Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kingdom Hearts II - Sanctuary

Hot on the heels of my review of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, I’ve recently replayed through Kingdom Hearts II, originally released in Japan in 2005, in anticipation of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix (which will feature Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix). I had been playing Kingdom Hearts around the time that this game came out, so on my 14th birthday in 2006, the year it came out in the US, I obtained a copy and began playing it almost immediately. I remember playing it to completion in the days that followed and then, in at least the year 2009, replaying the game from the beginning because I liked it that much. Of course, being pretty young, I also used a cheat disc (that I still own, but didn’t use on my most recent run) to screw around with the game afterwards just to see what I could get away with. Since the 2013 announcement of the very long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III, I’ve been going back and replaying every game in the series as a build-up. It is now Kingdom Hearts II’s turn and for the purposes of this review, I played the game on Proud Mode for the very first time to make the unlocking of the end-credits teaser much easier (simply complete all worlds, including Atlantica and 100 Acre Wood). As my once favorite game in the series, I think that this game has aged surprisingly well, but while the game is a significant improvement on its predecessor, I am now more aware of its missteps.

The game begins with an extended prologue following a boy named Roxas within Twilight Town. His summer vacation is almost over and his friends Hayner, Pence and Olette have a general plan for what they want to do. However, those plans go awry as Roxas finds out for the first time about the Keyblade and his connection to it. He finds out that the cause of the recent string of strange events is a group of beings called the Nobodies, a revelation made more confusing by the continuing appearances of a man named Axel who claims to know him as a past friend. Eventually, Roxas finds out that his world is nothing but a virtual simulation and that the virtual town’s purpose was to fully revive the memories of Sora, who Roxas had recurring dreams about. After this occurs, Sora, Donald and Goofy reawaken from a year-long slumber resulting from the events of Chain of Memories and see that Jiminy’s Journal has only a single note reading “Thank Naminé.” Sora’s party eventually arrives in the real Twilight Town, where Roxas lived previously. At the train station, after a surprise encounter with King Mickey, they make their way to the Mysterious Tower, home of Master Yen Sid. At the tower, the trio run into a new villain named Pete who serves under Maleficent. However, he leaves once he learns of her demise from the original Kingdom Hearts game. Afterwards, the three ascend the tower and speak with Yen Sid and Sora gains new clothes and powers to accomplish his new mission: to seek out many worlds and protect them from the Heartless and Nobody threats as well as bring an end to Organization XIII (introduced in Chain of Memories). As Sora, Donald and Goofy set out on their mission, they learn more about Organization XIII’s past and goals, as well as find out more about the identity and nature of Roxas.

The mysterious Roxas (only playable in the prologue).

I’ll admit right away that the plot is not Kingdom Hearts II’s strong suit. The discussions of the light and darkness in one’s heart return from the first game, but this time we also have discussions of how human a Nobody really is, someone who doesn’t have a heart or emotions and yet remembers feelings as though they are really happening, someone who isn’t supposed to exist and yet does. We are left to wonder by the end if Organization XIII’s leader, Xemnas, has a point and a worthy purpose, yet simply going about it the wrong way. Members of Organization XIII are consistently painted as the bad guys and yet they all have fully fleshed out personalities, with some even coming off as people who aren’t truly evil, just following orders. Like in Chain of Memories, it is possible to feel empathy for at least one of the members when they die, bringing a more human quality to them. In this sense, the plot can get interesting in places, but that is not why what we witness is consistently considered inferior, even from me, to the first game.

The problem that arises is not how the Disney films are integrated into each world, though there are a few issues with that including Atlantica basically redoing its plot from the first game, but rather how confusing the events that unfold become. The first Kingdom Hearts had a very self-contained story, making it possible for someone to actually follow along from beginning to end. In Chain of Memories, or rather Re:Chain of Memories in my case, it was also possible to follow along pretty well and the introduction of Organization XIII set up an interesting mystery that you want to see answered. However, Kingdom Hearts II is when things get weird, since it doesn’t really wrap things up so much as it answers some questions while asking quite a few more that would be answered in future installments. In essence, this game is the tipping point in the franchise that merely sets up the kudzu plot that the franchise is now very (in)famous for. When you do complete the game, you feel a sense of accomplishment for defeating Organization XIII, and yet you also feel like you need more information. The ending credits sequences totally tease this by creating a sequel hook that would later be fulfilled by coded/Re:coded and 3D: Dream Drop Distance. Pretending that those don’t exist at the moment however, I’d say that I’m satisfied, yet very confused but eagerly anticipating what is to come.

