Here's a quick list of everything I thought I knew about Kingdom Hearts before starting it:
- It has Disney characters in it, including Donald Duck and Goofy. (I haven't watched a non-Pixar Disney movie since I was a child.)
- It has Final Fantasy characters in it, including Cloud Strife and probably Cid. (The only Final Fantasy games I've played are Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2.)
- The main character is Sora, who has a Mickey Mouse-inspired outfit and fights with a giant key. There's also that girl with the red hair, and that other guy.
- It's got a Tarzan stage, and probably a level based on the Fantasia cartoon with all of the brooms carrying pails of water.
- The gameplay is pretty standard action-RPG fare.
Based on that, you're probably wondering "why the hell are you playing it?". The thing is, I also knew people loved that game a lot, and the wave of excitement generated by the Kingdom Hearts III trailer at Sony's E3 conference was a strong reminder of that. I can't recall such a breathless reaction to a game unveiling since the first The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess trailer at E3 2004. The recent HD re-release finally gave me a reasonable way to check it out (I never owned a PS2), and I figured "hey, why not?".
I played the first couple of hours of Kingdom Hearts Final Mix a couple of nights ago, and just arrived at Traverse Town. Here's some raw first impressions/nitpicks:
- The beginning of the game is... weird. You're led through a series of dry tutorial rooms, fight an apropos-of-nothing boss battle, and are given bunch of choices without any context. I chose the sword, and discarded the staff. I have no idea what that means, and I also have no idea why the game gave me a multiple-choice quiz about my hopes and fears. Not the end of the world, and maybe more understandable in the gaming world of 2002, but it felt like such a missed opportunity. You're making Final Fantasy × Disney, and the first half-hour of your game is a tutorial featuring neither? Huh?
- Even once you're dropped on Destiny Islands, the game is really slow to kick into gear. The first half-hour there consists of not one, but two scavenger hunts. Your first interaction with Kairi, who I gather to be a very important character in the series, consists of her asking you to find 2 logs, some cloth, and a rope. I hate to harp on this stuff so much, but it's kind of hard to swallow that the game producers thought this would be a first good impression.
- Some of the non-Disney voice acting is pretty bland. The Disney stuff seems really good so far, and that makes the weaker stuff all the more noticeable. I'm told Kingdom Hearts had the weakest voice acting in the series, and I can only complain about the localization of a game made in 2002 so much. It doesn't seem terrible, just jarring relative to the high bars set by more recent games like Final Fantasy XIII and Persona 4.
- The general feel of the game -- camera, character movement, and combat -- strikes me as about as dated as I'd have expected. I have to assume there's more to the combat system than has been let on, but so far, it feels pretty loose and overly simple. It all works, but no amount of graphical overhaul could fool me into thinking the gameplay design was contemporary.
Gripes aside, I can see where the charm is, and I suspect this game's just slow to pick up. Regardless of my lack of reverence for either of the worlds the game is combining, I've absorbed enough culture about both to find the premise interesting. The idea of travelling around different Disney universes tied together by an overarching JRPG story -- with top-tier Square Enix production values -- is enticing to me. The sheer existence of Kingdom Hearts, when I really think about it, is such a culturally oddity that I just have to know what it's all about.
P.S. I've spent a bit of time looking a lists of Kingdom Hearts games recently, and man, the titles are something else. I'm playing a game entitled Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 ReMIX (look closely: not "1.5", but "I.5"), and it contains games entitled Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great, but I would have assumed that somewhere in the mountains of contracts surely necessary for this thing to exist, Disney would have a veto clause to prevent Tetsuya Nomura from using nonsense numbers in titles.