Kingdom Hearts is an ambitious crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy, which ironically excels precisely when it’s not covering either brand, but being its own thing.
The protagonist of the game is Sora, a kid who lives on an island and dreams of traveling with his friends, Kairi and Riku, to discover new places. They start building a raft to go sailing, but before they are able to depart, their homeworld is engulfed in shadows and, after a battle against a monster, Sora wakes up in another world. There, he meets Donald and Goofy, who are looking for a key that is supposed to help their king, Mickey Mouse.
The game begins with an uncanny atmosphere. It asks personal questions (“You want friendship. You’re afraid of getting old”) and some abstract ones with no expressed purpose. It also starts to build mysteries right away: “You are the one who will open the door” a voice says to Sora from nowhere. His own home doesn’t feel like a home, but has this dreamlike feeling to it: the place is called Destiny Islands and only kids appear to live there, since no adults ever show up – there is only one scene in which an adult’s voice can be heard, but the person remains off-camera. It’s also interesting to notice how Sora always cares for Kairi and Riku, but never once he mentions his parents. Therefore, Sora traveling to other worlds and meeting Disney characters doesn’t feel too far-fetched in that universe: the boy’s home was already strange enough to begin with.
The quest to find his friends has Sora making many more during his journey. Kingdom Hearts’ story is primarily about friendship, with the protagonist’s own strength coming from the people he meets and helps: “I don’t need a weapon. My friends are my power”, he says at a climactic scene. But it also talks about the ambivalence of human nature: a person’s heart can be home to light and to darkness, no matter who they are. That is why it’s so important to have Sora’s longtime friend and rival Riku become an antagonist, being manipulated by evil forces. Both Sora and Riku share the same goal – save Kairi – but they take opposite paths to reach it. While Riku becomes bitter and jealous of his friend, and has his heart aligned with darkness in the process, Sora remains cheerful until the end and even smiles before making the ultimate sacrifice. He refuses to use people to achieve his goal, instead always finding ways to help those around him. If he’s helping, he’s happy. In Kingdom Hearts, Riku and Sora are the both sides of the same coin. However, that doesn’t mean that Riku is evil – far from it – but he lets himself be persuaded by it. As the villain says: “I believe darkness sleeps in every heart, no matter how pure. Given the chance, the smallest drop can spread and swallow the heart.”
It’s also great that the villain himself is not treated as unidimensionally evil. His journals reveal that he was a kind man, but one that, precisely like Riku, allowed himself to be led to darkness. He even shared the same dreams as the protagonist and his friend, stating that he felt caged and needed to explore other places and meet new faces (“My people and I are all but prisoners of this tiny place”). Kingdom Hearts’ story shows that the no one is born evil or good, but is led to a certain path by what happens to them and by the influence of those around them.
But what the Disney worlds individually add to these themes? Unfortunately, the fact is that they add absolutely nothing, and that is the biggest drawback of the game’s narrative. The stories of the Disney movies, like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Tarzan are self-contained and barely relate to Sora’s quest. He must find and seal a keyhole in every world, while its respective movie villain tries to open it, but that’s it. If instead of meeting Tarzan and explored his jungle, Sora had met the Guardians of the Galaxy and traveled through space nothing in his narrative arc would have changed. This disconnection of the Disney stories from the main narrative leads to a very slow pacing, since most of the things that happen – fighting Jafar, befriending Ariel and helping Jack, for example – don’t really matter. Collectively, they form Sora’s journey, building his power, but individually, they are irrelevant. It’s also a bit disappointing that, while Disney gets a bunch of worlds, Final Fantasy is relegated to glorified cameos.
The writing, however, can praised for being faithful to the original material, even the more difficult ones, like Alice in Wonderland. Alice, for example, still plays with words here, and at one point, for example, she says: “I should like to keep my head. Why, if my head and body become separated, nothing I eat will ever reach my stomach.” However, it’s questionable the decision of putting her world as the first that Sora visits with Donald and Goofy, since its design is purposefully confusing and disorienting.
The game also suffers from clunky platforming, an unstable camera and atrocious on-rails segments: Sora doesn’t automatically travel from world to world, but fly to them in a ship made of blocks. These stages overstay their welcome fast, being visually ugly and overly easy and repetitive. After all, it doesn’t take long to discover that you only need to put additional weapons to your customizable ship to make it virtually indestructible. Why the game’s designers thought this section of the gameplay was a good idea is one of Kingdom Hearts’ many mysteries.
The combat, although very simple, is functional. It’s real time, but Sora has only one action button, which can be used to select the attack, magic and item options. However, because there are some button shortcuts to use magic, the combat can become very fast and dynamic. With a dodge roll and a button dedicated to skills, which are acquired by leveling up, there is little variety between the fights, but some can be still be pretty intense, requiring constant movement and healing.
The level design is also simple, with a lot of rooms separated by loading screens, some very large, others small. The player is encouraged to return to previously worlds to explore with the new skills acquired, but the rewards are not always worthy: most of the times, you will find parts to customize your ship. In other words, the exploration is mainly tied to the game’s worst part. It’s also irritating that one of the ways of getting secret items is using a skill called “trinity”, which requires Donald and Goofy to be at your party. Since most worlds have a special character, like Alladin or Ariel as an optional member for your party, experimenting with them ends up being discouraged, after all, having to switch members – which can only be done at a save spot – becomes tiresome after the seventh trinity mark.
Kingdom Hearts has its heart in the right place, but for it to grow and become essential, the franchise must pay more attention to the individual stories it tells, making them more relevant, and correct some of its bizarre design decisions.
February 21, 2019.
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Jun Akiyama, Daisuke Watanabe, Kazushige Nojima.