Amidst the cacophonous backdrop of E3, with all of this year’s new hardware announcements, with all the techno-catchphrases and industry jargon flying around, and with the overload of next-gen eye-candy getting most of the headlines, you’d think it would be easy to overlook Kingdom Hearts II. But then you generally don’t overlook a game that has, between its PlayStation 2 debut (Kingdom Hearts) and its GBA follow-up (Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories) sold over five million copies worldwide, making it Square-Enix’s third most bankable franchise behind Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Plus, when the director of Kingdom Hearts was also the character designer for Square’s seminal RPG, Final Fantasy VII (which sees a true “sequel” emerge in the form of a 100-minute CG movie later this year), you know this is a man worth listening to.
Enter Tetsuya Nomura. While he wasn’t giving online interviews at this E3, he made an exception for 1UP. In fact, he summoned us to his court like Cloud summons Shiva. Consider 1UP.com your own personal Gilgamesh. During our hour-long interview with Nomura-san, we discussed all things Kingdom Hearts II and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. This is one interview you don’t want to miss. Dig in, hang out and enjoy.
1UP: The battle system is much deeper than in the first game. Battle formations, party arrangements, diversity of attacks — it’s a much different beast than Kingdom Hearts version 1. What triggered such a vigorous reinvention of the combat?
Tetsuya Nomura: Obviously there was some user feedback that we have to keep in mind, but it wasn’t necessarily all of that. It also wasn’t necessarily all of everything I had thought to put in and is now suddenly included. It’s a good balance of user feedback and some of the things I’ve always wanted to put into what I’d call my “ideal” game. You can see that the Form Change, for example, in KH1 that was already an idea we had for the original, but due to timing constraints and some other reasons, we couldn’t put it in there. So now it’s idealized and realized in KH2.
And you know the ‘instant command’ action where you see the green triangle over an enemy’s head [signaling you to press the triangle button] was something I had thought about back in the Final Fantasy VIII days. But we knew that if we were to implement that, the number of motions and options was going to be something we couldn’t do because it was so much action, that we couldn’t do it in FFVIII. The Form Change that you see in KH2 gives it a different feel because in KH1, simply put, it could have been known as a simple straight-on attack to hit the enemies and that’s pretty much it. You’d still have your magic and other moves, but it was basically attacking and moving forward. In KH2 with the Form Change and commands it’s going to add a little more selection to the individual player and it’s pretty much up to you to build your own strategy, so that’s something we wanted to keep in mind going into Kingdom Hearts II.
1UP: The camera is a lot calmer now than it was in KH1, where it was the worst element of that game. Please explain how you cleaned up that aspect of the game for the sequel.
TN: Yeah, that’s another thing, as you said, that was pretty obvious from the user feedback, that we wanted to make some improvements to in KH2. But this system we have running at E3 is not the final, final version, so knowing that we’ve already come this far at this point, we’re pretty sure that we’re going to be able to implement something that’s going to be very attractive to the gamers.
1UP: In previous Kingdom Hearts, all the characters were existing characters that you were able to redesign in your own particular style. But in KH2 you’re now reinterpreting “real life” characters like Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. How do you approach designing characters who were never cartoons before?
TN: Actually there weren’t any sorts of challenges or difficulty; I wasn’t really conscious about bringing in real life Disney characters and mixing them up with Kingdom Hearts characters like Sora, Donald and Goofy. We already knew that Sora, Donald and Goofy and the Disney characters would remain the same way as in the previous Kingdom Hearts. And if you can see, take Roger Rabbit for example, there are those types of characters, the Sora and Disney type characters mixed in with the real human characters, even in the Disney world. So we didn’t really see it as a huge challenge; all we wanted to do was to make sure the quality of the human-like character was going to be close to or almost exactly the same to what we have been shown in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. In KH1 I think the Nightmare Before Christmas world was one of the unexpected worlds, but we knew that in order to wow our fans we needed to put something in that was more unexpected. So I would think that Pirates of the Caribbean has a bigger impact, and that it’s totally unexpected for Sora and his friends to come in touch with real human characters. And I’m just very picky and very detailed, so this time around for the E3 trailer, you only saw a few seconds of the Pirates characters and world where it was kind of dark, so you probably couldn’t pick up all the details. But if I showed you something that was more brightly lit, I think you would be even more surprised. And also, if I can add, most of our staff has worked on Final Fantasy all the way up to FFX. So if you look at FFX and the characters we used in that title, you can probably say we’re actually used to recreating more human-like characters than the ones you see in Kingdom Hearts, so for us it’s like working on something we’ve already mastered.
