Game Reviews: The Kingdom Hearts Series

Back in 2000, a Square Enix producer (Final Fantasy) met up with a Disney executive in an elevator and the two of them tossed around the idea of taking their respective properties and jumbling it all up into one game – a crossover move that would give even “Archie meets the Punisher” a run for it’s money. The end result was an animator’s wet dream, mixed in with some of the trippiest action gameplay and story-telling I’ve ever seen, taking a typical JRPG and putting in a bunch of Disney characters. All of whom you beat the crap out of.

Kingdom Hearts (2002)
Rating: A+

The first game, released for the PS2, follows the story of Sora and his two friends, Riku and Kairi. A bunch of island-ridden kids who dream of going on magical adventures. Then a bunch of monsters show up, eat everyone’s hearts, and suck the world into a flaming hellstorm of darkness. Sora becomes the master of a mystical weapon called the Keyblade and escapes into a alternate dimension where he sets out to find his friends. Eventually he teams up with Donald and Goofy, two court-guards looking for their missing king (Mickey Mouse) who’s the only one that knows what’s going on. They then hop into their dimension-jumping ship and proceed to beat the shit out of everything in the universe.

The game’s settings take the player to many familiar locations from Disney movies, including Hercules’ Olympic Colosseum, Agrabah, and Halloween Town. Along the way, the player encounters the characters from these worlds and usually helps them with their problems before moving on to the next world (like an episode of “Sliders” or “Quantum Leap.”) Along the way, they pick up clues and the story develops into one of those “way too serious and complicated” Japanese video game plots, which usually involves some kind of villain who exists beyond reality and has all kinds of twisted thoughts on the nature of darkness. It often walks the line between being a family game and being Satanic.

The graphics were a huge selling point for me. As an animator myself, I was blown away by all the detail they put into these character rigs. The anime characters are typically standard, with some nice in-game hair and cloth animation, as well as *egads!* facial expressions for once. But the Disney characters have been painstakingly recreated and rigged to accommodate all the necessary mannerisms and facial deformations. It gets to the point where you could blur your eyes and not tell the difference between the character and their 2D counterpart. Even the Genie maintains his hyperactive “all over the place” performance. No motion capture is used and this might stand as one of the most well-animated video games ever made.

The fight scenes are pretty nuts, and usually involve you rushing blindly into battle mashing the X button until everything is dead. You have to keeping mashing the button because the camera’s got a mind of it’s own and all the on-screen characters tend to get in your way. What I really liked was the teamwork feature of the gameplay, where Donald and Goofy are fighting alongside you and often cover your back or pick off enemies trying to flank you. And depending on the world you visit, you’ll often add new characters to fight in your party, like Aladdin or Jack Skellington. It’s a game based on leveling up, but you do get power upgrades and abilities as you move along.

My favorite part of the game is the massive voice cast. Just about all 100+ Disney characters are voiced by one of the original voice actors (including Alice in Wonderland who’s voiced by a 70-year old woman) or one of their successors (Dan Castellanata as the Genie instead of Robin Williams.) James Woods still turns in one of the game’s best performances as Hades. And as a huge Buffy and Final Fantasy 8 geek, my head almost exploded hearing David Boreanaz as the voice of Squall Leonhart.

The negative side of things: as I said before, it’s a typical JRPG. You can’t go a few feet before it drops off into a really emotional cut-scene that explores the meaning of the human heart. Mix that in with the Disneyverse and you’ve got a game where Goofy has all kinds of philosophical theories about life and death. Kind of neat, but very weird. Then you’ve got worlds based on “Alice in Wonderland” and “Winnie-the-Pooh” which are the kinds of worlds you want to finish quickly before someone walks in on you playing a balloon game with Piglet. But it’s all worth it when you get to stuff like a fight scene based on Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”

Get past all the emotional drama and more embarrassing moments, and you’ve got a novelty of a game worthy of any Disney geek.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004)
Rating: C+

This is a weird sequel because it went straight to Gameboy Advance. A dick move on Square’s part since I played “Kingdom Hearts 2” first and couldn’t figure out what Sora was doing in an egg. It follows the cliffhanger ending where Sora, Donald, and Goofy travel to a place called Castle Oblivion, which wipes their memories clean in a quick-and-easy attempt to remake the first game. Their stolen memories are used to recreate all the same worlds they visited before and replay all the stories.

