Kingdom Hearts II is the long-awaited sequel to the 2002 Disney/Square collaboration Kingdom Hearts. Picking up the story where the former game--and the interim Game Boy Advance release, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories--left off, Kingdom Hearts II guides you through a series of Disney-themed worlds as you encounter a cast of characters that reads straight off the credits of some of the most popular Square games and Disney movies. Though the formula in KHII is quite familiar, much of the gameplay has changed, and it's safe to say that it's been for the better. Fans of the original game and of Disney/Square properties in general will fall in love with this game quite easily, though a few problems with the basic gameplay prevent Kingdom Hearts II from being whole-heartedly recommendable to everyone else.
Goofy is actually quite the sage in this game.
In KHII you reprise the role of Sora, a young boy who happens to have just the right mojo for wielding the keyblade. The keyblade is a weapon that is, aptly, useful both as a key to unlock other worlds and as a method for destroying the heartless, a species of monster that is taking over the otherwise peaceful Disney lands at the behest of Sleeping Beauty's very evil Maleficent. The crux of the game has you, Sora, traveling from one land to another with companions Donald Duck and Goofy to dispel the heartless and to rescue friends of yours that are missing. Along the way, you'll join forces with the heroes and heroines of Square, Disney, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. For people enthused with these properties, Kingdom Hearts II is a wonderful experience in which every character interaction gives you the opportunity to live through some of the magic moments of these movies and games.
As an action role-playing game, Kingdom Hearts II gives you a certain amount of freedom, both in determining your characters' attributes and in resigning yourself to standard combat. You'll be able to do a little bit of both or a lot of one or the other, depending on your preferences. Seasoned role-playing gamers will be able to spend plenty of time perfecting the allocation of their attributes (or abilities), synthesizing new items, and grinding to level up, while those less interested in the role-playing aspects can breeze through the main gameplay without paying much attention to statistics.
While the ease of gameplay customization is one of the game's greatest strengths, the ease of the game in general is surely its largest weakness. The main quest, which clocks in at over 40 hours of gameplay, is never difficult. You can get through almost the entire game without dying, save for a few challenging boss battles at the end of the game. This is an improvement upon the original Kingdom Hearts, in which the difficulty occurred in moments of backtracking, tediousness, and confusion. But because there's no difficulty of any kind (at the default difficulty setting), getting through the gameplay in Kingdom Hearts II never gives you a satisfying sense of accomplishment. The rhythm minigames found in various levels, presumably included to offer gameplay variation, are mind-numbingly easy, often requiring only one button press over and over (when prompted, no less) to get through.
The game's length and its devotion to character exposition are its saving grace. The lack of satisfaction from beating a particularly challenging gameplay segment is made up for in spades by the continually changing cast of characters and the monumental time you spend interacting with them. You don't have to be familiar with everything related to Disney, Square, or even the previous games in the series to enjoy Kingdom Hearts II, but familiarity will make the experience more enjoyable.
Haley Joel Osment and Sora have both matured for the sequel.
To that end, Square and Disney have brought on board a tremendous voice-acting cast, including the now pubescent Haley Joel Osment to reprise the role of (now pubescent) Sora, the commanding voice actor Christopher Lee, and many of the actors responsible for voicing their Disney movie counterparts, including Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean, Ming Na as the voice of Mulan, James Woods as Hades, and the list goes on and on. When the actor responsible for the original Disney voice isn't used, then the actor who voiced that character in other iterations (like the television series or straight-to-video sequels) is used, and in the absence of both, the voice is still almost indiscernible from the ones you're likely familiar with. There are one or two bad apples among the bunch (like the screechy Princess Jasmine), and the Square characters didn't get quite the same treatment as the Disney characters did, but for a game with as many voices as Kingdom Hearts II, the overall quality is still excellent. Further enhancing the aural experience is the game's superb soundtrack, which consists of a fair share of original music and remixes of movie themes. Large portions of Disney songs--from The Little Mermaid, for example--make their way into the rhythm games on the Atlantica level and are in fact the minigames' redeeming quality. If you're familiar with the songs from these franchises, you'll no doubt be humming along to them in this game, a tribute to how well the music was adapted and integrated into the gameplay.
Most of the Disney worlds take you through the plot of the corresponding movies, so the immersion is enhanced by dialogue that is often taken directly from the source material. In one scene, Captain Barbossa declares to Elizabeth Swann, "You best start believin' in ghost stories. You're in one!" and then takes a swig from a bottle of wine, which you can see go all the way down his zombie-pirate chest--it's a scene that should be more than a little familiar to anyone who has even seen a trailer of Pirates of the Caribbean. The Square characters, which don't have the luxury of being a part of an established movie plot, are appropriately aloof as a result. And in one moment, formerly intimidating Final Fantasy VIII antagonist Seifer declares, "We totally owned you lamers!" which is just about as horrible as it sounds. Fortunately, there's much more Disney influence than Square, and for most of the game you'll feel like you're there participating in the plotlines of your favorite Disney movies.