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Friday, July 26, 2013

A Brief Look Back At Kingdom Hearts

So, probably the biggest ‘we knew what it was from the moment the trailer started but we didn’t care because it was awesome’ moment at this year’s E3 was the long overdue announcement of Kingdom Hearts III, which will be coming to the Playstation 4 and Xbox One sometime in the future. The Kingdom Hearts series has long been one of my favorite gaming franchises, and with the apparent conclusion to the saga forthcoming, I’ve prepared these brief descriptions of the earlier games, as well as my opinions on each entry. It has been a long, strange road for Sora and company, as well as for fans of the series- but with the third main game finally on its way, let’s take a look back at Kingdom Hearts.

Kingdom Hearts (2002) (Playstation 2)

The original Kingdom Hearts marks the beginning of what must be one of the strangest crossovers in fiction (Squaresoft’s particular brand of RPG with settings and characters taken from Disney films), but the original Kingdom Hearts made it work, and kicked off a series that has become even larger than Square’s own Final Fantasy was at the time.

Despite how lengthy and complex the series’ narrative has become over time, the original Kingdom Hearts has a simple but effective story, focusing on the friendship between Sora, Riku, and Kairi. The game introduces the concepts of Keyblades, various worlds, and the Heartless, but all of the excess lore and plot threads are absent here. That’s one of the things I like about the game- while it would continue and grow more elaborate in subsequent games, the narrative’s simplicity is also part of its charm.  As far as the gameplay is concerned, Kingdom Hearts 1 is perfectly functional, although a lot of things (such as the clunky menu and dodgy camera) would receive welcome improvements later down the road.

There’s really not a whole lot else I can say about it- Kingdom Hearts 1 is a classic, many people would consider it the best in the series- and while I personally wouldn’t go that far (we’ll get to that), I do love the game.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004, 2008) (Game Boy Advance, Playstation 2)

Chain of Memories is an interquel, which directly follows the first game and sets up the sequel. It’s also where a lot of recurring characters and locations from the later games would be introduces, such as Organization XIII (and their iconic black coats), Twilight Town, and Nobodies. The game also uses a strange battle system, where decks of cards take the place of the series’ traditional menu. I haven’t played a lot of the GBA original, but I did play through the PS2 remake and found the battle system to be quite enjoyable there- it still plays similarly to any other Kingdom Hearts game, just with the additional rules provided by the cards.

I’ll admit, the biggest reason why I like this game so much is because of the second storyline. After finishing the game as Sora, a new game is unlocked where you play as Riku and learn what he’s been up to. Riku’s my favorite of the Kingdom Hearts protagonists for a reason- unlike Sora, he genuinely matures and develops over the course of the games, and Chain of Memories shows his redemption after his actions in the original game.

Chain of Memories wasn’t one to skip either way, though, because when Kingdom Hearts II arrived, it turned out that this side story might have actually been important.

Kingdom Hearts II (2006) (Playstation 2)

Kingdom Hearts II is better than the first game.

Yes. You heard me right. I’ll say it again.


The introductory sequence with Roxas is a fantastic, self-contained story that gives development and insight into one of the few genuinely interesting characters in this series (the other two being Riku and Xehanort). The combat is a hell of a lot more fun, with all of the major problems from the first game being remedied, and Sora has a lot more options at his disposal. There are a lot of various enemy types with the addition of Nobodies. The series of one-on-one duels with the Organization members are EPIC (excluding Demyx). It provides a satisfactory conclusion to the story that began in the first game and continued in Chain of Memories, disregarding all the games that came later.

Sure, Reaction Commands are kind of odd, but at least they were trying!

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (2009) (Nintendo DS)

This is where things get weird.

So, the way I understand it, everyone wanted Kingdom Hearts III, myself included. However, series creator Tetsuya Nomura was embroiled in the development of Final Fantasy Versus XIII (now Final Fantasy XV), and so they started making spinoff games instead. These spinoff games initially would be intended to fill minor plot holes in the series while we waited for a true Kingdom Hearts III, but instead ended up spiraling the series’ continuity out of control. That’s not to say that they’re all bad, but it’s this glut of spinoffs and side stories that makes the series seem nigh-on impenetrable to newcomers.

