So...the thing about grading a sequel is that inevitably has to draw comparisons to the first game. This can be both good and bad, because often times it feels either unfair or repetitive. Games like Arkham Origins would be considered quite good or at least be more widely loved and appreciated games, if they weren't followups to absolute masterpieces like Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. On the other hand, if both entries are well-received then many of the praises heaped upon the first game will apply to the second. Another issue with sequels is how heavily they rely on the first game, should each game in the series stand on it's own? Or is it okay for sequels to heavily rely on games before them which make them inaccessible to newcomers? Kingdom Hearts II is a fantastic game, it fixes many of the problems of the first game, and is a much larger, more complex, more epic game than Kingdom Hearts I, but at the same time it relies heavily on both Kingdom Hearts I and Re:CoM which makes it harder for it to stand on its own. At the same time, those same ties help increase the appreciation of the games by those who follow the games. All that to say, KH2 is awesome, fun, and an overall better experience than Kingdom Hearts I, but it's definitely less accessible than Kingdom Hearts I in a variety of ways.
More Kingdom Hearts
The game is still exactly what it sets out to be. Final Fantasy + Disney = Fun. Sora fights the heartless, teams up with Simba, Aladdin, and Hercules, and rides light cycles with Tron. Combat is well-crafted, thought out, kinetic and frantic. The story is interesting and complicated. It's a good game, just saying. If you like Kingdom Hearts I, then you'll like this one. If you couldn't get behind the concept of the first one, you probably won't like this one either. The combat is mostly unchanged, so if you want a basic breakdown then check out my review of the first game. Moving on...
Sequels as a Refinement
Everything about this game is built on making things bigger, better, and more refined than they were in Kingdom Hearts 1. In KH1, combat is clunky, imprecise, and not really flashy. While this allowed the game to be more focused, it also didn't allow that much for Sora in terms of progression of skills. In this game, everything is larger in scope. The worlds are bigger, combat has more variety, it's more accessible, and you have even more abilities to use during combat. They replaced rolling with blocking, but you get it as soon as the game starts instead of after two or three bosses. Each spell behaves differently instead of being the same attack with a different skill. You can perform limit breaks with your party members that do awesome damage, similarly to old school abilities like sonic blade and strike raid. The new drive form system allows you to temporarily consume party members to change your playstyle and abilities, and using these drive forms in specific ways allows you to gain abilities from those forms. And reaction commands add an extra level of uniqueness to each enemy requiring specially timed presses or actions with really cool animations. The whole game is incredibly empowering and fun to play. Everything about this game is fantastic fun, bigger and better than before. If the combat in Kingdom Hearts 1 was too slow or clunky for you then I'd give this game a chance instead.
More Disney, New Worlds
It's a new game, there are new worlds. You revisit old ones, but they usually have a completely different level design. The spaces themselves are larger and more open as opposed to the more enclosed, smaller levels of Kingdom Hearts I. I don't want to spoil the surprise for any of the later one's, but the game plays it smart by making the first two worlds you go to brand new. One, Ancient China, is a small reunion with Mushu who was a summon in the last game. You help Mulan do her thing, she's pretty wicked awesome, you know, standard Mulan fare. The second world, you reunite with Belle and The Beast, but this time in their own world instead of Hollow Bastion. Hollow Bastion returns and replaces Traverse Town as the hub world for this game with reunions with Leon, Cloud, Cid and Yuffie. Each of the new worlds feels like its own identity and isn't defined by the worlds from previous games. Same deal as KH1, you like Disney? Then get ready for a blast from the past.
Just like in Chain of Memories, the Organization XIII bosses are the best part of the game. Each one is difficult, unique, and requires analysis and memorization of specific attack patterns and "tells" in order to succeed. You even get to fight bosses that aren't around anymore, like Marluxia, Vexen, and Larxene, because they died in the last game. At the end of the game, you can even find a hidden room where you can re-fight all XIII bosses with slightly modified strategies and larger health meters. Each one of these bosses is incredible, and are probably my favorite part of the game.
