RELEASED: March 2002
AVAILABLE ON: PS2
PUBLISHER(S): Square, Disney Interactive, Sony Computer Entertainment
If one doesn't count the Snake vs. Monkey minigame in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Kingdom Hearts might be the strangest crossover in gaming history. The idea to make a role-playing game with Disney and Final Fantasy characters was first born when long-time Square producer Shinji Hashimoto met a Disney executive employee in an elevator one seemingly normal day in the late 90's. Production of the game began in early 2000, and it was Hironobu Sakaguchi himself who advised main designer Tetsuya Nomura - who had worked on the Final Fantasy series at some capacity since 1991 - that the game shouldn't be taken lightly, that it would be a failure if it didn't retain the Final Fantasy spirit, were the game based on the Disney mythology or not. The game was a megahit in Japan, and the North American localization was to feature the talents of an all-star voice cast reprising their roles from Disney features, and finally, the gaps were filled with such names as Haley Joel Osment, Hayden Panettiere, David Boreanaz, and the Final Fantasy VII cast, most of which went on to reprise their roles in the Advent Children movie. You do understand that whether you like this game's concept or not, you're not going to be able to resist it, right?
A game of hearts
Haley Joel Osment : Sora
David Gallagher : Riku
Hayden Panettiere : Kairi
Billy Zane : Ansem
David Boreanaz : Squall Leonhart
Mandy Moore : Aerith Gainsborough
Steve Burton : Cloud Strife
Christy Carlson Romano : Yuffie Kisaragi
Tony Anselmo : Donald Duck
Bill Farmer : Goofy
Sora, Riku and Kairi are three teenagers who live on a remote island. As a very small child, Kairi was stranded on the island, meaning she came from somewhere else, and ever since that, the kids have been wondering about the worlds outside the island - especially the increasingly impatient and eager Riku. Sora has strange dreams, in which he is told by an unseen entity that he will be the one to "hold the key", and the one to "open the door". The kids build a raft to travel to the outside world, but on the night before their departure, a terrible thunderstorm hits the island, along with a pack of monsters of the darkness. Both Riku and Kairi disappear under strange circumstances, and Sora is washed away by the darkness into another world, armed with a peculiar sword shaped like a key. Meanwhile in the Kingdom of Disney, court magician Donald Duck is startled by the sudden disappearance of his liege, King Mickey Mouse, and a cryptic letter he left behind. Together with the half-witted, but kind-hearted royal knight Goofy, Donald sets out to follow up to the King's wishes to find the mysterious key bearer, and a group of fighters from different worlds united against the darkness, led by a stout young fighter who calls himself Leon.
Let's start off with a story about how I found Kingdom Hearts. At the time of its release, I was a "cool" and "tough" 18-year old who "couldn't give two shits" about Disney movies, and locked myself in the closet to watch Jiminy Cricket's holiday special and laugh my ass off, Christmas after Christmas. Well, about a year passed, I had been reading rave reviews of the game and my inner Final Fantasy fanboy was seriously starting to take over. I had just recently acquired a PS2, and there was simply no reason for me to keep disrespecting and disregarding this game. The concept was so weird that I at least had to have the chance to try the game. Well, then I went to a market in another town with my then-girlfriend, who lived there - I went to see her, but somehow got persuaded to go downtown since that market is probably the only relevant annual thing about that shithole. Well, I happened to come across an old acquaintance: the very same video game store booth (and the very same clerk) that sold me Chrono Trigger so many years ago. Kingdom Hearts stuck out like a sore thumb from the PS2 variety of games, and the clerk was immediately like "no you don't". Of course he had nothing against me buying the game, but he knew I was going to haggle over it - I guess I had that glint in my eye. He was telling me that it was his last original copy of the game, and I guess he had kind of saved it for himself. After a short conversation and argument of why he should sell me the game, five euros off, he reluctantly agreed and reminisced how he can apparently always count on me to rob him of his treasures. He had the same face as he did when he sold my mom Chrono Trigger about seven years back, so I was convinced Kingdom Hearts would be one awesome game, or at least an experience I wouldn't soon forget. It sure is an experience, but awesome? I wouldn't go quite that far.
|Captain Cid is back!|
I just can't hate Kairi, despite her useless presence. All the thanks for that go to the fact that she's voiced by one of the top entries on my list of people I'd like to... you know... anyway: Hayden Panettiere. Haley Joel Osment and David Gallagher sure ain't on that list, and I assure you, they never will be, but like Hayden, they're both young actors who know what they're doing. It's their characters that are the problem. I really don't care about the new characters, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel the same way, and it hurts the already confusing, irrelevant plot in all senses; you just don't have the interest to keep following it. If you even remotely think like me, you're here to giggle in amazement at all the tie-ins to the Disney and Final Fantasy franchises, not the intentionally whacked storyline involving the three teenagers and the mysterious main villain Ansem.
