Kingdom Hearts. The insane fusion of Disney and Final Fantasy characters that on paper sounded like the strangest combination in the gaming world, yet somehow defied all expectation and turned out to be a system defining RPG with one of the most devoted and rabid fanbases you’ll ever see. With a complex (emphasis on complex) narrative that rivals Metal Gear Solid in terms of confusion and out of order storylines, told through countless branching titles, varied gameplay elements (depending on the game), and a mixture of entertainment universes that should not mesh this well, the series has gone strong for over fifteen years now with fans feverishly awaiting the arrival of Kingdom Hearts 3 in 2018. But what has made this franchise so well received and loved by both critics and fans alike? In this eight part retrospective, I’m going to explore each game in the franchise using the best available version to find out what made each of them great, what worked and what didn’t, and if they still hold up today. Today, we’re going to start with the game that started it all: Kingdom Hearts I. I’ll be going off the Final Mix version on PS4 in the 1.5 & 2.5 Collection, as it is the complete package (the series has a habit of releasing director’s cut versions like this, three of them to be exact) with all available cutscenes and content.
Sora, a spiky-haired teenager living on the Destiny Islands with his friends Kairi and Riku, is our protagonist here. Tidus (from Final Fantasy X), Wakka (from Final Fantasy X), and Selphie (from Final Fantasy VIII) also live on the island but their roles are inconsequential as they’re just combat tutorials and early game experience farming and they vanish an hour into the game never to be seen again for the duration of this game. Sora, Riku, and Kairi dream of exploring other worlds. They plan to build a raft in order to sail into the sunset to see these other worlds (I don’t get how that’ll work either but we’ll roll with it). The night before they plan to set sail, a storm hits the islands. This storm brings an infinite source of enemies that quickly overtake the island. Riku and Kairi end up vanishing during this storm and Sora receives the Keyblade. This is the iconic weapon from the franchise, and one that has a place in gaming history: A frigging key. This key is the only weapon that Sora can use to fight these enemies. Anyways, after fighting a giant Heartless boss, the islands are destroyed and Sora ends up in a new world called Traverse Town.
The enemies here are Heartless, let’s get that out of the way now cause you’re gonna be hearing variations of the words heart, darkness, light, hope, and friends so much in this game you’ll beg for nothingness even though that’s gonna be a recurring word too.
Elsewhere in the universe, Mickey Mouse (who is now a king, so King Mickey) has left his castle and world to fight this evil darkness that is slowly spreading. Anyway, he has left a note for his magician friend Donald Duck (cause he’s a mage now) and his trusty knight Goofy (who wields a shield, cause I wouldn’t trust him with a sword either) to go out on their Gummi Ship (more on that later) and search for this Keybearer who holds the key (no pun intended) to defeating this spreading evil force from taking over the universe and destroying every world. They travel out to the nearest world, which coincidentally ends up being Traverse Town.
In Traverse Town, Sora meets up with the main Final Fantasy characters you’ll see in this franchise. Leon (Squall from Final Fantasy VIII), Aerith/Aeris (from Final Fantasy VII), Yuffie (from Final Fantasy VII), and Cid (from Final Fantasy VII. That’s not a popular game at all, nope). There’s also Cloud (from Final Fantasy…you guessed it, VII) but he’s found in a different world, Olympus Coliseum. Sora also meets up with Donald and Goofy who see his key and determine that they should bring him along not only to defeat the Heartless, but also to track down and find King Mickey along with Kairi and Riku.
The gang ends up visiting many Disney worlds, including Wonderland, the previously mentioned Olympus Coliseum, Atlantica, Tarzan’s world (called Deep Jungle cause you can’t call it Africa, I guess), Agrabah, Halloween Town, Neverland (and London, but again can’t reference real life things here it’s fantasy), and even the inside of Monstro from Pinocchio. Your goal is to seal the keyhole in every world to stop the flow of Heartless into those worlds. There are others, but those are the main ones you are tasked with visiting and completing.
The three original worlds outside of the Islands that you visit are Traverse Town (which is like the reoccurring hub world you’ll end up visiting multiple times to get items that allow you to progress in the story), Hollow Bastion (the home of the Final Fantasy characters for some reason, also the home of Maleficent who is one of the main antagonists), and the End of the World… originality varies in this franchise. Along the way you help rid the worlds of the Heartless and gather clues as to where your friends are and how the Heartless came to be.
It turns out the Heartless were discovered by Ansem (which, by the way, he is one of the most confusing plot elements of the entire damn series… More on that in future retrospectives though) as born from the darkness in people’s hearts. When a person loses their heart, a Heartless is born. Again, originality varies. Ansem seemed to love the darkness, and became one with the Heartless. Or so we are led to believe, but wait till Kingdom Hearts II for that one. He’s the overall main antagonist here. But he’s one of those RPG tropes that the true bad guy shows up after you defeat the originally thought to be main bad guy, Maleficent.
Maleficent runs this court of bad guys, which includes Hades, Clayton, Ursula, Captain Hook, Oogie Boogie, and Jafar. They all fall to your key, and end up just being unwitting pawns in Maleficent’s master plan to use the seven Princesses of Heart to complete the Final Keyhole in Hollow Bastion. The seven princesses are a mix of five Disney Princesses (Jasmine, Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, and Aurora), Alice from Wonderland (who isn’t really a princess but they ran out of girls with legs since Ariel is a mermaid), and Kairi’s body (yeah she’s a princess, plot twist, and she’s missing her heart, double plot twist!). They are pure of heart and the key (pun not intended… again) to opening the ultimate keyhole in Hollow Bastion that will flood the worlds with Heartless and consume everything.
