Review by darthjulian

"The Square Soft Miracle, or: a fitting start for a great new series"

"Kingdom Hearts"...a couple of years ago, RPG fans worldwide groaned in disbelief at the revelation of this title. An action-RPG by Square Soft involving Disney characters, an unlikely co-operation of two of the most successful entertainment companies in Japan. To some it must have seemed like a bad joke, and for others, it merely seemed like a cheap attempt by Square to milk two cash-cows at once by exploiting the popularity of Final Fantasy and Disney alike. None of us would have imagined this game to be any good, and the premise of "Disney meets Final Fantasy" sounded either preposterous or utterly silly, depending on who you were talking to. Yes, to some, it seemed like a nail in the coffin of good, old Square, and now, several years later, "Kingdom Hearts" has been established as the third most important franchise by Square Enix that has gained considerable popularity worldwide. In a way, this kinda indicates that the following review is about one of the most peculiar miracles in video gaming history, a miracle that crushed prejudices under the weight of the brilliance of this wonderful game named "Kingdom Hearts".

At the beginning of the game, we are being introduced to the three main characters of the story that is about to unfold: Sora, Riku and Kairi, with Sora being the main character. The three of them are just kids about the age of 13 - 15, and they all live together on an archipelago called Destiny Islands, leading a calm and happy life as friends and together with their parents. However, they eventually grow tired of their boring and uneventful life, and they all agree that they want to see more than just their home. Especially Sora is rather dreamy about this desire, and together, they are secretly building a raft in order to travel away from their home and see new worlds. One day, though, shortly before their raft is complete and after Sora is having several strange dreams and visions about, a terrible storm unleashed countless mysterious dark creatures over Destiny Islands: the so called Heartless. This is where Sora suddenly gets in possession of the Keyblade, a weapon he had already seen in his dreams, and apparently, this weapon chose Sora as its wielder. After fighting his way through some of the Heartless, Sora is being sucked out of his home world, with no trace of Kairi and Riku, and he is soon being sent to a city named Traverse Town, where he meets...Donald and Goofy, our beloved Disney icons. They are loyal servants of their king (guess who?) who has mysteriously disappeared from his castle on a journey to investigate strange events revolving around the current state of the worlds. With the keyblade being a major factor in their search for King Mickey (yep, it`s HIM), they team up with Sora and go on an adventure that will decide the fate of the entire universe (so to speak). I know what you must be thinking: how can such a silly premise possibly evolve into an intriguing and even dark storyline? Well, Square fortunately found a way to combine the deep and involving story-telling of a Final Fantasy title with the typical Disney humor, resulting in a story that rivals even Final Fantasy in some ways. The plot twists, for instance, really are surprising and nothing short of intriguing, and the game reveals its darker nature one by one, with the villains behind everything being more than they might seem...but go see for yourself. The essential aspect that makes the story work in the end is the aforementioned right balance between humor and drama, but another important factor are the characters. As simple as they might seem at the beginning, the three main characters reveal a lot of depth and personality throughout the game, and some revelations about their pasts or their destinies are quite interesting to say the least. And as for the cast of supporting characters...well, we have the likes of Aladdin, Genie, Hercules, Hades, Pinocchio, Donald, Goofy, Aerith, Cloud, Squall or Cid. An odd assembly of characters, sure, but with so many famous and charismatic characters, as well as several new ones, how could you possibly go wrong? In any case, I was being surprised by the story in "Kingdom Hearts" in the most positive way possible, and it kept me hooked until the very end.

