We're still amazed that Kingdom Hearts even exists. An action RPG that casts Goofy, Donald Duck and now Mickey Mouse fighting through multiple Disney worlds? Along the way, they interact with new characters and villains created by the developer/publisher of the Final Fantasy games?
This should never have happened, but it did. And it should never have been brilliant, even magical, but it was. So is this sequel, actually the third game in the series, after the PS2 original and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for Game Boy Advance. It's a whopping, 30+ hour fantasy epic filled with familiar gameplay: evil critter thwacking, spell-casting and Disney universe-touring.
Or is it? KH2 actually makes some big changes; most of which involve clubbing bad guys. The first game's mind-numbing scavenger hunts are out - there's not a Dalmatian puppy or Trinity Mark in sight - but a heavily retooled combat system is definitely in.
Almost every level is home to a new character who subs in for Donald or Goofy, be it Simba, Tron, Beast, Mulan, Jack Skellington or another. Still more can be summoned for brief cameos: Chicken Little, Genie, Stitch and Peter Pan. Most of those folks come with special team-up moves they can do with Sora, such as Mulan's dragon-powered meteor storm of blazing fireballs, or Stitch's oddly dangerous ukulele strumming.
Sora also boasts a newfound ability to literally merge with Donald and Goofy to take on different forms. Among them: the brawling, dual-wielding Valor Type, the skate-footed, spell-blasting Wisdom Type, or the better-than-both Master Type. These are timed gigs, but the forms' enhanced firepower has the potential to satisfy in a big, bloodthirsty way.
The final new spice in the combat stew is a very heavy dose of enemy-specific special attacks, which crop up at the proper time and which Sora can trigger with a quick press of the triangle button. These are the moves that enable you to take a ten-foot-tall knight's massive sword and clobber him with it, or to run up the leg of a King Kong-sized monster and stab the freaky dude sitting between its shoulder blades.
The amazing thing is that Kingdom Hearts II also does all sorts of things that would earn any other game a good kicking. It's just that you don't care.
You don't care that the story starts with a huge swerve (see our giant preview), stalls almost completely for a good 20 hours, then comes back with a hopelessly convoluted vengeance in the last ten action-packed hours of the game. Because when it does come back, you may have no freakin' clue what's going on, but the few things you do understand get you all misty-eyed.
You don't care that combat is often such a manic, camera-swerving lightshow that you literally can't see yourself. Because during the moments in which you can see, you can do things like jump on the back of a cyborg T-rex, ride him like a bull until he swan-dives headlong into the ground, then bludgeon his still-fighting-but-now-headless body to death with a giant key.
You don't care that, as the fabric of the universe is shredding all around you, you're taking time off to sing rhythm-action tunes with a mermaid or yank a honey pot off Pooh-bear's head, because it's just so damn earnest and fun. You don't care that actress Mena Suvari sounds all wrong as the voice of Final Fantasy VII's lovely Aerith, because her game-mate Tifa is a total hottie.
You don't care that a few of the boss battles are straight-up lame (attention Jafar, Xaldin, Luxord and hyenas: you suck), because the rest of them rock. You've teamed with Final Fantasy X's one-armed samurai Auron to pummel Hades about the head and shoulders. That was after you swooped through the sky upon Pegasus' back, hacking away at the hydra's many viperous heads, but before you summoned Chicken Little to hurl a barrage of baseballs, first-person shooter-style, at an undead buccaneer.
You don't even care that you have to jump into your Gummi spaceship and blast your way through another old-school, outer space shoot-out, because except for the way your ship often blocks your view of your targets, they're pretty fun. You also don't care that you have to revisit almost every world, because you get to hang with Disney's heavies, including Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow, Tron and black & white Mickey Mouse from his earliest days.
Ultimately, that's the dual strength of Kingdom Hearts II. It has a combat system that rewards the tactical ninja without leaving the button-masher completely behind (three difficulty levels, folks), and it has characters who can easily surmount every shortcoming the game displays. KHII has that same magic the first Kingdom Hearts had. It puts the "fan" in "fan service," but also in "fantasy" and "fantastic," and there may never be another series like it. Play it.