Square’s collaboration with Disney might be 16 years old but Kingdom Hearts it still a brilliant game.
When the latest trailer for Kingdom Hearts 3 landed last month, I felt this overwhelming urge to give the series another go. You see, I got about half way through the original game when it first released in 2002 before, for reasons I can’t recall, I stopped playing it. Maybe the Disney orientated worlds were just too much for the burgeoning 16-year-old me (a time in which liking Disney just wasn’t ‘cool’ among my social circles) or maybe I just moved onto something else. When the series was re-mastered for the PS3, I tried again – only the disk never made it into my console and the box still sits in a ‘pile of shame’ I’m probably never going to go back to. So with the recently released 1.5 & 2.5 Final Remix edition for PS4, I thought It was finally time to delve into a beloved series which has eluded me over the years (especially since you’ll probably have to play all the games to get the most out of Kingdom Hearts 3).
And ho boy, the original Kingdom Hearts is fantastic and as fresh today as it was 16 years ago.
One of the aspects I appreciate more today than I did in 2002 is the real time, action based combat. I remember being a little disappointed when I originally played it, having played Final Fantasy VII, VIII, IX and X back to back, all of which had a variation of turn based/active time combat and misguidedly expected Kingdom Hearts to have the same sort of thing. Back then, the combat in Kingdom Hearts felt a little too much like that of the anthropomorphic 3D platformers that were all the rage back then – but in a post Final Fantasy XV world, you can really appreciate how forward thinking the combat in the original game was. Sure, your companions, Donald and Goofy, are less than useless at times in comparison to Noctis’ road trip buddies but you still get the feeling of fighting together as a group thanks to the various sound bites and assists. It feels really great to hear Goofy yell out, to turn around to see him surrounded by Fat Bandit’s and then jump to the rescue, swinging the Key blade wildly while Donald heals his pal. As an older head these days, I can also appreciate the Tech points and the subtle complexities to the combat. As a 16 year old, I’d just mash the buttons but as a 30 something gamer, I can see the tell-tale signs of an upcoming attack and time my parry for that bounce back satisfaction. It’s such a lovely system that I feel doesn’t get as much appreciation as it deserves. Except for the swimming combat in the Little Mermaid level. That can, literally, get in the sea.
Then there’s the level design. Sure, some of it is a little old hat these days – especially the early parts of Traverse Town and in the middle parts of the Tarzan level when you’re wandering around trying to trigger cutscenes with no indication of where to go. These issues aside, the replication of iconic Disney locations with subtle tweaks to incorporate game play possibilities is phenomenal. The Alice In Wonderland locations are a stand out, combining the bizarre with a sense of exploration in the way that level evolves. The Nightmare before Christmas level is also a tour de force of duplicating an animated world in a way to make it enjoyable as a game. There’s so many little touches that have translated from the animation into Easter eggs and subtle nods to fans.
What’s more, playing through the original Kingdom Hearts 16 years later feels like a hipster trip through Disney films that are seen as real classics these days. When people talk about Disney these days, it’s often in reference to Frozen, Tangled, Pirates of the Caribbean, Marvel movies or Star Wars. It was such a joy to play through the worlds I’d enjoyed as a child at a time when I’m sharing them with my own kids (they’re in a big Lilo & Stitch/Peter Pan/Nightmare Before Christmas phase right now). I’d also forgotten about the sheer number of Final Fantasy characters that appear in this game and, while it was a little jarring at first, it was a lovely stroll down memory lane.
Visually, you can’t fault the HD spit shine that Square have applied here. It’s on par with most mid-tier modern RPG’s and while the game is certainly showing its age in places (especially with the facial animations), it’s still beautiful in its own way.
Kingdom Hearts also features some mind blowing sound tracks that expand on the themes from each level. The Nightmare Before Christmas world, for example, riffs on the iconic theme scored by Danny Elfman in a way that’s original yet pays homage to the brilliance of the source material. It’s a trend throughout the soundtrack which is inspired by the Disney classics but stops short of directly copying them.
Lastly, the story. There has been a lot said about the complexities of the plot of Kingdom Hearts and while I can’t speak about the rest of the series (yet), the narrative in the original Kingdom Hearts is wholesome and easy to understand. On the surface, it’s a tale of a boy trying to find his friends and making new pals along the way but there’s a lot of symbolism going on about relationships and about growing up.
It might have taken 16 years but now I’ve completed Kingdom Hearts, I finally fully understand the love that this game receives. It’s a wonderful adventure that’s aged very well compared to many of its peers. If you’ve ever been sat on the fence about diving into Kingdom Hearts, or have tried and failed like I have, now is the time to give it a go, even if it’s just to play the very first game.
Now, onto Chain of Memories…
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