Here's an idea: take Aladdin, the Genie, Hercules, Hades, Maleficent, King Mickey, Donald and Goofy, throw them all in an action RPG and then add brooding men with large swords and spiky hair and BOOM! Pure magic. Let me be clear, if you try to play the original Kingdom Hearts, you must understand that it was a game created for a particular demographic at it's core. Primarily, it was built for those in between the younger generation of Disney lovers and the older, mature players of Final Fantasy 7, 8, 9. and 10 at the time. You can enjoy this game series as an older gamer now because the series matures with you as you go through the series, and the game itself is incredibly well-constructed. But that initial toe-dip is a very light-hearted romp with flaws that would ordinarily be more easily forgiven by a younger crowd. The story is full of cliches and semi-predictable plot twists. The dialog is trite and angsty, but at the same time, the game and the series alike are so lovable and well-constructed that you can't criticize it for what it tries to do, especially since it caters to an older audience in so many other ways.
Kingdom Hearts is an action RPG series that combines Disney Worlds and Final Fantasy characters in an original story about a battle between darkness and light. The heartless, those who have lost their hearts to darkness, seek to find the heart of each world and plunge them into darkness. Sora, the main character, wields the Keyblade which has the power to seal the darkness and defeat the heartless. He is accompanied by Donald Duck and Goofy as they travel to various Disney Worlds to seal away the darkness and stop the heartless. As the series has progressed, the story has become increasingly convoluted, so that if you miss even one game in the series, it would be extremely easy to get lost in the story. Thankfully, the last two Christmas's have seen the release of Kingdom Hearts compilations for the PS3 that bring all the scattered titles of handheld and console platforms alike from past years and gathers all but one together. Since I love the Kingdom Hearts series so much, I'm going to be playing them all over again, some like Chain of Memories (GBA, PS2) and Birth by Sleep (PSP) for the first time, and others like KH1 and KH2, again for the third or fourth time. Regardless, as I finish each game, I'll post a review TAY style so that everyone is ready when Kingdom Hearts 3 finally arrives. (Fingers crossed for a PC release, March 2016).
Combat that works (mostly)
Kingdom hearts is an action RPG, as you defeat enemies in real-time you gain experience making you stronger to defeat harder enemies, ad infinitum. You can jump, roll, block, attack, use magic, use summons, use items, and use special moves. At the beginning of the game, you can jump and attack, so if you are playing on hard mode, it can prove extremely difficult during the early stages of the game to not die due to your lack of mobility. Specifically, you have to grind a couple of extra levels for the first two real bosses before you get dodge roll which makes it much easier to move around. However, once you get past those two bosses, the game really opens up to allow for skill rather than punishing lack of levels. Between rolling, attacking, using magic, and all the other tools that they put at your disposal, you can, with some practice, defeat anyone in the game. On the bottom left hand side of the screen, there's a small menu akin to the type you would see in a turn-based JPRG like Final Fantasy. Attack, Magic, Items, and Summons are the four items on the list from which you can activate in real-time. The menu defaults to attack, so you can just mash the x button to continue attacking and working it in with the rest of your maneuvers. If you want to use magic or an item, you have to scroll through the menu in real time to find and use the command that you want. Having to do this in real-time creates some tension as you have to switch your focus from the action on the main screen to the text in the menu.
Thankfully, it's pretty easy to navigate, so you'll never feel unfairly punished for using the menu. Additionally, since the menu is controlled via the d-pad, you can continue to move around using your left joystick. The controls work well, and as you gain abilities to help you manage your enemies more cleanly, their attack patterns, numbers, and defenses increase as well. Bosses force you to figure out their attack patterns in order to find the right gaps in their defense, either to dodge their complicated combos and wait for their cool-down period or to counter their attacks with the right timing, leaving them open to a combo of your own. It's an incredibly satisfying system, that rewards skill and thoughtfulness together as opposed to blind-rage (action games) or endless grinding (JRPG's) to overcome difficult challenges. Hidden bosses especially require the intense multitasking of everything in your arsenal, whether it be combos, hidden moves, summons, magic or items, everything is important. And of course, this depth makes the game more fun as you find all the hidden extras.
Sora, Riku, and Kairi
Is the story a little cliché? Yes. Does Sora get a little angsty? Yes. But as much as this feels like a stereotypical childhood cartoon with the obligatory power of friendship and cookie-cutter personalities, it's a compelling story in it's own right. Sora, his cool friend Riku, and his childhood crush Kairi, are best friends living together on an island. They plan on making a boat to leave their world together to find new worlds, but before they can, their island is destroyed by darkness. Sora, separated from his friends, goes across multiple Disney worlds, searching for Riku and Kairi. Meanwhile, Riku, has been captured by the bad guys and is slowly corrupted so that he can be used in their master plan. Both Sora and Riku have become huge parts of the fate of the world expanding around them, but they aren't quite sure how to deal with it.
As much as the game is supposed to be about Sora going through the various Disney worlds to save them from the heartless, it's really about Sora, Riku, and Kairi and how their relationships with each other bind them together. Even until the very end of the game, the goal for Sora, isn't to permanently defeat the heartless, or seal away darkness, but to find his missing friends. The entire beginning of the game is focused on establishing the close friendship of the three friends, so that you care when they're torn apart. All of the action is driven by the decisions and well-beings of these three characters and it becomes apparent, despite their seeming importance, they are only pawns in a much larger plan that has been laid out decades in advance.
