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When Kingdom Hearts was first announced, the gaming world was stunned by its different style. Squaresoft and Disney...were making a game together? Childish Disney characters together with the deep characters from the Final Fantasy series? Many of us were very skeptic towards this new idea, and despite its popularity, refused to believe that running around with Goofy and Donald could actually be any fun. How wrong we were. Yet again is it proven how bold it is to judge a game from the first impression, and how things almost never are what they seem.
In Kingdom Hearts, you play the role of Sora. Sora and his friends live on a small solitary island, unaware of any other worlds. One day, Sora and two of his best friends; Riku and Kairi, decide to leave the island in order to see if there's anything else out there. On the night before their departure, a terrible dark storm attacks the island, and several mysterious things occur. After a battle with beings Sora had never thought existed, he finds himself in a world totally unknown to him. What had happened? Where's Riku and Kairi? As in most cases, Square tells the story perfectly. It starts out quietly in a world where it seems as if nothing bad would ever happen, and later on turns into the biggest of adventures, where our young hero will go from fighting his friends with wooden swords to saving the entire universe. While this may seem a bit cliché, there are other things which concern the storyline in Kingdom Hearts. Love and friendship are two of the most important aspects in this game, and even the most hardcore RPGamer will be drawn into these deep characters, if not for the nostalgia of seeing their old Disney heroes back in action again.
Considering the large amount of Disney characters included, I had doubts about how good the voice-acting would be. Fortunately, all voices are straight out perfect. Even the voices of the new characters are good, and I can't remember a single one which annoyed me. Nothing needs to be said about the translation either, as it is close to flawless. As far as I know, there are no spelling errors or grammatical errors whatsoever in this game.
When it comes to combat, Kingdom Hearts offers something quite different. In battle, your party can include up to 3 characters, but you'll only be able to control Sora at all times. The other characters act by themselves, but can be given special commands through the main menu outside of battle. Battles are entirely in real-time, and your enemies will pop up almost anywhere in the game. To attack, simply mash the X button after locking on (not a must, but recommended) to an enemy with the R1 button. At first, jumping and attacking (doing this at the same time results in an air-combo) are the only abilities Sora has. However, as he proceeds through the game, he will gain access to a huge library of skills and spells. To equip these, Sora must use Ability Points (AP). AP is gained through leveling up, just like Hit Points and Magic Points. To cast spells, Sora has to make use of a small menu seen at the bottom left of the screen. To toggle the options in this menu, the player has to switch to the directional buttons. Now, this is where most people think the battle system becomes difficult. When you're looking around in this menu, enemies will constantly attack you, or even kill you. In the beginning, most players will be very frustrated over this, but after a few hours, they'll get used to it. Luckily, there is also a way to assign certain spells to shortcuts, so that you can heal or cast attack spells a lot faster. Overall, the battle system in Kingdom Hearts is very enjoyable. If you're sick of the ordinary turn-based battle systems which can be seen in most RPG's these days, Kingdom Hearts will be a real treat.
The menu in the lower left corner of the screen also has its uses outside of battle. When Sora walks around cities or dungeons, he can use commands from this menu to lift/throw different objects, open up chests and a number of other things. The menus in Kingdom Hearts are built up in a more simplistic way than in any other RPG for the PlayStation 2 so far. Everything is obvious from the beginning, and I guarantee that nobody will have any problems mastering this interface without tutorials. The only complaint I have when it comes to the interface is probably Sora's jumping. To jump between different objects in Kingdom Hearts might become very frustrating, as Sora often seems to end up at the side of his targets, and sometimes fly off by himself and land somewhere else than intended.
I was very pleased when I heard that Yoko Shimomura (Parasite Eve, Legend of Mana, Live a Live!, Super Mario RPG, Front Mission) was to be the composer for the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack. Just as I expected, she did a wonderful job. Many of the tunes will bring long lost memories into the hearts of the players, as their melodies resemble those heard in the old Disney movies. However, most of the new tunes are also perfectly fitting into the different worlds in Kingdom Hearts, and some of them will stay with you for a long time after you're finished with this game.
While the graphics in Kingdom Hearts may not be as pure as those in Final Fantasy X, they are still way above average. I especially liked the work Tetsuya Nomura did on the character models. Cities and surrounding areas are pretty, especially the large outside areas, such as the Jungle or Destiny Island. In battle however, there is nothing particularly outstanding to look out for graphics-wise. Since the battle system is so fast, there was no room for long explosion-sequences or spell effects.
Just rushing through Kingdom Hearts won't take longer than 25 hours, or maybe even less. However, most people would want to do some sidequests, find some secret items, and play around with some of the mini-games a little. There are also a bunch of secret bosses to kill, and a large battle arena with quite a few challenges (including a few battles against some very familiar faces from the Final Fantasy series). All in all, doing everything in this game could take up to 50 or 60 hours. As for replay value, there is an 'Expert' difficulty for players who are confident enough. The normal difficulty didn't provide much of a challenge, so playing the game once again on the Expert difficulty is actually recommended. Aside from the optional bosses, I didn't have much trouble at all during the game. Once you get used to the sub-menu and how to control Sora in battle, you won't be having any problems.
All in all, Kingdom Hearts is a beautiful and quite original experience. The very successful mixture between the worlds of Disney and the characters from Square gives the whole game an interesting touch. Combine this with a fast battle system and a very beautiful plot, and you've got yourself one of the most enjoyable games ever. It's the quality in games such as these that make them worthwhile, and every single piece of Kingdom Hearts has an incredible amount of thought put into it. In the end, I'm very glad that I cast my skeptic feelings aside and bought this game, because it turned out to be something much greater than I could ever have imagined.
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