It is bizarre how things can happen. Who really thought combining Disney and Final Fantasy together would ever work? Well, Shinji Hashimoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi thought of Disney, when they wanted to create something that could rival Super Mario 64 in both its freedom of movement in 3D, and the character himself. After a meeting between Hashimoto and a Disney executive in the elevator of their headquarters in Japan, they began the development of what would eventually become Kingdom Hearts in early 2000.
Kingdom Hearts has always had a special place in my heart, and if it hadn’t been for certain games in the series, I would never have gotten my degree in philosophy (this is actually true). I am also a huge fan of both Disney and Final Fantasy, despite both having plenty of ups and downs. So what better way to honor them, than by looking at all of the Kingdom Hearts games?
A game about the heart
After a dream sequence giving you choices on how you want to play the game, we find our playable hero, Sora, talking with his friends Riku and Kairi. Having been stuck on Destiny Island their whole life, they decide to create a float and visit other worlds. However, the night before they set sail, the island is consumed by darkness, and Riku and Kairi disappear before Sora’s eyes. After receiving a huge key for a weapon out of literally nowhere and dealing with a ginormous, dark creature, Sora is then warped away from Destiny Island as well, and lands in Traverse Town. Here he eventually meets up with Goofy and Donald, who are looking for King Mickey and the bearer of the Keyblade, which happens to be Sora. After introducing themselves to one another, they go out to look for the King and Sora’s friends in plenty of Disney worlds.
This is definitely a story about the power of the heart and it does get cheesy with it at times, which will be a bit cringeworthy, as well as adorable. However, one of my biggest gripes with this concept is that it tries to be smart about it as well, but does not always know how to be so. They talk about the heart in the most confusing ways, without even knowing really how to go in depth on it. “Heart” is basically a trump card that wins every argument, and when they try to be intelligent or creative about it, it doesn’t get a good balance. The lore is also a bit of a mess, but at least interesting, such as how heartless are simply people who have lost their hearts and they are now enemies we fight throughout the game. But then again: the tale of the 7 princesses includes one that is clearly not a princess without any elaboration. Even worse is the end-part that suddenly tells plenty of lore and backstory with no real purpose. It feels sloppy.
There is plenty of fan service for Disney-lovers, due to about 80-90% of the worlds being based on Disney-classics. From Alice in Wonderland to A Nightmare Before Christmas, you are bound to find areas that will put a smile on your face. Again, however, they vary in quality. Most Disney worlds just retell scenes from the movies in shallow ways that are more of a nod to fans than anything else. At least there are a few occasions where they get a bit more clever with it. My favorite is when Jack tries to use the heartless for the upcoming festival and I won’t spoil how he tries to get them to work. I just wish there weren’t only two segments of these.
Besides the fan service, we have our main characters. While they are for the most part likable and enjoyable, they are underdeveloped. They don’t really go through a lot of changes and when they do, such as with Riku, it feels forced. In general, the story has heart and some very powerful scenes, but it is not always smart with it despite how hard it tries to be so, and the fan service is just that. For Final Fantasy fans, you will find more in the gameplay department as there are incredibly few characters from the actual series in this one, for better or worse.
Story score: 5/10
And you thought NES RPGs could age poorly?
Since Square wished for a 3D, free-roaming style of gameplay, Kingdom Hearts became an Action-RPG, where both magic and melee-combat will play an important role. You choose your command from attack, magic, item, and interaction by scrolling between them with the D-pad or right analog-stick and pressing X. It is an odd system, but it works well. What makes this easier, is that you can assign magic and items to hotkeys, making the combat much smoother. The ability to lock onto enemies or auto-aim also helps.
You start off simple with few combat-abilities and some magical powers. While they won’t get too complicated, you will have a good amount of both spells that can be upgraded throughout the game, and abilities that you can equip your characters with, such as dodging and extra combos. Both magic and melee-combat will be important. They even complement each other, since attacking enemies, will give you back MP, which in turn makes it possible for you to cast magic such as cure. A smart move is that you will have to prepare for each battle, as you can’t customize your abilities when in combat. You can even only hold a certain amount of items, which makes relying on healing-items alone, impossible.
The RPG-elements, such as items and weapons to equip do feel limited due to them being infrequent both in shops and in the worlds. You oddly enough can’t sell weapons or materials, and I did not even bother with the item synthesis where you mix rare materials together for new items and equipment, since it would have made the game a terrible grind. It was luckily never needed, and the skills and stats characters eventually get through leveling up, makes it so you feel clear progress.
Supporting you throughout your journey are two AI characters. At first, you start off with the mage Donald and the fighter Goofy. Both are good supporters and you can tweak their behavior to your liking, which is really helpful. You will also meet other characters that can join you on your adventure in their respective worlds, such as Tarzan in the Deep Jungle, and Jack in Halloween Town. While this is a good idea and each character has their own unique moves, what kills this is the trinity-move. The trinity-moves are context-sensitive moments that can reveal hidden secrets and can only be activated with both Donald and Goofy being present. Since you can only have two persons accompanying you, adding the new character might unfortunately not be a good idea, despite how strong they are. It feels like unnecessary padding when you must backtrack to a save-point to change the character-lineup and unfortunately: the game has 90% of these issues throughout.