Who knew that one coat could cause so many headaches?

Gameplay remains largely the same from the original Kingdom Hearts, though there are a lot of tweaks made to the combat systems that give Kingdom Hearts II a more action-oriented feel without really sacrificing what was good about its predecessor. For one thing, physical attacks have a noticeably greater amount of speed and precision, showing that Sora has become stronger since his year-long coma. Added to that is the introduction of Reaction Commands to the series, where you press Triangle during certain situations to counter what an enemy Heartless or Nobody is doing and gain the upper hand; outside of combat, Reaction Commands are used for quick interactions with NPCs or Party members in certain areas. When used against bosses, Reaction Commands can trigger a cinematic that inflicts damage and looks really cool. It is also possible, in some situations, to use a Reaction Command to trigger a Limit with another party member, resulting in highly damaging combos usually capped off with a cinematic attack.

One major addition is Drive Forms, which allow Sora to use the new Drive Gauge to absorb one or more Party members to access an array of new abilities, the most notable being the ability to wield two Keyblades at once and use both of their abilities. As you level up each Drive Form, Sora can also have a Growth Ability equipped that grows stronger over time; these abilities include High Jump, Quick Run, Double Jump and Glide. Naturally, these new forms give you an edge in combat, though you must use Drive Orbs to extend the longevity of an active Form or replenish the Drive Gauge to be able to activate a given Form once more. You also need to be careful however, as overuse of the Drive Forms can randomly trigger Anti-Form, in which Sora looks like a Pureblood Heartless and has increased speed and strength, but at the cost of more useful abilities, such as healing. On a related note, there are fewer summons in this game, four compared to six in the original, and they too rely on the Drive Gauge rather than MP, making it easier to have a summon out and cast whatever magic you want.

You can't avoid Anti-Form forever!

On the subject of magic, MP works a bit differently this time around. Rather than having several segments determine how much you can cast, you instead have a blue bar that goes down with each use of magic (though each spell still costs a certain amount of MP to cast). With this system, it is actually possible to cast a spell that requires more mana than you actually have and still have it cast perfectly. Once the MP bar goes down to zero, it begins to recharge by turning purple and gradually going down, allowing you to once again use magic when the bar turns blue. It should be noted that no matter how big your MP bar is, the recharge bar will always be the same size, plus you can equip abilities that will make it easier to recharge MP. This system isn’t perfect, since it can be a pain to wait for the bar to fully recharge during a difficult fight, but I overall like it better since there’s more freedom with casting magic by way of not having to attack a lot to get your MP back.

In general, I’ve always preferred the combat of Kingdom Hearts II over the original game. The systems are a bit more streamlined to actionize the game, but I think that this streamlining is done in such a way that it doesn’t sacrifice what made the first game good. Yes, there are two menus that you can scroll through instead of one, adding a little complexity to the fights, but at the same time they are very easy to scroll through and lay out all of your options in front of you so you don’t have to go hunting for them. With the threat of the Nobodies and Organization XIII now more dangerous than ever, it only makes sense for Sora to have taken a level in badass in order to gain an edge. Plus, there is still a high degree of challenge present, especially on Proud Mode, where you take double the damage and only inflict half.

A screen showing a lot of the gameplay elements at once.

The biggest source of difficulty would be the boss fights and some of the mini-games. By no means are the bosses a walk in the park, but the two campaign bosses that stand out within the fandom are Demyx and Xaldin, and for good reason. Demyx (encountered in Hollow Bastion), described as “not a very good fighter”, uses a sitar and is capable of summoning water clones of himself (and just control water in general). Sure some of his attacks are pretty easy to dodge, but they hit really fast and he’s just really relentless to the point where the best strategy is to use Wisdom Form, which enhances magic, and spam Fire. You’ll really need this strategy however when dealing with the water clones, where you have to kill a certain number of them within a time limit or else you lose for no discernible reason. Now imagine that, but you hear him say “Dance, water, dance!” so much that just hearing it is enough to cause a lot of grief.

"Dance, water, dance!"

But then we have Xaldin (encountered in Beast’s Castle), wielder of six lances and the element of wind and capable of completely destroying you if you have no idea what you’re doing. It can take several tries to finally take him down due to his insane power, teleportation ability and impossibly long reach; this is not helped by the location of the fight: a very narrow bridge. To reliably damage him, you have to use a Reaction Command called Learn in order to replace your basic attack with Jump, which can be stacked up to nine times, so that you can spam that. Of course, he’s also capable of combining his spears through wind to form a dragon and then, just out of reach, unleash an unblockable whirlwind. Really, the only reason you’re able to keep going at all is because this is usually the first time that the player can have King Mickey bail them out (each time you trigger him it lowers the chance of him appearing; I ended up needing him twice during the same encounter just to stay alive). Now, on top of all that, Organization XIII fights have a very high chance of triggering Anti-Form, causing much aggravation, and an empty Drive Gauge, should this happen to you (and it will). Once you beat either of these bosses though, you really feel like a winner (an exhausted winner, but still).

