As the next generation of gaming approaches, faster than my backlog will be able to handle, let’s take a moment to look back at a game that captured the imaginations of many and sparked a multi-generational franchise while also being released over three generations itself – Kingdom Hearts.
Back in 2002, at the age of 12 and still having fairly fresh memories of playing Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation console and having grown up during the “Disney Renaissance” period, my attention was grabbed by news of a game that crossed these two seemingly incompatible franchises.
Kingdom Hearts puts you in the, frankly gigantic, shoes of 14 year old Sora as he and his friends, Riku and Kairi, try to escape their island and see new worlds. Coincidentally, the walls between worlds have been broken down by a Darkness from what seems to be the dawn of time, which neatly explains the crossover of the franchises. Over in the Disney world, King Mickey Mouse (who else would be the King) has gone missing as he looks for the cause and solution to this cosmic threat.
The excitement for this ambitious plot soon dwindles as the first hour or so is very slow, overly long and doesn’t give much direction on what to do next until you stumble across the trigger for the next plot point. Being filled out with multiple choice questions and decision making that will inevitably affect how the game plays later on, particularly at the end, this can become rather frustrating. There are also a few fetch quests too but with little instruction on what these items look like, this can take longer than you’d like.
This all changes once the Disney characters start getting involved. As soon as you arrive in a world called Traverse Town, we get that dark Final Fantasy feel mixed with some lighthearted “Disneyness” when meeting some legendary characters such as Cid, Leon and Yuffie. The comic relief is provided when Donald Duck and Goofy join your party and the real quest begins – to find your friends and the missing King.
In short, the game plays out in sort of episodic chunks as you visit different Disney worlds such as Wonderland, Agrabah and Neverland via space travel, fighting enemy ships as you go. The objective is to find the “Keyhole” in each world and seal it using your multipurpose weapon, known as a Keyblade. Along the way, various Disney characters will join your fetch quests and boss fights to help you find that world’s keyhole and save the day – what could be more Disney?
Now, I never finished the game back when I was 12 years old, but now 18 years later I have finally finished it and can say that, besides the often repetitive nature, I feel the overall story is just brilliantly put together. The quest to save the universe from impending doom by saving each world is just so simple, yet so brilliant. It reminded me of the saturday morning Disney cartoons I used to enjoy as a child, stepping into adventures with the likes of Aladdin and Tarzan!
All this being said, after completing the game twice now and on my third playthrough (I’m after that shiny platinum trophy), I’m still not really sure as to the goal of the villains. The explanation of wanting power was a little vague and lazy in my opinion and sort of just falls on the old Disney tropes of good vs evil.
That being said, I am fairly new to the franchise so this may well be explained in later instalments. I’m hoping so as the game does have a very open ended conclusion. I know Mickey Mouse will be used more heavily in the rest of the franchise and that he was kept out of this first instalment due to Disney not wanting to have the face of the company associated with the game had it not been successful. Thankfully, it was!
The gameplay of Kingdom Hearts is really something to get used and may be a bit off putting for newcomers. An example of this is during the second fetch quest of the game which is essentially a basic task of some simple platforming. The jumping mechanics are some of the worst I’ve experienced. It feels slow, clunky and often seems like Sora is downright refusing to do what you ask of him.
After mastering this basic skill, the next major problem is the camera. The game gives you the option for manual or automatic at the beginning but if you’re anything like me, you’ll have chosen automatic as it’s one less thing to be worrying about.
By default, the camera tries to stay behind Sora, but it is soon clear that he is much more agile which soon causes problems for the player when stood too close to a wall or when a larger character takes up most of the screen – I’m looking at you Beast!
The most problematic moments with this camera system is during combat, often hindering your view of what’s coming at you. This is particularly frustrating in the earlier stages of the game when Sora can’t take as much damage and has no healing abilities, meaning you’ll have to abandon the battle to slip in a quick potion.
After the opening two hours (or more), when you finally get to visit new worlds, you will have to endure a somewhat out of place space travel section in which the ship is essentially on tracks while random looking ships head towards you and you’re tasked with evading or shooting them down. It has the feel of old Star Wars arcade games where the crosshair is overly sensitive. But once each route is completed, a much loved “warp” option becomes available to save time later – unless you wish to complete various optional missions on these routes.
Now, after an absurd number of fetch quests and frustrating enemies to contend with, you may well be considering giving up on this adventure. But after a while when Sora has some decent exp behind him and the levelling system reaches double digits, new abilities are acquired making combat and traversal more dynamic and fluid. Paired with strength, defence and health increases making combat much quicker to get through, it really starts to be enjoyable and the story becomes more of a focus for the player.