You choose each world from an overworld map and when you enter them you will quickly notice that most of them will have you go back and forth through small areas for the sake of reasons they make up. None of them feel enjoyable and they get rather tedious, making the journey an overall padded drag. Out of the 12 worlds I encountered, I only truly enjoyed two: The Colosseum where you battle tons of enemies, and Atlantica, where there are huge areas to explore, tight corridors are not a big hindrance for the most part, and that there is no platforming.
The platforming is just terrible. Sora’s jump is delayed, has poor distance that makes the jumps barely makeable, backtracking can be long if you fall down, and you can cling on only certain parts of the platforms, making this a mess. I really don’t know how it became so poorly made, especially since they wanted to make something to rival Super Mario 64. Confusingly enough, you get something that could have fixed this in the last part of the game, and then the platforming becomes so simple to do, that normal-jumps were usually good enough. Adding to the list of problems is the camera. You use L2 and R2 to control it, which works fine until either: you want to know what is above you such as a boss, you want to know what is below you so you won’t have to backtrack for too long, or the camera simply gets stuck to the walls and too close to our characters. It can be the definition of frustration as you will have to fight it a lot throughout the game. Using L-target did not help much in this regard either.
Lastly: there is the gummi ship. When you travel to any of the worlds, you will have to use the gummi ship in a rail-shooter segment. The concept is neat, with a ship that can be customized similar to a Lego-construction where the blocks function as upgrades. However, everything moves at a snail’s pace, there is no challenge and your ship can get easily overpowered. When I tried it and made my unique ship “Burden”, it became so strong that I only held one button throughout every travel. I did not even care to dodge any obstacles. You get at least a powerup that makes it so you can warp to any visited worlds, but since you constantly travel to new worlds, it did not help much.
So most of the game is, unfortunately, a tedious journey. But the combat is very enjoyable due to good enemy-variety, grinding is kept to a minimum, there is a decent amount of customization and upgrades, and most of the bosses are fun to fight against with a few exceptions. You can even get summons that can be called upon if all of your characters have some HP, such as Simba or The Genie. Each control differently and have unique powers that make them enjoyable and helpful. But with the terrible platforming, padded backtracking, boring ship-shooter and a camera that makes the adventure even worse, it really has not aged well at all. For a game that is at least 20 hours long, it really could have had less in it.
Gameplay Score: 4/10
Being based on two fantastic worlds is not an easy feat, but Kingdom Hearts shines in this regard. The characters are colorful and feel in tone with the Disney-theme, while also including minor Final Fantasy elements. The new characters are lovely designed, giving them a somewhat silly, yet appealing look, with even Donald and Goofy getting new clothes. Some areas also give our main trio exclusive costumes, such as in Atlantica. More consistent creativity in costumes would have been nice, but everything looks good. The worlds, while pretty and different from each other, are at times very repetitive in their layouts, with clear 2D-backgrounds that can be an eyesore. The gummi ship segments have also a very odd design that is reminiscent of some kind of abstract art, which also gets repetitive due to lacking variation. We also have in-game cutscenes, which vary in quality with stiff models and more animated ones. A good example is the inconsistent lip syncing. Some characters will have, at times, huge facial-animations, while others will simply have 2-frames of animations on their mouths, and then they will switch quality in the same scene.
Voice-acting is quite good. Some characters, such as Riku feel shallow, but most of the cast give their all, with plenty of actors behind Disney-characters returning. The music has a ton of both familiar tunes and new ones, giving us a grand soundtrack that varies in genres and fits their respective worlds perfectly. From Traverse Town to Under the Sea, most will stay with you long after the game has been turned off.
Presentation score: 8/10
Rewarding fetch quest
There are plenty of sidequests to do in this game, such as finding the 99 dalmatians-puppies that are always found in quantities of 3, pages for Winnie the Pooh’s book, battles in the Colosseum, and finishing a book of lore and collectibles. Some of these can be fun, even if they are a blind hunt. However, they don’t feel necessarily rewarding to complete, since getting the overpowered weapons in this game, is not very useful. It does at times provide you with certain power-ups throughout, so getting parts of the fetch quests, can be a good support. There is also the secret ending, but it is only in CG and really does not raise any hype.
Extra score 7/10
I adore Kingdom Hearts for its concept, but I honestly can’t fully recommend the first entry. With the terrible camera, awkward platforming, drawn out progression, it is hard to not get annoyed or frustrated. However, the combat is very enjoyable and it has some interesting lore and likable characters. For those that simply care about Disney-fan service and not much else, you might have more tolerance.