We received an interesting surprise this past Friday when Square Enix dropped by the office with a playable version of its upcoming action/RPG Kingdom Hearts II. Though it still wasn't in English, the build (which is the same disc that will be used for an upcoming Japanese publicity event) did manage to provide several new revelations that we didn't know about before -- namely some significant changes to the gameplay, costumes, and camera system. We can tell you already, however, that fans of the first title are going to be pleased.
Of course, the biggest reason that veterans of the series will be so happy is probably because of the brand new camera system -- which is now controlled via the right analog stick instead of the shoulder buttons. A sore point for players the first time around, the previously twitchy camera was generally considered to be the original title's biggest and most obvious flaw. Keep in mind, though, that at this point maneuvering your character's angle hasn't been perfected yet; as it still gets caught behind walls in confined areas and doesn't always move as quickly as it should. Even so, it's a lot more responsive than it was before and feels a lot more intuitive than last time too. This aspect of the game isn't even close to being finished, however, so it should make RPG fans happy to know that the developers are listening to consumers and are working towards correcting this issue as soon as possible.
One new feature that did appear to be working like it was supposed to, on the other hand, was the helpful gameplay mechanic known as the 'Transformation Drive' (temporary title). Initially presented as an extra gauge near Sora's health loop, the transformation drive is increased when players collect orbs from fallen enemies much like his health and magic do. Once activated, it allows Sora to fuse with another member of his team to create an uber version of himself that possesses additional powers, abilities, and so forth.
In the build we sampled, for example, Goofy was the only other character that we could merge with -- producing a crimson-clad version of Sora with a keyblade and sword that allowed him to deal double the damage he normally would with both arms. When this happens, Goofy disappears from the party altogether until the gauge runs out; and despite the fact that players lose a team member, Sora's additional powers more than make up for it.
Another welcome gameplay addition was the inclusion of a better combo structure that allows players to perform more effective attacks on a multiple enemies. Sporting weapon-specific combinations and chain attacks, and the ability to juggle your opponent plays a key role in handling a swarm of enemies (as it lifts you off the ground with the bad guy and therefore, keeps you out of danger down below). Even at this early point, the combat system appears to be much quicker, far deadlier, and a lot more responsive than it used to be -- with some of the keyblades from the first game already available in the sequel. Unfortunately, representatives from Square Enix were unsure if our save from Kingdom Hearts 1 would make a difference in this regard -- so we'll just have to wait and see.
Storyline specifics were pretty sparse, but over the course of the areas we explored (the Olympus Coliseum, Cave of the Underworld, and Beast's Castle), we did run into several familiar faces from both the previous game and earlier movies -- Hercules, Cassandra, Hades, Beast, and a few other supporting characters made appearances in full force; with Goofy's nemesis Pete serving as one of Hade's key lieutenants and Final Fantasy X's Auron weighing in as a key character.
In fact, Auron appears to have a pivotal role in the storyline when (*spoiler*) he's called up by Hades from the Farplane to defeat Sora and his friends. Sadly for Hades, Auron quickly turns on his would-be master by proudly proclaiming that this is "his story" before taking a few slices at the giant blue bastard of death. Immediately afterwards, Sora and crew runs into help Auron in his nasty boss battle, followed by another epic struggle against everyone's favorite three-headed dog, Cerberus. Later on, we traveled to Beast's Castle and were greeted by a rather unresponsive and silent Beast who was protective of a magical rose housed in glass. After solving a puzzle or two and exploring the castle's grounds, we battled a haunted doorway mid-boss and our demo came to an end.
Once the experience was out of the way, we found ourselves more than pleased with what we had just seen. Though we had only spent an hour with the adventure thus far, the abundance of new enemies, subtle gameplay changes, and effective camera reconfiguration was more than enough to get our excitement retained from the original going again. Our only real concern at this point is that it seems that Kingdom Hearts II could end up in a similar boat to that of Final Fantasy X-2; that is, re-using a lot of the backgrounds and areas from the first game all over again. Whether or not that will turn into a legitimate concern by the time the game hits our shores in the winter of 2005, however, remains to be seen.