Review: Square's slipping you a Mickey...Mouse
Have you jumped off of Pride Rock today, taken a magic carpet ride in the dessert, sang with Ariel under the sea or battled alongside Beast outside of his castle? Our three unlikely heroes, Sora, Donald and Goofy, give you the chance to do all of this and more as they continue their quest on PlayStation 2 with the highly-anticipated sequel to Kingdom Hearts. Like the first game four years ago, Kingdom Hearts II is made up of Disney, Final Fantasy and original characters courtesy of a joint venture between Disney and Square. Fighting alongside the likes of Auron and Cloud in this action RPG is a lot of fun. However, the biggest thrill comes from the ability to experience and explore the animated, clay and live action classics that have graced the silver screen over the years, from Mickey's black-and-white origins to movies as recent as Pirates of the Caribbean.
As the trio travels to different movie-based worlds attempting to find Sora's friends Riku and Kairi, they'll fight enemies both new and old. The Heartless return under the control of the wicked Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent and Mickey's long-time archrival Pete. Their latest scheme is turning powerful characters of good or evil persuasion into the Heartless. The trouble for Sora, Donald and Goofy doesn't stop there, though; a newer, more difficult form of enemy called the Nobodies make their debut in the game. These white, gyrating creatures are like the Heartless, but are controlled by a second threat to Sora and the gang called Organization XIII. As you might expect, Maleficent's forces and Organization XIII clash during certain points, leaving Sora stuck in the middle as wielder of the Keyblade.
Playing through the first game and Chain of Memories on GBA does have a significant advantage. However, the game does an admirable job using flashbacks to allow new players to become sucked into the virtual fairy tale without being too puzzled with every cutscene. Still, the plot surrounding The Organization is purposely confusing in order to create mystery, so whether you're a returning player or new to Kingdom Hearts, expect to be bewildered up until the end. This is especially true in the very beginning of the game in which you play as a character named Roxas. It takes a while to play as Sora and to see the first Disney elements, which may unfortunately turn off some gamers before experiencing the all of wonders that wait.
Further into the game, once you get passed the initial non-Disney Twlight Town and Hollow Bastion, familiar Disney environments start opening up. This is where things start to become interesting. New to Kingdom Hearts is Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean and the Timeless River from Steamboat Willie, just to name two. There are also a number of returning stages that haven't lost their luster despite the fact that they appeared in the first game. As with most of the levels, a single cast member per movie will temporarily join your team by displacing either Donald or Goofy. The most interesting occurs in Port Royal, as Captain Jack Sparrow fights by your side on the deck of The Black Pearl and The Imperial.
The benefit of having some one like Jack Sparrow or Simba fighting in your party is that you can take advantage of new team-up mechanics. These are more powerful than simply hacking away at enemies with your Keyblade using the X button or keeping them at bay by selecting one of your magical powers. Whenever the HUD indicates that you should press the triangle button, it's almost always a good idea. It either initiates one of these team-up moves or executes another contest-sensitive reaction command that's essential in defeating a boss.
Another new gameplay mechanic comes in the form of Drive moves, which can also be selected in the HUD. These allow Sora to go into overdrive by combining with a party member and changing form. However, instead of teaming up, Drive moves temporarily take away a party member. So while you're faster and stronger during the time your drive meter is full, you lose that extra man on the field, sometimes good only as a decoy (see: Goofy). Like the team-up moves, Overdrive moves use up the entire magic power meter, so you'll want to time your special moves wisely.
Despite a fresh list of gameplay mechanics like team-ups, reaction commands and Drive moves, Kingdom Hearts II remains a relatively simple button-mashing game from beginning to end. You can get away with mindlessly hitting the X button to maintain slashing with the Keyblade and repeatedly pressing the triangle button in case a content-sensitive command appears. While some of the later bosses require a little more in the way of strategy, players need very little thought to operate the combat system. Anyone used to the turn-based gameplay of the Final Fantasy franchise may dislike the lack of strategy. At the same time, though, the action-RPG gameplay opens up new doors to those that could never get into Square's other slow-paced, turn-based gameplay titles before Kingdom Hearts.
The level design, while colorful and rich with Disney flavor just like the first Kingdom Hearts, is very straightforward in that there's almost nowhere you can get lost. The game is extremely linear and without branching paths, making it easy and almost too simple. At times, it seems as if you're just being used as a vehicle to go from one cutscene to the next, sometimes coming out of a clip, walking a few feet and then entering another cutscene within seconds. In the defense of Kingdom Hearts II, however, the story is so interested if you're a Disney fan that it's less of an issue here than it would be in any other game.