Back in the early days of the PlayStation 2, news came out that Disney and then Squaresoft were going to team up and create a game that mixed both Disney and Final Fantasy together. It sounded comical, and even a bit ludicrous at the time. But the gift of hindsight means that we all know that wasn’t the case. With a tonne of games released across a variety of consoles, handhelds and even smartphones, the Kingdom Hearts series has become one of the behemoth franchises in the gaming world.
So, with the third game in the main series finally set to come out later this year, I thought it would be a great time to go back and look at where it all began. At the time, Kingdom Hearts on the PS2 changed everyone’s expectations, blowing people out of the water. But has it really lived up to that memory when you go back and play the original version again?
Oh, and just for clarity, this review will cover the very first release of Kingdom Hearts, not the HD remasters or the Final Mix re-release.
How do you mix the characters and worlds of multiple Disney movies and the various Final Fantasy games, without it seeming like a muddled mess? Well, you create a new and original overarching story about strange creatures that want to steal people’s hearts and also feed on the hearts of the worlds. Then, you throw in a brand new set of characters for the player to follow in a plot that traverses different planets, each one being a different Disney movie.
Finally, you add the Final Fantasy characters in as people who have already lost their homeworlds to these creatures known as Heartless, so that you don’t have to mix the colourful style of Disney worlds with the bleak fantasy style of Square’s flagship franchise.
And you know what? It worked wonderfully! The main plot of helping Sora to find his friends, defeat the heartless and help search for King Mickey actually made for a really engrossing tale. It was both lighthearted and surprisingly dark, truly showcasing the mix between Disney and Squaresoft’s individual storytelling styles.
Featuring everything from tales of friendship and love to self-sacrifice and the destruction of entire planets, Kingdom Hearts had everything it needed to become an instant classic… And it deserved it as well. Sure, the story may have become incredibly complex (to the point of being convoluted) with later releases, but the original game is clean cut and perfectly paced. Everything ties in neatly together and it leaves you satisfied at the ending. Even the cliffhanger finale was carried out beautifully, being both joyous and heartwrenching at the same time.
It’s really funny to look back now and see what people thought before the release of Kingdom Hearts. Up until then, Squaresoft’s games had largely been turn-based RPGs like the older Final Fantasy games, or tactical RPGs like Front Mission. Yet, here they were, about to bring out an action RPG with a free-roaming battle system that incorporated combos, jumps and more. It was a huge new step for the games they released, and people were more than a little sceptical.
However, when you consider the fact that Final Fantasy XV for the PS4, the latest in Square Enix’s flagship series, used the Kingdom Hearts battle system as a base for its combat development, you can see how important it was.
The combat was smooth yet exhilarating, with you never feeling a single dull moment when in a fight. Enemies were relentless, assaulting you from all angles possible. Yet there was also a way for you to manoeuvre through each fight successfully. It was challenging, yet not punishing. This meant that the game could be picked up and enjoyed by everyone, no matter how “hardcore” they thought they were.
On top of this, the RPG elements to the game were used perfectly, as you would expect from the makers of Final Fantasy. If you wanted to be overpowered, then you just needed to level up more. But this wasn’t a requirement, and you could just play through the game at a leisurely pace as well.
The only real downside to the gameplay was the “Gummi Ship” sections that you needed to complete to unlock travel to new worlds. The customisation and upgrading of the Gummi Ship was a lot of fun, but the actual on-rails shooter style gameplay felt like such a sudden change of tone that it would really knock you back. On top of this, these sections seemed to go on far too long as well.
But, they made up such a tiny percentage of the actual game that they can easily be forgiven. And believe me, when you get around to fighting Cloud Strife and, later, Sephiroth himself, you’ll completely forget about the Gummi Ship.
Considering it has been almost 16 years since Kingdom Hearts was released on the PS2, you’d be forgiven for expecting it to have some horrible graphics. I mean, a lot of games in 2002 were still looking pretty outdated even then. Developers were still getting used to the new development kit for a relatively new console.
However, Kingdom Hearts was made by Squaresoft… These are the guys that brought us the phenomenal looking (and playing) Final Fantasy X on the same console just one year before.
So, naturally, Kingdom Hearts has some really great graphics for the time that still look good today. If you’re playing the game through an upscaler for your HD TV, it doesn’t become overly pixelated either, unlike many games from around the same time. The characters look great, suiting the Disney style and fitting in with the cartoon style environments of the game. Even the menus and HUD look amazing, being clean yet more informative that you would expect.
As with the gameplay, the only thing that lets Kingdom Hearts down a bit is the Gummi Ship section, with all of the ships made out of geometric shapes. However, Squaresoft cleverly made this part of the game world, as you need to collect “gummi blocks” from the debris of other ships in order to improve yours. Now that is one way to make your worst graphical section into a great gameplay mechanic.
And That’s All Folks
Kingdom Hearts initially sounded like a horrible idea, but in the end, it turned out to be one of the most beloved action RPG games of modern history. And for good reason. With an excellent storyline that will have you feeling a rollercoaster of emotions, excellent gameplay that ended up changing Final Fantasy’s own gameplay style, and graphics that still look good today, it was a work of art!
Have you played Kingdom Hearts? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below!