Kingdom Hearts II.
Oh, the Kingdom Hearts games. What a glorious mess. I've reviewed several of the more recent games - Dream Drop Distance and Birth by Sleep, and while my views on them generally haven't been positive, this is a franchise that I absolutely adore. I think it's a premise with a ton of potential, both in terms of story and gameplay, I've always found it to be one of those delightful kids-in-a-sandbox things where there are so many interesting directions that you can take it, and it does have a large cast of interesting characters, some great music, and even some great voice-acting (hey there, Leonard Nimoy, Robin Atkin Downes, Willa Holland, Mark Hamill, and Sir Christopher Lee).
If I have any problem with the franchise as a whole, it's that I don't think Tetsuya Nomura is very competent at making games. The development hell kerfuffle over Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV is proof of his inability to get games finished, I don't rate him much as a character designer, and both Kingdom Hearts and the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy are evidence of his inability to write a story that doesn't spiral off into pretentious incoherence.
Kingdom Hearts II, the third entry in the series, initially puts you in the shoes of a young man named Roxas, enjoying his summer holidays in the charming world of Twilight Town. As time passes, Twilight Town becomes more and more bizarre, and Roxas starts to increasingly realise that something's wrong with him, as well. Before long, circumstances have you playing as Sora, the franchise's main protagonist, as he is given a new task - travel the worlds in search of Organisation XIII, a mysterious cabal of 'Nobodies', creatures formed from the bodies and souls of those who have lost their hearts.
II is widely considered to be the best game in the series so far, and I'm inclined to agree with that assessment.
|Except Timeless River, which is so nightmarish I know people who can't bear|
to watch it.
Part of that is probably gameplay, in that the gameplay is definitely - adequate. I can't actually say it's better than the gameplay of any other Kingdom Hearts game, they all functionally play the same, but Kingdom Hearts II does have something going for it that Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance don't, which is that you're not retreading the same worlds with two or three characters that all play functionally the same. The gameplay feels fresher than the games that come after it, because there's distinctly more variety in the foes you're facing and the locations that you're facing them in. There are other factors that make it feel fresher too - the Drive Form mechanic both offers more freedom of choice than the Command Styles mechanic, as you pick when you transform into your different forms, and it's more varied, with all four of your major Drive Forms playing in a substantially different way and requiring different tactics.
(I personally absolutely loved Wisdom Form and used it whenever possible.)
As I think I've said before, if I were to create a Kingdom Hearts game with multiple playable characters, the Drive Forms would be what I'd base their gameplay on, having one character emulate Wisdom Form, another emulate Valor Form with a greater focus on speed than that form actually has, while another played more like your regular, base form, but with a more significant focus on strength.
Another part of why II is so well-received is that the story isn't nearly as tangled as later installments in the series would make it. For the most part, II has a fairly straightforward story, and it and its two predecessors form a perfectly adequate, self-contained storyline. It isn't until Birth by Sleep, where we got heart-swapping, people-splitting, people linking their hearts with others, more doppelgangers, and complicated plans involving ancient, divine swords; and Dream Drop Distance, where they took that tangled skein of plot threads and shoved time travel into the mix, that the storyline actually became as ridiculous and incoherent as it currently is.
|You know, The World That Never Was would be massively popular with tourists.|
Not that II's story is perfect. One thing I found particularly grating is that Organisation XIII had half of their number killed in a previous game, despite being the main villains of this one, and despite there being more than enough space to adequately fit all thirteen into it - in fact, for the main villains, they aren't nearly prominent enough in the game as it stands, and could do with showing up in more worlds. I groused about this on social networking, and had several people apparently not understand, assuming that I had either never heard of Chain of Memories or that I didn't understand what happened in it - that is not the issue. My contention is that Chain of Memories should not have had five members of the Organisation be defeated in it - it wasn't a massively necessary game anyway, but if it was truly needed, why not use a cabal of Disney villains instead, with Organisation XIII as their distant, ominous handlers pulling the strings?
Essentially, either have the Organisation be the villains of II or the villains of Chain of Memories, not this halfway house mess where half of them die in one game, only for the rest of them to appear and then be killed off in another game. With worlds like The Pride Lands, Disney Castle, Space Paranoids, Agrabah, and Halloween Town not having any Organisation presence in them at all, and The Land of Dragons barely enjoying a three second cameo by an Organisation member, there was certainly more than enough space for the entire group.
But apart from that, it's a fine plot. It won't win any awards, but it was fun, interesting, and even managed to explore some interesting ideas, such as the nature of self and suchlike. Sora grates on me a little, but not nearly as much as he would come Dream Drop Distance, where the writers apparently forgot half his personality.
|Pictured: Not Sora, but also a candidate to have half his personality surgically|
sheared off if he ever shows up again.
The game's music is very good, its voice-acting ranges from sufficient if a little grating to excellent, and the graphics are fine. The Disney settings could use some work, but a lot of that is that they appear totally absent and empty: Places like Agrabah and the Imperial City, which are canonically bustling and crowded, are rendered entirely empty of anybody. This is obviously to reduce workload and to make having fight scenes in those places easier, but it kills any sensation that you're actually in those worlds.
In conclusion, a fun but by no means perfect game, but it has earned its stripes as the best entry in the franchise. If we're lucky, Kingdom Hearts III will beat it, but that would require it to ever be released, and with Nomura in charge, that is spectacularly unlikely.