Monday, September 17, 2012

Kingdom Hearts

Our journey begins.
There are several combinations of items that sound incredibly strange on paper that end up being sheer genius when put into practice, like peanut butter and bannana, or salt and chocolate, or in this case Disney's iconic and beloved characters from its animated movies, and cartoons mingling together with Squaresoft's (now Square-Enix) heroes from the Final Fantasy series as well as several new characters created for this game. Now the formula for this game has existed for quite some time seeing as how both Disney of Japan and Square Enix were actually located in the same building at the time of this game's conception, but the idea wasn't really conceived in an elevator as the urban legend goes.

Directed by long-time character designer Tetsuya Nomura the game was met with a TON of skepticism towards the idea, and rightfully so. While Disney had some great games in the NES and SNES days, a Disney RPG that crossed over with Final Fantasy sounded weird, even to fans of the strangest JRPGs; and the weirdness was only worsened by Nomura-San's...interesting character designs (Lots and lots of belts and zippers on costumes) as well as the decision to create a whole new crop of characters to fill the main protagonist positions as opposed to Disney and Square's original ideas of Donald or Mickey respectively as the protagonist. However upon the game's release, critics and skeptics everywhere were eating their words as the game became a bestseller, selling over 5.6 million copies worldwide, and is even the ninth highest selling game for the PS2.

To be honest, this game was the reason I got a PS2, while many were skeptical of the game's creditintials, I, in my infinite Disney fanboyism at the time just HAD to have this game. Upon finally getting it, as I played I was convinced that I was in fact playing the greatest game of all time. It had everything that I loved, and while my opinion has changed a little bit since then, I still adore this game, and it holds a spot in my top ten favorite games of all time. And now allow me to explain just why it is one of my favorites.

Our story follows the journey of young Sora, who like any regular Disney protagonist, wants so much more from life and yearns to leave his cramped island home with his best friends Riku, and Kairi. However he gets more than he bargained for when a mysterious dark force engulfs his home and dumps him into another world with a mysterious key-shaped weapon. Meanwhile there is trouble afoot in the Disney kingdom as Mickey Mouse has left, leaving behind a mysterious note asking Donald Duck and Goofy to find the key-bearer and protect him. Heading their king's words they head for Traverse Town, and by the wiles of fate run into Sora. Offering their assistance in finding Sora's missing friends, the three team up to find each other's respective friends and solve the mystery of why various worlds are disappearing while protecting themselves from the wrath of the sorcereress Maleficent and her band of villains.

The story, while nothing groundbreaking is rather good, and has the feel of a Disney movie. Sora isn't exactly a deep or complex character, but he fits the mold of a Disney protagonist perfectly. To get the maximum experience from the story, its best to think of it along the lines of a Disney story than a Square story as it doesn't have the "depth" that most RPGs have, instead opting for a more classic Light vs Darkness motiff to make up the game's plot with a relatively black and white view of each side. And while the various Disney worlds don't play a MAJOR role in the grand scheme of the plot, they do have important plot elements happen within the worlds.

Art Direction
Graphically this game is Square's typical, but excellent work in the field of game visuals; the Square and Disney characters match up without looking awkward, or clashing visually. The Disney characters perfectly resemble their animated selves, while the FF characters have undergone and little bit of redesign and bear new or slightly altered versions of their costumes from their respective games. The various Disney worlds are also practically lifted from their respective movies with many familiar locations like the Sunken Ship from The Little Mermaid, The Cave of Wonders from Aladdin, and the spiral hill from The Nightmare Before Christmas. However I did feel that the designers were a little bit lax on expanding these worlds as you can practically explore every world fully in a matter of minutes, which leads to each world feeling more like a collection of rooms rather than "entire worlds".

