By Marokai 34 Comments
There are spoilers, but seriously who cares.
I had to suppress a mild fanboy squeal when loading up Kingdom Hearts the first time for the purposes of this blog; when I saw the "Squaresoft" logo I was reminded this was still the small bit of time left in the aughts before they became Square Enix in 2003. Kingdom Hearts is one of those classic "I should go back and play that" games that have devoted followings and many, perhaps too many, games across various platforms. When I saw the hysterical reactions to the announcement of Kingdom Hearts 3 during Sony's 2013 E3 Press Conference, some of which I'm pretty sure broke the fucking sound barrier, I knew it was only a matter of time until I ended up playing them to see what the fuss was about.
I actually have a black-label release of Kingdom Hearts from back in the day. This was an era where Square was still king, and even though I was never much of a Disney person as a kid, Square had built enough goodwill with me that I was going to give pretty much anything they made a shot. Afterall, this was not long after the years when everything Square touched turned to gold on the Ps1. So, a new RPG from Square? I was there.
It didn't last long with me, though. I didn't know anybody who was all that into it and after playing it for what I can only assume was a few hours of being completely fucking lost, I moved on to something else, hoping to get back to it some other time. That never happened, of course. I went through life preferring the comfort of my turn based RPGs instead, and nothing I ever really saw from the series dragged me back. It didn't help that whenever I did see a Kingdom Hearts fan, they seemed slightly unhinged. It's understandable to be a little judgmental when you're fairly young, right?
So with a fresh pair of grown-up eyes, a bit more patience, and an open mind, I dove into Kingdom Hearts expecting good things. I felt like the first hour of the game or so was a fairly good impression, too, feeling distinctly Square-like. After the tutorializing, though, I was bummed out that Kingdom Hearts became very frustrating, very quickly.
I expected a convoluted story, but Kingdom Hearts doesn't have much of a plot to begin with.
Before we begin I would like to introduce you to the completely nonsensical opening video to Kingdom Hearts, because if I had to deal with it, then so do you.
What, it doesn't make perfect sense to you? I was on board until the bizarrely out of place pop song began playing. Ugh, this game is why AMVs are popular, isn't it?
Back in 2003, G4 ended up presenting Kingdom Hearts with the "Best Story" award, leading me to wonder if they considered other games that even had stories, if this is what ended up winning. It's not that Kingdom Hearts has a bad story, there's just very little to it. Going into Kingdom Hearts I had heard all sorts of things about how the series is one of the worst examples of incomprehensible JRPG nonsense and well-worn power-of-the-heart tropes, but the story Kingdom Hearts tells isn't very convoluted or bizarre, it's just very thin, which was a bit of a let down.
The game begins with Sora on a series of stain-glass window islands that more or less teach him the basics of CQC, and after that he's on some island that resembles Besaid to such an extent that Tidus and Wakka are even there, for some reason. Kairi and Riku are your childhood friends, and you're all working on a grand plan to venture out and explore other worlds by building a raft of some sort. Look, they're kids. Let them have their imagination. Sora and Riku are all sweet on Kairi, the girl of the group, and after a tedious scavenger hunt, the Heartless attack the island, the world is destroyed, and the three of them are scattered to other worlds. The beginning mission: Find Riku and Kairi. Donald and Goofy are also on a mission, to find you, wielder of the keyblade, as ordered by King Mickey.
The story never really progresses much beyond this premise, though. Riku ends up finding Sora first, and becomes wrought with jealousy that Sora has been having fun with his new friends, pissed that Sora is out saving worlds instead of looking for Kairi... who he already has found. It turns out Kairi lost her heart in the attack on their home island, and Riku is desperately searching for a way to get her out of her effective coma. The conflict between Riku and Sora never really makes much sense, though, because if Riku is pissed that Sora isn't helping save Kairi, why does he deliberately hide information from the person most capable of saving her life, for hours and hours? Whatever.
