-------My Rating System-------
A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)
B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good or even great game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)
C(-)(+) A mixed bag. Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)
D(-)(+) Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase. (Sonic Heroes)
F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)
-------------------------------So, it seems it has been ten years already since Kingdom Hearts graced the world with its existence. Kingdom Hearts is a strange series by its very concept, and it’s even stranger how good it turned out to be. The series, developed by Square Enix, features you traveling between various worlds based on Disney movies – usually the animated ones, though we did end up getting worlds based on Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean – and all the while meeting up with various characters from Square’s own Final Fantasy series. While this sounds like a ridiculous idea on paper, the game proved to be immensely successful and has developed into a franchise that actually took on a life of its own, so to speak, with subsequent installments shifting the focus more and more onto the characters, concepts and mythology that solely exist within the Kingdom Hearts universe. The continuity itself has even started to reach Metal Gear Solid levels of convoluted as of Birth by Sleep, the latest main series game thus far.
And somehow, everything always seems to work. The crossover aspect of the series was handled expertly from the get-go. The more lighthearted elements of Disney and the darker, more melodramatic elements of Final Fantasy are handled in such a way that they never feel like they’re clashing too much, and are balanced out really well. The storylines are also very character-driven and even emotional, and the characters themselves are very likable. In addition, the events that transpire in the Disney worlds usually serve some sort of purpose for the main plot and the movies’ plots themselves are integrated into the main story quite nicely. Not to mention that these worlds are a nostalgia trip for anyone who grew up with Disney and the gameplay stuff is pretty sweet too. So, since this is such a great franchise, I’ve decided that in honor of its tenth anniversary, I am going to review each game in the series released thus far (except for Re:coded, since I already reviewed that), starting with the first. Without further ado, let’s see what the original Kingdom Hearts has in store for us.
Kingdom Hearts begins on Destiny Islands, where Sora, the main protagonist, and his best friends Riku and Kairi live among various Final Fantasy characters. Sora, Riku and Kairi all wonder if there are worlds beyond their own and, being stupid kids, decide to build a raft that they believe might take them to these other worlds. Unfortunately, one stormy night, Sora finds the islands under attack by dark creatures and he watches his best friends disappear before his very eyes. What’s more, during all this he receives a key-shaped weapon called the “Keyblade” that allows him to fight these creatures, known as Heartless, and he gets sucked into a black void, after which he wakes up in a new world known as “Traverse Town”. Meanwhile, Disney characters Donald and Goofy have set out in search of the king of their world – guess which Disney character that is – who has gone missing, which causes them to cross paths with Sora. They then decide to team up to search the universe for Riku, Kairi and the king, fighting Heartless and getting tangled up in the affairs of the Disney worlds along the way.
Though it’s not as complex as later plots in the series would be, the storyline of Kingdom Hearts is actually really good. I kind of already explained what makes the storyline so good in the introduction, so I see no need to repeat myself. However, there are a couple of other things that I think I should talk about: mostly, the voice acting. Kingdom Hearts was, as far as I know, Square’s first big game to come out after Final Fantasy X, which was…pretty weak in the area of voice acting, to say the least. In Kingdom Hearts, though, the voice acting is actually pretty exceptional. Notably, many of the same actors from the original Disney movies were used for the game – either them, or the actors from the direct-to-video sequels, but they do a pretty great job as well even if the sequels were utter tripe. Even if he’s no Robin Williams, Dan Castellaneta does a great job as the Genie, and aside from him, we’ve got James Woods as Hades, Scott Weinger as Aladdin and lots of other great actors and actresses. A lot of the actors for the non-Disney characters are also pretty famous – the main character is even voiced by Haley Joel Osment. I suppose that Riku and Squall are the worst ones, sounding pretty flat in comparison to the rest of the cast, but they’re still okay. Writing was another area in which Final Fantasy X failed, but Kingdom Hearts does a decent job there too - better than some later installments would, anyway, but we'll get to that when we get to it.
Kingdom Hearts also fares very well aesthetically. The visuals have actually aged surprisingly well, especially in the realm of facial animations…well, about half the time, anyway. A lot of times, facial animations are pretty simplistic, but during close-ups or particularly dramatic moments, the facial animations will look very expressive and detailed and Square actually synced the lip movements to the English voice track this time. Even when the facial animations look more simplistic, however, they still look a lot better than Final Fantasy X’s. The models for the Disney characters are another particularly impressive aspect of the visuals. They all look like they came straight out of the movies they were featured in. Considering the voice cast and the authentic-looking character models, you can really tell that the developers went the extra mile in making this a great tribute to Disney. And then there is the soundtrack, composed by Yoko Shimomura, and it is absolutely fantastic. The title screen theme, Dearly Beloved, is so good that you will not only hear it at the title screen of every Kingdom Hearts game ever but also in various forms throughout the games themselves. Battle themes are another highlight, especially the boss themes. Simple and Clean, the main vocal theme, is sung by Utada Hikaru and it’s also very nice. All in all, awesome stuff.
