Is Kingdom Hearts an unlikely success, or is it actually the biggest sure thing in this generation of videogames? After all, while the concept is one that raises a few eyebrows at first glance -- a Square-styled fantasy adventure starring almost nothing but Disney cartoon characters? -- the potential of the idea starts to show through. And Square has indeed realized vast amounts of that potential, using the wealth of characters available here and applying industry-leading production values to create an amazing entertainment.
To be sure, this is a game that succeeds in spite of its flaws. It succeeds in spite of some of the biggest flaws that a game has ever succeeded in spite of. It has a 3D camera that has to be seen to be believed, and a difficulty level tilted well beyond what players are probably expecting from what has been pegged as a "kid's game." There are times when even dedicated gamers and RPG fans will grow quite painfully frustrated, and that's even before getting to the really nasty bits.
But what a wealth of character this game has! Designs new and are brought to life by brilliant 3D modeling and animation, creating perhaps the most effective rendition of a cartoon world on a console, and while there's plenty of lighthearted humor in evidence, the subject matter is often pitched at quite a serious level. Both halves of the unlikely pair have contributed the best they have to offer, and the result is something that will hopefully take hold enough for it to receive the audience it deserves.
Kingdom Hearts, as we've tried to make abundantly clear, is not a traditional RPG, but rather a heavily action-flavored game descended from Square's Brave Fencer Musashi and Threads of Fate. It moves ahead of those by trying to bring the point of view closer into the action, with bigger areas, more chaotic battles, and yet a more involved camera. This is a fine idea in principle, and it certainly works when it comes to offering the player a more exciting visual experience, but I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't make a few people a little sick.
Combat and exploration in ths game is presented from behind lead character Sora's back at default, from a relatively low angle. However, it doesn't stay there for long. To keep attacks focused on the appropriate enemy, Kingdom Hearts uses a target-focused lock-on, a la Ocarina of Time. When locked on, whether to a specific target or a rotating set of semi-automatic targets (there's a soft lock-on that fixes Sora's attention on the nearest enemy). the camera keeps its focus towards that spot regardless of where Sora is facing. Thus he can circle around it and attack from different angles while still keeping an eye on what's what.
This, as I say, works in principle. A few things intrude in practice, however. For one, this is a team-based game, not a solo adventure -- Sora is continually backed up by his allies Donald Duck and Goofy, as well as a rotating cast of other supporting stars. For another, the camera can be stymied by the presence of walls and other obstacles, since there are no routines to remove those from view or turn them semi-transparent when they may block the camera. And for a third, some of these battlefields are more packed with enemies than you'd ever imagine, with crowds of smaller opponents and giant bosses that fill several screens.
The long and the short of it is that the camera in this game will frequently offer no clear idea of what the hell is going on, making it some kind of strange anti-camera, if we presume that the purpose of a camera is to illustrate the action rather than obscure it. Sora will be hidden behind waves of enemies, and all there is to do is to hammer away at the attack button, praying that there will be a chance to get away and recover if his vital statistics drop too low. Even boss battles where there is, in theory, only one or two major targets can create bizarre fluctuations in the viewpoint due to the massive size of the enemies, and the sudden movements they can make.
I have just spent an awful lot of verbiage describing this issue. But on the other hand, thinking about it objectively at this point, I'm amazed that it didn't become more of a problem in my mind while I was actually playing the game. While Kingdom Hearts' combat is certainly a confusing affair, it's also undeniably exciting, as the party slashes away at waves and waves of onrushing enemies or some gigantic, towering boss. It has a genuinely epic, cinematic feel, clumsy though the presentation may sometimes be as far as how it meshes with the movement and targeting controls. The magic and item systems are streamlined well enough that they don't create too much of a break in the action, at least. There's a handy set of hotkeys for preferred spells, while an active menu system makes it easy enough to manipulate items with an off thumb during combat.
The complexity of combat, leaving aside the matter of the camera, also ramps up nicely as the game goes on, with the gradual addition of spells and character abilities that substantially alter the character of battles. In particular, there's a nifty technique experience system that rewards dextrous players with faster character development. Learning to use special maneuvers in combat for parries, defense, counterattacks, and the like, as well as more effective spell use, is rewarded by bonus experience points. It's a neat encouragement to learn what the combat system has to offer, rather than sticking to a basic hack-hack-hack offense.
Outside combat, the game is designed much more closely to the Final Fantasy mold as far as the structure of the quest. The way forward through the central plot is always very clearly outlined, but at the same time there's plenty of opportunities to go and tool around on side-quests instead. Every area has reasons to go back and visit a second or third time, including some interesting progressive platforming challenges based on the gradual development of the party's abilities. This game isn't heavy on platforming by any means -- there's nowhere that one can actually fall into a bottomless pit and die -- but it does have a diverting selection of action-oriented gameplay elements like that. It makes for a good mix with the RPG side of things, giving the game a little more of a hybrid character.
