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Episode 0.0 – Prelude to Madness

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Kingdom Hearts III comes out on January 29th, 2019. That, in and of itself, is patently absurd considering that Kingdom Hearts II came out in America on December 22nd, 2005. The gap between numbered sequels is preposterous! If we consider the notion that this franchise was originally made for pre-teens, this gap means their target audience wasn’t even born when Kingdom Hearts II came out.

This is a series I’ve always wanted to sink my teeth into, but I always stayed away due to its reputation for having an incoherent mess of a plot — basically, a reputation for Square-Enix at its most Square-Enix-est. In total, it’s a sprawling epic spread out over countless spin-offs and, despite its massive popularity, is something of a punchline. Considering how many Kingdom Hearts titles have existed across six separate platforms (seven, once KHIII makes its Xbox One debut) keeping up with all the happenings of this Final Fantasy/Disney crossover has been deemed to be nigh-impossible.

But is it?

I’m basically coming to Kingdom Hearts as a blank slate apart from what I’ve gathered as secondhand info. So, to see it for myself, I imported a copy of Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far from the United States, which is a two-disc set featuring Kingdom Hearts 1.5 (Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts RE: Chain of Memories, and movie versions of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts RE: Coded from the Nintendo DS), Kingdom Hearts 2.5 (Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix, and a movie version of Kingdom Hearts: RE Coded from the Nintendo DS), and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue (Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD from the 3DS, Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep Fragmentary Passage, and the Kingdom Hearts x Back Cover Movie) all in one convenient package. These releases are also available as part of a $100 digital pre-order set for those who want to pick up Kingdom Hearts III as well.

One $40 box containing six full, meaty games alongside three movies is quite possibly one of the better values in gaming history, and has allowed a relative Kingdom Hearts newbie like myself to jump in headfirst and see for myself what the hell this convoluted mess of a franchise is really all about. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In the lead-up to the release of Kingdom Hearts III, I will be going through all nine parts of this franchise to experience them all, and to prepare as much as humanly possible for Kingdom Hearts III’s arrival next month.

Just writing the former statement is patently absurd, and thinking about playing through nine games to prepare for one almost seems like homework, but it’s also something that is both incredibly cool and incredibly frustrating — there’s nothing like it in terms of scale. Before this massive PS4 re-release, you’d have to have owned a PS2, a GBA, a PSP, a DS, a 3DS, (or play all of that in the previous PS3 re-releases) and a PS4 (KH 2.8) to truly experience the entire story front to back. It’s ambition is, to me at least, rather inspiring, and I’m hoping that it rewards completionists.

So, over the next few weeks, I hope you join me in my quest to decipher what the hell is actually going on with the Kingdom Hearts franchise and read my upcoming eight-part epic as I go through each entry in this franchise.

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Episode 1.0 – The Long Road

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In 2002, Squaresoft was hot off the release of Final Fantasy X, and young character artist Tetsuya Nomura was making Kingdom Hearts, his directorial debut under the wise tutelage of a still-at-Square Hironobu Sakaguchi, who served as executive producer. It’s hard to think about the first Kingdom Hearts game as this plucky little weird Disney crossover when the series has ballooned into what is today.

In fact, that’s how I tried to view it as I fought scores of Heartless with Goofy and Donald Duck at my side — I didn’t want to think about all the side projects that were ahead of me, and I avoided trying to figure out which nugget of information was gonna be super important in the seventh game and whatnot. With the goal of playing it as I would have played it back then, i saw it a fun but slightly simple action RPG with a good, easy-to-follow story — the madness comes later.

While the game does slightly dabble in madness, the first Kingdom Hearts definitely feels like a game that skews for a younger audience. Our hero, Sora, gets sucked out of his home world through a portal in the sky along with his friends Kairi and Riku, and you’re given a magical sword known as the Keyblade. Donald Duck and Goofy are sent by recently-vanished king Mickey to find the person with said magical sword (You), y’all find each other, and then set off to find your friends, save the universe, and help out some famous Disney characters with respective problems in respective worlds. It’s not rocket science! It’s a charming, well-told, well-acted tale that any ten-year old should be able to grasp, and maybe this franchise would’ve been better off if it stayed that way. More on that later.

It’s also important to note that while this is a crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, it’s like 90% Disney from a character standpoint. Only a few of the dozen-or-so worlds actually feature Final Fantasy characters, and while the style of the main characters are clearly more Square than Disney (sans for the absurd foot sizes) the vast majority of the game is comprised of playing through Disney levels fighting Disney villains and interacting with Disney characters.

Technically, the version I was playing (part of the Kingdom Hearts: Story So Far set on PS4) adds widescreen support, brings the game up to a full 4K resolution on a PS4 Pro, and ups the framerate to 60FPS (except during cutscenes, which are locked at 30). The look of the game has aged extremely well, featuring colorful worlds, great art design, and some shocking-for-the-time facial expressions. I’ve always been a big proponent of HD collections, and this may be the best one I’ve seen yet. It’s also worth noting that the version featured in this collection is Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, which adds a few more spells and context-providing (but voiceless) cutscenes.

Putting the upgrade aside, it was stunning to see what a fantastic and lavish production  Kingdom Hearts is. The voice acting is fantastic, with Haley Joel ‘I See Dead People’ Osment doing a great job as main character Sora, and they went the extra mile to bring in some big names from the original movies — the highlight here being distasteful asshole James Woods reprising his iconic role as Hades from Hercules. Jodi Benson is back as Ariel, and while maybe getting Robin Williams to play Genie may have been too much of a budgetary stretch, Dan Castellaneta (AKA Homer Simpson) is a great stand-in. The rest of the official Disney sound-alikes do a great job, and it’s all tied together with Yoko Shimomura’s absolutely sensational score, which has been enhanced in the PS4 version with a full orchestra. It’s a truly dazzling game to play, and these production values have stood the test of time exceptionally well.

