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Kingdom Hearts - Review

Deceptively Simple
By: Michael Beckett

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 8
   Music & Sound 8
   Originality 7
   Story & Plot 9
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 7
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Varies
   Completion Time 30-40 Hours  
Overall
9

Some of the bosses can get both exceptionally large and exceptionally mean.
Some of the bosses can get both exceptionally large and exceptionally mean.
Kingdom Hearts

   Kingdom Hearts is an adventure of the finest sort. With a strong combat system backed up by impressive visuals, a powerful plot and some of the finest music in a console generation, Kingdom Hearts is a tour-de-force worthy of the Squaresoft name.

   To start with, let's look at the Battle System. A variation on the real-time combat seen most recently in Summoner 2, combat is fast paced, immersive, and lots of fun. Button layout is simple and easy to learn, and combat is similarly easy to pick up. It follows the general theme of Kingdom Hearts' workings in that the combat is deceptively simple; the only four commands are attack, magic, item and special ability (which changes depending on your situation), and yet the mastery of these commands goes way beyond simply knowing what to do where. While combat is easy enough for beginning RPGamers to be effective, true mastery of the system may be available only to veteran gamers. I have only one gripe with the combat system, which has to do with ally AI. AI is very simple, and never becomes complex enough to keep pace with an experienced gamer's tactics.

   Control seems very tight - certainly tight enough to keep control of a speeding merman swimming at break-neck pace around an enraged and engorged octopus woman (don't ask) - but there are a few problems having to do with issuing commands on the battlefield. This is always a problem for real-time engines. If you're using a real-time combat system and have more than one character, expect to have difficulties using items and casting magic on anyone but Sora. The use of magic is facilitated by the inclusion of shortcut buttons - only three, alas - but items can be a bit of a sore point. Players can use either the control pad or the right analog stick to select commands on the in-combat menu, but that means you have to either stop moving or stop defending to use an item, which can get you killed in some of Kingdom Hearts' more intense fights. Perhaps it was intentional, but it's still irritating to be killed while using a Potion.

   Other restorative techniques in Kingdom Hearts include the music! No, not really. But the soundtrack is a wonderful thing to behold. Yoko Shimomura (Legend of Mana, Super Mario RPG) turns out some of the best work of her career. Some of the themes are remixes or remakes of the theme songs from the Disney movies each world is based on, while others are completely new tracks. The award for most impressive track of Kingdom Hearts is a tossup - Ms. Shimomura rearranges both One-Winged Angel and Night on Bald Mountain, by Nobuo Uematsu and Modest Petrovich Moussorgsky, respectively.


The Heartless are just so cute. I would buy a Heartless plushie.
The Heartless are just so cute. I would buy a Heartless plushie.

   The other sound to be heard on the game is all very high quality. The voice acting is good, but not spectacular. It was nice to hear some old Squaresoft heroes given the full aural treatment, but almost all of the Disney voices sounded a bit off. Most likely the Disney voices that were done by famous personalities (Robin Williams for Genie, for instance) were taken over by new voice actors. It's understandable, of course. Squaresoft wouldn't want to pay Eddie Murphy's salary for Mushu's two in-game lines. Sound effects in general are good, but footsteps seemed a bit strange. Perhaps it was just Donald's webbed soles.

   In Kingdom Hearts, there are eleven worlds, eight of which are based on Disney movies. Two out of three of your main party has starred in countless animated features. Half the game is a reference either to some Disney movie, or to a Final Fantasy game. Originality is, surprisingly enough, still there, and still strong. Despite the fact that the basis for most of the worlds in Kingdom Hearts are almost pre-instilled in the gamers through nearly forgotten viewings of various Disney films, the world's backgrounds don't hustle in on the main plot of the game. The combat system, the story, even the settings have a fairly high level of originality - an amazing feat considering some of these films are older than most of their viewers.

   An impressive adventure must have an impressive tale to tell. Simply running about lopping off demon heads isn't an adventure; it's training for a job in the meat-packing industry. Kingdom Hearts tells the story of a young man named Sora and his friends, Kairi and Rikku. The three of them, along with their families and a few scant other people, are on an isolated island called Destiny Island. But Kairi isn't a native - she arrived one day like a meteor, streaking through the sky. Her arrival some eight years prior to the story of Kingdom Hearts sets off a change in Rikku, who starts wondering what else, may be out there. The result is a tale about light and darkness, hope and despair, and the nature of human hearts. It also deals with the nature of stories, and a major chunk of the game has to do with creatures called the Heartless, who invade and disrupt the stories taking place in the worlds you visit. Many of these themes are contained in Disney movies and Squaresoft games, but the story elements unfold in such a way that touches even this old man's heart. The plot of Kingdom Hearts is deep, unusually touching, and the best reason to buy this game.

   Localization is said to be the other half of a game's plot. All I can say is that Kingdom Hearts must have been someone's darling, because it has one of the best translations ever seen this side of Koudelka. Lines are both well characterized and finely tuned. And, as far as I could tell, error free. It's a job well done.


The Nightmare before Christmas was one of my favorite movies as a kid. Kingdom Hearts has plenty of moments like that.
The Nightmare before Christmas was one of my favorite movies as a kid. Kingdom Hearts has plenty of moments like that.

   At the start of Kingdom Hearts, you are allowed to select Sora's greatest strength and weakness, thereby choosing to be an attacker, a defender or a mage by inclination. Added to this are multiple complex side quests, variable levels of difficulty, a very cool ship creation scheme, and the ability to decide, albeit unknowingly, the speed at which your character levels up. It is quite possible to complete every side quest the first time through, but it may be more difficult for some than for others. There is also a secret ending available if you meet certain conditions during the game. The fact is, though, that the movie amounts to an advertisement for Kingdom Hearts 2. In the end, Kingdom Hearts has a fairly high level of replay value.

   The first thing everyone notices about Kingdom Hearts is this - it is very pretty. The worlds are colorful and, at times, bizarre. Character designs by Tetsuya Nomura are distinctive and imaginative, and it must be said, some of his best work went into redesigning his own characters. Character animations are detailed and unique, and someone finally got the bright idea of re-syncing the mouths to the new English voices. It's a fairly realistic effect.

   The difficulty level for Kingdom Hearts depends on a number of factors, quite beside what difficulty you set it at. Your weapon selection during the opening sequence and your answers to Selphie, Wakka and Tidus' questions both have a profound effect upon your game. Time to complete is set between thirty and forty hours, depending on difficulty level and how many side quests you feel like finishing.

   There have been a number of very good RPGs released for the PS2 recently, and the list seems to just keep getting better. Xenosaga, .Hack://Infection, Gladius - games are becoming less and less of a child's plaything, and more of an art form. Plots get deeper, character and world designs get more attention, and RPGs move slowly but steadily towards being to this generation what movies were to the previous ones. Kingdom Hearts, with its deceptively simple design, is a giant leap in the right direction.

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