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Kingdom Hearts is one of those franchises I’ve had on my radar for a while mainly because I find the inclusion of all the Disney stuff interesting. I also like action RPGs so I figured it’s a franchise I should definitely check it out at some point. Developed by Square and published by Square Electronic Arts, Kingdom Hearts was released for PlayStation 2 in September, 2002. Japan received a version called Final Mix which contains some changes and content found in the North America and PAL versions and it was re-released as part of the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix compilation for PlayStation 3 which also includes Re:Chain of Memories and a cinematic remake of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. The Remix was ported to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC and a cloud version was released for Switch. For this review, I played the PS4 version on a PlayStation 5.
The story centers on a character named Sora who wants to leave his home on Destiny Islands to explore new worlds with his friends Kairi and Riku. Before they can leave, the Islands are attacked by the Heartless and Kairi and Riku disappear so Sora sets out to find them. Meanwhile, King Mickey leaves his world and instructs Donald and Goofy to find a key to protect the worlds from darkness. The duo eventually meet up with Sora and they decide to travel together to find Sora’s friends and seal the keyholes in various worlds to prevent them from being consumed by the Heartless.
Overall, I found the story to be interesting, bizarre, somewhat confusing and even sad. The story is conveyed through cut scenes, dialogue, and reports or text that you can read but I do feel there are some elements and plot points that are just not explained well. What I do like about Kingdom Hearts is the inclusion of the Disney universe and its various characters. Even some characters from the Final Fantasy franchise make an appearance. The game conveys a mix of light heartedness and some darker elements making for interesting tonal shifts.
After I beat the game, I discussed the experience with a friend who is a big fan of the series. I asked him some questions about the plot and told him how I felt about the gameplay and one thing he said that I agreed with is that “it’s a jack of all trades, master of none”. Kingdom Hearts is a mishmash of ideas and none of them on their own work particularly well. But all together make for a fun experience. It’s primarily an action RPG but I would also consider it a platformer and it borrows elements from space ship shooters. I will say all of this does make for a unique experience but not everything about the gameplay is enjoyable.
In a nutshell, you travel from world to world slaying enemies and bosses and collecting items and those familiar with Disney and Final Fantasy will find a lot to love here. Sora’s primary weapon is the keyblade which can be enhanced or upgraded with keychains. You will earn experience and eventually level up and as a result, improve your stats. You will earn Ability Points that can be spent to unlock various abilities which will aid you in different ways. You can also cast various spells which does consume Magic Points or MP. You can find all kinds of items in the environments and enemies typically drop munny when defeated which can be spent to buy items. You can also find parts that can be used to synthesize or craft new items.
Sora is accompanied by Donald and Goofy who have their own move sets and equipment that can be swapped out and their own abilities that can be unlocked and activated with Ability Points. They also earn experience and level up. The Abilities are a big part of the game and essentially allow you “build” Sora to fit your playstyle. You do have to make some decisions at the start of the game which determine your starting stats and bonuses and what abilities you unlock when. One of the decisions you make essentially dictates your archetype; offense, defense, or magic. Abilities can be passive or active and some effects can be boosted if activated for all three party members. Not to be confused with Shared Abilities which are unlocked by meeting certain requirements and primarily effect mobility for all three party members.
The game will take you to numerous worlds, many of which are based on Disney films. Typically, when you arrive at a new world, you have the option to team up with a new companion in replace of Donald or Goofy but they can’t leave their world. You will need some of them to solve certain puzzles or to access certain areas. I like the sense of adventure the game offers and each world has plenty of areas to explore, secrets to discover, items to find, and Dalmatians to collect. Enemies can be found almost everywhere you go so there’s always opportunities to gain experience. As long as I took the time to explore and fight the enemies I came across, I never the felt the need to farm for experience although I might recommend it on higher difficulties. I feel the general difficulty ramps up rather well as you progress but I do think there are spikes and its mostly related to the bosses. For the most part, I felt most bosses were fair and pretty easy to beat once you get their patterns down. But a few seemed extremely challenging, more so than some of the bosses that came after them.
The combat is pretty simple to grasp. You press buttons to attack and cast spells and some abilities let you perform powerful combos and you can equip items to improve your strength, defense, magic capabilities, and resistances. Then there’s Tech Points which I feel are not clear or explained very well. Tech Points are earned by parrying or deflecting attacks or using a special attack the enemy is weak against and apparently they reward you with extra experience. Unfortunately, no matter how you configure the camera, it typically sucks. Yes, you can manipulate it manually which I had to do frequently because it would work against me, sometimes making platforming and fighting enemies a pain in the ass. The lock on mechanic helps but you’re often outnumbered and it’s not uncommon to get attacked by enemies you can’t see.
