The second game title in my Summer of Adventure 2007 shares a lot in common with the first — extremely high visual fidelity, unheard of production values, and another clear triumph of style over substance. Kingdom Hearts II attempts to recreate the enchanting fusion of Disney and Final Fantasy universes that made the first title both unique and endearing. And it largely succeeds, by using the exact same formula as its predecessor, nearly to the letter.

After an incomprehensible introduction, KH2 quickly returns to series protagonist Sora’s search for his fellow beach children, Kairi and Riku.  After the start of the first game, his friends were swept away and Sora found himself chosen to bear the mysterious and powerful keyblade, and teaming with Disney mascots Donald and Goofy as they trek from Disney world to world in their quest.  His search took him to exotic Disney locales from films like Hercules, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Nightmare Before Christmas.  At the end, he is momentarily reunited with his friends before being separated again and forced to continue his search.

In the sequel, you will visit exotic Disney locales from films like Hercules, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Nightmare Before Christmas as Sora fights with Donald and Goofy, using the keyblade in his search for Kairi and Riku (sound familiar?).  My biggest gripe with the game is not, however, its almost lazy concept recycling to set up yet another game; it’s the story writers’ attempt to pass off confusion, obscurity, and faux complexity as any kind of real plot depth.  This time around, in addition to the myriad of Disney-branded villains, Sora & co. have to contend with the “mysterious” Organization XIII.  Its members are unknown, its intentions are mysterious, and its relevance to any real story the game might have is almost nil.  The antagonistic concept from the first title — Disney villains are summoning violent creatures called Heartless to steal people’s hearts — is twisted and mashed to such a degree that not only do you cease to understand the point, you may well cease to care.  Now, in addition to the Heartless, there are Nobodies, who seem to serve little purpose but make for slightly greater enemy variety.  Apparently, whenever a Heartless is created, so is a Nobody.  Organization XIII is made up of Nobodies whose plan is to use Sora’s unique (?) ability to destroy Heartless (which the Organization itself creates?  how does that work?), which then release hearts into the sky (wait, I thought they were Heartless!)  and ultimately collect them for nefarious and titular purposes.  It’s all needlessly complicated, to a point that I think even many of the characters, including Organization XIII members, cease to be able to keep track.

Having seen what poor translations can do to story comprehension in games like Final Fantasy Tactics, I’d like to think perhaps KH2 has an amazing and deep story just waiting to get out.  But, like most current Square-Enix titles, the localization is superb, and the game’s plot is truly weak and not written with any eye to lasting meaning.  I like to think its planning went like…

  1. Talk about friendship a lot
  2. Talk about hearts a lot
  3. Talk about light and darkness a lot
  4. Throw in a bunch of meaningless but beloved Disney and FF characters
  5. Profit!!

The frenetic action of the original game has also been tweaked for this iteration, and the results are  more or less the same.  Much of the combat system, such as Summons, Limits, and some of the transformations in Sora’s Drive Form, is entirely unnecessary to succeed in battle, and so is ultimately just wasted.  And since so much of it (including merely healing yourself) consumes every ounce of Sora’s Magic instantly, players are actually discouraged from making much use of them.  For my part, I found Sora to be a perfectly effective killing machine in his normal form with a powerful keyblade and occasional healing spell, and progressed through 95% of the game with that setup only (and that’s on Proud/Hard mode). 

It seems like Square-Enix builds their games in committees.  They have dedicated teams working on separate aspects of a game, who meet once a week or so to discuss progress and ultimately integration.  Thus you have endless number of pointless sidequests and subsidiary systems, summon spells, item synthesizing, the Gummi ship system, and the list goes on.  Each is mildly compelling in its own right, but without any real incentive to invest time — the game is almost easy to complete without the need for any of the above — who but the obsessive completionist really cares?

And to just beat a dead horse a bit further, will we ever see the day when stories about friendship, light and darkness, and the depth of one’s heart go a little further than prepubescent boys facing pseudo-complicated adversity, for the sole purpose of exploiting decades of dearly beloved (and heavily copyrighted) franchises?  I know it’s possible — I’ve seen real sincerity and feeling in television shows like Firely, and films like Spirited Away.  There were even real messages behind many of the franchises, both Disney and Squaresoft, unceremoniously plundered for their character likenesses and skeleton plots, but they are virtually non-existent in their KH forms.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed playing Kingdom Hearts II a great deal.  As a mindless game, it largely succeeds in every area.  But the developer shoulders a challenge when it creates a storyline on so many archetypal themes and allusionary depth of character.  Where a television show like Firefly left me feeling enriched and hungering for more, KH2 left me tired of caring about its plot, and a little glad it’s all over.

Score: 7 / 10

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