When Yoko Shimomura left Square Enix and went freelance during Kingdom Hearts II‘s development period, many feared that the composer would choose not to return to the series as had happened with Nobuo Uematsu and Final Fantasy that same year. Such was not the case, of course, and fans got their wish when Shimomura was hired to score the sequel. One could be forgiven for thinking this automatically guaranteed a home run–after all, the original Kingdom Hearts is one of the finest game scores of Shimomura’s–or anyone’s–career. Unfortunately, the end result was decidedly mixed.
The resulting album has a number of strengths. It introduces a theme for the character Sora, something missing from the original, and the resultant track (creatively named “Sora”) is a heroic and upbeat anthem that, while brief, is a highlight. The Gummi Ship music has gotten an overhaul as well; a whole suite of driving, quirky, and often beautiful tracks (such as “Shipmeisters’ Rhapsody” and “Cloudchasers”) with the lovely counterpoint of “Shipmeisters’ Shanty” leading the way.
In addition, many of the best tracks from Shimomura’s score to the Game Boy Chain of Memories title have been carried over and upgraded, most notably the jazzy “Lazy Afternoons” and off-kilter “Sinister Sundown” tracks from Twilight town, and the “13th Struggle” battle theme for the mysterious Organization XII. Shimomura builds on this darkness , as well as themes she introduced on the Final Mix album, to conjure up a suite of intense battle music on disc 2 (“The Encounter,” “The 13th Dilemma,” “Sinister Shadows,” “Fight to the Death”), though the final battle (“Darkness of the Unknown) is sadly limp, lacking the choral majesty that made its predecessor so impressive.
On the other hand, much of the material from the original Kingdom Hearts is reprised, often without much modification. The worlds of Agrabah (“A Day in Agrabah,” “Arabian Dream”) and Halloween Town (“This is Halloween,” “Spooks of Halloween Town”) in particular feature music that is almost identical to the original tracks. Others, like “Rebuilding Hollow Bastion” feature new material added to tunes from the previous game, which often is a jarring contrast–half of “Rebuilding” is the ominous music that was a fan favorite, while the other half is upbeat and joyous! Fans and detractors of the Pirates of the Caribbean score will note with some amusement that the single cue from that score, “He’s a Pirate,” results in no less than three composer credits, including one for Hans Zimmer himself, but none for the score’s credited composer Klaus Badelt.
Some of the tracks are live recordings–the finale march (which features a lovely orchestral rendition of Sora’s theme) and reprises of “Hand in Hand” and “Destiny Islands” are spectacularly moving. On the other hand, the less said about the songs that begin Disc 2, the better: Howard Ashman is spinning in his grave. The obligatory title pop song is also disappointing, even when compared with its underachieving teenybopper predecessor.
One more thing of note is Takeharu Ishimoto’s synth programming; it’s very inconsistent, and occasionally downright poor. The result of this is that many of the returning songs from Kingdom Hearts are inferior to their predecessors (compare the Kingdom Hearts Final Mix version of “Disappeared” to the Kingdom Hearts II version for a good example). In addition, due to being squeezed onto two discs, many of the best songs loop only once instead of the industry-standard twice. One would think that, after its success, Kingdom Hearts II would be allowed the coveted three- or four-disc treatment, but this isn’t the case. Many songs are missing as well, most notably the flying carpet minigame theme (later released as “Arabian Daydream” in the Complete Box) and the lightcycle race theme (later released as “Byte Striking” in the Complete Box).
In the end, there’s enough good material to justify an album purchase, though the music is not anywhere near the home run that its prequel was. It’s not clear if this was a case of Shimomura being content to rest on her laurels, or if the development team insisted on the current sound. Either way, remarkable though the game itself is, on balance the music does leave something to be desired. The later Kingdom Hearts Complete Box expanded the soundtrack to four discs, with full loops and unreleased tracks, but it is harder to locate and far more expensive than the original release, and has the same problems with regurgitation, occasionally dodgy synth, and dreadful singing performances. Buy it if a solid extension of Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts style is enough to convince you to ignore subpar album presenation and synth, as well as considerable recycling from the first album, but don’t expect the same excellence as the earlier title.