Monday, June 24, 2013

Kingdom Hearts - Simple and Clean, But Hard to Let Go


The Kingdom Hearts series has been around for a long time, like, a long time (which equates to an epoch in internet years). Ever since the first game was released all the way back in 2002, the combination of Final Fantasy and Disney elements has attracted quite a lot of fans, myself included. When I first got my hands on this game as a kid, I found myself completely drawn in and become hooked to the point where I've also played Kingdom Hearts II and the PSP prequel, Birth By Sleep (I have quite the story to tell about that one, which involves complete enthusiasm and extensive battery juggling). In a sense, I have always been a Kingdom Hearts fan, but it has been quite a while since I last played one of the games, let alone the very first. When I heard about the upcoming HD collection however, which includes the Final Mix version of the original Kingdom Hearts as well as Re: Chain of Memories and the cutscenes of the DS game 358/2 Days, I became a little more interested in revisiting the roots of the series. However, this sentiment was solidified when Kingdom Hearts III was announced during Sony's 2013 E3 press conference for release on the PS4.

While the series has eventually become notorious for its jigsaw puzzle plot filled with retcons and still-to-be-answered questions, I'd like to put all of that aside for the moment so that I may review the original Kingdom Hearts for PS2. My return to the origins of Kingdom Hearts took me on a 30+ hour journey, but the time was well worth it and has rekindled my passion for the franchise.

Basically me while playing.

On Destiny Islands, Sora, Riku and Kairi want to explore other worlds beyond their own, going so far as to build a raft that would, in theory, take them there. The night they finish it however, a storm brews on the island, leading Sora to investigate as he runs into creatures known as Heartless. He finds Riku alone, who disappears into a portal of darkness, after which Sora obtains a mysterious object known as the Keyblade, an effective anti-Heartless weapon. Meanwhile, King Mickey has left his world to try and find a way to stop the Heartless, leaving Donald and Goofy to go and find the wielder of the Keyblade. Within a short time, Sora ends up in a world known as Traverse Town, where, after spending a good deal of time exploring, he runs into Donald and Goofy, who reveal their intentions for finding him. With some convincing, Sora agrees to go to other worlds with them in search of not only King Mickey, but also his friends Riku and Kairi during the quest to stop the Heartless from contaminating the newly connected worlds.

The story may not deal with heavy issues in the same way that games like The Last of Us or BioShock Infinite would, but its discussion of the light and darkness that exist within people's hearts, and how some people can easily allow themselves to get swallowed up by the darkness, is still something worth thinking about. How it chooses to explain itself is very much like something a video game would do, but the characters are written in a way that you can actually find yourself caring about them and sort of understanding what they are going through in search of their goals. Looking back on it, the story seems a bit simple, but its themes hint at some deeper meaning about how people tend to act as a whole that makes us wonder what we would have done were we in Sora or Riku's place. What really helps drive the point home is the cinematics, both through the in-game cutscenes and opening/ending pre-rendered sequences. These are very well done and tell the story at just the right speed to keep you invested, while the ending sequence that leads into the credits actually got me to cry because I realized just how attached I had become to the original characters. Since the story is also very self-contained but leaves the door open via the stinger for future adventures, it also gives the sense that not only is there more to come, but it gets me excited at the prospect (even with all of the games that are already out by now).

The first Heartless type you come across.

On this playthrough, I also fulfilled every requirement to get the secret ending (Seal all worlds, beat the Hades Cup and get all 99 Dalmation puppies). Finally seeing this through legitimate play actually gives me some sort of idea of what happens after the game as well as wanting to play the next game in the series. If that isn't a real teaser, then I don't know what is.

Combat is one element of the gameplay that is actually pretty easy to get into. Everything happens in real time and the player selects what Sora can do by selecting options from a menu, those being straight up attacking, casting magic or activating items, along with a context-sensitive fourth slot. Once again, everything is in real time, which means that if you need to use magic or items, you need to be quick in selecting the right one at the right time (I've miscast Stop when I meant to cast Aero for instance). Fortunately, there is also available customization for both a shortcut to cast three different spells as well as the list of items Sora carries at one time (there is no auto-restocking, so be careful). As Sora levels up from killing enemies, he also has access to an increasing number of abilities that can aid him in battle, which cost Ability Points (AP) to equip, so figuring out what your setup is going to be can be the key to victory.

An example of combat.