My real issue with the plot of Kingdom Hearts is that very little of the game's progression actually moves the plot forward in any meaningful way. Out of all the worlds you go to, a very small amount of them ever directly deal with Riku and Kairi, and the Heartless just become this irritating nuisance you need to get rid of, not really presenting themselves as the world-ending threat the game insists that they are until very very late. You eventually find out that Maleficent is kidnapping the "seven maidens of the purest heart" to open a door to "untold wisdom" aka huge evil, but you don't even directly interfere with this plan in any meaningful way. Most of the princesses have already been abducted, and the two you come across along the way are easily snatched away from under your nose. The party doesn't even really seem to be aware that this is a plan until you stumble across them in Hollow Bastion.
The crux of the game's plot is really caring about getting your best friend back and saving her life, but Kairi is in a vegetative state for the vast majority of the game. She's a total non-entity. In fact, none of the characters ever really grow over the course of this journey like I'd hoped they would. Seeing King Mickey at the end of the game was a great "Fuck yeah!" moment that I didn't think it would inspire in me, but it's a bad sign that a Mickey Mouse cameo at the end of the game inspires more emotion than saving the girl who most of the game was about.
I guess what disappointed me the most is that Kingdom Hearts' story is exactly what it says on the tin, no out-of-left-field weirdness included.
Kingdom Hearts' camera approaches game-ruining levels of bad throughout the journey.
I wanted to dive into a run-down of the individual Worlds of Kingdom Hearts and how I felt about them, but I felt like I needed to get out ahead of what will immediately become something of a running theme throughout this writing: The camera of Kingdom Hearts is borderline non-functional. I do not use these words lightly and I don't mean to sound hyperbolic. What ruined my enjoyment of Kingdom Hearts more than anything else was the fact that I had basically no camera control. Not only is camera control mapped, bafflingly, to the L2 and R2 buttons, but the view of the action is zoomed in so closely behind Sora that it's incredibly difficult to have a good grasp on what's happening around you. What makes this even worse is that it's more or less impossible to even nudge the camera in one direction or another when target-locked.
Last year I remember reading a study about how frustration with video game controls is actually one of the contributing factors to increased aggression in people who play video games. Kingdom Hearts is my proof. No matter where I was, what world it was, what enemies I was fighting, I was always pissed off by my inability to control and have a good view of the action. But it's not like the world design was much of a help.
Wonderland is the first major area that you're introduced to after meeting up with Donald and Goofy, and is what makes it clear that you're going to be gallivanting around a variety of different Disney themed worlds from the beginning of Kingdom Hearts to the end. The Greatest Hits are all here: The rabbit runs around screaming that he's late. Cheshire Cat acts coy and speaks in riddles. The Queen of Hearts repeatedly threatens people with decapitation. You fight card guards. Etc. etc.
What makes Wonderland so frustrating, and such a poor first impression of how the game will progress for the next 15 hours, is that it really explains absolutely nothing of what you need to do, and doing it is a chore. The entire world only actually consists of about four different rooms, which you will constantly backtrack through to get pieces of a puzzle, all while doing platforming that controls like garbage. The platforming demands such precision, with no clear idea of where you're even going, that this was my first clue I was in for a rough ride. I bashed my head against figuring out The Bizarre Room for far too long, and if you screw up some of the platforming in finding the pieces of evidence for Alice's trial, you'll have to go all the way back through the rooms again. The only thing that made this tolerable was save states. To top it all off, nothing really even happens here that's all that interesting, plot-wise. You fight a boss, do what you will later find out is locking a key-hole that seals the world from danger, and you move on, failing in your mission to protect Alice.
I don't even understand why these are here. In between worlds you will have to do a few minutes of ship combat that feel about as enjoyable as the combat portions of a 90s FMV game.
