I really bloody love Kingdom Hearts. Square-Enix and Disney’s weird, weird mashup game series somehow ticks all sorts of boxes for me. I have some fantastically clear memories of when I first discovered this series and sitting down with this first entry. Still, it’s been rather a while, so I figured I might replay the series on the run-up to Kingdom Hearts III. After all, I’ve waited so patiently for this long already, what harm will a few more hours and a full series replay be?
Anyway, long story short, I like this game a lot, and yes it holds up. Below please find my unadulterated waffle about Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts (PS2, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])
Released Mar 2002 | Developed / Published: Square
Our hero is a young lad named Sora. He lives a blissful existence on the idyllic Destiny Islands (why yes, that name is foreshadowing as subtle as a brick to the nose, how did you guess?) along with his best friends, the early-2000s-edgy Riku, Sora’s rival who is filled with wanderlust, and Kairi, a token girl who almost (but never quite) manages to have a personality or character. Unfortunately for Sora and his pals, these halcyon days are shattered when the islands are swallowed by an all-consuming and unstoppable darkness. Kairi is whisked away to fulfill her destiny as a narrative macguffin, Riku willingly steps into the maelstrom, and Sora tries to fight it with a mysterious new weapon that materialises from nowhere into his hand – the magical Keyblade.
After getting the crap kicked out of him by the accumulated forces of evil, Sora wakes in a strange new world. Here in a ramshackle town of mashed together and disparate districts, he learns of his new role and destiny. As a Keyblade wielder he must travel to the many worlds of the Kingdom Hearts universe and defend them against the encroaching tide of the Heartless, beings that manifest from the darkness in people’s hearts. He is aided in this quest by Donald Duck and Goofy (here shown as RPG archetypes; Donald is a mage in King Mickey Mouse’s court and Goofy is the Captain of the Royal Guard). The trio team-up and fly from world to world, righting wrongs, fighting the Heartless, and searching for the missing Mickey and Sora’s friends.
This might all seem quite straightforward but don’t be too complacent. Kingdom Hearts as a series tends to come with a reputation; many know of it for its incomprehensible narrative about hearts, darkness, light, and friends. Most, it seems, will tell you this is especially so after this game’s sequel, Kingdom Hearts II. I would argue that is not the case; instead, I contend that Kingdom Hearts is complete gibberish right from the start.
Though a decent amount of this game’s plot can be distilled down to JRPG barebones with a dash of Disney-flavoured hero’s journey, it is definitely utterly swamped in total nonsense. The metaphysical minutiae of Kingdom Hearts is extensive, baffling, and complex. If you are averse to dialogue in which diegetic concepts are wildly thrown around with unsatisfying explanations and a distinct lack of respect for narrative coherency, you’ll find a lot to grumble about in Kingdom Hearts. Play a drinking game, and take a shot every time you hear “heart”, “darkness”, “light”, or some variance on characters just shouting each others’ names randomly. It’s a sure-fire way to get incredibly plastered, incredibly quickly.
That said, if you can allow yourself to immersed in it and let the narrative silliness wash over you, Kingdom Hearts can be very fun. The high-concept, pseudo-philosophical stuff about hearts is a pretty typical JRPG trope, but here it’s filtered through the lens of Disney whimsy. The various worlds Sora visits are primarily based on Disney films; there are a handful of original levels but mainly you go to places drawn from some of Disney’s most famous or beloved franchises and get wound up in their own internal plotlines. This does result in a sense of disconnect however, which remains a notable issue with the way the storyline is told in the entire franchise. In short, the plots of the Disney worlds are largely self-contained, and the wider Kingdom Hearts-specific stuff is relegated to between-world dialogue and cutscenes. The balance is all over the place; at the start and by the finale exposition is dumped on the player at a worrying rate, with only tiny snippets of the plot given in tiny bits during the time spent between saving Disney worlds.
At least the worlds are gorgeous. Each level pops with vibrant colour and pleasingly chunky textures. Great effort has gone into recreating the feel and style of the film each level is based on, such as the grainy, desaturated palette with which Halloween Town from The Nightmare Before Christmas is rendered. Additionally, plenty of details from the films are translated into the game, like being able to visit Ariel’s Grotto, Triton’s Palace, and Ursula’s Lair in Atlantica (The Little Mermaid). Often levels encourage exploration through extensive use of vertical space; Agrabah (Aladdin) is the greatest example of this as you try and guide Sora through the claustrophobic, towering streets built of homes and pathways layered up on top of one another.
