When we last left Sora, Donald, and Goofy, they were in a kind of limbo after defeating Ansem and his Heartless hordes. They stumbled into Castle Oblivion, where Namine unlinked the chains of their memories and sent them into a deep slumber to recover. Now, in Kingdom Hearts II, the heroic trio awakens to a new swarm of problems. This time, the source of trouble is not only the Heartless, but also Organization XIII, a group shrouded in mystery and black cloaks, and the Nobodies, their clever minions.
"...it is far better than the original in nearly every way."
The most striking aspect of Kingdom Hearts II is that it is far better than the original in nearly every way. Square Enix managed to improve almost every facet of the game, creating a sequel that surpasses its predecessor. Some things have largely stayed the same, however. Visuals have not improved that much aside from some small special touches, such as menus with themes that match the current world and different character faces on save file panels. Furthermore, the story is still mostly remixed Disney movies and cartoons, only now there is more non-Disney content to enjoy, including a generous dose of pure original Kingdom Hearts material.
Previously, battles were all about running, dodging, and bashing things with Sora's Keyblade, while relying on support from sometimes useless AI-controlled characters. That has changed. While one can still enjoy the thrill of plowing through enemies with button-mashing combos, there is a lot more to play with on the battlefield. For one, battles sometimes have specific objectives, such as defeating a certain number of enemies in a timeframe or protecting a character or a gate. Another notable feature is the appearance of triangle button commands. Some are pure flash and fun, while others are crucial parts of the battle strategy. Players must study the environment and the movements of enemies and look for these commands. As an added bonus, Sora can interact with the other members of his party. Stepping close to them can activate a triangle button command for a joint attack; again, this may be for fun, for strategy, or to efficiently exterminate enemies.
Thankfully, the controls have improved considerably. The camera can now be operated by the right thumbstick, much like it was in Grandia III. The perspective is also higher up and further behind, meaning one can see more of the world surrounding the characters. It is also difficult to get the camera stuck on something, unless one deliberately twists the camera to an odd angle or crams the characters into a small space. Menus are somewhat easier to navigate, and there are a few more customization options.
Another great shock in this sequel is the completely overhauled Gummi Ship system. The garage sports a snazzy user-friendly interface, although the ship building system may still be a bit puzzling to those who are new to the game. The real mind-blowing change is that traveling through space is no longer the straight and narrow path. Instead, it is twisting, turning, and shooting in a dizzying frenzy.
As if all this was not enough, Kingdom Hearts II presents a satisfying audio experience as well. The soundtrack includes remixes of Disney tunes and original pieces from Kingdom Hearts, along with plenty of fresh tunes. The battle themes this time around are particularly striking. So far, the music almost completely surpasses that of the original. Sound effects are also of remarkable quality, and at times they even add charming touches to the worlds. For example, in Timeless River, one can hear the clicking sound of an old movie projector in the background, and the overall sound quality has been reduced intentionally to mimic that heard in old cartoons. As far as voice acting goes, only two characters so far have poor voice acting, a few are exceptionally great, and the rest are quite good.
Thanks to a number of improvements and plenty of flashy features, Kingdom Hearts II presents itself as a smarter and prettier successor in the series. So far, the game is mostly enjoyable every step of the way, and it is difficult to put down. Its only apparent flaws are a couple of disappointing voice actors and a few mediocre tunes. Keep watching RPGamer for a full review in the near future.