The original Kingdom Hearts remains something of a landmark title on the PS2. Square Enix's famed game mythology neatly stitched into the world of Disney to create a simply unforgettable title. But while the scope and beauty of the game were nothing short of breathtaking, the exceptionally poor 3D camera made it almost unplayable.
Fortunately, the sequel sets out its stall immediately, with a major overhaul of the game camera, returning complete control to the player. Not only that, Square Enix has let its imagination run riot throughout the whole game. This is the ultimate Disney homage, with everything from original 30's Mickey Mouse starrer, Steamboat Willy, through to modern blockbuster Pirates of the Carribbean included. Even cult-classic Tron gets a much welcome look-in.
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Gameplay-wise, Kingdom Hearts II is very close to the original, if a little bit more on the simple side. The basic action still consists of taking on a whole range of small tasks, exploring the environments, and doing battle with a seemingly limitless array of enemy 'Heartless' ghouls, but the genius of Kingdom Hearts 2 is the sheer amount of variety on offer.
For example, an early task has you earning money to buy a train ticket - cue not one, but three different selectable subgames that offer a wealth of cash-making opportunities. And further on, an investigation of seven supposed miracles about town basically boils down to seven further sub-games. In fact, each of the game worlds on offer is packed with mini-tasks to help break up the action. Even some of the boss battles shy away from basic combat in favour of some bizarre minigame instead.
At the core of Kingdom Hearts II is a hugely impressive combat system. It's fully real-time (as opposed to the more tedious turn-based systems) and is as much a test of your reactions as it is for the grey matter, with a system that switches between fighting, casting spells and negotiating item menus as quickly and painlessly as anything we've seen on PS2.
But there's a downside. Barring one or two notable exceptions, the fighting is simply too easy. The range of offensive magic on offer might be visually amazing, but why would you use it when simple button-bashing is enough to see off the vast majority of opponents?
Things only get worse as your characters level-up and become even stronger. Virtually all of the beautifully desgined boss characters can be bested with just constant hammering of the X button and sparing use of the reaction-testing special moves.
Unfortunately, this 'dumbing down' has spread beyond the combat and into the main gameplay itself. The level of variety in the game is superb, but it comes at the expense of scale. Levels are a lot smaller than the original Kingdom Hearts and the puzzles on offer are easier as a result. It's certainly absorbing and fun, but you never feel like you're actually being challenged or tested in any way.
A CHALLENGE-FREE ZONE?
It's a shame because everything else about Kingdom Hearts II is sensational. Graphically, the game is easily one of the best on the PlayStation2. The quality of the artwork and animation is sublime, and with the very best of both Square Enix's and Disney's characters on display the whole thing feels like a festival of wonder for the eyes. Every minute offers something new and exciting - and the amount of mindblowing visual effects and eye-searing pyrotechnics on tap is bewildering.
In short, Kingdom Hearts II is a very good game, but it's so close to being something completely out-of-this-world that you can't help but feel just a little short-changed by how strangely bereft of challenge it is. Of course, that's not an issue at all if you're buying the game for an under-12 - the typical Disney audience. But coming from Square Enix and considering the difficulty level of the previous Kingdom Hearts game, which was hugely challenging in places, it's more than a little disappointing.
A joyous, beautifully presented, 50 hour game that's wonderful to play, but it's just too easy for anything other than a young audience.
- Beautiful look and feel
- Outstanding effects
- Supremely enjoyable
- Adventure is too easy
- Combat is even easier
- Little exploration to do