Welcome to part two of my journey through Kingdom Hearts II. If you missed part one check it out here
Kingdom Hearts is an action RPG series. The love child of of Final Fantasy and Devil May Cry, its gameplay can be hard to describe. The actions are chosen from a command bar. Sora can melee attack, cast spells, summon Disney characters to aid him, and more. Combat takes place in real time and can get very hectic. The gameplay of Kingdom Hearts has received an upgrade since the first entry. As I said in part one, Sora plays more confidently in this entry: he feels faster, he fights much more stylishly, and he has a bit of an edge to him this time. He’s saved the world once already so this swagger feels right. More moves have been added to Sora’s arsenal, the most apparent are Reaction Commands. These are context sensitive inputs (performed by pressing the triangle button) that can only be used with certain enemies. What makes Reaction Commands better than the run of the mill quick-time-events, is that each command is unique to a certain type of enemy. You will never use the reversal command on any enemy aside from a dusk or a Backshuffle on anything other than a cursed pirate. This makes fighting each enemy class feel unique from a gameplay standpoint and can really add variety to the fast paced combat. I say “can” because almost none of the Reaction Commands are required to defeat the enemies. Aside from a few bosses, you can fight the same way you did in the first Kingdom Hearts with no penalty. The optional nature of Reaction Commands is what makes them fun instead of a chore the player must perform. Some of my favorites are the Lance Tug in which Sora grabs onto an enemy’s lance and flies around the room hitting multiple combatants, and Rising Sun, where Sora rushes enemies with his shoulder. Reaction Commands feel very PS2-era; it’s easy to see how they evolved from quick-time events. The commands fit well in KHII adding to the spectacle of combat.
Magic has been upgraded since KH1. Spells can be used as combo finishers, useful if you have knocked an enemy back or are surrounded by multiple opponents, or in combos of their own right. The spells have been changed up so that each one has very different use. Blizzard is a ranged spell that seeks out a single target while fire forms a circle around Sora that is great when you are encompassed by enemies. I never used magic as my primary form of attack, but it did fit effortlessly into combos in this entry.
As great as the addition of Reaction Commands and the improvements to magic are, Kingdom Hearts II’s game changer is a new feature called Drive Forms. Drive Forms allow Sora to become more powerful and access special abilities by absorbing one or both of his allies and transforming; basically Sora is going super sayian. He gets this abilities from his magic pants, given to him by the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty. The specifics of these new magic pants absorbing Sora’s allies is thankfully not explained in detail. I give credit to Square, not only did his new outfit make Sora look cooler, but they even justified changing his look with a gameplay mechanic. The first Drive Form Sora gets is “Valor” which transforms Sora into a physical powerhouse. When Valor-form is activated, Sora’s clothing turns red, Goofy(as the physical ally) is absorbed, and his weapons spark with red lighting. That’s right I said weapons: in this form Sora gets the mandatory sequel addition of dual-wielding! Ezio got a second hidden blade, Starkiller got a second lightsaber, and Sora gets a second Keyblade. However, unlike Assassins Creed or The Force Unleashed II, Kingdom Hearts II keeps the magic and novelty of having a second Keyblade by restricting it’s use to certain forms and not allowing Sora to use both blades normally during gameplay. When Sora transforms into “Valor” mode and summons the second Keyblade it does feel like he is doubling his power. While in “Valor” Sora hits harder and faster with longer, more flashy combos. It’s a feel good transformation that doesn’t fundamentally change how you play the game, but exponentially increases your fun while playing it. There are four other forms, five if you are playing Final Mix, and each of them changes Sora’s power in their own way. While forms like the Master Form are more impressive and powerful, none of them created that sense of magic and freedom that the first time Sora transformed into Valor Form had for me. The forms mixed up the gameplay and the look of Sora, they’re a really great addition to the series and I hope they return in some form for Kingdom Hearts III.
Some small changes to note are the camera is now controllable with the right-stick and you can enter first person-mode if you are weirdo and hate looking at all the cool moves Sora is doing. Kingdom Hearts II feels like a true sequel. None of the features from the first game are absent to my knowledge and everything new feels like a proper addition. While the first game very much felt like a game steeped in the past, Kingdom Hearts II feels more like a modern action game.
