Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s games are in one of the most memorable game universes of all time—one that is receiving its highly-anticipated sequel this week.
#22. KINGDOM HEARTS (series)
KINGDOM HEARTS, by Mitchell Akhurst
Today, a game like Kingdom Hearts feels designed to give people headaches. Tetsuya Nomura’s endless belts and zippers, really? Yet another movie crossover story? An obsession with Disney princesses?
Though these elements were part of the popular consciousness before the release of Kingdom Hearts in 2002, they were not as overexposed as they are now—even though “the worlds of Disney movies mixed with characters from Final Fantasy” was always a bonkers-sounding combination. When the game released, however, it exuded a flavour that went down well with gamers around the world.
By 2002, with the advanced graphical horsepower of the PlayStation 2 and the increased storage space of DVDs, the JRPG genre was blossoming. Earlier in the generation, Final Fantasy X had wowed players with its 3D presentation and voice acting (okay shut up, the bad laughing scene was intentional), but Kingdom Hearts—at the time thought of as mostly a Final Fantasy spin-off—really benefited from this technological step forward.
Much more than just an action-RPG that uses the terminology and world design elements of the Final Fantasy series, Kingdom Hearts boasted smoother facial animations and cartoony character models that evoked the appearance of the Disney movies that featured in the game. From the CG opening scene through the after-credits sequence, Kingdom Hearts felt like an animated movie. As attested by the rebuilt PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 versions, its visual style remains appealing to this day.
The story of the first Kingdom Hearts is also surprisingly well executed. Yes, the game does tend to wear its heart on its sleeve with 50% or more of the dialogue consisting of references to Light, Dark, and Friendship. However, the overall scenario—the main characters Sora, Riku, and Kairi, the twists and turns of the plot, as well as how the many different threads intersect—is executed at least as well as Final Fantasies VIII or X, both of which Kazushige Nojima, the writer of Kingdom Hearts, also worked on.
Then the game introduces Disney worlds. Almost every level of Kingdom Hearts takes place in the world of one or more Disney movies such as Aladdin or Peter Pan. These worlds are chiefly stand alone, but each builds on the themes of the main story by retelling the events of their movies. After more than a decade of LEGO Movie games, this sort of crossover does not sound too unusual, but was less to-be-expected in a Japanese fantasy RPG in 2002.
Beyond the presentation, though, parts of the game are have aged worse than others. Partly inspired by Super Mario 64, the title’s environments are built like playgrounds with many different levels and tricky jumps—unfortunately, the controls are not responsive or detailed enough to make navigating these areas much fun. The Star-Fox inspired “Gummi Ship” space levels also suffer from loose controls, but still provide a decent break from the action-RPG battles.
Thankfully, those battles are thrilling, varied and constantly evolving, because Kingdom Hearts nails everything else. Like Square’s 1990s spin-offs such as Secret of Mana, the moogles and magic of Final Fantasy were ported from their traditional JRPG roots to an action-adventure focused on skill and timing.
On Normal difficulty, Kingdom Hearts plays like a more technical Ocarina of Time, including R-targeting individual enemies and button-mashing slashing with the series’s signature weapon: the Keyblade. The player earns experience points with each encounter, unlocking new abilities that apply directly to combat, offering magical spells or spectacular attacks, and all of these features only a year after the releases of the first spectacle fighter games Onimusha and Devil May Cry.
On Proud, the highest difficulty mode in the first game, Kingdom Hearts then becomes something altogether different. Positioning and resource management become vitally important with enemies dealing out massive damage, and many of the puzzle bosses have tight or unforgiving timing challenges. This legacy of exciting and detailed action-RPG combat would drive many of Square’s games for the next two decades, from the Final Fantasy VII spin-off Crisis Core to the first truly action-based main entry, Final Fantasy XV—whose battle system explicitly began life as a grounded take on Kingdom Hearts.
After the first game, Kingdom Hearts’ structure would never again be so straightforward or elemental. The game’s explosive new ideas became entrenched in a series formula, as with any other franchise, and in some ways became less special in the process. But in other ways, the series went on to make a lovable legacy of its own, which we can all be thankful for.
KINGDOM HEARTS II, by Rebecca Hills-Duty
Kingdom Hearts II arrived on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, three years after the launch of the first game. Though the original Kingdom Hearts certainly had an impact, the sequel is often considered to be the moment the series found its feet.
The story of Kingdom Hearts II continues on from both the first game as well as the Game Boy Advance title Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories.
As the story for the ‘introduction’ area unfolded, players soon discovered that Kingdom Hearts II was continuing with the emotional, and sometimes heartbreaking, arcs from the final section of the original games. This introduction also served to set up a new facet to the conflict.
Once they awoke from a magical slumber, Sora, Donald and Goofy found they were not only facing the ubiquitous Heartless, familiar from the first game, but also the Nobodies and the mysterious group that controlled them: Organisation XIII.
The resulting adventure took Sora and his friends to some familiar locations, including the Olympus Coliseum, Hollow Bastion, Halloween Town, and Agrabah, all of which make a return from the first game. However, many of these worlds had expanded areas to explore, such as the Underworld in Olympus Coliseum. Some new worlds were also introduced, such as the Land of Dragons from Mulan, Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Space Paranoids from Tron.
The gameplay is very similar to the first game, though the developer straightened out a few of the problems that players had in the original title, making for a smoother experience overall. Of particular note among the improvements was the improved camera, giving players better control over its movement and making moving and fighting much more comfortable.
One new gameplay addition was the introduction of ‘Reaction Commands’, attacks that could be used against specific enemies, including bosses. These attacks could be triggered by hitting the Triangle button at the right time to inflict damage or defend from an attack.
Another new feature was ‘Drive Forms’: alternate forms for Sora, which gave him a boost to specific stats, such as Valor Form boosting Melee attacks and Wisdom Form boosting Magical Attacks. Using these forms also unlocks Growth abilities such as High Jump, which can provide access to hidden item chests and certain secret areas, particularly in the Final Mix version.
The new original characters introduced in Kingdom Hearts II quickly gained a fan following, with fans, in particular, showing great interest in the Organisation XIII members, especially Axel, who became popular enough to return in subsequent games.
While some have criticised Kingdom Hearts II for complicating the relatively simple plot of the first game and being responsible for the very convoluted state the story is now in, one cannot deny that Kingdom Hearts II stands by itself as a great action RPG, and a celebration of classic Disney properties.
ONWARD TO KINGDOM HEARTS III
Obviously, the two main titles that lead to this week’s Kingdom Hearts III are only half the story. In the years between console releases, the many handheld and phone games in the series have continued the tale of Sora and friends, many of such games are also considered among our favourites.
Prime among these titles was Birth By Sleep, a prequel for the PlayStation Portable that followed three other Keyblade wielders and told a very Revenge of the Sith-esque narrative about their tragic destinies. At the same time, Birth By Sleep introduced new battle mechanics that would reappear in the later games. The other major story prior to III is Dream Drop Distance, which added much-needed traversal improvements to the series in extreme sports-inspired, context-sensitive actions called ‘Flowmotion’. The story of Dream Drop Distance also ties directly into Kingdom Hearts III.
To properly grasp the timelines (yes, timelines) requires basic knowledge of every single game under the Kingdom Hearts name. Except for the phone game Kingdom Hearts Union, the remainder of these stories were collected in the 1.5, 2.5, and 2.8 releases, but gamers who would rather jump in with III should be able to use the new game’s recap feature to be brought up to speed.