Monday, 16 July 2012

Kingdom Hearts 2: Sanctuary

 Following my experience with Chain of Memories, I was very excited to hear that the next Kingdom Hearts game would be on the PS2 again and the card system was only temporary! Like the first game, I got Kingdom Hearts 2 for Christmas. This time I was actively asking for it though. I must have been 10 or 11 when it came out, and by that time I had decided I actually loved Disney films, with Mulan and Hercules being my favorite. When I was playing through the game for the first time, I thought everything about it was an improvement over the first game; it was faster, more intense and generally easier to follow. I still think it's better than the first game, but when I played through for my... 3rd, 4th or maybe 5th time in preparation for this retrospective, I started noticing the flaws that I may have once overlooked.

I've become used to talking about the plot first in my reviews because it's something I don't really enjoy talking about and I want to get it out of the way. This time, however, it was just the first thing I noticed in my play through. In a nutshell, you start out as some kid called Roxas in the longest prologue ever. Seriously, it's at least 2 hours before you really get to do anything interesting, and even longer before you start controlling Sora and the real plot begins. In addition to the Heartless, you start to learn about the threat of the Nobodies, which are sometimes created when a person with a strong heart becomes a heartless. Those of you familiar with the plot in Hollow Bastion in the first game might know where that plot is headed. The Nobodies are led by a group of Organization XIII, who want Sora for reasons not adequately explained for a very long time.

Sora, Donald and Goofy go out on a quest to find Riku and Kairi, and to stop the Heartless and Nobodies on the way. You first go to a radically changed Hollow Bastion, but after that it's a few Disney worlds which have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. I praised Kingdom Hearts for integrating the Disney worlds into the main plot, and I did so because they aren't in this game. You basically play through a simplified version of each films plot in most of the Disney world, even if you killed off the villain in the first game. All of the plot is saved for original worlds, such as Hollow Bastion and Twilight Town, leading to much of the game's plot to be mere filler than anything actually worth watching. The bits of plot that are worth watching, however, are definitely worth the wait!

This is honestly about as intricate as it gets, and it's simpler than it looks...
I said in my look at the first game that the worlds were a lot less linear that the other games. No prizes for guessing what other game I had in mind when I wrote that. The worlds in this game are a lot smaller than before. The best example of this is in Agrabah. In the first game you had to work out where to go and how to get there; the path to the palace was blocked, so you had work your way through the side streets to get there. The Cave of Wonders was a nightmare to get through thanks to it's maze-like structure. Here, everything is laid out for the player on a straight line. You are told exactly where you need to go and how to get there, and you're frequently rail-roaded by the game cutting off access to areas you don't need to go to yet. While I think the first game was a little difficult to navigate (Looking at you, Deep Jungle), linearity to this extent was not the solution. I am exaggerating a little, it's not to the extent of long narrow hallways, but hardly any of the worlds are not worth revisiting because there isn't that much to do. There aren't many treasure chests that aren't out in the open and even fewer which need a special ability, few hidden secrets to go and find, and hardly anything to do in terms of side-quests. The only world I found myself going back to was Olympus Coliseum for the tournaments.

The battle system is a massive improvement over the first game. Sora gains a tonne of abilities over the course of the game, including a variety of combo finishers and other options to change the way he attacks. There are also lots of other new abilities, such as element-boosting skills and a skill which allows you to recover from an attack in mid-air and retaliate. The ability menu has also been simplified to make equipping the multitude of skills an easier experience. A few of the more useful abilities from the first game, such as Dodge Roll, Ars Arcanum and Ragnarok, have been removed. Sad faces.

A very important new feature are the reaction commands. By pressing Triangle when prompted, Sora can execute almost cinematic attacks such as cleaving skyscrapers in two with a blunt, even rounded, instrument. They're certainly nice, albeit a little overpowered given you can mash triangle with few consequences.
Yeah, that happens.

Sora can also morph into five different forms through the drive ability. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. The Wisdom Form, for example, specializes in the use of magic, while the Valor form hits very hard and fast. Three of the five forms are capable of wielding two keyblades instead of just one, which both looks cool and is extremely overpowered. The transformations are only temporary, and the Drive Orbs needed to maintain the forms aren't as common as HP or MP orbs, so it's a little difficult to make constant use of the forms. To an extent, they do become a part of the "too good to use club" and I found myself saving them for an emergency that never really came.