There are some elements that just leave one scratching one's head, though. The prime offender in this regard is the Gummi Ship mini-game, one of the strangest features I've ever seen in any game of any genre. Now, Kingdom Hearts has a great many mini-games, most of them very well-balanced. They're fun, simple, and they don't intrude untowardly on the main business of battling through the quest. But the Gummi Ship is something else entirely. This is a cross between a Lego-building simulation, the item synthesis system from Final Fantasy VIII, and a forward-scrolling 3D shooter, which despite the intriguing nature of that proposed melange manages to be of absolutely no entertainment value whatsoever. The shooting is slow and dull, the ship-building elements serve no purpose, and the whole thing serves only to impede the areas of the game where it intrudes.
This is one of those things that makes one wonder why it wasn't cut during development. Presumably someone on the development team with an untouchable amount of clout said "The Gummi Ship stays in," and nobody else had the temerity to say him nay. It would be nice if they had, though, because it would have saved a fair bit of boredom for many players.
Even so, the Gummi Ship goes away later in the game, or at least keeps its appearances to a minimum, and Kingdom Hearts settles itself into quite the good groove until reaching the endgame. It's there where things go perhaps just a little bit out of balance again, with a difficulty curve and boss structure that gets just a little too painful. The last two levels throw boss encounters at you hard, heavy, and in rapid succession, to the point where the mind and thumbs beg for a little more respite in between. At the very least, it would have been sensible to structure some of the encounters so dying and continuing wouldn't require the player to sit through a long pre-battle cutscene -- unfortunately, that happens very, very often.
That, however, may be the game reviewer talking more than the game player. Tough though those battles may be, they're also eye-popping displays of 3D graphics. Disney's animated movies, old and new alike, present a significant graphical standard to live up to, but for the most part Kingdom Hearts does it. It's certainly not as sharp around the edges or deeply shaded in its backgrounds, but the point is, one looks at it and thinks "That looks like a Disney cartoon," rather than "That looks like a videogame trying to look like a Disney cartoon."
Animation is the key here, rather than cranking out some infernal quantity of polygons or textures or effects (although this engine still produces its share of flashy special effects for spells and the like). The character models in this game look just good enough for the animators to take them and run with them, providing brilliantly expressive movements for broad gestures and tiny nuances. The characters' acting is helped immensely by the facial expressions and body English added to cinematic sequences -- the only drawback here is the odd bit of cheating with the lip-synching, where textured facial features are substituted for full 3D animation.
The quality of the animation is noticeable in and out of gameplay. The Heartless enemies come in all shapes and sizes, and every species has movements that grant it a particular personality. Sit around in the Deep Jungle area for a little while and just watch the combat animations of the Powerwild Heartless, the ones that look like clawed monkeys. Their leaping attacks are cool enough, but what about all those neat little idle animations, where they taunt the party and scratch behind their ears? Extra features like that are what make the game's visuals genuinely stand out.
Design is necessarily the father of this kind of technical execution, and credit is also due to the artists who crafted the concepts thus brought to life. To be sure, much of Kingdom Hearts is ripped straight from the movies, but the majority of its best visual moments are based on original designs. The key in this regard, I think, is the way the game maintains a serious and even foreboding tone. All the original concepts here are on the villainous side, Square's designers obviously reasoning that the heroic ranks didn't need much backing up. The Heartless and other original villains draw on the older Disney tradition, the dark fantasy of films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Fantasia. Thus, the more modern influences are tempered by a healthy helping of the sinister.
Listening to Kingdom Hearts, one can tell that an unprecedented effort went into this audio package. Sound quality is one thing -- top-notch recording and engineering technology are de rigeur in games these days -- but you still don't hear a great many games with Hollywood stars, big-name Japanese pop artists, and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, plus re-arranged versions of classic Disney music from "Night on Bald Mountain" up through "Under the Sea." There's even a touch of Danny Elfman to add the appropriate atmosphere to the Nightmare Before Christmas episode.
Expensive names are all well and good, but the important part is that all these elements come together effectively. Composer Yoko Shimomura (last heard on Legend of Mana) re-arranges things to keep a common thread of character running through the soundtrack, though each area retains its own particular atmosphere. The music is paced to accompany cinemas very well, while a dynamic soundtrack is engineered to suit the tempo of gameplay sequences with few noticeable skips in between different states.
Where Square has definitely gotten what it paid for is in the localization department. I think it's safe to say that this is the most expensive voice acting project in an American videogame to date, but it's also probably the best. Admittedly, these characters are not demanding an earth-shaking amount of range from their actors -- Haley Joel Osment could probably do his part justice blindfold and gagged -- but perhaps it's a tribute to the ability of the cast and directors that the veil of the story doesn't break while you're playing. The characters remain solid and convincing throughout, even when we're being expected to take them seriously opposite Donald Duck. And even though most of the cast is drawn with broad strokes, they're still very well-matched to their actors. Osment is obviously a perfect choice for Sora, but I was also impressed by David Boreanaz as Squall and Billy Zane in his original role.
source IGN PS2
Square Electronic Arts
Number of Players
22nd November, 02