So I found myself returning to the original Kingdom Hearts for the first time since it was relatively new. Perhaps it was the need for a palette cleanser after the excellent but admittedly very harrowing NieR: Automata. Perhaps it was the fact that I found Final Fantasy XV, which more-or-less had the same dev team, to be surprisingly good. Perhaps it was Square’s timely release of a HD collection. In any event, I’m giving the Kingdom Hearts series a second chance; which is saying something, considering how my first go-around ended in an emotional dumpster fire partway through Kingdom Hearts 2.
Kingdom Hearts, as is well known, is the very bizarre Disney/Squaresoft crossover project that has somehow blossomed into one of gaming’s most iconic franchises. In a way, it fits quite snugly into this modern era where both Star Wars and Marvel both lodge at the House of Mouse, where we get an Avengers movie every few years and where stuff like Batman vs Superman shows up at the cinema.
But back in 2002, crossovers were largely limited to comic books and bad fan fiction and we had no idea that those Lord of the Rings flicks would establish serialized adaptations of nerdy stuff as the new form of the Hollywood blockbuster. So the news that Squaresoft was working on a crossover game with Disney seemed even more outlandish and out of the blue than it does today. But it wasn’t an unwelcome one, at least for myself – at the time of the game’s release I was perhaps a perfect example of the game’s target demographic: a teenager who had grown up with both Disney and Final Fantasy.
In retrospect, if Final Fantasy IX could be considered the last “classic” Square title, Kingdom Hearts is more of the transitional one. It’s the first game to see Tetsuya Nomura in the director’s chair while also being one of the last with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi in a producing role before his departure from the company. The game itself plays like a more streamlined, linear take on Legend of Mana which also looks towards the distant future of the more slick, action-packed modern Final Fantasies.
As to Kingdom Hearts’ actual quality, the short answer is that its a solid action RPG that nevertheless falls short of its full potential.
The game begins on the tropical Destiny Islands, with our tween hero Sora hanging out with his best friends Riku and Kairi while coping with the usual ominous dreams and visions that heroes are often subject to. In a sequence of events that is a bit difficult to parse (a common motif in the series) Riku opens the Door to the Darkness, which causes the Destiny Islands to become consumed by beings called the Heartless while Sora winds up becoming the wielder of the Keyblade (Square’s most ridiculous weapon design to date). The three friends to tumbling into different worlds while their home is presumably destroyed.
Meanwhile, at the Disney Castle, King Mickey has disappeared, leaving a note telling his retainers Donald and Goofy to find the Keyblade. This leads them to cross paths with Sora, and the three of them pledge to work together to find Riku, Kairi and Mickey while also piecing together what the hell is going on.
The game unfolds episodically as the trio explore various worlds, most of them inspired by a particular Disney film. In each case you get a little quest that (very roughly) follows the plot of said film while also kinda sorta tying it into the overarching plot.
First, the good: while the action RPG mechanics are pretty bread-and-butter (hit things with that giant key until they explode), and are inevitably a bit of a letdown after the polish of NieR: Automata, they work quite well, and indeed are actually even more successful than Final Fantasy XV’s. While that game’s combat frequently got chaotic to the point where I could barely grasp what was going going on, Kingdom Hearts manages to be frenetic without being confusing, even if the camera sometimes has difficulty following everything. What’s more, the boss fights are actual boss fights where you have to pay attention to enemy patterns and respond accordingly – none of the semi-interactive cutscene nonsense that plagues FFXV and, indeed most modern games. On a purely visceral level of smacking things around and watching your stats go up for 20 hours, Kingdom Hearts is pretty great.
From an aesthetic perspective there’s also a lot to like. A lot of care went into recreating the look and movement of the various Disney characters and it shows. Even if some of the facial animations can look a bit off at times it’s still quite impressive by 2002 standards, and the saturated colours and cartoony look of everything have helped it age quite gracefully. The voice talent is also quite something, and a prime case of where the dub is leaps and bounds above the original: where possible, the Disney characters are voiced by their original actors, and if not that, then at least someone who’s played them at some point (so Dan Castellaneta replaces Robin Williams as the Genie, for instance). The original characters fare quite well too. In particular, a young Hayley Joel Osment gives a good performance of Sora, speaking the often clunky dialogue with the same sort of earnestness that Mark Hamill brought to Star Wars.
But a lot of this can be undercut if the game world itself isn’t particularly immersive, and this is one of Kingdom Hearts’ big faults. The level design is quite bland and makes little attempt to disguise the fact that the Disney worlds are just a few rooms strung together for you to fight enemies and jump around in. They’re very pretty rooms, but never feel like real places that actual people live in. And it feels a bit weird that a Square game would have this problem – you only need to pick up any random Final Fantasy to know how good they can be at creating the illusion of being in a fantasy world that seems bigger than it actually is.
But perhaps more fundamentally, Kingdom Hearts doesn’t always work as a crossover. A lot of the blame here can be laid at Sora’s feet. While the use of an OC as the protagonist makes sense as providing a sort of neutral ground between Square and Disney, it also has the effect of pushing most of the Disney and Final Fantasy characters to the sidelines: this is ultimately a story about Sora, Riku and Kairi, and you could easily have replaced all the Disney/Final Fantasy characters with original ones without affecting the plot.
Which is a bit of a shame, because the primary appeal of a crossover is in seeing otherwise separate characters pal around with or fight each other. Say what you will about the Marvel movies, but they do understand how to provide this sort of fanservice. Kingdom Hearts on the other hand keeps most of the characters segregated into their own world and their own subplot. There are some exceptions, like Cloud having dealings with Hades, and Maleficent acting as the game’s Darth Vader, but they’re too few and far between.
The Final Fantasy characters also come across as particularly lifeless, lacking almost all of the personality their originals had. It’s perhaps not coincidental that their voice actors are the ones who most sound like they’re just here for the cheque.
So Kingdom Hearts does wind up feeling less like a crossover and more like an aesthetically disjointed game that plunders both Square and Disney assets. But I wonder if that’s part of what draws people to it: the uncanny effect of seeing a very Japanese design philosophy clash against the familiar Americana of Disney, of watching the logic strain as the narratives of Alice in Wonderland and Aladdin are tied into a very Final Fantasy-ish story. And in that regard it’s quite the success.