From the outset, Kingdom Hearts II suffers from a number of simple but major flaws. Unfortunately, Kingdom Heart II's problems are ones that could prove to be a fatal deterrent for any casual newcomers to the series.
For the first few hours of gameplay, the game crawls along at a nauseating snail's pace. Poorly managed tutorials, awkward dialogue, and banally simplistic combat make for a very uncomfortable beginning, and you may start asking yourself why exactly you're bothering to continue playing when, for the most part, you're simply not enjoying the experience.
This is made all the more irritating by the pretentious, hackneyed storytelling that kicks off the story, leaving no place for explanation of past events for those who haven't played the two past iterations of the series, and it's execution is a far cry from the charismatic nature of the previous game. It makes for a very awkward opening.
First appearances in this case though are, thankfully, deceiving. The game soon falls back into the comfortable familiar feeling of the first game, as your party of three travel from world to world (most of which are Disney themed again, of course), meeting up with many old faces, and a number of new ones.
Special mention must go to the world set around the Disney movie Pirates of the Caribbean. Though Square's talent for exemplary graphical flare is no secret, the quality of animation and sheer visual faithfulness to its source material is truly outstanding; it is experiences like this within the gameplay that drive you forward through the game, in quiet anticipation of what strange wonders you will discover next.
The battle system, initially coming across as a completely one dimensional and cumbersome button basher, slowly begins to open up new layers as your team expands and new skills become available to use. The variety of options are plentiful, and despite the obvious improvements made over the first Kingdom Hearts, are largely unnecessary; at the end of the day, tactical play is a choice, but never a requirement, due to the consistantly low difficulty throughout. Its mechanics are solid, there's no question about that, but its polish is only surface deep. The rest is simply window dressing.
But Kingdom Hearts II isn't really about its combat, or its challenge. It's a marriage of Eastern and Western conventions and design, and an adventure of epic proportions that will drive many to want to keep playing, simply to find out what wonder lies around the next corner. Many will find it hard to resist the game's charm, and the story it weaves is a compelling and charming, though heavily disjointed in some places.
It never quite reaches the same heights of the first game; the same sense of new wonderment is rarely left, simply because it is an evolution of its predecessor, and not an entirely new experience. It is by no means a bad game though, as the score should tell you. Many will be left with the feeling that there is something truly missing in the game, that if Square Enix looked harder they could make it something more than it is... yet the player is still compelled to continue, regardless.
The game is a bag of contradiction on many levels, but in a product that manages to create a tangible existence of the almost inexhaustable stockpile of Disney movies and Final Fantasy games, what else would you expect? At the end of it all, it makes a quirky kind of sense, and for that reason alone, Kingdom Hearts II is a truly unique and enjoyable experience. despite it's shortcomings.
- 8 / 10