By Geoff Keighley
Updated September 20, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Back in the day, Walt Disney was a pretty creative guy. But even Uncle Walt might have been hard-pressed to dream up the surreal concept behind Kingdom Hearts. In this wildly ambitious game (from the creators of the best-selling Final Fantasy series), a hundred of the Mouse House’s most beloved characters take part in a young boy’s epic journey through nine Disney worlds.

You play Sora, a spiky-haired teenager — voiced by Haley Joel Osment — who is abruptly separated from his two friends when a catastrophic storm strikes their tropical-island home. Before long, it becomes clear that a rogue’s gallery of Disney villains is behind this meteorological mayhem — which coincides with the disappearance of King Mickey from the Disney castle.

Rather serendipitously, Sora, now in search of his chums, meets up with Goofy and Donald, who are looking for their circle-eared master. Deciding to join forces, this trio’s adventure spans the lush jungles of Tarzan, the shimmering underwater world of The Little Mermaid, and even the shadowy scenery of The Nightmare Before Christmas. We should point out that the first Disney characters don’t appear until an hour or so into the game. And even then, you’ll have little control over them: When Sora finally meets up with Donald Duck and Goofy, they tag along as computer-guided sidekicks. Together, this unlikely fellowship battles the Heartless, a group of merciless adversaries controlled by the Disney villains.

This cross-pollination of Disney characters is a fascinating experiment. Here you can see the wicked queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs plotting with Jafar from Aladdin. What could have been a kitschy train wreck of a concept works surprisingly well on a creative level. This is largely due to excellent animation and voice-over work, though it’s also a tribute to the universality of Disney’s cartoon creations.

Much less successful, however, is a poorly conceived in-game camera system that often gets stuck behind objects and orients itself in the wrong direction. Time and again, you’ll wish that the camera would perform one of those David Fincher shots and fly through obscuring impediments. But it doesn’t, and the finicky system ends up being the beast that burdens an otherwise beautiful game.

STRATEGY To battle the secret boss Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII, complete the Hollow Bastion world. Then return to Olympus Coliseum and talk to Phil. Beat the Gold Cup and then enter the Platinum Cup.