Me and the Kingdom Hearts franchise have a history together. I’ve been forming memories with the series since it first saw release in 2002. I played the first game to the point of breaking the disc. I first discovered YouTube not through tired memes, but through strategies on how to beat Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts II. (It’s gliding, by the way. Just glide above him where he can’t hit you.) Despite all this, until I played the game on the PS3, I hadn’t touched the game in seven or eight years. And given how I’m not the same person I was seven or eight years ago (who is?), you’d expect my view of the game to change based on how I’ve changed in the intervening time.
The answer, surprisingly, is both yes and no. While my reasons for liking the game have changed, my love for Kingdom Hearts II remains as constant as ever. It’s not because I’m naive. During my current playthrough, I spotted unsightly pock marks that I’d glossed over many years prior. Yet I’d also noticed all the cleverly designed bits that I’d failed to appreciate my first time. I find myself able to appreciate Kingdom Hearts II on a level that I wasn’t able to before. And all the while, the game remains the same enthusiastic delight that I’d originally fallen in love with.
Now it’s important to acknowledge the game’s flaws, and one of the biggest is how painfully awkward the writing can be. Not that the premise hints at something like that. If anything, the premise more closely resembles a modern day Secret of Mana funneled through a Disney lens. The game centers on the adventures of its youthful protagonist Sora. Join him on his journey from world to world. Watch him whack Heartless about with a giant key, and then seal those worlds from further Heartless threats. As he’s doing this, he finds himself up against both a cadre of assorted Disney villains and the mysterious threat of Organization XIII.
I know that people are going to disagree with me on this, but none of that in itself is awkward. No, it’s the moment to moment where the game becomes truly painful to endure. You don’t even have to search far to find such a moment. The story’s more than willing to offer them from the start. Within the game’s first couple of hours, this fashion nightmare lets the phrase “We totally owned you lamers” slither out of his throat without even a remote hint of irony. How does dialogue like that create authentic characters and situations? How does it do anything but signal to how hollow these depictions really are? Lines like that are reminiscent of Saturday morning live studio audience Disney shows. Those stilted, performative programs that always felt like they were speaking down to their preteen audience. No wonder I avoid such shows like the plague.
Sadly, it’s much harder to avoid that feeling here, given how frequently it pops up. Whether it’s hammed up writing or emotionally incongruent deliveries, Kingdom Hearts II has no shortage of cringeworthy episodes. (The Final Mix release doesn’t improve things, what with the new cutscenes that are overly eager to explain how the plot unfolds.) Not even the gameplay is safe. It suffers from unfortunate feature bloat, and some parts of the game find themselves at odds with the themes. That time when Sora “helps Beast come to his senses” by beating the grief out of him quickly springs to mind. If I were being generous, I’d say that the game is experiencing the same growing pains I could expect out of its adolescent cast. If I were being harsh, I’d say that the game only patronizes its younger audience in its attempts to reach out to them, like the lame old dad who tries to keep up with what’s hip.
Yet for all the game’s clumsy mistakes, I wouldn’t do a damn thing to remove them. First of all, the game never appears to actively condescend to its players. The more likely explanation is that the game is so eager to invite the player into its world that it doesn’t realize how stupid it looks. This doesn’t make the game any less clumsy, but it does introduce a level of sincerity that I hadn’t touched on before. I really should have, too, because it’s that sense of sincerity that I’ve always loved about Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts II is nothing if not a labor of love. The game proudly buys into its own youthful Disney idealism, letting it flow through every part of the design. You can see it in the lighthearted story beats, when Sora goofs around with his pals. You can see it in the battles; those colorful, energetic frenzies that so perfectly capture the Disney tone. You can even see it when the old man asks some tweens to “show me some of your super cool moves.” That’s ultimately why I can’t hold the dumb moments against the game too much: both them and the game’s endearing charm come from the exact same place.
Of course, I have other reasons for adoring Kingdom Hearts II. There’s also the rich thematic depth to consider. I realize how strange that sounds for a game where Mickey Mouse plots intrigue from behind the scenes, but the game amounts to so much more than that. It delves into broad themes like identity and Jungian psychology. Not only does the story render them a natural part of the world, but it also explores them in enough depth to justify their inclusion.
The game is especially good about this where gameplay is concerned. Not in the combat, strangely enough; I’ll get to that later. What I want to focus on here is everything else. If that sounds like a lot, it’s only because it is. Kingdom Hearts II borrows from a wide range of sources, like Touhou, Tony Hawk, Panzer Dragoon, Metal Gear Solid, and maybe a hint of rhythm game that I can’t identify. I’d be lying if I said the game needed all this content. The Tron world’s bike racing game is especially superfluous. However, I’d also be lying if I said the game wasn’t doing anything with most of that content. Each world the characters enter becomes an experimental space for the game to play around with its ideas. For example, the Heartless in Beast’s Castle contribute to his paranoia, just as one of the Heartless in the Pride Lands feeds into Simba’s ambivalence. I want to stress that episodes like these are typical for the game. I can’t help but applaud the gameplay for being so consistent, subtle, and purposeful in how it looks into the story’s ideas.
