I never cared for Kingdom Hearts but I played it anyway
The Kingdom Hearts games are unnecessarily long and their story is quite terrible and you won’t enjoy it unless you are 14 years old (or unless you were 14 when you first played it). With this out of the way, let’s talk about Kingdom Hearts.
If there is one thing that bothers me more than it probably should, it’s when so many people love a game and I don’t have an informed opinion about it. This gets even worse when that games is part of a big saga that has been appreciated over many years. A couple of months ago while I was talking to Gregor at the office, he mentioned Kingdom Hearts. “You should play it!”, and I’m like “Yeah, I know…”. Not because I really wanted to play it, but because I dislike not being able to know a game that so many people apparently love.
I did some calculations and figured that I could spent maybe one month diving into the saga. “Why not? I don’t have much to play anyway”. So I went to the store and got myself a copy of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX. You might be wondering “what were they thinking when they came up with that name for a collection?”, and I really can’t think of a good answer to that. People at Square-Enix probably get a kick out of coming up with shitty names, since this collection does not include the more friendly Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. Like, it’s 2.8 because it’s not 3 yet, but they want to be specific that 3 is the final chapter, but this is a prequel to the final chapter. I dunno.
Anyway. I ended up playing Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2. I also made the big mistake of watching Kingdom Hearts: Coded, something that I will regret for my entire life (3 hours of people talking about the importance of friendship). Please, don’t make my mistake and just read the plot from wikis. I have mixed feelings about the saga, but there are few elements I found interesting.
Hard-gating of game mechanics
One thing that is fairly consistent across these games is that when they starts, the combat system sucks really bad. The obvious reason for this is that over time you unlock new skills, but the interesting bit here is HOW MUCH they gated off some combat features. The strongest example I have is in the first Kingdom Hearts, where you cannot even dodge when you start. Like, the combat is structured in a way that it is clear that you WANT to dodge, but the game is like “Hell no!”. How about seeing the healthbar of the enemies? “Hell no!”. These two abilities get unlocked fairly soon (they feel like they are core to the gameplay system), but it’s still somewhat interesting that they just completely remove them from your skill-set when you begin. The result is that at the beginnign you feel like “oh my god, this is absolutely terrible” but, on the flip-side, once you unlock all of these skills you get a more vivid sense of “my skills have improved a lot”. I do not think that gating it so hard was a good decision, but it is nevertheless quite interesting!
Multi-stage boss-fight glory
One thing that I most definitely wouldn’t have expected from Kingdom Hearts is the detail that went in the design of the boss fights. It’s a fairly old-school approach where every boss has multiple health-bars and their move-set expands and shifts the closer the player gets to the end of the fight. One thing that was truly shocking though (in the most positive sense) is how hard-core the game goes into multi-stage boss fights. Especially the ones closer to the end of the game keep going and going, one after the other, and progress in a way that constantly gives the player new interactions and gameplay systems. You will find yourself fighting on the ground, then you’ll end up shooting from a spaceship, then platforming through the stage, then back on the ground, all of it in combats that span through 5+ sequences. It is something that I personally adore and I feel it almost completely disappeared from many modern productions.
The combat system (especially in Kingdom Hearts 2) relies on QTE that take place mid-combat. The main difference though is that they they are nicely implemented in a way that still requires timing and skill: QTE allow you to perform more devastating combos but they are never real show-stoppers. Doing some research I found an interesting analysis on YouTube. There are some more cinematic sequences in which the player needs to press the QTE button (it’s always Triangle) at the right time, and some of them also made me realize how influencial the game could have been for other games. Take this sequence, it really made me feel like Bayonetta borrowed from it. Might obviously not been the first game to do similar sequences, but the camera angle, the platform-to-platform jump and the overall fely very Bayonetta-like.
Was it worth it?
I mean, in ended up spending around 80 hours in total, so I have to tell myself that it was worth it. I think that these games (and especially Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which has a card-based combat system) are quite interesting and it’s probably a good idea to play them if you are willing to force yourself through their rough edges (extra note: play at Easy difficulty and thank me later). I think that the Disney/FinalFantasy crossover works surprisingly well, there are some funny bits but the overall story is just so childish that I hardly doubt anyone can really enjoy it. This said, the gameplay systems are surprisingly deep and complex, which is the main reason why I am happy I gave these games a shot (and now I will be able to understand the systems in Kingdom Hearts 3more easily). It’s a weird saga, I think it’s cool b ut also I totally get how unappealing it might look from the outside. If it wasn’t for my curiosity I wouldn’t have dared playing them but hey, now I know who the fuck Axel and Xemnar are. Lucky me.