Two colossal franchises collided in 2002 that would change the way gamers looked at crossovers. Disney and Squaresoft, now known as Square-Enix collaborated on the action RPG series Kingdom Hearts, bringing Eastern sensibilities and storylines to a host of Disney themed levels.
The plot centers around Sora, Riku, and Kairi, three children who all live on the tropical world known as Destiny Islands. While longing to see other places and go on adventures, mysterious creatures known as the Heartless arrive and destroy their world, scattering the three to parts unknown. Sora soon meets up with Goofy and Donald who are searching for the missing King Mickey and the new trio sets out to find their lost friends. They set out to traverse a variety of Disney themed worlds to stop the Heartless and save the world, well worlds.
The story is surprisingly strong, mixing the lighthearted Disney aesthetic with the darker themes prevalent in JRPGs. Throughout the game, players will travel to Disney themed worlds where they will play out a truncated version of that movie’s story, with the Heartless adding an additional twist on the familiar tale. From the cozy confines of Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders to the twisting spires of Halloween Town, Kingdom Hearts continually surprises the player by adding world after world to explore.
However, this comes at the price of size. Most levels are small, showcasing off the bare necessities of each movie’s setpiece such as Captain Hook’s Ship, or Hercules’ Coliseum and not much more. Some worlds feature only a handful of locations making them seem a little claustrophobic. The textures are simple and vibrant, with bright cartoonish colors setting the stage perfectly for the many battles that await the player.
Which brings us to the combat. Throughout the adventure, Sora will learn both new attacks and magic modeled after traditional Final Fantasy spells. Spells like Fire can evolve to Fira and eventually Firaga after completing specific plot events or sidequests. Summons are also thrown in letting you summon characters like Dumbo and Tinkerbell among others, which is a nice addition but I found summons to be much less effective than my AI partners, Donald and Goofy.
You can adjust your allies behavior to have them use less MP or to be more stingy with items which helps but for the most part, the two either act like idiot savants or just idiots, frequently using up all of their MP on low level foes leaving them to be decimated during tougher boss battles. However, the greatest enemy isn’t the Heartless, but the camera.
The camera can be set to auto or manual but either way it frequently gets caught on geography or wigs out when you lock onto an enemy that is fast moving, causing it to spin around in an epileptic fit. I suffered several cheap deaths due to the camera and it certainly drags down the overall fun.
Besides exploring and fighting, there are several other distractions Kingdom Hearts allows you to take part in. Players travel from world to world via a Lego-like vessel called a Gummi Ship. Between worlds, you take on block looking ships in a shallow shooter minigame that is boring the first time you play it and doesn’t get much better. Additional gummi pieces can be earned in the shooting minigame or found in treasure chests. These pieces will allow you to customize your ship if you so desire.
Like many RPGs, rare items can be found and synthesized together to create powerful weapons and accessories. Like the Gummi Ship, synthesizing is an interesting diversion but requires hours of grinding to obtain the strongest weapons and items in the game. For everything besides the bonus bosses, it simply wasn’t interesting enough or necessary for me to pursue.
What makes Kingdom Hearts so fascinating is that while each part may seem flawed in a small, yet fundamental way, these parts coalesce into an experience like no other. Taking on Cloud Strife or partnering up with Jack Skellington makes the fun factor high enough to gloss over some of the flaws.
Square-Enix didn’t skimp on using the Disney license and every inch of the game is filled with cameos and references; from a Winnie the Pooh bonus world that oozes awesome, to reuniting the 101 Dalmatians, to extra bosses like the frightening Ice Titan. It’s a little disappointing to see the Final Fantasy half of the crossover to be so underrepresented, with many characters like Tidus and Squall, err, I mean, Leon…relegated to tutorial and cameo characters.
Kingdom Hearts is a game that at first glance seems like it could be a cheap cash-in disaster, but look inside and you’ll find a game bursting with heart. It’s like a semi polished gem, rough around the edges but if you give it another look, you might find it to be a diamond in the rough worthy in every PS2 owner’s library. But for those that can’t take off their fanboy blinders, they may find a game with mechanics that keep it from being a must own game.