Kingdom Hearts II
Kingdom Hearts II is, as you would probably have guessed, the sequel to the enormously popular original Kingdom Hearts released about four years back, and the shorter instalment Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories released about a year thereafter. All of which made, of course, bugger all sense. Several hardcore fans no doubt just exploded into little otaku fragments, but before I'm mobbed, I would like to add that Kingdom Hearts II is a very enjoyable pile of bugger all sense.
The Kingdom Hearts franchise, for those that are not familiar with it, was clearly invented with the assistance of absinthe. The structure of the games will not be of much surprise to anyone familiar with the Final Fantasy series: Square Enix having included its trademark fantastic production values, over-sized weapons, random beast encounters, levelling system, and oft impenetrable epic plot lines. Where Kingdom Hearts went in a whole new and fairly bonkers direction was the decision to mix the gameplay and characters of the Final Fantasy series with nearly all the characters ever created by Walt Disney Studios. This means encountering all sorts of monster, demons, and scary lunatics swinging around sabres bigger than their own bodies, with only Donald Duck and Goofy as your backup. What is a pleasant surprise is that the majority of the time this is implemented very well indeed, with such a plainly noodles concept quickly being integrated into the plot and accepted by the gamer.
Before getting into the plot of the game, the mechanics of playing are worth a few words. When you first start playing KHII, a daunting amount of pop-up instruction screens occur, telling you how to manipulate items and what seems to be a very involved system of combat indeed, including magic, special moves, limit breaks, reaction commands, and a prodigious array of combos. Then after a couple of actual fights the player will notice: 'Wait a minute, all I actually do is press 'X'. A lot.'
Despite the spectacular visual display occurring on screen, as your hero leaps through the air bifurcating a dozen enemies, all the player is really doing is furiously mashing the 'X' button, occasionally 'O' to jump, and once in a while 'Æ' to perform a context-specific action. The degree of graphical fireworks combined with the relatively little input could have left the game feeling like the disappointing Zone of Enders, but since monster-bashing typically occurs as your character is trying to get from point A to point B, rather than being an end in itself, brevity in your battles is usually welcome. However, after several hours of gameplay and many different forms of the shadowy bad guys, the player will still have encountered very few enemies that required anything more than repeated 'X' to defeat, which starts to leave the combat experience feeling hollow, and at times even a perfunctory nuisance in between the plot advancements. There are enormous arrays of special moves to perform, all specific to the many characters that will join your troop from time to time, but, due to the underpowered enemies, are usually only employed just because they look pretty. This is a shame, as they detract from the enjoyment of discovering them and any real tactical use. One of the slightly creepier options is to temporarily absorb one of your usual companions - Goofy or Donald - and become a hybrid dervish of destruction. Despite the slightly uncomfortable image of inviting Goofy into your own body, this is also underused as normal 'X' attacks will do the trick. The combat is quite frequently punctuated by a large array of mini games, ranging from Star Fox tribute shoot-em-ups, rhythm games, skateboarding, physics puzzles, and an array of other distractions that are pleasing in their innovation.
It is the scale, length and complex plot of the game that largely makes up for any short comings in the combat system. Kingdom Hearts 2 is without argument a very long game indeed. After 5 hours of playing and the conclusion of a plot element the Kingdom Hearts logo pops up, indicating that you have only just finished the prologue to the meat and potatoes of the game itself. I have actually completed other games in about as much time as this one takes to simply set the scene with what turned out to be an interactive introduction. Given the central importance of the storyline to the games enjoyment, I will withhold from giving much away about the expansive story, but the separate character played in the prologue - set in a world without any Disney characters - was more engaging and intelligently plotted than much of the rest of the adventure.
The story basically centres on your character running around parallel worlds, each inhabited by the cast of a different Disney movies, fighting against Organisation XIII and its minions. This essentially allows for one to meet and fight side by side with characters as varied as Simba, Pumpkin Jack, Minnie Mouse, Merlin, Mulan, The Little Mermaid, even Captain Jack Sparrow. The charm of these levels is in the graphical style changing to mirror the relevant films, and in some cases even your character design alters to fit in with the world. Cybernetic Tron Donald or zombie Nightmare Before Christmas Goofy are nice touches which make the short chapters distinct in the player's memory. Then again, not everyone likes all of the Disney movies. Some in fact suck, and leave the player desperate to get out of bloody Beauty and the Beast world. A couple of the worlds are particularly jarring and don't lend themselves to the rest of the game: after all the cartoonish adventuring elsewhere the jarring attempt at reality with Pirates of the Caribbean doesn't work. The digitisation and animation of Jack Sparrow and Will Turner are genuinely bad, and the voice imitations are the worst I've heard outside of the pub. Despite the occasionally awful impression, then, a lot of the Disney characters are still voiced by the original stars, from James Wood to Angela Lansbury. The human characters also have an impressive voice cast, including Haley Joel Osmond, Christopher Lee and Zach Braff.
Despite having to grind through the occasional Disney clanger, the game is engaging, which must be the greatest victory of style over substance in the entire gaming industry. I say this because, on reflection, the whole game is really on rails, and what interaction the player has is limited to the not particularly stimulating combat situations. Nearly any actual character or plot development is performed by what, in other games, might be called a 'cut-scene'. These are so frequent and so long that it is the players' interaction that is in the minority - in the first three whole hours of play there must be only about 35 minutes where any interaction is possible. On the one hand this does cut out much of the tedium other games let creep in - mini-quests like, say, having to gather three old ladies cats to get the key to get into the stadium, etc. - but it also cuts out much of the personal interaction that makes a game intrinsically engaging because you can personally identify with the character. At times you suspect Square Enix had an idea for a 30 hour long movie and figured this was the only format they could get away with publishing it in. With anything less than the truly enormous investment that Enix obviously put into its product this would spell doom for a game, but they have actually managed to pull it off, and the level of enjoyment it provides is genuinely surprising.
In summary, Kingdom Hearts II might not even meet some definitions of what a computer game is, and for long sections it would probably be better described as 'next-gen interactive fiction'. This sounds like high concept hokum, but I would like to stress that it really is done very well. My usual cup of tea includes more blood on the street and hats on the ground, so it was a pleasure to find such a simple gaming experience as engaging as this. The graphics, in most sections, are excellent, accompanied by a quality of soundtrack that can only be achieved by hiring a full orchestra for a very long time. Fans of the Final Fantasy series, or the original Kingdom Hearts, will likely need no encouragement from me to try this new offering, but folks new to the genre really should consider giving it a go to misplace a couple of Sundays with an engaging, if very very strange, low impact experience.