Interesting mish-mash of Disney, Japan

`Hearts': A new game beautifully weaves a tale involving classic Disney characters and `Final Fantasy' sensibilities.

September 26, 2002|By Mike Antonucci | Mike Antonucci,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

So far, I'm not cheating my way through Kingdom Hearts, a game that is touted to contain about 40 hours of play. That means I've sampled only a relatively small portion. Still, it's worth discussing.

No concise description does Kingdom Hearts justice, but its essence is a combination of Disney characters with the Japanese style of the Final Fantasy quest-and-battle game series on the Sony PlayStation 2.

The result is intriguing and beautiful, with parts that deserve to be called inspired. The game is smart and charming.

But it might fall a little short of being one of the year's best games, even if it's one of the most distinctive in many years.

I never thought the concept was weird, silly or doomed to awkwardness, although certainly there was a risk. Donald Duck in side-by-side action with introspective, sword-wielding characters designed by game director Tetsuya Nomura? The potential for unintentional looniness was clear.

Judging from my first few hours of immersion, however, the game is an amazingly effective mix of two fantasy cultures. A teenage boy named Sora is the pivotal character, and he provides much of the wistfulness - the musing about life and destiny - that gives the story a gentle spirituality amid lots of cartoon combat. Donald and Goofy are the principal Disney characters who supply the mirth while also contributing to the sense of adventure and purpose.

I'm reluctant to give away more. The game draws so deeply on other Disney characters and themes - and shows so much of a Final Fantasy influence - that it unfolds like a top-notch animated movie, with wonderful stretches that are just for watching, not playing. I won't spoil the revelations.

Therein rests a problem. The game action seems subordinate to the interlaced script. Indeed, the part's I've played so far are fairly pedestrian, heightening the sense that Kingdom Hearts is more a video experience than interactive entertainment.

The Japanese firm that collaborated with Disney is Square Co. LTD, best known for the Final Fantasy series.

The caveat that comes with this first look at Kingdom Hearts is that the game gets much better as it progresses, after a humdrum start. But that's no reason to pass it up, especially if you want to see many classic Disney characters used in a fascinating way.

One more assessment: The voice acting is terrific. Haley Joel Osment (from The Sixth Sense) is Sora in a cast with entertainers Billy Zane, David Boreanaz and Mandy Moore.

Information: www.kingdomhearts.com

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