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100% Series Retrospective: Kingdom Hearts - Destructoid




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100% Series Retrospective: Kingdom Hearts photo
100% Series Retrospective: Kingdom Hearts

4:00 PM on 09.26.2012

Carter's Quest


[Read on for a description of every Kingdom Hearts game ever released in the US, and my completion of all of them in 2012.]

So I kind of realized that I was powering through both the Resident Evil and Tony Hawk quests, and decided by popular demand to start Kingdom Hearts -- after all, I still have four more months to go this year!

I'll try not to give away too many plot points until the very last section -- essentially, I'll stick to mentioning what happens towards the beginning of each game at a maximum, as well as a general critique of the story itself.

Because this is a US endeavor, there will be no "Final Mixes" (re-releases with extra content) included, because they were not released here.

If you haven't joined me on my Quests before, the way they work is pretty simple. It's kind of like a retrospective, but rather than just give you an overview of a franchise, I'll generally let you know what I thought of the game when it was released, and what I think of it now. If I didn't provide a complete vision of what the game is like before I replay it, I'll provide an "extended thoughts" section below each applicable entry. I'll update my progress in real time through my blog, and after I finish the entire Quest, I'll share it with you guys on the front page.

Why Kingdom Hearts?

I make it no secret that I'm a huge classic Disney film fan. From the underrated Hunchback of Notre Dame, to the highly lauded Aladdin, I used to watch these films over and over, and when I couldn't watch them, I'd sing or listen to their soundtracks. I used to know every line to Aladdin and The Goofy Movie, as I've seen both of them probably around 100 times each (for The Goofy Movie this isn't an exaggeration, as I watched it for two months straight, every night, one summer).

When I found out that Haley Joel Osment (who I wasn't a fan of at the time) was going to voice the main character of the game, I was taken aback a bit, but I think ultimately he did (and still does) an amazing job, and the character design of Sora fits the Disney universe quite well. All in all, I was mesmerized by the series, and it still gives me that itch to watch Disney films every now and then, which speaks volumes as to the power of the franchise itself.

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Kingdom Hearts - PlayStation 2 [Owned]

COMPLETED

The original Kingdom Hearts was one of my most anticipated games of all time. I still remember seeing previews for it, and rewatching all of the Disney movies that were reportedly featured in it as they were revealed. When I saw that most of the original actors were reprising their roles, particularly James Woods as Hades for Disney's Hercules, I flipped out -- the Final Fantasy characters were just an added bonus for me.

When it actually came out, Kingdom Hearts delivered. It was action packed, it had RPG elements, and it had great, great bosses and a very easy to follow storyline (until the very end). In fact, you could pretty much say this is the only game in the series that has an easy-to-follow narrative. The Gummi Ship system was also incredibly fun, as it allowed you to build your own ship to traverse across the game's various worlds -- I built Optimus Prime, of course.

It also contained some of the best superbosses in any game ever, and started the superboss tradition that would carry on into most of the games (especially Final Mix). Superbosses are basically very difficult bosses (like Final Fantasy VII's Emerald Weapon) that are completely optional to the player.

My only reservation is that in the original title, you can't skip cutscenes until you beat the game. Since I've played the game numerous times, there are going to be a number of long scenes that I'll want to skip, and unless I can find my old PS2 memory card with my original file, I'm in for what is probably going to be the longest game outside of Birth By Sleep.

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Chain of Memories - Game Boy Advance [Owned]

COMPLETED

I only beat Chain of Memories once, because it was so jarring given how different it was compared to the original game. Who would have thought that after the rip-roaring success of Kingdom Hearts, with nearly six million copies sold, that Square would resort to a portable, sprite-based card battle game? It was madness!

I know a lot of people who outright skipped this one, or didn't even know it existed. That seems to be a recurring theme for card-based games, as the same thing happened when Phantasy Star Online made a similar sequel move.

Still, CoM was not a bad game, it was just different. My memory will be refreshed during this Quest as to how good it actually was.

EXTENDED THOUGHTS:

Considering I have a penchant for card games from time to time, I actually was fine with replaying this. It's one of the only games in the series to take place on a Final Fantasy Tactics-esque isometric viewing plane, and the card mechanics add a ton of extra strategy that bolster button-mashing action.

