"Key to the Kingdom"

Kingdom Hearts is, without a doubt, one of the best games I’ve ever played. And played. And played. And played…as a matter of fact, Kingdom Hearts is *so* good I’ve played it FIVE times and still think it’s an amazing title. Moreover, I own FOUR copies of the game to boot: Kingdom Hearts (Original Import), Kingdom Hearts (USA version), Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (Japanese Re-release), and Kingdom Hearts Final Mix Platinum Edition. Yes, that’s right: I purchased TWO copies of Final Mix. I’d say that my “accomplishments” are quite a feat coming from someone who vehemently despises anything Disney, someone who believes that the Square of today is a paltry shell of the Square that existed during the days of the Super Famicom.

It’s really unclear to me as to why I hate Disney so much. I liked its movies and characters as a child, but somewhere along the way I either grew out of Disney’s target audience, or else got fed up with their greedy practices. Even my high school senior trip to Disney World was marred by the ominous presence of all things Disney. And Square…though I continue to purchase its games, I feel that Square has truly lost its touch since the Super Famicom days, or even the early/mid Playstation One days. Final Fantasy X is, in my opinion, a mockery of a videogame; nothing more than a glorified movie that requires the player to navigate the “confusing recesses” of nothing more than a tunnel. It is thus quite strange that I like Kingdom Hearts so much, quite strange indeed.
While my first interest in the game sparked when I saw shots in Weekly Famitsu and believed it to be a spiritual successor to Brave Fencer Musashinden, the advent of Final Fantasy series characters being included certainly helped my excitement. Then the game finally released and I had the import immediately. Then the domestic version released and I purchased that immediately. Then Final Mix released and I purchased that immediately. Then I found a store selling Final Mix Platinum Edition and I purchased that immediately.

Kingdom Hearts is a fantastic game, hands down. Disregard those inner beliefs you hold that all things Disney are evil, wrong, and childish. Kingdom Hearts could not be more the opposite than if Walt himself had created it decades ago, before Disney became the second “Evil Empire”. There is so much to do, so many places to explore, so many things to find, and so many nostalgic experiences, that Kingdom Hearts will enrapture seemingly anyone who gives it a chance. Oddly enough, arguably the best parts are the Disney elements themselves:

It is best to think of Sora, Riku, and Kari (the main characters, with the foremost being the hero of the game) as brand new Disney characters, as in truth that is what they are: Disney characters making their first appearance in a videogame. The three spend their days on a tropical paradise called Destiny Island where they play all kinds of games along with their friends Sora, Wakka, and Selphie (names sound familiar?). Shortly after the game opens, the player finds out that Sora and company want to go beyond their humdrum existence; they want to sail the seas and go to other worlds. No sooner do the three teens construct the means to accomplishing such lofty goals than disaster strikes, throwing the trio into an foreign land and an unknown situation. Parallel to this development, chaos ensues in Disney Castle: arriving early one morning to greet the king with a friendly hello, the Royal Court Magician, Donald Duck finds the throne room completely deserted, save for the king’s faithful retainer Pluto who has a somewhat cryptic message concealed in his mouth. Within seconds Donald runs to the Royal Court General, Goofy, feathers in a flurry. It seems that the king took a leave of absence to try and stop a growing evil in the galaxy. He has asked Donald and Goofy for help in his quest, and instructed them to go and find the key bearer, an unknown individual who apparently has some magical instrument that will prove to be vital in the king’s quest. It is with this knowledge in hand that sees the meeting of Sora (the wielder of the Key Blade), Donald and Goofy, and the countless adventures that ensue. What became of Sora’s friends when their small island got destroyed? Where is the king? What are the creatures known as the “Heartless” and where did they come from? These are but a small number of questions the initial plot exposition raises, with many more to come as the game progresses. To say anything more about the game’s plot would be a discourtesy to the player, however rest *assured* that is is anything but a childish foray into the minds of Disney; just because Goofy and Donald accompany Sora does not mean that sadness, fright, confusion, and other factors will not come into play. Square managed to bring every bit as much drama and story telling present in its other franchises to the table with Kingdom Hearts.