Kingdom Hearts II features a mix of new and old in terms of worlds: while many are entirely new, some worlds Sora visited in the first game. The developers have tried to expand the scale of the worlds in this entry; this is at times successful and sometimes less so. No where is this more apparent than Olympus Coliseum. The Colosseum was the smallest world in KH1; it had three areas and only in one of those did anything happen. It was a classic arena and aside from Phil and Hercules, it lacked any mood or personality. In KHII the Colosseum has been expanded and now contains its own mini-plot. When the gang travels to the Coliseum Sora and his group land in the Underworld, where Hades rules, which was not in the first game. The Underworld stands in stark contrast to the Coliseum above, it’s dark and brooding opposed to bright and organized. Here a new gameplay mechanic is introduced: some worlds have unique gauges or effects that makes playing in them much different than the rest of the worlds. Whenever Sora is in the Underworld he is bound by Hades power and unable access any of the drive forms. Once Hades is defeated, these “Chains of the Underworld” disappear and Sora can transform again. This is executed very well by the developers. By temporarily taking away Sora’s ability to transform so early in the game it makes sure the player doesn’t take the mechanic for granted: in other words you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. This could have gotten annoying, but it was wisely limited to the Underworld and not overused. I will talk more about Hades and the rest of the villains in the next installment, but just quickly here it is nice to see that all the characters in the Coliseum remember Sora. Hades doesn’t like him, Phil teases and trains Sora,
and Herc and Sora pal around like old friends. The Kingdom Hearts games are really about friendship so seeing how the relationships progress should be a big part of the sequel. The Underworld section is really well designed. Sora travels downward on slopes passing by souls lending the whole section a real moodiness. The Coliseum on the other hand is identical to how it was in the first game. I wanted to focus on this world because it was a great example of how Kingdom Hearts II succeeds in expanding on some of its worlds without getting rid of what was present in the first game.
The scope of the new worlds are varied with some trying to capture the entire plot of a movie and others just showcasing a small vignette. Beast’s Castle felt vast, but restricted itself to that single building, while Mulan’s Land of Dragons featured lots of different locations, but none of them were very detailed. All the worlds are about the same size in terms of how long it takes Sora to move through them, but what they try to show you can be very different. I preferred the more intimate locations such as Beast’s Castle or Disney Castle. In these worlds the attention to detail felt better and really transported me into a Disney Movie. In the Land of Dragons it felt like a Mulan ride at Disneyland; instead of being transported into the movie it felt like I was on a cart and passing by a bunch of small scenes that made me go “I remember that”, but I didn’t feel connected to what was going on.
Square threw in few curve balls in KHII. In a few of the worlds Sora gets a new look such as when Sora transforms into a lion in the Pride Lands, based off the Lion King. It was fun and made sense, but it made me wish that his costume changed for EVERY world. Atlantis was boring. It was turned into a rhythm game, but where you only press ‘X’. Disney cartoons, especially in the 90s, were really amazing musicals and I do think song can be a great addition to a game about Disney. However, if you are going to choose to write new songs for the game then they better be on par with other Disney songs. The songs Ariel and Sora sing are horrible. The gameplay is even worse. I’d love if they could redo this and make it interesting, but I doubt they will and maybe it’s for the best that they don’t try music again.
One world that stood above the rest for me was Disney Castle because it represents the best of Kingdom Hearts. The castle is where Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Minnie reside. Disney Castle isn’t trying to be an exact replica of any Disney Movie, instead it draws from many classic Mickey shorts and creates something new that is inspired by the source material. As the player walks through the world there are lots of little nods to classic Disney: as the gang lands in the Gummy Hanger the Mickey Mouse Club theme song plays and the topiaries are all shaped like characters from “The Band Concert” and playing the same instruments. There are portraits on all the walls showing Mickey and friends in different outfits on adventures. It makes the world feel lived in.
Disney Castle is one of the few worlds that made me think it was alive, even when Sora wasn’t doing anything there. The other worlds feel static, like if the player isn’t interacting with them then nothing happens there. At Disney castle it felt more like all the residents had been there for years before you arrived. It makes a really strong case for the developers to design worlds that are inspired by Disney rather than to try and mimic the exact architecture and plot of Disney Films.
In the next and final installment I plan on talking about the villains and plot of the game. I am really excited to talk more about the strides and stumbles Kingdom Hearts II makes as far the plot is concerned. Thank you all for reading and see you next time!