Review by Crono09

"A beautiful amalgam of Disney and Final Fantasy"

Disney games have a reputation for not being very good. In fact, I cannot think of any extraordinary Disney game for any system prior to the PlayStation 2. Most of them look like hastily-made children's games that offer little challenge and no originality. Square took on a challenge when it worked with Disney to make Kingdom Hearts. The company made a bold move by introducing its own Final Fantasy characters into the Disney universe. There was so much that could have gone wrong with this mixture, but instead, it turned out to be a remarkable fusion of worlds that has already become a classic.

Kingdom Hearts begins on a world called Destiny Islands. Sora, the main character, lives there with his friends Riku and Kairi. One day, their island becomes engulfed in darkness as strange dark creatures appear, and their world starts to fall apart. Sora sees Riku embrace this darkness while Kairi is nowhere to be seen. He is eventually granted a weapon called the Keyblade, which he uses to fight off the invaders but is not able to save his world.

When his world finally disappears, Sora ends up in another world called Traverse Town. Here, he learns that creatures called Heartless are invading the worlds and stealing the hearts of the people they encounter. This causes that person to become another Heartless. Eventually, they invade the heart of the world itself, causing that world to disappear. The only way to stop them is to lock the heart of each world, which can only be done by the Keyblade that Sora was given.

Meanwhile, Donald Duck and Goofy have also arrived in Traverse Town to search for King Mickey, who has left their world to search for a way to stop the Heartless. When Sora meets up with them, the three join forces to stop the Heartless while looking for Riku, Kairi, and the King. In their way is a council of Disney villains, led by Maleficent, which has convened to use the Heartless for its own evil purposes.

Sora must travel to a variety of Disney worlds and find each world's keyhole and lock it with the Keyblade. Of course, the Heartless, as well as some traditional Disney enemies, are around to prevent Sora from accomplishing this. It's quite amazing just how many worlds there are and how well they mesh into a unified story. Throughout the game, Sora will travel to worlds from Alice in Wonderland, Hercules, Tarzan, Aladdin, Pinocchio, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare before Christmas, and Peter Pan. In addition, the game features characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Fantasia, 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, The Sword in the Stone, and probably a few others that I forgot. The Final Fantasy characters have their own world too, and characters from Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X are featured. However, it is worth noting to any Final Fantasy fans that the characters are different from their counterparts in the Final Fantasy series. Their personalities are similar, but the characters' histories do not match up to those in the other games.

The storyline is not static, and the characters evolve as they encounter the various villains and learn more about the source of the Heartless. Sora progresses from a reluctant hero to a selfless champion. Riku moves back and forth between hero and villain in ways that seem believable. The stories of each individual world vaguely resemble the movies, but they incorporate Sora and the Heartless seamlessly. There are also some very cool cinematic moments in the game. My favorite is one of the final bosses, the Chernabog from the last segment of Fantasia, who rises from a volcano while "Night on Bald Mountain" plays in the background.

I will point out that in spite of the Disney theme, this is not a kid's game. It's not that the content is objectionable. It's roughly on par with some of the darker Disney movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and probably not as bad as The Black Cauldron. Instead, kids may have trouble with the game because it's actually pretty hard. I played on the easiest difficulty level and still had trouble at the beginning. The game gets easier as you progress and gain more abilities for your characters, but it doesn't get easy until you reach level 60 or so. In particular, one of the optional bosses in the Olympia Coliseum will pose a challenge for the most experienced players.

However, while the game is challenging, it never feels impossible. If you have trouble with a segment, the worst it means is that you might have to spend time level-grinding. This might stop some casual gamers from getting far into the game since it will be too much for them. However, although it is clearly an RPG, Kingdom Hearts was designed to attract all kinds of gamers regardless of their experience with RPGs. Therefore, if you've never played an RPG before, you may still get a lot of enjoyment out of the game.

This game is an action RPG where you control the characters in real time. Although quite common now, it was very innovative for console games at the time that it was released. You have full control over Sora's movements and can attack freely in real time. Magic and items have to be chosen from a menu, but you can set up shortcuts for up to three magic spells. You cannot control Donald, Goofy, or other characters directly, but you can modify their AI on the status screen. Although this style of gameplay is different from previous Final Fantasy games, it was clearly inspired by the series. Most of the magic and items are copied from the Final Fantasy series, and the overall "feel" of the battle system is still much like Final Fantasy. In fact, a similar system would later be used for Final Fantasy XI and XII.

I really found this style of gameplay refreshing. It still feels like an RPG but is must faster-paced than previous console RPGs. It also adds an element of skill to the game since you actually have to chase down enemies, target them, and dodge their attacks. When I was defeated in battle, I felt like it was really a product of my experience rather than random elements. This was inspiration to try harder, not to give up, since I knew that I could eventually win with practice.

Donald and Goofy are with you for most of the game. The former is a wizard while the latter is a knight. Although they are helpful in the beginning, later on, they serve no purpose other than to heal you and draw the attention of enemies. In addition, Tarzan, Aladdin, Ariel, Jack Skellington, Peter Pan, and the Beast will join you for their respective worlds. Though usually no better than Donald and Goofy, they at least add some variety to the game.

The voice acting is substantially better than other video games of the period, including Square's previous effort with Final Fantasy X. When possible, the casts from the original Disney movies were used to voice their characters. (When that wasn't possible, it was usually rather obvious.) Some surprisingly big names were hired to voice the new characters. Haley Joel Osment is the voice of Sora, and he is very appropriate for the role. A pre-Heroes Hayden Pantettiere voices Kairi. My favorite casting decision was David Boreanaz as Leon (aka Squall Lionheart from Final Fantasy VIII). It must have been an easy role for him since he only had to reuse his Angel personality.

I was impressed with the mini-games in Kingdom Hearts. I utterly despise most mini-games because I feel that they stop me from playing the game I want to play and force me to play something I don't like. Also, most mini-games in the Final Fantasy series are extremely challenging and time-consuming. This isn't so in Kingdom Hearts. There are not many mini-games, and the few that exist are easy enough that they won't take long to finish. This was especially true in the Hundred Acre Woods where there mini-games were actually fun and could be completed quickly. The Time Trials in the Olympia Coliseum were time-consuming, but since the experience you earn there applies to the main game, it doesn't feel like it's completely wasted. The only truly bad mini-game is the Jungle Slider, which is both difficult and lengthy. Kingdom Hearts serves as a model for how mini-games should be designed in RPGs.

Probably my most serious complaint about the game is the camera. More dangerous than any Disney villain, Final Fantasy nemesis, or Heartless, it is source of most of the game's challenge. It seems to swerve at the most inopportune times, and the game often prohibits you from adjusting it to the angle you need. I often found myself unable to see what was going on. This was very frustrating, especially since I know that better camera systems exist.

Although the game may be too challenging for some people, it has a wide level of appear. You don't have to be a Final Fantasy fan--or even an RPG fan--to like this game. The game and its sequels are old enough now to be found in bargain bends, so they are definitely worth a try if you like either Disney or Final Fantasy. I am a huge fan of the latter, and I will go as far as to say that Kingdom Hearts is better than most games in the Final Fantasy series. In fact, this was one of the best games that I've ever played. I would offer a very strong recommendation for any gamer to at least give this one a try.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/23/12

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts (Greatest Hits) (US, 12/31/04)

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