Story-wise, however, everything is kind of a cop-out. The entire game takes place within a realm/location called "Castle Oblivion," which allows for all sorts of deus ex machina to happen. The gimmick is that in Castle Oblivion, "nothing is real -- everything is an illusion!"

Just like how it's a tad grating to hear "Did you unlock the darkness and empower your heart?!" in many of the other games, it's a little more annoying to see that Sora and his crew are constantly forgetting that people they meet in Castle Oblivion are not real. You'll read, "How do you know my name?!" more times than you can count.

The story of Castle Oblivion itself, and your main enemies (the cloaked dudes and dudettes) are not revealed until later games, so unless you've played future iterations of the series, you're still left with more questions than answers by the end.

Outside of one major plot point -- which is revealed towards the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II, anyway -- most of the game is ancillary to the overarching story. What you'll mainly get out of Chain is some accented relationships between Sora and the people he met in the first game.

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Kingdom Hearts II - PlayStation 2 [Owned]

COMPLETED

The second main entry in the series is decidedly darker, and more confusing than the original, but I love it for that. To this day, it is my favorite entry in the series, as it has some of the best worlds on offer, and it really makes an effort to draw you into them. Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, the original Tron: some of the best worlds are on offer here, and they feel truly alive.

For instance, in Timeless River, a Steamboat Willie world, your characters are redrawn to look like they're cartoons from the '20s. In The Lion King, your party is anthropomorphized into various animals. Darker worlds like Pirates of the Caribbean also helped make the game a bit more dire in tone, as did the introduction of Organization XIII (the dudes in the black cloaks), who were revealed (at the time) to be the main villains behind everything.

While Organization XIII contributed to (what some may say) the confusion of the series, KH II was easy enough to follow, especially if you had played Chain of Memories. Gameplay wise, the "Drive Gauge" basically allowed you to go into Super Saiyan mode and wield two keyblades, which made combat feel like a step up from the original game.

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Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories - PlayStation 2 [Owned]

COMPLETED

Re:Chain is essentially a beefed up version of Chain of Memories, sporting 3D graphical upgrades, voice acting, and a more fleshed-out soundtrack.

It still features card battles just like the game its based on, albeit with a few mechanical changes, but it also adds on a few extra battles and cutscenes.

As is the case with Chain of Memories, I only beat it once. Even though it's still technically the same game as the original, I'm going to beat both for this Quest.

EXTENDED THOUGHTS:

Re:Chain is a hybrid version of Chain of Memories and the rest of the series' 3D action. If you watch someone play it without paying attention, you'd think that they're playing a regular old Kingdom Hearts game, as combat looks relatively the same at first glance.

The only catch is that, yep, cards are involved! In order to use skills, very much like the skill wheel found in most of the Kingdom Hearts games, you have to expend cards, and you can switch between them at will. Once you run out, you have to charge up to get more just like the GBA version, but it feels a lot more seamless this time.

Honestly, I have no preferred version, as both games have their pros and cons. The original is portable and it looks very unique -- the Re:Chain has new content, and a more action-based combat system. As for the "Chain" games themselves -- they're not bad. They are mostly ancillary to the story, but ultimately, they're not poor entries in the franchise.

Of course, if you detest card games, you'll probably still want to steer clear regardless, as you're going to be doing a lot of micromanaging that would otherwise be left out of the rest of the franchise. To get a feel for how both games operate, watch the original tutorial here, and the remake tutorial here.

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Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days - Nintendo DS [Owned]

COMPLETED

"Three Five Eight Days Over Two." That's how you say the title -- and we're not even on the confusing parts yet. The game features Organization XIII in its entirety, which can either be good or bad depending on your hatred for them in the series.

While I thought it was incredibly fun being able to finally play as a few of my favorites like Axel and Xigbar, I can see a lot of people being turned off by it, as the characters are decidedly non-Disney, and the game is more of a side-quest. In short, this is probably the most polarizing game in the series, and contains some of the most trite and useless dialogue ever found in a videogame: "Is your heart really in darkness? Or is it in the light?"

It was also a bit disappointing that all of the worlds were reused, but being able to see "The World that Never Was" up close, and play as badass characters like Xemnas was totally worth it. In essence, this game is very much give and take, and your mileage may vary depending on how much of a fan you are.