Actually, I take that back, because unlike the Sewer Sharks of the world, the Gummi Ship combat is stupidly easy. In fact, that's probably my main complaint with these sections of the game. Flying between worlds feels slow, targeting is too touchy to have that great of control over the action, and in general Kingdom Hearts never really forces you to upgrade your Gummi Ship to get better at it. I went through the entire game never building a new Gummi Ship and always using the default. I was never punished for this and at no point had trouble flying between worlds. Why create a chain of systems to build new ships when the game is never hard enough that you have to do this? It's a waste of Square's time in addition to mine.
In general the Gummi Ship portions feel like a victim of trying to split the difference between audiences, but I'll ramble about that later.
The world of Tarzan and Jane has one major point in its favor: It's better than Wonderland. This is only achieved by virtue of not having a giant inscrutable puzzle room and instead having outside areas you just sort of run back and forth between. The Deep Jungle trades puzzles for backtracking.
And backtracking this world has in spades. Multiple times after a story-related event would occur, I would run after them, and end up clearing through the world in its entirety once or twice, trying desperately to find where the hell I was supposed to go, only to discover I needed to talk to Jane again to trigger the next event. This is how, it ends up, the entire world will progress. Something happens, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, you talk to someone, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, you talk to someone, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, a boss fight, then you leave.
In keeping with Wonderland, nothing really happens here that advances the plot in any way either. You learn nothing about the main characters, nothing about the nature of the Heartless, and nothing about your friends.
The world of Aladdin is where things finally clicked in my head about what Kingdom Hearts is. I had been in denial about it up to this point, but it was impossible to ignore the reality that this game is really half-RPG, half-shitty kiddy platformer ripped out of the late 90s. Gameplay wise, the crux of Agrabah involves running around the city portions looking for switches to open doors, which you will only really find by (sensing a common theme yet?) blindly running around the areas looking for anything interactable until you stumble upon the solution.
The underground portion of Agrabaha, the ruins, are among my least favorite sections in the game. Falling off the platforms causes you to fall into the waterway at the bottom, and climb all the way back up. I'm still not clear on exactly how I unlocked the boss area. You sort of have to poke at different things in the waterway until a pillar of some sort is destroyed, and this somehow shakes the boss room door open.
On the plus side, Agrabah is where you finally learn what the evil plan even is. Maleficent is collecting the seven princess of pure heart to "unlock the door" to the Heartless dimension, or whatever. This is why Alice mysteriously disappeared, and why Jasmine suffers the same fate. It's also the first world that finally nails the style. The music, world design, and enemy design all play together really well, and even though much of the world is backwards and confusing, it at least has more than about five different rooms to it. So kudos.
Monstro manages to be the least frustrating world to complete, with little to no necessary platforming or unlock-this-thing-to-get-to-this-place puzzles. Consequently it is also the shortest; I completed it in what felt like twenty minutes, but in reality was probably barely over a half-hour or so.
This world is all about rescuing Pinocchio, who has ran off with Riku for seemingly no reason, as Riku exposes the fact that he's working for Maleficent because of stupid jealousy reasons. Sora is off playing hero and allegedly not taking the matter of finding Kairi seriously enough - whom Riku has already found; she's a vegetable due to having lost her heart - and antagonizes Sora over.. something. To be honest, it's not all that important.
I try to keep pretty lengthy notes as I play through the games I care enough to write about, and my notes from Monstro consist of about two sentences. You fight a weird parasite in Monstro's stomach and then you move on. Ain't much to it.
"Okay guys, I have a great idea. Let's take the bad camera controls and simplistic combat, right? Then we put the player underwater for an entire world, adding an extra layer of bullshit with descend/ascend buttons, and slow everything way down so it's harder to actually hit things. Do I get a raise now or what?"
