Learning Curve: About a half hour
It's difficult to imagine how the idea for Kingdom Hearts might have dawned on someone. For a game to combine the brooding, self-important characters of the Final Fantasy series with the lighthearted, often silly characters from many of Disney's most famous animated feature films seems ridiculous, if not impossible. But here it is, as plain as day: Kingdom Hearts, an action adventure game that's sure to appeal to fans of either Square's previous games or Disney's cartoons, at least on some weird level. Though the actual gameplay of Kingdom Hearts isn't as noteworthy as the concept, and the plot wavers between being predictable and incoherent, you'll still enjoy making your way through the game's various settings, stumbling onto more Square and Disney cameos than you ever thought you'd see in one place.
Having Donald Duck and Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife in the same game--much less battling it out--demands some explanation. What the heck is going on in Kingdom Hearts? Well, it seems that a nefarious force is drawing on the life energies of a number of interconnected worlds using a shadowy, monstrous horde called the Heartless. Though, "monstrous" perhaps isn't the best way to describe a group of bad guys who look like a cross between the black mages of Final Fantasy and Looney Tunes' Marvin the Martian. As Sora, a fresh-faced kid with strange clothes, big feet, spiky hair, and a voice provided by The Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment, you'll become the unwitting savior of all these troubled lands as you search for your missing friends. With the help of none other than Goofy and Donald Duck (who happen to be looking for Mickey Mouse) and armed with your trusty keyblade, you'll visit a number of strange-but-familiar worlds before your quest is complete.
Along the way, you'll run into some of Disney's most famous characters, and you'll also meet some of Square's finest. But make no mistake--there's much more Disney here. So while you shouldn't expect to run into every one of your favorite Final Fantasy bit players, if you're a big Disney fan, you'll be in for a real treat. Square fans can take heart from the fact that Kingdom Hearts by all means bears the characteristics of a Square game, complete with all the sorts of character building, secret items, minigames, and impressive boss battles they've come to expect.
Kingdom Hearts isn't a role-playing game like last year's Final Fantasy X, but it does have plenty of role-playing elements. Your characters gain levels, spells, and special abilities as they proceed in their quest, and you can go out of your way to find special items or go back to town and shop for better equipment. Yet the action all takes place in real time, and there's plenty of it. You'll be fighting the Heartless in virtually every scene of the game, and when you defeat a pack of them, another pack will often materialize right then and there. Kingdom Hearts also has a good number of platform-jumping sequences and a few puzzles to solve. It's a linear game, though sometimes you get a choice of where to go first. It's also a pretty long game--not as lengthy as Final Fantasy X, but certainly a lot bigger than your average 10-hour action adventure.
Though Kingdom Hearts succeeds on most levels, its gameplay can get tedious. By default, the camera tries to stay behind Sora as he runs around, but you'll be able to move more nimbly than the camera, which will cause you headaches. You can switch to a manual camera--which complicates things but gives you better control over the perspective--but the camera will still wig out when you get too close to walls or other obstacles. The worlds you'll visit are mostly themed after various Disney animated films--Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, to name a couple. Yet despite the unmistakably different visual styles of each of these settings, the course of the gameplay tends to be about the same in each one. While there's an overarching story story in Kingdom Hearts, it sometimes takes a backseat to an abridged version of whichever Disney movie that world is based on. To help the hero of the world defeat the villain and restore order, you'll basically need to run around from one small area to the next, fighting the armies of the Heartless and the occasional boss.
There can be a lot of backtracking in each sequence, but you might not realize it, because you often won't get clear instructions on what to do next. You'll just have to run around and see what happens, and since the worlds are all relatively small, you'll still stumble upon the next checkpoint eventually. There's nothing like hitting a dead end to make you realize you were probably supposed to go the other way. This doesn't really make for a satisfying sense of exploration, though you'll love first setting foot in each new world.
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