Local multiplayer was also really fun, if you could find a partner. All in all, 358 isn't my favorite Kingdom Hearts game by any stretch, but if you're a fan of KH II, it's worth playing. If you're not, I would consider it one of the more "skippable" entries in the series, right up there with Re: coded.

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Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep - PSP [Owned]

COMPLETED

Birth By Sleep is a prequel to the whole shebang that is Kingdom Hearts, taking place ten years before Sora comes to the forefront. It tells the story of how Xehanort (known as his original form, Master Xehanort) came to be. Through the eyes of the trio Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, you'll coast through new Disney worlds, and learn more about the meta of the Kingdom Hearts universe.

Combat was vastly improved. Like Dream Drop Distance would later do, and 358/2 did before it, the game is seen through multiple sets of eyes, rather than just Sora's. Terra is a damage dealer, Ventus focuses on speed, and Aqua is a magic specialist, which means that each section feels a bit different.

My only issue with the game is that given that it's a prequel, and takes a long time to set up, it's very, very hard to get into. In fact, I made it about halfway through the game before I stopped playing, even though it was actually a very solid entry in the series. As one of my Twitter friends once said, "playing Dream Drop Distance actually makes me feel bad for ditching Birth By Sleep." I completely agree, and I can't wait to finish the game for this Quest.

If you're looking to join in on the fun, sadly, Birth By Sleep was never released on the PSN storefront, which by proxy means it will never come to the PlayStation Vita. It's a shame that this game will essentially be lost in time, only to be found or played by people who hunt down the UMD.

EXTENDED THOUGHTS:

Birth By Sleep is kind of a sticky wicket. Although it's initially really hard to get into, given that the three main characters have never been playable (or hardly referenced) before, it doesn't even feel like a Kingdom Hearts game initially.

All of that passes however, as you delve more into the game, and learn that it actually tackles the themes of friendship and the hero's journey better than most of the other games. For the most part, you actually care about Terra, Ventus, and Aqua -- or at least, you care about them as a whole.

Square Enix famously states that you should tackle the game in the order of Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, but personally, I enjoyed Ventus, Terra, and Aqua more. Terra's whole theme is that he may or may not be doing dastardly things with his dark side as he roams the cosmos and visits all of the same worlds as the other two characters.

By playing Ventus first, you hear about his exploits second-hand, and question whether or not Terra actually fell into the darkness -- the entire time you're just left wondering, and it isn't resolved until you play Terra's story. If you just play Terra first, all of that is ruined.

Terra also explicitly ruins a major plot-point of Ventus that's only revealed near the end of Ventus' campaign, and makes it that much more poignant. Whatever order you end up choosing though, Aqua last is probably a good bet, as she ruins both stories and feels more like an ancillary addition to the game anyways -- making her a good "wrap-up" character.

Each campaign runs around 10-20 hours each, making it easily the most lengthy Kingdom Hearts game to date, depending on how much you explore. As previously stated, I really feel bad for not completing Birth By Sleep at release: I really, really enjoyed it.

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Kingdom Hearts Re: coded - Nintendo DS [Owned]

COMPLETED

Do you see a pattern here, with the "re:[make]" moniker? Well, Re: coded is a fully functional DS remake of the original "coded" games, which were initially an episodic mobile phone series. Huh? Kingdom Hearts on mobile phones? Yep, that happened, but only in Japan.

Thankfully, not content with only having a small portion of the world experience this series, Square Enix had developer h.a.n.d. (who previously worked on 358/2) compile all of these episodes into one game: Re: coded for the Nintendo DS.

Re: coded plays like a mix of Birth By Sleep and 358/2, but apparently some concessions were made to make it appeal to more casual gamers, after some people stated that the previous games were too complicated. While I didn't have an issue really with that train of thought, I did have a hard time getting into the game.

Basically, Re: coded doesn't really do anything new. It borrows many elements from previous games, and doesn't have any new worlds to visit. In short, it seems like an abridged version of the first game, especially considering the entire setup is that you're actually traversing "virtual worlds" (hence the "coded", like computer code) that are set in the same exact order as the first game. The game ends with a setup for Dream Drop Distance, which honestly, was the most exciting part of it.

EXTENDED THOUGHTS:

Re: coded is a very strange game indeed. In short, I think it's the only Kingdom Hearts entry that you can absolutely skip and not feel bad about. While it's probably one of the biggest games in the series (you could easily waste over one hundred hours here), there's not a lot of substance to it.

