposed to be. It’s pretty easy to pull off special moves (usually just literally press Triangle when the Triangle prompt appears) and the fighting can get a bit mashy for sure, but it’s better. There are moments in the game where it starts to feel a bit too Dynasty Warriors, including a literal section where you fight off 1000 enemies and I couldn’t help but think this was a faithful homage to Dynasty Warriors. Overall, the fighting in Kingdom Hearts 2 holds up pretty decently. I was surprised. I was (mostly) having fun. There was strategy applying the abilities to your liking, not unlike AP in Final Fantasy games, and picking the special Keyblades that offer different powers. Unfortunately, there are also huge issues I continually ran into, namely with the Triangle button being the special attack for everything. There were fights where the Triangle usage was necessary to counter, but if you have an ability on one of your party members (like I had with Donald) that allows you to just press Triangle when you want to use their special attack, it becomes impossible to know if you are going to hit the Triangle to get the counter or accidentally tell Donald Duck to shoot a million fireworks at the boss that do absolutely nothing and completely drains your MP. It was frustrating. The game also suffers from obtuse difficulty spikes, at least on the ‘Proud Mode’ (hard difficulty). Honestly, I don’t know how I felt about this though. At the time of those spikes, it seemed strange and unfair. I was just cleaning house with normal battles and bosses until a fight against an Organization 13 member at Beast’s Castle that probably took me a good two dozen attempts. It truly seemed out of nowhere and I was starting to speak more aggressively to my TV. But it also made me go through the abilities to see if there was anything that would help with that particular fight and it, along with two tougher fights towards the end of the game made me get more strategic and less reliant on just mashing through the fights.
If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy and disliked the weird mini-games ala snowboarding or underwater soccer, this game is not for you. It is full of ways to switch up the monotony of running through corridors and fighting Heartless. It’s all not great too. It just seems like they needed to pad out the playtime clock to satisfy JRPG expectations. The entire Winnie the Pooh and Little Mermaid worlds are literally nothing but mini-games, which is a shame for someone like myself that has a distinct nostalgia for Winnie the Pooh and his velutinous assemblage of inhabitants. There are also a few times the fights turn into mini-games including a chunk of the Aladdin world where you have to control the magic carpet and fight, as well as the final fight of the game having an extremely similar sequence. The gummi ship is back and bette… it’s back at least, and I never understood why it was there in the first place. I’m technically counting the gummi ship as a mini-game because it’s on rails, overtly unnecessary and just as bad as all the other mini-game stuff. All of this isn’t great and hopefully, in the new game, it appears less or not at all. Or, maybe, just maybe, they can make something really neat out of this stuff, not unlike Yakuza or modern Rockstar games.
ENTER KINGDOM HEARTS STORY JOKE HERE… But seriously, the story is what it is. There are things I like. Much of it is inscrutable. Every time Donald and Goofy say ‘Organization 13’ I get a good chuckle. If the story wasn’t so ridiculous the series probably wouldn’t carry the same fervent fandom it has built up. There is a badge-wearing quality to inducing oneself to every weird handheld and browser-based game in this series and having some sort of grasp on what this game is trying to do story wise. The Disney injection is all but needless to the wider story. You go to a Disney world, help out with a localized issue, beat up some Heartless/foil Pete for the umpteenth time and the two beautiful male and female protagonists find love. It’s fine, but in the bottom of my heart, I will always want the Final Fantasy 7 style of just having Aladdin and/or Tron in my party at all times and let me choose which Disney party members I want at any given time. I should also mention the voice acting here I suppose. It is so very unsatisfying to be on the Hercules world and hear the all-in cheekiness James Woods puts into Hades and then go to the Pirates of the Caribbean world and immediately notice the fake Johnny Depp someone was forced to do for Jack Sparrow. It’s also strangely paced, the line reads just seem to linger at times, or seem like they were put together by a computer programmed to encapsulate the most inoffensive pre-teen humor. It can be REAL off-putting, but it is also part of this game's charm. The reason people still love Final Fantasy 7 so much was the language barrier led to weirdness but also provided much of the characters charisma that dissipated in later Final Fantasy games which exchanged text-based charm for bruting melodrama.
In the end, though, I found playing this game enjoyable. I’m not sure if coming off of Red Dead Redemption 2 helped, because I was just along for the ride with Kingdom Hearts 2 while Red Dead left me fighting the controls while fully invested in the characters and story and often took a lot out of me. There are parts of this game that simply haven’t aged well. The world design was still pretty awful and wasn’t all that improved from the first entry. It’s usually 3-4 very linear areas that spawn 3-4 groups of Heartless per. There are fair gripes to be had with the combat and the story, but I’m happy I played it and I’m excited for the third game and hopeful some of these complaints can be cleaned up for the highly anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3.