However, the game explores more of its ideas through the villains than anything else. One group of villains, to be specific: the Nobodies. These incomplete beings stand between existence and non-existence. They seek out hearts only that they might be whole once again. As hokey and sentimental as that may sound, the strong voice direction and facial animation render the Nobodies astoundingly sympathetic figures. Even when the game’s metaphysics explicitly say otherwise, it’s hard not to feel their plight of being incomplete. So sympathetic are they that the heroes sometimes look like insensitive jerks by contrast.
Another narrative blunder? Undoubtedly. But this segues nicely into another one of the bigger themes in the game: doubt. it’s a theme that’s evident from the start, when the game gives Sora two groups of villains to fight, each one working for reasons counter to the other. And the doubt only grows stronger from there. As the plot progresses, Sora repeatedly finds that his critical assumptions about the world prove false. Any action he takes will inevitably aid the bad guys. The Ansem he fought is not the real Ansem. Hell, the second half of the game exists solely to erase the progress Sora makes in the first. These developments are enough to cast serious gloom over the game’s otherwise cheery tone.
Yet the game never takes the easy option to erase that cheer. Remember all the dark and edgy sequels released around the time this game came out? Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within, Jak II, Metroid Prime II: Echoes, Shadow the Hedgehog, etc. It would have been all too easy for Kingdom Hearts II to follow their lead: embrace the doubt, leave it unchanged, and hold up the result as true intellectual maturity. In doing so, the game would only deny the authenticity that makes Kingdom Hearts so wonderful. So you can understand how giddy I was to see the game’s optimism shine through. Not by ignoring its bleaker developments, mind you; the game’s still willing to confront those. It’s also willing to move past them. Although this strategy requires far more work out of the game, it also reaffirms the game’s youthful idealism by grounding it in something more realistic. That’s why I find the thematic explorations so necessary: they both temper and strengthen the game’s core appeal.
Oddly enough, the only part of the game I find really lacking is the part that most frequently comes up: the combat. I’ve only barely hinted at it throughout this review, but I really feel the need to outline some of its failures. Just to be clear, though, those failures aren’t in the tone. The fights are just as whimsical as everything else in Kingdom Hearts II. Nor can I attribute the failures to a lack of depth, as all the little mechanical nuances can attest. What has me concerned is how the fights play into the friendship angle.
Or rather, how they don’t. As much as the story champions the power of friendship, very little in the combat reflects that. Sure, the game has some features that encourage teamwork, like being able to set partner behavior to your own liking. But those features are obscured and rarely useful anyway, meaning battles quickly become individual efforts. Only Sora’s (IE your) actions matter. Everyone else only holds value insofar as they can support his action. The unfortunate result of such design is that they lose any inherent value that they might otherwise have. One-world characters like Mulan and Jack Skellington suffer especially bad, what with the game providing little motivation to use them, anyway.
In fact, Kingdom Hearts II gives you mechanical incentive not to use them. It’s called Drive Form, and it works like this: fill up the Drive Gauge by defeating enemies, and you can combine with Donald and/or Goofy to gain cool new abilities for a short amount of time. In theory, the game is saying that we grow stronger only by relying on those closest to us. Yet with Donald and Goofy being the only characters who can launch Sora into Drive Form, the game effectively eliminates any reason for having another character in your party. After all, you only limit your true potential by bringing them with you. Combine this with the constant motivation to use important stat-boosting items on Sora instead of anybody else, and a troubling implicit message reveals itself: your friends cannot be trusted. You must act entirely on your own. Why do things have to be this way? Clearly, the game has the power to do otherwise. Some moments even testify to how well the game can use them. It’s just that on the whole, the systems never do as good a job encouraging the friendship angle as they could.
(If you’re interested in a game whose systems do represent that angle well, give Resonance of Fate a look.)
I really don’t want to end this on a downer note. To do so would undermine the sincerity that Kingdom Hearts embodies. The first game reached out to a younger audience with its cheery tone, but things changed in the four years between this and the sequel. Those children the first game reached out to? They grew older, smarter, and more uncertain. If the sequel wanted to remain relevant to that audience, then it would have to match that newfound uncertainty. While the game certainly changed to meet those needs, in the end, Kingdom Hearts II is still the same joyous adventure its predecessor was four years prior. That’s why I admire the game so much: it keeps the heart and earnestness, but in confronting doubt, adds a layer of thematic richness that wasn’t present before. Does this result in an uncomfortable tension throughout the game? Of course it does. But despite the tension, the Kingdom Hearts whimsy shines through stronger than ever.