Here’s some complete honesty: this is my favourite game of all time. I happily acknowledge its problems but it is tied too deeply to specific childhood memories for me to think anything less of it. Permit me a bit of a waffle about it.
Kingdom Hearts II (PS2, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])
Released Dec 2005 | Developed / Published: Square-Enix
Genre: Action-RPG, JRPG
So who’s this Roxas kid? Where’s Sora? And why on earth are we traipsing around town looking for weirdos in white suits, playing pretend investigator, and hitting Final Fantasy characters with wiffle bats? Welcome to the infamous Kingdom Hearts II prologue, bane of so many a playthrough and internet reviewer. How do you feel about tutorials and pre-game guff that can potentially last up to five hours? Would you look at me sideways if I said I kind of enjoy it?
This is the thing about Kingdom Hearts II. I know there are things that are distinctly not good about it. There are very few ways in which I should be able to defend a 5 hour prologue, or countless Kojima-esque cutscenes, or a combat system that as many point out can boil down to mashing X until you win. Would that people who whine on the internet were right and that this review should be objective. Obviously it’s not; reviews are pieces of subjective consideration, and it is this that allows me to be happy to grumble about Kingdom Hearts II, to be aware of all its faults and yet still offer it my highest praise.
Kingdom Hearts II is pretty wordy, which is probably why I feel comfortable in it. It’s totally lost in its own grandiose sense of self-seriousness; everything is said with a poe-faced earnestness, though I personally find that kind of endearing. Yes, all the talk of hearts and light and darkness and friends might be eye-rolling to some but to me it carries that same charm that infuses both Disney and Final Fantasy and that keeps me invested despite it all.
The grand threat facing the universe this time are the Nobodies, strange and otherworldly counterparts to the Heartless. Led by the enigmatic Organization, Sora butts heads with them and their minions as they stir trouble and mischief across a horde of worlds; worse yet, the Heartless still thrive in great numbers, and only Sora and his erstwhile companions Donald Duck and Goofy can stop them. Somewhere out there Sora’s best friend Riku is missing, as is Mickey Mouse, and the search for them drives the trio; oh, and don’t forget the myriad Disney worlds who all have plots loosely based on their respective movies to resolve!
Basically, if you’re a fan of complex, winding narratives where multiple plots swarm over one another, vying desperately for you attention while not really contributing to each others’ development, Kingdom Hearts II might well be the game for you. I find it charming, but fair enough if you have a more sane exasperated response.
Combat is perhaps the clearest improvement from the first game. Essentially, it’s so much smoother, with an exceptional sense of flow as you practically dance from enemy to enemy. The addition of Reaction Commands helps this immensely (as a note for those playing along at home, though the remake of the first game added in these commands for Sora’s special attacks, these were part of II from the original release). Not only do they work in the same way as in Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, extending his special attacks, but they’re also used as quicktime events in combat. Most enemies have attacks that can be interrupted, altered or countered by Reaction Commands, and often these are Sora’s most dramatic and flashy moves; because these commands are a core part of the gameplay, they never seemed to me to be unnecessary. Instead I found them a fun and vibrant addition to the combat that helped keep the breakneck pace of fights high.
As in the previous game Sora learns spells as he progresses through the story and 4 can be assigned to quick buttons for faster casting. However, there are significantly fewer spells than in Kingdom Hearts, but the trade off is that they’re a little more distinct in the sequel. They also feel more powerful, giving them more use in combat, and I definitely found myself using magic far more frequently during my plays of II which I think speaks volumes as to how well it has been retooled.
Summons also return, and though they wor similarly to before, they’re perhaps a touch more dynamic as most use Reaction Commands to pull off more powerful abilities. Sora can be once again be joined by guest party members on each world but new to Kingdom Hearts II is the introduction of Limits, incredibly powerful attacks in which Sora teams up with other party members for joint attacks. They’re very flashy but cost all your MP, so knowing when to use the to best effect without disadvantaging yourself too much can unfortunately leave them in the realm of rarely-used abilities.
Another new feature in this game are the Drive Forms. Sora gains the ability to transform into formidable new forms; these come at the cost of one or both of his party members, but the power boost Sora gets is more than worth it. Most alter his movement to be more dynamic as well as letting him dual-wield Keyblades; it’s all in the service of the rule of cool and frankly I adore it. They remind me a bit of fusions in Dragonball, where they grant more power but with a time limit attached.
Gummi ship missions are a vital improvement as well. Gone are the sluggish tedious flights between worlds; now before you can travel to each world you take on a single dedicated mission, an on-rails shmup affair. The pace of these missions is far faster and more intense than their counterparts in Kingdom Hearts; on top of that, there are full-on boss fights, and the challenges and missions that unlock as you return to routes are so much more engaging to take on thanks to the sharper movement and combat. Add to that the returning extensive ship editor that allows you to collect more pieces with which you can construct new ships and it is easy to sink hours into Kingdom Hearts II’s gummi ship missions.
In what feels like quite an abrupt change from the first game, the levels in Kingdom Hearts II are no longer built as vertically, nor are they as expansive. Instead, levels are flatter, but the full stages themselves are more complex and sprawling with more space for bigger battles and less chance of falling off stuff mid-brawl. It feels like more of an effort has been made to recreate places and dioramas from the Disney movies, which in turn is more absorbing, and because the levels are built to accommodate Sora’s more free-flowing attacks it all works together beautifully..
The Final Mix version included in the PS3 and PS4 remakes comes with a surprising amount of additional content. There’s at least one new collectible scattered across the world, as well as a few new weapons and items to find and synthesize; not only that but there is a slew of brand new bonus bosses, most of which are fiendishly difficult and offer a challenge well after the main game is done. There’s also a series of special challenge rooms that pop up in the endgame and these are among the hardest bits of the game, requiring both brilliant combat skill and no small amount of luck to overcome. On top of that, the harder-than-hard Critical Mode difficulty was a real blast to tackle, even for people like me who aren’t terribly fond of higher difficulties. Ultimately the Final Mix version add some much needed challenge to the game for completionists, something broadly missing from the previous release.
The devil is in the details – part of what helps Kingdom Hearts II stand out isn’t simply that it improves on almost every gameplay aspect of the first game, but it’s the little examples of flair along the way that help sweeten the final product. The fluidity of the animation, the ceremony of Sora cracking open huge treasure chests, the responsiveness of the controls, the way the command menu changes in style and art depending on what level you’re in, as does the party’s costumes in certain worlds. It’s so clearly crafted with a lot of care and attention, and that is part of what makes it so endearing.
As much as I’ve enjoyed replaying Kingdom Hearts II, for me it will always be inextricably linked to an escape from difficult teenage years; it offered a reprieve from life, an escape that I will forever be grateful for. I suspect we all have games like this, ones which we are happy to forgive the faults of for what they represent. I do genuinely think Kingdom Hearts II is a spectacular game, and I absolutely recommend it, but like a tiny handful of other games it stands as more than just the sum of its parts to me.
7/7 – TOP TIER. As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.