The Connections to Sora's Heart
One of the best parts of Kingdom Hearts 1 was the focus on the relationship between Sora, Riku, and Kairi and how the actual conflict happening across the world was driven by Sora's desire to be with and help his two friends. You got some genuine pathos for the conflict between Sora who is constantly fighting Riku, and Riku who felt betrayed by Sora. In this game, you get to see more of that, and one scene near the end of the game is particularly striking, but for a large part of the game Sora doesn't really know what's going on with either Kairi or Riku. He continues to look for them which is what drives the conflict, but the narrative itself isn't as directly related to the fates of Riku and Kairi. Some would argue that the mystery surrounding Riku's fate is intriguing enough on it's own, but without that visual contact between the two friends, it doesn't feel as strong. That said, this game begins to set up a larger world of important players and connections to Sora that tie into the connections that he makes to other people heart's. The groundwork of this theme is laid by Roxas in various cutscenes, but it doesn't really fully hit it's stride as a major theme until 358/2 Days, Birth By Sleep, Coded and Dream Drop Distance. But seeing Sora's connections to Riku, Kairi and other people he met during his journey as outstretching of that makes sense as a central theme across Kingdom Hearts 1, Chain of Memories, and 2. Sora's heart is strong, not because of it's own strength, but because he's kind of naïve and trusting, he makes genuine connections with almost everyone that he meets. These connections to other people's hearts make him stronger. It's almost like Iron Man 2, except really good instead of mediocre.
Oh boy, here we go. So in addition to all of the refinement that this game got from Kingdom Hearts 1, it also got upgrades to its own systems in this "new" PS3 version. You get a new harder, more balanced difficulty, a whole bunch of new abilities, a whole new drive form, something like 8 extra bosses, 13 boss re-do's, a whole new section of Hollow Bastion with new harder versions of enemies you've fought before, a puzzle piece mini-game, and 12 other combat/drive form based mini-games. Overall, this is what any game should get in a re-release. The cool part is that the game by design encourages you to explore all of this new content. Puzzle pieces are always in plain sight so you don't have to go searching the ends of the earth, but they're usually inaccessible. This is remedied by the fact that the game encourages you to level your drive form growth abilities. What are growth abilities? Well, a little known fact of the original Kingdom Hearts 2 was that if you use your drive forms more often in specific ways, they gain experience and level up. This unlocks new passive abilities like MP Rage, or Active abilities like Glide, High Jump, Quick Run, Aerial Dodge, and best of all, Dodge Roll. By leveling up your drive forms, you increase your abilities both in and out of combat, and increase the drive gauge while you're in drive form allowing you to use it longer. It gets to be a bit of a grind sometimes, but that's where the new area in Hollow Bastion comes in. This section of the game is so much harder than anything else that you struggle just beating a few heartless without dying, but it also rewards you with a lot of exp. In this way, you keep coming back here throughout your journey to get a little bit further each time and level up your drive forms. All of this new content is well integrated, fun, and addictive.
Grinding is Fun
This only applies if you want to play all 100% the content in this game, you're going to have to grind. Thankfully, it doesn't have to be boring and it goes much faster than in other Kingdom Hearts games because there's so much to do. There are two things that you'll have to grind in general, Drive Forms and your general level. Thankfully, one thing is taken care of by grinding the other one. Each drive form has a different way of leveling up. In valor form, for every strike you make, you get one exp. In Wisdom Form, for every heartless you kill you get one exp. Limit Form, every limit break you finish (Sonic Blade, Strike Raide, etc.) gets one exp. Master form, every drive orb you collect nets you one exp, and Final form, every nobody that you kill gains one xp. You have to grind these in order to unlock their growth abilities in order to do things like beat certain bosses, collect certain puzzle pieces, and such. Unlike regular levels, these usually go pretty fast, especially in the end game. The other useful part about grinding these forms is that your abilities go a long way in helping you out. Experience boost nets you double xp if you have half health or less, Drive boost increases the amount of time you can spend in that form, drive converter turns munny into drive orbs (extremely useful for leveling Master Form), and the list goes on. Especially right before the final boss, the final world has massive amounts of nobodies who give off lots of exp and opportunities to level Final Form, which is probably the hardest one to finish off. The cave of remembrance is another good place to stop by during the game. Once you've fought the battle of 1000 heartless (which is a great place to level up limit form, just fill your items entirely with ethers right after helping all the Final Fantasy characters during the assault on Hollow Bastion), it opens up and allows you to explore. I've already touched on why this area is great, but if you stop by every once in a while you can get to really high levels for all of your forms by the end of the game. By the time I got to the final boss, just because I had worked on leveling my forms over the course of the game and choose wisely when to use which form based on the situation, I was at lvl 6, 5, 5, 5, and 2 for my forms. And as I went back to mop up the last tidbits in each world, trying to get to 100%, I got the rest all the way up to 7(the max level) in all of them. I didn't really have to grind that much, I just kind of played the game.
