Combine an all-star group of Disney characters with combatants from Final Fantasy, and you get Kingdom Hearts II (Buena Vista Games/Square Enix; PS2; Game •••, Graphics/Sound •••••). It's an epic, action-heavy romp. But before you get to the good stuff, you've got to suffer through the prologue - four mind-numbing hours of dialogue-heavy cut-scenes and lame gameplay. Endure that, and you'll reprise your role as Sora, keeper of the Keyblade, a magical weapon that opens portals to beautifully recreated locales from Disney flicks like The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. With Donald Duck and Goofy by your side, it's your job to hack 'n' slash your way through the monstrous minions of Sleeping Beauty's evil sorceress, Maleficent.
Your exploits also take you to locales from Disney's live-action features. In the computer world of Tron, Sora and friends sport the film's neon-lit spandex when they face off against Sark, the Master Control Program's main enforcer. And when you dock at Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean, you'll get a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vibe when you swashbuckle with the realistically rendered scalawag Jack Sparrow.
But the highlight has to be the 1928 world of Steamboat Willie, the cartoon that made Mickey Mouse a household name. Here, Donald and Goofy revert to the black-and-white, retro-chic look of their animated debuts. The sound of a running film projector in the background heightens the old-school atmosphere.
Kingdom Hearts II also earns major kudos for its voice cast. James Woods, Ming-Na, and Zach Braff reprise their movie roles as hot-headed Hades, gender-bending Mulan, and paltry poultry Chicken Little.
And though Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy aren't here, you won't miss them when spot-on soundalikes fill in for Genie and Mushu. Despite primo production values, gameplay tends to be just an exercise in button mashing. But the countless cameos are a kick. And whether you're 14 or 40, you'll take Kingdom to heart.
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