While I enjoy the immense amount of customization, which includes weapon variations and other articles, I do have to admit that the combat, while fun, has its own level of tedium. This isn't to say that it's completely that way, but the sheer amount of button mashing required from Sora gets a little tiring from the progressively larger waves of enemies. Although the waves get shifted after a certain point in the game, the only real difference when you finally figure out the strategy for each unique Heartless, of which there are many, is how much health they have. Despite this, the player must always stay alert, as even when you know what you're doing, it's possible for Sora to eventually be overwhelmed and lose, which means that acting quickly in a tense situation is still important and I appreciate the fact that they kept that element in. Still, there was a time during the Hades cup when my thumb actually began to hurt and, not wishing to undo whatever progress got me to the fight with Hades, I took a break before trying to get back into it. In general, the bosses each require their own strategy to defeat, which I like, though some are more fun to fight than others and the many stages of the final boss reflect what I can assume is the sum of Square's experience with boss design (I mean that in a good way).

I must say that the levels are, for the most part, very well constructed. Most of the worlds are based on a Disney property, or at least the Disney version of something, such as Agrabah from Aladdin and Neverland from Peter Pan. The care put into the design of each world is remarkable, as it feels pretty much like you went into the world of the movie and are able to explore it as you see fit. No two worlds are alike and the different sections of each one feel varied enough to not feel the same, but there are a couple of levels where it feels like that anyway. Monstro is perhaps the most notorious example of this, since every room feels almost exactly the same in what can only be described as a confusing mess of a maze. No matter how many times I have gone through Monstro, I can't really navigate my way to where I want without some kind of guide. Atlantica is in a similar situation, since it's a little difficult for me to figure out exactly where to go (not helped by the fact I haven't touched the game in under a decade). Platforming elements are also integrated into the worlds, which makes things more interesting, but also a little more frustrating when it comes to Hollow Bastion, a level you play if you love to get lost or fall off the edge by accident during combat.

Atlantica: What you see is what you get.

Then of course I have to mention the sheer number of characters from the Disney and Final Fantasy games that show up in Kingdom Hearts. The game box touts over 100 from Disney, which is a number that I'm willing to agree with. We've got a lot of iconic villains, princesses and heroes who have their own role to play within the larger whole. Some can join your party, some are summons and even more are bosses to overcome. Everyone who has a favorite character from the movies on display is guaranteed to find someone they'll particularly enjoy coming across (I was like that with the Hundred Acre Wood). What's even more interesting is how, even outside of their movie plots, they are all very much in character, which is a very nice attention to detail on part of the writers, who were no doubt influenced by Disney on that end.

What really helps the characters however is the voice acting. The original characters all have voices that match their appearance and act in a way that makes their motivations come across as more convincing and meaningful. For those who are from Disney or Final Fantasy, they are either voiced very well or sound exactly how they do in the source. It feels like they really went out of their way to capture the authentic voices. While it sounds like they used a lot of the original voice actors, they also managed to get some incredibly convincing sound-alikes for some of the characters, a detail which you probably wouldn't even think about while playing. However, that didn't seem to prevent them from making a blunder when dealing with the secret Sephiroth boss fight. Who would you get to voice the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, a man who had previously gone mad from learning that he was injected with a god, and at the same time someone who is perhaps the hardest fight in the entire game? Why, none other than Lance Bass of course!

Why?

Graphically speaking, Kingdom Hearts isn't the best looking PS2 game, but it definitely captures the feel of each universe very well and has its own special charm just for that. Some of the faces feel wooden as a character speaks, but I learned to not let it bother me and just go with it. The visuals are very good anyway, which is fortunate considering that it has actually aged pretty well, although you can sometimes see the angles in the polygons. The music is also scored very well, with music that fits each world well and gives combat a certain feeling. Sometimes however it sounds a little repetitive, though Neverland has easily one of the best themes, but it's interesting what they were able to accomplish just by using the PS2's tone generator.

In the end, Kingdom Hearts is an incredible game for the PS2 and is a must play for all. The story is a little simple but pretty effective and the combat, while repetitive at times, is very fun and customizable in approach. Atmospherically, the developer managed to retain everything good from their source material and created something that is a great marriage of two different worlds. Sora's journey may not be over after this game, but the rather self-contained approach is something that simply has to be admired and playing this will help you appreciate the hard work that went into this title. My passion for Kingdom Hearts has been renewed and I hope that it sparks something within you as well.

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