Review: Kingdom Hearts

At long last, the time has come for me to review one of the most beloved games of all time, Kingdom Hearts. This is a game that combines the worlds of Final Fantasy with the Disney cartoon universe. If that seems like a rather odd combination, that’s because it is. The two franchises have almost nothing at all to do with each other. But, as legend has it, a senior developer from Squaresoft bumped into a Disney executive in an elevator and after some brief discussion, the two companies decided to work together on a crossover concept.

I remember encountering this game shortly after it was released. My wife and I had just bought a brand new PS2, and I purchased the game for her. At the time, I never played it myself, but I recall watching her as she played through the introduction to the game. Being a lifelong Final Fantasy fan, I was fascinated by what I saw and I always intended to sit down and play the game for myself. After twenty years, that time has finally arrived. I’ve spent the majority of the last month experiencing everything that Kingdom Hearts has to offer and I have quite a bit to say about it.

As usual, before I get into the details of the game itself, let’s talk a little bit about the best way to experience this title today. Kingdom Hearts was originally released in 2002 for the Playstation 2. For over ten years, the game was only playable on that hardware. However, in 2013, a remastered version of the game (called Kingdom Hearts Final Mix) was included in the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix collection for the PS3. This collection paired Kingdom Hearts Final Mix with a remastered version of it’s GBA sequel, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. This collection was later combined with more games in the series and released yet again as part of the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix collection for the PS4. This compilation is without a doubt the best way to enjoy Kingdom Hearts today. It includes the definitive version of the game in an HD format and it is compatible with the PS5 console. This collection is also available for the Xbox One/S/X, Nintendo Switch, and PC (via the Epic Game Store). A note about the Switch version: this release is actual a “cloud” version of the game – meaning it streams to your console, so an online connection required.

It is important to note, however, there are some differences between the original Kingdom Hearts and the Kingdom Hearts Final Mix version. Most notably, is the inclusion of a new optional boss as well as changes to the game’s difficulty level and balance. Surprisingly, the new version of Kingdom Hearts isn’t actually easier than the original. But in some ways it can actually be a bit tougher. Still, I’ve found these changes to be an overall improvement to the PS2 version and it really does make Kingdom Hearts Final Mix the only version players need to experience.

Kingdom Hearts follows the character of Sora, a young boy who lives on a remote island with a number of other youths. None of the people on the island can seem to remember their past, but they’ve adapted to their life together. One day, Sora and his friends decide to try to build a raft so that they can escape the island and see what lies beyond the sea. However, before they can set sail, their island is attacked by mysterious shadowy figures. During the battle, Sora obtains a magical weapon called the Keyblade and finds himself transported to a strange and unusual city. It is here that he meets the characters of Goofy and Donald Duck. The two of them have come to the city via their magical airship in search of their king Mickey Mouse, who has gone missing. Sora, Donald, and Goofy agree to team up and work together to find their friends. The three of them use the airship to visit a number of different worlds. During their journey, they learn about “The Heartless” an army of darkness that is intent of destroying worlds. They pledge to do whatever they can to find their friends and stop the heartless.

When I sat down to play this game for the first time, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I suppose that I was expecting to play a JRPG with a bunch of Disney cameos. But I figured out rather quickly that was not going to be the case. Kingdom Hearts is not your standard RPG. Yes, there are plenty of RPG elements to it. But it’s more of a 3D action game than anything else. Combat in this game is not turn-based. Everything happens in real time. In many ways, it’s similar to other popular 3D games from the era such as Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. One thumbstick on the controller moves the character while the other can move the camera. Players are able to target specific enemies using the right shoulder-button so as to focus attacks and execute fast-paced combos. There is a menu that is accessible using the cross-pad on the controller. From here, players can cast spells, use items, and execute summons. Navigating this menu is also done in real time, meaning it can be a bit tricky to do in the midst of a heated battle.

Players control Sora directly. However, most of the time, Sora is accompanied by Goofy and Donald. These NPCs are controlled by AI. But the player can customize their actions to a degree. After the introductory tutorial (which honestly isn’t very helpful), the game actually starts in Traverse Town – a city that will serve as the home base for the rest of the game. From here, players can visit a number of different worlds – each one based on a classic Disney movie. Kingdom Hearts features the following playable levels:

Wonderland – (from Alice in Wonderland)
Olympus Coliseum – (from Hercules)
Deep Jungle – (from Tarzan)
Agrabah – (from Aladdin)
Atlantica – (from The Little Mermaid)
Halloween Town – (from The Nightmare Before Christmas)
Neverland – (from Peter Pan)
Hollow Bastion – (unique to Kingdom Hearts)

There’s also two special levels (worlds) to visit:

100 Acre Wood – (from Winnie the Pooh)
Monstro – (the Whale from Pinocchio)

Some worlds include a special playable character that can be swapped out with either Goofy or Donald. These optional characters are: Aladdin, Ariel, Peter Pan, and The Beast.

The game starts off fairly linear. Players are guided to the first world and set loose to explore as much as they can. Each world has an initial story that goes along with it. But, once the players have completed the main storyline of a specific level, they are free to revisit it at any time. In fact, as players continue to grow and learn new abilities, they will be able to access areas of older levels that were previously inaccessible to them.

