Kingdom Hearts is a strange game. On paper, it seems like there is no way that it could possibly work, but an elevator ride and a few years later, comes something that works surprisingly well.
Aesthetics: Kingdom Hearts set the precedent for the great visual design of the series. The game’s visual style involves a blend of the traditional Disney style (think Snow White), the renaissance Disney style (think Aladdin), and PlayStation era Squaresoft (think Final Fantasy VII). They manage to blend this well, with some missteps (Sora’s clown shoes), bringing us the sense of wonder that we found in the movies and games that inspired them. One thing that I particularly love is how your character appearance changes to reflect the Disney movie that you are currently playing in. The enemies feel like they are slight variations of each other rather than unique entities with their own inspirations, although they at least feel cohesive to the world.
Audio: Music is another strength of Kingdom Hearts. However, while the music is fantastically composed, very few tracks are that memorable and not from a Disney movie. The game opens up to Dearly Beloved, which has this sadness and slowness to it, reminding me of Prelude. If you stay on the opening screen long enough, then Hikari will play. This song is also sad, but in a different, more subtle way, adding a lot to the atmosphere. The voice acting is amazing. It really brings the characters to life, especially how they managed to get James Woods and Catherine Beaumont to reprise their respective roles as Hades and Alice.
Technical: As far as PS2 games go, this game looks good and plays smoothly, with strong animation that manages to be expressive and functional. There’s not too much to say other than that.
Story and Characters
The Plot: Having played the other games in the series, I revel in the relative simplicity of the first one. That doesn’t mean that it’s simple, just that it has a plot structure that doesn’t require a flowchart to have any hope of understanding. The pacing and flow are strong, giving us a story that it’s always engaging. One thing that the game does well is having the choice to go to a variety of worlds, while keeping the flow and linear structure intact. The brilliant thing here is that the order that groups narrative components happen is irrelevant, but it never feels like you’re getting a disjointed experience.
The Hero: The main character is a 14 year old boy named Sora. Sora is a symbol of naivety and innocence, always being optimistic with a carefree attitude; however, he can be selfish, arrogant and immature; there are also times when you see his frustration come out as anger, like a real teenager. The way they grounded such an aloof character is one of the my favourite things about the series, that they can lend complexity to something that seems so simple.
The Villain: The villain that we follow throughout most of the game is Maleficent, she is as much fun to watch as she is in Sleeping Beauty. Being a Disney character, her black and white nature can be understood, and even though she’s evil for the sake of being evil, she does it so well. [SPOILER WARNING] They pull a Final Fantasy style, “but this is the actual main villain”. With someone called Ansem. Ansem gets no establishment as a villain, although it is mentioned that he researched the Heartless (enemies). Other than that, he sort of hijacks the story from the one that we’ve been playing the entire game.
The Supporting Cast: The most important side original side character is Riku: Sora’s best friend before the events of the story. He is quite an interesting character, as he wants to do the right thing, but his idea of the right thing becomes influenced by his jealousy and envy. The other major original character is Kairi. Kairi is a plot device. She acts as a damsel in distress, being asleep for most of the story, but oddly enough, not for Sora. Sora is equally motivated by finding Kairi and Riku, but again, Riku’s decisions stem from his envy of Sora’s relationship with and his jealousy of Donald and Goofy. Donald and Goofy should also be mentioned, due to their importance to the story. It’s a lot of fun seeing them interact with other characters, and they remain faithful to their cartoon counterparts.
Kingdom Hearts is a game with a unique mix of Action RPG, JRPG, and Hack and Slash. The combat mainly involves dodging enemies and using abilities and spells until you see an opportunity to mash the attack button. This allows for a surprising amount of depth, meaning that I enjoyed it a lot. You can equip up to 3 different kinds of gear on each party member, which you can find, buy or synthesise. This means that you need to choose your item loadout very carefully, as there is a lot of gear to craft. Donald and Goofy can equip different weapons, and Sora can equip keychains to modify the stats of his weapon. New abilities and spells are unlocked by gaining tech points (like Chrono Trigger), but only a certain number can be equipped at any given time, fixing the problem that I have with gaining new abilities by levelling. Each party member’s AI is customisable, but very stupid, probably due to technical limitations. In a lot of worlds there are guest party members that are usually quite powerful, these are a lot of fun to use, and it’s good to replace Donald wherever you can. My biggest gripe is with Atlantis, namely, the underwater physics and controls are painful, and it’s impossible to progress without doing something that I think is very stupid. One other thing that got under my skin was the platforming. Then, there’s the Gummi levels. They’re annoying and pointless, put there for a difference in kind that isn’t needed. Most of the level design ranges from good to grate, and is a lot of fun to play through.
8/10 Easily worth a play if you own the system, but no need to go out the way for it. I recommend Kingdom Hearts to anyone that owns a PS2, it may not be as good as a lot of things, but I can’t think of any reason to really avoid it.