The setup for a sequel to Square Enix and Disney’s break-out hit ‘Kingdom Hearts’ was baked into the finale of the original title, both in the final scenes of the main campaign and in the unlockable video that players got for fully completing the game. But few would have imagined that the Game Boy Advance exclusive title ‘Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories’ would have been so impactful on Kingdom Hearts 2.
Unlike later games in the series, which would involve an increased reliance on following each and every entry into the series, Kingdom Heart 2 has an excuse for not playing Chain of Memories baked into the story, with Sora having forgotten them himself. Later packaged compilations of the series would place ‘Kingdom Hearts 365/2 Days’ chronologically before KH2, as its story takes place between Chain of Memories and the sequel, but to feel the real impact of both stories we strongly recommend that you play it only after completing KH2, as there is more narrative impact on both titles because of it.
Graphically, the original title was beautiful, and KH2 manages to increase the graphical quality of the engine significantly, whilst creating larger areas to explore and more varied character models. Sora himself is aged up and less child-like now, and shortly into the game is given a new outfit that reflects this and really allows the games designers to go crazy with additional outlandish costume designs based on the various forms the new suit can unlock. Most impressive of these visually being the Heartless form, which is creepy in animation and the way it visually depicts our hero. There is some graphical clash when visiting the ‘Pirates of the Carribbean’ franchise world, with its more realistic (actor accurate) models, but this can be waved away by those willing to accept that these things can mesh.
The music of the title, again composed by Yoko Shimomura, does a fantastic job of present new character and locations with original themes, with Roxas’ theme being particularly poignant, but is a little less sharp on incorporating classic Disney refrains into their worlds, and several tunes recur from the first game in a remixed format. Voice acting is again the undisputed star of the show here, with some famous actors recast due to availability but no less well suited for the roles they play, whilst additional cameo characters such as Scrooge McDuck get star turns from their original voices. It’s an incredibly strong audio showcase that really pushes the PlayStation 2 to its limits.
The narrative sees you start the game in the role of Roxas, a young boy residing in Twilight Town who is experiencing the last few days of summer vacation before his free time comes to an end and life ‘returns to normal’. This has an oddly melancholy feel that he can’t explain, and as it creeps closer his recurring dreams about a boy called Sora and his adventures with Donald and Goofy increase in intensity, and things in town begin to become weirder as he feels drawn to an abandoned house outside of town. It’s an incredibly solid and surprising opening to the game that has the player openly question where the characters they expected to play as checking the back of the box and asking open questions about what happened, whilst even those who played through Chain of Memories won’t have all the answers, but instead only an inkling of what ‘might’ be going on with them. Suffice to say, the writing is again excellent.
Gameplay is more or less unchanged from the original title but for a few alterations and new mechanics. First and foremost is the change from vertical platforming to more combat driven gameplay, and this brings with it more airborn combos designed around keeping Sora/Roxas in motion and in the air when chaining them together. Active prompts appear in game at yep moments that involve hitting the triangle button to trigger situation based special moves, these can be linked to locations and specific enemies, with the new Nobody enemies in their most base form allowing you to circle-dash around them to avoid damage and for a free hit while they are exposed. At times this system takes over priority, forcing itself on the player in a series of quick-time-events that look stunning but are less fun to complete, feeling like the battle robbed you of your skill-won victory with a gimmick. Other times they are impressive and necessary, such as when battling 1000 Heartless or dodging the assault of the final boss. The major new edition to Sora’s combat style is the introduction of forms he can assume that alter his abilities, Valor for example gives him 2 Keyblades to dual-wield and increases his speed and strength for the duration he maintains it. Levelling these forms and handling them is a major factor in gaining and keeping new abilities. The Gummi Ship segments return, revamped into a more on-rails shooter segment of play, and arena battles again play a prominent part of the experience in the Hades Cup. Ultimatly almost everything in-game is a genuine improvement on the original template.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts 2 is a triumph of a sequel with perhaps the best first act of any title of the PS2 era, if you can see past the slow pacing. It’s expanded ‘international edition’ has been included and fully translated for the 2.5 edition of the game on PS3 and PS4, but we strongly advise that you pick this up as part of the complete series bundle for the best price per game.