Platform: Playstation 2
Publisher: SquareSoft/Disney Interactive Studios
The idea of crossing two separate fictional universes together has been played with for as long as the entertainment industry has existed. Comic books, television shows, movies, fanfic writers, and even video games have all experimented with mixing together characters, setpieces, and storylines from different properties, all with varying degrees of success. However, there is one particular crossover that caused several heads to turn when it was first unveiled: Mixing the creations of Walt Disney Studios with the juggernaut video gaming franchise Final Fantasy into one action-RPG. What's even more shocking is how well this combination works. The end result is Kingdom Hearts, a whimsical journey through what could be considered the best of both worlds.
The story of Kingdom Hearts begins quietly enough: Sora, a young anime-esque boy with big shoes and silly shorts, lives on a tropical island with his two best friends, rival Riku and pseudo-love interest Kairi. The triumvirate plan on building a raft and sailing the known world, but tragedy strikes when dark creatures known as the Heartless attack and destroy their world, separating the trio. Sora, who finds out he is the chosen wielder of a magical weapon called the Keyblade, winds up in another world where he runs into famous Disney characters Goofy and Donald Duck, who are searching for their missing King. Together, the three set out to rescue Sora's friends, find the missing King, and save the remaining worlds from the Heartless.
Don't expect a whole lot of depth to the story - at least, not until the later games. Although it may span across several Disney and Final Fantasy universes, the story remains straightforward and can be consulted via an in-game journal at any time. Nonetheless, the story is engaging and throws enough twists to keep things interesting for the entire game. The Disney worlds, characters, and storylines are integrated into the storytelling well enough to feel like a legitimate part of the story and not just something included for the sake of being included. At the very least, it provides an opportunity to explore your favorite Disney worlds and battle iconic villains with an oversized key.
An action-RPG set in multiple Disney universes? It's better than it sounds.
For a game released back in 2002, Kingdom Hearts' presentation has aged surprisingly well. The cartoony graphics are able to capture the look and feel of each Disney world brilliantly, from the cartoony antics in Winnie the Pooh to the dark, twisted imaginings of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Characters are all well animated both in-game and during cutscenes (though there is an odd inconsistency with the lip-synching animations in the latter). The voice-acting is top-notch, with some of the original actors from the films reprising their roles as well as Hailey Joel Osment lending his talent as the voice of Sora. What really shines in the presentation is the music. Combining remixes of classic Disney songs and original compositions, the music brings out the charm in all the Disney worlds while giving the new worlds their own distinctive personalities.
At its heart (pun not intended), Kingdom Hearts is an Action-RPG. Much of your time spent in the 30+ hour story is battling the Heartless in its many forms with Donald, Goofy, and occasionally a guest fighter at your side through a real-time battle system. There are some diversions along the way, like the occasional minigame or special fight, but for the most part, you'll be running through a series of room-like areas in each world fighting a variety of enemies. You're given a command menu to choose from a basic attack, magic, items, and context-sensitive actions, but there are no taking turns to slow down the gameplay, leading to some hectic battles. While there are RPG elements present, such as leveling up, gaining new abilities, and getting new equipment, the battles mostly rely on your skills and reflexes instead of level-grinding or scoring a lucky hit. How much of your skills are required depends on which of the three difficulty settings you pick at the beginning. You can essentially mash the attack button to win every fight on the easiest setting, but the other two settings will force you to use all of the skills at your disposal to prevail, especially during later fights. The combat does get off to a rather slow start, as only the bare minimum is given to you for the first few hours, but once it gets going, it rarely ceases to satisfy.
Sadly, not all of Kingdom Hearts has aged well. The biggest example of this is the camera. All too often, the camera is one of the biggest enemies you'll wrestle with in most fights, as it likes to get stuck behind enemies, friends, and the scenery itself, especially in closed areas. Camera controls are limited to the L2 and R2 buttons to pan the view around Sora horizontally, which can lead to moments where you're too fixated on getting the camera back in order to attack or evade. Were it not for a lock-on mechanism to keep track of a single enemy, the camera could have proved a serious hindrance to the entire game. As it is, the camera is a nuisance that can cause some frustation, but not enough to bring the whole game down.
There are some other issues with the gameplay that deserve a mention. In order to travel between the worlds, the trio must pilot a Gummi Ship through some StarFox-like levels, dodging obstacles and shooting down enemy aircraft. While this does lead to an interesting mechanic where you can completely customize the Gummi Ship, the levels are rather tedious, and have no real impact on the rest of the game. Later on, you'll acquire a device that lets you warp between worlds with ease, so much like the combat, it gets better (or in this case, less frustrating) over time. Also, there are certain boss fights that are preceded by a lengthy cutscene. This would not get a mention if not for the lack of a "skip cutscene" button, and the fact that some of these bosses are pretty tough and can end Sora's journey with just a few lucky hits. These aren't overly huge issues, though they do cause their fair share of annoyance.
Kingdom Hearts' graphics have held up well, but the same can't be said for the camera.
Regardless, the combination of the stylish presentation, classic franchises, and fun combat add a level of charm to Kingdom Hearts that elevates it above many other games of its generation, and even some games of the current generation. There's just something about a story that's not afraid to use what could be considered "childish" themes to make an endearing experience that's rare to come by in any medium. Despite some mechanics that haven't aged well, Kingdom Hearts is still an easy recommendation to any kind of gamer, especially at the low prices it can be found for. Just make sure that you are able to suspend any negative preconceptions you have on Disney and Final Fantasy before playing.