With Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix now out, I think this is the time to review its older brother, and even mention why this series is 1 of the longest journeys I have ever experienced (as far as games are concerned).
For those who are unaware of what Kingdom Hearts actually is – Imagine it like the Dr Malibu experiment (Dr Malibu being Malibu coconut rum mixed with Dr Pepper) – Kingdom Hearts was an experimental game created by Squaresoft (now known as Square Enix), who decided to make something that takes characters from the Final Fantasy series (a Squaresoft staple) and mix them up with characters from Disney. It was a strange experiment…with very interesting and pleasant results.
We’ll start by discussing the 1st game, Kingdom Hearts 1. Our story begins and follows a teenage boy named Sora, who lives on Destiny Island (or at least near it). Here he plays with his friend (and rival) Riku, their friend Kairi (Who Sora takes a fancy to), and some other final fantasy characters in younger forms. They enjoy being regular kids, who would clearly have good memories of simple times when they’re trying to pay the bills later on (not a spoiler). One day, Riku pitches the idea of getting off the island to go exploring, and with both Sora and Kairi’s help they build a raft and collect some supplies (which, to be fair, would only last them about 2 days at most). While searching for these supplies, Sora stumbles across a door inside a cave, and is then greeted by a cloaked figure who tells him it’s the doorway to darkness…and that he’s a fool (nice chap). That night, the doorway to darkness was opened. Small, black (cuddly-looking) beings called Heartless start appearing, and Sora becomes separated from his friends while their island is swallowed up by the darkness. He eventually wakes up in a place called Traverse Town (which looks like something Disney would actually build) where he discovers that the giant key he now carries around (known as the key blade) can defeat the heartless and lock the doors of darkness in other worlds. While exploring this nice little town, he eventually meets Disney legends, Donald (a mage) and Goofy (a guard). They’re searching for “The King” (Take a guess who it is), who left their castle to go on a journey. To seek answers as to why darkness is taking over this game’s universe. In order to find Riku, Kairi and The King, and close the doors to darkness – Sora, Donald and Goofy decide to team up, which leads to events that are much bigger than they ever anticipated, and the building of a friendship that is unlikely to be broken.
Kingdom Hearts re:Chain Of Memories takes place after the events of Kingdom Hearts 1 and about a year before 2, and is set in a place called Castle Oblivion. Throughout the game, you will re-visit many of the old worlds you experienced in KH 1, only this time they look like a collection of rooms with different paint jobs. Unlike any other game within the series, Chain Of Memories is a card game. 1 where successful attacks are based on how well you use a collection of cards in real time, with some combinations leading to special attacks, more powerful versions of a spell, and simply attacking with the highest combined number to defeat foes. It look a while to get used to the controls, and after a rather steep learning curve, the game did start to play a little like the others (with the right strategy). It is this game where we are introduced to the main antagonists of the series. A group who wear long, black, hooded cloaks (with the zipper from the top rather than the bottom) known as Organisation XIII (Organisation 13). They’re using the castle as a tool to experiment on Sora, and the more he ascends the castle, the more he seems to lose his memories (note: Only 6 members of the Organisation appear in this, including the group’s rebel, Axel, who becomes an interesting character later on). What becomes of Sora? You’ll have to find out. Due to the rather evident deja vu feel of this game, and its rather complicated controls, I would say Chain Of Memories is probably the weakest instalment of this trilogy. On top of this, the voice acting is not as fruitful this time, as the only voices are from the game’s main and original characters, while every other Disney and Final Fantasy character is reduced to speech bubbles. When you finish the game as Sora, you can then play the game as Riku (Who, unlike Sora, chose a much darker path. But despite this, Sora is still his friend). Riku’s story is roughly half the length of Sora’s, and the atmosphere even feels different, despite revisiting the same areas. Unlike Sora’s journey, which has friends and laughter, Riku’s journey is a lonely 1, and in this game, it really shows. You might even say he develops a lot more as a character due to this game, which in itself is well done. Despite the important story elements and character development, the gameplay of Riku’s story is very disappointing. Because unlike Sora’s gameplay, where you can create your own deck of cards, earn money and spend it – Riku’s is very striped down, with pre-set decks that change as he levels up (he levels up much more quickly) and it is a bit of a chore…but is necessary for story purposes.
Lastly, we have Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, which takes place just before Chain Of Memories begins, and it finishes just as Kingdom Hearts 2 begins, with the events of Chain Of Memories taking place in the background. The story this time focuses on a new character named Roxas (If you play Chain Of Memories, you’ll know why), who could be best described as “like Sora, perhaps inspired, but not a complete copy”, and he’s the newest member of Organisation XIII. Like the other Organisation members, he dawns the long black hoodie. But unlike the other members, he can use Sora’s key blade, which they decide to use to their advantage. Shortly after Roxas’ ‘birth’, a 14th member of the Organisation arrives, a young girl named Xion, who looks a lot like Kairi. Despite “not having hearts”, Roxas befriends Xion, and he also befriends Axel (1 of his mentors), to the tolerance of the more serious and cold members. After most missions, all 3 go to a place called Twilight Town, where they eat ice cream at the top of the bell tower (which becomes a rather iconic image from the game). While KH 1 is a pure action-RPG and Chain Of Memories is a card-based action RPG, 358/2 Days is a mission-based action RPG, where the game progresses through the completion of missions. Some of which provide extra items and experience alone, while others help drive the narrative on top of it (DS version only). In terms of its story, this is the darkest chapter in the trilogy, which includes various themes such as identity, purpose, value, sacrifice, truth, friendship, and motive. Not all Organisation members are bad, but sometimes their “evil” is just business. Now to compare the movie to the game.
