Published on April 18th, 2012 | by Nichomaxwell0
The Manliest Game of them All: A Review of Kingdom Hearts
Year: 2002 // System: PlayStation 2 // Publisher & Developer: Square // Director: Tetsuya Nomura // Producers: Yoshinori Kitase & Shinji Hashimoto // Composer: Yoko Shimomura // Genre: Action RPG // Atmosphere: Disney
>>> Kingdom Hearts was for fangirls what Madden and Halo were for bros: an entrance platform into gaming. More often than not, it would be my lady friends who related to me their recent adventures with this series. Aside from the vibrant colors, pop-techno music, and the sensitive male leads, most girls’ interest in this game was fueled by the fusion of Final Fantasy elements with worlds and characters borrowed from Disney. The result was a beautiful, fantastical game with explosive visuals, mind-blowing FMV sequences, and memorable music.
But beneath the flashy veneer, how well does the gaming experience fare? Is it gripping? Is it new? Are you playing the game just to play it?
One word describes the engine in Kingdom Hearts: Simplified. Although this was marketed as a kids game, the creators should’ve known that they were drawing in quite the audience due to the collaborative efforts of corporate giants Square and Walt Disney. Although the worlds starred Disney characters and worlds, Final Fantasy characters offered their support, as well as the RPG elements that turned the FF series into the powerhouse of game sales that it is today. But instead of resorting to a turn-based battle system that might confuse the kiddies, KH incorporated real-time fighting elements to amp up the action and give players more tangible control over their protagonist, a happy-go-lucky, believe-in-yourself, wide-eyed boy named Sora. Now, although there was more than enough action to keep you busy, the RPG elements only stretched so far as to include leveling up, attaching equipment, new moves, and increased abilities. This was the same RPG engine that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night made much deeper use of…on the PlayStation. Therefore, with higher capabilities, KH could have done more with the RPG system…like allow you to control Goofy and Donald!
Yes, yes, it was cool to see them fight alongside you, and you could employ commands that enlisted their aid in tight situations. And yes, you could also recruit Jack Skellington and watched as he made heads roll in Halloweentown, or the aquatic beauty Ariel who led you through the underwater paradise of Atlantica. They couldn’t leave their worlds, no, but when you visited those worlds, they became available as assistant characters. So why couldn’t you be them?! As neat as it was to play with the coolest Disney characters in the business, it would have been an even stronger move on the creator’s behalf had they allowed you to play as those characters. They each had their unique abilities, so why not let you experience them personally? The restrictions to controlling Sora downplayed the RPG elements that were unique to Square’s series, particularly Final Fantasy. The game therefore became a third-person hack-and-slash.
The combat itself was the “heart” of the game. If you weren’t enjoying slicing and dicing the Heartless with your trusty Keyblade, then you weren’t enjoying Kingdom Hearts. Your abilities started off limited to the choices of jumping and slashing, but as you became more powerful, you could use magic spells, a defensive roll, brutal melee moves with your blade, and an aerial glide that helped you reach distant areas. Some of the worlds also affected how your fought. For example, in Atlantica, you had been transformed into a merman so that you could survive underwater; therefore, your found yourself learning how to swim while you still needed to maintain your finesse in battle. In Neverland, Sora and his duo could fly, so you could reach several more areas than before within that world. Also, flying becomes important against a hidden boss that you can access later on. Movement and fighting were straightforward, but perhaps too straightforward for a company that was used to making you think out battle strategies instead of leaving you to wail on bad guys with a blade and assistance from other characters.
The range of difficulty was well thought out, and I liked how your choices in the tutorial mode (Sora’s dream) affected whether or not you had higher/lower strength (sword), defense (shield) or magic points (wand) than normal. I did think the self-assessment for choosing the player’s difficulty within the tutorial was a bit unnecessary because he/she had already chosen to make the game Easy or Hard in the beginning, but then the extra choices gave the difficulty level a much greater range than anticipated. The game could therefore be extremely easy or a two-hit game. If the player wanted a challenge, then he/she could certainly have one.
