While the first Kingdom Hearts was one of my favorite games growing up, Kingdom Hearts 2 is in a bit of an odd place for me and has always been. It was one of those games that kept me glued to the TV both when I bought it and for this playthrough, but it wasn't because I loved it or anything. It felt like it was because I was looking for things to love about it. There are things that I liked here and there, but overall, it's a playable game in an excellent game's clothing. If you don't know what that means, basically, it means a company shot a lot higher than its actual capabilities allow it to. To sum that much up, Kingdom Hearts 2 has a fun and fast combat engine, but does very little with it to actually make it any good, and let's not mention the lack of balance... or worse yet, the story.
But at the same time, the only way to know what you're in for is to first get an idea of what's going on. After the events of Chain Of Memories, Sora, Donald and Goofy are sent on a quest to take down the evil Organization XIII and their minions, the Nobodies. Said Organization has big plans in store that will surely destroy the world... or something. Oh, and the Heartless are still running about (if less powerful, which explains why fighting them is a piece of piss) because there's darkness in peoples' hearts or some shit. I don't know and Square's not willing to say much either, like it's some sort of secret *bleep*ing service! Really, two things *bleep* this story over in the long run:
1) Theoretically, there should be a LOT more at stake. Even though there are fewer Heartless, there's the looming threat of the Nobodies and especially Organization XIII. But who gives a shit, let's just waste time helping Beast get Belle to fall in love with him! Oh golly this is such gripping storytelling! What's that, you want to know what Organization XIII hope to really achieve from their plan? Well stiff shit mate – we have to help Jack Sparrow take back the Black Pearl from Captain Barbossa and Pete! What happened to Riku after the events of Chain Of Memories? We'll be with you... after helping Simba take his place on Pride Rock from Scar! Look, I like fanservice and found that it was the strong point of the first game, but it leads me to...
2) Because of this game's insistence on balancing fanservice with an original story... you'll be required to go through each world twice. The first time is for the express purpose of fanservice with maybe a bit of the actual plot in the background. The second time... now here's where it gets tricky. You'll either get clues as to where Riku is, what King Mickey is doing and all this other stuff... or just some story that feels like a direct to video sequel! Mind you, some of these destroy the actual direct to video sequels (I like the idea of Simba needing to take responsibility and move on from his past [the original movie's moral, by the way] a lot more than the entirity of The Lion King 2). Because of all of this, the game drags on for like an eternity, but yet they still feel like they have to squeeze in a lot of content... so much so, that it feels like you got nothing out of it. So yeah, the story is a huge *bleep*ing mess. Oh, and plot holes are ever so abundant – particularly with bits and pieces towards the end, some of which contradict with the logic from the first game! All these spin off games on the various handhelds aren't here to buy Square time to never make Kingdom Hearts 3; they're here to fill in as many platholes as possible! Thank *bleep* for skippable cutscenes!
For the most part, combat is played out the same way as before – you attack with X and maybe press square for some special attacks you'll learn along the line. But there are some changes here and there. Unlike the first game, most of the enemies feel like cannon fodder. The Heartless, for instance, have been neutered. There isn't much variety except for easy and not so easy Heartless. Oh, it might appear that there's that same old variety from before with the aerial and shielded sorts, but with the possible exception of the shielded enemies... they don't really require different strategies. Just hammer on the X button and maybe press triangle when the battle menu says so – oh yeah, that's another thing... *bleep*ING QUICK TIME EVENTS! They're not laced out during the cutscenes; only during battle and only at certain times. It feels like a last minute addition because... well, God Of War sold pretty well and everybody liked it, Square'd be stupid NOT to add them in! What God Of War did, though, was mix it up and at least try to implement them in a way that still challenges you. Kingdom Hearts 2 only has you pressing triangle at specific times, like when an enemy or boss does a specific attack or they're in a specific state. Yawn.
It does seem like that there are improvements made throughout – like limit attacks, which consist of Sora and one of his allies unleashing a string of attacks onto their enemies at the cost of MP; and drive forms, which allow Sora to fuse with Goofy and/or Donald to deliver a string of strong combo attacks for a limited amount of time. But they help emphasize the one problem I have with the gameplay... it's too easy. Maybe three bosses aside, these improvements do a fine, fine job of making Sora more of a powerhouse, but most of the enemies still seem to be stuck in Kingdom Hearts 1. Most of them have deliberate attacks that don't do shit against Sora, who is basically the son of god when you even think of considering those options.