The HD cinematic cutscene movie is very striped down compared to the Nintendo DS version, and focuses entirely on the main story/main characters/bare bones rather than anything else going on around it. So if you’re interested in seeing more of the Organisation members and knowing a bit more about their characters, you’re not going to see very much in the movie compared to the game. Also if you’re interested in seeing some Disney characters, you can forget about it, they’re referred to, but not experienced (although this is the 1st game (story-wise, not release-wise) where you can visit Beast’s Castle in Beauty and The Beast). The necessary scenes that would involve the Disney worlds are reduced to nicely presented still-images with text on top of them, explaining what happened. Is it good? Yes, it does a very good job squeezing about 25-30 hours of gameplay into about 2 and a half/3 hours and providing you with everything you need to know before playing Kingdom Hearts 2. Then you have Roxas’ diary and the secret documents to fatten up the details and context (in written form). The Movie also features new voice overs to go with the remade cutscenes, which adds a nice touch. If you’re in a hurry to get to Kingdom Hearts 2, you might prefer the movie version best. But for the full journey, there’s the DS version.
After playing Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 (which I’ll review later) on the PS2 back in 2006, the whole story (for me) basically stopped for a long time. And the reason for this, was because of a strange business decision that Square Enix made. It has taken about 10 years to get Kingdom Hearts 3 off the ground. Chain Of Memories, was originally a Gameboy Advanced exclusive, and then in 2007 it received a PS2 remake…which was only available in Japan (now available here on 1.5). Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Coded were for the Nintendo DS (Coded was also a mobile phone game long before that), Birth By Sleep was a PSP exclusive, and Dream Drop Distance (3D) is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive…do you see a pattern? That’s right – only those who could afford to buy a variety of consoles could receive the fullest possible story earlier, and even then, the games after Kingdom Hearts 2 were a bit out of order, which would have made the experience nearly as bad as the FOX TV Premiere of Firefly. However, today this has all changed. With a PS3 and a 3DS, the whole story so far can now be fully experienced…until you need a PS4 to play Kingdom Hearts 3.
What can I say about 1.5? When I heard about 1.5, I was excited. And even though the HD enhancement wasn’t as clean as the likes of the Sly Cooper or Ratchet and Clank series, it still looks good. I was also delighted to finally get to play Chain Of Memories, and as the owner of a 3DS, I happily played 358/2 Days side by side, comparing the DS version to the HD cutscenes movie that came with 1.5.
Kingdom Hearts 1 might be seen as a dated action RPG with its big areas divided into small areas, high-quality PS2/low-quality PS3 graphics(give it a break, there’s a difference between PS2 graphics in 2002 and 2006), a fair bit of button-bashing, a good but stiff camera, and at times what can seem a little repetitive if your focus is on physical attacks without consideration for magic, temporary companions, or special abilities (which really can change it up and become available when you level up more). But the reality is, to this day, Kingdom Hearts 1 remains an excellent game. It’s well paced, even if it appears slow at the beginning (that’s necessary for the story as it shows what our main characters have lost). But 1 thing that really stands out, is the amount of Disney movies they crammed into this game. From Alice In Wonderland to Aladdin to Nightmare Before Christmas (1 of my favourites) to Hercules, to Tarzan, Peter Pan, and others. They even got a lot of the original voice actors from the Disney Renaissance (unfortunately, Robin Williams wasn’t among them, but they got Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson) who voices Aladdin’s Genie in everything but the 2 movies Robin did), which I consider impressive. The boss battles vary greatly and can be a real challenge if you don’t have a strategy, and if you’re like me, you might like to revisit old worlds, as some of them have special boss fights…including 1 that features Final Fantasy VII’s main villain, Sephiroth.
1 thing that always stands out about the Kingdom Hearts series, is the music. Yoko Shimomura is 1 of my favourite video game composers, and she does an excellent job creating the right atmosphere for each level, while also maintaining that whimsical disney-bounce in the touching moments. I also like how she manages to keep theme songs fresh. Because nearly every level maintains its theme when it reappears in another game, but it will usually be remixed somehow with different instruments (for example, Twilight town’s main melody is done with brass in 358/2 days and an accordion in Chain Of Memories). On top of this, the main themes of the series are done by J-Pop legend Hikaru Utada, who did an awesome job creating the right emotion, even if J-Pop isn’t at all your thing.
Would I recommend this trilogy? Yes! I would even recommend it for Kingdom Hearts 1 alone. It wasn’t just an amazing game when I first played it, but also a life-changing game. It provided an experience similar to that bitter, cynical grown-up who sees the real Santa Claus wave at him on Christmas Eve in some movies (It was much needed if you knew the type of games I was playing at the time). I will admit, KH1 may not be the 5-star game I remember from my younger years, but to be fair…it still holds up well today. Chain Of Memories is very good, and necessary for the big picture, but not in the same league as 1 and 2 in terms of gameplay or production. And lastly, 358/2 Days is a much needed prequel to Kingdom Hearts 2, the movie is good, but the game is better…even if the theme to The World That Never Was (home base) becomes a bit annoying after a while…and now onto 2.5 for a later review.
Kingdom Hearts 1: ****1/2 out of 5
Kingdom Hearts: re Chain Of Memories: ***1/4 out of 5
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (HD Movie): ***1/2 our of 5
Kingdom HeartsL 358/2 Day (Nintendo DS): ***3/4 out of 5
Overall (Including DS version): ***3/4 out of 5