Unlike so many other games which try desperately to recapture the feeling and excitement of a movie (and fail horribly in the process), Kingdom Hearts passes with flying colors. I can not imagine a more perfect recreation of the various Disney Worlds in any form whatsoever, not even in an amusement park. Exploring the soaring heights of Tarzan’s “Deep Jungle”, the bizarre and often amusing world of Alice’s “Wonderland”, and even the magical deserts of Agrabah are truly an experience all to themselves. My own personal favorite, A Nightmare Before Christmas’ “Halloween Town” truly proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in playing a videogame. Nightmare being a long time favorite movie of mine, words can’t even begin to describe the sheer elation I felt while exploring the very same areas depicted in the movie, meeting the diverse cast of characters, and especially fighting along side of Jack Skellington himself. It is these moments that truly help define that which makes Kingdom Hearts so fun in the first place: borrowing the player’s greatest wishes (that of actually existing in the Disney worlds) and bringing them to life, at least in a sense.

The game itself plays like a dream. The player assumes the role of Sora, with the computer AI taking the reins of Donald and Goofy. Through the use of a thorough customization system, the player can alter the other two character’s AI to dictate their actions. Say you want Donald to focus mainly on healing and Goofy mainly on attacking. Changing their AI will instantly bring about your desires, and can be done effortlessly. Through the use of various abilities gained as you progress through the game, Sora learns new moves, tricks, and skills which become available to the player. These abilities carry over quite seamlessly into the real time, action based battles. Although said battles are “menu” driven, after playing the game for only minutes the player will realize they are hardly turned based: the game operates on a “task bar” of sorts, that is to say there is a command bar on the bottom left hand side of the screen that dictates what pushing the “Action” button does. Leaving the command bar on the top of the listing will usually result in “Attack”, however when in close company of a NPC (Non-Player Character), it will change to “Talk”. There is a command selection for “Items”, “Magic”, and then the random task prompt: much like the 3-D Zelda game’s action button, this command prompt will change depending on the given circumstance: in the Deep Jungle you can use it to swing on vines, when close to a treasure chest the command turns to “Open”, etc. Despite the seemingly complex nature of this command system, it’s extremely simple to get the hang of and ends up being far more effective than had the game employed a turn based battle system.

The ability system itself is quite a pleasing aspect of the game, and one that lets the player temper with their characters at their leisure. Depending on three decisions the player makes at the start of the game, the character’s statistics will change accordingly, and so too will their progression. Should the player make choices that focus on Power over Defense, for example, the end result will be a trio who has more starting power than defense, and who learn attack abilities before others. The same results in one who chooses Magic over Power: the end result will be a higher MP (Magic Point) gauge, more MP related skills, etc. The skills themselves are generally learned at scripted points when leveling up (every 5 levels I believe) and managing them becomes a process of deciding what is most important: Because skill abilities depend on AP (Ability Points), the player can only assign so many skills at one time. Until the end of the game or so, Ability Points are in constant demand, and thus the player must always consider if the Dodge Roll ability would serve them better than the MP Haste ability (which increases the magic recovery rate). Some abilities are character specific; others require the entire group to perform.

To throw yet another dynamic into the loop, almost every Disney world will see the hero of said location becoming a temporary stay in the player’s party. This is truly one of the most pleasing aspects of the game, as not only do you get to traverse the various Disney locations, but you get to directly interact with their characters as well. Each character has a different reason for joining your group, usually dictated by their goals and intents in their respective movies. Take Aladdin for example, from the movie which also shares his name. Aladdin joins your group in an attempt to rescue the Princess Jasmine from the evil Court Visor, Jafar. While in your party (it’s completely up to the player: because only 3 characters can be in battle at once, Donald or Goofy must be substituted out when a world-specific character comes in) Aladdin aids out with various attack abilities, skills, and such. Indeed having Peter Pan with you in Neverland proves to be a huge asset as the leader of the Lost Boys can fly far before you learn to, and thus attack even the most animated of foes.

And animated they are: Kingdom Hearts features some of the most fluid character (and enemy) animation ever seen in a videogame. Each member of the Heartless has its own specific look, animation, and attack patterns. Bosses are even more spectacular, often possessing numerous parts to attack and filling the entire screen. Even more exciting, aside from fighting monstrous Heartless, you also get a chance to clash horns with the nefarious Disney villains themselves. This is usually implemented in a way that closely resembles the actual fights in the Disney movies, so the player gets to physically relive those tense action scenes. Those who have felt let down by Square’s recent final bosses need not worry about Kingdom Heart’s: not only does the ultimate bad guy have character development and a back-story to them, but the battles themselves are more than worth to be called a “final fight”. No Necron or Ultimecia here, folks.