But what is a good story without equally good gameplay? Fortunately, Square delivers in that regard, too. Essentially, "Kingdom Hearts" plays like a 3D version of a classic action/adventure like "Secret of Mana", which means that you have full control over your main character, with the A.I. controlling your two comrades Goofy and Donald, with quite some RPG elements being thrown into the mix. Your basic moves are the classic jump as well as the normal attack with your keyblade, with several improved movements as well as completely new ones being available during the course of the game, adding a lot of variety to the battle sequences. But of course, running, jumping and attacking aren`t the only moves you can perform in "Kingdom Hearts". Just like in a Final Fantasy game, you can also use magic, with you learning more and more spells the more levels you gain - so yes, there is a level up system similar to Final Fantasy, which also means that you`ll gain experience points with each creature you defeat. And then we naturally have the item option as well as summon spirits, even though most of them are rather unimportant. Each of these three commands - summon, magic or item - is being displayed in box at the bottom left of the screen, and in order to choose a command from there in case of need, you have to use the right analog stick, while you`re controlling your character with the left analog stick, and this procedure can sometimes be rather risky, especially during boss fights when you`re being attacked while you`re still searching for the command you want to choose. Anyway, these battles take place in real time, with no separate battle screen appearaing when you encounter your enemies, just like in any other action-RPG, so the battles actually are part of almost every single area in this game, apart from very few inhabited parts. The battle system itself works perfectly in my opinion, with the commands being easy to execute after a while and the combo system allowing you to pull off some neat moves. The only aspect that can hamper your enjoyment of the battles as well as the exploration of each world is the camera, since the camera angles are sometimes not exactly perfect, but avid gamers will definitely be able to overcome this small obstacle and avoid annoying platform jumping gone wrong. Despite the fact that the battle system works perfectly fine, the gameplay is not completely without its flaws. The biggest problem definitely are the gummi ship levels that connect the worlds with each other. Whenever you want to go onto a new path on the world map, you first have to solve a shoot`em up level reminiscent of Star Fox, with your spacecraft being the gummi ship. These levels, though, feel unnecessary in the context of the game, as they feel like a cheap version of Star Fox indeed and don`t really add anything to the gameplay, not to mention the fact that these levels are rather ugly compared to the beauty of the rest of the game. The other possible flaw some might find is the lack of exploration in the game. Apart from battling your way through the masses of enemies, there really isn`t a lot to do for you. Sure, there are some mini games, and you can also solve some sidequests or improve your equipment in Traverse Town, but...a structure like in "Secret of Mana" is clearly missing, where you have an overworld populated with monsters, peaceful towns as well as dangerous dungeons within a coherent world that leaves you a lot of freedom to explore on your own free will. It`s not really a flaw in "Kingdom Hearts", since it is merely a matter of perception, of whether you prefer a combat heavy game or a more balanced type of game. Apart from this minor complaint, "Kingdom Hearts" represented a joyous ride for me, an enjoyable adventure that was a lot of fun to play, despite the sometimes harsh difficulty that might turn off beginners but will definitely please experts with some intense battles. Overall, the gameplay is spot-on, no doubts there.

Being a Square Enix (or rather Square Soft at the time of the game`s release, before the big, surprising merger between Square and Enix) title, there is only one possible conclusion to draw for the quality of the visuals in "Kingdom Hearts": they`re jawdroppingly good, especially in view of the fact that this game is one of the very first Square (action-) RPGs to use a real 3D engine with an adjustable camera. But in order to properly judge the graphics, one has to consider the very premise of "Kingdom Hearts" first: a mix between Tetsuya Nomura`s anime-inspired Final Fantasy style and the world-famous Disney-cartoon style. The combination of these two completely different styles and the visualization of this scenario honestly sounded like a futile task from the beginning, and like so many other fans back then, I had my doubts about the visual style in this game working properly. Amazingly enough, Square proved us all wrong, and how. No matter how silly the thought of Donald and Goofy and anime kids being together in the same screen might sound per se, Square somehow managed to make it work, and I am still wondering how they were able to accomplish this. The Disney characters, for example, no matter what animated feature they are from, have been recreated perfectly and represent their most faithful visualization in any video game until that time. They maintain their typical and charming cartoon look, and the 3D polygonal look did not do any harm to their appearance at all. So, Walt Disney himself would have been proud, I`m sure, but then we have the Final Fantasy characters as well as the new ones introduced for this game. Particularly the look of the well-known and beloved Final Fantasy characters has been a matter of quite some discussions among fans before the game`s release, so calling this premise risky for Square might even be an understatement. But as I said before, the mix has worked out, and I myself can`t explain how this can be possible. But let me just say that Square has toned down the realism of the characters from Final Fantasy VII, VIII and X and went for an anime inspired, more colorful look for them that remains true to the original designs. It`s a weird mix unlike anything I had seen before, but it worked for me, especially since some of my favorite characters like Aerith or Yuffie had never looked this good before: the 3D character models for Disney and Square characters alike are amazingly detailed and beautiful, and even though some might complain about the rather mediocre textures, it has to be said that they work in the context - or, in other words, they are a stylistic device that help to emphasize on the comic-look of the game. The same positive things can be said about the environments and locations. Most of the Disney worlds stay true to their movie counterparts and look really attractive (with the exception of one stinker among the worlds you`ll visit...namely Monstro), and so do the newly created worlds, which once again underlines the contrast between the darker, more anime inspired Square look and the more cheerful Disney approach that goes so well together.