And it’s a good thing all of this audio-visual stuff is awesome, because as a game to play, the original Kingdom Hearts has aged terribly.

KH I lays the foundation of what the rest of the franchise will be. It’s a realtime, fast-paced action-RPG with the player teaming up alongside various Disney characters to hack ‘n slash through a seemingly-endless supply of baddies. Along the way Sora, Donald, and Goofy level up. New abilities are learned throughout the game, but they need to be assigned in the abilities section of the menu, but they can’t all be equipped, so one will need to decide what abilities are important to them. It’s a good system that allows the player to customize their characters in ways that represent how they want to play.

The combat is enjoyable most of the time, but let me make this point abundantly clear — I have never been more frustrated with a game’s camera in my life. I was infuriated to no end on numerous occasions because the camera got stuck to a wall which made me miss a vital jump or not see an incoming enemy attack. It is unresponsive, finicky, and awful. It causes the entire game to be a frustrating, grating experience. The game came out in 2002 so maybe I should’ve expected this, but I’ve played plenty of games from that time that had figured out 3D cameras better than this one.

Apart from the terrible camera, it’s just full of nagging little issues like the ‘gummi ship’ sections where you traverse from world to world in a rail shooter sequence. These bits are are fairly brain-dead, and there’s gummi ship editor, which allows the player to customize their ship with blocks (basically, weapons and armor) they collect to create new ships to fly through the levels with. The customization section is incredibly obtuse and features a completely unhelpful tutorial, so I never used it. I beat every level with the very first ship given to me without much issue. There’s also really only one place to resupply in Kingdom Hearts, so if you’re in the middle of a world and want to buy some potions or gear, you frequently have to leave and head back to Traverse Town, one of the first worlds you encounter — it’s the only one with shops.

Some of the worlds players visit feature bonus characters to team up with. Outside of Donald and Goofy, you’ll meet famous Disney characters like Tarzan, Ariel, Jack Skellington, Aladdin, and Beast (from Beauty and…). Using them and testing out their individual skills is awesome, but it’s unwise to use them for long because characters rotated out of your active party don’t level up, which could make certain boss fights at the end of the game highly frustrating. The too-frequent platforming is also straight-up bad with Sora having a funky, floaty, difficult-to-use jump to cross platforms. 

Also, I was rather surprised by how difficult it was overall, considering it’s a Disney-themed game — the adventure is littered with cheap deaths and huge spikes in difficulty. The now-infamous Ursula fight springs to mind. I was having a good time leveling up and getting through the adventure only to have her giant face lay the smack-down on me over and over again. Essentially you have to maneuver around her giant face while she constantly shoots lightning bolts, and you have to be lined up in a specific spot to deal damage. The Little Mermaid level is (or course) an underwater section with frustrating controls, so getting to the spot to attack her is profoundly frustrating. After you finish it and say ‘thank god I don’t have to do that again’, you’ll be happy to know the final boss fight and a few fights before it take place in the air, which feature the exact same mechanics.

These cheap deaths are exacerbated by the cumbersome item-use system. The game has a Final Fantasy style ‘Attack, Item, Magic, Summon’ menu, and you can select your input with the d-pad. This works great for turn-based titles, but in a fast-paced action game where damage can stack up quickly, if you don’t have a potion on your shortcut wheel, using the D-Pad to get to the item menu to find what you need can lead to more frustrating deaths. The final fight took me an astounding amount of tries because I just wasn’t quick enough on the draw enough to use my items, which led to the first time in years where I actually threw my controller in frustration. I can’t imagine what a ten-year-old would’ve thought playing this DISNEY GAME FOR CHILDREN.

Many of these problems can be attributed to its age and the era in which it came out, but there’s plenty of straight-up sloppy game design alongside it. It’s over sixteen years old now and, frankly, early PS2 ‘classics’ haven’t aged very well (although Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper seemed to have cameras that work just fine) but the original charm of the game still shines through. While it frustrated me to no end, the Disney nostalgia, likable characters, varied levels, and stellar production values connected with me although I found myself not having a ton of fun actually playing it. However, one thing that mitigated my suffering was that I knew the issues frustrating me would be lessened in future installments.

Well, that’s mostly the case. Stay tuned next time for my look at Kingdom Hearts RE: Chain Of Memories.

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Fun fact: 2002’s Kingdom Hearts was the final game to use the Squaresoft name before the Square-Enix merger due to the astounding calamity that was the ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’ movie!

Jarrod Johnston

Jarrod Johnston

Jarrod's had a busy couple of years.

In search of a dramatic change of pace, he sold everything he had (including 950 videogames) and shipped off to Asia where he's taught English and lived in Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, and now China.

He still loves his games, priding himself in his varied taste and playing everything from Disgaea to Madden. Jarrod is also an avid rugby player, which led to his current job as a youth rugby coach in Wuhan, Hubei, China. On weekends, he plays for the Wuhan Baiji Rugby Club while his Chinese friends watch on horror, wondering why their strange foreign friend likes to bust up his body on Saturdays.

Jarrod used to write for sites like GamesRadar where he had the esteemed pleasure of reviewing Wii ports and PS Move launch games for peanuts. After a multi-year hiatus, he is happy to get back into reviews with GameCritics.

...He read the site as a kid, which should make Brad, Mike, and Daniel feel old as hell, considering he's almost 30.
Jarrod Johnston

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