So Kingdom Hearts came out and proved that, despite all odds, a combination of Disney and Final Fantasy can make a genuinely amazing action RPG. So... what's next? For some reason, Square's original answer was "a card game". Thankfully, they came to their senses and a proper sequel emerged. Following up the original game, Kingdom Hearts II has more action, more Disney, more Final Fantasy, and more Sora. Does all this make it better?
Kingdom Hearts II opens with a brand new character named Roxas living a happy life with his best friends. Things don't stay this way, as strange events begin happening around Twilight Town and people blame it on him. I don't want to spoil this segment much, but safe to say you'll be back in the role of Sora before long. With Sora's friends still missing, and a strange year-long gap in his life where he can't remember anything, he needs to once again search across worlds based on Disney movies for them. Along the way, he runs into the mysterious Organization XIII, who seems to want to use Sora for a grand and evil scheme.
This is about the time that Kingdom Hearts' story began to devolve into the nonsense that it's rather infamous for. While it can still be followed without too much trouble, there are long swaths of cutscenes that involve characters looking super serious and muttering about the darkness. People who were dead suddenly aren't, characters have clones and clones of clones, and new plot elements are introduced that just sort of made me nod my head and go "okay, sure." The writing also takes a noticeable drop in quality. A particularly weird and lengthy scene of Goofy pretending to die is more likely to invoke laughs than anything else, while the Final Fantasy related drama often feels unrelated to whatever is going on. It's just there because it's expected to be.
Thankfully, while the story begins to falter, Kingdom Hearts II's gameplay hits a high that lasts for a large portion of the experience. If you played the first game then you'll find things aren't that different. The basics are that it's a mash-up between classic Final Fantasy systems and modern real-time games. You have commands that you can choose in a menu, but because the game plays out in real time you have to actively move around and avoid enemy attacks while picking your own commands.
The whole system flows noticeably better than the original. Combos feel flashy and interesting, with solid effects and enemy reactions helping to sell the blows. As you advance, Sora begins to learn some really crazy abilities. Before long I was creating stun-inducing explosions, knocking enemies into the air, slide dashing towards them, and catching them in life draining magnets they can't break out of. The feeling is great, and it's a lot of fun watching Sora go from being able to do little more than basic three hit combos, to lengthy, destructive, and flashy attacks.
There are also several new systems for the player to mess with. Drive Forms are easily the biggest, allowing Sora to completely change his combat style. By using these forms he can dual wield keyblades, gain the ability to use magic free of cost, juggle enemies for extremely lengthy times, and more. The cost is that he has to lose one or both of his partners to use it, but the partner AI hasn't really improved much from the original game. They're still basically different flavors of meat shields that at least don't get in the way. There has been some attempt to make partners more useful with limit skills, special abilities that cost all your MP to use, but outside of looking really pretty once the MP is better saved for when it's actually needed.
The other major new system is Reaction Commands. These are kind of like quick time events, albeit they all only use the triangle button. As you partake in combat, you'll see them pop up from time to time. It's always a good idea to use them as soon as you can, as they'll often play out special events. Many start minigames that, if completed, can end with dead enemies and a pile of extra items for Sora. It's both a cool way to reward players and to show off awesome and intricate animations.
You'll be using these abilities on a variety of Disney worlds that follow movies like Mulan, The Lion King, Aladdin, and more. Most of these worlds are interesting, bringing their own unique style. The world based on Mulan, for example, turns all fire abilities and explosions into ones that look closer to the movie. Nearly every world manages to hit a perfect balance, with the notable exception of two. One world, based on Pirates of the Caribbean, is simply boring. The super realistic graphics style looks off, the voice actors are iffy at best, and most movie scenes turn into little more than you awkwardly standing around and reading text boxes.
While Pirates of the Caribbean may have just been boring, it's not as flat-out horrible as the world based on The Little Mermaid. Here Kingdom Hearts II turns into a rhythm minigame, with the player having to hit buttons in time with a beat. The cast of Kingdom Hearts and The Little Mermaid get together to sing a few songs from the movie along with a few original songs. It is simply terrible. Very few members of the cast can really sing, and I'm not sure anyone ever asked to hear Donald give his rendition of Under the Sea. There's also a really weird villain song focusing not on Ursula, but on her two pet moray eels. You know, those timeless classic characters.
