The Kingdom Hearts series is one of gaming’s fastest growing video game franchises. What started off as a simple and clean cross over title quickly escalated to becoming a series that is dearly beloved by all (sorry!). But what made it resonate so much with players? I mean how could a fanbase have so much passion for a game involving a giant key, Mickey Mouse, and Final Fantasy cameos. On the game’s 15th anniversary we look back at what Kingdom Hearts so special.
It Has a Compelling (Complicated) Plot
The first thing we need to highlight is the plot. Let’s face it we didn’t expect Kingdom Hearts to reach this height in terms of its narrative. I mean I surely didn’t. Going in I recall just thinking of playing a simple platformer with Final Fantasy and Disney characters involved. It sounded weird and that’s what drew me in. But then I came to visiting the game’s official site (which I sadly could not find) and was drawn in by an image of a boy descending in darkness with a haunting choir melody playing in the background. This game seemed different than what I had anticipated it seemed.
Flash forward to when I got my first copy, I put the disc in expecting a colorful or somewhat childish menu we typically see in Disney games but instead was greeted with a sort of tender and simple menu which was accompanied by the game’s iconic theme song—Dearly Beloved. As I clicked new game my heart was already pounding with anticipation. The intro came up with text that added a sense of mystery and wonder. Then Simple and Clean remix pumped my speakers and I. WAS. HOOKED.
It was from this moment I knew Kingdom Hearts was special. It wasn’t a game that just wanted to take IPs and make a cash-in cross over title but actually use them to full effect. The game’s tutorial was even more iconic thanks to its choices which not only impacted your stats but difficulty level as well.
As pointed out earlier, the thing that made Kingdom Heart’s plot so compelling was its sense of mystery. As Riku said “Suppose there are other worlds. And if there are, why did we end up on this one?”. The game constantly challenged you with questions that needed answering. Unfortunately this also became one of Kingdom Hearts shortcomings. As the series went on, the questions started to become more and more philosophical to the point that it doesn’t matter what the answer was anymore. But by that time, we became familiar with an interesting cast of characters and a villain that just didn’t want to die.
Gameplay is Easy and Fun
Kingdom Hearts gets a lot of flak for its gameplay. People mock it for being too simple or rather not a true JRPG because it lacks a turn based battle system (I seriously hate it when people say that). But truthfully it’s the game’s simplicity that makes it fun. Sure, you’ll be button mashing that attack button and hope your equipped abilities come into play but the impact is there. I feel the hits, I get a sense of reward when pulling off certain tricks, and most of all the game can be challenging especially in its proud mode (and that’s not even counting the insane critical mode).
And difficulty had a sense of purpose and reward. For instance playing on normal you would need to complete your journal before unlocking a secret video or even secret chapter in the case of Birth by Sleep. Completing a journal didn’t just mean collecting but fighting secret bosses including Final Fantasy 7’s Sephiroth. Playing on harder difficulties would lessen the restriction. Also these videos weren’t just simple “true ending clips” but actual teasers for the next entry. It was unheard of at the time and encouraged the pursuit of finishing the game 100% all the more worth it. Granted you could stream these videos on YouTube but back then it was almost possible, and seeing a teaser for Kingdom Hearts 2 in high DVD quality meant the world.
The Possibilities Feel Endless
Kingdom Hearts wasn’t just a regular adventure, it was one filled with nostalgia. The worlds you visited were places you knew. The deep jungles of Tarzan, Wonderland’s confusing mazes, and even new worlds like Traverse Town and Hollow Bastion fitted nicely. You could tell Square did their homework as each location felt it was lifted from the cartoon.
But because it was Disney we also got different worlds like Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean. Not to mention that Disney is basically a growing mammoth that is consuming massive IP’s left and right. With the Star Wars brand being a part of them now we should expect to see some reference to that in Kingdom Hearts 3.
Best of all these worlds tie in to the game’s overall narrative of darkness vs light. The Disney princess serve as keepers of the light with villains using the power of Darkness. Heck, if they do manage to make a Star Wars world, the whole light vs dark would perfectly there.
The only downside to all this is the lack of Final Fantasy characters. In KH 2 they were heavily used, especially in one climactic battle in Radiant Garden. I’ll never forget the epic moment Leon and Cloud teamed up in what could only be described as maximum fan service (but in a very good way). The last game we saw an FF cameo was Zack in 2010’s Birth by Sleep. Recent KH 3 trailers haven’t shown much but all the footage included memorable characters minus the Final Fantasy ones. One can hope they return in the big 3.
Now is The Perfect Time to Start
If you haven’t picked up Kingdom Hearts before now is the perfect time to jump in. The PS4 has all you need with 1.5 + 2.5 collection which includes everything minus Dream Drop Distance. That is included in 2.8 which also happens to include two chapters that help set the stage for 3.
As someone who played the 1.5 and 2.5 on PS3, the transition to the PS4 version is astounding. For one the game’s faster frame rate makes me wish it was like this from the start. KH is an action game and those always look better at a 60 FPS minimum frame rate. Thanks to the game being installed on the HDD the loading is pretty fast. Some areas don’t even feel like they’re loading anything at all despite the fade to black. And if you happen to have a PS4 Pro the 4K resolution boost will add that extra level of detail making it the ideal way to play Kingdom Hearts.
Now some may suggest you start the game chronologically—don’t. The game is meant to be experienced in the correct order. Birth by Sleep tends to serve more as a flashback than an actual sequel anyways.
I can’t recall the last time a series has stuck with me like Kingdom Hearts did. It’s filled with cheesy moments but it sits in the thin line between heartwarming and cringy though in most cases it tends lean more towards heartwarming. If you’re still on the fence, don’t be, Kingdom Hearts falls next to massive series such as Zelda or Final Fantasy and needs to be experienced by everyone at least ones. With 1.5 + 2.5 out now on PS4 there’s really no excuse.