In fact, it feels like a poor portable remake of the first game, just with a few different mechanics added here and there. The exact reason it feels like that is because you're playing as Sora again (and not new characters with new stories like 358/2), going through the exact same areas found in the first game.

The one cool thing about Re: coded is that it has more platforming elements than any entry in the entire series. If you enjoy jumping about like a madman and discovering secret nooks and crannies, you'll love Re: coded. If not, you can honestly pass on it, as the entire story can be summed up in one sentence, which is revealed at the very start of Kingdom Hearts 3D.

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Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance - Nintendo 3DS [Owned]

COMPLETED

Dream Drop Distance is the only Kingdom Hearts game I've beaten in 2012 so far, and it emblazoned me to do this entire Quest to re-beat every title in the series. After finishing it, I decided that it may be my favorite game in the entire franchise, but I'd have to play my original favorite again to fully decide (KH II).

Dream Drop Distance features completely new worlds, and a decent story set to the backdrop of friendship. Finally, we're able to play a full game as Riku and Sora together. Although much of the horrid dialogue returns, such as "Did you unlock your heart?", the story itself is fairly easy to follow.

Probably the biggest addition to the series is the "Drop system," which has drawn much ire from fans. Essentially, like Birth By Sleep, the game features both Riku and Sora traversing the same worlds, but having different adventures.

Square Enix decided that in order to "remind you" that either one exists from time to time, that it would force you to "drop" to the other character after a certain amount of time had passed. It doesn't sound so bad does it? Well, when you realize that it could actually drop you from a boss fight, forcing you to lose all progress from said fight, you may get a little steamed.

But the thing is, it's super easy to counter. There are items called "drop-me-nots" that you can use to prolong the timer, and you can also drop on cue of your own accord, making it super easy to just drop before a boss fight, come back, and have a full drop meter to take him on with. Also, if you die in a boss fight, you can just retry it, or simply "exit" the fight and go back to the room right before it.

Speaking of boss fights, KH:3D offers some of the best not only in franchise history, but some of the best fights in action game history. Simply put, these bosses are extremely challenging, and a few even reminded me of superbosses in past games.

Bosses hit hard, are generally very large, and don't let up no matter what. It's absolutely refreshing to have a challenging action game to play in this era of ease, especially when it's surprisingly coming from a series featuring Mickey Mouse. It also features my absolute favorite world of all -- Fantasia's "Symphony of Sorcery."

Collection Photo:

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Final thoughts: If you're a hardcore Kingdom Hearts fan, you know exactly what you want. Pretty much every game in the series has something to offer fans in some fashion. If you're a casual fan, however, you probably want recommendations, right?

Well, what I would suggest is playing Birth By Sleep, Kingdom Hearts, Re:Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II, and Dream Drop Distance.

That's the chronological order, but just like the conundrum what order to watch the original and new Star Wars trilogies in, you can obviously play them in release order if you prefer. The other games are either filled with lots of fluff or fan service, or aren't very welcoming mechanically.

Another thing I wanted to do here is explain the story of Kingdom Hearts as quickly as possible, so if you wanted, you could jump into the next game and not be lost. A lot of people seem to be confused by the flowery dialogue, but at its core, the story isn't that complex.

--SERIES SPOILERS--

Master Xehanort is an evil teacher of the keyblade arts that wants all of the power in the universe (aptly called Kingdom Hearts) for himself. In order to harness it, he wants to start another keyblade war -- an epic confrontation that nearly destroyed the world many years ago.

He fails due to the efforts of three of his pupils, named Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, and his body is destroyed -- because of his strong will to live, he now exists as four people -- Young Xehanort, Heartless Xehanort, Xemnas, and Terra-Xehanort.

Two young keyblade masters named Sora and Riku succeed ten years later in stopping most of Xehanort's forms, but unfortunately, his original "Master" form comes back to life due to a dark plan hatched by his other split personalities.

The next Kingdom Hearts game, which may or may not be Kingdom Hearts 3, will deal with stopping him.

Honestly? That's about it. The third paragraph sums up over half of the games in the entire series! If you've ever found yourself confused by the franchise, just remember to bookmark this page.

I hope you enjoyed this Quest, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts on the franchise, or recommend my next series!






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