I just can't help spoiling some of the trip to you because some of the tie-ins are so genius! We're dealing with a game in which we visit "worlds" or "planets", which are actually familiar settings from many Disney movies, such as Wonderland, an African jungle, Agrabah, the Hundred Acre Wood, Halloween Town and Neverland. The cast of Disney characters in this game is enormous, as opposed to the very small cast of Final Fantasy characters, which again might disappoint some who came here to broaden their horizons of the Final Fantasy universe. Most of the level design in this game is based on movies, or certain scenes from them, they're just rewritten to the point that the tie-in to the game's original storyline involving the Heartless creatures and the world's descent into darkness makes some fashion of sense. Even if a feature didn't make the cut, the character might've - for example, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast is in the game (searching for Belle), but there's no world based on the movie's setting. The characters are the most important part of the game, in both quantity and quality, not the level design. Sadly, it shows, but more about that a while later. Some characters that didn't make the cut were included in the game as summons or background cameos - whatever works! And it's great!
This might be a good time to tell you that the game looks great, if you didn't figure it out already, but it's also a bit unrefined in some ways. The animation of the humanoid characters could be just slightly better, but considering how early on during the PS2's cycle the game was released and how much it uses the PS2's capacity to its advantage, I don't think I'm in any position to complain. Watching the cartoon characters such as Donald, Goofy and Winnie the Pooh in action makes you feel like you're watching a Disney movie, that's for sure. The cinematic style of the game is pure Final Fantasy X; long pauses, a somewhat awkward rhythm, weird camera angles that are even (perhaps unintentionally) spoofed at one early point when Donald breaks the fourth wall. The soundtrack is one rough divide. Let's begin with the title track, "Simple and Clean", composed by Yoko Shimomura and sung by Hikaru Utada. I do not understand why Square suddenly began to use these J-Pop abominations in their games at some point. In this case, it sounds even more horrible since it doesn't fit either one of the two bills accounted for here. The rest of the exclusive soundtrack is written to capture the magic from both main ingredients into one, and it definitely works. The partly licensed, partly rewritten music from Disney's works sounds phenomenal, but can get a wee bit repetitive, we're talking about hours of exploring with quick loops of them playing in the background, with no breaks besides the occasional battle theme.
|Monkeys from the darkness. Intimidating.|
The Final Fantasy cast features Steve Burton and Christy Carlson Romano, who both went on to reprise their roles as Cloud Strife and Yuffie Kisaragi in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Mandy Moore (yes, that Mandy Moore) skipped that movie, but she does a fine job as Aerith. Then, there's perhaps the biggest bomb of the century when it comes to casting - Lance Bass (that's LANCE BASS!) as the greatest video game villain of all time. Final Fantasy fans went berserk over this, and I don't know what the hell the North American localization team was thinking when they cast a member of N'Sync as the ultimate, inhuman manifestation of darkness, bitterness and evil. After that shock, we have David "Angel" Boreanaz as Squall, or as he calls himself, Leon. Last and least in the most awkward way, we have Tidus, Wakka and Selphie as children. Molly Keck gives Selphie the voice I pretty much always imagined her to have - a real squeaky and annoying one - while Tidus and Wakka are voiced by Shaun Fleming and Dee Bradley Baker. As much as I originally hated Wakka as a character, it's obvious that Baker didn't take any notes from John DiMaggio's technically good performance. There are these weird pauses before each "ya". Unfortunately, Cid has no voiceover work. Glad they fixed that error in Kingdom Hearts II.
