Kingdom Hearts

kingdomhearts

Kingdom Hearts (2002)

It’s probably something that’s no big deal for proper countries out there, but Ireland has only recently seen the arrival of an honest to God, fully fledged Disney shop. And not only that, but she’s set up camp on the main shopping street as well, so we know that old Walt’s crew must mean some real business this time.

But where could they possibly go wrong? All of the previous Disney works, coupled with some top notch advertising and more than a few Simpsons-blue-haired-lawyers means that it’s almost become a hate crime to say anything negative about Disney. If I were to say that Aladdin is a little bit racist, that the Hunchback of Notre Dame takes terrible liberties to tell a poor story and that there’s no way that a yummy piece of crumpet like Belle would have gone for a rotten old hairy beast, I’d be finished with all the right faces and places. I’d have to go off and fob my controversial opinions off on my new buddies at the leper colony instead.

And even they will have heard of my anti-Disney railing and decided that I wasn’t to be trusted, and I’d quickly be relegated to the bottom feeder pile. After all, these people may be luckless lepers, but someone has to be the top dog and someone conversely has to be the gimp. And there’s nowt surer than the fact that slagging off The Lion King would mean I’d easily fall into that latter category.

But not even I’m cynical enough to hate Disney, because they’ve done the bizzo for kids time and time again. So when this new Disney shop opened, I was very pleasantly surprised and contented; you have to understand that in Ireland, anything that’s in anyway chic or specialist is immediately frowned upon and viewed suspiciously. But enough females, who still harbour ill-advised ambitions of one day becoming actual Disney princesses themselves, lapped up the shop and so it managed to sell its gimmick, as it were.

But that’s all been in the last year or so, when my generation who grew up during what’s been dubbed the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999, if our best friend Wikipedia doesn’t fail me again). Now, we’ve come of age and more crucially we have enough disposable cash to throw down on Nemo plushies – and these days, Star Wars merchandise.

In 2002, sure, Disney was popular. But films like Aladdin, Tarzan and The Lion King weren’t old enough to be fully fledged classics yet. Despite this, news that Squaresoft and Disney would be teaming up to do a Final Fantasy/Disney crossover was met with… discontent.

Yes, it could never work, and it was a terrible whoring out on both sides – that was the genuine consensus at the time. But then the game was released to fanfare and big sales, paving the way for quite a few sequels now. Us gamers, of course, were fickle enough to now do a convenient turnabout and demand even more Final Fantasy and Disney characters in the subsequent games. And from there developed the convoluted yet unmistakably unique Action RPG series Kingdom Hearts that has sold over 20 million units thus far.

There’s no ambiguity in which series rules the roost in the original Kingdom Hearts for PS2 – it’s definitely Disney. Your two permanent party members are Donald Duck and Goofy for a start, and all of the locations you follow are taken from a litany of Disney films throughout the years. But there’s a problem here: yes, there may be a wide variety of locales, corresponding to classic oeuvres like Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin and Hercules.

But the game designers simply decided that having some good voice actors in and rendering the characters well was enough – next to no thought was actually given into how to make each world immersive, interesting and expansive. So when you arrive at Agrabah and see Princess Jasmine hiding out from that busy mug Jafar, you think that things are really gonna step up a gear. It’s almost like things are going to be a callback to the nifty SNES and Mega Drive Aladdin games, which were teeming with levels all over the no-jihad zone that was Agrabah.

But then you start to play through Aladdin’s chapter of Kingdom Hearts and realise that something has gone very wrong: for about one third of the whole game, you’re spamming the attack button towards mostly bland, shadowy enemies that simply spawn out of nowhere. Another third of the game has you moving between two subareas out of maybe six per world, and the final third is actually finding the few lines of story-based dialogue, voice-acted or not, that finally let you proceed onto the next part of the story.

This progression, when it mercifully comes, inevitably involves you darting around each of the six aforementioned subareas once more. You and your divvy friends are trying to find even a trace of a clue towards the whereabouts of Mickey Mouse or special keyholes or whatever it is that drives the plot. You want to find the place where you can actually battle real enemies, see the old Disney characters back in action and in fine fettle and generally take a wonderfully whimsical trip down Disney memory lane. But the actual gameplay on each Disney inspired game world is so shabbily uninspired that you’re really left despairing at what could have been.

There’s further cause for despair still, though, when we get onto the wonderfully named Gummi Ship sections. To fly your characters to different worlds and get behind the scenes of different Disney movies, you’ve got to to suffer a wholly ill-advised minigame that has you embarrass yourself in a quaint looking, polygonal little ship – not unlike the Spectre jobs we haven’t long come off, although these Gummi numbers can fly.

