Sora, Riku and Kairi are best friends living on the idyllic Destiny Island. Driven by the dream of worlds beyond their own, the trio work together on a raft to take them to new places- but nothing can prepare them for the reality of what lies in wait. Separated from his friends when the dark entities known as Heartless attack, Sora must take up his role as wielder of the Keyblade and travel across the worlds searching for the others. On the way, he will meet both enemies and allies, including many familiar faces from the worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy.
After many years of sporadic play and lengthy periods of uninterest, the first Kingdom Hearts game has finally been conquered, and with that, it can also be thoroughly dissected in review. In the intervening time, the franchise has gathered sequels and gone from strength to strength, but when it comes down to it, just how good is the first instalment in this iconic series?
Mixing together familiar Disney and Final Fantasy faces with a set of original characters, Kingdom Hearts is an action RPG that casts you in the role of destined hero Sora, complete with his unique weapon, the Keyblade. Accompanied by Donald Duck and the loyal Goofy, Sora travels across worlds based on various Disney films, fighting Heartless and bosses, and interacting with many familiar faces along the way. It’s a reasonable enough experience, but even the innumerable cameos aren’t enough to elevate the game into the ranks of the greats.
A tale of many worlds
An ‘action RPG’ in the vein of .hack, Kingdom Hearts combines platform style jumping with real time battles across a number of different worlds. Sora is the only character you get to control throughout the entire game, although your trusty AI controlled allies Donald and Goofy will follow you everywhere. Admittedly, they are pretty useless to start off with, but as you level up, Donald in particular will become a useful healer for when you’re at risk on the front line. Depending on what world you’re in, you can also swap them out for different Disney characters, who, whilst they don’t show much in the way of originality when it comes to attacks or magic, at least make for a bit of variety. You can also dispense with both your AI controlled allies for a time and replace them with a summoned creature such as Simba or Dumbo, who will fight alongside you with varying degrees of usefulness.
Unfortunately, in this first entry in the series, the balance is not yet quite right. The platforming aspects are largely tedious and involve a lot of awkward jumps and trying to figure out where you’re even supposed to be going next. At the same time, hordes of random enemies will constantly appear to dog your progress, and you will soon tire of hacking and slashing your way through them all. Of course, magic is also available, but you’ll find yourself wanting to save your MP for healing rather than offence. In the game’s favour, however, you can at least assign magic to shortcut keys rather than having to navigate through menus in the heat of battle.
When you’re not working your way through one world or another, you’ll be travelling between them via one of the most tedious modes of transport available- the Gummi ship. Until you get warp drive later in the game, each trek between worlds involves shooting your way through hordes of enemy spaceships. Admittedly, this in itself is not too bad, but trying to customise the Gummi ship is so completely confusing and unintuitive that it will leave you with a lifelong hatred for all things Gummi.
For the truly dedicated looking to unlock a brief extra scene that you’ll see at the start of Chain of Memories anyway, there is also a selection of sidequests designed to string out your play time as long as possible. From collecting the lost Dalmatian puppies to defeating waves of enemies at the Olympus Coliseum, none of these can be said to be particularly spectacular, although Winnie the Pooh fans will likely enjoy restoring the world of the 100 Acre Wood by collecting torn pages of the book in which he and his friends reside. There are also Mickey Mouse head shaped marks known as Trinities scattered around the worlds which, when approached by Sora, Donald and Goofy, will unlock hidden treasures- if you’ve swapped them out for a different party member, however, you will be unable to use the Trinity and will have to wait until the next save point to switch party members.
Worlds of Kingdom Hearts
Destiny Islands: your home town, and as such, you might think that things couldn’t possibly be too painful here. Unfortunately, even at this early stage of the game, the seeds are sown, with awkward quests such as trying to get a coconut (and it has to be the right coconut else it will just vanish) down from the trees and over to your friends. Other ‘fun’ activities include racing against the computer controlled Riku at a stage of the game where you’re still learning the controls, or getting your arse handed to you by NPCs in mock battles because you haven’t yet mastered the combat system.
