J.P. Mangalindan reviews ''Kingdom Hearts II.'' Plus: Gary Eng Walk grades a new title in the ''Ace Combat'' series

By Gary Eng Walk
Updated January 03, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

New titles in ”Kingdom Hearts” and ”Ace Combat”

Kingdom Hearts II
(Square Enix, Everyone, for PlayStation 2)

Four years ago Square Enix put out a game in which Final Fantasy‘s Cloud Strife mingled with Goofy. I thought they were crazy. Aerith and Ariel? Absurd. Wakka and Pinocchio? Impossible. But by fusing whimsical storytelling with action RPG elements (think Zelda), Kingdom Hearts was the perfect reminder of how it felt to be a giddy kid again.

The sequel, Kingdom Hearts II (seems Square Enix doesn’t count the Game Boy spin-off, Chain of Memories), introduces Roxas, a confused teenager who sees visions of the series’ earnest protagonist, Sora. Featuring an all-star voice cast including Haley Joel Osment and Mandy Moore, the game pays homage to Disney classics of yore (Tron, Steamboat Willie) and virtually every other single Disney staple (Pirates of the Caribbean) with faithfully recreated stages.

Unfortunately, that’s where the fairy tale ends. While KHII‘s story and flawless presentation (no camera problems here) ease gamers through the lengthy 30-hour quest, the undercooked gameplay makes it unlikely they’ll touch the game again. It’s just too easy: lock onto your target and mash the X button as needed. Heal and repeat. This isn’t fun — it’s tedious. KHII‘s formula isn’t quite right, but if the creators work out the kinks and ramp up the difficulty level, maybe the third time will be a charm. C+J.P. Mangalindan

(Namco Bandai Games, Teen, for PlayStation 2)
Few official Top Gun games have landed on consoles over the years, and the rare ones that have emerged often end up crashing and burning on arrival. Consequently, thrill-seeking flyboys have turned to the Ace Combat series whenever they feel the need…the need for speed. Zero sets you in the cockpit of a fleet of fighter jets for various harrowing missions, and you earn your wings by taking out squadrons of enemy aircraft and strategic ground targets. As with previous Ace Combat games, the sensation of flying at super-sonic speeds is missing — especially at high altitudes, with no points of reference to tell the brain that you’re traveling wickedly fast. Even at full throttle, there were times when I thought I was piloting the Goodyear blimp instead of a F/A 18 Hornet.

Nevertheless, Zero manages more than a few worthy feats, including some never before seen in previous Ace Combat games. At long last, you can engage the enemy alongside a wingman — although that buddy needs to be on the same console, since there still isn’t a true online mode. Most welcome is the addition of ”Rival Aces” — enemy fighter pilots who swoop in randomly from out of nowhere during your campaigns. More menacing than those faceless Commies in Top Gun, Rival Aces can instantly turn a seemingly easy mission into an epic white-knuckle dogfight. Surviving one of these encounters is extremely satisfying — if only this game let you buzz the tower in celebration. B-Gary Eng Walk