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Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2) artwork

Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2) review

"Plenty of style points, but the execution is lacking."

When Kingdom Hearts was released in 2002, to say I was excited would be an understatement. I was a big fan of the Final Fantasy series, and I knew many characters from those game would be present. I also was a fan of Disney movies, ranging from classics like "Sleeping Beauty" and "Alice in Wonderland" to those that came out during my college years like "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast". With this game, both worlds would be combined to create an adventure like none other!

And I got it for Christmas that year as a present from my wife at the time! And, if not for one thing, it could have been a metaphor for our marriage: an intense honeymoon period, followed by ennui and dissatisfaction leading to an eventual dissolution! The one difference, you ask? After many years, I was willing to re-unite with Kingdom Hearts to make right what had once gone wrong. To honor my vows to see the whole thing through, even if the damn thing killed me!

Sadly, unlike those old Disney films, this is no "happily ever after" story. After a few hours, I gradually started remembering just why I lost interest in working through the game in the first place. Only this time, I was determined to persevere through all that ennui and dissatisfaction so that I could finally cross this game off my list and close this mini-chapter of my life. Maybe I relied on a guide in order to get through certain areas quickly, and maybe I ground a few extra levels whenever I could in order to make tough battles a bit easier, but I actually finished the damn game this time and that's something that nobody can take away from me!

Kingdom Hearts screenshot Kingdom Hearts screenshot

While Final Fantasy and Disney characters play important roles in the game's plot, it's centered around the adventures of a boy named Sora and his friends, Riku and Kairi. Those three, as well as a handful of Final Fantasy folk, are the lone residents of a tropical island. After a brief tutorial that determines how quickly Sora will gain levels, as well as the order in which he'll obtain skills, he engages in various activities with his pals -- stuff that I can verify is really tedious to experience when it's your second or third trip through the game. While Wakka, Tidus and Selphie only exist to teach you the importance of blocking attacks in battle, Riku and Kairi are Sora's companions and they have goals of getting off their isolated island. And, well, by the time this section of the game has concluded, that wish will have definitely been granted. It happens in one of those "skies get dark, monsters appear, Sora just fell into a portal" ways, but still, he's somewhere else!

Traverse Town, the place where he finds himself, is an interesting location. Essentially a way station for those whose planets have been destroyed by some mysterious power, it's under the control of Final Fantasy characters Squall (or Leon, as he demands to be called) and Yuffie. Sora immediately gains their attention, as during that incident leading to him winding up there, he came into possession of a weapon known as the Keyblade. Containing all sorts of mysterious powers, the new gear basically acts like a big neon sign above the lad's head saying "UNLIKELY HERO HERE!!!!". Of course, every hero needs a team and two partners quickly find Sora in the form of Donald Duck and Goofy. Those two are members of King Mickey Mouse's court. The king has gone missing, only leaving a note telling them to find the bearer of the Keyblade and work with him.

And so, the trio travels from one world to the next, each based on various Disney films, in order to fight off the onslaught of Heartless that seems to be popping up everywhere as a precursor of destruction. They'll be helped by some characters from those movies, while gaining the ire of others. Meanwhile, as Sora focuses on the goal of finding his two friends, Riku is conducting his own search. However, while Sora is being helped by Donald and Goofy, Riku's mentor is the far more sinister Maleficent, who is of the opinion that if her plans come to fruition, she will be able to control the Heartless and essentially rule all the worlds.

Kingdom Hearts screenshot Kingdom Hearts screenshot

The worlds in this game are well-designed and intricate, often requiring multiple visits after you've gained one new power or another if you're looking to collect all the treasure. The villains are well-realized, basically acting just like they did in their movies, but in the setting of this game. Donald and Goofy are suitable allies. They might burn through their magic with no concept of conservation, but by loading them with healing items, I at least didn't have to worry too much about keeping Sora alive. There are all sorts of fun diversions, such as the multiple tournaments you can enter in the Olympic Coliseum after your initial, mandatory, visit. This is the sort of game that should demand love and respect, combining classic Disney characters with a few Final Fantasy ones and placing them in an epic adventure with no shortage of great moments that remind one why they've been playing these games for decades and have no desire to slow down.

But it failed to do so. Kingdom Hearts isn't a bad game; in fact, it's quite good at times. But it is saturated with flaws that range from nuisances to the sort of issues that make one wonder just why they're playing this game when they own so many others that are begging for even a fraction of the attention it has received.

When going from one planet to another, you have to pilot a ship through a "shooter on rails" segment. At first, this is sort of a neat addition that gives you something new to do that you probably weren't expecting. After a little while, though, you'll be glad that you're only forced to endure these trips on your first journey to a given planet, and then can instantly warp there on future visits. Simply put, while these stages have visual differences, they all feel the same -- short trips that seem to take an eternity because if you put a minimal amount of effort into upgrading your ship, you'll face no actual opposition. You're able to quickly recoup any damage you might suffer because something will drop a shield boost every half-second or so. Just doing each of these segments once means you'll be having the same approximate experience a dozen or so times throughout your adventure, and that's way too much time invested into an annoying, non-challenging task than I'd prefer.

Kingdom Hearts screenshot Kingdom Hearts screenshot

Then, when you reach each planet, it won't take long to discover how annoying battling can get in this game. This game involves the sort of fast-paced, combo-intensive combat present in games like God of War, but you'll have to deal with a camera that gets caught on walls regularly. That's an issue that often becomes infuriating, since a lot of locations in this game involve narrow corridors and tightly-packed rooms. As a bonus, you'll often find yourself climbing large structures where your spastic battle moves are sure to send you careening over the edge and force you to start the ascension from square one. Sure, you do have a button that allows you to lock on to the nearest foe, but you still have to endure the camera awkwardly lumbering around to it. Midway through the game (around the point where I quit the first time through!), I had a revelation as to why games like God of War placed its fights in locations featuring set angles: you could always see just where you were in relation to monsters and thus could easily move from one foe to the next without any awkward moments. Here, the adjustable camera mixed with those confined areas is a disaster waiting to happen. Battles regularly devolve into you blindly flailing about, randomly connecting with enemies while trying to convince yourself that everything's under control.

And that's just in the normal worlds. Visit the Little Mermaid's domain of Atlantica or Peter Pan's abode in Neverland and the controls get even more awkward, as you'll be swimming in the former and flying in the latter, activities that force you to remember what button causes you to rise and which makes you descend. Now, the lock-on button is essential, as it'll cause you to automatically change your level to engage enemies. Oh, and several portions of the obscenely long final boss encounter also rely on these controls, so you better get used to them, instead of treating those areas where you must work with them as annoying moments to be quickly rushed through and then forgotten about.

I'd like to say that when I remember Kingdom Hearts, it'll be thanks to the epic fights with classic villains such as Maleficent and Jafar. Or the joy I felt early on while I was manipulating the scenery in Wonderland to find new paths into its intricately-designed rooms and chambers. Or the thrill of beating entire Coliseum tournaments in mere minutes to win new prizes. And those things will be part of my memories. They'll just be overshadowed by all the awkwardness I had to deal with while controlling Sora in battle (and sometimes just maneuvering through worlds) or the time wasted by having to endure tedious, meaningless space shooter interludes. And my most vivid memory will be of how much I looked forward to playing this game, expecting greatness, only to find a decent but flawed game that took many more years to inspire me to finish it than I ever could have guessed back in '02.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (September 14, 2018)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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