Cidolfas's RPG Reviews: Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)
You Are: Same cast as the prequel: Sora, Donald, and Goofy, going off on more adventures.
Your Goal Is: To stop Organization XIII, a mysterious secret society who mysteriously walks around in mysterious black robes. But most of the time you're flitting from world to world, unlocking paths to further worlds (in a plot device which is even more contrived than in KH1).
General System: Take KH1's system and tweak it, and you've got KH2. You do get used to the complexities pretty quickly. The Gummi Ship sequences are a lot more involved (but thankfully even more optional) and there's a general improvement in things like camera angles (which are now fully 360-degree controllable thanks to the right analog stick), scene skips, more save teleports, etc. There are now shop/synthesis moogles in pretty much every world. Jiminy's journal is now much more in-depth (which is both good and bad; it seems like every time you open the menu there's a "NEW" icon blinking at you). You can now customize each item and ability separately, set items to shortcut keys in battle, and set items to auto-refill after battles (which can cause them to drain pretty quickly, so be careful). I especially like the way they change the menu and dialog box styles (and loading icon) for each world you're in. Overall it's just a lot tighter than it used to be.
There's a whole whack of mini-games this time around (natch), ranging from the popular coliseum fights and Winnie the Pooh quests to skateboard raves, street theatre and carpet rides. Many of them are required, many of them aren't, but they're there. Atlantica's music minigames are notable in their annoyance factor, mainly because Sora can't sing the great old songs, and the new songs are absolutely awful.
I should note that there's a move away from the adventure/treasure seeking in KH1 to more linear, action-based gameplay. Frankly I'm fine with it; finding those treasure chests in KH1 and doing all those nutty jumps bugged the heck out of me.
Battle System: Here's where most of the tweaks come in (naturally). The main change is the inclusion of the Drive gauge, which fills up as you fight enemies and pick up Drive orbs. Once you reach a certain drive level, you can invoke Drive Forms, which swallow up one or two party members and give Sora an extra keyblade and some wicked cool moves for a limited time. Drives level up individually as well, and can give you abilities to use in normal form too. Summons (there are four) are now much more flexible, and also use up Drive gauge levels. Magic is now much more of a resource; use it all up and it'll just refill itself after fifteen seconds or so. Conversely, some spells and moves (like healing, which affects the entire party, and the new character-specific Limit commands) use up all your MP at once.
Drives are cool, but the heart (no pun intended) of the new system is Reaction commands. These are set to the Triangle key, and their effect changes based on the enemies you're fighting (Drives and Limits can also be set to automatically turn into a Reaction). They range from neat little moves, like swinging around behind an enemy, to essential ways to beat certain enemies (like stealing his huge sword). Boss fights all hinge on reaction commands in some way or another. Sometimes they make fights far too easy, though cool-looking; sometimes getting reaction commands right can be tricky. In any case, they're really fun to play around with.
Another great inclusion is the move away from plain old bashing and towards a mission-based battle system. Pretty much every story battle (even while exploring a new area when nothing important is happening) requires you to do something specific: beat all the enemies, do it within a time limit, interact with inanimate objects while doing it, etc. There's one sequence halfway through the game which has to be seen to be believed; I was really blown away. It keeps fights full of variety all the time. Also, rather than abilities and stats being granted purely from leveling up, every story battle also gives specific increases.
Graphics: Mostly the same as the original, but I have to give kudos for the Port Royal world - believe it or not, it's some of the most realistic graphics I've yet seen on PS2. The Timeless River and Tron worlds are also really neat. I should also mention the facial expressions, which are extremely, well, expressive, and convey a lot of information, and the great lip-synching work from the first game returns here too. Really first-rate stuff.
Music: Head and shoulders over its predecessor. There's a ton of different battle themes, all of which are above average. Unfortunately the actual exploring music largely consists of slight remixes of KH1 originals (some of which themselves are remixes of Disney songs), but you tend to ignore them. The intro song is just as awesome as KH's ending song.
Story: Like KH1, I really wish they'd gone with quality rather than quantity. There are no less than sixteen worlds this time around (all of which are a good deal smaller than their KH1 counterparts), of which only three are new ones based on Disney products. Thankfully this means that there's less of KH1's tendency to simply take the general story arc of the movies and transplant it into KH; however, for those three worlds, the attention to detail is even more slavish, which is generally a good thing, since characters do get more screen time. One odd thing I found is that several scenes are reproduced practically verbatim, but the music score which made them so emotional in the movies has been removed entirely during the scenes. Strange.
Many of the worlds which return from KH1 give you a bit more of a view into the characters and don't sound as stilted as before... but still, they could have done much more. The revisits you do past the halfway point introduce nothing new at all for the most part. The whole deal with Organization XIII is a bit too underdone; most of the members are basically just bad guys for you to fight. The few really interesting characters are given no backstory and little screen time. I should also note that this game has the longest intro I've ever seen; it takes about four hours to get to the main game. Most of that is pretty interesting, but they could have easily shaved off about forty-five minutes. In short, KH's story is still not really the reason you should play the game, but it is better than the original.
I was very happy with the voice work. They managed to get all but three of the original voices (of which one gets few lines, one is almost interchangable with the previous, and one is even better), as well as a stellar cast, including the original FFX crew. There are very few misspoken lines, and while it's still completely missing the trademark Disney humor, it still surpasses KH1's pathetic attempts. And thankfully, the much-mocked propensity of characters to have every second word being "heart" or "darkness" has been expunged.
Challenge: Pretty darn easy on Standard difficulty, not counting the optional battles, which are insane. I never got a single Game Over screen and used exactly two items in the entire game.
Length: About 35 hours, without completing absolutely everything
My Thoughts: KH2 is better than KH1 in pretty much every way. There are some downsides, though. After the high point of the halfway mark my enjoyment went downhill; it seemed like they were just filling time, for the most part. The flitting from world to world seems to be even more irrelevant than it used to be; if they really do want to make a KH3, they're really going to have to make the worlds interact somehow. I'm in the dark as to why they couldn't come out and tell us how drive forms are leveled up, or why they hid the final form as a random transformation. The ending also doesn't pack the punch that the original did. The optional endgame stuff could have been made much more fun rather than consisting of trying to hit particular scores or collect hundreds (yes, hundreds) of randomly dropped items. But that's all rambling. The gameplay is varied, the music is great, the story is decent, there's some really cool stuff around, and for you insane Pokemon-esque completion buffs, you'll be kept happily (or not so happily) busy for weeks. Definitely on my recommended list if you played the first one.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10