Just because the name is Disney does not necessarily mean that Kingdom Hearts is not without the usual Square touches, i.e. summon monsters, side quests, hidden items, and mini-games. Indeed around the late beginning of your adventure you will encounter the Fairy Godmother (of Cinderella fame) who will turn crystallized fossils into animated summon “monsters”, the likes of which can be called into battle and will replace Goofy and Donald until you either call them off, of they expire (as they also operate on HP and MP and thus can take damage). Kingdom Hearts is *LOADED* with side quests; almost more than one can count. There are harmless breeds of Heartless called Truffles (essentially animated mushrooms) that want the player to perform a desired task, be it keeping them afloat or casting the desired spell on them. A successful action will result in the possible reward of various items that can be used in any number of purposes. (Synthesizing new items, getting powerful weapons, selling for large sums of Munnies, etc. It should be noted that the currency in Kingdom Hearts is called “Munnie”). Hidden items can be found everywhere in every world. Many are obtained by performing a group action known as a Trinity Event, of which there are various types. When you begin the game, all you will be able to activate are Blue Trinity points however as you progress the various other colors will become accessible as well. Mini games are quite prevalent in the world of Kingdom Hearts, especially in the bonus area (the 100 Acre Woods, an world that consists of nothing but mini games) but can be found in almost every world. Even the three hero’s method of transportation itself is a mini-game: The result of a promotional campaign between LifeSavers Japan and Square, traveling to other worlds involves the use of a GummiShip (Gummi as in GummiSavers, not the old Disney Cartoon Gummi Bears), a multifunctional vessel that the heroes ride in. The player actually gets to control the ship itself while traveling, and thus Kingdom Hearts becomes essentially a shooting title for a brief period of time. Before moving from this topic it is also worth noting the most prevalent side quest in Kingdom Hearts, that of finding the 101 Dalmations…or 99 rather, as Pongo and Perdita are already found when you arrive in Traverse Town, the game’s first location. Hidden in each world are some of the Dalmatian puppies, magically sealed inside treasure chests. Some chests require Trinity Abilities to reach, some require advanced abilities only acquired late in the game, some require careful exploration, and some are lying frivolously for even the most casual gamer to stumble upon. Finding the puppies results in periodic presents from Pongo and Perdita (talk about alliteration) however it is the ultimate goal which the completist will seek: finding all the Dalmatians, sealing all the worlds (a goal best left to the game for explanation), and finishing the final battle series at the Olympus Coliseum will grant the player access to a special secret movie upon completing the game. Seeing this movie is not to be missed and therefore completing everything is highly encouraged.
Indeed there is much more to Kingdom Hearts than I’ve managed to discuss in this review. In truth, the only way to find out all the title has to offer is to play it yourself.

All of this excitement is made possible by graphics that are just plain out of this world. Kingdom Hearts features amazingly detailed graphics, environments, and characters that truly feel more like they belong in an actual cartoon rather than a videogame. Each character has their own little quirks, their own distinctive style, and their own way of thinking. As trivial as one might find it, each new weapon upgrade results in a different looking item. Similarly, some worlds feature costume changes for the three main characters to better blend into their surroundings. And indeed the environments themselves are exquisitely designed: were it not for such true to art realism and crisp detail, the game would come off as a botched attempt to recreate Disney magic. Instead, as mentioned before, the player truly feels they are acting in the various Disney worlds, not just watching.

Another pleasing aspect of Kingdom Hearts is the sweeping and epic music score that accompanies the game, composed by Yoko Shimomura (of Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana fame, among various others). Each track in the score has such creativity and magic to it that most players will want to pick up the soundtrack from their local import store before even getting half way through the game. Everything from the beautiful piano composition that accompanies the title screen to the bombastic action oriented battle themes will captivate the player and only draw them further into the product. Truly one of the best soundtracks to ever come out of Square’s composers.

It should be stated that Hearts is by no means an easy game, either. Throw away those preconceived notions that anything Disney must be child’s play. Kingdom Hearts on Normal mode proves to be a moderate challenge for even the most experienced gamer, but throw the game into Expert mode and even seasoned veterans of Hearts may find themselves in trouble. Many bosses are so difficult that multiple attempts are in order to finally slay the given beasts. Indeed while playing on Proud Mode (Final Mix’s hardest difficulty), I found myself continuing more times than I thought possible. I believe the final counter read something like 34 retries, and that doesn’t even include all the times I didn’t reattempt the battles. On Expert Mode, even some of the regular enemies can become problematic juggernauts.

