Kingdom Hearts is an odd child from an odd marriage, there's no question about it. It's awkward in places, imperfect in others. It stumbles just as often as it strides. Fragments of the legendary Disney magic peek out of corners here and there, met on occasion by bits and pieces of the famed Final Fantasy atmosphere. But the whole package seems somehow incomplete. The big names are there, the storyline is necessarily epic, even the voice acting is spot-on. This is one of the most beautiful games currently on the market, but there's something missing that's difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps it's a sense of motivation, as you'll often find yourself dropped into a confusing new area with no clue as to what's expected of you. Maybe it's sincerity, lost as you watch dozens of classic Disney tales blurred and distorted to accommodate the premise of a new storyline. It's really tough to say what it is, exactly, but the experience left me a bit let down in the end. I didn't feel as though I'd completed my work.
Without question, this product is polished to a beautiful finish. Everything from the opening cinemas to the brilliant user interface to the visual style of the entire game is extremely well done. There's no questioning the fact that both Square and Disney pulled out their big guns for this one, and it goes an extremely long way towards erasing any and all fears that may have lingered for fans of either brand. Goofy and Donald are fully realized in 3-D without looking out of place, whether they're wandering about a new environment or interacting with other, more realistic characters. Cloud, Squall and various other characters familiar to fans of Final Fantasies from the past have also made the transition with relative ease, with various degrees of alteration made to their original designs.
This finely tuned attention to detail carries over to every graphical aspect of the game. It's truly incredible how strong a force Square has become in this regard. They're honestly in a league of their own, and never has it been more obvious than in Kingdom Hearts. Though the various worlds you'll visit in this one are much more cartoony and simplistic than the surroundings of, say Final Fantasy X, you'll find yourself just as easily dazzled as you were during your first few moments on the world of Tidus and Yuna. Bosses are legitimately intimidating, environments are detailed to the point of no return and non-playable characters are treated with just as much attention to detail as the central characters themselves. Visually, this is a masterwork. There are very few titles on the market even today, a full year after Hearts' launch, that can compete with it graphically. I honestly felt as though I was in control of a pre-rendered cinema from start to finish, right up until I actually did reach one of Square's notorious cinema scenes, the high-definition kicked in, and I found myself blown away once again. Worry not, that sweet tooth for eye candy you've developed will be satisfied by this one.
The audio is almost equally impressive, and the voice acting in particular stands out as a triumphant effort with very few exceptions. They didn't actually get Danny DeVito, Gilbert Gottfried or Eddy Murphy to reprise their roles as bona fide Disney sidekicks in this one, but they still managed a very good impersonation. I was a little worried about the possibilities when I first heard that the eternally silent heroes Squall and Cloud would be given speaking parts, but it really worked out for the best in the end, as their voices perfectly matched their personalities in previous installments. Squall, a self-centered, quiet, sulking individual legitimately sounds like he could care less about you, while Cloud sounds like a distant man fighting off some sort of inner demon. Even Sora, the lead character and one of only a handful of original creations in the game, avoids the canned, emotionless pitfalls that usually befall video games with loads of voice acting. But then again, he's got an excuse: Haley Joel Osment, better known as the kid from The Sixth Sense and A.I., plays the role very well.
My only real beef with the sound is a problem I've had with all of Square's post-SNES efforts; it doesn't sound like a professional, orchestrated, DVD-quality soundtrack so much as it does a well-penned MIDI file. While working within the restrictions of a regular CD-ROM on the original PlayStation, this was mildly annoying yet acceptable. Now that we've moved on to DVDs, it comes off as a little shoddy. Instead of giving players the sensation of controlling a full blown Hollywood blockbuster, as was their intention, Square makes the player feel as though (s)he's stumbled across an annoying web page, complete with a blaring, flat musical score. Regardless, the digital symphony still gives it a go throughout Kingdom Hearts, pounding out slightly reorganized versions of the Disney classics. Occasionally the catches repeat themselves too often and begin to irritate, but on the whole the amount of time you spend in each world is minimal and the varied soundtrack successfully accompanies a nice change of scenery with each interplanetary leap.
Gameplay is exciting, despite a steep initial learning curve, and is handled well for the most part. Rather than controlling your entire party one at a time, as with the more traditional turn-based Final Fantasy games, you control Sora in a free-roaming live action environment. You're joined by two companions (generally Donald and Goofy), who are controlled by a mildly retarded artificial intelligence program. Through the use of a special menu on the pause screen, you can give suggestions to the A.I. to better serve the kind of offense you'd like to build, (for example, if you don't want them to waste a potion unless it's absolutely necessary) but in the end the final decision is completely up to them. They'll lock on to the same target you're attacking and fly, balls-first, into the action with no regard for their own safety. Though there are occasions where this is a major handicap (as they don't know how to avoid a wall of flame to save their lives) for the most part it doesn't seem to get in the way.