Here’s where the plot starts to get really convoluted: After killing Maleficent, you find Ansem has taken over Riku and is using him as a vessel to try and rule the universe with darkness. He also reveals that Kairi’s heart is within Sora (triple plot twist!) and attempts to take it by force. You beat him up, only to discover that you can’t actually seal the incomplete Keyhole, so Sora uses Riku’s Keyblade on himself, releasing all of the Princesses’ hearts, Kairi’s, and his own. He briefly becomes a Heartless, but Kairi saves him… somehow. Magic, I guess. With his body back, he seals the Final Keyhole in Hollow Bastion and prepares to pursue Riku-Ansem.
Sora and company travel to the final world, the End of the World, and battle their way to Ansem who they have cornered into a multi-stage final battle complete with many phases and some bullshit controls along the way (I’ll complain about that in the gameplay). They defeat Ansem, he gives off one last quip about darkness, and Sora opens the door to Kingdom Hearts (I think that’s Kingdom Hearts, I’m not sure the series isn’t consistent on this really) to expose him to light and banish him to the next world. Riku and Mickey appear, they help seal the door closed, and instead of returning home with Kairi, our three lovable protagonists venture onwards to find Riku and Mickey to bring them home.
As you can see, this story is batshit insane and very complicated. The more I wrote here, the harder I found it to describe without going into a ten page essay. I tried to hit key points, but honestly so much happens and so many things go down it’s hard to explain. But for how hard the story can be to describe and understand at times, it’s one of the better stories in gaming. It’s detailed, in-depth, and for the most part very well written. It overly relies on the tropes of light and darkness, hearts and friendship, but it works for the story. Overall, it’s a story worth learning and experiencing.
Now…Oh boy, the gameplay. For as great as the story is, the gameplay is a bit dull and the definition of simplistic. It’s a real time action RPG, and this game did not have much to it at the beginning. You will find it getting repetitive very, very quickly. The majority of fights, 95% of them, are spent mashing the X button to attack and defeat enemies. You’ll occasionally hit Triangle for special moves, and magic can help out too, but if you’re good at mashing a single button you’ll excel at the combat in this game. Growing up I never thought much of it, but having experienced more intuitive and complex action RPGs since then, it hasn’t aged well. The platforming in this game (which for some reason was a big part of this game) is stiff as hell. Countless times you’ll end up ripping your hair out in frustration cause you’ll miss simple jumps not because of the difficulty but because the game simply decided to not work with that jump. Later titles heavily toned down the platforming aspect but it was a rough go in the first game. All that said, it’s still fun to play. It’s mindless bad guy killing and the added special moves are fun and flashy. The bosses are entertaining and go beyond what you’d think possible for Disney Villains while the Heartless bosses are imaginative. They’re some of the best boss designs you’ll see in a kid’s RPG game, if a little simple at times.
Outside of all the fighting you’ll do, there are plenty of side quests too… A lot of them involving combat. There are plenty of tournament battles in the Coliseum to partake in, there’s an entire extra world involving everyone’s favorite honey-eating bear, and there’s even a (rather simple…there’s a trend here) synthesis side quest you’ll do for the most powerful Keyblade in the game. However… as simple as that might be, the quests to get the rare items in the Final Mix version of the game are anything but. They are without a doubt the most frustrating parts of the game, as you’ll repeatedly fight the same special enemies over and over and over and over and over… It gets infuriating. But the weapon is more than worth it as you’ll rip and tear through the final bosses and the secret bosses too.
On that note, the secret bosses are tough but they are entertaining. You’ll face off against a phantom Heartless that terrorizes Big Ben in Neverland, a Heartless Swordsman in Agrabah (Fun fact: This enemy was named after a fan who won a contest before the game’s original American release and only became a worldwide secret boss with Final Mix), and you’ll even fight the legendary Final Fantasy VII villain Sephiroth in a one on one duel. That fight ends up being the toughest boss in the game as you won’t be able to rely on having companions to help you fight. This is the ultimate test of how much you’ve learned about this game. Finally, there’s a Final Mix exclusive boss called the Unknown (Spoiler: He’s Xemnas, the main antagonist of Kingdom Hearts II). He’s quick, he hits hard, but he can be easily taken down if you fight carefully. So between this, the mini-games, the tournaments, and the synthesis, there’s enough here to keep you busy for a long while.
There was a trend here in this retrospective: Simple. The game, for as deep as the story gets, is simple. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s the original title and already had a steep hill to climb being such a weird amalgamation of franchises into something fresh and exciting. But does it hold up today? I say yes, yes it does. Fifteen years after playing this game for the first time, everything is still a great source of jollity. You’ll find yourself getting lost in the characters and story, sucked into this world (these worlds?) time and time again, and it’s truly an adventure worth taking.
Next time in our retrospective, we’re throwing every single gameplay aspect we discussed here out the window as we go to explore the real time card based action RPG mid-sequel Chain of Memories, originally released on the GameBoy Advanced and re-released in full 3D on the PS2 (and later in the collection packs on PS3/PS4) as Re:Chain of Memories. Until then, see you next time!