Up until my recent playthrough of Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, I hadn’t touched a game in the series. More than anything, I just never started. The prospect of diving into a notoriously convoluted series of games was honestly daunting, especially considering my desires to experience the whole of a property when I dive in. Well, the hype surrounding the release of Kingdom Hearts III, the long in-development conclusion to the core trilogy, got to me.
Like I mentioned, I played the Final Mix version of Kingdom Hearts, specifically the version included in the PlayStation 3 compilation Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix. This is a tweaked version of the original 2002 PlayStation 2 release, with further refinements to unify the gameplay experience with Kingdom Hearts II. This compilation was originally released in North America on September 10, 2013, although it’s since been bundled together with more sequels on the PlayStation 4.
The game revolves around Sora, a teenage boy mysteriously transported to another world along with his friends Kairi and Riku. They arrive separated and it’s not long before Sora is chosen by the Keyblade – a mystical weapon that has the power to close Keyholes – the “heart” of a world. In short order he was traveling between a half-dozen or so Disney-themed worlds with Donald and Goofy, in an effort to prevent their destruction at the hands of the Heartless. Truly though, he just wanted to save Kairi.
Modeled after movies such as Alice in Wonderland and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and populated with key characters, the worlds were wonderfully crafted living dioramas. Even though I’m not the typical Disney super fan, I couldn’t wait to see who would show up or what would happen next. It’s had an impact on me: now I want to watch all of the Walt Disney Animation Studios films in chronological order and buff up on my Disney knowledge. The inclusion of a few Final Fantasy characters, namely from VII, VIII, and X, had the same effect, reinvigorating my interest to play through that series.
The worlds were surprisingly compact. The developers managed to squeeze a lot of gameplay out of relatively small environments, and not just by backtracking, although that occurred. Before I was accustomed to the backtracking, I’d wander around thinking I missed an area. Nope, I just needed to return to someone specific and carry on a conversation. This lack of direction was irritating, but I eventually got used to it. Similarly, as Sora and the trio accrued new abilities, I could return to worlds and reach previously inaccessible items or areas, lending a Metroidvania vibe to the game.
Led by Maleficent, the antagonist of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the Heartless were, as the moniker suggests, beings without hearts. Their sole purpose was to corrupt the pure, be it a person or an entire world. She, along with an assortment of Disney villains and a manipulated Riku, were seeking access to Kingdom Hearts, and the associated power it’d grant them. I attained a deeper understanding of Kingdom Hearts and how Heartless were formed through the collection of Ansem’s Reports – an account of one researcher’s investigations, and Maleficent’s personal guidebook. Ansem’s role was not strictly literary either. He manifested in the late-game, highlighting the JRPG influences of this game.
While the series has become known for its complex story, I didn’t find that to be the case with this entry. For most of the game, it was a relatively straight forward example of good versus bad. Sora’s visit to each world was in service of the overarching struggle to stop Maleficent. The conflict resolution he’d implement varied by world, but consistently reminded me of the current state of affairs, so I didn’t have much trouble keeping up. Sure, the storyline went off the rails in the end, when Ansem’s role increased, but even then I was able to keep character motivations and plot points straight, thanks in part to Jiminy’s Journal, the in-game codex.
After I’d beaten the game, I spent another dozen or so hours with it. As I strove to unlock more trophies, I was surprised by the amount of content that became available after the credits. There were still many weapons and journal entries left to find and a few incredibly difficult secret bosses, among other distractions. The crafting system in particular contained impressive depth. Enemies dropped crafting materials, many of which required unique strategies to track down and defeat. Farming these materials forced me to utilize abilities I otherwise overlooked, and ultimately, helped me understand the combat better.
At face value, the hack and slash combat was quite simple. It wasn’t too difficult to get through the game relying on a basic combo and a healing spell. Sora automatically targeted whichever enemy was closest to him at which point I could lock-on. The lock-on symbol smartly changed depending on Sora’s proximity to the selected enemy, indicating whether I could hit the enemy with a direct or ranged attack. It wasn’t perfect, however. I like to think Sora locked on using the Celine Dion approach; you know, “near, far, wherever you are.” I say that as a jest, because he didn’t always make what I thought was the “correct” choice. Of course, I didn’t always make the correct choice with Sora’s abilities.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy could be customized with abilities that added special attacks, increased combo hits, or provided a variety of passive buffs. I learned the hard way how to formulate good pairings, and to actually make use of special attacks, usually after getting ravaged by a boss. And, while I continued to rely on Donald and Goofy to provide healing and defensive spells, magic became an increasingly important part of my repertoire, though rarely offensively. In part, selecting spells other than the three I had hot keyed, or a particular summon, in the heat of the battle was bothersome. Sora’s actions were selected with the d-pad from an ever-present menu. This gave me a lot of options mid-battle, but because the action occurred in real-time, I rarely experienced a suitable moment to make a choice.
Customization was a major aspect of the Gummi Ship interludes between worlds, but not something I delved into, if only because the user interface and controls were nigh impenetrable. The first time the trio visited a new world, they had to fly there using their Gummi Ship. These sections played out in rail shooter sequences akin to Star Fox or Space Harrier, and were actually quite fun. I shot down and avoided dozens of enemy crafts and obstacles, collecting new parts in the process. Each world also had a set of specific challenges to undertake. Although this was a nice complementary feature to the game, once I gained the ability to fast-travel to a world, I rarely traveled any other way.
I’m so glad to have finally played Kingdom Hearts. It’s a game I have a special nostalgia for, specifically the commercials that aired around Christmas 2002 with Utada Hikaru’s “Simple & Clean” as a theme song. Happily, the song was used with great effect in the game, alongside the fantastic score by Yoko Shimomura and selected Disney favorites. Sora’s journey to save Kairi, and reluctantly save the world, enthralled me. The storyline juxtaposed with Disney canon surprisingly well, and wound up making me a bit of a Disney fan. Combat was fair, but well supplemented with customization options and depth. I could spend another dozen hours with the game to obtain everything, and the gameplay experience would be remarkably diverse. As enjoyable as that might be, I’m ready to move on to Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, and remember Sora’s journey a bit differently.