Genre: Action RPG
Year: 2002
Developed by: Squaresoft
Published by: Square Electronic Arts
Platforms: PS2, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Feeling Like: The Ultimate Crossover

Before the 14 sequels/remakes/reduxes/HD remakes, Kingdom Hearts was a completely original idea that shocked the gaming audience worldwide. Crossovers are always risky – it can feel forced if not done correctly. It’s been tried in many mediums – commercials, books, TV and movies and, naturally, video games.

I can’t even begin to imagine how you negotiate with the other team how things are going to go. There has to be exceptions made on both sides; you can’t have both protagonists be the star of the show. Or can you? Which property do you adjust to match the other? Do both require tweaking? What about the tone? It’s difficult enough making entertainment, now to do it with an entire other set of long established characters, and trying to appease both fanbases – seems like a monumental task.

Kingdom Hearts ranks somewhere near the top in terms of success. There’s no question about it. The crossover nearly outshone the original Disney and Final Fantasy properties for a time; I think the key to why it worked is twofold.

Primarily, the character of Sora. Instead of protagonist that we all know and love, they created a new face that would serve as the audience’s role. This blank slate was a wise move and smoothed the merging of the two worlds.

Secondly, Donald and Goofy as your sidekicks. Even in 2020, everybody knows Donald Duck and Goofy. More importantly, they know their voices and the actors knock it out of the park here. These aren’t bad impressions or amateur soundalikes – this is THE Donald Duck and THE Goofy alongside me for the whole ride. Now, I’ve never seen them destroy hordes of enemies before with shield bashes and lightning bolts, but that’s why Kingdom Hearts is its own thing.

Can’t be a Final Fantasy inspired game without giant shoes and spiky hair.

Not everything works. I can’t believe they haven’t improved on this decades later, but the cutscene direction, editing and pacing is awful. Long pauses where nobody says anything and stare blankly until the next line loads is unnatural and unsettling. It may have been forgivable in 2002, but certainly not by today’s standards. This is more a jab at Kingdom Hearts 3, but it originated here.

There’s a certain muddling to the merging of Western and Eastern visuals. The Disney look and the Anime look are hardly alike – they’re about as distinct in style as possible. I believe the Disney characters can fit in a Final Fantasy universe, but not the other way round. We’ve seen cartoony and cute characters in nearly every Final Fantasy game but nobody like Cloud or Sephiroth in a Disney movie or cartoon series. The closest I can think of, off the top of my head, is  Pocahontas which had beautiful art, but isn’t what you immediately think of when you think of Disney. Or possibly, Hercules.

Actually, this doesn’t look too odd. For a video game.

Though I suppose both Disney and Square rely heavily on shared ancient mythology, fantasy tropes and fairy tales, so I might not be tying all the threads here. I gotta say, going back and watching Youtube videos of the first Kingdom Hearts is wild. Hayley Joel Osment sounds so young! …Which makes sense, he wasn’t even a teenager when he recorded the lines. Now he’s 31, and still voicing Sora. Impressed yet?

Let’s roll on with a few more positives. Traverse Town is one of my favorite hub worlds, and a perfect introduction to the zaniness that awaits you. Characters from other Final Fantasy games are here, there’s a cozy comfort with all the lamp posts and (mostly) lack of enemies. Familiar faces will sell you wares, you can run around without a care in the world and listen to that dope track all you want. If I was a Chef, and not practicing proper COVID-19 precautions, I would kiss my fingers in delight.

I always preferred Traverse Town to Twilight Town

I wasn’t excited to play Kingdom Hearts, but I sure as hell was curious. I got mostly what I expected; a weird, unexpected mish-mash of ideas and it nearly succeeds in everything it attempts to achieve. The story, destined to be a series trademark, is convoluted as hell and confusing. I think they would have been wiser to make it more simple, but how else do you incorporate Mickey Mouse, Agrabah, Halloween Town and a brand new menace called the Heartless? Oh, and Keys are weapons, you’re trying to save your two best friends and you have a spaceship made of Gummies. Pile all that on the back of a 3D Action RPG which few companies had tried before. No wonder it’s messy.

I’ll end off on on a high note, and is it ever a high note. As much as the plot in a Kingdom Hearts game is typically a low point, the soundtrack is a high point. Yoko Shimomura composed an absolutely magical sound for these games. There’s a stellar selection of pop inspired ballads, chill beach tunes, epic boss encounters and one of the best title tracks you’ll ever hear. Unsurprisingly Shimomura also produced other amazing pieces of work including Final Fantasy 15, Legend of Mana and Super Mario RPG.

It was the start of something special, and even if I don’t count it among my favorites, it’s certainly an unforgettably nostalgic experience.

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