One area that does provide for endless hours of frustration, however, is the camera's control. Rather than remaining directly behind Sora or using the right analog stick to provide a more user-friendly, customizable view, the screen swings wildly out of alignment with little or no notice, serving as an immediate point of confusion. When you've locked on to an enemy, the screen will vaguely follow that enemy's movements, even if that enemy leaps off the edge of the screen. You could have targeted a monster perched on a ledge three feet above Sora's head and the camera will display a profile shot of the hero and a beautifully rendered wall, with no sign of the enemy. Things get even more confusing when you try to cycle through all the available targets in the middle of a fight, attempting to quickly get a sense of what you're up against, as the camera quickly, violently snaps from one target to the next.
I also have a small bone to pick with the control scheme itself. While it's relatively easy to move Sora around the field, attack a nearby enemy or leap into the air, performing secondary actions such as casting advanced magic or using an item in the heat of battle are unnecessarily difficult and frustrating. Your character is maneuvered around the field by using the left analog stick, however the D-Pad is used to change your actions from an attack to a magic spell to an item and back again. This means that, if you're badly injured in a fight, you must frantically run away, switch your grip on the controller so that you're using the left analog stick with your right thumb, decide on an action with the D-Pad, activate it by pressing the X button (after adjusting your grip once again) and then hope to god you don't get hit in the process of casting the spell or using the item (thus canceling the action and starting the process over again.) It gets even more complicated when you start dealing with summon magic, as you go through three or four levels of extra navigation from the start to the finish of the process. It IS possible to use the right analog stick for the same function as the D-Pad, however this method is extremely touchy and inaccurate.
Despite its multiple flaws, this is still a very fun game to sit down and play. As you progress through the story, you'll start to pick up various skills and techniques, preventing the game from reverting into a straightforward hack-and-slasher. There's no questioning the fact that the vast majority of your fights can be won by madly smashing the "X" button, but even in the midst of such repetition you'll find yourself concocting new strategies and tactics to make fights quicker and to preserve life or MP. You're never forced to try out a new style of attack, but it's something just about everyone will find themselves doing unconsciously after a couple hours of play anyway.
In particular, I was impressed with the boss fights of this game, much like I was with Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker earlier this year. Noticeable time and effort went into creating a memorable series of battles to cap off each level, and it's something that really aids the big picture. Each boss seems to top the one that came before it, ramping up the difficulty but never carrying the chance for victory completely out of reach. Whether you're climbing up the haunches of a ten-foot high Behemoth to strike at its head from atop its shoulders or sailing through the ocean in a war with an enormous Ursula, the fights are clever, impressive and a load of fun. The only time these battles start to get a little out of hand is when you stray from the main storyline and attempt to tackle one of the game's sidequest bosses. Words can't describe how incredibly difficult those fights really are. But, for those who may be wondering, the end boss really IS a spectacular sight, and worth every minute of gameplay you might spend on the way.
Something I really could've done without is the "Gummi Ship" levels, which are interspersed between levels and never seem to go away. The premise is that you've got to find a way to travel between the different planets as you accomplish your goals and progress through the game. In action, it just looks like the programmers got lazy and couldn't think of a way to logically explain your party's leaps between worlds. So... they filled in the dead space with a poor, boring, needlessly lengthy series of space combat missions. You pilot a Gummi Ship, which must be gamespeak for "really poorly rendered stack of blocks, used to sail through obnoxiously colored environments and open fire aimlessly at other poorly rendered stacks of blocks." Basically, you're thrown from a pretty solid action / adventure game into a very poor first-person space combat game. The graphics are indescribably bad, the controls are sluggish and inaccurate, and the entire game suffers as a result of its inclusion. I noticed that it's possible to modify and upgrade your Gummi Ship, but after sitting through the lengthy tutorial and realizing what a difficult, complicated process this was, I just said "screw it" and moved on with my life.
When you get down to it, Kingdom Hearts is about expectations, hype, anticipation and eventual disappointment. There were a few genuine moments when I was legitimately excited and happy with the end product, but for the most part I was mildly annoyed by the controls, frustrated by the cameras, pissed off about the Gummi Ships and let down by the end result. This is a story of what could have been, a few shining moments of legendary gameplay, a slightly vague yet entertaining storyline and an awkward association between Disney and Square's worlds. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at least slightly interested in these current rumors about an upcoming sequel, as there's enough good stuff here to produce a quality follow-up (assuming the glaring flaws are addressed), but I'm not here to blow smoke up your ass and claim this is a "must have, buy right this minute" instant classic. Above average, but not nearly to the level it could have reached.
Overall Score: 6.9