Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Kingdom Hearts

Everybody has a favorite from their childhoods, whether it's Space Invaders, Pitfall, Super Mario Brothers, Sonic The Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim, Ocarina Of Time or Banjo-Kazooie... and Kingdom Hearts was my absolute favorite game as a kid. Even if I didn't know what to do and I had to resort to Gamefaqs to pass a bit or two, it was still a game I loved dearly. All the Disney characters, all the Disney worlds, and the fun combat – it just clicked and really kicked ass at doing so. Eventually, you revisit a childhood memory and find yourself analyzing it with a more adult mind (well, as adult as a near-20 year old can get), like why did you love it so much and was it as good as it was? Honestly, unless your old favorite was something like Metal Gear Solid or Super Mario Brothers 3, fuck no it wasn't! You realize that some screws were actually loose that were too small for your 7 year old eyes to see, but somehow, your 20 year old eyes can see them, and oh boy, Kingdom Hearts is quite an example of this. Still a fun game, no doubt about that, but come on, it's no masterpiece.

The basic idea of the story is that three teenagers from an island are seperated across the universe when the world's about to get destroyed. But amidst the chaos, Riku disappears into the darkness, Sora gets the Keyblade out of it and Kairi just disappears in Sora's arms. Meanwhile, King Mickey suddenly leaves the Disney Castle on a mission, leaving a note for Goofy and Donald, which tells them to look for the wielder of the Keyblade because he/she's important to save the world. Goofy and Donald meet up with Sora and they travel the universe to slay the evil Heartless and the even more evil Disney villains (from big boss Maleficent, to grunts like Captain Hook and Jafar) before they destroy the universe.

There are a few things that really stand out – for one thing, it's not so much about the original story as it is about Disney fanservice. You basically relive parts of a bunch of movies like Tarzan, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, except there are Heartless in them causing trouble. Honestly speaking, this is when the story is at its best – fanservice done right, if you ask me. It's fun going through these worlds, interacting with various Disney characters. In fact, just seeing them is awesome, like “man what are we/they going to do?” However, the game has an original story going on, and while the allies are stuck in their own stories, the villains sure as hell aren't, and... sucks. I seriously spent more time picking on the plotholes, nonsensical bullshit and some questionable dialogue with my mates than actually get absorbed into it, and I'm sure you could make a drinking game out of it. For instance, take a drink anytime a plot element is introduced with barely any build up that should've been given some, and take two drinks if has no resolution... and four if it has a half assed resolution. Trust me, you'll be drunk off your dick by the time this is over, and that's just the very beginning. It's up to you how many you do for awkward dialogue, half assed character development and... just generally being a mess. Sure, it seemed good when you were a kid, especially with the Final Fantasy characters making cameos (but only actually doing something beyond some exposition towards the end), but then you learn about decent storytelling, and about how it has to have some form of coherence, and if it's not going to make sense, then it should at least be pretty damn cool... which this is far from, since a lot of the time, it just screws around, hoping it'll all fall into place, or at its most desperate, let nostalgia take over. It sucks, because there was potential for a good or at least a decent story in there somewhere, but instead, it's just a cut above the narcfest that was Cartoon All Stars To The Rescue... which doesn't say much, I'm afraid. Thankfully, it only really comes into play during the last third of the game.

Until then, it's time to get out your large keys and whack the hell out of whatever pack of enemies come your way! Combat is fairly basic – in fact, most of what it comes down to is hammering the X button, while often moving out of the way to dodge enemy attacks. There are no fancy combos (well, until you learn some at key points throughout the game), no light and heavy attacks and certainly no room for advanced tactics. Sounds bad, I know, but that's where the variety of enemies comes into play. I mean, you have your typical weak Heartless and brands of stronger ones, but you also deal with aerial enemies (some fast, some not so far), spellcasters and frontally defensive (usually blobs with heads, hands and feet) types. That alone has the capcity to keep the game fresh, and add the fact that only a few of them are consistent, I'd say it stays fresh. Just goes to show what enemy variety can really do if your combat engine is a bit “eh”.

But yeah, you can learn abilities, most of which range from adding an extra hit to your basic combo to passive abilities (for instance, you'll either get more HP/MP/Munny balls or rarer treasures when you kill enemies), but the best come in the form of combos. Accessed from the battle menu (the only menu that can be used in real time), you'll unleash a combo that can really fuck shit up and you'll be immune the whole time. They have the potential to be great, but they're usually reserved for when you're in a jam and have a decent amount of MP left. The other abilities can be quite helpful either during battle or just in a pinch, but unlike the sequel where they make Sora overpowered, they actually give you a fighting chance against some of the bosses, particularly the later ones.

