More than two years ago, two entertainment heavyweights announced a partnership to develop a video game, a partnership that was as unusual as it was exciting. Those two were Square, famous for their unparalleled Final Fantasy series, and Disney, the company thats been creating timeless film classics for close to a century. Early last year, Kingdom Hearts was announced as the brainchild of this partnership, and initial reactions were, for the most part, mixed. Some were disgusted, citing the game to be too childish for Square fans, whilst others were intrigued at the concept of classic Disney characters interacting with original Square creations. Now, almost two years later, Kingdom Hearts has been released, and for every part of it that is Disney, an equal part is Square. With high-quality graphics, the best voice-acting and animation ever in a game, and an absolutely superb story, Squares latest is filled with the type of quality theyre famous for. What do Disney and Square make together? Quite possibly the greatest Action-RPG, I say. The artists and programmers at Square are quite possibly the best in the world. Each and every Square title always showcases outstanding visuals and animation, regardless of which development team creates it. Kingdom Hearts is, by all means, no different. While not showcasing quite the same grandeur and scope as Final Fantasy X did, KH is certainly no slouch. The highpoint is clearly the rendered Disney characters, who, despite being 3D, look absolutely identical to their 2D counterparts. It really is a testament to the artists at Square, and something that has to be seen. Likewise, the animation in the game is not only spot-on faithful to the various movies, but is some of the best Ive ever seen!
Seeing all the various Disney characters look and move exactly as they did in their prospective films is astonishing, and quite a sight to behold. The various Disney worlds in which they resided are also faithfully recreated, and coupled with all the characters provide (for us older gamers at least) a splendid amount of nostalgia. The original Square-made characters mesh well with those of Disney, and helps provide cohesiveness to the worlds and the story. Even the classic Final Fantasy characters from VII, VIII and X have been redrawn for this purpose, and they all look great (especially Cloud!). Add in some fantastic spell effects, a solid framerate and ridiculous amounts of detail and its clear to see KH is a visual powerhouse.
Many gamers whove been around for awhile will most likely all have the same answer when asked what the most prolific Action/RPG is to date. Most would cite Nintendos ultra-classic Legend of Zelda series, despite it not even being an actual true Action/RPG. This genre has actually been touched upon rather gently since the resurgence of console gaming in the mid-80s. Series such as Diablo and Baldurs Gate had remained mainly PC fare up until the last year or so. What essentially defines an Action/RPG is a game combining both the action of adventure games (Zeldas true classification) and various elements from standard role-playing games. The most common aspect to differentiate the two (RPG versus Action/RPG) would be the real-time combat system most Action/RPGs have. Kingdom Hearts is a perfect example of an Action/RPG, and in turn, is the truest entry to the genre weve seen in a long while.
KH consists of many aspects that are quite common in Squares Final Fantasy titles. Similar weapon, item and spell names are used, and the general feel is strikingly similar as well. The combat is in real-time, and as a slight twist, so are all the other menu-driven commands. Everything from spell-casting to item usage to summoning is performed via a menu in the lower right-hand corner, where commands can be selected using either the right analog stick or the directional pad. The L1 key can be used to shortcut three spells, that when depressed, the square, triangle and circle then correspond to said pre-selected spell. This hectic aspect to battles sounds confusing, yet I found it surprisingly intuitive, as using items and casting spells was daunting, yet quite easy. The boss battles are one of the games highlights, as pattern-recognition and proper ability-use are the names of the game. It certainly helps that all the bosses are classic Disney villains too!
KH isnt perfect though, and two flaws stand out from the greatness, though one is pretty minor. The larger one involves the camera, which is best described as erratic. For one, its zoomed in far too close to your character, needlessly reducing your visibility. Second (and most annoying) are the drastic cuts and swoops the camera will make at times. When you lock-on to an enemy, the camera moves to give the best available vantage point for combat. The problem is that a lot of the enemies move around a lot, so occasionally (leaning towards too frequently) the camera zips this way and that. There arent too many occasions when you cant see at all, and it is manageable, but at the same time it can be quite annoying and distracting. The lesser flaw revolves around the games main mini-game, the Gummi Ship. By collecting different Gummi blocks throughout the various worlds, you can create your own spaceships (Gummi-fied!). These ships are then flown between worlds in a pseudo-3D shooter, in a decent attempt to add variety to the game. Its just that not only is the ship building rather complex and dull, but the flying portions are painfully easy. It doesnt help that you never need to upgrade your ship in order to continue on. But as I said, its a mini-game, and therefore it has a very small (say mini!) affect on the score.
Square has always told great stories, and are probably the best tellers in the business, and KH is no exception. For one, how all the Disney characters and Final Fantasy cameos were worked into the plot is genius, and adds a strong fluidity to the pacing that I thought might be one of KHs shortcomings. The nostalgic feeling to the entire game was a huge draw for me, as seeing characters such as Alice and Maleficent brought back memories of my (continuing) love for Disney. One other thing that needs mentioning, I was originally going to give KH an 8.5, but that was before I reached the end. The last couple of hours scream Square-brilliance, and the entire tale becomes darker and more emotional than you couldve ever expected. The ending to KH is beautiful, and is one of the best Square has ever done. Its very human (and quite a tear-jerker), and its also well worth finishing the game in order to see.
If there is one aspect of Square that is underrated, its the talent of their various composers. There is, of course, Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind the music to the Final Fantasy series. Then theres Junya Nakano and Masashi Sugawara, the two behind the SaGa series, who also contributed (with Uematsu) to Final Fantasy X (and who are going solo for the sequel, Final Fantasy X-2). The not-so-well known gem behind the Mana series, Yoko Shimomura, took care of the score in KH, and did a brilliant job at that. A lot of the tracks are reworked Disney themes for each of the corresponding worlds, and are both well remixed and produced. The title theme as well is absolutely fantastic in all its variations, even the J-Pop version!
The sound effects as well are sublime, blending classic sounds from the Final Fantasy games with the little touches littered throughout all the classic Disney flicks. Yet despite the quality of both the score and the effects, they are easily outdone by the voice acting, specifically that of the lead character, Sora. Voiced by child-phenomenon Haley-Joel Osmont, Sora comes across more human than any other character ever voiced in a game. Osmont perfectly captured the essence of Sora, a simple boy in need of adventure, and brought that across near flawlessly. The other actors are superb as well, in particular Ansem, voiced by veteran actor Billy Zane.
RPGs always pack a ton of value in the vein of side quests and hidden goodies, and KH holds it own to a tee. Its not as long as other Square RPGs, but a good 25-30 hours is required to finish. Add in all the extras however, and that number quickly doubles. I highly recommend completing at least these three extras; finding all 99 Dalmatian pups, locking the keyholes of EVERY world, and winning the Hades cup tournament. Upon doing so, a special movie is shown after the end credits that both teases at a sequel, and pleasures the eye. It has to be seen! The only real downfall to KH is the same as all other RPGs, in that most wont go through it again after completing it the first time. There is however an added difficulty level in Expert, that will probably persuade many to tackle the adventure just one more time.
I absolutely loved every minute of playing through Kingdom Hearts, and Im sure most of you will too. Its not perfect, and the camera is damn annoying, but the story and Disney-flavor makes it all worth it. I wish I could describe how good the ending was to this game, as it quickly changes KH from being a fantastic Action/RPG, to being easily one of the best ever created. Anyone who likes RPGs or action titles should do well to buy this game. Its just another classic example of why Square is one the best development houses in gaming today.