Genre: Action RPG
Developed by: Square Enix
Published by: Square Enix
Feeling Like: Reluctantly positive
Isn’t the above image beautiful?
I’m a sucker for this kind of art. True to many fictional pieces from Japan, it depicts a gang of heroes gathering and simply being together. The catch is the specific scene never happens in the show/movie/video game. You don’t see Sora, Donald, Goofy, Mickey and the rest hang out and contemplate life while they sit on.. what the hell ARE they sitting on?
Regardless, the coloring, the lining, the perspective, the character design, the placement, the logo, everything works here. It’s one of many things about the Kingdom Hearts series that keeps me coming back.
I’m not necessarily thrilled about a return trip, mind you. It’s a series that has so much going on that it’s impossible to keep up. Let’s see if I can wade my way through.
You wouldn’t think that Disney and Final Fantasy would be a good crossover. It certainly was a surprise in 2002, but an even bigger surprise was the reaction to it. You have an entire generation who grew up on Disney movies and TV, an emerging fanbase growing up on Disney movies and TV, and a massively hardcore gaming audience that is very loyal to Squaresoft (soon to be Square Enix). I suppose in retrospect it’s unsurprising how popular it was, but nobody could’ve seen the series balloon to 15 games and become a mini cultural phenomenon.
Visiting various Disney locations is an obvious, but good move. Incorporating some classic Disney songs is an obvious, but good move. Having Donald Duck and Goofy be your only party members throughout the game wasn’t an obvious move. But it was a good one.
The key is in the voices, I think. Whoever voiced Donald and Goofy sound exactly as you’d hope. You can barely understand Donald’s sarcasm and outbursts of hilarious anger. Goofy always tries to diffuse the situation with his kind and lovable quips. Seeing them bash enemies with shields and fireball spells is surreal, but you get used to it. I’m on board. So far.
The plot is where I start to falter. Each Kingdom Hearts entry gets more and more confusing. It doesn’t help that the franchise spins off on all sorts of different tangents, characters and consoles. True to Japanese RPG tropes, there’s a ton of exposition, nobody talks like a human being, there’s mounds of philosophy gabble, body switching, re-incarnation, evil organizations, stupid costumes and more magic you can shake a Keyblade at. It’s exhausting. Kingdom Hearts 3 was so irritating to try and keep up with that I just stopped trying and enjoyed the ride.
This entry is all over the place, but I don’t know how I’m supposed to cover a game like Kingdom Hearts 2 otherwise. It’s a mish-mash of ideas, a myriad of concepts and design choices. Combat is mostly button mashing, except when it’s not. Sora, the protagonist, morphs into matching characters to the Disney level he’s in; meaning you play differently in every level. I can’t find myself caring too much about the character I’m role-playing as, yet Donald and Goofy warm my heart every step of the way.
What a weird, stupid, lovely series.
Two moments in particular stand out.
You’re tasked with eliminating an entire horde of Heartless, the trademark enemies of the franchise. A thousand of them, to be precise. Normally in a video game, when an insurmountable force presents itself, you may clear out some of the Pawns before facing the Queen followed by a cutscene that circumvents most of the battle. Not here. Kingdom Hearts 2 says kill 1,000 Heartless, Kingdom Hearts 2 means you kill 1,000 heartless – counter showing remaining enemies and all. It’s odd, it’s crazy, it’s repetitive, but it *felt* huge and rewarding after I was done.
The second highlight is the ending. I couldn’t tell you who the final bad guy was. I think Sora was searching for Kairi or Riku, his two friends from an island beach land they all live on somehow. Very little of the setting makes sense, it’s not supposed to. Again, all the major JRPG tropes are present: villains with a superiority complex, long winded speeches full of exposition, the lack of any realistic dialogue, fashion choices that would asphyxiate normal people, spiky hair, the works. It’s all here, good or bad.
But the last cut scene managed to sidestep any cynical thoughts; it’s wholesome, through and through. Sora and Riku manage to make their way back to the island. Kairi is waiting for them on the beach and waves them over. Before they make it fully to land, Goofy, Donald and Mickey burst onto the scene and give them loving embraces.
Oh it’s weird. There’s some uncanny valley going on with the human characters. The voice acting is stilted and odd. It’s melodramatic. But when Donald and Goofy are nuzzling Sora like pets that haven’t seen their owner in a long time, I lose it. I smile and smile. I also love the timing on the final shot. Sora and Kairi clasp hands, there’s a faint pause, a swelling of the pop song, and the credits roll peacefully. That’s the kind of ending that resonates with me, largely only found in JRPGs where the amount of time you’ve spent on a game is correlated with how much relief/joy you feel when you see the credits finally roll. I did this. I helped Sora and the gang win. They’re happy now, I’m happy now. Man, this song rocks.
I haven’t mentioned the music yet. I usually leave that bit for the end of an entry, maybe to finish strong? Many of the games on the 500 don’t warrant repeat play; most of them I finished in a small period of time before moving onto the next one. But I can re-live the thrill, in a small way, by listening to the soundtracks. On my current Winamp playlist, I have 3,396 songs. I have an eclectic, if not crappy, taste in music. I like everything: rap, rock, classical, TV theme songs, pop, alternative, folk, trance, hip-hop and, naturally, video game themes. I now have 1,221 that are from a video game that I listen to on the semi-regular. That’s insane, but it’s true. Many are free remixes from OCRemix, one of my favorite sites on the web. The selections are all over the place, from the NES era, to a game I just beat a few days ago. I think it’s the melodies – many game songs are forced to get their “theme” or “message” across in a short period of time and while I do appreciate a good buildup, there’s nothing like feeling I’m transported to an impossible city in the sky, or trying to find my friends after the apocalypse, or exploring the inside of a mechanical god within a few seconds. What I’m getting at is, despite my lack of knowledge or taste of “real” music, I’m obsessed with video game music. The quality of the soundtrack has a massive influence on my lasting impression.
Kingdom Heart 2’s soundtrack is phenomenal, if a bit J-Pop-y.
Vector to the Heavens fills me with frisson. (although this may not count, I forget which specific Kingdom Hearts game it’s from…)
The series is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to music. It’s one of the main reasons I have Kingdom Hearts 2 listed as high as it is.
I don’t have fact checkers, but I believe this is the longest entry on the 500 to date. This surprised me; Kingdom Hearts 2 isn’t anywhere near my favorite game, but it clearly left a lasting impression. Since it’s my favorite genre, I suppose there’s a lot to talk about. Justification why I enjoy such a bloated, garbled genre, but also reminiscing about the incredible high points these kinds of games can hit. It’s very much like pro wrestling – when it’s bad, there’s nothing worse. When it’s good, there’s nothing better.
I still think the formula has run its course – Kingdom Hearts 3 won’t be on my Top 10 of 2019. I don’t consider myself a “fan” of the series, more a curious observer. I think Disney characters can fit into Final Fantasy worlds FAR easier than Final Fantasy characters can fit into Disney worlds. I wouldn’t praise the gameplay in the least, it’s repetitive and too chaotic for my liking. But there’s clearly enough appeal that even an older, slightly jaded video game enthusiast can enjoy it.