Which brings me to my next point, despite being an action game, there are indeed a number of RPG elements in Kingdom Hearts. For example, experience points are earned during battle. Upon reaching a certain number of exp, the characters will level up and learn new abilities and enhancements. There’s also a variety of equipment that can increase stats, as well as various spells and abilities. Players will learn over time how best to equip the characters in order to overcome various obstacles and opponents that they may come to face.

As I mentioned above, players will visit the various levels in the game multiple times. The worlds in Kingdom Hearts are arranged in weird sort of “solar system”. Players are able to fly from world to world using an aircraft called a Gummi Ship. When flying between worlds, players participate in what I can only describe as a weird Starfox-like mini game. The Gummi Ship missions include navigating a 3D ship through an on-rails style space flight. During the journey players must avoid obstacles and shoot down ships piloted by The Heartless. Throughout Kingdom Hearts, players will find parts and blueprints that allow them to build new ships or enhance their existing ships. But, if I’m being honest, I found very little value in this mini-game. It doesn’t really match the rest of the game in tone and the interface used to build and customize ships is overly complicated and confusing. Still, I suppose it’s an interesting diversion from the rest of the game.

It took me a bit longer than normal to get the feel for this game once I started playing. In fact, I’d say it was probably about halfway through before the game actually clicked with me.  But once it did, my opinion changed from being very “blah” to being completely blown away and obsessed. By the time I had completed this game, I had invested over sixty hours into my playthrough – maxing out Sora’s level and hunting down and defeating every optional boss that the game had tucked away.

Having completed Kingdom Hearts I can easily see why so many fans hold the game in such high regard. The mixture of Final Fantasy and Disney is certainly a bit odd, but in some strange way – it works. And, even though the game is very kid friendly, its theme of good and evil is very appealing to adult players. When I was finally finished with this game, I found myself wanting more. That is always a great sign. I can’t wait to see what the other games in the series hold in store.

Version Reviewed: PS4

Difficulty: Variable –  The Final Mix version includes three difficulty options; Beginner, Final Mix, and Proud. Beginner is an easier mode that gives the player some additional items at the start of the game and also reduces the amount of damage taken. Final Mix should be considered “normal mode”. In this mode there’s still plenty of challenge for the player (especially when facing optional bosses), but most gamers should be able to complete the base game without too much difficulty. Proud (aka: hard) is the most challenging version of the game. Early gameplay on Proud Mode can be pretty rough, but it does tend to level out as you continue on towards the end of the game. For first time players, I recommend the middle option.

Multiplayer:  N/A

Story: The storyline for Kingdom Hearts is pretty complex and a large portion of it doesn’t really become clear until the end of the game. It does a great job of tying-in all of the various Disney worlds and characters. Players who are willing to see this game through to the very end will find themselves rewarded with a really good tale of good and evil.

Originality: Action RPGs have been done before. In that regard, there’s really nothing new with the core gameplay of Kingdom Hearts. What makes this game really unique is the blending of two completely different franchises and they way everything ties together. I have to admit, it’s masterfully done and really gives this game an experience like no other.

Soundtrack: As you might expect from Squaresoft, the music in this game is second to none. Haunting piano melodies, toe-tapping background music, and catchy J-pop tunes… it’s all here. The main theme for the game “Hikari/Simple and Clean” is the song that brought Hikaru Utada to the attention of the western audience. Excellent stuff.

Fun: It took me a moment to get my bearings with this game but once I did, I had an absolute blast. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t utter an obscenity of two while trying to tackle some of the optional bosses. But my frustrations never detracted from the fun I was having.

Graphics: At the time of its release, Kingdom Hearts featured top-of-the line graphics. By today’s standards, the original game does look considerably pixelated. But in its day it was as good as you could get. Today, the remaster is nothing short of stunning. This is the way that a HD remake should be. The graphics are still true to the original release but they look much sharper and more refined. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix is a thing of beauty.

Playcontrol: If the game suffers from any area, it’s here. The camera controls are bit troublesome from time to time. During combat I would sometimes find the focus was often somewhere else than where I wanted it to be. This is true even when you are locked on to a specific enemy. Still, this annoyance is easy enough to overcome. My only other complaint is that, at least in my opinion, the default button assignment just doesn’t feel very natural. I eventually got used to it, but it took a while.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: N/A

Value: No matter what version of the game you are looking for, you’re probably going to find it for around $20-$30. When you consider that the PS4 collection includes a total of six games – that’s an incredible deal! To make it even better, if you subscribe to PS + Extra – the game is usually free to play with your subscription.

Overall score (1-100): 85 – Kingdom Hearts has a reputation for being a phenomenal game and it’s easy to see why. I will be the first to admit that it’s not a perfect game. There’s certainly some rather glaring oddities and weird elements to it that do detract from the experience a bit. But in the grand scheme of things, these issues are easy enough overlook. It’s certainly worth your time to give this classic some attention. I personally cannot wait to see what the rest of the series has to offer.

Original System: PS2

Available today on:  PS4/PS5, Xbox One/S/X, Switch, PC  – (Updated as of Spring 2023)

Best Experience: PS4/PS5, Xbox One/S/X   – (Updated as of Spring 2023)

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

Kingdom Hearts   –   Chain of Memories    –   Kingdom Hearts II   –   Re:coded   –   Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days   –   Birth by Sleep   –   Dream Drop Distance   –   Kingdom Hearts III    –   Kingdom Hearts IV

Old Game Hermit

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