If you've ever experienced Kingdom Hearts in some form, you'll be very familiar with these iterations. I went into this franchise blind and that's very much how I stayed for a long while afterwards. Nevertheless I was trying to understand the game from a second-hand perspective. Once I had the controller in my hands, all of that changed.
Kingdom Hearts is, without a doubt, one of Reece's most favourite gaming franchises of all time, so there was bound to come a time where he wanted me to play it myself. Eventually I agreed and my adventure into the unknown (quite literally) began. I made sure I learned the names of all the main, non-Disney characters through watching him play it, so that helped a lot. I struggled quite a lot with the character cameos from the various Final Fantasy games, but again, Reece's knowledge filled in any gaps I had. It's pretty handy having your own Kingdom Hearts wiki page sitting next to you on the sofa.
It started out super lighthearted and fun - Running around as Sora on Destiny Island, collecting materials for the raft, racing alongside Riku (I'm still super annoyed I lost and didn't get to call my raft "Buttwind") and just generally having a cheery old time. Your other friend Kairi is also there. She is the third member of the little clan and performs the task of third wheel very well. I have my issues with her as a character, but will explore that later on.
Then, all of a sudden, the drama happens out of nowhere and the entire world gets flipped upside down. At least the one you're in anyway.
Possibly one of my most favourite moments in the game, before the story properly kicks off, is the feeble call of Sora's mother as she tells him that dinner is ready, whilst her son is being sucked into a dark vortex to another realm. God, I really hope she makes such a prominent cameo in KH3.
Thus begins the journey of fights and feelings! If you weren't on the edge of your seat already from that funky tropical soundtrack on Destiny Island, then boy, are you in for a treat now.
When I said the story of the Kingdom Hearts franchise was complicated, I wasn't kidding. I'd recommend seeking out a decent summary article/video if you want to know everything in detail. For now however, here is a short synopsis, in my own words, of KH:
Three BFFs get split apart by scary shadows. You're given a giant key sword and told to go and save loads of different worlds from scary creatures from the scary shadows.
Oh yeah, Disney characters are there too.
Down to its core, KH is a simple adventure/quest narrative about a boy searching for his best friends whilst protecting various realms from darkness. But yes, Disney characters are there too.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I started playing this game, but by no means was I planning on falling so hard in love with it. The vibrancy and charisma of the Disney worlds, paired with the melodrama of the main storylines drew me and never let go for a second. The emotional depth of this games' story also surprised me. When you think 'Disney characters paired up with Final Fantasy-types,' the last thing you'd look for is any sincerity. I've tried a few times to play other big JRPGs, but the lack of focus at times often felt alienating. This game knows when to be silly and when to not, meaning moments that count really pack a punch. A prime example of this would be when Riku and Sora are reunited. When Riku sees Sora with Donald and Goofy, his two new 'best-friends,' the strong and spiteful sense of jealousy really shifts the tone to something a lot darker. Creating an effective atmosphere is incredibly important and something that this game does very well.
As a protagonist, Sora is great. A touch sickly sweet at times, but it pairs nicely with the darkness of the world around him. His child-like enthusiasm keeps your spirits up throughout, even when you're being bogged down by all the emotional baggage. He is a true representative of the light in this game, with even his characters' costume design giving a nod toward the happiest character on earth. (Red shorts, yellow shoes - Unmistakeable!) Your two companions throughout the game are wizard Donald Duck and knight Goofy. At times they can get in the way, but Kingdom Hearts wouldn't be Kingdom Hearts without them by your side. Again, they're there to give you that little pep when things start to get a bit heavy. This triad mirrors the strong friendship of the trio seen in the beginning, but the sense of what's at stake make their bond feel all the more powerful. Bar the fact that Donald will literally do anything else other than heal you at times during combat, it's as if all your childhood Disney dreams have come true.
Riku makes for a great anti-hero. He only wishes to do what's right, but ends up on the side of villainy. His partnership with the super-campy league of Disney villains is truly fan-fiction worthy, but somehow works due to the emotional drive of Riku's character. He wasn't lucky enough to be teamed up with some great friends like Sora, so succumbs to the darkness in order to fight his loneliness and complete his goal. He is a complete polar opposite with his purpose in this game being firmly cemented - A heroes rival that just wants to win.
Then we get to Kairi. It's not that I think she's a bad character, I just see her as utterly, utterly pointless. Kairi's main purpose is to be the 'damsel in distress type,' (no issues there) that Sora and Riku are both desperate to find and rescue. It just feels as if the narrative could have functioned perfectly well without her, with just Sora and Riku looking for each other. It is also implied that the two boys have 'feelings' for her during the opening part of the game, which to me also feels redundant. It's very refreshing to play a game that explores the theme of love, but in the deep, destiny-bound, platonic kind; about how friendships can shift the world. I worry that this 'love triangle' nullifies this slightly but again, like with anything to do with Kairi throughout the game, it can just as easily be ignored as any other weak plot device within a strong story.
As someone who has never really attempted games with technical combat before (I am a serious button masher) the fighting style in this was relatively easy to pick. Of course, it can take a moment to get both of my hands working simultaneously to control both power and magic, but after that I was firing blizzard beams and doing triple combos left, right and centre! I love having both melee and magic attacks in games, as it's great to have those kind of options when you're stuck in a corner. As I chose to play on beginner mode, it meant that I picked up a lot of good techniques early. Invaluable tricks such as dodge roll and glide made spending the time grinding and levelling up worth it, and a lot of the time this meant I was over-levelled for certain areas. Better to be safe than sorry, especially when it came to the big bosses. I felt at times the defence techniques could have been stronger and more frequent, but then again that's more of a reflection on my playing style. They say a good offence is a good defence, but who has time to listen to sayings like that when you're charging in head first to every battle.
A personal highlight of mine in this game had to be the soundtrack. I've been told that Yoko Shimomura has composed beautiful soundtracks for other big games and it's easy to see how her work has become so iconic. I believe I have now listened to 'Simple and Clean' and 'Dearly Beloved' more than I've listened to my own mothers voice. As I've mentioned before, it's about creating that believable atmosphere that the players can connect to and music is such a huge part of that. It's incredibly understated, as JRPG themes go, but I honestly prefer that. It's a delicate and emotive piece, giving you the impending sense of adventure that KH will certainly deliver on.
Kingdom Hearts works as a game because, on paper, it shouldn't. It's a mashup of two very different types of characters which no-one would have ever have thought to put together, but each deliver their own flavour to the story. It's campy yet dark, silly yet sincere. The Disney side brings out your inner child, whereas the quest side feels very grown up. You begin to see yourself within the main characters, longing for adventure but scared of what's over the horizon. And when the game is over, you feel very different.
This was the first big game I have ever attempted with the intention of completing. The sense of accomplishment I felt when I saw the end credits was something I had never quite experienced before, but lit a fire inside me that meant I wanted to do it again. I'd gladly recommend this game to anyone, although I would perhaps still need Reece there to fill in some of the knowledge gaps. For anyone struggling with the story lines, I'll admit, it took me several (frustrating) attempts to fully understand Kingdom Hearts, but it was definitely worth the effort of trying.
I love this game, and I'm very happy that there is a second (and almost a third.)
So thank you all to those who were involved in developing this game. Thank you to those who created the breathtaking music, the heart-pounding action and the emotional story. Thanks for the laughs and the tears. But the biggest thank you must go to the characters, who brought us along with them on their marvellous adventure.
Except Kairi. Fuck you Kairi.