And now, we can finally discuss the gameplay, starting with the combat since a lot of what you will be doing in this game is fighting Heartless. Combat gameplay in Kingdom Hearts is pretty simple and reminiscent of hack-n-slashes. You’ve got a list of commands in the lower-left corner of the screen, one of which will usually be blank and is mostly used for interacting with the environment, that you scroll through using the right analogue stick and use by pressing the “X” button. These commands allow you to perform a physical attack, use magic, or use an item, and most of the time you’ll be using physical attacks.
The combat is simple and may come off as button mashing at first, but it really isn’t shallow. Using magic does a good job of mixing things up and up to three spells can even be assigned to certain buttons as shortcuts, which you then use by holding the L1 button down. Equipping items also adds an element of strategy, as do abilities, which you will receive as the game goes on. Many abilities add to combos or change certain moves and some even give you entirely new moves, such as rolling and blocking, and even devastating attacks that consume magic power. The amount of abilities you can have equipped at once are limited by your Ability Points and the amount of AP it takes to equip an ability varies, which adds an element of customization. There’s also some nice enemy variety; some enemies retreat into the ground or become vapor, preventing you from attacking until they appear again; some enemies can only be attacked from behind; some enemies fly; some use projectile attacks, etc. It’s a very fun combat system and later games would expand upon it, and on the subject of combat, boss fights prove to be a notable highlight. While the early ones will come off as a bit lackluster, things quickly get better once you make it to the world based on Disney’s Tarzan and only go uphill from there, being very memorable and enjoyable to fight and providing some nice challenges.
Outside of combat, you’ll be doing a lot of exploring with a bit of platforming thrown in. Some people seem to have a problem with the platforming of Kingdom Hearts. Actually, I don’t mind it. In fact, I think it gives it something interesting that the Final Fantasy series didn’t have: vertical exploration. Exploration in general is pretty rewarding; you’ll find lots of items and synthesis materials this way, as well as the 99 Dalmatian puppies from 101 Dalmatians, which are part of a side quest. Speaking of side quests, there are also plenty of those; there are several optional bosses and the world based on Disney’s Hercules features several battle tournaments, which are really fun. There are also the Trinity Marks and a few mini-games to waste your time with. Almost all of this stuff is optional, though, so if you don’t want to bother with it, you don’t have to, and fetch quests are very rare, so if the exploration doesn’t interest you and you just want to get on with the storyline, you can do that.
There’s one more notable aspect of the gameplay: the Gummi Ship. The Gummi Ship is your method of traveling between worlds. Not long into the game, you get an upgrade that allows you to warp to worlds you’ve already visited, but the first time you go to each world, you will have to play through a short rail shooting course. It’s really simplistic and not very difficult at all, which does make it the weakest aspect of the game. However, there is some fun to it. As you explore the worlds, you will find “gummis” that you can use to build on to your ship and you can even buy them from Cid (the one from Final Fantasy VII). There are armor gummis, weapon gummis, wing gummis and many more that you’ll run upon. Use them wisely, and you can turn your Gummi Ship into an absolute powerhouse. At that point, going through the rail shooting areas and annihilating everything is just plain satisfying. The Gummi Ship is nothing great, but it’s a nice little distraction.
There are only a couple of problems that I had with Kingdom Hearts. First of all, just like in Final Fantasy X, you can never skip cutscenes before boss fights. However, I really don’t have nearly as much of a problem with this here as I do in that game. Cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts aren’t nearly as long as those in Final Fantasy X, which makes repeating the bosses less frustrating, and the bosses themselves aren’t as difficult, meaning you probably won’t be repeating them nearly as often. It’s a frustration, but not a gigantic one. My other problem is with the world based on The Little Mermaid. When compared to the other worlds, it felt needlessly huge and tedious to navigate and combat wasn’t as much fun either since movement was in three dimensions, the world being completely submerged and all, which meant that you had to take your position relative to the enemy’s into account more. I also couldn’t help but think that combat felt a lot slower. It’s easily the lowest point of an otherwise fantastic game. Sigh…why do water levels almost always suck?
+ Great storyline and characters
+ Great voice acting
+ Crossover aspect is handled very well
+ Visuals have aged surprisingly well
+ Fantastic soundtrack
+ Fun combat system
+ Great boss fights
+ Exploration is rewarding
+ Plenty of side quests
- Cutscenes are unskippable
- The Little Mermaid world is a bit of a slog
So now the first chapter of our journey through the Kingdom Hearts series has come to a close, and it was a really fantastic one at that. For a game with such a strange concept, it fared extremely well, especially where the storyline is concerned. It has aged superbly and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Next time we tackle this series, we’ll be looking at Re:Chain of Memories, the game that ties Kingdom Hearts I and II together – or rather, the PS2 remake of the game that ties Kingdom Hearts I and II together. Stay tuned.