Hell, even if you don't use limits and drive forms, the game is still significantly easier as Sora's combos have a lot more flow to them, with more speed, movements and whatnot, while the Heartless are slow and deliberate with their attacks. But it's not a case of the game being too easy; it's unbalanced as most of the Nobodies and Organization XIII are tailor made for the updated combat engine. Their attacks have more flow, cover more distance and are either faster or more powerful. You'd at least think the new types of Heartless would keep up, but nope, Sora can destroy even the strongest ones with ease. Meanwhile, only the first type of Nobody you'll fight are easily destroyed while others require you to be quick with your attacks or *sigh* quick time events before they molest you with strong sword strikes/combos and breakdancing moves. For reference, they have their own symbols, and Nobodies tend to be white or grey (or light orange for one type) in color while Heartless are more black and purple.
The problem with all of this is that despite the dwindling number of Heartless, you'll spend a lot more of your time fighting them than you do Nobodies. There are maybe a few worlds where Nobodies will be a common occerence, but beyond that, your time is spent fighting *bleep*ing Heartless! Look, I don't mind a game where you feel like you're invincible and nobody can *bleep* with you, but for that, I have the Dynasty Warriors series – oh, and when Dynasty Warrior has you fighting 1000 enemies, it's actually fun, while when Kingdom Hearts 2 does it that once, it's basically MASH TRIANGLE TO WIN OH GOLLY I'M HAVING SO MUCH FUN!!! But really, Kingdom Hearts 2 can still be fun despite its easiness. The problem is that when you're dominating enemies for a prolonged period of time, it's less fun and more mind numbing to simulate the feeling of fun without actually having it. I'd call it Dynasty Warriors syndrome, but at least Dynasty Warriors is actually fun for more than an hour at a time... and we're expected to play through 30 hours of this? Seriously? *bleep*, at least 4 of those hours are spent fighting Nobodies, thus being challenged, thus achieving actual satisfaction upon victory... thus actual fun!
At least it looks nice. Kingdom Hearts 2 definitely pushes the PS2's graphical limits... which would be impressive if it didn't have the technical prowess of a graphics calculator, but shit if it still didn't look great during its release. There are still instances where the lip syncing is complete ass (again, who would've thought two syllable words could suddenly have six), but there are more instances of good lip synching, and overall, there's a good amount of detail in the environments and models. The animations are smooth, which helps make combat flow fast and also moves the scenes at an acceptable rate. It's still funny that the designer has a zipper fetish.
The sound design is mostly good. There are some standout tracks like the boss and the tune for the Tron world that aren't about to leave your head anytime soon, and a couple of tracks really, really compliment the moments that they're played. The tune that plays during certain big revealing scenes invovling Organization XIII can be quite a downer, which is the point of the scenes anyway. But it's not like the rest of the soundtrack sucks because it's still good, but there's good, and then there's damn good, and it's quite clear where each track sits when you listen to them. Voice acting, as before, is hit and miss. The Disney characters are certainly on the mark, especially Pete and even those from Pirates Of The Carribean. It's like you're in each of these movies, or like Pete's really involved in these sequences. The original characters are hit and miss – our three friends Sora, Riku and Kairi sound good, as do a few members of Organization XIII (especially Xemnas who sounds like he's orgasming during his lines), but the rest of the Organization sounds monotonous and boring. Same for the Final Fantasy cast – Sephiroth aside, they sound like they just want their paychecks so they half ass the shit out of it. Bleh.
Bottom line: While technically competent and often fun to play, Kingdom Hearts 2 is a sloppy sequel and, above all else, a *bleep*ing mess. Its story is ridiculously convoluted as it introduces 1001 concepts without actually explaining anything. It does little to fill people in on what happened in Chain Of Memories (available with your purchase of a Game Boy Advance until 2008 when it gets remade for the PS2 and only for America), and it does little to explain itself. It wouldn't be a big deal if it didn't focus so much on its plot while trying to balance it out with poorly validated cameos that'd make Resident Evil 6 look like Shakespeare by comparison. There is fun to be found in this game, but be warned that outside of a few legitimately challenging bosses and the Nobodies, this gets boring quite quickly.