Atlantica is the underwater level, and like any underwater level, it feels awful to control. Yet, because Kingdom Hearts loves to throw in bad platforming all over the place, it has the accidental benefit of having none of those sections. Also, in a pleasant concession to the fact that even the developers know finding your way through Atlantica would be a hellish nightmare, there are direction markers placed throughout the environment that guide you back to the palace, so you actually have a general idea of where you're going. The downsides of this world are obvious, however. Combat is sluggish and hard to control, and prompts don't always appear due to issues with being on the same plane as the object. There is also a point where the game actually decides to tell you what to do next - something of a rarity for Kingdom Hearts - but actually manages to confuse you even more. Ariel tells you to ride the dolphin, as it can lead you through powerful currents you otherwise can't swim through, but the first dolphin you encounter actually doesn't take you anywhere. It just flings you around in circles. You actually have to go to a different area and ride that dolphin. Why is the first one even there in the first place?
The Ursula boss fights take the cake, however. Ursula's second form is incredibly difficult, and the bad swimming controls are partially responsible for this. Timing on her attacks is very tight, and you must stay in constant motion or she will hit you with electricity. She has an attack that sucks you in, which you can swim out of, but you have to move Sora to face in a direction away from her. What's the problem? In high-speed swimming mode, you can only barely turn Sora, so unless you're already facing away from Ursula's mouth, you're likely to just swim right into her on accident, because there's also no real camera control for this fight if you're locked on. Afterwards you seal the keyhole and move on, like always, learning very little in terms of story in the process.
I don't have much reverence for The Nightmare Before Christmas, but even I can appreciate how much style this world has. The music the great, the characters are alright, and there's very little confusion about what you're supposed to be doing.
Halloween Town's main faults come from its boss fights, that are too long and tedious. The two final boss fights are Oogie Boogie, the first form of which takes place around a giant roulette table. Oogie Boogie throws objects and enemies at you from up top, and you have to land on the appropriate buttons on the wheel to raise the platform to where the boss is, but you can only really get a few hits in before getting knocked back down to the wheel and having to repeat the process, and even when you know what you're doing you will often over-shoot and miss Oogie Boogie's platform altogether. It takes far, far too long.
His second form turns him into a giant that you have to climb on top of and destroy various darkness... nodes of some sort all over his body. This also takes far too long, because you have to stop in the middle of the action and go into first person view - an inclusion that you know is always a good sign that the developers know their default view is inadequate - to have any idea where the circles of darkness even are. This fight combines some of Kingdom Hearts' worst elements: the bad camera, bad platforming, and unclear instructions. Like most of the other worlds, nothing about Halloween Town contributes to the over-arching narrative or builds Sora as a character at all.
The camera angles are at their very worst in Neverland, which takes place primarily on Captain Hook's ship. The areas in the ship are so tiny, and there are so many ladders and posts scattered throughout the environment, it's virtually impossible for the camera to not get stuck on the level geometry, and you may as well forget even trying to manually control the damn thing. It'll just snap back to whatever place it feels like it should be in whenever you hit a wall.
Neverland in general feels like a wasted opportunity. Neverland is a much more vast world than Kingdom Hearts would lead unknowing individuals to believe, and sticking the whole world onto a pirate ship is really disappointing, considering all there is in the Neverland canon. You don't even get the defining-fucking-attribute of being in Neverland, the ability to fly, until the final boss fight of the zone.
Nothing about Neverland is all that bad, necessarily, aside from aforementioned camera issues and a particularly stubborn ladder that Sora will constantly try to immediately jump off of for some stupid reason, but the whole thing sort of encapsulates my biggest problem with Kingdom Hearts: It doesn't make good use of the amazing things in the Disney library. The concept of Kingdom Hearts is amazing, but levels like Neverland make me feel like so much of it has been squandered. I would've much rather Square built original levels if this is the best that they can do with the source material, which leads me to...
In my mind it is no coincidence that my favorite area of the game is not an existing Disney creation. Hollow Bastion has haunting music that isn't aping from an existing Disney style and is a huge, sprawling zone, actually feeling like it was designed to be a proper video game area instead of shoehorning in half-baked Disney fanservice. With less camera issues due to the larger environments, puzzles that feel satisfying to figure out instead of seeming convoluted, and incredibly satisfying boss fights, the area is genuinely a lot of fun.
