I played Kingdom Hearts

(See I'm playing Kingdom Hearts.)

I'm somewhat uncomfortable writing about Kingdom Hearts, so much so that I almost didn't bother writing this. It's an eleven-year-old game -- a game released when N64 and PS1 games were still on store shelves -- which makes coming at it without any associated nostalgia a weird prospect. There's problems with this game, and I can't help but think they were problems at the time as well, but I also can't help but think that I'm not being fair judging the problems by modern standards. And on the other side of the coin, there's stuff this game does really well -- especially in the presentation department -- but it was probably a lot more astounding (and more capable of making up for the issues) in 2002 than it is now. In the absence of a time machine, judging Kingdom Hearts by modern standards is all I can do.

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The presentation

Kingdom Hearts has a ton of charm, and some pretty amazing production values even by modern standards. The sheer volume of different well-realized Disney worlds is pretty amazing, and there's a lot of little touches that make the worlds feel like more than window dressing. Stuff like the shrinking mechanic in Wonderland, the vaguely disturbing alternate character models in Atlantica, the sliding and vine-swinging in Deep Jungle, and the flying mechanic introduced in Neverland really made going to new worlds and seeing what Square Enix did with them a treat. The Hundred Acre Wood level in particular really captured the feel of the source material. Even stuff as simple as unique battle themes for each area -- something very few JRPGs seem to bother with -- went a long way.

I'm not knowledgeable enough about Disney to know what percentage of the voice actors were the official voice actors, but with maybe a couple of exceptions, they rang true to me. Given the era in which Kingdom Hearts was released and the weirdness that must have been involved in its production and licensing, I can totally picture a scenario in which most of the non-primary characters were text-only, and it's to Square Enix and Disney's credit that they didn't half-ass that vital aspect of the game. It took me some time to come to terms with the Square-sourced voice acting, and it really isn't great, but it was good enough that it was never distracting. My impression is that most localized voice acting of the time was somewhere between mediocre and bad, so Kingdom Hearts must have been a pretty big deal at the time.

I'd often watch a cutscene and assume it had been touched up far more than was actually the case. Here's a good example of one that holds up remarkably well eleven years down the road. It's obvious that some work was done -- particularly adding fully-animated faces and depth of field effects in some cutscenes -- but fairly little relative to how good the game looks.

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The gameplay

The gameplay was the source of most of my problems with Kingdom Hearts. At its best, and in appropriate moderation, it's surprisingly satisfying and deep, and cuts a nice balance between breeziness and skill. When things are going well and you're taking out enemies left and right, it's downright fun. But a lot of the time, it's a grind, and far too often just feels broken or cheap. I really struggled with the flying spell-casters early on, and their unpredictable homing attacks forced me into a super-conservative, unfun, never-stop-rolling style of play that carried me through most of the game. By the end of the game, I was powerful enough that I didn't really need to dodge, so I was just pointing the stick in the direction of enemies and pounding out 4-hit combos. It wasn't fun. They thankfully let you set the camera to fully manual control -- the automatic camera was all over the place.

Some of the boss battles just felt broken. I would try to follow their patterns while Donald and Goofy ran around doing nothing, then react slightly incorrectly to an attack pattern and get smoked. In some cases, this was a result of being under-levelled -- something the game never really does good job of communicating -- but in other cases it was just a result of trying too hard. I eventually realized that the most effective way of fighting most of the bosses was to just load up on Potions (later on Ethers), get up in their face, and mash X until they died. This strategy, combined with an hour of grinding in the Traverse Town hotel before the final sequence, was all I needed to tear through each of the final bosses.

I also constantly lost track of where the game wanted me to go. The worlds, when you really boil them down to pure gameplay logic, consist of a series of triggers you need to hit sequentially. This would be fine if the location of the next trigger was always fairly logical and obvious, but in many cases it seemed totally arbitrary. I remember this being an especially noticeable problem in Deep Jungle, which was confusing enough to navigate without also having no clue where the game wanted me to go. When faced with the prospect of bumbling around a world hoping to run into a trigger, I'd often just pull up a FAQ, something I really don't like to do.