Battle of 1000 Heartless
This probably doesn't deserve it's own point, but the fact that you get to actually fight and defeat 1000 heartless is pretty awesome. Literally there's a counter at the top of the screen and the number on screen deplete as you battle them. It's pretty fun.
The Music is awesome. The original stuff is better than the themes for the Disney worlds. The HD version has it all recomposed for the PS3 version with higher quality and more rich tracks. Utada's new song is cool because it pretty much recounts KH1 and RECOM via the lyrics, the backwards sections are Riku's side of the story. Eveything good about KH1 music is good in this one.
This game is where the storyline starts to get extremely confusing. You remember Ansem from the first game? There was so much more going on behind him than anyone ever suspected. For the first half of the game, there isn't really a primary antagonist aside from Pete who's a bumbling fool, and a nebulous Organization XIII who's doing something bad, probably? Then at the halfway point you learn some major information about Ansem's identity and his intentions manifest in a major way.
So it turns out that Ansem wasn't really Ansem, but was actually Ansem's apprentice, Xehanort. The Ansem that you fought in the first game was Xehanort's heartless, and the leader of Organization XIII is Xehanort's nobody. What's a nobody? A nobody is the body left behind when someone exceptionally strong loses their heart to the darkness. As a result, nobodies can't feel any emotions. So for some reason, Xemnas, Xehanort's nobody, wants to create a Kingdom Hearts to like get his heart back or something. Even though he was the one who lost it? Or maybe he just wants to wield it for power or something. He's bad and stuff, and we've got to save Kairi and Riku and stuff. If it sounds confusing, it is.
Even on Hard it's too Easy
If you are ever at or above the recommended level for a specific world, even on proud and critical difficulty, you will succeed at beating everything in your path with relative ease. Usually, heartless bosses are super easy. Pete is easy. Some humanoid bosses like Hades are adequately difficult, but the Organization members are probably the most challenging of all the different types of bosses. Heartless themselves are rarely difficult to beat and the strategies to defeat them involve hitting them with the keyblade until they die. No specific blocking, no counters, no group management, nothing. The exception to this are the Heartless found in the Cave of Remembrance and Nobodies who require a bit more strategy to deal with, which is a welcome change. They usually block your attacks unless you do something specific which means you have to adjust your strategy accordingly.
These are either incredibly overpowered, or incredibly underpowered. All of them have the potential to do massive amounts of damage with their various techniques, but most forms don't have the ability to use the block button. Valor form can't use magic at all, can't block, and can't dodge, so all he can do is jump really high. Wisdom form can use magic and attacks from far away, he can use reflect magic to block most attacks, and quick run works pretty well to avoid attacks, so it's probably more useful in general, but it also doesn't do a large amount of damage in general. Limit form can do massive amounts of damage using limit breaks, which also heal you, but it also uses a lot of magic so you can't use more than two before your magic gauge run out. Master form works pretty well, but again, unless you use reflect magic you are extremely vulnerable to taking damage. It does a lot more damage than Valor form, and being able to use magic is even more helpful, but it still can't block. Final form gets unlocked randomly after receiving the Light and Dark keyblade and entering drive form until you randomly unlock it. It's pretty awesome.
