Kingdom Hearts is the latest game in the popular video game series that mashes Disney characters and Japanese action RPGs. Although there've been several spin-off installments, we haven't had a Kingdom Hearts game for a main console for such a long time. After all the waiting and anticipating did this meet my expectations? Well mostly. I had a lot of fun with this, but I admit it didn't quite match I and II or even Birth by Sleep (as mentioned these games are Japanese; some pretty odd names).
STORY: For a game with Disney characters, KH has become of the most complexly and confusingly plotted video game stories ever only on par with the Metal Gear titles. This can be a pain if you haven't played the many games across several consoles. They have a recap video section but it isn't thorough enough. I found myself being reminded of forgotten stuff from games I'd personally played. Doesn't help that some of the finer details aren't revealed in story but through journal entries you gain through optional fights after completing the game proper.
Still, I appreciate how much they've built upon what has come before. There are some pretty good twist and turns and an ending that comes close to matching the impact of the first game. The whole game does pretty well with the emotional beats. The past few games have introduced several good-hearted characters that have met tragic fates. (There are seven people that have ended up in sad limbo situations. That's a lot of limbo!) Since this is supposed to be the end of the Xehanort arc, the heroes fight against their enemy Xehanort (voiced by Rutger Hauer taking over from the late Leonard Nimoy) who wants to bring an end to the universe, we get the conclusion to all the character story-lines with appropriate weight to them.
However, I was hoping this game would feel more self-contained. Too much time is spent on hints for future games. It's annoying for the characters to spend a lot of time bringing up plot points that you don't get answers to. Maleficent and Pete are totally wasted as they show up early and frequently for a storyline with no payoff.
They also don't tackle some of the Disney movie stories as well as previous games. In the past, you often played truncated versions of the movies with our heroes thrown into the mix. However, the Frozen and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds basically try to squeeze in the full plots and too many characters and basically have your heroes pop in and out of them instead of feeling like they're directly part of the events.
They're are a lot of clever little story ideas and funny bits here too. The slapstick bits with Donald and Goofy (voiced by their regular actors Tony Anselmo and Bill Farmer) are a lot more than the other games and they work well. Really Goofy and Donald couldn't be better traveling companions as they're two personalities complement each other so well and provide a lot of general heart to the story.
Also, you get to see Pixar films for the first time, so yay. The previous games included FInal Fantasy and other Square Enix characters, but not this time, so boo.
GAMEPLAY: If it bugs you that many of the previous games have been mostly hack-and-slash, you'll be pleased to know that they've kept things more varied. You get a lot of varied attacks throughout battle to keep things lively, including attacks based on Disney rides. The developers really improved on your combat cooperation with your allies when compared to previous games. The summons are a little hit and miss as most of them only feel like they work better for non-hectic situations. Donald and Goofy's ability to heal you when needed is better too.
Thing is that all the special attacks make this the easiest game in the series. I beat this on hard mode without much difficulty. (Except the final boss. He is a challenge. Be prepared for he is a time vacuum and you can't save between his various forms and cut scenes.)
They removed most of your special forms from II, except for the rage form which only works when you're low in health. I will miss them because the edge they gave and the fact you couldn't use them as willy-nilly made them feel earned. However, now your keyblades have special forms and they're own special moves, plus you can up they're attack and magic powers at the Moogle shops.
SInce KHII got complaints for streamlining the levels and cutting down on the platform elements, this game does a decent job of bringing them back. The worlds are larger than ever before and often allow you to run up walls for ease of movement. There are a lot of pretty clever mini-game and level designs. (Although the Rapunzel dance mini-game feels completely superfluous but it is innocuous.) You even get to pilot a pirate ship and engage in full-scale battles in the PotC world.
They don't have quite as many Disney worlds as previous games, which they compensate for by making them longer. This can get exhausting sometimes. The Frozen and PoTC worlds are way too looong! The final world, although the physically shortest of the final levels, stretches on and on with the cutscenes. On the other hand, the Winnie-the-Pooh level is so short and simple you wonder why they included it.
The Gummi ship stages are back. They were dull in the first game, corrected and exciting in the second one, and back to dull here. This time they go with an open world space area. I appreciate them making battles more optional and adding several things you can do. But none of this is very interesting. (Sure looks nice though, I'll give it that.)
GRAPHICS: Definitely the best looking game in the series. The improvement is noticeable. Everything looks gorgeous. Since most of the DIsney levels are based on 3D movies, the game's creators were given permission to utilize the original digital frames from them. For a couple of worlds, they even change the visual style of your characters to match them. In the POtC world, the only live-action film, Donald and Goofy are clearly more detailed than in the rest of the game. The facial movements on the characters don't always quite gel, though.
The larger worlds have a lot more civilian characters in them and they feel more real.
Again the outfits for the original game characters and the designs of the Heartless and other villains are all so unique and detailed. It helps that the game's director Tetsuya Nomura started off as a visual designer. (He's still addicted to using zippers on his outfits but it works.)
MUSIC/SOUND: Composer Yôko Shimomura does the same thing she did with the previous games: good songs and music for the big dramatic moments, while the music for the Disney stages are serviceable and overstay their welcome if you play for too long.
Considering that Haley Joel Osment is voicing a character he started with as a child, he does a decent job. But, sometimes it's pretty obvious that it's an adult speaking in a high pitch. You get several voice actors from the Disney films returning. You don't get all the big names, but you get a nice handful, including Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Zachary Levi, and James Woods.
In summation, yeah this isn't the perfect gaming experience I was hoping for, but it was still a blast to play.
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