No rose-colored nostalgia glasses here: I never played the original “Kingdom Hearts.”
Well, that’s not entirely true. At various points when the game first game out, I attempted it, but I don’t believe I ever made it off Destiny Island, the game’s opening world. I can vividly remember how excited I was for the game; the Disney Channel had been hyping a groundbreaking gaming announcement, and an RPG containing Disney characters seemed too good to be true. But, the HD remix collection felt like a perfect time to jump into this series that has eluded my game collection over the years.
The game puts you in control of Sora, the Keyblade wielder, who joins forces with Donald and Goofy (yes, the ones you are thinking of) to try to figure out why worlds keep vanishing, where King Mickey ran off to, and what these little Heartless creatures are up to. The story suffers not only from a lack of consistency (first you are forbidden to interfere from meddling in any of the worlds, then you continue to do so without reproach), but also an overreliance on tropes that the game wants to have meaning to the player, but fails to give them much. The entire light versus dark, heart versus heartless, key versus key hole versus door versus whatever excuse of a plot is generic, and thin on substance while thick in babble.
Instead, the game relies heavily on Disney and Final Fantasy allusions, characters, and mythology building and crossovers to keep bringing the player in, and that’s really its strongest point. Who doesn’t want to ride around on Aladdin’s magic carpet? Fight side-by-side with Peter Pan? Or battle against some of Disney’s most famous villains? The allure is there and continually pulls at the heartstrings of anybody who grew up watching Disney films or playeing Final Fantasy games (Yes, even Cloud makes an experience).
Sadly, age hasn’t treated most aspects of the game well. While the original assets for the game were lost and had to be recreated, even the HD-ified graphics still look very much like a 2000’s game upscaled to 2013 HD standards, not something built from the ground up. Its cartoon aesthetics are still colorful and enjoyable, but there are a lot of rough textures and blurry and muddy graphics that point to the game’s age.
The game’s mechanics and level design are also major problems. The first three areas of the game are infuriating, relying on mere luck and happenstance to trigger random cut scene after cut scene with no notion of what you are actually supposed to be doing or trying to accomplish. Many were the times I had to break open a walkthrough just to figure out which part of a world the game wanted me to go to next, just so I could trigger another cut scene and have to guess again where I needed to go agan. I don’t need my hand held through a game, but I don’t want to feel like the game is forcing ADD-derived exploration instead of fostering real and natural world exploration.
Uneven difficulty, horrible jump and camera mechanics, and the annoying Gummi Ship travel system only make matters worse. The bare-bones RPG elements never really amount to much (the summons are very cool, though) and result in a system that is more button mashing, relying on luck, and hoping you win than it is any real strategy. Most of the game I never even noticed (or had reason to) what levels my characters were, and the limited economy for items and upgrades keeps things fairly simple in terms of upgrades and equipment.
If you do manage to make it to the final world you’ll find yourself barraged with game-lengthening wave after wave of enemies, all with a sharp, and unnecessary, increase in difficulty. And the ending (if you don’t give up on the game before that) is anything but cathartic; it simply acts as a road sign pointing the way to the next game, giving little to no explanation or satisfaction for the last 30-plus hours of world saving you’ve been doing.
But it’s the mythos that draws me in and sticks with me. I want to know what happens next with Sora and the Heartless. I want a cool Keyblade to swing around. I want to explore more Disney worlds. The series does have staying power, but if it wasn’t relying so heavily on pre-established properties, it wouldn’t even be worth giving a shot, and frankly, both Disney and Final Fantasy deserve a better-built game. Sure, the game isn’t new, and many of the problems can be seen as relics of a different gaming age, but I have a hard time believing my younger self would have had the patience and dedication to stick it out, and I don't think the current younger demographic of gamers will be any better suited, either.
Kingdom Hearts 1 is a mixed bag. The first few hours of the game are some of the worst designed levels and game play I’ve ever forced myself through. At its worst it is bad – really bad – and will feel like a chore, and that’s not really what games should be about. If you have the heart to keep playing, the game will reward you, and there are really great moments hidden amongst everything else. The idea of the game is far better than its execution, and part of me wonders if I wouldn’t have been better off not playing it and instead forever leaving it up to my childhood dream of just how awesome a Disney and Final Fantasy crossover could, and should, be.
“Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX” is available for the PS3 ($39.99) and also includes Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories and HD remastered cinematics for Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.