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April 01, 2005

Review: Kingdom Hearts (Ps2) - Let the Kingdom reign!

VGP Score


9.5

I'm now a believer. I can certainly say that Kingdom Hearts, even though a game with some hard to miss flaws, is a fantastic and euphoric trip down memory lane. It teaches us so many things we didn't realize about games, Disney and the depth of both children's literature and RPG's. Under the gun, Kingdom Hearts has a lot of people to prove wrong, and even more people to convince that this isn't just another outing from Disney to make a quick buck off of something gimmicky at first glance. Kingdom Hearts, the joint effort between Squaresoft (not Square Enix) and Disney, is both a masterpiece and an icon in today's gaming industry.

The game follows young Sora, a boy with the sterling ambition of sailing off with his best friends Riku and Kairi, to find new worlds, and new lands to explore. Yes, it is a degenerate by all means, but it evovles into so much more as the game moves on. You'll find that initially the plot trudges along rather slowly when you're just starting out, trying to get an idea of just what is going on in this expansive universe of Disney characters and worlds. As Sora, you eventually fly off to a place called Traverse Town, where you'll meet some familiar and unexpected faces, which will explain the dire circumstances you are in, and why you are the one who must bring an end to it all. Sora eventually gets lost, loses his friends in the void of disarray, and meets up with two unlikely companions. Donald Duck, and Goofy. I know what you're thinking: "Donald and Goofy? Possibly THE most adolescent and sophomoric characters ever conceived! Don'y TOY with me man!" This all too true, and at first, you won't be convinced otherwise. Later on, as ties between Sora and party grow deeper, the mature and comradic nature of Donald and Goofy become more apparent, which in the end, concludes in a mature and heart-warming way. You'll get caught up in the emotion and and back-stabbing that goes on in this game - if you have the guts to stick through the rough patches.

Kingdom Hearts also does a good job of putting the "Disney = 'teh kiddie'" in the 'broken ideas' bin. On the surface, visiting places like Monstro the Whale, Tarzan's Deep Jungle, and Halloween Town seems all too obviously cliche for a Disney game, but the plot, again, is woven tightly into these different worlds. For a seasoned Disney-o'holic like myself, seeing all the Disney worlds fleshed out into vibrant 3-D landscapes, is just breath taking - an extension of the characters and themes that elevated to pop culture status.

Now the common enemy you fight is "The Heartless"; a race of darkness endowed creatures, that can appear from thin air due to the evil and hate common to all worlds and hearts. The Heartless, alongside the now beloved Disney villains, make an attempt to take the Keyblade, of which Sora is the protector, and use it to open the door to Kingdom Hearts, where we are lead to believe total darkness reigns supreme. Transparent and uninvolving at first, Kingdom Hearts does one of the best jobs at capturing the audience, and keeping them there until the credits roll - and even after the fact.

The characters of Kingdom Hearts are your general Disney fare, with Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Jack Skellington, Alice, The Cheshire Cat, Aladdin, Genie, Jasmin, Jafar, Belle, Beast, and a vast amount more classic Disney favourites. This game takes on the task of converting what we know as 2-D animated cartoons, and fleshing them out into fully three dimensional, living beings. The conversion was done flawlessly, I can tell you that much. Never has a better 3-D rendition for any of the Disney characters portrayed in this game, been done before. All nostalgia and flesh and blood Disney characters aside, the original (and central) characters of the game, Sora, Riku and Kairi, are also wonderfully crafted. You can tell Nomura had a hand in their creation, but you can also see the Disney influence in their oversized feet, and laughable body disproportions. Nomura's experience shows, and his character design and character transitions are top tier stuff.

Without argument, the best part about Kingdom Hearts, is the audio quality and soundtrack. Usually gameplay takes centre stage off the bat, but this is a crucial part of what makes Kingdom Hearts so immersive. First things first, the voice over cast in this game glimmers with star power. Haley Joel Osmet, known for his role as the ghost whispering child in the 6th Sense, does the voice of Sora. Going from the transition of his younger roles in the 6th sense, to this game, you'd be hard pressed to tell if it is indeed Osmet, but I assure you it is. His incredible acting spirit shines through in his role as Sora. David Gallagher (7th Heaven), the voice of Riku, also does a stupendous job. Both Osmet and Gallagher have amazing chemistry. The light and dark duality, present throughout the entire game, is most noticeable between Sora and Riku, and the excellent voice work makes that a possibility. Other hollywood voice actors include Mandy Moore, David Boreanez, Billy Zane, James Woods, as well as a slew of other high quality voices, you'd probably only hear by taking a trip to your local cinema.

