(Warning: Kingdom Hearts 1 and Kingdom Hearts 2 spoilers are present.)
Kingdom Hearts 2 is to be re-released on the PlayStation 3, along with several other games in the franchise in Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Re: Mix. As a direct result of this, I have begun discussing the game with some friends of mine in anticipation. This can sometimes lead to conflict. You see, I am a huge fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Despite that, I have very mixed opinions of Kingdom Hearts 2. Although I generally enjoyed the game, I also feel that it was where the series started to accumulate many of the problems commonly associated with the series. For this reason, I consider it to be one of the weaker games in the franchise. This is seen as strange to many fans of the series, perhaps rightfully so. However, I do have my reasons for thinking this.
My first such reason is the apparently lack of gravity in the world. To be clear, this is not referring to emotion gravity. Rather, I am referring to the physical force which pulls people downward. Kingdom Hearts 2 came out at a very interesting time in Square-Enix's history. This was the period when the company stared leaning towards the more “cinematic” approach to game design. Sometime during the production of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, SE began to try to make their games more movie-like. Though I can only speculate, this is what I suspect is behind the “Reaction Commands” present in the second entry of Kingdom Hearts. For the unaware, this was the system of contextual, God of War-style QTE prompts, all mapped to the triangle button. Often, these “Reactions” would result in bombastic and over-the-top action sequences in major boss battles.
This had two effects on the game's fundamental feeling. First, it reduced the level of interactivity inherent to the game. Instead of using the game's combat system to do battle, the game would occasionally make players take a break at certain points in a given boss fight in order keep pressing the triangle button so that a cutscene can play, transitioning to the next phase of the boss fight.
The second, and more important effect, is that it took away the weight the combat in the original Kingdom Hearts game had. This is one of those intangibles that crop up in game design. In the first game in the franchise, there was a very real sense of weight when fighting. Though players could stay in the air for fairly long, there was a sense that a force was always pulling them back to the ground. It felt like Sora and company were doing the fantastic things that they do despite being weighted down by the forces of nature.
Contrast that with Kingdom Hearts 2, and that sense is nearly gone. The QTEs, especially later in the game, have Sora and his friends no longer bound by the laws of reality. We see them cutting down skyscrapers in a single slash, punching boulders into enemies, and staying in the air for so long that they can practically fly. Rather than being bound by the forces of nature, they seem more like demi-gods, capable of feats far beyond anything that seems remotely plausible even in the context of a Disney/Final Fantasy crossover. Again, this is difficult to explain in words. It is far easier to just ask you to watch these clips of combat scenarios in each game, and compare how they feel. You can just sense how float-y and bombastic Kingdom Hearts 2 feels to its predecessor, removing the weight of its combat and world.
The other reason Kingdom Hearts 2 earns a fair degree of my ire is the writing. I know for a fact I am going to get a lot of grief for this: However, the second main game in the franchise is where, in my humble opinion, that the series began to develop many of the issues people typically associate with it. To fully understand this, I would like to once again return to the original Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts 1's story was, as befitting its Disney-inspired roots, a relatively simple tale of the struggle of light versus darkness. Villains in the story has relatively simple motivations, if they even have any motivations at all. The heroes are very clearly in the right when it comes to most situations. And at the end of the day, the bad guy is defeated and the world is saved thanks to the power of friendship. Cliche as it is, the story works for the most part. It is consistent in tone, fits well with the subject material and, most importantly, makes logical sense to players of the game.
Kingdom Hearts 2 does not always meet all of these conditions. The biggest hit that it took in the narrative department was in the introduction of far too many elements to the overall plot of the series. This game introduced the concept Nobodies, creatures composed of the body and soul of people who lost their hearts to darkness. To that end, the writers created a group called Organization XIII, which is a group of thirteen (or less) people who have lost their hearts and became Nobodies. Then, it introduced that these people, without hearts, cannot feel human emotion. At the same time, their behavior seems to indicate that they feel emotions, but the game says it is a crude facsimile of actual emotions. Further, we learn that the antagonist of the previous game was an impostor who took someone else's name and that his nobody is the leader of the organization. We also learn that there are special nobodies formed from special circumstances, that have special powers because of those circumstances.
None of this is particularly hard to explain one piece at a time. The difficult stems from having to store the gestalt of all this information in memory. So much stuff needs explaining that I usually defer friends who ask to the Kingdom Hearts Wiki. Later games would build on this database to the point where it is hard to talk about any one element of the franchise's overarching story without first going into at least ten different other concepts. Eschewing the Disney-inspired simplicity of the original title, this was the point where Kingdom Hearts began to favor the style of writing more associated with the Final Fantasy side of this crossover. The game simply bogged itself down too much in the details, losing part of what I found charming in the original game.
And in the bogging down lies a bit of irony. While the overarching story had a lot going on in Kingdom Hearts 2, the plots for the individual worlds were much lazier in their writing. Though there are one or two exceptions to this rule, by and large the story-line of a given world is ripped wholesale from the Disney film the world in based on. Only instead of just the hero of the film, it is the hero and three people (Sora, Donald, and Goofy). This results in narratives that really make the protagonists of them look dumb.
One of the most egregious examples of this comes from the Atlantica level, representing The Little Mermaid. In the first game, the story is much more about Sora, Donald, and Goofy trying to blend into the world under the sea. The three have to stay incognito so that they can find and seal the keyhole, saving Atlantica from impending doom. Characters from the Little Mermaid are true to their personalities in the film. However, the story is squarely written around Sora and company. In the end, they discover Ursula is planning to use King Triton's trident to take over Atlantica and stop her in order to gain the trust of the world's inhabitants, neatly resolving all the issues brought up in that scenario.
Fast forward to Kingdom Hearts 2, and Atlantica is again a world in the game. Rather than build off the relationships and aftermath of what happened in the first game, the writers decided to just retell the tale of The Little Mermaid, as seen in the Disney classic. (And yes, I am going to ignore the whole “musical level” element to this. It is annoying, but not important to my overall point.) Despite establishing that Ursula is an evil villain in the first game, Ariel still blindly accepts her offer for help, as she did in the movie, without even thinking for a moment about the consequences. This might make sense if they had pretended that Sora never visited Atlantica in the original Kingdom Hearts. However, when the player first arrives, the initial cutscene acknowledges the friendship Ariel forged with Sora in Kingdom Hearts 1. Nobody even calls her out on her blatant stupidity. Beyond sheer laziness on the part of the scenario designers, there is not much of an excuse for this in a game that took five years to develop in the PS2-era.
Ultimately, all this together leads me to appreciate the original game more than Kingdom Hearts 2. Before I wrap up, I want to point out that none of this makes Kingdom Hearts 2 a bad game. It is a very solid action-RPG that I would wholehearted recommend. It is good even by the standards set by other games in the series. It is simply that I feel it began this trend in the franchise that I do not like. That is why I wrote this article and why, despite my liking the game, I cannot help but be bothered by it.