The Square Enix booth is bustling at E3, and one of the goodies it has on offer is a playable version of Kingdom Hearts II, which we eagerly parked ourselves in front of for a nice, long session.
Two areas were covered in the playable demo, the snowy villages and mountainsides of the kingdom based on Mulan, and the dark subterranean caves that Hades prowls through in the Coliseum world based on Hercules. The amount that we could wander around was a bit limited, but we got into lots of combat and got to test out both Sora's new moves, as well as some of his linked abilities with story characters.
Settling into Kingdom Hearts II's controls comes pretty quickly. The circle button is jump, the X button swings your keyblade, and the square button can be used to try to dodge or block incoming attacks. As you move through an area, enemies will periodically spawn out of thin air, and you'll hack them to pieces to collect the small spheres that replenish your health and mana or get you munni. Much like in the first game, moving the left analog stick up while using the attack button will cause Sora to attack anything that might be in the skies, and you can juggle enemies midair with multiple attacks from your party members.
A new addition is the reaction command option, which is triggered by certain actions of your enemies. When a reaction command is available, you'll see both the name of the command on the top of your onscreen battle menu (such as "bat battery") and a green triangle flashing from your foe. If you hit the triangle button at the right time, you'll be able to pull off some kind of cool move. Using reaction commands, we were able to execute some crazy aerial spinning attacks that we used to wipe out crowds of enemies. These came in really handy during the two boss battles we had the chance to experience.
The first boss we fought was in Mulan's world, and it was a giant Chinese dragon heartless that used powerful lightning magic. To defeat the dragon, we had to get up on its head and smash away at its two horns, which were the source of its power. This was not an easy task, considering the boss was constantly flying over the temple courtyard where the fight took place. The passage of its great wings caused wind vortices on the ground that we could use to boost our jumps with reaction commands to try to land on the back of the beast. Additionally, we could avoid getting tossed off by using reaction to clutch one of the dragon's tall spine ridges as it flipped in the air. If we got caught on the ground as the creature swooped toward us, using the reaction command at the right time let Sora duck dramatically so the monster passed harmlessly overhead.
The second boss we fought was one that will be familiar to those who played the original Kingdom Hearts: Cerberus, Hades' huge three-headed lapdog. Attacking the three toothy heads for long enough put Sora in a position where he was able to brace himself on two of the heads. Then we used reaction commands to knock the center head in the air, leap high, and deal that head a crushing blow. From the amount we played, it seems obvious that reaction commands are going to be a critical part of fighting in Kingdom Hearts II.
We also got to run around with two story characters, Mulan, herself, and Auron, the gruff, red trenchcoat-clad guardian from Final Fantasy X. When we were fighting with Auron, an option was added to the menu called bushido. Selecting this option triggered a joint attack by Sora and Auron that cut a large swathe through nearby foes. When that attack was finished, we were able to use the reaction command button to pull off an additional two attacks with Auron alone: shooting star and banishing blade. (Final Fantasy X fans will recognize these as names of some of Auron's special overdrive attacks in that game.) These attacks were powerful and showy, and they let us obliterate even more foes.
The game looks to be coming along quite well visually, with clear and bright designs and clean environments and animation. The large boss monsters, in particular, looked impressive, along with their swift and powerful attacks. At one point as we were climbing the snowy slopes in the mountains of Mulan's world, a Hun appeared on the horizon, summoning a mob of heartless on a ridge that then spilled down toward us. We ended up fighting a great mass of enemies at one time, with more of them milling on the periphery, crowding our sight. The game kept a nice steady frame rate through all the action. The camera is adjusted with the right analog stick this time around, and it seemed fairly responsive, though we accidentally adjusted the angle too low a few times. When we left it alone, it kept up with Sora just fine.
We didn't get to see hide nor hair of the Pirates of the Caribbean world, which will feature Captain Jack Sparrow, but what we did see shows that the game is coming along nicely. Reaction commands add a nice reactive facet to battle, and the linked character attacks are very useful.
Keep up to date with the latest games news, reviews and features by signing up to CNET.com.au's free Games Spotlight weekly newsletter. Sign up now!