Having just recently emerged from a week in Florida's Magic Kingdom, awash in several double-shot pixie dust cocktails, I have to say: Donald Duck never seemed like a badass. Goofy looked like a likable fool, not a wise philosopher. And who knew that Mickey Mouse was so freakin' swift with a sword?
Square Enix and the suits at Disney, that's who. After a four-year delay, Kingdom Hearts 2 has become the third game to prove that Final Fantasy and Disney World are the unlikeliest pairing ever to produce an amazing videogame experience.
The action picks up not after the original Kingdom Hearts but after Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a little 2004 Game Boy Advance release that PS2-heads may have missed entirely. Thanks to some amazing cutscene work, enjoying and understanding Kingdom Hearts 2 isn't dependent on having played either of the games before it (although it sure helps). Suffice it to say that Sora, our keyblade-wielding main man, has had his memories zapped. To get 'em back, find Riku and Kairi, and restore order to the game's multiple universes, he'll hook up again with ... Donald, Goofy, and an exhaustive roster of Disney and Final Fantasy characters, all while avoiding the shady, hood-cloaked Organization XIII, Maleficent, and those shadowy Heartless that seem to pop up everywhere.
Confused? You won't be while playing. Kingdom Hearts 2 is an immense adventure that builds in deliberate, satisfying fashion. You'll play for nearly four hours before you even get to control Sora or encounter your first Disney character in something other than a memory flashback — and you won't even mind. The game parcels out information, special abilities, and magical attacks slowly, like a sweet allowance you've earned through hard-won experience.
As you gain that experience, you'll journey to some startlingly unexpected corners of the Disney universe. A black-and-white level based on Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon to ever feature Disney's front-mouse, even features the flickering sounds of a film projector whispering in the background. A world based on The Lion King is obvious, but giving players the chance to troll through the techno world of Tron on a lightcycle and hang with Captain Jack Sparrow? That's inspired.
So is the feeling of having jumped into the middle of an interactive Disney movie marathon. If the actor who voiced the original Disney character (James Woods as Hades, Ming-Na as Mulan, Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa) isn't on hand here, the stand-ins are such dead ringers for the originals, you'll never know the difference. That's less true for the Final Fantasy characters like Setzer and Seifer, who cameo, but make a weaker impression.
Additions like the ability to turn Sora into a dual--weapon-wielding hurricane and briefly borrow the powers of your new Disney pals add up to a vastly improved combat system, but it's still far too easy to pummel everything in sight on the game's standard difficulty setting — particularly when the game's new "reaction commands" clue you in to which buttons you need to be pressing and when. Timing-based combat cues work well in small doses (see God of War for an example of how they're done right) but not in a 40-plus-hour game. Luckily, there are enough new attractions, tricks, and combat transformations to try here that you may not even notice how easily you're winning. When you're fighting alongside King Mickey, Stitch, and Simba, a little button-mashing among friends is no big deal.
You can get Aaron R. Conklin to ride the Haunted Mansion and Splash Mountain all day long — even without a FastPass. Just don't ask him to go through KH2's Little Mermaid World again.