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When the original Kingdom Hearts came out, it was quite a mix. There were plenty of characters from the Disney worlds like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, as well as quite a few lesser known heroes from the worlds created by Square Enix, like those from the popular Final Fantasy series.
But the game was much more than a simple novelty. Square obviously knows a thing or two about how to make an RPG, and giving them seemingly unlimited use of all Disney characters both past and future let them create a powerful game with characters popular around the world. Needless to say, Kingdom Hearts was a hit (not to mention quite a feather in Sony's cap as an exclusive title for the PS2) and left gamers clamoring for a sequel. I know one person who refused to finish the game because she did not want the experience to end. Now perhaps she can.
You don't have to have played the original to enjoy Kingdom Hearts II, but it will probably increase your enjoyment of the game somewhat. There are quire a few flashbacks and reoccurring characters, and if you remember them from before then you will probably enjoy the game more. But there are no real inside jokes or anything like that to keep you from having a good time with the sequel.
This new game starts where the old one left off, which is with your main character Sora asleep for a year trying to rebuild the memories that were stolen from him. Don't worry; you don't spend your time watching Sora sleep. This is kind of a clever way to take you through the tutorial part of the game. Veteran players might get a little bored here though there are plenty of mini-games in your first town that are a lot of fun. And the tutorial is absolutely necessary for new players to learn how to navigate the somewhat complicated interface.
Like the first game, the ruthless heartless (which look like little bugs made of shadow) are at it again. They are doing their best to "eat" the hearts of people and eventually to consume entire worlds, which is done by absorbing the heart of the world, or the Kingdom's Heart. There is also a shadowy organization known as the XIII running around, though you knocked them down in number in the first game. You will spend your time visiting the worlds of Disney and saving them from the invasion of the heartless. Oh, and Mickey is also missing if you remember the first game's ending, so you will need to find him.
Generally, the game has been streamlined from before. I was not too fond of the way the first game's levels were setup. You could spend a lot of time just wandering around trying to figure out what you are supposed to do, all the while being attacked by seemingly endless heartless. Now the levels are more or less linear with no real backtracking to solve your quests. This is not to say that the levels are smaller or worse than before in anyway. Your goals are just more easily defined, though it may take a long time to solve each one.
Combat also seems a bit easier, with easy combinations you can pull off that don't require hundreds of buttons to mash. If you die too much, the game will offer to bring King Mickey in to help you out. Although Mickey can't defeat a boss on his own, he can knock them down quite a bit for you, then you can move in to finish them off.
Your two companions Goofy the fighter and Donald Duck the mage join you again as you traverse the various Disney worlds. In addition to just the two of them, you will also encounter many, many heroes and villains from both Disney and Square Enix worlds. Some of these, like Hercules, will join you for plot-specific battles when the time is right. Others like Mulan, will actually join your team when you journey to their specific Disney world.
Both your main characters (Sora, Donald and Goofy) and the ones you meet along the way can be customized somewhat as you gain levels, though the main three offer the most options.
Graphically, the game is about as good as you can get on the PS2 these days. It suffers slightly from that "platform is getting old" feeling but this is pretty much countered by the fact that the worlds are rendered perfectly according to Disney cartoons. So Ariel (the little mermaid) and her Atlantica world looks pretty much like you would expect them too.
And Disney pulled out all the stops in terms of the worlds you are able to visit. You get to hang out with Winnie the Pooh in 100 Acre Wood, fight Oogie Boogie with Jack Skellington in Halloween Town, brawl with undead pirates with Jack Sparrow, and even drive light cycles with Tron!
But even though all the worlds are fun and clever, I wanted to give a special nod to one in particular. There is a point when the game will turn black and white and the normally beautiful Disney animation gets a bit, well, primitive. Suddenly you find yourself in the world of Timeless River from Steamboat Willie fame. And yes, you will have to battle Pete the mean captain. Talk about a blast from the past.
There is no reason that kids should not be able to enjoy the game. The interface is a little bit complex and of course there is some violence in the game, but nothing over the top and nothing more than what you would see in a Disney cartoon these days. Obviously the game is aimed at adults, but there is nothing that should keep the kids away either. We are talking about Disney after all.
In the end, Kingdom Hearts II may be one of the last great titles for the PS2 before the PS3 hits the market. It's fun romp through Disney worlds that should entertain children of all ages. It earns 4 1/2 GiN Gems for the Disney Vault.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.