Square Enix finally got round to releasing Kingdom Hearts II in Europe in September, after what seemed like an almighty wait since its Japanese and North American release. The wait has most definitely been worth it, though, as Sora and the Disney gang are back, visiting new lands, seeing new faces, and meeting a few old friends. While a few changes to the battle system might upset the most hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans, everyone else should enjoy a lengthy, fun adventure.
Kingdom Hearts II actually follows on from the GBA title Chain of Memories, which is a pretty strange decision on the part of the development team. If you haven't played the GBA game you won't be too lost, but complete newcomers to the series will find the storyline a little hard to follow. Recaps do a good enough job, making the experience enjoyable for everyone, but you'll miss out on numerous links to the previous games if you haven't actually experienced them yourself.
If you haven't played the series before you might actually enjoy certain areas more, as you won't mind the significantly altered fighting system. To put it bluntly, the fighting system in Kingdom Hearts II has been dumbed down, to the extent that you can now button mash your way through a lot of fights. New combos are earned, various counters, dodge moves and special joint attacks ca be performed, and it all looks marvellous, but it's a definite downgrade.
It's undoubtedly a design decision made to try and give the game a broader appeal, but given the game's heavy reliance on knowledge from previous games, the majority of players will be returning fans. The camera is something that did need changing, and thankfully it has been. It's far less bothersome than it was in the original game, with full control given to the right analogue stick, making all areas of the game more enjoyable.
The aforementioned newcomers will likely find the opening three hours a rather awkward and dull affair, with nary a Disney character in site, and a plot that is full of flashbacks and dreams. You start off as Roxas, a young lad who's spending the final days of the summer with his friends, but his dreams suggest that all is not well, and the world in which he lives isn't as it seems. For some reason you'll spend a fair while performing pretty menial tasks, over and over again, until the story moves along and some familiar faces return.
Once the extended opening is over and done with, things pick up considerably. As with the original game, you'll visit a number of lands from Disney movies, with a few choice picks this time around being the themed areas from Pirates of the Caribbean, Tron, Mulan and Aladdin. Some are new, while others are simply new areas in worlds that were seen before. On the whole they don't disappoint, and gameplay is nicely varied, mixing in mini-game-like activities with the team-based battles.
The Gummi ship sections from the original return, acting as a way to travel from area to area, and they've been significantly improved upon, turning a rather grating part of the first game into sections that are a lot of fun. These space combat sections most definitely have a Star Fox vibe to them, and although they're clearly not developed enough to stand on their own, as a diversion from the main game they're more than adequate. Your ships can be upgraded if you collect the right parts, and this time around you'll actually want to collect them.
At times gameplay plays second fiddle to storyline and how it's told, but thankfully it's told very well indeed. The Production values seen throughout Kingdom Hearts II are incredible, mixing stunning PlayStation 2 visuals with some amazing CGI and wonderful voice acting from proper Hollywood talent. At times it's as if you really are watching an epic cartoon movie, with only the occasional extended conversation pauses shattering the illusion.
It's a stunning achievement, made all the better thanks to a solid PAL conversion. There's no 60HZ mode, but we do get a pretty borderless game that runs well. Considering the treatment PAL gamers have had to put up with in the past, it's a huge relief that we don't have to grin and bear another butchered classic. A widescreen option would have been the icing on the cake, but it wasn't to be.
Once the tedious opening section is completed, Kingdom Hearts II rarely disappoints, with even its weakest sections providing plenty to enjoy. Square Enix has made some odd decisions with regard to the combat system, tailoring it more to newcomers, while the story itself isn't all that friendly for first-time players, but it doesn't hurt the experience as a whole. As an example of interactive storytelling, Kingdom Hearts II is a cut above the rest, and a fine RPG for Square and Disney fans alike.