Kingdom Hearts II
The first Kingdom Hearts was launched four years ago and the gaming world had to admit it was something of a gamble. Japan's leading video game designer, Square Enix, wanted to create something that mixed elements of their celebrated Final Fantasy franchise with, of all things, Disney characters.
People hadn't seen that kind of encounter since Bambi met Godzilla. The result was a sci-fi, multi-world, adventure RPG (role-playing game) populated by loads of kid-friendly characters such as Mickey, Piglet, Jiminy Cricket and Dumbo. Consumers gave it the once over, scratched their heads—briefly—and then bought it by the boatload. And since every hit deserves a sequel (or five), now we have Kingdom Hearts II.
Beginning at the End
The game starts where Kingdom Hearts (and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, created for the Game Boy Advance) left off. We are introduced to Roxas and his friends, average kids who are looking for something fun to do over summer vacation. They live in the normal looking burg of Twilight Town. But Twilight Zone would be a more appropriate name, because there's nothing average or normal about the strange things that begin happening.
Roxas starts seeing odd creatures (Nobodies and Heartless) that no one else sees, and having dreams about a boy named Sora (hero of the first Kingdom Hearts). These visions lead Roxas to find Sora along with Donald Duck and Goofy—all of whom are in a sort of suspended animation in the basement of a haunted mansion. After waking them, Roxas mysteriously disappears.
From here, we follow Sora and his Disney sidekicks as they embark on a magical quest. They use Sora's fancy Keyblade weapon to unlock paths to new worlds, fly to each new domain in their Gummi ship, destroy the creepy lost-soul Heartless, decipher the secrets of the shadowy Organization XIII and find King Mickey to restore the kingdom to normalcy.
Sound confusing? It is. And if you've never played the original Kingdom Hearts, you're a lost soul yourself and will probably need several hours of play just to catch up. While doing so, you'll find yourself swamped in story details and cut scenes. That makes the game feel like it's moving at the speed of a limping tortoise.
Mickey and the Gang
Of course, younger kids won't care about all that. They'll be more interested in the cheery residents of the House of Mouse. Sora flies to over a dozen different worlds that include Beauty and the Beast's castle, Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood and even the computerized world of Tron. What parents of kids who love Pooh need to know, though, is that some of those lands are a little scary. The Pirates of the Caribbean world, for instance, is populated by some pretty icky looking undead bad guys.
Speaking of which, there are two basic types of bad guys. The game spells out with philosophical seriousness that the Heartless are beings who have hearts corrupted by darkness, without a body or a soul. Nobodies are essentially the empty but malevolent shells left behind. And throughout the game there's enough chopping and smashing of these monsters to make the E10+ (10-years-old-and-up) rating well deserved. That, despite an absence of blood and gore (the slain disappear in a puff of smoke).
Although the game drives home the importance of friendship, as Sora continues to battle alongside and for his friends, the truth is, that's pretty much all you do here. Fight. There are some cool visuals—like the time shift back to the black-and-white world of Steamboat Willie. But in the end you slash 'em with your Keyblade, freeze 'em and fry 'em with concocted spells, and access special (alternate) body forms that help you run quick, jump high and ... fight furiously.
What Can $50 Buy?
So, does Role-play-meets-Goo-fay work? Some Final Fantasy lovers and Disney fanatics may be drawn in by Kingdom Hearts' genetic roots. But the blend of dark Far-Eastern philosophy, repetitious beat-'em-up sequences and all-American cartoon kiddie-fare feels like a disjointed mix, at best.
As for Disney's target audience, tots (and even some tweens) will certainly think Winnie the Pooh, Mickey and Minnie are cute. But I heard you can get their best work on video these days.