However, I bet you're wondering how the Disney voices faired in their transition from the big screen to the small gaming screen: unparalleled. Most of the voice actors are not the original voice actors who breathed life into these characters upon premier of their respective movies, but differentiating between the two is a job for purists with superhuman hearing. The voices of the characters, are so well mimicked and duplicated, that for all intents and purposes, there is no difference between old and new; just superb.

The soundtrack is wonderful as well. The introductory FMV, has a simple techno trance mix version of "Simple and Clean" - the games theme song - playing in the background. At first you'll scratch your head, and think "OH, it's one of THOSE games", but don't be deceived. The score really picks up afterward. New orchestral arrangements have been produced, using identical themes for the Disney worlds, based off of their respective film. Aladdin's "Arabian Nights", "Prince Ali", and "Cave of Wonders" are reproduced with mucho style and charisma. Nightmare Before Christmas' "This is Haloween", is one of the more notable pieces in this game, but not to be held so high as to over shadow the terrific jobs done on the rest of the themes, like "Trashin' The Camp" from Tarzan, Some terrific Hercules themes, as well as "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid. The quality and value of this soundtrack is supreme, and stands right next to some of Nobuo Uematsu's best compositions. Though, one thing stands above all else in this game, the theme song: Simple and Clean. No, not the trance mix version you heard in the pre-intro, but the acoustic version with the orchestral accompaniment. The song plays periodocally throughout the game, and in the end you get the full fledged 6 minute version. This song is memorable, truly it is. Sung by Utada Hikaru, the tone and melody just seem to fit so well together with the game. Hikaru's voice truly makes the song however. The waning of her voice really shows you the emotion, and really makes the song what it is. When you first hear it, you won't "get it", and you certainly won't think it's the theme song for a game like Kingdom Hearts. But when you hear the real version of "Simple and Clean" after completing the game and most loose ends tied up in the plot, you will "get it". Soon after you'll know, this song is to Kingdom Hearts, what One Winged Angel is to Final Fantasy.

The game itself is fairly straight forward. Nothing ever gets too complicated, as you lock on to enemies, and mash away at the attack button. If you scroll down the on screen menu, you can cast magic spells, and summon spells, which work and do their job; though never become too tedious to use, and use strategically. It's a very well balanced battle system, allowing for active RPG combat, without the nuisance of random battles. All enemies appear on screen, and all enemies are fought without making the transition from field to battle screens in classic RPG style. Occasionally you can activate a special attack, given the correct circumstances; the aerial attack Ragnarok can only be used on air born enemies, and the long range technique Sonic Blade can only be used when the enemy your facing is far enough away. Makes sense right? Good, because it really does stay that simple. Some would whine that Kingdom Hearts over simplifies the RPG genre, but it really doesn't. Equipment and character customization is all there, as well as your special ability and upgrading magic system. Your allies Donald and Goofy are all AI controlled, though most of the time, you'll be rapidly pressing triangle to get them to attack, instead of use up your supply of ethers and potions. A simple flaw, one that never impedes game progress, but can get annoying from time to time.

The game controls fine, and the free-roaming camera works pretty well outside of battle. In battle, sometimes the auto-target feature moves the camera away from where you want to look but ultimately it does a pretty decent job of aiding you rather than hinder. As mentioned earlier, the battle system operates on a simplified strategic level, so the game never gets too frustrating such that this camera becomes problematic, but occasionally it does make for some challenging fights. On the topic of challenge, some of the games bosses are well worth the price of admission alone. Challenging, hard (but never too hard), and creative, the range of bosses in this game is outstanding. Squaresoft (now Square Enix) really out did themselves with this game. From the Cave of Wonders, to a giant estate, in the shape of Oogie Boogie from the Nightmare Before Christmas, it's unbelievable. The variety in gameplay is jaw dropping too. Replay value is there, but I'd say it's only for those who enjoy playing through a game on all of it's difficulty modes. (There's even a sneak-peak at a concept video for Kingdom Hearts 2 is anyone daring enough to unlock it)

Finding special abilities like Super Glide, will help you locate chests strategically scattered throughout the game, that will require another trip back to the worlds that you've previously journeyed to. Unlocking secret movies, defeating secret bosses, and bringing down one of the most fierce villains in Square history are the cherry on the cake in terms of what you can do after you've seen all there is to see on the central plot axis.

With so much character, originality and charm, Kingdom Hearts stands out as one of the strongest developed games in a long while. Even though the battle system suffers from few camera issues, and Donald and Goofy's artificial intelligence is far from advanced, it's small potatoes compared to multiple servings of awesome this game throws your way. The game immerses the player so well, that all that's left in the end is the visceral experience and remnant memories of fun times you had. This game deserves to be put on everyone's shelf. Hang up the old adage "cartoons are for kids", because Kingdom Hearts will tear your world apart, and build it anew. It's the beginning of something great. Not just "oh wow" great, but "the new Final Fantasy" great. Expect big things from this series in the future.

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