On Christmas Day 2002, my lovely sister came bearing gifts. No prizes for guessing what it was. When I unwrapped Kingdom Hearts and I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. The Disney thing put me off a little, because I never really appreciated kids films when I was young to the extent that I do when I'm grown up for some reason. Oh how wrong my hasty judgement was. It was that night, during EastEnders, that my relationship with the series began...
Kingdom Hearts is becoming increasingly infamous for its confusing plot, and that is not a reputation it doesn't deserve. However, the plot of the first game is actually quite simple. You play as Sora, a 14 year old kid who lives on Destiny Island. He and his friends, Riku and Kairi, plan to build a raft to go to other worlds when they are attacked by the forces of pure darkness: The Heartless. Sora is separated from his friends and stranded in a strange new world, and discovered he wields the power to free the captured hearts which Heartless steal: The Keyblade. Meanwhile, Mickey Mouse of all people is also out to stop the Heartless with a keyblade of his own, and Donald and Goofy have set out to find him. Donald and Goofy eventually fall on top of Sora and the three head off to a number of worlds based on Disney locations to find their friends and fight off the Heartless threat. I won't spoil any more in case you haven't played the game, but there are PLENTY of twists and turns in the story which keep things from becoming "Go here. Sit through Alice in Wonderland. Go somewhere else." The story is a hugely satisfying experience, but it's not exactly going to blow most people away.
When you pay a visit to Disney worlds, the plot which takes place is often loosely based on the plot of the movie the world comes from, often with tweaks to accommodate the presence of Sora and the Heartless. However, I thought the overall plot of the game was tied much better into the Disney worlds than in Kingdom Hearts 2, which largely leaves the issue of Organisation XIII for the original worlds, so that's pretty nice.
|Looks like standard RPG fare... Wait, am I doing the fighting? WHEE! Am I throwing the weapon too? AWESOME.|
Kingdom Hearts has a unique style of gameplay which combines elements of action games and RPG's. Most RPG's have some kind of menu based battle system; you pick attack, magic or whatever and you'll probably take turns in attacking. From a logical standpoint, this makes no sense. If you're fighting a massive fuck-you suit of armour (and you will in this game) you're not going to wait for it to have its turn. Kingdom Hearts has most of the typical hallmarks of an RPG: a level up system, where you'll learn an array of support abilities and increase your stats as you fight enemies, a tiered magic system which uses up MP and other stuff. However, it does away completely with combat where you select 'attack' and the computer does it for you. Instead you can pound away at your enemies, dodge attacks endlessly and use the battleground to your advantage. This is a system I greatly appreciate as it makes the player feel more responsible and more in control of what's going on rather than being a bystander, making for far more intense battles. You have to fight while swimming around in a world based off The Little Mermaid, which can be quite awkward, but the world is completely optional if you know what you're doing and not too painful to begin with.
|This is what you'll be doing most of the time...|
While the battle system was amazing for the day, when I played through this game in preparation for this retrospective series, I found it pretty sluggish. It's not bad by any means, but coming off the back of Birth by Sleep, which overall has a much faster and more empowering style of combat, it's easy to see how the games have improved over the years. Most of the time you'll just be mashing attack and occasionally dodging or blocking because MP isn't as plentiful as perhaps it could be and the magic isn't obscenely useful to begin with. Compared to Birth by Sleep, where you can throw around meteors, cause massive firestorms and tornadoes, this game is quite monotonous. I actually found playing through it slightly boring and I couldn't stick with it for too long. This isn't helped by the fact that Sora doesn't control as fluidly as in other games, something especially evident when platforming.
|The interface never got this complex for me. Didn't care to upgrade the ship...|
Then there's the Gummi Ship. THE GUMMI SHIP! The Gummi Ship is the method in which Sora, Donald and Goofy travel between worlds, and you'll be very aware of that fact when you're done with the game. Every time you decide to go to a different world, you have to pilot the Gummi Ship slowly through a storm of enemies who shoot things at you. The aerial combat isn't very interesting, and it becomes little more that a chore after a couple of worlds, but the most annoying thing is that you have to go through this every time you go to a different world. You get a warp drive later in the game to zip back to previously-visited worlds, but I still prefer the route the second game took, where you do the gummi route once and you never have to enter it again, not even to warp. Then we have Birth by Sleep, which kindly does away with Gummi Ships altogether. The Gummi Ship is heavily customisable, but I never enjoyed it enough to spend any more time on it than I absolutely had to.
Compared to the later games in the series, the worlds in Kingdom Hearts are... not open, but a little less linear in design. You're pretty much free to go where you want in a world from the get go, and most of them have a fairly intricate layout filled with hidden secrets and goodies. Though when I was young I did get lost in both Wonderland and Deep Jungle, but I'll put that down to me being 6 than a fault of the game design. While I think a relatively open world is better than straight up linearity from a gameplay perspective, the worlds aren't as directly relatable to the films as they could be. Most notably, you never set foot in Neverland in a world based on Peter Pan (and actually called Neverland, for that matter...), the action all takes place on Captain Hook's ship. The world based on The Nightmare Before Christmas similarly does away with all of the Christmas elements in favour of a straight up horror world. Both of these things are rectified in the other games, thankfully.
The graphics of the game are decent even by today's standards, so they were pretty impressive 10 years ago. The PS2 does a good job of keeping up with the lush colours and detailed environments demanded by 3D recreations of some of the most popular Disney films. Every world looks exactly as it should be, and the graphics somehow manage to communicate emotions quite well. The softness of Traverse Town manages to relax me for some reason, though this at least in part due to the music, more on that in a second. Halloween Town is suitably gloomy and dark, Agrabah (based on Aladdin) feels sweltering. A lot of effort went into rendering the characters facial expressions and movements, but it's not really as noticeable as it could be. The Heartless, while not particularly detailed, are largely well designed, and can even be genuinely creepy at times. It's only to be expected that later games look a little better, but this certainly doesn't look bad!
The music, composed by Yoko Shimomura, is really one of the highlights of the game. Each world has a field theme and a battle theme which transition into each other... well, when you enter and leave a battle. Some of these are directly inspired by famous Disney songs, such as "Under the Sea" and "This is Halloween". But even the ones that don't borrow directly from the films capture the feeling of the world beautifully, and the frantic pacing of the battle tracks go well with the active battle system. There are also a whole host of dark, tense boss themes and character leitmotifs, most of which fit rather well. Everyone seems to like "Destati", a theme that takes Ominous Latin Chanting to a whole new level, but I'm not a fan of it to be honest. If I had to narrow it down, my favourites would probably be "Hollow Bastion", its battle theme "Scherzo di Notte" and the main theme "Dearly Beloved". This game doesn't have as many stand-out tracks for me as the later entries, but they certainly weren't slacking when this was composed!
The game has a wide voice cast with big names such as James Woods, Billy Zane, Tress Macneille, Haley Joel Osment, David Gallagher, Hayden Panettiere, and BRIAN BLESSED; many of whom reprise their Disney Film roles. They do a pretty good job, though my heart goes out completely to James Woods, Susanne Blakeslee and Billy Zane who seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed hamming it up as villains Hades, Maleficent and Ansem (SUBMIT!). Most characters also have a hefty bank of battle cries and taunts which, while not game defining, are a nice little touch that this game is full of.
Kingdom Hearts is certainly a great game, but after 10 years with it, I'm finding it harder to not notice some of its problems. A slightly awkward camera, occasionally clunky controls and sluggish shooting sections really hold this entry back. On its own, I give it an 7 out of 10. Relative to the rest of the series, I'd give it a 5. Not being harsh, 5 is average, not dreadful as most gaming websites seem to think.