Kingdom Hearts 2
System: Playstation 2
If I had to condense all of my vast wisdom on the subject of video games into one salient point - one tiny little wisdomlet, if you will - to give to the game designers of the future, I think I would pick "however much Christopher Lee is charging to do voice work for video games, pay it." I do not know how much Mr. Lee charges, but I do know that it was worth it. Kingdom Hearts 2 has, in no small part because of Mr. Lee's efforts, the best voice acting I've ever heard in a video game. Nearly the whole cast is excellent; Haley Joel Osment reprises his role as Sora, and is much much muchmuchmuch better this time around, though he has aged more than Sora and is now officially noticably too old for this part. The only standout awful acting is provided from the mouth of Aerith, who is so transcendently bad as to make me wonder how she got in the same cast as the rest of these people.
The reason (if you were wondering) why I mention the voice acting first in this review is because it's really the first thing about Kingdom Hearts 2 that gets your attention. The voice acting is truly superior, and that's a good thing, since there's a lot of it - if this game doesn't manage a 1:1 game:cutscene ratio, it doesn't miss by much. The cutscenes are generally good, also; Square Enix manages much of the time to supply its good actors with good dialogue. There are some clunkers here and there, but one can't ask for the moon. The story is dumb as hell, but what did you expect? It is a Kingdom Hearts game, after all. At least this time the Disney worlds are fairly well integrated into what story there is. The game's only real failing in this regard is that it's a lot less subtle than it thinks it is, and many a revelation scene later in the game goes completely flat since the player already knows the information that's being revealed. During the four-hour unskippable painstaking and awful intro sequence, many hints are dropped about events and characters that will all be explained later, but the script is so unsubtle and the direction so hamfisted that no mystery is left about any of it.
Enough about that, I imagine you're saying, tell me about the actual game. Well... yeah, about that. Kindgom Hearts 2 plays very much like a stripped-down version of the original Kingdom Hearts. Looking back at my review of the original, I see that I faulted it for having an engine poorly-suited to platforming (yet still being platform-heavy); Kingdom Hearts 2 resolves this not by reworking the engine, as I had hoped, but by removing all the platforming. The level design is linear and completely secretless, with every world consisting basically of a hub area with two to four straight paths leading off in different directions and terminating after a few screens; there is no level in this game to compare to the original's Wonderland. All of the first game's puzzle-solving and secret-finding has been replaced with minigames.
As for combat, well, not much has changed. The original Kingdom Hearts was one of the all-time great button-mashing games, and that's still the case here; there's quite a lot of nonsense about combos and limits and summons and drive gauges and reaction abilities, but in the end the time-honoured strategy of "run around and mash the A button until all the mobs are dead" is still perfectly viable in almost every situation. The AI henchmen are still just about as dumb as they were before, and will manage to use up a whole inventory of healing items fighting one mob even if they're set to "emergency only." The only meaningful change to combat is the "cinematic reactions," which allow you to press the triangle button and replace kicking the boss' ass with watching a movie of the boss getting its ass kicked. I wouldn't call that an improvement.
In the end, Kingdom Hearts 2 is the game for you if you liked the original Kingdom Hearts but wished it had less gameplay and more cinematics. For the rest of us, well, it's not a bad game, just an intermittent one. The density of cinematics isn't anything like as annoying as it would be if they were done with less care, and the Disney settings are visually interesting at the very least - this is not a game I can fault for being all brown all the time.
Oh, one more thing. Both Kingdom Hearts games have contained an Olympus Coliseum world, based on the Hercules movie, which came out in 1997. It's been ten years now; don't you think somebody at Disney or Square Enix could possibly crack open a reference book and discover how to pronounce "Cerberus?" Just a thought.
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