My Review- Kingdom Hearts (PS2)
Kingdom Hearts is one of Square’s most popular franchises, possibly even more so than Final Fantasy. While today the series spans more than eight installments, with more on the horizon, it all began with the original Kingdom Hearts, released on the PS2 in 2002. A strange yet enticing mix of Square role-playing and Disney properties, Kingdom Hearts is a classic Action-RPG.
Kingdom Hearts begins with protagonist Sora- who perfectly fits Square’s classic style of spiky-haired lead characters- wandering through a strange, underwater chamber, guided by a mysterious voice. When he is attacked by strange, dark creatures, he is awoken from the dream by his friend Kairi. The universe of Kingdom Hearts is split into many worlds, and Sora, Kairi, and their friend Riku live on Destiny Islands, secluded from the other worlds. It is their dream to build a raft that will take them from their island home and allow them to see the outside. However, on the night before their planned voyage, the island is attacked by the same monsters from Sora’s dream. When Sora tries to find Riku and Kairi, he suddenly becomes capable of wielding the Keyblade, a magical weapon that is capable of fighting the dark creatures. Sora fights the invaders, but his homeland is destroyed and Kairi and Riku disappear. When Sora awakens in the neighboring world of Traverse Town, he learns that the invading creatures are called Heartless, and that only the Keyblade can stop them from destroying all other worlds. Along with Donald Duck and Goofy (seriously), Sora sets out on a magical adventure in order to restore order to the worlds and to find his friends.
The basic premise of Kingdom Hearts- that of a fantasy RPG with Walt Disney-themed worlds and characters- is an odd one, but once you get used to the presence of the Disney characters, Sora’s adventure becomes a very enjoyable one. The main story takes many interesting turns, and it has a melancholy air without the excessive angst that permeates the later installments. The frequent encounters with Riku, Sora’s friend who is tempted by the darkness, makes a compelling part of the story, and the game’s ending is easily one of my favorites. Kingdom Hearts tells an emotional and intriguing story, and the original’s tale is easily one of the best in the series.
Kingdom Hearts features a unique Action-RPG combat system. The game’s combat is in real time, but uses a command menu similar to other RPGs. You use the D-pad or the right analog stick to cycle through the menu, which is divided into four sections- Attack, Magic, Items, and Special Attack. Pressing X while on the Attack command will continuously rack up hits in a combo, and you can assign spells to a shortcut menu that can be brought up by pressing L1. The combat in Kingdom Hearts is simple and fun, but fast paced. Boss encounters are interesting- while you can usually get through boss fights by mashing Attack, some bosses will be weakened by different spells, allowing for a degree of strategy. Donald Duck and Goofy are your party members for the majority of the game- Donald Duck is a Mage and Goofy is a Knight. They are AI partners only, but you can set tactics for them from the menu, instructing them when they should use special attacks or items.
Kingdom Hearts also features a strong platforming element, and Sora’s maneuvering abilities are important to navigating the vast worlds. You will jump, swing from vines, swim, and fly through each area. The controls aren’t as precise as they should be at times, but they are perfectly functional. The biggest flaw with the platforming is the game’s finicky camera, which is controlled using the back shoulder buttons. Otherwise, exploring in Kingdom Hearts is simple. The worlds themselves are based off of various Disney properties, including Alice in Wonderland, Tarzan, and Alladin. Each world has a difficulty level, and it is usually best to go to world in order of this level.
Sora and crew travel from world to world in the Gummi Ship, basically a Lego Block spaceship. Traveling between worlds is done through a minigame in which you pilot the Gummi Ship through a third-person shooting gallery. This is easily the worst part of the game- the Gummi missions have no recognizable bearing on the story and are so insultingly easy that they seem underdeveloped. Fortunately, you gain the ability to warp to worlds you’ve already visited relatively early.
The only problem I have with Kingdom Hearts is a slightly erratic difficulty curve. Some levels feature needlessly complicated maps that make navigation a chore as you try to puzzle out your route. Other worlds are just poorly designed, the biggest offender being the Little Mermaid world, with its awful swimming controls. Finally, some bosses are excessively difficult, especially the battle with Riku near the end. Otherwise, Kingdom Heart’s gameplay is simple, fun, and engaging.
Kingdom Hearts looks great for such an early PS2 game, featuring cleaner textures than Final Fantasy X. The cartoon visual style blends the Square and Disney source material together perfectly. The worlds are all nicely varied, and the numerous bosses are imaginatively designed. A particular favorite part of the game visually for me is The End of the World, a world which clearly pays homage to the end-game dungeons from the Final Fantasy games, and Hollow Bastion, which has a similar feel.
The music of the game was composed by Yoko Shimomura, and is simply outstanding. The many piano pieces are stirringly beautiful, and the different tunes can be upbeat, exhilarating, mournful, and happy. Even ‘Simple and Clean’, the J-pop opening, sounds good.
Kingdom Hearts is a great game. A great story and presentation make this original role-player one of the best things Square has ever designed. It has some frustrating moments and slight flaws, but overall this is a classic that everyone should play.