Kingdom Hearts is perhaps one of the RPG scene’s best known franchises, in part because it features the mix of Squaresoft at its best with the star power of Disney, and in part because of its compelling and rich story.
The story of how Kingdom Hearts came about is a well known tale at this point, but goes to prove that coincidence can be a driving power in the best of things. Square and Disney shared a building for a while, and one day two members of the company started chatting in the elevator about how cool it would be to produce a collaboration game that used Disney properties and Square’s experience with RPGs. Initially this was set to star Mickey Mouse, but cold feet at the sight of Mickey holding a weapon led to the creation of a new protagonist, and opened up the door to Final Fantasy cameos in addition to those from the Disney catalog. It’s opportunity at its finest and whilst on a technical level the original game has been exceeded, in terms of creativity it’s perhaps the high point of both companies.
Graphically, Kingdom Hearts was a beast on PlaySation 2 hardware. Large, well detailed 3D models and fully 3D environment built with a verticality to encourage platforming and exploration makes for some stunning visual design. Elements such as the Keyblade have gone on to become iconic imagery, and the whole cast of original characters is deeply memorable. Sadly outside of the original PS2 release, much of the games data has been lost, and this means that when rebuilding the title for HD remasters many of the character models have been imported from later, portable entries, which can leave some scenes in-game looking less amazing that the original release.
Musically the title excels, with the work of composer Yoko Shimomura having a memorable and distinct tone that walks between epic and fairytale, sometimes mixing in classic threads of Disney sequences, but using a surprising amount of original themes. Many of these have gone on to become iconic, and are played in orchestral arrangements around the world, whilst sound effects are no less distinctive. The voice cast gathered for the game is of a particularly high standard, with many Disney actors reprising their roles and an all star cast coming in to voice previously mute Final Fantasy roles. It’s the central trio of Riku, Sora and Kairi however, all child actors at the time, that steal the show and give the game its heart.
The story of Kingdom Hearts is at its most accessible in this first entry and hinges on three children who want to leave their small island and seek something more beyond the horizon. One fateful night monsters known as Heartless attack their world and steal away Kairi, whilst Riku is drawn to their darkness and vanishes. Sora, seemingly helpless, is then chosen by a powerful weapon known as they Keyblade that allows him to fight back, and though his world is devoured he escapes to the world known as Traverse Town. Meanwhile King Mickey has vanished, leaving behind a warning that terrible things are coming and tasking his friends Donald and Goofy to locate the one who wields the key. The writing here is excellent and as characters enter pre-existing Disney properties to interact the deft handling of the source material is fantastic. Later entries into the series became dense with in-world lore, but this point in the franchise revels instead with telling a single amazing story.
Gameplay sees you control Sora as he investigates a 3D environment with real-time combat. The usual lock-on targeting and levelling systems are applied here that one would expect from an Action RPG, and Sora comes out of the game with a 3 hit combo that can be slowly expanded upon, first by learning to block (rebounding projectiles) and later by adding a dodge roll and magic spells to the arsenal. Ultimately Sora will be double-jumping, flying and summoning as well, turning what at first feels like tricky platforming areas into a cake-walk. This game more than any other in the series focuses on platforming over combat, and it comes with mixed results as the camera can work against the player and precise jumps are frequent. Luckily it’s relatively forgiving, if maddening when the player fails. Aside from swinging the Keyblade, spells and items can be mapped to quick links on the face buttons which will be massively helpful, as peeling through the menu displayed in real-time on the left hand side of the screen can be frighteningly hard work whilst trying to stay alive in a hard fight. Outside of these worlds, Sora makes use of a Gummi Ship which is used for short flight segments and is constructed in a lego-like manner that allows the player to customize the vehicle to an extreme not seen on the PS2 at the time. Optional bosses and a few puzzles are also thrown in for good measure, but the game keeps the heart of its challenge in combat and platforming challenges, with most puzzles or obstacles requiring literal thinking to solve. See an unlit series of candles? Set them alight with a fire spell. Factory not working because it has no power? Shock it back to life with a Thunder spell, etc. Accompanying Sora are Donald and Goofy, but these can be switched out on worlds you visit for locals including Beast and Aladdin, making for some fun parties, and all three of the main party need to buy and equip weapons and armor into a slot total that increases in number as they level. The games biggest diversion aside from the Gummi Ships is an in depth synthesis system that allows players to create the best of these, and a hunt for all 101 dalmations to unlock additional items to pump into this system.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts is a pleasure to play, though the camera has become considerably more annoying to have to manage over time. The title is easily available across the whole Sony PlayStation catalog thanks to several HD remake bundles that are available in both physical and digital stores, but we recommend for the best experience with the original version of the game (subsequent re-releases use an expanded version) to look for the PS2 original.