As you traverse these levels you are besieged by the Heartless hordes. The design of the Heartless is one of the game’s finest points; though Tetsuya Nomura rightfully gets some criticism for his character designs (Belts! Zippers! Belts with zippers!), the enemy designs in Kingdom Hearts are fantastic. The Heartless all have a cutesy charm thanks to their glowy pinprick eyes and strangely endearing zigzag smile. Often they’re themed to the world, like the bandana-wearing pirate Heartless in Neverland or the erratic, bouncing chimpanzee enemies in Tarzan’s jungle. These themed enemies really add to the sense of realised worlds, working alongside the established Disney characters to immerse players in each level.
Along with the beautifully-recreated Disney environments, each film is also represented by brilliant remixes of classic songs on the soundtrack. Yoko Shimomura’s work really is exceptional; on starting the game you are greeted by the serene piano of Dearly Beloved, which has earned its place as a series staple. The opening vocal track, Simple and Clean, performed by Utada Hikaru, is equally well-known, having been through a glut of remixes since this game.
Shimomura’s tracks that underscore the non-Disney sections of Kingdom Hearts feature some of the strongest musical moments. Sometimes they’re deeply oppressive and foreboding, such as the choral chant of Dive Into the Heart, which segues neatly into the dark and frantic battle theme, Destiny’s Force. The mournful piano of Treasured Memories, which plays during Sora’s loneliest moments as he remembers the life he used to life, works as a beautiful counterpoint the the darker tracks. Some tracks are heinously catchy – I think I will forever have the clarinet melody from Traverse Town stuck in my head. As you approach later levels the music naturally gets more serious, culminating in one of the game’s finest tracks as you explore the labyrinthine fortress of Hollow Bastion. Additionally, Shimomura’s work spans a range of styles; while so much is powerfully orchestrated, we even dip into thumping electronic beats for the shmup missions aboard the gummi ship, such as in Blast Away!, though all manage to work in a single distinctive melody to knit them together.
Other tracks are remixes and rearrangements of tracks from their respective Disney films, such as the themes for Halloween Town and Atlantica. Some are completely new compositions but the fact that they fit their worlds so perfectly is a testament to Shimomura’s work. The proud brass and rolling drums of Olympus Coliseum and Go For It! (apropos of nothing this sounds so much to me like a Pokemon Gym Leader fight, it has that same sense of power and conveys that joy of fighting that is so clearly present in Pokemon) could easily have been a part of the Hercules soundtrack. The whimsy present in the bouncing bass and calm strings of Welcome to Wonderland captures the strangeness of Alice in Wonderland to a tee, particularly in how smoothly it shifts between its different sections. That versatility is on show in how marvelously different world tracks can be; compare it to the cracking Arabian theme of A Day in Agrabah. While it’s hard to play favourites, the sheer joy I get from the upbeat waltz of Pirate’s Gigue is hard to deny.
While Kingdom Hearts’ presentation remains as vibrant and lively as ever, one area that has suffered a little over time is the combat. Kingdom Hearts uses a real-time combat system, with Sora able to attack, cast spells, summon allies, and use items all on the fly. All of these are available on a menu during gameplay, and are accessed with a single button. In theory, this is to simplify the combat; being able to launch into combos by just hitting X before switching to a useful spell or item sounds a solid idea but in practice it’s a little messier. At its worse combat can devolve into mashing a single button – a complaint certainly leveled at the series – and if you plan on using the menu to switch away from physical attacks be prepared to wrestle with the D-pad. You can set a few shortcuts for your most useful spells which does mitigate it a little, but can still feel a little fiddly.
The core complaint I have about it is that it’s clunky. Sora’s animations are fittingly stodgy for a young boy suddenly finding himself swinging around a massive great key, but that doesn’t exactly translate to enjoyable, fluid gameplay. The combos can definitely feel a bit jerky, particularly when problems occur with the lock-on or when Sora fails to close distance to a target. As Sora levels up he can learn new combat abilities, including special moves; in the original release of the game these were a noted cause of annoyance for me as they replace the Attack command more or less at random. Thankfully, the Final Mix version deals with this by putting the attack abilities on the Triangle button, taking away all of those accidental activations; it’s a small change but an effective one.
Speaking of the Final Mix, it is by far the ideal version to play. It adds a few scenes that add to the plot, though regrettably they never did get dubbed in English. Instead it’s all subtitled, with the original Japanese dialogue edited out; it makes for a surreal and slightly disappointing experience. Final Mix also features new enemies and items to satisfy the collectors who feel the need to fill every journal page and entry, as well as an excellent bonus boss for post-game players. Remarkably, the best addition to the updated version is the ability to skip cutscenes, a baffling omission from the original release given the amount of lengthy cinematics.
Despite the clunky combat and sheer nonsense story, I still love Kingdom Hearts. It’s a game that I happily return to every few years. So much of it feels nostalgic; running through Disney worlds is like fulfilling a childhood fantasy, filtered through the kind of fast-paced action JRPG that I grew up playing.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.