Really, the only negative point for the zone would be that you have to run through the whole thing again after completing it the first time, and that some of the late-game enemies, particularly the aerial ones, can be difficult to fight due to ledges.
The boss fights here are all fun, but the fight against Keyblade-Riku is a real test of skill that the rest of the game doesn't come near. All of your abilities are tested in a one-on-one fight, no summons, nothing cheap, in a wide open area so the camera is a non-issue. In a weird way it gave me a Dark Souls feel, with the need to predict his attacks, dodge roll, and read his patterns. No other fight in Kingdom Hearts comes close to feeling like an accomplishment the way this one does. I just doubt any child had a very fun time with it.
Honestly? The less said about this area the better. First of all, I don't understand why it's even called "End of the World" since you travel to several different worlds in what I assume is a great big universe. It should've been called "End of World." Oh well.
If there was a single level that showcased the weakness of Kingdom Hearts' combat systems, End of the World would be it. According to the IGN Wiki Guide to this level, there are no less than twelve bosses you have to fight. Most of the Ansem fights are great fun, only a notch or two below Keyblade-Riku, but the rest? They're pretty dull mash fests. Along the way you'll also deal with several forced encounters with trash mobs, which is only more annoying than the rest of the game because Kingdom Hearts is usually pretty good about not forcing combat with random enemies against your will. It just led to me spamming Thunder spells a lot.
I would like to call attention to one of the areas in the middle of the world, though, because it's sort of odd. There's a series of cliffs and platforms that lead to the penultimate area of the game. What makes this so peculiar is that it's a series of platforms leading downwards. Meaning the entire area can just be bypassed by looking down at where the Bright Glowing Light of Obvious Progression is and just leaping down to it and gliding right over. It's a strange choice. I don't think anyone bothered informing Square Enix that platforming sections don't really work as well when you're going straight downwards. At least the final boss is fun.
I liked the combat overall, but didn't like much of the interface. Or lack thereof.
A lot of people decry the combat system of Kingdom Hearts for being too mashy and unsatisfying. It's hard to deny the fact that it's mashy in the sort of swarm encounters that the final areas of the game absolutely drown in. Yet, for a game aimed at kids, the combat had more depth than it needed to have, and I can appreciate it. The Keyblades and various equipment make two completely different styles of play very feasible, as either a mage or melee oriented character, and even though the initial skill choices at the beginning of the game are deliberately vague, when you do know what your choices affect, it does allow for very different progression from one playthrough to another.
Spells, summons, a proper skill system; Kingdom Hearts has what it needs to be a legit RPG. It's all passable.
What makes the combat of Kingdom Hearts frustrating, camera aside, is that the AI of Donald and Goofy basically make giving them items totally pointless. They'll just blow them at their first opportunity, often at the exact same time, and there isn't much of a way to control their actions. There's some sort of button to get their attention, but it's unclear what it even does, and it certainly doesn't affect item usage. This problem would be less annoying if you could open the menu mid-combat, but you can't do that, which is a choice I just don't like. I understand the desire to tune the combat encounters, but this could be accomplished in other ways. Some late-game combat encounters go on for a very long time, and you can't even open the character menu to equip new abilities during a fight if you level up. It makes more sense to only equip Donald and Goofy with items prior to boss fights, but there's no way to know a boss is coming, and since you can't open the menu in a fight... you see the conundrum there.
One minor, but easily avoidable problem is also that the descriptions in the item store are utterly useless. Weapon descriptions may as well just say "It's designed as a weapon! Could be useful!" for all that they include. It's bizarre to me that you have no idea how powerful they are until you buy them, and money is at a bit of a premium in Kingdom Hearts for the majority of the game. I ended up wasting 2800 munny on a weapon that just popped up for Goofy, only to find out it was weaker than what he had equipped. There's no reason this problem should exist!