Then you’ve got a lousy card-based fighting system where you can’t swing your keyblade if the enemy draws a higher card than you do. This almost seemed like a game designed to piss me off.

The big redeeming factor in this game was that it adds much needed exposition for the sequel to come. Also, at the halfway point, you get to play as Sora’s friend, Riku, and fight your way back through the castle with the help of Mickey Mouse using an assortment of dark powers. Otherwise, it’s more of a 2D remake than a sequel.

Kingdom Hearts 2 (2005)
Rating: A

And then the game went back to PS2 and tried to forget Chain of Memories ever happened.

From a gamer’s perspective, the official part 2 is the superior game. They take the fighting system from the first game and pretty much inject it with steroids. Suddenly, Sora is some superhuman jumping machine who performs entire battles in the air and unleashes devastating finishing attacks, leaving Donald and Goofy to clean up the mess since they’re not much good for anything other than healing you. If you’ve ever seen a fight from “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children,” it’s just like that. The game designers even added in a reaction command that allows Sora to perform crazy physics-defying stunts which surprisingly don’t destroy the world whenever they’re executed. All of this is put to good use at a later part of the game when you’re forced to battle a thousand enemy soldiers at once.

And once again, you’re still traveling to Disney worlds and having fun adventures with Winnie-the-Pooh. New worlds included into the mix this time include “Pirates of the Carribean,” “Tron,” “The Lion King,” and a trip to the past where you get to meet Steamboat Willie. There’s a few returns to previous worlds, including a horrible “Little Mermaid” world which is comprised entirely of bad musical numbers. So on top of destroying heart-eating demons, you also need to sing and dance now.

The story is way too confusing. On top of the Heartless monsters you need to fight, there’s a new group of demons called Nobodies who are created when a strong-hearted person become a Heartless. Their empty husk is then teleported to a Twilight world where they’re reincarnated as a evil force of nothingness. Unless the Heartless in question receives someone else’s heart, then the Nobody becomes a non-existent force of good.

If that makes any sense, raise your hand. Because the whole game is like that. I beat the game and I still have no idea what it’s about.

The other big negative about the game is that they cut down the voice budget. All the original actors from the first game have been replaced with generic in-house talent, minus a few main characters, Jim Cummings, and thankfully James Woods. Although a funny side-note is that Haley Joel Osment (voice of Sora from the first game) undergoes puberty between games. So now we have a main character with a cracked voice for most of the game.

In all, it’s an okay game compared to the first, with a new improved engine. But the big thing that got a rise out of me was how much I found myself swearing during some of these fights. The difficulty level is without mercy. Some villains will teleport at you out of nowhere and unleash a combo that drops your HP down to one. So then you have to run around dodging attacks until you can cast cure on yourself (if you’re lucky.) Then when you finally move back in to fight, they do the EXACT SAME THING. They break your combos and hit the crap out of you until you’re screaming every obscenity imaginable at the television. I’ll let this video speak for itself:

So that’s my fun, magical, and very violent Disney adventure for this year. In the meantime, I’m going back to Mass Effect…

October 29 2008 10:49 am | Video Games

5 Responses to “Game Reviews: The Kingdom Hearts Series”

  1. Murray on 30 Oct 2008 at 5:26 pm #

    I’m gonna be honest, I found it really hard to enjoy even the first 10 minutes of Kingdom Hearts…

  2. Chris on 30 Oct 2008 at 6:31 pm #

    Well, the first 40 minutes are nothing but tutorials. You don’t even get to any fights until about 3-4 hours into the game. Another downside.

    It’s mostly a novelty geek thing on my part.

  3. LittLeLives on 02 Nov 2008 at 9:37 pm #

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one.
    Though neither of the games are perfect, I prefer Chain of Memories over KH1 & KH2. To me, at least, it has a pretty good battle system going for it.

    At least maneuvering your character around your enemies while you’re moving through your high numbered cards, items and summons to find your 0’s has a lot more depth, skill and strategy to it than mashing X with the occasional potion and transformation. But to each their own.

    Oh and playing as Riku is awesome.

  4. Chris on 03 Nov 2008 at 2:20 pm #

    Riku was my favorite part of CoM. I preferred having a set card deck and being able to let loose in “Dark Riku” mode.

  5. blubface on 13 Apr 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    IM A HUGE KINGDOM HEARTS FAN!!!! i love the game and i still say its one of the best games ever, even though i played it on my sisters ps2, and when she moved, i beat the poop out of myself.

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