All of the cameos
We all have childhood memories of classic Disney characters. Part of what makes Kingdom Hearts great is that you get to save the universe from destruction (like every other game) but you get to do it alongside your childhood heroes. Hercules, Pinocchio, The Cheshire Cat, Tarzan, Ariel, Mickey Mouse, Donald, Goofy, and a whole bunch of others that I won't spoil all show up throughout the game to help you on your quest. Donald Duck and Goofy are primary party members, so they stick with you the whole time. They'll help you defeat the heartless while searching for the missing King Mickey. Some characters, like Tarzan and Ariel, join your party temporarily while you're visiting their world. Others like Simba, or the Genie, show up as summons you can use for a short time, akin to Final Fantasy. And then add on top of that all the little cameos that characters get throughout the game.
Merlin helps you learn your magic, you search the different world's for the 101 Dalmatians, and you get chill with Winnie the Pooh and his friends in their storybook. It's just an incredibly fun time, playing and meeting all of these familiar faces. Disney's repertoire of diverse, interesting characters is huge, and rivals near anything in existence in scope aside for perhaps DC, Marvel, and Nintendo. Stack on top of this all the cool cameos from your brooding Final Fantasy characters like Squall, Cloud and Cid, not to mention Aerith and Yuffie, and you just get a whole lot of fun the whole time through the game. It's like you're walking through Hollywood and you just keep running into celebrities who want to be your new best friend.
So, now, they get to pull awesome themes from all your Disney movies and re-purpose them for the various climaxes and battles. So that's pretty great, cause you get to hear this incredibly diverse soundtrack. But the best themes are easily the ones that are constructed specifically for Kingdom Hearts. The battle themes and boss themes for the important story events are utterly fantastic. You get this epic feeling of awesome as you kick heartless butt while listening to awesome music. Each piece feels suited to the world, while simultaneously fulfilling its purpose in terms of story progression, which is exactly what the music is for. Included below are a couple of my favorites:
Oh, almost forgot. Hikaru Udata is a friggin boss. She writes the opening themes for the first two major Kingdom Hearts titles and both of them are incredible. In this first game, she made two songs, one English, one Japanese with the same melody. While the lyrics don't actually relate to the game itself, the song is still incredible and accompanies the opening cut-scene beautifully. Also enclosed below because awesomeness is awesome.
Platforming and Camera
The Kingdom Hearts series has been oft criticized for it's lack of well-created platforming. I honestly have never had much of a problem with it in the main titles, but it's definitely worth mentioning. Because the Kingdom Hearts series is primarily constructed as an action-RPG first and foremost, the camera itself is geared for this as well. In the original Kingdom Hearts for the PS2, you controlled the camera using the shoulder buttons. Yeah. The Shoulder Buttons. It was pretty awful. Now, the camera is controlled using the right joystick, which helps a lot of the previous problems with the system. Even so, the camera doesn't rival a game like Mario Galaxy in terms of knowing where to be at what time for the best viewing angle of platforms. Sections with winding staircases of platforms are usually hard to climb due to the wonky camera. Sometimes, you'll get attacked by an enemy out of frame because the camera angle isn't wide enough. Despite all these little problems, I don't think the camera was that bad, it didn't usually get in your way, and as long as you used lock-on heavily, it worked perfectly fine during combat. And you can ledge-grab during platforming, so that helps enormously when trying to reach a far-off platform.
Gummi Ship Sections
AHHHHHHHHH! I hate these, alright! Why did they have to add such awful boring sections to an otherwise good game? Okay they didn't actually ruin the game, these sections are just so painfully unpleasant that they should have been removed from the game entirely. Now, maybe some people out there like these sections, but they shouldn't because they're awful. These are basically scrolling shooter levels like Star Fox 64 or Kid Icarus: Uprising. The problem is that the stages are altogether unexciting. There's no laser fire to dodge, no quick movements to help you move around the stage: you just hold down the fire button and maneuver around the various floating blocks. There's no risk, no reward, it's just boring. The enemies give you ship pieces so that you can customize your ship, but the ship builder is so unwieldy and unnecessary that I barely used it, if at all, even at the hardest difficulty. The entire thing is just entirely un-fun, which is exactly what the rest of the game is not (read the rest of the game is fun except for this section). To top it all off, during the first section of the game, you have to redo these sections every time you travel from world to world. Thankfully, the only thing that redeems this at all, is getting the warp gummi, which allows you to skip worlds and traverse the over-world like you should be able to. Each time you travel to a new world, you have to clear the route, but after that it's completely open to travel.
I mentioned this in passing during the combat section, but it's worth mentioning on it's own. The early section of the game is incredibly boring, slow, tedious, and frustrating. Combat lacks all of the movement options you gain later, so you can't guard, roll, or chain attacks in any way aside from the basic 3-hit combo. On top of that, you have a miniscule amount of health, so it's really easy on hard mode to suddenly die without warning from a powerful attack that takes away half of your health. The first level is a combination of confusing platforming and mindless fetch quest searching (find the mushrooms and coconuts), so it's pretty easy to get frustrated. I always use a guide for that section, just because it's not worth the effort to find them. Once the door to darkness opens and you get the Keyblade, the game stops being boring. Heartless appear all over the game map, bosses are more fun, the story moves faster, there aren't any more fetch quests (THANK GOD!), the whole game just moves a lot faster. And even after all this negativity, it's only about 1-3 hours total.
This series has been around for a long time, so I'd be amazed if you hadn't heard of it before or didn't have some kind of idea the series before seeing this. That said, there is no better time than now to give it a try. With the release of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5, you can get almost completely caught up on the entire series on just one console, and especially since Kingdom Hearts 3 will be coming out on PS4 and Xbone in the next 1-3 years. It's worth reinvesting yourself in the series, it's just that good. Have fun with that!