Oftentimes when quality of life complaints are made about older games, people are quick to pipe up with "Well you're being unfair, judging these games by the standard of today instead of the standard of when it was released." Being released in 2002 does not excuse Kingdom Hearts from having poor tooltips and crappy camera controls. A mini-map would've also been very helpful, and I hear Kingdom Hearts 2 solved that problem. So for that, good on 'em. I just really hope they zoomed out the camera, as well.
I come away from Kingdom Hearts not knowing what audience it's meant for.
I get the sense that part of the reason I feel the story suffers so much is that it's trying to split the difference between two audiences. On the one hand: traditional Final Fantasy fans. I mean, this game has Final Fantasy splooged all over it. Various characters, item names, spells, and abilities. Traverse Town is littered with Moogles. The storytelling delivery is even so Final Fantasy for the era that it hurts. The flashback scenes of Sora's childhood with kid-Riku in the cave may as well have been ripped directly from Final Fantasy VII with Cloud's inner monologues, or FFX's scenes with the child Fayth. Yet on the other hand, you have kids that clearly aren't going to understand these references or narrative devices. The game is rated E for fuck's sake. Not even E 10+, straight-up E. A four-year-old could buy this game.
This splitting-the-difference feeling fits with my issues toward the gameplay as well. The Gummi Ship is a perfect example. There exists a system where you can build various Gummi ships with parts you collect throughout the game, and blueprints you can collect to build others, but there's never any push made upon the player to do this, as if the game doesn't want to be too hard because it might alienate the kids. Yet, by not sufficiently creating a demand to build powerful ships, there's no reason for the player to supply them. The end result is a series of gameplay mechanics effectively invalidated. Another example: When escaping Agrabah, you're riding on the Magic Carpet while speeding out of a collapsing cavern. Think of it a lot like the jet ski sequence from the ending of Resident Evil 4. Except, in this case, I quickly realized that it didn't seem like I could lose, so I just stopped steering or controlling the character in any way. I survived with plenty of health to spare.
And the platforming, why does that exist, except that it was 2002 and we were still fresh out of the era where kids games were almost obligated to be colorful platformers? Kingdom Hearts would've been made better if it focused on being an RPG instead of including random gameplay elements to try and please all ages, or at the very least, given you the glide ability up-front, which eases the frustration.
While these aspects of the game feel dumbed down and made easy for the kids, other elements seem unfairly difficult to the young 'uns. The Ursula fights, and the end-game boss fights are legitimately quite hard, several orders of magnitude harder than most bosses. I'm not sure I really believe that the Keyblade-Riku fight was even possible for someone under the age of 10. I doubt a child would discover much of the game's optional content, either. The Curaga spell, which is very useful for the end-game even if you're skilled at the combat to begin with, requires you track down Aerith in the library of Hollow Bastion after you no longer have any reason to go there, and talk to her multiple times. Kingdom Hearts oscillates between being easy to the point of making its own gameplay sequences obsolete, and difficult to the point of being a barrier to entry for kids to complete. Who was it made for?
Kingdom Hearts is beautiful, even today, and cleans up nicely. Its combat is passable, its story is not worthless, even if stretched pretty thin. Its music is fantastic. I don't mean to be completely dismissive of what this game is. With better camera controls, some HUD improvements, ramping up the challenge of certain parts, ditching the platforming... etc, I might've even considered it pretty good. But these complaints add up, and playing it can be aggravating on a level that "But it was 2002" doesn't excuse.
I end up falling somewhere in the middle, and more than a little puzzled that this is the game that spawned millions of sales and a deeply devoted following. Yet after all of this, I'm still curious to play more of the series to see where it goes. I suppose that is to Kingdom Hearts' credit, if nothing else.
|If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 2½ / 5||Total Playtime: Around 25 hours.|