The combat can get repetitive but leveling up can be somewhat addictive and the abilities and different enemy types can help make fights interesting. With the right abilities, you can block, dodge, and perform different attacks and combos. But you’re going to fight many of the same enemies frequently and as mentioned earlier, enemies appear almost everywhere you go. Needless to say, Kingdom Hearts features a lot of action or combat. Donald and Goofy can be somewhat helpful allies but I found that I was always doing most of the work. You can equip them with different gear and items and even customize their tactics. In my experience, they work better as defenders or support for Sora rather than offensive allies. Luckily, if they go down, that does not mean they’re dead. They will eventually jump back into the fight after a certain amount of time.
As mentioned before, Kingdom Hearts does feature some elements borrowed from what I called “space ship shooters”. I’m, of course, referring to the Gummi stuff. To travel to a new world, you must do so by Gummi Ship which is a ship made out of Gummi blocks. You’ll have to evade and shoot obstacles and enemies which will leave behind parts that can be used to customize your ship. It didn’t take long to realize I dislike all the Gummi stuff. It does feel somewhat out of place, it gets repetitive, and building a ship in the Gummi Garage is tedious mainly because of the cumbersome controls. Yes, I watched the tutorial video and customized my ship once but never did it again. Like anything, once you get used to the controls, it’s probably fine but customizing the ship felt clunky and I got frustrated and simply had no desire to do it again. Plus, once I was able to utilize the warp points, I avoided flying whenever I could.
Worlds typically consist of numerous areas to explore with puzzles to solve and items and secrets to find. You’ll be granted special abilities that can only be utilized in specific worlds like swimming in Atlantica and flying around in Neverland, and you can participate in Tournaments at the Olympus Coliseum. Trinity Points can be found throughout the worlds and these are where the party members can work together to make something happen so you can acquire hidden items. One of the complaints I have with the worlds is that some of them are just tedious and frustrating to navigate and sometimes it’s because the camera can make platforming more difficult than it should be. My least favorite world is Deep Jungle. But Wonder Land and Monstro aren’t too far behind it. My biggest problem with these worlds is that it’s not always clear where you need to go or even how to get to your objective so it can be easy to get stuck, especially if you don’t pay attention or get sidetracked which can be easy to do. And that’s because it is fun to explore the worlds.
Another complaint I have is that some worlds feel lifeless or soulless. The Disney worlds are well represented for the most part. They look and sound like what you would see in the films but they are condensed recreations and some feel way too small and are not as interesting as what you see in the films. A good example is Agrabah. It’s supposed to be a bustling kingdom and in Kingdom Hearts, it’s just not. The city is small and feels empty. I guess the Heartless drove everyone away? A lot of the worlds are like this but I can give it a pass considering this was originally a PS2 game so maybe some technical limitations held it back. But I feel it is worth mentioning because if you go into this expecting to explore the massive magical Disney worlds you see in the films, you’ll be in for quite a surprise.
I do love the visual style of Kingdom Hearts and think the HD version looks better than the original PlayStation 2 version, although its age does show. Regardless, the presentation is bold and colorful and has a cartoony quality about it which makes sense given all the Disney stuff. That said, I do think the Disney content is well represented visually and feel the characters are good reflections of their counterparts in the films. The soundtrack is also fantastic and contains a lot of memorable and catchy orchestral tunes including some pieces that were borrowed from the films. The music ranges from dark to dramatic to cheerful and I think the soundtrack really helps drive the magical feeling the game is going for. On the technical side, I want mention again that I did play this on a PlayStation 5, and I did not encounter any major issues.
I really enjoyed Kingdom Hearts even though it does often feel like a mishmash of different ideas. It tries to do many things and none of them on their own are particularly great but together make for an overall fun experience. The camera can be problematic, I find the Gummi ship stuff to be out of place and loses steam pretty quick and the combat can become repetitive. It’s all the different Abilities that makes the action and combat interesting, allowing for different playstyles which also helps increase the game’s replay value. I do think Kingdom Hearts is a great game for Disney fans despite the fact I feel some of the worlds feel a tad lackluster compared to what you might see in the films. Regardless, the environments are diverse and I found exploring the worlds to be fun and rewarding and enjoyed spending time with the Disney characters.
I would recommend Kingdom Hearts because despite its flaws, it is a fun game. I can’t say everything about it works amazingly well but the good does outweigh the bad. The gameplay can be repetitive but also addictive. The worlds may not convey the same type of magic as what you see in the films but they can be fun to explore. Ultimately, Kingdom Hearts is a fun game full of action and adventure with Disney content and should appeal to a wide audience. Definitely check it out.