By Bryan Smith on May 10, 2015 at 12:31pm
“Kingdom Hearts.” It’s one of the greatest and most successful video game crossover series known to man standing next to “Super Smash Bros.” and “Marvel Vs. Capcom.” Starting off as a bizarre action-RPG crossover between Disney and “Final Fantasy,” thousands of people are anxious to see what new Disney worlds and “Final Fantasy” characters are going to join Sora, Donald, and Goofy on the last part of the Xehanort saga. While we wait for “Kingdom Hearts III,” I’m going to count down and rank the seven canon “Kingdom Hearts” games.
So what are my criteria for ranking the games? I’m ranking the game on several key points, but are certainly not limited to the following:
1. What the game adds to the plot.
2. How well it adds to the plot.
3. Main Gameplay
4. New Gameplay tweaks
5. Overall Feel
I’m also only counting what worldwide audiences got to play; not what Japan got exclusively. “Kingdom Hearts X,” “Kingdom Hearts Mobile,” and “Kingdom Hearts V CAST” do not count because they don’t impact the main series and are not easily obtainable. However, the Final Mixes will be included as they were given releases in the forms of HD remasters.
7. "Kingdom Hearts coded/Re:coded"
Let’s face it. This entry is basically the worst “Kingdom Hearts” (canon) game out of the bunch. Granted, the game is by no means a bad game, but it still leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth. If there were any evidence that the Kingdom Hearts series may be spinning its wheels, people would certainly point to this title.
Here’s some interesting development for “Coded.” The original copy of the game was only released for phones, much like how “The 3rd Birthday” was planned originally. Unlike that game, which was scrapped to become a full-fledged PSP game, “Coded” was kept exclusively to the phone. And it was only in Japan. Naturally, there’d be a few peeved at the notion that anyone outside of Japan can’t get another “Kingdom Hearts” game. Fortunately Square Enix said, “Yeah lets just put it the DS and give them out all over the world this time.” And thus “Re:coded” was born.
The game takes place a little bit before the ending of “Kingdom Hearts II” and ends exactly on the dot of it. That should give you guys a hint that this game is very unsubstantial to the series. And the gimmick here is that you go back to previous worlds in the digital world! Get your “Digimon” references out of your system while you can. There’s almost nothing that we didn’t already know. This should have been a cutscene for “KH2” and saved Square Enix a bunch of money. Then there’s another thing that rubs me the wrong way about this game. The tech stuff. Look, I like fantasy a lot. I also like science fiction. And the two can be implemented rather well. But when you start to mix the two and one outweighs the other, you’re doing something wrong. “Kingdom Hearts” is, foremost, fantasy. When it starts to have sci-fi elements incorporated, it loses the charm of being “Kingdom Hearts.”
And I would like to reiterate the point of visiting only old worlds digitally. The only thing that’s new is the digital aspect of looking through worlds and changing the core gameplay a bit. That ranges from a side-scroller to a Final Fantasy-style, which is probably the only real highlight. It also marks the first time a Final Fantasy character is an actual party member, along with Genie and Hercules. “Re:coded” also uses the Command Deck system. While not being the game to debut it, the Command Deck here doesn’t add strategy to the overall game (while another entry on the list does somewhat well). It’s just an arbitrary way to halt magic and focus on physical attacks. I just loathe things like this stupid system, as it feels so unnatural to the whole magic thing. Other than that, “Re:coded” can be summed up like this. “Kingdom Hearts (1)” Lite being Digital/Tech Savvy. Nothing new. Nothing lost. Just to emphasis how unimportant “Re:coded” is, “Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix” only has the cutscenes, where are as equally unimportant until the last few minutes.
6. "Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days"
And here’s the other title that suggests that Square Enix is just wasting time instead of working on “Kingdom Hearts III.” Unlike “Re:coded,” this game spans over from the first “Kingdom Hearts,” “Chain of Memories,” and the beginning of “Kingdom Hearts II.” Does it do the series any justice? Some, but not a whole lot.
So instead of Sora, this is the first game to follow a new protagonist for the whole story: Roxas. As Roxas, you initially fight Heartless for Organization XIII as they try to get hearts for themselves by getting at Kingdom Hearts. During these missions of Heartless hunting, you begin to notice that “358/2 Days” is more akin to “Kingdom Hearts II Lite.” Most of the worlds used here are either the same from the first two “Kingdom Hearts” games (1 & 2). The only noticeably new areas used come from Neverland, and they feel genuinely empty and bare at that.
The main problems that stem from “358/2 Days” is that the gameplay feels more archaic than past installments. Instead of using a regular AP system, there is a panel system that lets you put in abilities, weapons, items, and more, trying to make it a simple menu to access. That unfortunately leads to a very limited character to fight with. Magic is treated like consumable items (as in there isn’t a magic meter), certain panels have to be sacrificed because of space alone, and certain panels take up more than one slot and are shaped in odd ways.
