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Review: Magic returns in 'Kingdom Hearts II'

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service

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"Kingdom Hearts II" combines exploration, puzzles and action.

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Combine role-playing game action with familiar cartoon characters and you'll end up with "Kingdom Hearts II," a fantastic sequel to 2002's best-selling Sony PlayStation 2 game.

As with the original title, this Japanese-made adventure is an odd yet successful fusion of more than a 100 Disney characters -- such as Donald Duck, Scar (from "The Lion King"), Mulan, Chicken Little and Stitch (from "Lilo & Stitch") -- with some of the stars from the "Final Fantasy" games, along with new heroes, too.

The story picks up where its predecessor left off: Sora, voiced by Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense," "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"), is a 15-year-old on a mission to find his best friend, Riku, who has mysteriously disappeared.

Sora wields a magical weapon known as the Keyblade, which also can unlock new worlds.

At the same time, Donald and Goofy vow to locate their missing king, Mickey Mouse.

Together, the adventurers travel through perilous lands and face nasty enemies such as the yellow-eyed Heartless creatures, the nimble Nobodies and a black-coated faction simply referred to as Organization XIII.

If you can get past the game's slow first two hours -- mainly tutorial missions and minigames that take place in Twilight Town -- you will find this cinematic tale an imaginative and rewarding one.

Familiar locations on your quest include those in famous Disney films, ranging from "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" to "Tron" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."

At one point in the game you'll even visit the black-and-white world of "Steamboat Willie," based on Disney's 1928 animated short starring Mickey.

You also will revisit recognizable Disney environments from the first "Kingdom Hearts" video game, including the worlds of "Aladdin," "The Little Mermaid" and "Winnie the Pooh."

Along with Osment, you may recognize other celebrity voices including James Woods ("Ghosts of Mississippi," "Salvador"), Christopher Lee ("Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"), Gwendoline Yeo ("Desperate Housewives," "24"), Ming-Na ("ER," "Mulan") and Zach Braff ("Chicken Little," "Scrubs").

"Kingdom Hearts II" combines exploration, puzzle-solving and plenty of combat sequences that pit Sora and friends against enemies who stand in their way.

The traveling troupe can brandish weapons, cast spells (such as fire or thunderbolts) or even summon creatures to aid in their fight.

Time your attacks properly by pressing the X button on the PS2 controller and you can create combos for a more effective offensive assault, or team up with friends for a combo attack.

If you suffer damage, you can heal yourself or other members of your "party." Other role-playing game mainstays include the ability to upgrade character skills over time, finding and using armor and other accessories, and buying or selling items at shops throughout this adventure.

The Gummi ship returns in this sequel, which lets you travel from one world to the next. You can engage in shooting minigames while piloting the ship; defeated enemies often leave behind valuable healing orbs and other treasures. With the bundled editor, you also can customize your spacecraft with collected Gummi blocks.

"Kingdom Hearts II" is a beautiful and engaging fantasy game that provides a rich and lengthy journey for kids and kids at heart -- especially for those who hold Disney films in high regard.

The addition of stellar voice talent and an extraordinarily good musical score help make this cartoon quest even more worth the $50 price tag.

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