ROLE PLAYGROUND | Thirteen years later, does Kingdom Hearts II still hold up?
In light of Kingdom Hearts III's potential release, I've decided to take a look back at the second (and best, so far) major installment in the franchise.
In light of recent events, I felt it appropriate to dust off my PlayStation 3 and dive into one of the most important game series of my short, gaming life. It took a while to figure which one to choose, after all, there have been a lot over the years. In the end though, I decided to pick the real classic. The sequel to the original that improved upon literally everything. It's fighting was smoother, magic worked better, and there were even some fun new things to try.
Although, that was thirteen years ago. At the time, the game felt groundbreaking - and after playing it again, the nostalgia gripped me really hard. I was back in my childhood, playing screaming at my PS2 as Demyx chanted, "Dance water dance!" Unfortunately, that didn't last - and I began to notice some things. Not enough to dampen my experience, but it was definitely enough for me to stop and really think about why I loved this game so much. And it also made me think about how much Kingdom Hearts III will have to do to please people nowadays.
It's a beautiful game - and I had fun, but there's a lot that doesn't hold up anymore.
Kingdom Hearts II is the sequel to Kingdom Hearts, and the third game in the series overall (after Chain of Memories on the Gameboy Advanced). It takes place a year after the original game, and follows Sora and his Disney companions: Donald and Goofy as they travel across various original and Disney themed worlds. They must fight the Heartless, creatures of darkness that have the power to steal peoples' hearts, and the mysterious Organization XIII - a group of half-people, who were created from the husks of people who lost their hearts.
There's a lot of good that still shines this long after its release. The first being the enhanced battle system. The original Kingdom Hearts had a good, fluid battle style. So, to improve upon it as well as the KH2 did is pretty great. The intense combos and the variety of customizable moves made for a fun, and ever-evolving throughout the entire game. And it's not that this didn't exist the original - but it definitely wasn't as robust as what KH2 gave. Not to mention, the addition of a magic gauge made tracking and using magic much simpler - and I hated using magic in the original one.
The design improved so much. The worlds were much more vibrant and open, and the returning worlds had some necessary aesthetic fixes. Even the gummy ship mini-game and map got an amazing redux - taking on an almost Icarus-esque vibe in terms of gameplay. Even today, the game still holds up - it's not an open world epic, but it's still beautiful.
Then there's the storyline - which is all over the place - so I'm splitting it into two parts. One that I like, and one that'll show up later. The best part about KH2's storyline is the maturity - it's definitely a game that grew a little. It managed to tackle some pretty intense themes - such as death and even depression at some points, not to mention questioning the very idea of existence itself and what that means in universe. Instead of being a hero, you were given the idea that not everything you've been doing is great.
For example, fighting heartless has always been a necessary part of Sora's journey. After all, they are denizens of darkness that consume everything they touch. But, during the game, you find out that fighting heartless assists a greater evil - but you can't stop. And another big example is when Hercules comes down to help you save Meg. He leaves the entire coliseum full of people alone with a giant hydra - and they get killed by it. Hercules is depressed, and feeling guilty about what he did - not to mention heroing has left him pretty tired.
I could go on for ages about the good, good scenes that are sprinkled through this game. I could talk about how interesting and sad Axel and Roxas' relationship was. I could talk about Kairi coming into her own as a character, which is a huge improvement from the previous game. There's a lot of there - but again, there are also some problems.
There is a lot of stuff that didn't hold up though. As much as I loved the design of the worlds, their vibrancy didn't make up for the barrenness. Like, in the Olympus Coliseum, you hear people cheering for Herc as he fights. But, the crazy thing is that there are no people. And in Agrabah, they talk about a bustling bazaar, but there are no people there. The only characters you meet in any of the worlds are the important NPCs. There are no people anywhere else - and it really takes you out when you realize that.
And again, it's not that the game isn't beautiful. It's just that it feels more like I'm looking at a picture, rather than interacting with a living world. I know that this is a lot to ask for PS2 game - but if FFXII can do it, I think that KH could've at least tried. And sure, Hollow Bastion had a few extra characters - but that was about it.
Now, we get to the bad parts of the story. Notably, the weird way that the games decided to tackle the storyline of each world. So, the appeal of these games is the novelty of seeing Disney characters doing all this with random Final Fantasy characters in the mix - but do we have to have a weird rehash of all of the movie storylines? Cause, when you don't have the same production value, and only half of the original voice actors, and you skip a few parts - it kind of sucks? Like, I don't want to see Sora help a second rate Jasmine figure out what's going on with Aladdin.
I know that sounds harsh, but honestly, it's almost grating having to go through it. Not to mention, just obnoxious if you've seen all of the movies. It's not fun and it doesn't add anything. If anything, I would have loved to have seen these characters going on a brand new adventure! Why not right? Here's hoping for Kingdom Hearts III.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I think in the end, this game mostly holds up. I've been playing it for the past three days, and when I skip through some of the more cringy scenes - it's pretty fun to play. As the nostalgia faded, I'm still enamored with it after all of these years. It's story is mostly interesting, and once you get through the grating moments. But, Kingdom Hearts III has a lot to fix. I want to see populated worlds! Better dialogue! Maybe even a Disney world that doesn't take place right in the middle of the actual movie - because that sucks!
Hopefully, when it releases later this year, we'll be able to see if they've really improved.
Shann Smith is a lover of video games and has played games since he could hold a controller. He is a freelance writer, playwright, screenwriter, and also writes the Video Gay-Mer column on Popdust! If you have any games you'd like him to unpack, hit him up!
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