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Sora with a keybvlade in Beast's castle in Kingdom Hearts II

As we get ready for the release of Kingdom Hearts III**, we continue our look at the previous games in the series.**

Kingdom Hearts II came out for the PlayStation 2 in 2005. For fans of the Final Fantasy and Disney crossover, the wait felt a lot longer than a minor three years. Considering how long we’ve been waiting for the third console installment, three years seems like nothing.

Kingdom Hears II picks up right where Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and also 358/2 Days, leave off. What makes things interesting is that you play through the game’s introduction as Roxas. This is all fairly confusing as, since Kingdom Hearts II came out before 358/2 Days who Roxas is or why he's important has not yet been explained. Even once that's made clear, why Sora is where he is requires having played Chain of Memories to understand.

Eventually, it’s explained that Roxas not only isn’t the hero of the new game, he barely exists. Roxas is inside a digital recreation of a place called Twilight Town so that the part of him that is needed to restore Sora’s memories can be harvested. Once completed, Sora awakens outside of the town, with no memory how he got there.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy then discover that they were not as successful as they thought in stopping the Heartless. On the hunt for Mickey Mouse and Riku the trio travels to another set of Disney worlds, some we’ve seen before (Agrabah, Hercules’ Coliseum) others that we have not, (Tron, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mulan).

The new worlds are the high point of Kingdom Hearts II. Entering the world of Tron was a particular favorite of mine, and the fact that Bruce Boxleitner would reprise his role, five years before returning to for Tron: Legacy, is especially cool.

While it’s not too surprising that Square Enix couldn’t afford to pay Johnny Depp to return to play Captain Jack Sparrow (or any of the rest of the Pirates of the Caribbean cast for that matter), it does keep that particular level from feeling quite as special. The soundalikes don’t do a terrible job, but they are clearly soundalikes. Other new characters to the series, like Mulan, are voiced by their original voice actors

Most of the same Final Fantasy characters return for Kingdom Hearts II, though we also get to meet Final Fantasy VII’s Tifa and Final Fantasy X’s Auron for the first time. Auron becomes the first Final Fantasy character to join your party, though his appearance is far too brief.

Things get more confusing on the plot when we learn that the villain that our heroes thought they vanquished in the first game, Ansem, actually wasn’t at all who they thought. First, the person they fought wasn’t a person, but actually a Heartless of the person. Second, the person wasn’t actually Ansem at all, but somebody who only claimed to be Ansem.

In actuality, the villain of the entire Kingdom Hearts series is a man named Xehanort. In the first Kingdom Hearts, you defeated his Heartless. In Kingdom Hearts II your main villain is Xenmas, the Nobody of Xehanort who is also the leader of Organization XIII.

As with most game sequels, Kingdom Hearts II succeeds by sticking with the parts of the game that worked and polishing those parts that did not. Combat is even faster and more fluid. More enemies can appear on screen at once, making some of the battles just absolutely massive. Sora fights entire armies largely by himself.

The newest addition to the game is the Drive system, which allows Sora limited access to new abilities. These abilities can be leveled up, giving Sora new permanent abilities as well. Reactions are also a common addition to major battles, which are essentially quick time events but of a sort that often requires much faster reflexes.

There are a few tweaks to the gameplay that are a little less successful. While you still have a limited pool of magic, as one would expect, it no longer refills by picking up dropped orbs as it did in the first game. Orbs to fill your Drive meter have largely replaced magic. Instead, you simply use your magic down to zero and then the meter will begin a slow refill process. Once it is full again, you can use it.

Cure spells take all your magic, which means there’s a natural refresh rate between when you can heal yourself unless you have a lot of potions. This adds a new layer of strategy to your combat. Your NPC party members are also capable of healing you of course, but you can rarely count on that.

I’m not a huge fan of this change, though certainly, tastes will differ. There are ways to use magic in strategic ways, any amount of magic will give you the full effects of a cure spell, so using most of your magic bar for attack, followed by a quick cure at the end is almost like using twice the magic.

My replay of Kingdom Hears II that I undertook recently might actually be the first time I’ve played it since I originally beat it on the PlayStation 2. While I could have recited the story of the first game from memory, many of the details of this one felt new.

In the end, this is probably good, as I’m getting ready for Kingdom Hearts III, to get the events of the previous games clear in my mind. The lore isn’t actually quite as confusing as I had first felt, though exactly why we had to have multiple characters using the same name is still not clear. It seems to be adding complexity only for complexities sake.

At the end of the day, Kingdom Hearts is ultimately a JRPG, so we should probably expect those sort of things.

By the end of Kingdom Hearts II, both the Heartless and the Nobody of Xehanort have been defeated and Sora, Riku and Kairi have returned home. Things appear to be at peace, but then Sora gets a letter from Mickey Mouse and, while we aren’t told what it says, it clearly means the story isn’t over yet.

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