Sadly, no game is without faults and Kingdom Hearts is no exception. Most unfortunately, almost all of the faults are corrected in the Japanese exclusive Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, but more on that later. One of the largest problems with Kingdom Hearts is that while the game itself controls like a dream, the camera is a true nightmare. The game utilizes a dynamic camera style that almost always allows the player to shift should they want to change the perspective. This can lead to any number of problems with the game however: Sora and company may become hidden behind a wall; the camera may change while performing a jump and thus you will loose orientation, etc. While certainly not the worst camera program ever coded, Kingdom Heart’s leaves much to be desired.

An additional problem, albeit a small one, is the control in certain areas. In Neverland and Atlantica (of Peter Pan and Little Mermaid fame, respectively), Sora learns to fly and swim. Unfortunately the smooth control scheme becomes rather compromised with these new dynamics, and thus attacking Heartless can be somewhat of a hassle, especially if they are on different levels (some in the air, some on the ground, etc). It should be noted however that these are not major problems, and that the levels in question are but a small portion of the game itself.

Another glaring fault of Hearts is the aforementioned GummiShip. Traveling from world to world becomes a tedious task that most players will end up abhorring rather than longing for. The lack of any kind of reward or bonus from going through the shooting stages will no doubt see players using the “Warp Drive” mode once it becomes available; opting to skip the shooting stages entirely. Directly related to this fault is the fact that 80% of all items you find in the game (be it via defeated enemies, side quests, etc.) are all parts for the GummiShip. Parts you ask? Yes, parts…leading on to the next (and possibly largest) fault the game shares: the ability to customize and design your own GummiShip. While the idea itself is nothing short of an amusing way to travel the world in style, those who have attempted this feat often finds themselves more confused and puzzled than one would think possible. This stems from an overly complicated customization process which is coupled with horrible controls. Once you get the hang of building the GummiShip the process becomes much more intrinsic however in truth, because of the lack of necessity to do so in the first place, many gamers will completely ignore this aspect of the game, especially given the high learning curve.

Sadly, there exists a build of Kingdom Hearts that actually corrected these faults, a build that will never see the light of day outside of Japan. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix is the definitive version of Kingdom Hearts, and for all intensive purposes, is perfect. Final Mix features a slightly modified camera engine whereby Sora and friends will become silhouettes should an object obstruct the player from seeing them (such as a wall). While hardly a complete overhaul, this fix does solve some of the camera issues. The GummiShip on the other hand, is completely new in concept for the most part, and proves to be a task actually worth undertaking: For Final Mix, Square decided to actually make the shooting stages worth playing. Each world has a variety of missions the player can undertake (some shooting down X number of enemies, some not getting hit, some finding X item, etc) and actually serve to not only encourage participating in the GummiShip mini game, but to customize your ship so as to be able to complete more missions. The end result is a process that actually has a point to it and thus is no longer just a boring distraction to the main game. There are of course, many other high points of Final Mix, however as this review is for the domestic release I will not go into detail. For those curious however, Final Mix also features new Heartless, new items, new attacks, new weapons, new bosses, new cut scenes, and a new Special Secret ending; a two minute long “full version” instead of the special secret ending movie. Too good to be true? Indeed. Unfair that only Japan gets it? Quite. If you are one who imports games, make it a point to get Final Mix, as the game is more than worth the additional cost (assuming you already own KH) to experience.

With this said however, I feel I must explain just how much I like Kingdom Hearts: I can’t explain what compelled me to do so, but Kingdom Hearts stands as the first RPG I’ve ever played to 100% completion. Sure the Final Fantasy games had their own kinds of bonuses for those who wanted to do everything (a gold Chocobo, ultimate weapons, etc) however in truth I’ve only ever wanted to accomplish some-if any-of these tasks. With Kingdom Hearts however, I felt compelled to accomplish everything, and to do so every time I play the game. As strange as it may sound, the game never gets boring, not does hunting for elusive enemies or rare items. It’s as if each play of the game is an experience in and of itself, and that to miss any of it would be nothing short of heresy.

Regardless of what one feels towards Disney, they own it to themselves as someone who likes fun experiences to play Kingdom Hearts. Put aside any kind of prejudices or beliefs about Disney and its evils just for a few hours of your life and play the event which is Kingdom Hearts. It is almost impossible for anyone, even the most jaded gamer, to come away from said title with an unpleasant experience because of the sheer brilliance that it encompasses. Who it stars, how it’s done, and who makes it pushed aside, Kingdom Hearts is simply put, one of the best games ever created and truly worthy of anyone’s time and efforts. You will *not* be disappointed.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 02/21/03, Updated 02/23/03

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