Saving the best for last: the Disney cast. I already mentioned Tony Anselmo and Bill Farmer, who have done Donald and Goofy since the 80's; you can't go wrong with them, as long as you don't see their faces while they're doing their voices. The third classic cartoon veteran Wayne Allwine is credited on the top as Mickey Mouse, but he only has a couple of lines in the whole game. Since some of the original voice actors are long dead, and some had contractual problems to join the cast, about a half of the cast consists of the original voice actors, and the other half of damn good impersonators - even I can't spot the difference, although I usually can. Anyway, to nail down a small list of names, we have Sean Astin, Jodi and Robby Benson, Susanne Blakeslee, Brian Blessed, Corey Burton, Dan Castellaneta, Jim Cummings, Jonathan Freeman, Tony Goldwyn, Gilbert Gottfried, Kenneth Mars, Chris Sarandon, Scott Weinger and........... JAMES - FUCKIN' - WOODS!!!.......... delivering us some downright real, authentic, heartfelt and simply magnificent voiceover work. No matter if they need to join in on the plot or not. Believe you me, this game has some magic. If you can't find it anywhere else, then you can rely on the Disney cast to deliver it to you.
The game is a less traditional action-RPG. Most of the time you have a party of three. After an early twist in the storyline, your standard party consists of Sora, Donald and Goofy. Sora is inevitably a warrior, but you can manipulate some of his traits in the approximately 15-minute tutorial sequence in the beginning of the game, such as the starting strength of his magic when he finally learns some, strength and defense. Donald is a mystic, this game's own term for mage. He has some spells in the beginning of the journey, and he learns new ones in conjunction with Sora. Finally, Goofy is a guardian, a tank if you will - although having a tank doesn't really matter since once Sora falls, it's game over. Most of the time, he's a supporter that should be loaded with items at all times to aid his pals, but as the game progresses, you can customize him to deliver some very efficient physical attacks. The customization and A.I. of the party members really isn't up to the RPG standard. Instead of an intricate list of tactics or a chance to manually set specific tactics, you have a small list of different actions and multiple choices, for example "Use health items? Immediately - Frequently - Only in emergency". Whatever you choose, you never know when your pal decides you need first aid. Since you can't assign them to use specific spells instead, you'll constantly be running out of items. Luckily the game has a fairly large stock of them. Unluckily, the restocking menu in particular is a bitch to toggle! In some worlds, you'll have the chance to switch either Donald or Goofy out and replace your choice with a local Disney hero/heroine, who usually has a very high level, and such advanced combat skills that you really don't need to unload your item stock on them.
|When in doubt, call Bambi.|
There is no traditional world map in Kingdom Hearts, rather a map of worlds for you to continually unlock and explore. Occasionally, you'll unlock several worlds at once and you can make your decision based on the battle level indicated by a number of stars above the name of the place. Sometimes, the rating is really misleading, for example actually completing the Olympus Coliseum is really tough. It has a low rating because most of its battles are completely optional and losing to certain individuals holds no meaning at all, it's just a matter of pride. There are a few scripted and optional battles in this game, in which it really makes no difference in storyline if you win or lose, you'll just feel real good about yourself if you do win.
Although the worlds are much smaller than they first appear - the game's the biggest collection of inexplicable invisible walls yet - they hold within a whole bunch of secrets, each and every one of them, and to find them all, you need to go to some incredible heights, sometimes literally. I've got to tell you, though, most of the time it's a fool's errand. The only really good stuff you get in this game, you get via completing primary objectives and sidequests - but then again, I guess the chase is better than the catch. Just thought I'd give you a heads-up; most of the time, you'll find more or less standard power-ups, new parts for your ship and items for synthesis. Not saying they wouldn't be important, it's just a little bit disheartening that you can hardly find any new equipment or rare items such as summon gems from the field. The game involves a lot of platform jumping, which is sometimes really sick and definitely too precise to accommodate the quirky control and the absolutely awful camera. The camera's your worst enemy at all times, bar none.
At first, you will probably not like the real-time battle system. It feels like you're just swinging your blade around with no trace of strategy and hacking through bosses by simply locking on to a spot and letting it rip with a do-or-die attitude, but as you gain EXP and with that, more abilities - which you can assign yourself by using a system carried over from Final Fantasy IX - Sora becomes more agile, a more diverse fighter, and you will find it essential to use his new-found abilities in later boss fights in which strategy suddenly becomes key. The boss fights are pretty darn epic. You see so little during the first ten hours of the game. Kingdom Hearts is the kind of game that starts out and you don't really have an opinion on it but you're definitely intrigued enough to play more, the middle part is good on the first playthrough, then the game comes to a raging climax that's always fun to play, and ends in a somewhat disappointing fashion, but well enough for you to begin waiting for a sequel. I haven't seen many RPG's end in a cliffhanger. This one does. The cliffhanger was followed up exclusively on the Game Boy Advance, that's quite a crime against consumers, but also another story I'll save for later.