This is when things really get hard.

There are two other bosses I’d like to address though, but more briefly. First, Sephiroth returns as a bonus boss in Hollow Bastion. He’s a little easier to handle compared to the first game due to being slower and telegraphing his moves more, but at the same time he’s more aggressive and can rip you a new one the very second the fight begins. In other words, he’s more dangerous than he looks and can even give the most experienced players a run for their money. Second, I’d like to mention Xemnas, the final boss of the game. I bring him up because we previously did a list of memorable fights on this blog and I wanted to confirm that he totally deserves the spot he has. He may seem easy to some (admittedly I knew exactly what to do because as I played, the memories of intentionally fighting him a lot from five years ago came flooding back), but throughout the multi-stage fight he can be a killing machine for those who are unprepared. Plus, the fight is really awesome and gives a true sense of accomplishment once you’ve taken him down.

This is how the fight starts.

Before I truly move on, I want to briefly bring up a couple of mini-games that always give people trouble, myself included. Trying to complete Jiminy’s Journal can be a real pain in itself, since some goals require you to have ungodly patience and skill, but the one goal that truly stands out is trying to complete Poster Duty within 30 seconds. To put this in perspective, I could never do it when I was younger and there wasn’t much help aside from the BradyGames Guide (which continues to serve me well by the way), but a quick video search as an adult helped me finally accomplish it; long story short, max out all of your Drive Forms and practice a route until you have it down. The other mini-game I want to bring up is the Underdrome, which is this game’s version of the Olympus Coliseum tournaments. More specifically, it is the Paradox Cups that are aggravating due to the constantly changing rules within them, especially in the Hades Paradox Cup. This particular tournament is a nightmare, since even being Level 99 isn’t enough to save you. Fortunately if you die you can get a new checkpoint every 10 waves (out of 50) so you can jump back in, but that isn’t much comfort when you suffer death after painful death against virtually every enemy type in the game, including bosses, as well as the Final Fantasy characters who always fight in teams.

Now we move onto the worlds themselves. Kingdom Hearts II brings back some of the worlds from the previous game while adding a few more to keep things interesting. Some of the worlds also have what I’d consider sub-worlds since you have to enter a specific area to access another world that you couldn’t otherwise get to. One of these sub-worlds is the Timeless River, which mimics the style of early B&W Disney shorts, and the other is Space Paranoids, also known as the Tron world. I found these to be pretty fun to go through overall thanks to the former having its own fun atmosphere and the latter being a more condensed, but also more exciting, version of Tron’s story. In general, I thought that the worlds were chosen pretty well, though the stories have varying degrees of success. I tried not to dwell on it too much however since I just focused on taking it all in and having a good time. Of course, that doesn’t stop certain worlds from having their own unique problems.

Also, Bruce Boxleitner giving a care.

Returning worlds retain the feel that they had previously, although there is a case that could be made against trying to shove them into every Kingdom Hearts game. Agrabah, the Aladdin world, keeps the same sort of minimalist format for the city portion, which, while having a better layout than before, feels old since the story is somewhat recycled from the first game. Apart from the unique Heartless bosses, the player still has to go through the same motions, though the only real excitement in the world comes from the redesigned Cave of Wonders, which challenges the player during exploration. Atlantica, another recycled world, is no fun at all, since they not only recycle the story entirely from the first game, but they also seem to have done it purely to make it more accurate to the film by giving Prince Eric a presence. The real waste however comes from how they make the swimming controls at least 100% better and yet the only real use it has is getting you to different rhythm-based mini-games. The songs are too easy, get grating really fast thanks to cringe worthy lyrics/performances and they are also required to complete if you want to get closer to having the best stuff in the game. I really wish that more thought had been put into this world, or at least have the swimming mechanics contribute to something more useful.

