I never really jumped on the Kingdom Hearts bandwagon like a lot of gamers did. I utter the phrase “bandwagon,” not in derogatory fashion. In-fact, had I known more about the series when its initial installment came out in 2002, I would’ve likely been on-board with the rest of them. Unfortunately, I was six-years old, and it was never a franchise that made its presence known in my household. The concept holds a definite appeal that can’t be underestimated, after all. An action role-playing video-game developed and published by Square, Kingdom Hearts tries its hand at blending the settings and characters from Disney series’ with those from their own Final Fantasy series, and even better than that, its attempt is done on a very grandiose and epic-scale.
Whether or not it was a success is not something I can really decide, per si. The series was a financial success and has spawned several main-entry sequels, spin-offs, and remasters, which speaks volumes about how coveted it is amongst many gamers, it was clearly a success. But – is the series the high-stakes, in-depth, and high-quality franchise it often feels presented as? Here are my thoughts …
The story-line follows a character named Sora, a happy go-lucky teenager voiced by the kid from Sixth Sense, who finds himself joining forcing with Donald Duck, Goofy and other classic Disney characters, fighting off against a force that’s aptly called the “darkness”. Likewise with Kingdom Hearts, I’ve never had an affection for Final Fantasy that goes beyond the basics – for instance, although I thoroughly enjoyed Final Fantasy VII and await the remaster, I’ve never ventured any further than that. That said, I’ve always appreciated the art-style and the way the series has willed itself through the years, unafraid to reinvent itself or venture in new territories. Although the way Square blends Final Fantasy with Disney is far from seamless, I actually think it adds a uniqueness and charm to the series overall. It can appear off-putting to see Donald Duck and Goofy battling it out with more mature-characters or more realistic character models, but it hammers in what Kingdom Hearts truly is, an anomaly.
I think the story-line can best be described as grandiose, surreal, epic, and busy. Four words with negative and positive connotations to them, depending on which perspective you decide to approach the series with. It’s clear from the offset that Square yearned to accomplish a high-scale and ambitious creation. It might have been looked as such to Disney, but it’s clear that to them, this wasn’t merely a money cash-in, but the first installment in something meant to stand on its own. Unfortunately, I think I’d certain say the story-lines in Kingdom Hearts ride more heavily on the surrealism and the illusion of depth than actual substance. It’s clear that a lot of ideas went into the main storyline, but I also think a lot of them, if not most of them, were lost in translation when it came time to bring those ideas into fruition.
The visual-style is appealing, finding a way to capture the setting of the Disney worlds very well. This is accomplished, not only through attention to detail and aesthetic, but also by compiling a remarkable voice-cast, including many of the names from the original Disney productions. I don’t want to discredit anyone else and what they might have gotten from the series (or, at least, Kingdom Hearts I, as we’re reviewing now), but I found that most of the appeal from merely from the novelty of being able to spend time with characters from my childhood, with most of the fun gotten from the uncertainty of where the Gummi Ship might bring me next. Add in the high-orchestral score and it’d be fair to say that Kingdom Heart looks and sounds like a million-bucks.
Sadly, as high-scale as the main-narrative oftentimes feels, most of the levels in-between can often feel very standard and unambitious, recycling shoehorned and rushed reinterpretations of the themes already hit on in the films.
The game-play feels standard and ordinary, incorporating a hack-and-slash style that might feel as though it has overstayed its welcome by the time the dust settles. Hack-and-slash video-games oftentimes know it best not to overexpose themselves. For instance, if you’re swift, it wouldn’t be too difficult to complete the first three God of War video-games in the time it takes to beat Kingdom Hearts, and God of War’s fighting has more variation and sophistication. Kingdom Hearts receives ample assistance from the novelty of itself, but it isn’t able to completely buck off its own repetition. At its best, I enjoyed many of the boss-battles incorporating throughout it, but, at its worst, I found it to be a plodding, bottomless experience, comprised of repetitive and uneventful enemies.
Something else I should mention is the awkward camera-angles, which could make many boss battles feel like a dual competition between the enemy and your screen. I heard a lot of criticisms about the missions with the Gummi Ship, calling them either tonally inconsistent or a rip-off of Star Fox. Either of which may be true, but I thought they were an occasionally enjoyable change of pace that I admittedly think could have been fleshed out better or made completely optional. Also, while I thought Kingdom Hearts offered a fair challenge throughout, I found it really swallowed its tail in the home-stretch. In-general, I think there’s a difference between a legitimate challenge (requiring usage of skills mastered throughout in a way that makes sense as a conclusion and a challenge that feels artificially inflated (like three different boss-battles needlessly spliced together).
Kingdom Hearts may not exactly be the work-of-art that my own unfair expectations demanded from it, suffering from technical issues and bolstering conventional and standard fighting mechanics. However, it does carry high-production visuals and sound (whether it be from the score or voice-acting), and tries its hand at a very ambitious crossover between two beloved brands in a way that feels epic-scale, in-depth, and important, provided you don’t stare at it for very long.