Fighting in this game also feels very simple; perhaps too simple. Since magic and abilities are far more limited, gameplay resorts to whacking enemies with the keyblade. Not much else is added in that regard. “358/2 Days” does, however, implement multiplayer and a lot of different characters. You get to play as all of Organization XIII, Xion (the one new character), Sora, Riku, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. It’s interesting to see how certain characters move and attack. Assuming you have other friends who have a DS and an extra copy of the game, missions can be handled a bit better as no other game really offers this level of cooperation for main missions.
As for the story, it doesn’t add too much we don’t know already except for the parts with Xion and Roxas’s motivations that led to “KH2.” I feel that “358/2 Days” is a character driven game and if you don’t care about Roxas and Axel, this game just isn’t going do it for you in the story department.
5. "Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories/Re:Chain of Memories"
I’m starting to see a trend here with the handheld “Kingdom Hearts” games reusing old worlds… However, I admire the gameplay’s resolve to being something more unique than any other game in the series. For “Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories,” Sora has to rely on using a card system that has attack cards (keyblades) and magic cards (spells). Every action that isn’t jumping and running uses a card with a set number value. Enemies have the exact same method of attacking you. This game requires strategy that isn’t seen in other “Kingdom Hearts” games. What people have issue, if it’s that the gameplay is a tad off, comes from the story.
As I have mentioned before, “CoM” is the first game that started the trend of what I call the “Kingdom Hearts Lite” series. Sora goes through every world he ventured through in the first “Kingdom Hearts” game (though not “Tarzan’s” world. Darn copyright issues…). Only three worlds/areas are relatively new and not entirely explored in the first “KH-” Destiny Islands, Twilight Town, and Castle Oblivion. The problem here isn’t the fact that we’re revisiting the same worlds, but nothing of substance is gained by going back to them. The Disney world stories are abridged stories of the ones from the first “KH” being abridged from their original Disney films.
For what it’s worth, though, the new segments with the mysterious Organization XIII are actually pretty good. Sora, Donald, and Goofy go out to seek Mickey and Riku and they run into Castle Oblivion where they find Organization XIII members. These new characters add a new level of intrigue to the world of “Kingdom Hearts” that gets answered (somewhat anyways) in “KH2.” That, and this was the first game to introduce a new playable character in the form of Riku- paving the way for more in the future. What I think could have helped “CoM” more in the long run would have been using different worlds that Sora hasn’t been to yet (like Twilight Town) but with new Disney worlds. They could have been test worlds for future games so “CoM” wouldn’t feel so repetitive. As it stands, I really liked the concept of the game, but the repetition and all too similar environments bogged down the experience.
One minor note: "CoM" is the only game to debut on a Nintendo handheld and be remade for a PlayStation console (and the only game to be completely remade from 2D sprites to 3D models). "Re:Chain of Memories" is essentially the same game but with the 3D engine from the first "Kingdom Hearts" game. Unfortunately, the repetition strikes harder here because the level design is far more similar to the first game since we're in the third dimension again. Although there are a few additional tweaks and cards thrown into the mix, not much else is noteworthy.
4. "Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance"
I now present to you the only game to not have any major technical hiccups for the handheld games: “Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance!” If I hadn’t known about it being on the Nintendo 3DS, I could have sworn that “Kingdom Hearts 3D” was a perfectly acceptable PlayStation 3 title. It plays so smoothly for a “Kingdom Hearts” game on the go and looking back at it the visuals are still really good (not saying much since it’s barely three years old though).
“KH3D” also advances the story after “Kingdom Hearts II” (in a meaningful way). Yen Sid sends Sora and Riku into the dreams of worlds… making it sound very strange in retrospective… that are still asleep since they were restored after the Heartless destroyed them. Nightmare Dream Eaters, this game’s enemies, are terrorizing the worlds and Sora and Riku have to rid the worlds of the Nightmares. As the two dive into new worlds, a refreshing breath of fresh air that many other “Kingdom Hearts” following “KH2” don’t do right, they discover a darker plot being forged by Xehanort.
For the most part, “KH3D” feels very much like a “Kingdom Hearts” game. You have your abilities you can unlock to help strengthen Sora and Riku and the new Flowmotion system. This lets Sora and Riku zoom through the air and speed along very nicely- making travel move along very nice. They also flow (ha! Get it?) into combat very smoothly for stronger attacks.
Unfortunately, there are still a few hiccups. The Command Deck is still present, which limits Sora and Riku on what they can do. Instead of party members, you get Spirit Dream Eaters- the good versions. They do their job decent enough in battle, but they also come with annoying pet interactions with the touch-screen of the 3DS. The skills Sora and Riku can get have to come from these pets, and they take a looooooong time to level up. That means constant pace-breaking to the fighting and trying to feed or pet these creatures. You want the often-necessary skill Leaf Bracer? You got to get points to spend on the skills tree for a select Dream Eater.