I’ve got to say, and anyone will tell you that I’m not given to needless or self-aggrandising overreaction, but the first time around, I genuinely could not believe what I was seeing – I swear I had to burst out laughing at the Gummi Ship section, as I marvelled at just how bad it all was. “Oh, what a lark! What a gallant sport you are!” the game seemed to be crying to me, as it presented me, absolutely undaunted, with an impressively hackneyed shambles of a game mode. The game committed this treasonous act with a fully deadpan look on its face, impossibly asking me to just go along with it all and have fun.

Those on my Christmas card list know that Action RPGs are probably my favourite genre of games, or at least it’s among the genres. So looking at Kingdom Hearts from the outside, with most of the right Final Fantasy characters plus voice-acting from Donald and Goody’s voice actors and James Woods in as Hades, all combined with the fact that I could chop-socky through enemies and pick up valuable experience and gold (Munny), it all seemed to make this game set to be one of the GOATs – the greatest of aaaall times.

Its reviews were always strong, and it’s spawned a number of sequels. Many of these sequels change things about somewhat, I’m reliably informed, and fill the time with convoluted cowpat stories, each more improbably and poorly linked together than the last. Not that story has any real bearing on my own ability to enjoy the game. I reckon I got the gist of Kingdom Hearts 1 anyway: boy likes girl, other boy likes girl, they all get washed away, Maleficent isn’t happy and enlists Disney villains of varying competence levels to get some stuff sorted out while our first boy brings in a permanently incandescent duck and a mentally bewildered dog as backup.

Is that wrong? Hey, it sounds like a top notch premise for a game. But the Disney locales are severely cramped, not aided by the most irascible, temperamental camera there is. Cameras were a big old recurring problem in games around the time this title was released, it’s true. But your options of Auto or Manual camera only seem to give you two real choices, asking if you want occasional buggery from the established camera or whether you’d prefer to make yourself fully blind to all threats instead – pick your poison.

They could have done better with the music as well, considering the stuff that’s surely all available to them with Disney fully on board. Where’s the classic singalong tunes? Why isn’t Aladdin showing me the world? Or even instrumental versions, which would have done, since many of the voice actors involved in the classic ditties weren’t around this time?

Instead, you get some pretty non-offensive noise in quite a few cases. And you’re not always so lucky. Put it this way, I’ll consider myself to really have the luck of the Irish if I never have to hear Traverse Town playing again – imagine Ben Stein as your GPS except you’re heavily under the influence and he’s critically running out of battery, and you’ll have the sort of constant drone that many players are forced to put up with: bad memories of staggering through the first town, the hub of the game, trying to find the one corner of its many screens that would advance the plot that little bit further, all the while either engaging a limitless supply of enemies or just running away as your companions are left to face the music. Would you be bothered?

The battle system itself is not exactly a thinking man’s effort either. Your character, Sora, wields a keyblade (to elaborate, this is a blade shaped like a key, and it opens doors too). Mash the attack button to defeat foes, and… that’s moreorless it, occasionally stopping to heal. Hey, it’s not exactly involved, but it’s not that far a cry from the almighty Secret of Mana. Although there you could charge weaponry, and magic was worth a damn.

Here’s one though – in classic Final Fantasy tradition, you can use Summons. So if you fancy bringing Simba into the fray, replete with the classically centennial summoning animation that Final Fantasy always throws up with more than a wink or a nod, then you can do so. I’ll say this for the game, its little nods and references are certainly impressive. But they would have to be, wouldn’t they, when the developers in charge of the itty bitty details were stuck working alongside Disney. After all, to Disney’s eternal credit, they do maintain high levels of product quality and control – and so would be the case here, until the many flaws inherent in the game on the part of the Squaresoft programmers let it all down.

It’s an interesting love letter to both franchises. And I know it has its own very die-hard legion of fans, who’ll hate me for this treachery and sedition. But it has to be said, and I want to be the brave man who’ll stand in front of the onrushing tanks and say it: this game is simply not very good at all at all. So much so, that it’s like a lot of the elements of pop culture that frighten me today – you ask yourself “how did this ever become popular?” Things can all start to look a little scary. Well, in times of great uncertainty, doubt and fear and loathing like that, you almost feel grateful to be able to seek sanctuary in a Disney shop, where everything is familiar, there’s no tricks – and there’s not a single sighting of a Gummi Ship.

22 October 2014

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