The additional quests were enjoyable, even if they felt a little unnatural compared to the rest of the game. The gummi ship routes were excellent for giving the player control over whether or not they made it to the next world, even if fighting felt stiff, movement was too slow, and the enemy ships were hard to see. I loved hunting for the lost 101 Dalmatian puppies, seeking out new spells, and undertaking the quest in the storybook world of Winnie the Pooh. The hidden bosses were an honor to face instead of a chore. I still very badly want to beat Sephiroth…
I think Kingdom Hearts accomplished what it set out to do, and I’ll be the first in line to say that this game is loads of fun. It’s simple fun, but there’s enough of it to keep you busy for a few days. One thing I will criticize this game for is the misleading nature of the overarching story. You would think from your interactions with the other characters on Destiny Island that Kairi and Riku will be extremely important. As far as the story arc is concerned, they are extremely important. But you wouldn’t know any of that from playing the game…well, except for the few parts where you race and fight Riku. The rivalry with him was done very well, particularly because he was so hard to beat in the opening missions. But Kairi was disappointing for just being a goal…and a character that stood around, doing nothing during actual game play. You never fought her, played as her, or even gathered that her essence was hanging around Sora as you played. If you could skip the FMV scenes, she would have NO role in the actual game. She’s somewhat a “princess” character that you have to save, but maybe it would’ve been better to know that from the start.
Because the main story didn’t connect so well to the stories in the Disney worlds, the Disney worlds didn’t feel so important even though they were the core of the game. I felt as if I needed to play through those worlds for the story itself, instead of for the sake of enjoying the Disney worlds. At least the creators hadn’t forgotten the point of Kingdom Hearts entirely, as they seemed to have done in the sequel. I think, for as amazing the story was in KH, it should have been themed much more strongly around the Disney aspects; this way, enjoyment would have been further derived from playing the game instead of playing it to see the story.
In short, interactions felt limited. I wanted to do more and see more given the grand combination of two wonderfully imaginative companies with the best resources at their disposal. But I felt that, as a supergroup, Disney and Square fell short of that they could have created. Kingdom Hearts is a pretty game, and there is no doubt in my mind that it plays very well except for some frustration with camera angles during fighting sequences. But even with the side quests that it offered, the dynamic cut-scenes hinted that the creators were truly capable of accomplishing more. Kingdom Hearts was a great game, but it could’ve been one of the best of our time. Need further proof? Here comes the elaboration in the:
Challenge: 9/Outstanding: I loved the incredible number of options for individualizing the player’s difficulty setting during the tutorial level. From there, the combat plays incredibly smoothly, except for a couple of issues with the camera. The boss battles are fair, and the hidden villains are nearly legendary with how difficult they were without being impossible. Saying you beat Sephiroth (it remains the only game where you, yourself, can whip out your sword and hit him on the head as opposed to selecting an Attack command) remains to this day a statement that not too many people can say. The gummi ship battles weren’t fully realized, but they were a nice touch in diversifying a range of activities that extended beyond fighting, included gummi ship customization, and featured several side-quests with a search-and-find flavor.
Handling: 7/Solid: Again, this harkens back to the frustrating camera angles that hindered you during fights. Otherwise, the controls were fair. I don’t think that the back buttons on the shoulder (L2 and R2) were wise choices for controlling the camera, and in fact should have been used as your magic shortcut (L2) and your basic attack (R2). Otherwise, the target buttons came in handy, and the allocation of jumping and dodging to circle and square, respectively, was appropriate.
Innovation: 8/Great: Okay, so my rant begins: this should have been a 10. Given the capabilities of both companies, I should have not only been able to control Sora, but the other characters (Donald, Goofy, world-exclusive characters) as well. I should’ve been able to not just summon helpers, but transform into them for a short while! Overall, the implementation of variance in the different worlds gave Kingdom Hearts enough individuality. You were swinging on jungle vines with Tarzan, swimming through a shipwreck to find Ariel, exploring the Cave of Wonders with Aladdin, and doing quite a bit of climbing to help out Jack Skellington. Also, Winnie the Pooh’s world was one of the surprising highlights of the game play.
Core Experience: 8/Great: This also should have been a 10. An excellent RPG battle system was oversimplified. I wish the worlds were larger and offered more sections to explore. I would’ve liked to see more of Hollow Bastion than just caverns and a castle. There were certainly more areas that they could have showcased in both “Coliseum” and “Agra-bah.” Ultimately, there were enough features to keep both the young and old occupied, but I had played Final Fantasy VII, and I knew that Square was capable of offering a much deeper playing experience than Kingdom Hearts provided.
OVERALL: 8/Great: There’s no doubt that I had fun playing this game, but there were some things it didn’t include but appeared on the verge of offering, like more worlds to explore and a stronger focus on the assist characters. I would ask for both in the sequel- and would end up getting neither…