Saturday, September 12, 2020

Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix


Men in Black: International, but Good

Given the success of Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) and Disney’s Kingdom Hearts, it was natural they made it a franchise, and released a sequel, but not officially numbered, Chain of Memories on the Game Boy Advance, later remade for the PlayStation 2. The actual Kingdom Hearts II would come out a few years later, and like the first game receive a Japan-only “international” version. In the PlayStation 3 era, Square-Enix started releasing high-definition remasters of the Kingdom Hearts games, releasing a collection in anticipation of the third numbered title on the PlayStation 4, The Story So Far, with Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix among the games included.

Instead of controlling Sora at the start, players assume the role of the enigmatic Roxas (whose backstory midquel game 358/2 Days relays), with the first few hours of the narrative being generally off-putting, given the initial laughable inability of Roxas and his friends to say the word “photo” out loud, with it and their photographs stolen by mysterious forces. Players do eventually regain control of Sora, who along with his companions Donald and Goofy has awakened from a slumber intended to help them regain the memories lost in Chain of Memories. Afterward they continue their quest to find King Mickey and Kairi whilst visiting various Disney-themed worlds.

The story has some things going for it, such as good mythos, in-game tracking of the game’s various narrative points, and even a major plot twist or two, although those who haven’t played Chain of Memories or its remake will certainly be lost, particularly with regards to the mysterious members of Organization XIII, who serve among the main antagonists. Moreover, the search for King Mickey and Kairi doesn’t seem urgent, with Sora and company distracted by various side-stories in the aforementioned Disney-themed worlds, and the humor, as in chronologically-prior games, that makes the films bearable for older audiences, is nonexistent. The plot ends up being bad not in an enjoyable fashion, but rather in an excruciating, infantile way.

The translation is definitely legible, given the relative lack of spelling and grammar errors alongside some dialogue from the Disney films faithfully recreated, with the various characters having fitting speech patterns, although the game text ultimately comes across as hackneyed, given emphases on hearts, light, and darkness, and the localization team would have definitely benefited from using a thesaurus. While Sora’s name is actually excusable, given one of the main twists with the plot, the “other” Rikku from Final Fantasy X and X-2 appears, and Riku could have easily had a different name in the English version. Regardless, the localization hardly hurts the game.

Kingdom Hearts II for the most part builds upon its numerical predecessor’s menu and Keyblade-based combat, with Heartless and new adversaries known as the Nobodies serving as the chief targets of Sora’s blunt weapon. Most worlds are mercifully devoid of platforming that would necessitate a retracing of steps, accounting for better battlefields and minimizing things such as the issues with the camera. Sora is also able eventually to fuse with Donald and/or Goofy in a powerful “drive” form, but there is the off-chance that he could turn into Heartless form. Shortcuts for consumable items along with spells are a nice addition, as well, and while the game doesn’t track what enemies drop what items for synthesis, one can finish the game, at least on Beginner Mode, without using a guide, and the gameplay is a large step forward for the franchise.

Control also has many things going for it, such as an easy menu system and clear direction on how to advance the central storyline, along with helpful in-game maps, with an indicator of “???” for unvisited areas in the different worlds, and the ability to pause the game most of the time. Granted, it does bequeath many of the issues as the first numbered game, such as the inability to skip through voiced cutscene text, sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers, not to mention the significant time one needs to get back in the game after quitting. There’s also the slight annoyance of NEW indicators flashing in the menus constantly after plot advancement and the acquisition of new item types, but otherwise, while interaction isn’t perfect, things could have certainly been worse.

The high point of Kingdom Hearts II is its aural presentation, with Yoko Shimomura providing a nice variety of tracks, with the fact that each world has a different battle theme somewhat similar in style to the main themes when exploring negating the typical JRPG problem of repetitive combat music. Standout tracks include the technic Space Paranoids theme, the Timeless River music, and some tracks from the various Disney films including “He’s a Pirate” from the Pirates of the Caribbean films that serves as Port Royal’s main battle theme. The voice acting is also good, with standout actors such as James Woods reprising his role as Hades from Hercules, Haley Joel Osment his as Sora, and Sir Christopher Lee as the enigmatic DiZ, although the cartoony voices of characters like Mickey, Donald, and Goofy somewhat clash with the game’s serious tone. Regardless, a great-sounding game.

The visuals also stand out, with some well-designed worlds such as the monochrome Timeless River, the digital-looking Space Paranoids, and the dark, dreary Port Royal that had back in the PlayStation 2 version’s time featured some of the most realistic character models on the system. The other models look nice as well and contain great proportions, and the occasional CG FMVs round out a strong visual presentation. Granted, some of the foibles common in three-dimensional graphics occur such as slight jaggies, blurry and pixilated texturing, and even some pixilated edges at some points. Regardless, the game is largely a graphical treat.

Finally, the second numbered title is a little longer than its numerical precursor, around a day’s worth of playtime with a straightforward playthrough, and while there is no New Game+, things such as the different difficulty settings and side content such as completing in-game puzzles with pieces scattered across the world, the Gummi ship missions, the PlayStation trophies, and Hades Cup, will keep players coming back for more.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts II is for the most port a solid sequel that hits many of the right notes with regards to its quick, enjoyable Keyblade combat, the superb sound, the pretty visuals, and plentiful reasons to go back through the game again. Granted, it does stumble with regards to some areas of control, especially the excruciating plot and writing, and some rough spots in the visuals, although to date I found the first numbered sequel in the series to be one of its high points, despite what others may say. Younger audiences, especially those with a vested interest in the works of Disney, will mostly likely be the ones to appreciate the game the most.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version included with The Story So Far (purchased by the reviewer) on Beginner Mode.

The Good:
+Engrossing Keyblade combat.
+Superb sound.
+Good graphics.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Some control quibbles.
-Excruciating narrative.
-Hackneyed dialogue.
-Some visual blemishes.

The Bottom Line:
One of the high points of the franchise.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 3.0/10
Localization: 6.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~1 Day

Overall: 7.5/10

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