Maybe it’s the Disney-fueled nostalgia, but ‘Kingdom Hearts’ is still pure magic

Have you ever wondered how it would feel to play a major role in one of your favorite Disney movies? Or what it would be like to call on the power of Aladdin’s Genie in a challenging battle or fight alongside Donald and Goofy in the pursuit against evil? Kingdom Hearts answers these questions, placing you in a journey that follows a charming kid named Sora that gets delightfully tangled up in the worlds of Disney classics. The result? An adventure through nostalgia that holds up to this day.

No one has played every video game. Not even the experts. In Backlog, Digital Trends’ gaming team goes back to the important games they’ve never played to see what makes them so special… or not.

An adventure in every sense of the word

Nearly 15 years after Kingdom Hearts II, Square Enix has finally released Kingdom Hearts III. bringing the long-awaited finale to a series known for its many convoluted spin-offs and equally confusing nomenclature. If you want to make any sense of the Kingdom Hearts lore, it’s important to know that each entry plays a part in the story. I decided to begin my journey where it all began.

Instead of playing the Final Remix, a more recent and localized version of the Japanese game, I opted for the original PS2 version of Kingdom Hearts. For a game the came out in 2002 — exactly two console generations prior to our current one — I was surprised to see how smooth movement and combat is. Kingdom Hearts may be a JRPG at its core, but the focus on action is clear from the very beginning. You can tell by how well it holds up today just how incredibly polished its gameplay was for that time.

Kingdom Hearts introduces a conflict that goes beyond Sora’s home, breaking the balance and barriers to other worlds.

It starts with a tutorial where you choose between three weapons, ditching one of the two remaining. I picked up a black shield with a Mickey Mouse emblem on it. Shortly after, I answered some questions about my goals in life and my biggest fear. These choices held weight, determining the skills I would unlock first and how quickly or slow leveling up would be.

The black shield I selected during the tutorial served as only the first nod of many to Disney. The stages following took place on massive murals of Snow White and Cinderella, and in less than two hours, Donald and Goofy become your main party members.

From Jack Skellington’s Halloweentown to Tarzan’s Deep Jungle, Kingdom Hearts introduces a conflict that goes beyond Sora’s home, breaking the balance and barriers to other worlds. While Sora and his Disney posse are the intruders, the familiar faces that inhabited these magical worlds could not have made me feel more welcomed.

It’s a lot to take in

The Kingdom Hearts story is long, taking around 25 hours to complete if you focus solely on the main quest. And frankly, it’s overwhelming for the first entry of the series. I wouldn’t say that its the huge mess of different timelines and worlds that people often talk about, but it is a lot to take in.

To quickly summarize the story of Kingdom Hearts — you find that humanity is doomed because of its greed for the power of light. Darkness has started to take over, causing the destruction of worlds. Sora is the Keyblade master and the only person who can seal the darkness to stop it from destroying everything it touches. You’re then tasked with visiting all the Disney worlds and helping the characters fight against both the darkness and their respective villains.

It’s not the huge mess of different timelines and worlds that people often talk about, but it is a lot.

Led by the horned villainess from Cinderella, Maleficent, the antagonists come together and try to capture all the princesses of the different worlds. King Mickey also embarks on this quest, but he’s always a step ahead and we don’t get to see him until the last moments. Cloud from Final Fantasy is there, too, introduced as a fighter in Hercules’ Coliseum. But I’m unsure as to why.

Both Donald and Goofy are tasked by King Mickey to aid the Keyblade wielder, Sora, taking the roles of healer and tank. They level up, learn new abilities, and can be customized with new equipment, items, and skills to better suit your needs in combat.

They are nice company to have, even if Donald isn’t that great at healing. At least not until the last few stages of the story. I can’t recall how many times I asked for help when my health was running low, just to be met by the cold silence of my room and then a game over screen, taking me back to the latest checkpoint.

Bosses are entertaining and put on a good fight

Combat in Kingdom Hearts is fast and filled with action. It starts off simple at first, offering a single melee attack, a handful of spells, and the ability to jump. Spend a few hours playing, though, and you’ll soon be able to dodge, block, counter attacks, and perform all kinds of wizardry. Magic is mostly learned and improved as a reward after particular fights, while items such as potions and materials used for crafting show up after killing an enemy or opening a chest.

The enemies — or Heartless as they’re called in the Kingdom Hearts series — come in all shapes and sizes, adapting to the world you’re currently visiting. I was impressed by the design of these enemies, especially the enormous Heartless that you fight in boss battles. They put up a good fight, each having unique weak points that make them as challenging as they are entertaining.

Battles against Disney enemies are especially versatile, bringing their own set of hurdles to the game. In The Little Mermaid’s world, Ursula the sea witch torments Disney princess Ariel. We inevitably face her, fighting a giant-sized version of her that attacks you with powerful spells and a ravenous hunger as she tries to bite you. The boss fight with Oogie Boogie (from The Nightmare Before Christmas) confines you to a casino roulette, spawning various traps and enemies based on a roll of the dice. While difficult, it was easily a favorite battle of mine in my playthrough of Kingdom Hearts.

The Gummi Ship didn’t add anything that complimented or enhanced my experience. In fact, it felt unnecessary.

One feature that I became quickly bored with was the Gummi ship. It’s a ship used by Sora and company to travel in between worlds, shooting at block-like enemies and dodging obstacles, though you unlock a Warp Drive that makes traveling much easier later on. Learning to use the Gummi Ship editor was something I didn’t feel inclined to do. While the loot drops can be used to upgrade and customize it, I found that the Gummi Ship didn’t add anything that complimented or enhanced my experience. In fact, it felt unnecessary.

The progression of Kingdom Hearts is pretty linear but that is not uncommon for RPGs during that time. The process is simple — You’ll meet characters in a new world, help them, and then use Sora’s keyblade to seal the door. Then repeat. This continues until you reach the later stages of Kingdom Hearts and that’s when things start to get a little weird.

A new and ancient foe with its own world is added to the story. You’ll traverse through empty space and portals that trigger battles with new enemies, and even return to previous Disney worlds for one last battle. It feels misplaced, for sure, but that didn’t deter me. Truthfully, Kingdom Hearts’ unexpected ending only made me want to keep playing, if only to see how Sora’s story unfolds.

Disney villains bring the most enjoyable challenges to the table

There’s a lot to enjoy about Kingdom Hearts, despite its senseless Gummi ship and shapeshifting story. Even as an outsider to the many worlds you’ll travel to, the warmth of the characters makes it easy to feel connected to their home and their story. As you learn more about their plights, the more you feel inclined to help them, and the satisfaction you get from that alone is immensely rewarding.

The action combat and versatile boss battles have a polish to them that’s still impressive to this day. Disney villains, in particular, bring the most enjoyable challenges to the table, capitalizing on themes you’ll instantly recognize from Disney movies. There’s no doubt that Disney fans will find a wonderful sense of nostalgia in Kingdom Hearts, as they step through familiar worlds and interact with the characters and villains that inhabit them, even if it’s only for a brief moment.

Sora deserves praise for being a charming character that’s easy to relate to. You’ll laugh with him and maybe even cry with him, but his joy and pain are always palpable, as are the friendships he builds with Donald and Goofy.

I understand why fans are excited to play Kingdom Hearts 3. Kingdom Hearts is pure magic, like the feeling you get after finding and watching a forgotten VHS of an old Disney movie you loved as a kid. Maybe it’s the nostalgia speaking, but I’m eager to see what else the series has to offer, even if it takes me a while to get there.

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