Reflectga, breaking everything. The Heartless, The Nobodies... The Game.
A really nice change they made to the battle mechanics was how magic works. Unlike the first game, where you simply couldn't cast magic if you ran out of MP, your bar will turn red and fill back up. When it finishes and turns blue, you can start slinging spells again. This makes Magic a far more viable combat option, as it removes the hesitation of 'wasting' MP which you might need to cast Cure. It helps that this game also introduced a few new types of very useful magic. There's the Magnet spell, which deals a small amount of damage and draw enemies into a magnetic vortex; it works ridiculously well with Thunder. There's also the Reflect spell which... well, reflects attacks. It also causes a small explosion if enemies try to break through the barrier. Elsewhere, Fire has been radically changed and now creates rotating ring of flames, though I never found it that good. These new spells are damn sure more useful than Gravity or Stop in the first game, which I never actually used.

With all that said, I usually find myself going out of my way to use magic. This game is not very hard and it never requires you to make creative use of the abilities Sora has access to. You can get through it pretty comfortably by just attacking, using trigger commands and maybe using cure. Indeed, just slicing through everything is often much easier than attempting to use magic. Apart from one or two fairly infamous That One Bosses, the game is really quite easy. The first time I played the game aside, I've had no real troubles playing this game on Proud (hard) Mode. It's not to the extent where I feel like I had less fun with the game because of it's lack of difficulty, but it's certainly noticeable coming off the first game and Birth By Sleep, where the hard modes can be... remotely challenging! What a concept!

You also get Limit abilities. These use up all of Sora's MP, regardless of how much he has left, and lets you team up with one of your allies and kill all. To be honest, I never liked most of them. They didn't seem as powerful as I thought they would be, and I found the MP is better used for curing and casting magnet. The sequences are fairly easy to execute and they look fantastic, so they're worth doing at least once to check them out. They are useful for the period of invulnerability they grant Sora, though. Found that out in the Xaldin fight.

The GUMMI SHIP sections have been redesigned  and is much less prominent than the first game, a change which I greatly welcome. There is a Gummi Mission which you have to complete to unlock most of the worlds, but once they're completed you can just fly around the world map and choose whatever world you want without flying through a course each time. All of the missions are replayable and have additional targets to complete, and the overall feeling of the gummi missions is a lot faster and more like a rail shooter. They can be fun, but I never really went out of my way to do the additional missions.

The graphics are, as you'd expect, very pretty. Kingdom Hearts II is just as colourful as the first game, but it's also a great deal more detailed. The graphics retain their cartoon-like quality, but everything is just a little clearer. The facial animations are a lot more developed than the first game, and there are lots of opportunities  to see how much work went into them this time. Special mention should go to the opening pre-rendered sequence of the game, which looks amazing, and the Battle of 1000 Heartless sequence pictured below. In the Pirates of the Caribbean world, all the characters look pretty realistic. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, Sora and Co. do look really out of place there, but maybe that was the point.

The Music, I think, is a lot better than the first game. Not in the sense that the quality has taken a step up, but there are a great deal more memorable tracks here than before. Again, Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack manages to catch the essence of each world and otherwise does a stellar job of building tracks to fill the mood of the cutscenes. My favourite's from Kingdom Hearts 2 are the final boss theme, "Darkness of the Unknown", the ominous "Another Side, Another Story" and the Organization XIII theme, and "The Thirteenth Struggle", a boss theme which is technically from Chain of Memories, but... meh. The Land of Dragons, The World That Never Was and Beast's Castle all have really good field and battle themes, but I didn't want to link them because I'd just end up overloading this post with awesome.

This game is flawed, but I don't think I can name a game which isn't. It certainly lives up to the standard set by the amazing first game in the series and even manages to exceed them in certain aspects. The levels may be a little linear, and you do have to rely on yourself to mix up the combat, but I had fun playing despite those issues, and I think that's the mark of a truly amazing game. I'm giving Kingdom Hearts 2 an 8.5/10. 

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