July 29, 2002 - Embracing the common perception that animation is an artform for children requires a certain ignorance of its history. The truth of the matter is that there was considerable diversity of styles and subject matter back in the early days of moving cartoons, particularly prior to the Hayes Code, and even Disney, now regarded as a bastion of the innocuous, produced some pretty heavy stuff. The fact that we usually just watch it when we're very young (and possessed of relatively undeveloped critical faculties) makes it easy to miss the fact that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a masterpiece of horror no matter what your age, or that Bambi is one of the most nihilistic films ever made.
Kingdom Hearts, the long-awaited collaboration between America's most famous animation studio and Japan's most famous RPG developer, draws just enough of its inspiration from the grim antecedents of Disney's modern work. It's not likely to scare its youthful players as badly as Sleeping Beauty hit me when I was five or so, but it nevertheless has a darker edge to it that may surprise you. It's more along the lines of Fantasia, that same sort of undirected, but still effectively foreboding imagery. Mix that with fast-moving action-oriented gameplay, very much in the tradition of Dewprism or Brave Fencer Musashi, throw in an excellent localization job, and it looks like we have a hit on our hands for this fall.
The localization is likely what you're interested in hearing about right now, since the import version of Kingdom Hearts has been around for some time now. The unfortunate thing for us, however, is that there isn't much to tell. It used to be that we could pick apart Square's English texts for hours, and make "spoony bard" and "I got a good feeling!" jokes for months or years afterward. Not so nowadays. Kingdom Hearts is so far as good or better than Final Fantasy X in this regard, which is more than enough to avoid significant complaint.
Haley Joel Osment occupies the lead role of Sora, youthful hero dragged into events beyond his ken and so forth, as well as you would expect. Honestly, he's the perfect choice for it -- his presence is only remarkable because we would never have thought such a famous name would deign to appear in a videogame. If Osment were playing the youthful hero in a Disney movie, who'd bat an eyebrow? But anyway, Hollywood's temporary loss is our gain. He's obviously quite comfortable in a voice acting role, and possesses both the range and precision to fill out the character with different shades of feeling.
Some of the supporting cast seems a little less sure -- Kairi's doesn't sound quite as effective in scenes opposite Sora -- but it's nothing to complain about. Riku is a somewhat more complex case, though, because he's one of the characters that sounds markedly different from his Japanese counterpart. His English voice isn't quite as deep, and his delivery is a little slower, perhaps in part due to the different cadence of the two languages. The effect is to make him seem less touched by the Dark Side, as it were, motivated more by curiosity than any darker impulse. Comprehension of his dialogue is probably also a factor, though.
As for the Disney crew, most of them are as expected. Characters like Goofy and Donald Duck are eternal. It's just a little funny to hear them speaking English after going to all that trouble to adjust to the bizarre experience of hearing them in Japanese. We're trying to work out exactly which of the more recent characters is voiced by their original actors, but it's difficult in some cases -- for example, how do you tell whether Captain Hook being played by someone new when you last saw Peter Pan sometime during the Reagan administration? We'll do our best to circumvent all the guesswork by picking up a complete cast list from Square in the near future.
The Square characters, meanwhile, most of them Final Fantasy refugees, may be a mixed bag from some points of view. Once you get to Traverse Town, they sound fine -- Yuffie's voice is so exactly suited to the character that I could have sworn she was always talking to me like this, Squall/Leon possesses the appropriately modulated degree of surl, and Mandy Moore plays a lovely Aerith (yes, the current version does espouse the Japanese usage). On the other hand, the different voices for the Final Fantasy X characters take some getting used to. Kid Wakka's accent isn't quite so heavy, which is a pity, because I quite liked it in its original for. It's nothing to get hung about either way, though, since those characters are little more than cameos. Indeed, the Destiny Islands crew appears to have had its role contracted in comparison to the Japanese version. Last I checked, a series of duels with Selphie, Tidus, and Wakka were required combat training, but they appear to no longer be a requirement for moving the plot forward. No complaints here, though, since the final three-on-one battle was a king hell pain in the neck.
To address the interests of the small cadre of J-pop fiends reading, yes, the game does open with an English version of Hikaru Utada's "Hikari" (specifically, the PlanitB dance remix), and yes, the translation is pretty loose. Viewed independent of the original, though, the English lyrics are about as inoffensive as pop lyrics get (the author doesn't mind them, anyway, which is saying something), and the tune is still remarkably catchy.
And while you're at it, there are plenty of movies covering the cast from the first two areas of the game. Those show up one of the game's faults, the fairly inaccurate lip-synching (a problem which also popped up in Final Fantasy X), but it's something that you get used to after a time, and the more cartoonish characters are obviously not afflicted (does Donald Duck even have lips?). This isn't the end of our coverage by a long shot, though -- stay tuned for exposure to many more of the game's worlds in the very near future.
-- David Smith