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   Kingdom Hearts 2 - Staff Review  

Putting the Heart in Heartless
by Shawn Bruckner

BATTLE SYSTEM
INTERACTION
ORIGINALITY
STORY
MUSIC & SOUND
VISUALS
CHALLENGE
Variable
COMPLETION TIME
30-40 hours
OVERALL

4.5/5

Rating definitions 

   When the concept of Kingdom Hearts was revealed a few years ago, it certainly seemed like a wholly ridiculous idea. The combination of Disney worlds and characters with Final Fantasy characters sounded extremely unnatural. Thus, it was a surprise when the game turned out to be reasonably enjoyable, bringing its own cast of interesting characters into an entertaining story; the crossover turned out to be far less awkward than feared. Kingdom Hearts 2, starting where Chain of Memories left off, manages to improve upon the original in almost every way. It mitigates, if not eliminates, many of the flaws in the original, and this part of the overall Kingdom Hearts story proves to be more engaging and in-depth than that of the original game.

   The battle system of Kingdom Hearts 2 is basically the same as that used in the original with additions and a little bit of streamlining. Sora and company fight in action RPG style against the Heartless, Nobodies, and other villains of the game. One of the flaws of the original game is that this combat could get tedious, and there were a large number of encounters with Heartless that could almost always be won easily enough with just the use of Sora's Keyblade. Magic was present, but beyond the occasional Cure spell, almost entirely unnecessary.

   This game improves on the combat system of the first with reaction commands. These abilities are triggered with the triangle button whenever an enemy is in the correct position and performing the correct action to counter or react to. Since reaction commands are usually different for different types of enemies, this helps greatly in reducing the tedium of the previous game. In addition, certain abilities allow limit moves, summons, and the new form changes to be triggered with the triangle button like reaction commands, though this is often more problematic than helpful as most reactions do not consume MP, but these actions do and are easy to accidentally trigger. The addition of the ability to change into certain forms which temporarily improve Sora's fighting ability, such as allowing him to wield two keyblades, shoot energy pulses at his enemies, improve the effects of magic, and many other special abilities, is welcome.

   These improvements help greatly in preventing combat from becoming tedious, but the biggest help in this regard is the simple fact that there doesn't seem to quite as many random encounters. There are instead many scripted encounters, often with special objectives or conditions required to be victorious, such as defending gates or a special person in combat. There are also fewer long stretches without the plot advancing, even if the plot advances only a little. Thus, while random encounters still don't provide a great deal more variation than the original, the game is far less focused on these alone and provides much more variation in the scripted encounters. That said, many scripted battles only have the objective of defeating all the enemies, and it is annoying to wait while the game pauses for a moment, displaying this all-too-obvious objective. It is also important to note that the gummi ship combat in the game is very different from that in the original; it is much more involved, exciting, and fun.

   Some of the music of the game is not original, obviously, instead being borrowed from the movies or shows represented by the worlds in Kingdom Hearts 2. Also, some of the tracks are rearrangements of tracks from the original game. That said, Kingdom Hearts 2 still has a lot of original music, and this original music is often exceptional. Indeed, the bulk of the soundtrack is quite good. Graphically, the game hasn't improved much from the original, but since the graphical styles work well for both games, this is actually more of a positive point. Indeed, the game didn't need any visual improvement from the original; both are quite good.

Caption Hmm... let me guess. Defeat all the heartless?

   Interestingly, this game allows the player to select from three difficulty settings. The standard mode is about as difficult as the original, which was mostly easy with the occasional difficult boss fight. The beginner mode makes the game even easier, while the proud mode is obviously more difficult. With the possible exception of proud mode, though, the game does not offer that much of a challenge. Most players will likely complete the game in about 40 hours.

   The interface has seen some improvements from the original; the menu system in the original, while laid out well, often required more steps than really necessary to perform certain tasks, such as having to open a separate menu for a toggle option. This game allows the use of the triangle button for toggle options to avoid opening additional menus. Additionally, this game allows one to set auto-refill options for item slots, making the interface as polished and well-designed as it should have been in the first. The command window can still be a little awkward to use in battle, however. While, as noted earlier, some abilities allow the use of the triangle button for summons, form changes, and limits, but this is problematic in its own way since one doesn't usually have time to read which reaction command one is triggering. Fortunately, use of these abilities is optional.

Caption Oh, my! What a showoff!

   Players start out the game as Roxas, a boy looking suspiciously similar to Sora, in the world of Twilight Town. This is essentially a long prologue to the game. The overall plot of Kingdom Hearts is revealed through Roxas's dreams for those who haven't played the original, and there are some hints as to the events which took place in Chain of Memories during this prologue sequence. Additionally, reports found during the game give even more information on the plots of the previous two, meaning one can enjoy this game without having played either of the previous games even though it essentially continues the story arc of the previous two games and comes to a more satisfying conclusion. Indeed, the story of this game is more satisfying than the original from start to finish; it expertly draws on the history established by the previous two games to create a rich, fascinating, and original experience.

   While Kingdom Hearts 2 was not able to erase all of the flaws present in the original game, it did manage to present a significant improvement on its already good predecessor. With an improved interface, battle system, story, and soundtrack, Kingdom Hearts 2 is definitely a worthwhile investment for those who enjoyed the original. For those who didn't enjoy the original, the improvements might be enough to justify giving the series a second chance. While not perfect, the game delivers a solid gameplay experience from beginning to end. One may be disappointed when they finish this game, not because it has a weak ending, but simply because one doesn't want it to be over.

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