|Exploring Atlantica is not as fun as it might |
I mentioned a couple of really important, and actually, pretty cool features of the game earlier. The Gummi Ship is your one and only transport, but it's fully customizable. You can decide its name, you can decide how it looks like to the final gummi seam, and finally, you can modify its special features, artillery and engine power. The editor allows you to use ready blueprints, which are sometimes pretty useless and are just there for some amusing show, or create your very own ship from scratch, assuming you have the proper parts to build a fully functional ship. The editor's very hard to use at first, but I'm willing to bet you'll be spending so much time creating your ship, that you'll get used to the editor's controls quite quickly. I only wish traveling itself would be as interesting as creating the ship. On the first playthrough, I didn't give a damn about the editor. I just picked a blueprint that looked somewhat balanced, and the ship turned out better than anything that I could've cooked up. All you need it for is speeding from one world to another and shooting out some obstacles and Heartless ships. If you fail, you just start the route over and over until you make it. It's that simple. At least you can collect some items on the way, but you can probably already guess what kind of items they are. Yep, more parts and blueprints for your ship. It's mildly entertaining shoot 'em up action to keep you entertained between worlds, but they could've gone a bit further with it. The Gummi Ship editor has developed some sort of a cult following and I know there are people who like to show off their creations, the ultimate creations are definitely born when you empty Cid's Gummi Ship emporium of its stock - once it opens.
You'll have to wait for the item synthesis shop to open for a pretty long while, too, since you need a certain trinity to unlock it. Every lucky person who ever played Final Fantasy IX knows exactly how this works. As you travel and do battle, you'll conjure up a lot of loot that has no use at all - before the Moogles' synthesis shop opens its doors. By bringing strange loot to the Moogles, you can create items, weapons and accessories, some of which you can't get anywhere else. Unlike in Final Fantasy IX, the synthesis doesn't cost you one dime, which is good since during the first half of the game, you need to buy items and they cost like honey. All you need for synthesis are those items. I simply love the concept of item synthesis, as long as you don't have to do it yourself with items you already have use for like in Crisis Core (I'm very indecisive at times). It's always exciting and great fun to stop by the Moogles' establishment to see if there's any new dastardly stuff available.
Since the game is obviously aimed at a slightly younger audience than any old Square RPG, you can safely expect tons of minigames, and you'll get them too. There are many minigames open from the beginning, and one of the worlds is wholly based on minigame madness - some of the games there are fun, while some really suffer from bad case-specific controls. The Olympus Coliseum is basically a battle arena, where you can try your luck in some training with inanimate objects, as well as several different tournaments with increasing challenge to them - and when I say increasing, I mean toughening to the hilt. In some cases, sequences that are initially parts of the progress become minigames.
|Tinkerbell's here, as grumpy as ever. Gotta love |
that lil' pixie.
Then, there are the save points. You can leave a handful of worlds through the front gate, but in very many of them, you need to find a save point. There are two kinds of save points: simply ones which allow you to board the Gummi Ship and leave, and ones that don't. The save points are in really illogical places at times. There might be two or three of them, back to back in places you don't need to save in even once, and in truly difficult, long corridors or mazes, there might be just one, waiting at the end. You can't save on the map, which in my mind breaks a very important rule in the RPG handbook. Sometimes dying in a boss fight and retrying actually takes you to a point BEFORE the save point. In other words, sometimes it's faster to reset the game and load it instead of simply choosing "continue". Before I forget, you cannot skip cutscenes at all, and every boss fight is preceded by cinematics. This means that if you die while fighting a boss, you will be forced to watch the preceding cutscene over and over again 'til you get the job done. Ironically, the tougher the boss, the longer the cutscene.
