This is where it all began. The original action RPG that combined Disney and Final Fantasy in a unique way. Everyone thought it was some weird April Fools joke. Then it just sort of… kept happening. The game was really in development and we were about to try and figure out who could have ever thought this was a good idea. Kingdom Hearts came out and, well… it was a fantastic idea, revolutionizing action RPGs for years to come. It’s been 16 years since Kingdom Hearts came out. Is it actually worth playing anymore?
Kingdom Hearts follows Sora, a kid from Destiny Island who discovers that he’s a Keyblade Master. Teaming up with Disney alumni Donald and Goofy, the three set off to find Sora’s missing friends and the missing King Mickey. Along the way, they visit worlds based on various Disney movies, help a lot of people with their own problems, deal with a mysterious dark force known as the Heartless, and uncover a plot by various villains that they need to stop.
At this point in the series, the plot had yet to dive into the nonsensical mess that future games would bring about. The plot is rather simple and entertaining in all the right ways. There’s quite a bit of Disney charm and humor in the cutscenes, with characters goofing around and acting silly, but still conveying a few serious plot points when necessary. Each Disney world is also a mostly self-contained plot. A couple follows some vague retelling of the movie its based on, but most of the worlds are simple original tales using the characters from the movies. At times it feels slightly disjointed, but I never felt like I was going too long without at least some advancement and I was ultimately satisfied by the end.
When it released, it felt like Kingdom Hearts was a meld between classic Final Fantasy systems and modern real-time games. You had a menu with various commands that you could choose from, many of which are based on classic Final Fantasy commands and spell names. However, the entire game plays in real time. You can’t just sit around and decide what you want, you need to dodge attacks and move quickly while doing so. It takes a bit of getting used to the controls. Using the D-pad to navigate a menu while moving around is a bit tough at first, but after I did so I was impressed at how well Kingdom Hearts holds up.
The game is, in a single word, fun. There’s a really good balance between the action and RPG elements. Going in swinging is totally an option, but there’s also satisfaction in managing mana and picking the right spell for the right time. There’s also a good risk and reward system, with mana only restoring when you physically attack enemies.
It helps that there’s many creative enemies, bosses, and ways to fight them. The Heartless come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with each world often having several unique Heartless to change up combat. One world has monkey-styled enemies that run around and jump to avoid you, while another has flying pirates that drop bombs. The combat really shines thanks to this variety, as I felt like I had to constantly change things up to fight.
Sora isn’t alone in his adventures. At any time you can have Donald and Goofy in your party, and some Disney worlds also allow you to swap one of them out with a Disney hero. By the end of the game, you’ll have characters like Tarzan, Jack Skelleton, Peter Pan, and more join up with you. While I love the idea, the AI is simply not up to the task. I often saw them wasting items, pointlessly use up all their MP, and do little more than serving as meat shields. Thankfully they can’t harm you or make the game worse, so it’s worth having them around for their rare moments of use, but you should expect to do the majority of fighting yourself.
For as fun as this is, not every world works out that great. There are two worlds that really stood out thanks to control issues: Atlantica and Neverland. Swimming and flying use similar controls, and they’re just not quite up to the task. Often I felt awkward trying to position myself where I needed and had difficulty getting around. Atlantica is easily the worse of the two as you’re always swimming compared to Neverland only granting flying at the very end. Some worlds also have platforming segments, and it’s pretty clear these were an afterthought. All of this ended up either being ditched or improved by Kingdom Hearts II, but a lot of it is still here and still awkward.
Between worlds, you’ll ride in the gummi ship, which turns the game into a SHMUP. These sections have you flying around on rails and shooting down enemy ships. At best it’s kind of awkward, and at worst it’s boring. There are some attempts to improve these sections by having you collect pieces and build your own gummi ship. However, I ended up just sticking with the pre-sets because it’s hard to actually care. By the end of the game, I was just grateful that I didn’t have to do any more gummi ship stuff.
Finishing the story, which took me about 40 hours to do, isn’t the end of the game. There’s actually a ton of extra content available in Kingdom Hearts for you. A big one is participating in the Olympus Coliseum. There’s a ton of battles here to test your combat skills and, if you complete those, several extremely difficult optional boss fights. If you’re not so interested in combat, you can find torn pages of Winnie the Pooh’s book, giving you access to silly minigames. There are also collectibles like hidden treasure chests, trinity combinations, and 101 Dalmatian puppies.
Kingdom Hearts came out rather early in the PlayStation 2’s life cycle, which is probably why it surprises me just how good the game still looks. Much of this is thanks to a great cartoony art style, which holds up really well. Each character feels well animated, and the worlds all feel true to the Disney movies that inspired them. There’s also an excellent soundtrack backing the game up. From remixing classic Disney songs, to fantastic original music, it’s genuinely amazing just how good Kingdom Hearts sounds. Many of these songs are still my favorites years later.
If this is your first time playing Kingdom Hearts since the original PlayStation 2 release, then you’ll find some new content here. The biggest additions include a new optional boss fight against a mysterious cloaked figure and a pair of new cutscenes. The new cutscenes, which give quick updates on what’s happening with Riku at certain points of the game, are particularly hilarious thanks to the fact that there’s no new audio recorded for them. They feel out of place and kind of strange. There’s also some new enemies, weapons, abilities, and items for those that feel like hunting for them. If you’ve played the PlayStation 3 version, then you’ve seen all this and the only new thing is that the game now runs at 60 fps instead of 30.
Many games don’t age well, having issues that, while not so big when originally launched, are a pain now. These issues exist in Kingdom Hearts, but the game manages to overcome many of them. The story is charming, the combat is fun, the enemies and bosses have a great variety, and the game still manages to look great today thanks to fantastic art. Sure it means getting used to a few quirks, but this is an adventure well worth taking. If you’re getting ready to dive into the series, be thankful there’s a great starting point.
Kingdom Hearts was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a copy purchased by the reviewer. It saw release on PlayStation 2 on September 17th, 2002.
Kingdom Hearts holds up better than I could have ever imagined. If you can get over some wonky moments, it's well worth returning to.
- Fun, Simple Story
- Excellent Combat System
- Large Enemy Variety
- Tons to Do
- Great Graphics and Soundtrack
- Dumb Partner AI
- Iffy Platforming
- Flying/Swiming Controls
- Gummie Ship Sections are Boring