The Kingdom Hearts series is well known for many different things. Keyblades, Disney worlds, Final Fantasy cameos and a complicated story, these are just a handful of aspects that have made the series famous. But Kingdom Hearts is also well known for really engaging action RPG combat.
Kingdom Hearts II (the Final Mix version specifically) is considered, by many, to be the best game in the series, and considering that it’s my favorite game of all time, I’m inclined to agree. Most people attribute the game’s high quality to it’s fantastic sense of flow, as Sora’s control is incredibly smooth and responsive in Kingdom Hearts II.
Part of what makes Kingdom Hearts II my favorite game of all time is it’s incredibly well designed and overlooked battle system. Now I obviously haven’t played every video game ever made, but I can safely say that I’ve never quite seen anything like Kingdom Hearts II’s combat. So much care and effort went into every element of Sora’s control, the boss design and how it all comes together.
Kingdom Hearts II’s gameplay gets a lot of criticism for being simply button mash to win, and honestly, that’s partly 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.
The basis of any good action game is how well the main character controls. I’m happy to say that Sora in Kingdom Hearts II 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 has access to a 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 quick reaction time from the player.
Kingdom Hearts II gives players a degree of freedom over how they play. In addition to the abilities gained from leveling up and story progression, each Keyblade in the game gives Sora an additional skill. For example, one player could create a loadout that is much more magic focused, prioritizing abilities such as MP Haste and Thunder Boost.
On the other hand, Sora could be given a loadout 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 the game with a simple three hit combo, which consists 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 different magic spells at his disposal. While he does have the standard Fire, Blizzard and Thunder spells, he also has less common magic such as Reflect and Magnet (pro tip, Reflect is your best friend). Similar to Keyblade attacks, Sora’s magic attacks also have 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.
Drive Forms can, at times, seem really overpowered. But 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 parts 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 comboing 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 here’s a link to a really in depth video.
Bosses in Kingdom Hearts II 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 favorite bosses).
If I had to pick one way to describe these encounters, I’d say that they 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 toKingdom 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, holes 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 and reaction time. 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 and 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.
Kingdom Hearts is a 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.