Video Game Review: “Kingdom Hearts II”

My review of Kingdom Hearts might not have been as glowing of a reception as “Hearts” enthusiasts might have yearned for, but I did, on some level, enjoy myself. If nothing else, something I always try to do no matter what I’m sharing my thoughts on, is I try to approach what I review with an open-mind, and, if for some reason I feel like I can’t do that, I usually don’t review it. This is why you won’t find reviews of NBA Jam or Forza, or whatever else, because it is very unlikely I’ll enjoy it and it’s not really worthwhile for me to share my thoughts on something I don’t really care about. I enjoyed Kingdom Hearts, but I recognized the issues it had. I recognized the repetitive game-play, the storyline and its superficial grandiose nature, and many of the levels seemed to strew together rehashed renditions of their film counterparts. Regardless, as a fan of Disney films, a fan of the aesthetic and more technical aspects, I was excited for Kingdom Hearts II, hoping it’d improve on the foundation set by its predecessor. Here are my thoughts …

   Carrying sort-of where the original Kingdom Hearts left off, Kingdom Hearts II is a 2005 action role-playing game once again developed by Square Enix, blending the characters and settings for Disney films with those of the Final Fantasy series. I mention Kingdom Hearts II as being “sort of” where the first Kingdom Hearts left off, because it actually takes place one year after the events of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a video-game originally released on the Game Boy Advance, that has since been ported and remastered for home-consoles. Although experiencing Chain of Memories might enable a more complete experience, after spending a couple of hours with it, I opted to skip it all together. The biggest revelation that Chain of Memories shares is actually significant, introducing us to Organization XIII, which serve as the antagonists for Kingdom Hearts II. The story follows Sora, alongside Goofy and Donald, in a search for his lost friends.

In a lot of ways, Kingdom Hearts II is where the franchise really begins to go off-the-rails with its story-line, becoming more and more elaborate and convoluted. Similar to the first Kingdom Hearts, but, perhaps, even more accurate, it’s a lot of interesting ideas that don’t always put their best foot forward in relaying themselves to players. This is why with the recent release of Kingdom Hearts III, a lot of YouTube videos have appeared trying to bring everything together in a way that feels coherent.

   Sora, Donald, and Goofy have been in suspended animation for the past year, and meanwhile, this leaves a character named Roxas at the forefront. Roxas is Sora’s Nobody, a Nobody is the body and soul of an individual deemed as having strong will, who has lost their heart. Sora’s Nobody is trapped in a simulation of Twilight Town created in an attempt to merge him with his original self to restore Sora’s power.

   As I suggested in my earlier review of Kingdom Hearts, the storyline is superficial, but truer than ever, Kingdom Hearts II is overtly complicated and it’s a story that isn’t expressed very well. One of the biggest issues I encountered with Kingdom Hearts II was encountered in the early-going. If you recall, a criticism I had for the first Kingdom Hearts was to do with how its fighting and game-play doesn’t have enough variation or sophistication to warrant its length. This is a statement I think holds very true for its successor, but, even more than that, the first few hours are amongst the most gruelingly tedious of the franchise, with Roxas’ story-arch expressed through needless fetch-it missions and mini-games, making for an experience that sets the stage in-particularly plodding fashion.

   Something I remember being told, again and again, is how much better Kingdom Hearts II is than its predecessor. In-retrospect, this statement rings true in numerous ways. The issues I had with the camera-angles have been properly dealt with, rendered a non-issue, and through the use of different attack “forms,” it has helped freshen up the fighting mechanics.

The visuals and production-value on all-accounts I praised in my review of its predecessor stills holds true, and, in-fact, it likely has improved a couple notches, and yet, … why does it feel like such a sharp decline in quality this time around?

At first I thought it might be the lack of sufficient boss-battles in-comparison to its predecessor. I’ve heard many individuals fight tooth-and-nail, I’ve been told I was off-base and that this game has the best boss-battles of the whole series, but I don’t share the sentiment. Even though I regard the game-play mostly as standard and conventional, I thought the boss-battles had a certain identity to them. Sure, I had to fight with the camera-angles when I tried to jump onto the wooden tables in Wonderland, but it still made an impression. In this, although they might be better on a narrative or dramatic basis, like the boss-battle involving Sora and Roxas, a lot of them oftentimes felt uneventful and ho-hum.

   But, that isn’t really the issue I had. I think the reason why Kingdom Hearts 2, to me, fails, is ultimately because the law of diminishing returns. Part of my enjoyment was in the novelty of visiting the different levels for the first time, and once that cat was out of the bag, it lost a lot of its shine for me. It isn’t that the series shouldn’t continue, but, instead, I thought the series should have evolved. Although the storyline and its stakes have only gotten higher, more elaborate, and more ambitious, albeit told with only the flimsiest of foundations, the various different Disney worlds you visit a second time have a “been there, done that” odor to them, and Kingdom Hearts doesn’t do anything to debunk that. Visually, it remains on-point, and even includes some new levels done very well, like the highly-detailed Pirates of the Caribbean level or the charming nature of The Lion King, but besides riding on nostalgia or our familiarity to its source material, it doesn’t do anything to evolve the game-play to the epic-scale Square Enix envisioned its sum of all parts.

   Kingdom Hearts II makes for a terrific concept done with average results, evolving the game-play mechanics in some fashion and certainly improving certain technical aspects as well. Unfortunately, it only further muddies the story-line, fails to build beyond the original game’s novelty, and, ultimately, made for an inferior experience when the dust settles, at least in my opinion.

Rating: – 2.5 out of 5.0