After a bit of time into the game, a large variety of worlds become available to you offering many quests, mini-games and even tournaments to enter. The camera will always be a bit of pain, but after a while it is something that can be gotten used to and the “lock-on” button soon becomes a player’s best friend. If playing on easy or medium difficulty, Donald and Goofy are pretty helpful but the AI is not the best it could be and giving them health items is a sure way to lose them fast as even the smallest hit will cause them to drain a potion or two.
One aspect I would have liked to have seen with the Final Mix of the game is a current objectives list. Too often, when distracted by long combat sections or trying to get a chest just out of reach, I found I had forgotten what I was meant to be doing to progress. A little reminder on the pause menu would have been very helpful. I remember this being a problem I had with the original game back in 2002, and with no YouTube guides back then to show you what to do next, it was a case of keep running around until something new happened! But, having not played the rest in the series yet, this may well have been implemented in later installments.
All in all though, the gameplay is pretty straightforward once you have experimented and found your own play style. Whether you prefer strength and brute force, or if you like to use magic to get you through tough situations, most of the time you will find it is a fun experience.
What Kingdom Hearts lacks in gameplay mechanics, it makes up for with it’s look and style. When the vanilla Kingdom Hearts was released, it was on the fantastic PlayStation 2 system and for what that machine was capable of, the game looked pretty incredible. I can understand why it was selected to be remastered in HD twice! Every world you visit has captured the essence of the Disney film it was taken from.
From Wonderland to Agrabah and Atlantica to Hallowe’en Town, the settings are beautifully designed to capture the Disney magic while injecting the brooding, self-important grandeur of the Final Fantasy series. These amazing artistic visuals upgraded to HD is like watching your favourite Disney movies remastered as is the popular trend in current years.
The real highlight though has to be Hallowe’en Town from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The developers really captured the brilliant aesthetic of the film, so much so that instead of just putting Sora, Donald and Goofy into the world as they are, like in most of the other worlds, they’re given a whole spooky wardrobe to blend in. And blend in they do!
The games biggest let down in terms of the visuals, in my opinion, are the Gummi Ship sections. The ship itself looks extremely basic, made up with very bad looking building blocks. The space sequences feel a tad out of place as you fly through various obstacles that don’t seem to have any real purpose to be there. The space rocks I can understand, but rings and square blocks are a bit hard to explain away.
But if you can look past this flaw then this is possibly one of the most visually stunning games of the PS2 era and will make you feel like a kid again when you see some of your favourite Disney worlds and characters come to life. Even characters not featured in their own worlds are used as summons to help in battle such as Simba, Bambi and Dumbo, complete with their own entrance visuals.
With the HD final mix version on PS4, we also get treated to some upscaled cutscenes throughout and beautifully rendered cinematic scenes at the opening and closing of the game – and the secret ending as well if you are able to finish everything in the game. This really does capture your childhood memories of the lighthearted and often silliness of Disney and then mixes in polish and grandeur from Final Fantasy to deliver a real treat for the eyes.
Audio & Music
What really extenuates the fantastic Disney visuals is the brilliant Disney soundtrack. There is no singing in this, which I would have to say is a good choice as this just wouldn’t fit, but some of the most iconic tunes throughout the Disney movie catalogue is featured. Who doesn’t think of “Under the Sea” when someone mentions The Little Mermaid? What kind of atmosphere would there be without “This is Halloween” in Halloween Town?
Each world has its own unique soundtrack lifted directly from the films. Even the Traverse Town world created for this game has a relaxing tune giving you that safe feeling as you regroup and restock for the battles ahead. This can be a double edged Keyblade however as spending too long in these worlds will leave you humming these tunes for hours on end!
What is absolutely brilliant about this game is the voice acting. So many original voice actors from the movies featured here including Robby Benson (Beast) and James Woods (Hades) along with some straight to video voice actors such as Dan Castellaneta (Genie). Joining these Disney veterans are big Hollywood stars such as Haley Joel Osment (Sora), Hayden Panettiere (Kairi) and Billy Zane (Ansem). All giving a fantastic performance throughout.
Square Enix and Disney created an almost perfect beat for beat RPG game with all the qualities you’d expect to see while delivering a strong Disney story of it’s own with the added brilliance of Final Fantasy that you wouldn’t expect to work, but does extremely well.
With a pretty varied mix of gameplay it’s enough to keep dedicated gamers entertained but it does run the risk of getting overly repetitive if played for an extended period of time. If going for the platinum trophy, this is more than likely going to happen. But the wonderful worlds and the brilliant story will keep you engaged until the end credits at least and the numerous side quests will certainly keep you busy.
The Final Mix version of the game made several small changes over the original in what seems to be an attempt to link it into the broader Kingdom Hearts franchise with adding new optional bosses and abilities. This was certainly an experimentation of a game that worked well and thrived ever since. I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting into the wider series.