Traverse Town: effectively your headquarters and supply base after the loss of Destiny Islands catapults you into your adventure proper. Traverse Town is filled with merchants, including the obligatory item and accessory shops, a moogle synthesis store where you can use raw materials to create new goods (if you can be bothered- it doesn’t actually make much difference if you completely ignore this feature), Gummi Ship customisation via FF7’s Cid Highwind, and a mix of various Disney and Final Fantasy characters. The periphery of the town is also plagued with monsters, so don’t expect an easy ride even here.
Wonderland: one of the earliest worlds you can visit, Wonderland is a place of bright colours and annoyingly repetitive music that brings only pain to its visitors. Just as Alice once did, you will have to drink potions to shrink and grow, face the wrath of the Queen and wander for ages in a forest trying to figure out where to go next. There truly are no redeeming features in this world.
Olympus Coliseum: the obligatory battle arena world, you can fight wave upon wave of enemy here for experience and profit. A battle against Cloud early on will prove somewhat difficult, but just wait until the Titans and Sephiroth show up.
Deep Jungle: the world of Tarzan and Jane, this is a good beginners’ level, despite the tediousness of having to swing from vine to vine in the jungle without falling down and having to start over. Tarzan can join your party here, and proves useful due to his healing skills.
Monstro: A spaceborne whale from Pinocchio, Monstro’s interior is available to explore should he intercept you en route to another world. Once you move beyond the mouth, however, the interior chambers all look very similar, making it hard to find your way.
Agrabah: You are joined by Aladdin in this world of sand and desert, where the Cave of Wonders proves particularly tricky both as a boss and a dungeon. Jump across various hazards and keep your fingers crossed that you won’t keep falling off your route into the dark river below. A tough optional boss takes residence here later in the game.
Halloween Town: I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, but even that couldn’t make this world bearable. Even Jack Skellington can’t improve this place, which is frustrating to the point where trying to find where you’re supposed to go to advance the story can leave you feeling physically sick. It was at this point in the game that I knew I could never wholeheartedly enjoy myself whilst playing it.
Atlantica: anyone who has experienced the horror of an underwater level in any other game will immediately understand that all the other worlds are as nothing compared to the horror of Atlantica, a level set completely ‘Under the Sea’. Ariel, the eponymous Little Mermaid, joins you on your quest to defeat Ursula, one which will be horribly difficult if you tackle this world before Halloween Town and Agrabah, but refreshingly easy if you leave it until last. Even so, finding your way around the various jetstreams and hidden caves will prove tricky unless you have a knowledgeable friend or a FAQ to help you out.
100 Acre Wood: Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays…sorry, I couldn’t help myself. This is an inoffensive optional world; all you do is collect Torn Pages from other worlds and bring them to Merlin’s house in Traverse Town to view scenes involving Pooh and his friends.
Hollow Bastion: the final proper world and home to a boss castle that will take all the awkward platforming aspects and the perennial not knowing where to go of the rest of the game and magnify it tenfold. If you can make it through without experiencing a distinct rise in blood pressure, you’re either an incredibly calm and implacable person, or you’re in a coma.
A classic tale of light and love versus darkness, Kingdom Hearts does at least manage to weave the twin juggernauts of Disney and Final Fantasy into something that is more than just a cheap cash in on big names. As with every other aspect of the game, however, the story has yet to hit its stride in this first instalment, and is largely unremarkable.
Although eclipsed by its sequel, the original Kingdom Hearts manages a solid effort on the graphical front, looking decent for a game of its age. Background music is largely drawn from existing Disney tunes with some average original themes thrown in, although the main theme, Hikari (aka Simple and Clean in the English version) is worthy of note.
Although it went on to generate many successful and superior sequels, the original Kingdom Hearts isn’t actually all that great. By all means play it for completion or to get a feel for the series’ humble beginnings, but don’t expect great things.