Voice acting in this game is incredible, mostly due to many of the Disney characters being reprised by their original VAs with a few exceptions like the Genie, and a few minor Disney characters. Most of the Square characters are voiced by A-list actors including Haley Joel Osment as Sora, Hayden Panettiere as Kairi, and David Gallagher (from 7th Heaven) as Riku; and a few other fairly big names from the time like Mandy Moore, Christy Carlson Romano, and (in the ultimate troll move from Square) Lance Bass as Sephiroth (whom appears as an optional boss). The soundtrack in this game is simply incredible and potentially famed VG composer Yoko Shimomura's greatest work to date. Her original works are rather piano heavy, but are masterfully composed, and her work with classic Disney songs is great as well.

Kingdom Hearts is essentially an "action" RPG in that combat takes place in real time, and requires good reflexes in addition to strategy. While Sora's basic movements like walking, and jumping are your basic control scheme, the game uses an action menu system which may be rather confusing to new players. In the lower left corner there is a menu in which the highlighted action will be the one Sora performs when pressing the X button, this includes attacking, examining objects, and casting spells or using items. The cursor on this menu is controlled with the D-pad, which can be a bit hard to use when you're moving or under pressure, especially when trying to cast a spell or use an item since you will often accidently miss the command you wanted as you quickly try to select it in the heat of battle.

In combat Sora has several options to battle the Heartless including a combination strike used by pressing the X button multiple times with "Attack" highlighted on the menu, initially you can only perform three strikes, but you can add more with certain abilities. Magic can also be used with each spell having a different effect and element, and are learned/upgraded as the game progresses, however as stated before using magic can be a little difficult initially as you must highlight the magic option, press X, and then select the spell you want to cast; gladly though there is a way around this thanks to the game allowing you to hotkey three spells to a combination of R1 and X, Square, or Circle. Also falling into the magic category are summon spells, which call in various Disney characters to assist for a limited time either offensively like Simba or defensively like Tinkerbell. Items are stored in each character's respective inventory are selected similarly to magic, but cannot be hotkeyed, and have to be replenished from the pause menu when all equipped items are used up. While combat can be fun, one glaring flaw lies in the camera, which feels like its being held by a cocaine addict, it zooms all over the place and can be incredibly difficult to control in fights that require a lot of movement or even platforming.

The other core gameplay element is working with the various AI controlled Disney characters in combat. Donald and Goofy accompany Sora on the journey and assist him in combat. Donald is a staff-wielding magician who learns spells along with Sora, and Goofy uses a shield to block enemy attacks and deal moderate physical damage; also most world's feature a guest party member such as Aladdin or Peter Pan who can join for as long as Sora remains in their respective world. Team member's combat AI is fairly good, but the problem comes from their item use, when someone falls into critical health, party members will scramble to use an item or healing spell on that characters and will end up wasting an item or magic points. You can also customize their behavior and set them to use certain attacks more or less often, and you can order them to attack a specific enemy by pressing triangle when targeting an enemy.

While I've been mostly positive about the gameplay, there is one nasty elephant in the room that keeps this game from absolute greatness; the gummi ship. Aside from being an incredibly obvious, watered down Star Fox ripoff, it is sheer, unadulterated boredom incarnate. Basically the gummi ship serves as the party's transport through space to each of the Disney worlds, so in order to jump from world to world you must traverse each pathway, that is until you get a warp function fairly early on which allows you to immediately jump to each discovered world. In flight you control the ship and blast through obstacles/enemies to make it to the end of the path. You barely even have to maneuver the ship, all you really need to do is mash the blaster button over and over and you'll destroy most of, if not all threats. You can build you're own custom ship, or follow a blueprint design which are obtained by defeating enemy ships, you can add little touches like extra weapons, or nets to catch out of reach items, and this would be a nice touch if the actual flying was any fun, in fact when you get the warp function you'll only be flying to new worlds and just jumping to previously discovered locations, thus rendering gummi ship building practically pointless since the initial ship is more than enough to get through any flying stage.

The way that I like to describe this game is beautiful, but flawed. The cutscenes are beautiful, the story is decent, and combat is fun, but the camera, and gummi ship segments really drag the game down. Despite all these flaws, I genuinely love this game and I recommend it to anyone that likes RPG or even for people that just like old-school Disney (it makes a good first RPG).


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