One more thing to go over, and that is the boring level design. On the first playthrough, you just don't care. You're too awestruck to care about the narrow capacity of the worlds, or their annoying and/or boring design. But, I dare say you have to return to each world in this game at least once during even just a semi-complete playthrough, and you might really start feeling the negativity. The game changes by such a lot in some levels for both better and worse, that the only way to deliver a definitive review of the game would be to spoil each and every level, but I won't do that. Instead, I will pick two specific ones that are simply not fun, and have never been on my account. First up, the Deep Jungle from Tarzan. Not only is this world one son of a bitch based solely on backtracking and interactive jump controls that just don't work, it somehow doesn't fit the game, it smells of filler from miles away, and only succeeds in making me miss more urban environments even more - those urban environments are in which the level design excels in my opinion. I'm always trying to survive this borefest as fast as possible, but that's not very fast. Due to the backtracking, it drags on forever and it's one of the longest levels according to the in-game clock.
The other one's Atlantica. In a few choice levels, your characters' looks and gameplay change completely as long as you're exploring those particular worlds. Well, Atlantica obviously takes place underwater. The swimming controls are really awkward, and fighting Heartless underwater is even more awkward. Luckily there's some sort of sense in that: whenever you lock on to an enemy, you (SOMETIMES) automatically swim towards 'em when you attack. Just remember to lock on or else you'll just be creating waves with your blade, and that doesn't help one bit. Exploring this place is bitchy to say the least. Each treasure is hidden inside a clamshell instead of a treasure chest, and unlike normal chests, these shells don't disappear and they close after you've gotten the treasure, so in other words, you'll be reopening them quite a few times before you'll figure out to steer clear of those damn empty shells. On top of all, the level's really, really, really confusing. It's where the lack of a minimap truly presents itself. I tell you, you can't wait to get back on your six feet after you've completed the main objective here.
|The journey continues. Don't ask how, ask why.|
I never claimed Kingdom Hearts to be a fantastic game, but it was a fantastic start that paved the way for a way more functional sequel (the true one!), and as I have said a few times already in some manner, it's a game you simply cannot resist - a game every PS2 owner should at least try. It's more of an experience than a truly, completely satisfying game. Strangely, I feel that was the idea.
GRAPHICS : 9.0
SOUND : 9.2
PLAYABILITY : 7.6
LIFESPAN : 8.8
CONCLUSION : 8.0
Kingdom Hearts was Square's final game before merging with Enix.
A modified version of the game entitled Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix was released exclusively in Japan nine months after the original version's release. It features whole new battles, as well as the optional bosses who were originally exclusive to the North American localization, and new events that clarify the franchise's critically confusing storyline.
Mickey Mouse was originally meant to be the lead character of the game. The colour of his clothes remains in Sora's character design.
Sora's victory poses in the Olympus Coliseum are those of Cloud Strife, Zell Dincht and Squall Leonhart.
Gaston from Beauty and the Beast is the only villain from the featured stories who does not appear in this game.
A world based on The Lion King was Tetsuya Nomura's top priorities to include in the game, but due to time constraints and technical difficulties to program movement on four legs, he had to let go of the idea. However, Simba is included as a summon, and in Kingdom Hearts II, Nomura finally got his way and created The Pride Lands.
Ariel was naturally supposed to be one of the seven Princesses of Heart, one of the driving forces of the game's true storyline. However, if she was to be captured by Maleficent and her associates, she would've had to be redesigned and given legs. She was replaced by Alice, and this resulted in some serious outrage by Disney fans pretty much the same way as casting Lance Bass as Sephiroth resulted in bomb threats on Final Fantasy fans' behalf.
The reason why the Final Fantasy cast only consists of characters from Final Fantasy VII, VIII and X (apart from the Moogles mainly inspired by Final Fantasy VI), is that Tetsuya Nomura did not want to direct characters he didn't design, out of respect for other people's work.
After the North American voice actors had already recorded their parts, it was decided that Aerith Gainsborough should finally be officially referred to as Aerith instead of Aeris, as she was renamed in the original localization of Final Fantasy VII. That is why no one speaks her name in spoken dialogue.
Tifa Lockheart from Final Fantasy VII was supposed to be included as an optional boss, but due to time constraints, she was cut from the script and included in Kingdom Hearts II as one of the main characters of the Final Fantasy cast.
Rikku from Final Fantasy X was supposed to be part of Leon/Squall's gang, but since the original character of Riku was already created, and their names are pronounced exactly the same, she was replaced with Yuffie. Rikku does appear in Kingdom Hearts II as part of the Gullwings, but she is never referred to by name.
Irvine Kinneas from Final Fantasy VIII was also in the original script as a minor character. He was replaced with Wakka for unknown reasons.
The Agrabah superboss Kurt Zisa was named after the winner of a contest held by Square.