Anyways, 358/2 Days was another interquel, telling the story of Roxas’ time in Organization XIII and further elaborating on his development. I’ll admit, I really enjoy the character-focused storyline of Days and how it sets up the events of Kingdom Hearts II nicely. It’s the game itself that is kind of odd. It’s a functional game, but the DS controls are kind of awkward (a 3D action game controlled by a D-pad would tend to be that way). I liked the mission structure and the unique character progression system, though.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (2010) (Playstation Portable)

Birth by Sleep is actually one of the best games in the series- it feels like this game had the effort of a numbered sequel put into its development, making it a great Kingdom Hearts 0 even if it wasn’t Kingdom Hearts 3. This prequel game sets up the story of series villain Xehanort, detailing his background and motivations, as well as delving into actual lore by talking about a Keyblade War that took place sometime in the past. In fact, as far as narrative is concerned, Birth by Sleep is the best of the bunch- the new protagonists are all well developed and likeable (well, Ventus is kind of annoying), it answers questions about the Organization members’ histories, explains the villains motivation, and provides a neat bridge to the first game. It also has the best combat in the series up until this point, in my opinion, with the addition of a customizable menu interface that lets players create new commands and slot whichever ones they want for use in battle.

So yeah, not much to say here. It’s a great game. Every Kingdom Hearts fan who hasn’t played it should play it.

Kingdom Hearts: RE:Coded (2011) (Nintendo DS)


Do I really need to say more?

I do?


Kingdom Hearts Coded was originally a cell phone game in Japan, but was remade for the DS under the title RE:Coded. The game’s story doesn’t move the overall Kingdom Hearts story forward AT ALL, instead featuring a nonsensical romp through digital recreations of past Kingdom Hearts worlds. Every criticism you’ve heard people throw at the series, about how the story was just getting more and more confusing, and Square was just milking the series for profit? Well, those were silly when discussing great games like Birth by Sleep, but Coded validates those criticisms and deserves every one of them.

Remember how I mentioned that 358/2 Days had clunky combat, but this was remedied by a good story and a unique mission structure? Well, Coded has slightly less clunky combat (thanks to Birth by Sleep’s menu interface), almost no story to speak of, and spends its time retreading old ground. Outside of a greater emphasis on minigames, some of which are kind of fun, there is almost nothing of value in this game that would make recommend it to anyone other than the most diehard Kingdom Hearts fan who simply must play every game in the series.

The things I do to myself…

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream, Drop, Distance (2012) (Nintendo 3DS)

So after the miniature disaster that was Coded, faith in a Kingdom Hearts III coming anytime soon was dwindling, but Square saw fit to make one more side entry in the series. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Donald Duck Dies ties together the variety of plot threads that the other recent games brought to the table, and essentially sets up the now-official Kingdom Hearts III.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Derp, Derp, Derp is about Sora and Riku training to become Keyblade Masters in a variety of Dream Worlds, a concept that isn’t explained very well and should best be ignored. In fact, that sentence basically applies to the game’s plot as a whole- 3D is a mess of retcons, time travel, and nonsense ‘revelations’ that basically destroys any semblance of coherence the series had up until now. This is redeemed in small part by the epic series of final battles- at this point, all of the series’ main villains have been resurrected, and the stage is set for an epic conclusion in Kingdom Hearts III. The actual means of this resurrection, however, is best left forgotten.

Oh, I see I’ve left a few typos in when I was writing the game’s title? Well, it’s not like Dream, Drop, Distance is a better title.

All kidding aside, 3D is actually a really good game- the combat is fun, the music is fantastic, I loved the cameo appearances of characters from The World Ends With You, and the final few hours do provide a series of awesome battles and moments. Despite this, it also single-handedly makes the narrative a lot more convoluted than it needed to be, because I thought the series made logical sense up until that point (Birth by Sleep and Days are not that confusing). I’m still looking forward to seeing how the story will end, but Dream, Drop, Distance definitely overcomplicated things, despite a few cool moments.

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