Gummy Sections are Fixed
I talked about how much I hated the Gummi Sections in Kingdom Hearts 1. Read that. In this game, the gummi ship sections are significantly better. Gummi Ship sections have more variety, are more focused on killing enemies rather than just avoiding enemy fire. There are rewards for beating specially marked enemies, which are easy to distinguish. Using these rewards as an incentive makes a huge amount of sense, because it makes future sections of the game easier, as well as encouraging replay of the stages. You also get more blueprints with a variety of useful, diverse looking ships that grow in strength through the game. You don't need some random, super rare part in order to get new ships, you just play well and get rewards. It's not the most fun section of the game or anything, and I don't go back and replay those sections. But they're so, so, so, much better than they were in Kingdom Hearts 1. It's no longer a major weakness of the game, they just aren't incredible either.
Transformations are still weird
Getting a completely different playstyle for a particular world is disorienting. All of your progress and playstyle so far is just instantly replaced by whatever skills they give you in that particular world. It only happens once in the Lion King world when Simba is transformed into a lion cub. It's not as bad as turning into a dolphin in Atlantica was in Kingdom Hearts 1, and it's certainly functional. It just doesn't always feel right.
Again, this mostly only applies who want to 100% the journal. The mini-games that come up during the game are a lot of fun. Clear instructions, pretty short, kinda fun, fits the setting, etc. They're a fun part of the game. The problem lies with the way that they unlock in the journal. In order to get 100%, you need to play each game and achieve a certain high score. But the only way to see what high-score you need to achieve is by playing the game first, not including the time when you played it during the story. These games are fun for the most part, but I don't want to have to play them three times just to fill the little stamp in the book. It's frustrating and obtuse.
The Roxas Tutorial
Everyone gave this game major flak for it's tutorial. Instead of starting the game with Sora, we start the game with this guy we've never seen before, Roxas, who's weird, kinda boring, and doesn't have a lot do. Roxas is an incredibly important part of the Kingdom Hearts mythos, but most people don't realize why. For them, it just seemed like Roxas was some barrier of entry that was keeping them from playing the real Kingdom Hearts 2. When I started the game, I timed the exact amount of time it took to smash through the Roxas tutorial and it took me 3 hours to beat. Overall, that's not terrible, but it's not on the light side either. If you want to know why Roxas is so important, watch or play his story in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. You get to see more Axel, which is also a bonus, and after watching Roxas' story his final words in the tutorial are absolutely heartbreaking.
Reliance on Chain of Memories
After you finish the Roxas tutorial, you reawaken Sora. Thing is, if you didn't play Chain of Memories, then you have no idea why he was asleep in the first place. Play Chain of Memories, it's excellent, but if you didn't then a lot of character references, plot points, world-building, and character development goes in one ear and out the other. The game technically explains everything necessary to understand the basic character motivations, but it leaves so many unanswered questions that it's incredibly frustrating. Watch/play Re:Chain of Memories, it's worth your time, and you'll have a greater appreciation for the overall story.
Atlantica is back
But it's not a combat world this time, oh no. This time it's a friggin musical. You can navigate two rooms using swimming controls (up and down using the right stick, movement with the left), but those are the only two rooms. The rest are musical mini-games and cutscenes. Even more frustrating, each of these mini-games is locked behind bonus level requirements, which you only get after beating certain bosses. So basically, even if you wanted to just stomach through it and beat it one go you can't. It was the second worst part of KH1, and it's the worst part of this game. What's worse? If you want a 100% journal you have to beat each game twice. WHY?!? WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO PLAY ONE OF THOSE GAMES MORE THAN ONCE?!?!! AND YOU DON'T EVEN GET ANYTHING FOR DOING IT AGAIN!!!!! I hate Atlantica.
You only bought this package if you bought the first one, liked it, and want to catch up with one of the best action-RPG series of all time. This game is a vast improvement on Kingdom Hearts 1 in everything except story. The story in Kingdom Hearts 1 was driven heavily by the narrative between Riku, the chosen one who forsake his role for the darkness, and Sora, the one who continues to seek the light even in the darkest darkness. The clash between these two ideals and friends was extraordinary. This game is really good, play it, it's fun, but it lacks the same emotional heft that Kingdom Hearts 1 did. If you want emotional heft, go play/watch Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. Even with the weaker story, this game is much more fun to play. More fluid and fair combat, more creative bosses, tons of extras, and the list goes on. Pick up a copy of this game in the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Remix package, you won't regret it.
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