Keyblades, Disney worlds, Final Fantasy cameos, a complicated story — these are just a handful of aspects that have made Kingdom Hearts so beloved. But this series is also known for its really engaging action RPG combat.
With the release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue just around the corner, now is as good a time as any to revisit Kingdom Hearts II's stellar battle system. Many people consider the Final Mix reissue to be the best game in the series, and I’m inclined to agree, with players particularly blown away by the game's fantastic sense of flow.
Now, I obviously haven’t played every video game ever made, but I can safely say that I’ve never quite seen anything like the combat in Kingdom Hearts II. So much care and effort went into every element of Sora’s control, the boss design, and how it all comes together.
The gameplay does garner criticism for being a button mash to win, and honestly, that is true — at least, on the lower difficulty levels. When played on Proud and Critical mode (essentially, the Kingdom Hearts equivalents of "hard" and "expert'), the game becomes a completely different beast. But there are a host of other elements that make the overall gameplay topnotch.
Any good action game relies on how well the main character controls. I’m happy to say that Sora controls like an absolute dream. He’s fast, fluid and super responsive to player inputs.
Kingdom Hearts II gives Sora a dizzying array of movement and combat options. In his base form, Sora is gifted with an impressive jump and a really useful guard attack. However, through leveling up his Drive Form transformations, Sora gains access to these forms’ advanced movement capabilities.
By the end of the game, Sora will be able to perform the dodge roll, quick run (an advanced dodge), high jump, aerial dodge (which also functions as a double jump) as well as a high-speed glide maneuver. Each of these moves is essential for defeating some of the tougher bosses in Kingdom Hearts II, as many of them require the player to have a quick reaction time.
Kingdom Hearts II allows players a degree of freedom over how they play. In addition to the abilities gained from leveling up and story progression, each Keyblade gives Sora an additional skill. For example, one player could create a load-out that is much more magic focused, prioritizing abilities such as MP Haste and Thunder Boost.
On the other hand, Sora could be given a load-out that gives increased damage to combo finishers, or even one that exclusively uses finishers through the use of Negative Combo and Finishing Plus. While some bosses may require a more specific strategy (Demyx comes to mind), players are mostly left to their own devices when choosing how to customize Sora.
The Power Of The Keyblade
The bulk of Kingdom Hearts II’s combat gameplay focus on Keyblade melee combos. Sora starts out with a simple three-hit combo, consisting of two normal strikes and a powerful finisher. As the game progresses, Sora will gain access to a number of different combo finishers and modifiers, and each of these has their own uses in different situations.
In addition to melee attacks, Sora also has many magic spells at his disposal. While he does have the standard Fire, Blizzard and Thunder spells, he also has rarer magic, such as Reflect and Magnet (pro tip: Reflect is your best friend). Similar to Keyblade attacks, Sora’s magic also has finisher versions. Mixing magic spells into your standard combos is a ton of fun, and the right combination can do serious damage to bosses.
In keeping with the series theme of friendship, Sora has a handful of summons that he can call on. While every summon has their own unique Limit Break attack, the majority of them act as passive abilities for Sora. These abilities can range from automatically parrying attacks, temporarily stunning enemies, and drawing enemies in closer to Sora. The one catch with summons is the fact that it requires Sora to temporarily relinquish both of his party members.
Sora can activate special transformations known as Drive Forms, and much like summons, these require Sora to give up one or both of his teammates. But with Drive Forms, the payoff is well worth it. With the exception of Wisdom and Limit Form, each of the Drive Forms give Sora a second Keyblade, complete with its unique ability. Drive Forms also drastically increase Sora’s speed and damage output.
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While Drive Forms can, at times, seem really powerful, most of them have one or two drawbacks that make using base Sora the best option, especially when you remember that he can inherit certain abilities from these forms. The melee-focused Valor Form can’t use any magic, including Cure, while Master and Final Form can’t perform the guard (though this often doesn’t matter for Final). Drive Forms can be a huge asset in battle, but mastering base Sora should definitely be a priority.
One of the coolest aspects of Kingdom Hearts II’s boss design is the Revenge Value system. At its most basic, Revenge Value is a system that prevents players from infinitely combo-ing bosses. Each boss has their own Revenge Value counter, and this counter is filled by using finishing moves on them.
When their Revenge Value has been met (each boss has their own unique value), they will automatically break out of the combo, and retaliate with an attack of their own. Revenge Values serve not only to discourage players from overextending combos, but also to encourage them to carefully observe attack patterns. There’s a ton more that goes into Revenge Values, more than I could reasonably write, so check out the in-depth video below.
Bosses consist of giant Heartless and Nobodies, and more normal human-sized ones. Giant bosses are much more spectacle than skill, which I don’t think is a bad thing. But normal bosses are a completely different story (special mention to Roxas and the Lingering Will, my to two favorites).
These encounters are a lot like playing a traditional fighting game. Many of the terms and skills that go into competitive fighting, such as spacing, active frames and recovery frames, can just as easily apply to Kingdom Hearts II.
Boss fights are an intense series of dodges, block strings, combos, and most importantly, observation. The key to success against Kingdom Hearts II’s bosses is paying close attention to how they move, weaknesses in their attacks and how many combo finishers it takes to trigger their Revenge Value.
Even when you have these patterns memorized, you will still be required to have acute reflexes. Kingdom Hearts II’s bosses may ask a lot of the player, but the challenge always feels fair.
When it comes to video games, I’m a huge proponent of getting good, and I don’t even play Dark Souls. Although it takes hours of practice, mastering a game’s mechanics is a ton of fun for me. One of my favorite parts of Kingdom Hearts II was learning the ins and outs of the battle system, and then applying this knowledge to the boss fights.
The Lingering Will, one of the Final Mix exclusive secret bosses, requires the player to have total mastery over Sora’s moveset, and the feeling of defeating him for the first time was one that few other games have given me. It wasn’t a feeling of exasperation from repeated defeats, rather, it was an expression of great excitement and joy at finally overcoming the challenge.
A testament to the great craftsmanship that is Kingdom Hearts II’s battle system has to be the fact that players are expected to beat the game at level one. Critical mode, in addition to having enemies inflict double damage, gives Sora an ability called EXP Zero. As the name implies, this takes away his ability to gain experience. Kingdom Hearts II is a game that is still perfectly beatable at level one, and seeing people do perfect runs of the Lingering Will is a sight to behold.
Mark Of Mastery
Kingdom Hearts II’s battle system is a masterpiece. The amount of detail that went into every aspect of the game is incredible. The way players can mix and match Keyblade skills, Revenge Value, Drive Forms, movement options — I could go on and on about the things this game does right.
This is a game series that is, understandably, a little intimidating to get into. But I promise that the beauty that is Kingdom Hearts II is well worth the effort, especially if you’re a fan of high-speed action, fighting games or just simply mastering a game’s mechanics.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is set for release on January 12, 2017. Check out the trailer below and tell me what you think about Kingdom Hearts II in the comments section below.