1UP: What sort of changes have you made to the Gummi Ship experience to make it more enjoyable for the players?
TN: As far as the Gummi Ship is concerned for KH2, it’s powered up a lot. I can definitely say we have gone without using any part of it from KH1. We’ve actually pretty much trashed everything that we created in KH1 and created a completely new system. A few things are that it’s improved in the speed and battle, in how you’re going to battle using the Gummi Ship. I think the tempo of the entire game during battles in the story of Kingdom Hearts is pretty fast-paced, so we’ve kind of blended in the speed of the Gummi Ship to match the tempo of the story in the battles that you can actually feel in the game. The concept is not based on a shooting game, but I feel like it’s closer to a Disney theme park ride, where it’s more like you’re going to not transport yourself from one place to another, but it actually gives you a sense of feeling that there’s some sort of story being accomplished. Not necessarily advancing the Kingdom Hearts story, but the Gummi Ship itself is going to have a little more ‘story’ each time to add to why you are using the Gummi Ship and How you are transporting yourself from one place to another. So all in itself the Gummi Ship has its own little world-like atmosphere. In KH1 you didn’t get that sense because the primary use was only to put yourself from place A to B; it was mainly a transportation system. And the enemies you’re going to be fighting in KH2 are designed differently than in KH1. Now the ships itself are built differently and you’re going to see some more mech-looking enemies. So that’s completely new too. And the variety of attacks you can do to the enemies is completely different. Same with the camera angles which you just mentioned. The user feedback on the Gummi Ship was not very well received on the original, so we completely upgraded and improved the Gummi Ship system.
1UP: Have you ever considered using the Gummi Ships that the users design in the real-time cutscenes? You know, like maybe the ship comes in to land somewhere and players can see the exact ship they’ve designed?
TN: I don’t know; maybe we haven’t reached that point where we can do that in development, but the Gummi Ship itself adds a little more story each time you take it. So in this way it’s already giving you a sense of dramatic feeling, maybe in a small way or a cute way, but it’s still there. And then when you’re on the Gummi Ship it’s going to have its own sort of camera work, which is automatic. You’re going to feel like you’re moving along this invisible rail. So within that you’re going to get this sense that you’re already in an event in itself, so hopefully that will satisfy players.
1UP: How would you describe Kingdom Hearts II’s plot versus KH1s? Would you say it’s more fully-realized, more epic in scale, more sentimental, etc.?
TN: With KH1 there was a conscious effort to not make the entire world too difficult. But then obviously if we went too simple just because it’s Disney, that wouldn’t be a very good Square-Enix-like game. That doesn’t really represent what we’re known for. So obviously there was a pretty deep and good base foundation storyline there, but I think in KH1 what we did was we only tried to bring out some of the deep elements up to the surface. Whereas in KH2, we’re going to bring even more to the surface, where you’re going deeper and deeper into the storyline. And the theme of the Kingdom Hearts story, which is ‘the heart,’ is hopefully going to bring out light at the end too. So at the same time you’re going in deeper to the story, hopefully that will bridge the gap between dark and light, which I think is basically both sides of having a heart. A heart will have darkness but it will always have light too. And the existence of “Nobodies” in KH2 is going to seem like it makes the story a little bit complicated, but we intended to make it that way. They actually play a pretty big role in KH2.
1UP: Kingdom Hearts came out around three years ago, and its original audience has grown proportionately. 12 year-olds are now 15, 15 year-olds are now 18. Would you say KH2 has matured with its fans?
TN: Yeah, hopefully it’s going at the same rate, but maybe a little bit more on our part, so maybe we’re a little more advanced.
1UP: Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories was something of an afterthought in that it wasn’t originally conceived as part of the story’s continuity. In hindsight, having gone through the development process of COM, would you say there was a side effect in developing that game that benefits KH2?
TN: There actually is one thing that came out of it. Well, there are actually many things, but one notable exception, a bigger one, was that we were able to make some new characters in Chain of Memories. So to continue them in KH2, we can have their existence be a little bit larger, and deeper. There are some episodes in KH2 for example that maybe wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t those newly introduced characters.
1UP: I know you delighted in defying expectations in the original Kingdom Hearts, i.e. everyone thought it was going to be a kids game because of the Disney connection, but it was a really tough game. Have you set out to reinforce that notion this time around or have you scaled it back a little to make it less difficult for younger players?
TN: In Japan as you may know, we released Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, and that actually had a difficulty level option. While KH2 may not have the same kind of option, since Final Mix development took place before we moved on to KH2, we may take that experience and implement it somehow. But we can’t reveal exactly what it’s going to be.
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