Thankfully this world is totally optional, and you lose nothing by avoiding it. Instead, you can focus on the other worlds and have genuinely fun fights against an impressive number of awesome enemies. Each unique foe displays interesting characteristics that make them fun to fight. Even better, there's the second race of enemies known as Nobodies. These strange enemies seem to constantly flow in erratic patterns, almost looking like blobs of water trying to conform into vaguely human shapes. Fights with nobodies are a delight, and I had just as much fun watching their animations and reactions as I had to actual combat.
Amazingly, there's something even more delightful here. I strongly hold that Kingdom Hearts II has some of the best boss fights in gaming. I could devote an entire article gushing about how fantastic these bosses really are. Most have a unique gimmick that compliments the core gameplay well without overwhelming you. One boss has you flying around on Pegasus to attack it, another sees you constantly switching to new and weird set pieces based on classic Disney cartoons, while a third has you jumping from various conveyor belts to avoid traps. Even the fights without little gimmicks are fantastic, with bosses often feeling intense and dramatic.
Just like last time, you'll be using your gummie ship to fly between worlds. You can create your ship out of parts you find, and the game turns into a SHMUP that sees you shooting down enemies in the way. While these were really boring in the original game, Kingdom Hearts II ramps up the intensity and manages to actually make them fun. Weapons feel better, stages feel more dynamic rather than being a straight line of boredom, and there's special events or boss fights to change things up now. I actually came to enjoy these segments far more and even did them for fun from time to time.
Kingdom Hearts II is also home to some fantastic art and music. I've already mentioned the strange enemies and just how unnerving their animations are, but each world is a visual treat that brings in all sorts of awesome design decisions. A black and white world based on classic Disney cartoons is the highlight here, with each character getting redesigns and stretchy limbs. The soundtrack is completely redone from the original release and is of much higher quality now. It helps that the foundation was already great, as Kingdom Hearts II has one of the most entertaining soundtracks in gaming. I'm nearly positive I've memorized the whole thing at this point. I don't regret it at all.
Similar to Kingdom Hearts, if this is your first time playing Kingdom Hearts II since the PlayStation 2 days then there's a ton of new content. There are several new optional boss fights, with all the Organization XIII members from Chain of Memories added into the mix. There's also an incredibly difficult boss fight against a mysterious opponent known as The Lingering Will, in case you really want to throw yourself at a brick wall.
In addition to all that, there's a big new dungeon that has you fighting against stronger versions of all the enemies. New cutscenes show off the life of Organization XIII before half of them died, there's a new puzzle assembling minigame, and there's quite a few new weapons, skills, items, and abilities to use. There's also a new mandatory boss fight, though I don't want to talk about it much for spoiler reasons. The difference between versions is massive, and the fact that so much has been added to the game is really a huge boon. Also like before, all of this was in the PlayStation 3 version, and once again the only difference from that one is the game running at 60 fps rather than 30.
Kingdom Hearts II Review | Final Thoughts
The real story of Kingdom Hearts II is one of just being better than the original in nearly every way. While the story is more confusing and the entire section based on The Little Mermaid is a (blessedly optional) flaming wreck, every other aspect of the game has been improved dramatically from the original. It's a wonder that, not only can such a strange series exist, but it can actually excel and create something so worth playing. Here's hoping that Kingdom Hearts III hits those same highs.
TechRaptor reviewed Kingdom Hearts II on PlayStation 4 using a copy purchased by the reviewer. It saw release on PlayStation 2 on March 28th, 2006.
- Amazing Combat
- Fantastic Enemy Designs
- Best Boss Fights of the Series
- Beautiful Soundtrack
- Surprisingly Fun Gummi Ship Segments
- Plot Gets Confusing
- The Little Mermaid Singing Levels are the Worst