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No matter how hard I try to stay away, I always find myself coming back to Square Enix’s crossover masterpiece, Kingdom Hearts II. Ever since the initial release, something about the game had always stuck with me, and I didn’t even finish it when I got it on launch day. It was not until Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days was released on the Nintendo DS in 2009 that I found myself getting back into the series and eventually beating II when revisiting it. It was during this playthrough towards the end of 2009 that I truly felt entranced by this series, however II was the most fun I had through all of it. Because of my newfound infatuation with the series, in the subsequent years to come I had found myself saving up for the various systems the handheld games were being released on. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars and gameplay hours later, I still side with II as the absolute best in the series, in my opinion.
I’ve gone back to this game on so many occasions. I think I’ve beaten it at least five or six times at this point, and the western releases of the Final Mix version has only made the title infinitely better. Just from a purely mechanical standpoint, Kingdom Hearts II is incredibly deep. It expands on the combat from the first game to such an immense degree that it downright rendered it obsolete. The malleability of the gameplay is exceptional; the abilities Sora gains can allow you to enhance his combat potential and mobility in ways that other games dream of achieving. I wish the game used these movement mechanics more effectively, as Kingdom Hearts II was overall lacking in the exploration department (however this was remedied somewhat in the Final Mix version in the new Cavern of Remembrance location). III shows us massive worlds to explore beyond anything that has come before, but I just don’t know if the combat is going to feel as tight. I’m positive it will be an absolute blast no matter what, but I don’t think the gameplay is going to outshine its numerical predecessor.
The variation of worlds and their aesthetics is one of the best aspects of II’s presentation. To this day, it is my favorite world lineup in the series. There’s only two instances in the game where I genuinely lose interest in one of the worlds I’m going to, and it’s the Hundred Acre Wood and Atlantica worlds, as they are relegated to mini-games and poorly executed rhythm games. Other than that, the returning worlds from the previous entries don’t have me as fatigued as they did on subsequent replays of the other games, such as Halloween Town, Olympus Coliseum, and even Agrabah. The game even lets you visit the worlds in a second, and sometimes even third phase, giving a lot more meat to the experience. The initial playthrough of each world you visit is enough, though a bit lacking, but the feeling of underutilization disappears after the second visit. The only absolute true complaint I have with the worlds is the lack of verticality, platforming and puzzles.
The bosses in the game are the high point of it. This goes without saying, as the combat system really gets to stretch its muscles here. There are only a handful of bosses on the standard difficulties that will really give you trouble, and I remember as a child having the roughest time with the now infamous Demyx boss fight. In my most recent playthrough of the game, I finished the fight with him in under two minutes on either my first or second try, knowing that using the Firaga spell was my ticket to ending the battle as fast as possible in my favor. I appreciate the combat and gameplay mechanics of this game more so nowadays than I ever did.
This is why Kingdom Hearts II is so enduring to me; I thought I had this game figured out back in 2006 when I was just button mashing my way through it, torturing my X button until the end credits were on the horizon. And I still did that on at least two other playthroughs. But recently, I tried experimenting with all of the tools that the game gave me, and toyed around with the combo system, which was a lot more complex than my eight-year-old self could ever fathom. Magic spells could be worked into combos, and this was news to me only about two years ago. This realization breathed new life into the game, and it made me more grateful for how smart the design was in this game compared to the previous ones. Games like Birth By Sleep are good entries in the series, but the boss design in those games, especially late game, are complete garbage due to unfair random retaliation and lack of enemy telegraphs. II avoided this with a system called Revenge Value, a system that I myself still do not fully understand, but I’m sure I will at some point on another playthrough in the future (just to give me something new to look forward to).
There’s always something new to peel back on with this game; mechanics that I didn’t know were there, attempting to do all the hidden bosses in the Final Mix version, and even just replaying the story always puts a smile on my face because the game just meant so much to me. I owe everything to Kingdom Hearts II, because without it, I wouldn’t have become so devoted to video games in general. The franchise has beat me over the head with the amount of money and time I’ve devoted to it and how long I’ve waited to play Kingdom Hearts III, but going back to II reminds me why I cared in the first place. Without the intrigue and the sheer amount of enjoyment this game gave me, I wouldn’t have been introduced to large scale RPGs like Final Fantasy and Persona and Dragon Quest, or hack and slash greats like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. I even became a bigger Disney fan for it.
The soundtrack of this game is undoubtedly the best in the series, with memorable tracks that I play consistently while I do my homework. “Working Together”, “Sinister Sundown”, and “The Other Promise” are just a small number of insanely memorable and effective tracks that have stuck with me since I first played this game. I’m seriously listening to “Working Together” as I am writing this piece.
I could literally go on and on about why this game is so amazing to me and the influence it’s had on me. I would be here for days. I could talk about how one day I plan on playing the game on Critical mode, its most intense difficulty, and then attempting Critical mode once more at Level 1. I could talk about how the game completely subverts your expectations in the first few hours if you had only played the first game and nothing else. I could talk about how the art has aged so incredibly well that the game is still visually gorgeous even today, but I feel as if those opinions and intentions are widely shared by a lot of Kingdom Hearts fans. I urge everyone who is into video games to at least play Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II (though Chain of Memories is more than necessary and is highly recommended to be experienced in some form for for story reasons) as they are truly incredibly designed games, especially the second one. If you haven’t tried them before, jump in. You’ll have a great time with Kingdom Hearts II whether you’re mostly mashing the X button, or if you’re looking into technically sound gameplay mechanics, Kingdom Hearts II is one of your absolutely best options.