Reviewed: September 21, 2003
Released: September 17, 2002
Crossovers should be a word dear to most people’s hearts. Nothing is more exciting then a well-executed cross-pollination between franchises. Crossovers are most prevalent in comic books where it is relatively simple to draw characters from the differing companies. Occasionally, a film crossover takes place (Freddy vs Jason, Godzilla vs King Kong, etc.), but gaming is no stranger to crossovers. Capcom and it’s heralded “VS” series immediately pop into mind, but there have been others; “Aliens vs Predator”, “Robocop vs Terminator”, even “Ironman/X-O Manowar: Heavy Metal.”
Kingdom Hearts is the latest to join the fray. As the story opens, you find yourself on an island with your friends, Riku and Kairi with the requisite “Final Fantasy” cameos. After a brief “settling-in” period, one in which you are asked several thought-provoking questions that dictate, in a very limited fashion, how you will progress in regards to your magic, strength, and how fast you will “level-up.”
After a storm lashes your island and you are separated from your friends, you then find yourself entrusted with the “Keyblade”, a giant key weapon that is used much like a sword would be, and entrusted with relocking (using the “Keyblade” natch) the disparate universes and recovering your friends. Assisting you on your quest are Donald Duck and Goofy who are searching for King Mickey. The first “world” you visit is Traverse town, a sort of universal hub that you often find your way back to when your supplies run low or when the story dictates. All in all, you will journey through 10+ stages including the tutorial that starts you off.
The basic gameplay is familiar to all of us who’ve played any “Final Fantasy” game, which should include pretty much everyone by now. You are eventually given a vehicle (in this case, a space ship) to venture to other lands in a quest to rescue friends, and defeat the “great evil.” The basic story structure is fairly cookie cutter; however, several important elements set Kingdom Hearts apart.
The major element would have to be the fact you don’t have to devote a third of your income towards “phoenix downs”, as your compatriots will only be knocked unconscious in battle and “revive” soon after to aid you in combat. This, I’m assuming, was done to lessen the difficulty for some of the younger players. They were partially successful, but the game still has a few rough spots that I’m not sure a younger player would have the patience to work through - both fights against the sea witch Ursula come to mind.
The controls are solid with the exception of the camera. Your spells can be hot-keyed, which cuts down on the time you are left vulnerable when casting them. I wish they had included a hotkey for item management, but every button is used and they probably assumed, and rightly so, you would cast spells more often then you would use an item in the heat of battle. You are also unable to take party members from world to world excluding Donald and Goofy. This is rationalized through a policy of non-interference (the game equivalent of the prime directive), but was probably done to skimp out on having to design several character incarnations, each character needing to have “certain“ uniform changes and to avoid having to write/record dialogue for the encounters.
The other major difference is the abandonment of the turn-based battle system. This is what puts some people off RPG’s. These people can lay their trepidations to rest, as the wars you wage in Kingdom Hearts happen in real-time. You are directly in control of the action, which lends a greater feeling of accomplishment after you vanquish a foe, and the knowledge that your hand-eye coordination played as important a role as your battle strategy.
This also leads to something else that players familiar with Final Fantasy may find shocking; you’re unable to use your item stock in battle. You are allowed “slots”, which increase with experience that hold items such as potions for healing or Ether for magic replenishment. This makes it so a battle cannot be won by simply stocking up on health items, as you are limited in how many of these items you can take into battle. The battles are also fast paced and if you try to heal or take a potion, a single hit can cause you to be interrupted and you lose the potion/ether without gaining the boost, which is quite aggravating.
The game also has a fair number of mini-games to occupy your time. They range from the routine vine swinging to the bizarre Anti-Tigger carrot defense. Constructing your Gummi ship, which is your means of conveyance between worlds, might also be considered a mini-game, but I found the entire Gummi ship idea as pointless and aggravating.
The actual flying/shooter parts were decent and even better once you get warp and can skip a great deal of them but the Gummi ship also has the distinction of rivaling the camera as the main source of unneeded frustration. Whereas a camera is essential to a action/adventure, a space shooter with SNES style polygonal graphics does not require such a camera and should probably have been cut or perhaps they could’ve used Launchpad Mcquack to ferry you from place to place. Still, it’s a fairly small part of the game, and after you gain “warp” the shooter segment is seldom used.