So beyond enemy variety, what keeps this game interesting if there isn't much to the combat? Why, looking forward to the next boss, of course, and the bosses are mostly well designed. Yeah, a couple of them suck balls, but the rest make up for it. Theoretically, they require you to smack them senseless, but there's always a method to their madness, like how some of them have two targets (the infamous Stealth Sneak + Clayton combo – by the way, how the fuck does a shotgun suddenly fire like a sniper rifle? TELL ME), or spam certain attacks, but as you'd expect, the idea is to hit them when the times are right. The thing with these bosses is that it's so much fun just figuring out their motives and countering them. Even if the combat engine itself isn't the greatest and the difficulty pacing is a little all over the place (the aforementioned Stealth Sneak is only the fourth boss, and it'll be a fair few more bosses down the line before you fight one that's harder), they really manage to make something work out quite well.

But this game has some huge gameplay problems. For one thing, the camera fucking sucks. The only way to move it is by using the shoulder buttons... no right stick is involved; just the shoulder buttons. Now, when you target enemies (which in and of itself is a bit on the schizophrenic side of the fence), you use the shoulder buttons to change targets. Putting two and two together basically says “yeah this fucking sucks”. Plus when you're dealing with enemies that constantly move, it goes all over the place, which can make fighting them much harder than it ought to be. Oh, and only controlling the x-axis is not only really outdated, but also very limiting when against flying enemies.

Another thing is that some levels are designed pretty badly. Most of them are fairly linear and merely require finding where the next cutscene lies, but some are ridiculous. To be fair, it's all in the first half, but the last of them is a doozy and a half, requiring you to fuck about in the depths of some ruins. While the rest simply required trial and error, this one required Gamefaqs because holy shit, what the fuck am I supposed to do!? How did I know I was meant to fall into a pit and swim around... shit, since when could you SWIM UP WATERFALLS!? They're not really big, but still, that's something not even Bear Grylls's cameraman could do, let alone some kid with a big key and three timeless cartoon characters.

Might I also add that the only way to travel between worlds at first is to go through a shoot em up segment, flying through space while shooting up Heartless ships – and man, these segments are dull! Even in the second half of the game when there's more ships to shoot and obstacles to dodge, eh, the only time you feel something positive is when you get to the next world and be thankful for the warp drive being installed into your ship after a while, especially for the Donkey Kong 64-ish sidequests (in which you collect shit like the iconic 101 Dalmations and the Trinity Marks) and optional bosses (including fan favorite Sephiroth... I wish there were more Final Fantasy bosses, but whatever). It's mainly because the enemy ships don't exactly pose a threat as long as you move around and hold X (the shoot button). There aren't any bosses here, so all you fight are grunts. Thankfully, it never takes too long... at least if you go by your stopwatch, but it sure feels like forever since your ship moves fairly slowly, even at its supposed “fastest”. As for actually building your ship, eh, I just fuck about with various parts and see what fits, and I'm sure you would too. Nothing really good. Maybe adequate, but it's a decent cure for insomnia.

Finally, whenever you're forced to platform, you'll be subject to some rather crap controls. Jumping from platform to platform is made hard with how stiff it feels. It's not quite as stiff as, say, Castlevania on the NES, but suffice it to say, the few platforming segments that are (thankfully only) in the first half of the game will be a bit of a pain in the dick.

There were certainly no punches pulled in the graphics department. Some lip syncing issues aside (didn't know some two syllable words suddenly had six but okay), the visuals are bloody stunning! The locations are appropriately colorful, with green jungles and blue seas, while the character models definitely look the part – whether that means like their 2D animated selves in 3D or possible post-Nintendo Final Fantasy characters, whatever the case may be, they look great. Maybe the character designer had a zipper fetish if you look at Sora's outfit (and it gets worse in the next game), but it's overlookable, especially considering that the environments have a good amount of detail and stand out enough to make small details seem smaller. Oh, and the opening and closing cutscenes... back in 2002, they looked fucken real, I swear! I mean nowadays, they look like something out of a Pixar animation, but the amount of detail put into each of the models in these scenes was pretty unreal for that time and even now, it still looks pretty impressive.

The sound design is a touch hit and miss. For instance, a lot of characters have good voice acting like Riku and Ansem, but some of the Disney cast and a lot of the Final Fantasy cast... nah, they just don't really sound too good, like they couldn't care less about the game and just want their cheque. Ah well, can't let a few small rotten apples spoil a lot of big juicy ones. The soundtrack is especially on the hit and miss side of the fence – not that any of the songs are bad or anything, but the level tracks (both battle and non-battle tunes) can get a bit grating when you're spending a lot of time navigating through a level, plus the songs themselves, while good, aren't much to shake a stick at. But it's all worth it, just to hear the glorious boss themes (depending on the boss). Good fucking god, these songs are epic and can make a boss battle really come to life with some intense symphonic tracks! It's tracks like those that can really strenghten a game...

Kingdom Hearts is quite a mess if you look at it from a logical designing point of view. So many instances that could've been redone, so many that could've used some rewriting and so many plot points that could've used better foreshadowing and resolution. But if you're looking at it from an emotional point of view, you really can't hate this game too much. It's just so much fun interacting and fighting alongside/against Disney characters, and the combat itself when you weren't wresting the camera was very fun. Add the awesome soundtrack and mostly excellent graphics, and you've got yourself a game that's technically mediocre, but emotionally pretty good.

7/10 (Good)

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