From the beginning, Kingdom Hearts was one of those ideas which should have never worked. Even its creation seems improbable, starting as a literal elevator pitch as someone from Square Enix ran into a Disney exec on an elevator. The colorful world of Disney mixed together with the stylish Final Fantasy series seems like something which should appeal to exactly no one, yet it’s become one of the most popular JRPG franchises. The fact it took that odd creation as a jumping point to become one of gaming’s most convoluted narratives is both asinine and completely on-brand. Even several games in, I can’t help giggling as Donald Duck talks about ‘the darkness.’
But few songs hit my nostalgia like “Dearly Beloved.” Kingdom Hearts is nonsense, but it’s my nonsense. II stands high above the rest, fixing the clunky feeling from the original and, well, not being the later games. This game helped mark a huge shift in action gameplay alongside Devil May Cry 3 and the original God of War; graphics have advanced considerably, but the gameplay of these games are as smooth as ever.
The original Kingdom Hearts played a bit safe with its Disney choices. The only real surprise was The Nightmare Before Christmas, which had more to do with Disney otherwise keeping it away from their other animated properties. Everything else shared a generally colorful aesthetic. Kingdom Hearts II switches things up with Timeless River (designed to simulate the black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons) and Space Paranoids (which captures the neon cyberpunk style of the original Tron). Even the more obvious inclusion of The Lion King involves transforming Sora into a lion cub, which puts a fun spin on the combat. There’s also the more, uh, realistic Pirates of the Caribbean level, which might be a weak point but reinforces that each of these levels really capture their own unique traits.
Combat in the original was fun if a little basic. II maintains the simple feel while adding a few more options, the most central being the drive forms and reaction commands. The drive forms give Sora distinct boosts and unique traits. These are integrated well, as you can eventually unlock permanent upgrades for Sora through levelling these forms. They all level using different mechanics, which gives a reason to keep using each of them. This carries its own risk, as overuse can transform Sora into the Anti Form, where he loses most of his abilities but gains incredible speed.
Reaction commands break up the tedium of hitting the same button over and over. Certain moments in battle will reveal an enemy’s weak point, which can be engaged with through a separate button press. This may not sound like much, but gameplay is the one element this series was smart enough to keep simple. It’s just enough to make things more exciting.
The boss battles are a real highlight. Though I still don’t quite get Organization XIII on a narrative level, more humanoid bosses tend to be more engaging, and their presence offers a hefty amount. The Final Mix takes this further by offering even more difficult versions of each member, including those not actually present in the central narrative. What makes humanoid bosses great in action games is that those which are well-designed feel like a battle on even ground, even as the boss pulls off impossible feats. With so much fun content in the Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts II is one of the few RPGs which gives a compelling reason to grind for end game content.
While the opening hours can be a bit tedious after the first playthrough, Roxas’s story is a strangely resonant microcosm of the series’ themes. Having still not played Chain of Memories, I’m certain there are bits I’m missing, but “Looks like my summer vacation is over” still hit me like a brick the first time through. I think that’s the defining feature of Kingdom Hearts as a narrative – even if you don’t fully understand the overarching plot, it still manages to find the emotional core through the experiences of the characters.
Kingdom Hearts II takes the best of the RPG and Action genres, creating one of the most vibrant series in gaming. While its story may not be for everyone, it’s a rare RPG where the narrative might be its weakest hook. In fact, the individual moments count for more than the narrative at large – in a series where visiting Disney worlds started as the main selling point, Kingdom Hearts II simply has the best of the bunch. Over a decade later, this is still a blast to play.