The only other world I have any major complaints about would be Port Royal, based on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. When Sora, Donald and Goofy get involved in the events of the movie, they end up hardly contributing anything, opting to instead take a backseat to Will Turner and Captain Jack Sparrow; fine, they have to fend off Barbossa as a boss, but that’s pretty much it. Remember earlier when I said that combat in Kingdom Hearts II has a generally quick and exciting pace? Well, that all comes to a grinding halt in Port Royal thanks to the enemy pirates who have the medallion curse upon them. The game decided when you fight them to introduce a new infuriating mechanic where the pirates can only be damaged when they are out in the moonlight, being invincible otherwise. You do have to think about your environment more, but that also makes battles more frustrating and is the reason that I never visited the world after fully completing it and opening every chest. But the worst part about the world is how it creates a deep uncanny valley effect by putting Sora, Donald, Goofy and the Heartless against a more realistically rendered backdrop with realistically animated human beings. No matter how I look at it, one thing’s for sure: I’m not buying it. The only thing I’m fairly certain about is that Port Royal was included because the franchise was enjoying a long streak in popularity around that time.

I'm still not buying it.

One last thing to note is that the Gummi Ship levels are spectacularly improved. They are no longer annoying and tedious, but instead awesome and filled with replay value. It helps that you get automatic ship upgrades rather than having to take the time to construct something decent (though you can still do this if you wish).

With all of that said, the graphics are a real improvement over the original Kingdom Hearts. There are still some shortcuts taken here and there with facial animations, particularly on Sephiroth for some reason, though these seem to be fewer in number than before. There is more detail in the environments coupled with a sometimes bold decision to go trippy and abstract at times. I overall like Sora’s design in this game better, if only because it fits his older appearance really well, and I find the aesthetic of the Nobodies to be unique and interesting. On that note, I also noticed that the animations in this game are wilder than before, especially when it comes to the Nobodies, who can twist, turn and stretch in ways I haven’t really seen before or since. I’m sure the intention is to make them otherworldly in this regard, which they really succeed in doing.

Sora after getting new clothes from Master Yen Sid.
Notice the additional zippers and belts.

The score is also phenomenal, though I wouldn’t expect anything less from a Kingdom Hearts game. A variety of musical pieces help contribute appropriate emotions to each situation, plus some themes, like the Underdrome battle music, are extremely catchy and easy to remember even with extensive time away from the game. The heavy use of the piano for the more tense music is an interesting choice, since the dissonant tone helps establish a feeling of dread and, when combined with the quick tempos, communicate a sense of urgency that more scores need.

I’d also like to compliment the voice acting. Haley Joel Osment’s voice has clearly aged, though he still provides a great performance as Sora. Since there are too many characters to really discuss, I’ll just say that the Disney characters sound very close, if not exact, to the voice you’d associate with them. This extends to the Port Royal characters, whose sound-alikes are fairly convincing (I’m certain that the real actors would have asked for too much money). The Final Fantasy characters on the other hand are more of a mixed bag. Aerith’s VA in this game, Mena Suvari, has a very wooden delivery that makes her less interesting to listen to compared to Mandy Moore from before. Her voice actually sucks emotion out of a scene instead of contributing, so it’s really no surprise that this was her last time voicing the character; some have this same problem with Steve Burton as Cloud, though it’s really up to you to decide if this is due to his talent or Cloud’s characterization.

Then we have Sephiroth. I dedicated a paragraph to him in my last review and concluded that Lance Bass simply wasn’t the right choice for the character. Fortunately they didn’t bring him back for the sequel, instead recruiting the talented George Newbern, who some may recognize as the voice of Superman in the popular Justice League cartoon and beyond (his most recent appearance as the character being the Injustice: Gods Among Us fighting game). Newbern’s take on Sephiroth is much more imposing and captures the feel of the character much more accurately. It’s little wonder then that he’s pretty much become the go-to guy to voice him.

With George Newbern, Sephiroth sounds how he looks.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts II is a phenomenal game. The gameplay is improved upon in just about every way from its predecessor and introduces more action elements without truly compromising what made the first game so good. On the other hand, the story is much more convoluted and can at times be difficult to follow, leaving questions unanswered for prospective future installments to clear up. In any case, I’d highly recommend this game since it has just about everything you could ask for in an action-based RPG. Newcomers should definitely not begin with this game, as they will be impossibly confused as to what’s going on, so I’d suggest instead beginning with HD 1.5 Remix on PS3. In the end, I really enjoyed this game and seriously can’t wait to play Kingdom Hearts III (sort of teased during the normal ending sequence); I’ve waited eight years already, so what’s a couple more? Of course, the real treat for completing the game is unlocking the secret ending, which is an early teaser for Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

The Gathering

Next time Kingdom Hearts is reviewed on this blog, it will be an in-depth look at that very game.

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