Just like in most other big-budget productions by Square, "Kingdom Hearts" also does not disappoint as far as the special effects and the presentation of the story go. The boss battles in particular manage to amaze with some extremely cool lighting effects as well as with their sheer size at times, and naturally, the same can be said about the magic effects as well. But as for the To call them "cinematic" does not even begin to do them justice - in fact, they sometimes seem to be on par with an actual cartoon, and needless to say, the editing, the pacing as well as the camera position during these scenes is always spot-on and nearly perfect. The best thing is, though, that virtually every single cutscene you are going to see has been created with the normal in-game engine. Yup, that`s right: no fancy full motion video sequences. The only ones you`ll see are the opening and ending movies, and they are of course awesome, but we`re used to that from Square already. But they have proven that they can also tell a good story in an exciting way without using FMVs as the medium, and that`s a testament to the overall visual quality of "Kingdom Hearts". Even today, the game still looks great and is definitely on par with the high standards set by other Square Enix productions.

With the visuals being so outstanding, I am relieved to say that Square totally nailed the audio of the game as well, perfecting the presentation of "Kingdom Hearts" completely. While the musical score by Yoko Shimomura might not be as breathtaking as those by other highly regarded RPG composers like Yasunori Mitsuda (i.e. composer for the Chrono series as well as "Xenogears" and "Xenosaga Episode I") or Noriyuki Iwadare (composer of the Grandia and Lunar series), she nevertheless managed to accomplish the herculean task of combining happy Disney themes with more dramatic pieces for story sequences - a task as difficult as combining the visual looks of Disney and Square in my opinion. Throughout the Disney based worlds, you`ll mostly be hearing renditions of the striking musical themes of each movie they represent, be it Atlantica, Agrabah or Halloween Town, and they definitely fit the scenario exceptionally well. The themes during the cutscenes as well as certain battle themes are more Square-like, though, and they do a great job accompanying the already exciting scenes in the game. My personal musical highlight in this game, however, is the opening song "Simple and Clean", performed by popular J-pop artist Hikaru Utada in both the English and Japanese version, and her beautiful and powerful voice provides the game with a fitting main theme that will be hinted at several times throughout the game. Thumbs up for the audio department!

But let`s not forget another important aspect about the audio in "Kingdom Hearts": the voice acting. And with the help of Disney`s money, Square was able to gather together a real killer cast, including highly respected actors such as Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Sora, Mandy Moore as the voice of Aerith, Billy Zane as the voice of the villain (nope, I won`t spoil who it is) or Lance Bass as the voice of the Final Fantasy fan favorite number one (care to take a guess who?). There has seldom been such a gathering of all-stars for a video game before, and it definitely shows throughout the game. Each and every single line of spoken dialogue portrays their professionalism, and it`s safe to say that they help greatly to even enhance the depth of the storyline.

Seeing how popular the "Kingdom Hearts" franchise already is today, it might seem a little strange to recommend this game, since literally millions of gamers already own and love this game and its successors, so all I can practically say is that "Kingdom Hearts" is indeed a milestone in video gaming history. It is the most daring experiment ever done by any video game company, and the results of this bold move create one of the most memorable video games EVER. If you give the admittedly strange setting a chance, then you might be intoxicated by the charm and beauty of this masterpiece of game design and art direction. In the end, "Kingdom Hearts" is yet another benchmark in the outstanding gaming library of Square.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 04/13/07

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