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The turn

Throughout the first two thirds of Kingdom Hearts, the snappy pacing, variety of environments, and density of Disney material made the boringness of the gameplay endurable. There was nothing hugely wrong with the formula -- I like Zelda games, and it's certainly not because of their engaging combat systems -- except that at a certain point the Disney stuff cut off, and what was left was monotonous combat through generic environments. The Hollow Bastion was a grind, so much so that I assumed it was the end of the game, only to discover that there was an entire other world of equally boring environments, complete with a plethora of eye-rollingly dull wave-based combat rooms.

I suppose the problem isn't so much that the Disney material stopped, but rather that the over-arching story wasn't engaging enough to pick up where it left off. The story's competent in the sense that it establishes a coherent motivation for Sora to do what he does -- to save Kairi -- but I had a hard time engaging with it on anything resembling an emotional level. It ends on a pretty unsatisfying note -- not quite a cliffhanger, but pretty close to it.

I'll give them this: the story felt Disney-like. It's simple (perhaps overly so); plays on themes of friendship and positive thinking; and has caricatured evil villains, a pure princess character (Kairi), and a morally corrupted character (Riku) who ultimately wanted to do the right thing. There's a certain thematic consistency between the Square and Disney material, and even if the Square side of it didn't move me much, I can sort of see what they were getting at.

I don't regret playing Kingdom Hearts. I'm glad I know what it's all about now, and it's a unique experience if nothing else. I may even check out Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II at some point, if just to find out where the series went.

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The music

Kingdom Hearts' soundtrack didn't blow me away, but it's really good. To the extent that I'm starting to recognize Yoko Shimomura's style, I really like it. Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 ReMIX includes some great redone (and sometimes orchestrated) versions of many of the pieces, but there's no official soundtrack out, and I wanted to go through and see how different the originals were and how well they hold up. (They hold up.)

Here's way more picks than I should be picking:

  • Dearly Beloved. Some great title screen music -- even better with the faint sound of waves the game overlays over it. I knew this was the series theme the second I heard it.
  • 光 Hikari -KINGDOM Orchestra Instrumental Version-. The original Hikaru Utada pop version is fine, and I think it was pretty effective during the ending, but I like this orchestrated version more. It's pretty neat that a pop song could be arranged in a completely different way and still work this well.
  • Destiny Islands. I mostly just like that this sounds like Mario Kart beach track theme.
  • Night of Fate. This is a great battle theme. This was the piece that clued me in to the fact that Yoko Shimomura was the game's composer (see the Xenoblade battle theme).
  • Deep Jungle. This world was kind of a pain in the ass, but at least it had a super catchy theme.
  • Winnie the Pooh. This barely counts as being part of the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack -- I'm not even sure it's an original arrangement -- but it really made the Winnie the Pooh world.
  • A very Small Wish & Monstrous Monstro [battle theme]. An example of what a great job Shimomura did integrating the world themes and world battle themes.
  • An Adventure in Atlantica. Another great battle theme. I feel like this kind of upbeat, catchy video game music is somewhat of a relic of the past, and I wish it wasn't.
  • The Deep End. The Ursula battle theme. This one also reminded me of Xenoblade a lot.
  • Spook of Halloween Town. Did I mention I like the battle themes?
  • Neverland Sky. This one was stuck in my head for a day, and it's only used during the short Big Ben sequence at the end of Neverland.
  • Hollow Bastion & Scherzo Di Notte [battle theme]. For all of my dislike for the turn Kingdom Hearts took at the Hollow Bastion, it had some great music. This pairing hits a great "okay, playtime's over now" vibe.
  • Forze Del Male. This was the boss theme for the Hollow Bastion Riku fight, which represented a huge, frustrating difficulty spike for me. I died a lot while listening to this.
  • Fragments of Sorrow. Different arrangements of this composition appear at the beginning and end of the game, which really effectively sews together the narrative.