The graphics are a mixed bag; some slowdown is noticeable - “Halloween Town” being a prime showcase for this negative aspect. With solid gameplay and above average graphics I’ll settle for the tradeoff. The worlds themselves are beautifully rendered and really showcase the diverse subject matter.
After intermittent slowdown, the other graphical irregularity I noticed was the decision to have some faces as textures, while others were full models, even switching between them from time to time from game to cinematic. Why Square chose to not to keep the full-modeled faces for the duration was perhaps due to the PS2’s limitations, but again, this isn’t something that really affects the game‘s playability.
Another troubling aspect is the absence of “period” clothes for each stage. The game only provides you with different outfits when your normal appearance would differ greatly from your environment. “The Little Mermaid” and “Halloween Town“ give you great costumes, but not so for “Tarzan” nor “Agrabah.” You do get several new Keyblades, each sharing the design ethic of their Homeworld (a crab Keyblade from Ariel, a Halloween one from Jack Skellington, etc). It would’ve been a nice touch if you were granted new costumes for all stages, but maybe it was again due to the PS2’s inherent limitations. It’s merely aesthetic, not detracting from the sweet, sweet gameplay in any meaningful way.
What does detract a great deal is the camera system, often the bane of the action adventure games. Kingdom Hearts is another casualty of this on-going war. The game lacks a button for pulling the camera directly behind you, a cardinal sin from where I’m sitting, though pushing select switches the view to a first person view. Unfortunately it often switches back to an even more obscure angle when it reverts to third person. R1 and L1 pan the camera around, but will not pass through walls, which often leaves you with incredibly frustrating jumps that have to be made “blind” with the camera switching mid-way through the jump and disorienting you. The camera is a problem, a fairly large one, but with a little perseverance (and luck!) you’ll still be able to complete, and hopefully enjoy, all the game has to offer.
The sound is well done and most characters have their original voice actors reprising their roles, most notably James Woods as Hades or at least a similar sounding actor. In some cases it is carried off and you can barely tell the difference (Phil in Hercules) and in others it is painfully apparent (Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid”) but they should be commended for such a fine assemblage of voice talent for a game.
The battle sounds also are conveyed with excellence but most people will only care about the voice acting and, as I said before, it is above reproach. Some parts sound a little wooden, and occasionally the speech sounds forced, but nowhere near “some” games (Don’t…open…that…door.)
The background music is a lovely blend of both classic and remixed tunes, easily enjoyed and quite often blends seamlessly into the locale.
As with most RPG’s the basic story can keep most people occupied for a good 15+ hours of play. The game also has several side-quests (another RPG staple) that can extend that number another three or more hours. The side-quests range from rescuing all 101 Dalmatians, to fighting new bosses. If you complete a certain set of tasks you even get a “teaser” for Kingdom Hearts II. Not too shabby for a mere $40 investment.
The main question many people wonder when they buy a game is “Is it fun?” or perhaps “Is it worth the $40-50 dollars I’ll be paying to add it to my collection?” In my opinion the answer to both would have to be yes. Square and Disney were able to create a gestalt, a game that is far more then the sum of it’s parts. It is Disney and Square combined in such as way that everything flows as if it were already one and inseparable.
The sounds, gameplay, and controls (except the camera), are as good as most other games in the genre and Kingdom Hearts stands out as a great RPG. It may not rival the grand stories of some past Final Fantasy’s or even some of the better Disney movies; however, it is a fine game that manages to combine each company’s strengths in a tapestry that is a joy to behold and an even greater one to play.
Kingdom Hearts is both an action/adventure and an RPG, done in such a way that it appeals to the fans of both genres. If you are avoiding picking this up because, “it’s for kids” or “I hate RPG’s”, at least rent the game. Everyone should at least try it before making an opinion based upon preconceived stereotypes. If the bonus “teaser“ was any indication, Kingdom Hearts is going to have a blockbuster sequel, so get in on the ground floor, cause for this franchise, the sky’s the limit.