Also there’s the Drop System. On paper, this would have been an interesting concept. Whenever the Drop Meter depletes, the character selected goes to sleep while the other one wakes up. Many problems arise from this, however. Most importantly, this causes fights with bosses to be a big risk. If Sora was fighting a boss, he goes into sleep. When you go back to Sora, Sora will still be in his past condition but the boss will have fully healed. While the Drop Meter does boost the other character when it depletes and you did a lot of stuff (assuming you did in the first place), that doesn’t mean much when you only have things to do as only Sora or Riku. It’s frustrating switching back and forth.
Aside from those complaints, “KH3D” is really good if you can ignore those rough edges. Even though the story does get really convoluted at this point (Time Travel!), it finally gave the push “Kingdom Hearts” needed to be at for “Kingdom Hearts III.”
3. "Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep/Final Mix"
Originally “Birth By Sleep” was very low on the list, as in below “Chain of Memories.” That decision was made before “Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix” came around. The number one problem holding back “Birth By Sleep” was its technical issues. They hindered the game so much I became less disinterested in playing more. Never before in a game that I could implement snack times for frequent loading screens. With the upgraded version of the game, however, I feel I can properly appreciate the game fully.
I mentioned the technical problems before in my review of “Kingdom Hearts 2.5,” but here’s the basics- the game chugged along because of how much the PSP tried to load everything. The device simply couldn’t handle “Birth By Sleep’s” gameplay. Had “Birth By Sleep” only existed on the PSP, this entry would be much further down the list. Yet again, “Kingdom Hearts 2.5” makes my previous assessment false since they (mostly) remove my complaints of the game chugging so much.
I think I can understand the reasoning behind the Command Deck for the handheld games now (though not for “KH3D”). They are still very limiting and a noticeable downgrade to the magic meter, but they were the best things that the PSP could work with. I don’t think the PSP could handle the magic meter along with the PS2-level graphics whatsoever. It said, “Err, sorry. Too much bro. You’re making me slow and fat.”
What “Birth By Sleep” does the best is the story. Out of all the “Kingdom Hearts” games, this is the most somber and heartbreaking game. Just listen to that rendition of Dearly Beloved. It’s if Yoko Shimomura took my heartstrings and began to play the violin with them. With only a young Sora in this game, who isn’t playable to boot, we follow Aqua, Terra, and Ventus as they investigate the Unversed problem that is attacking the other worlds. We also find out why prequels with characters not in the first games are often cruel.
If you want to see more of my thoughts of “Birth By Sleep,” take a look at my review of “Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix.” It really is a great game that was unfortunately hindered by the PSP’s limitations when it first debuted.
2. "Kingdom Hearts II/Final Mix"
As much as I love this entry, it misses the mark just by a few points. Again, I have stated the noticeable problems and my main issues with “KHII” in the review for “Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix.” What could have been an excellent, big installment to “Kingdom Hearts” turned more towards convolution with both gameplay and story. Just two things alone irk me the wrong way and they are really big: the prologue and the magic meter. As opposed to harking on those problems again, I’m going to focus more on what I loved this time around. SparkNotes version: Prologue is too loooooooooooooooooong and magic meter makes you play the waiting game instead of the attacking (and in the long run playing) game.
After playing as Roxas for unknown reasons, Sora, Donald, and Goofy go back to fighting Heartless while Organization XIII gets into the fray and sends Nobodies after them as well. As they visit new worlds and meet new friends, they discover darker secrets with Sora being the center of attention.
With this game, the music is absolutely gorgeous alongside the graphics (for its time anyways). I feel the mood the game wants to take and the impact upon high, chilling notes. The combat has been built upon for new tricks. When Sora is fully leveled up with all his skills maxed, Sora is at his most versatile in the series. Seeing worlds from “Tron” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a blast. The character interactions are just a delight.
With all that said, though, “KHII” falls just so short to the entry at number one. Whereas the series is by no means perfect or absolutely perfect, what number 1. has the workings of the best overall experience. The problems here for “KHII” hold it back a bit and are often criticisms fans and myself have for not only this game but also the series as a whole.
1. "Kingdom Hearts/Final Mix"
Believe it or not, my nostalgia goggles are off when making this decision. The very first is still the very best that “Kingdom Hearts” has to offer. One of the greatest points I can offer is how robust the gameplay is while being very simple and easy to pick up. It feels great from the start and feels better at the end.
We start at the beginning of the series as Sora dreams to get off his home world Destiny Islands with his best friends Kairi and Riku. Soon trouble happens, which sends Sora to a new world and he meets Donald and Goofy. They embark on an adventure to stop the Heartless from consuming all the worlds. The story here is short, sweet, and to the point. Nothing really complicated yet until the sequels roll in.
A noticeable problem starting with “Kingdom Hearts II” is that the characters feel… unwieldy and floaty. It’s not until the end of the game where whoever the character is, Sora, Riku, Aqua, or what have you, feels better to control. Sora, in the first game however, feels and runs smoothly, comfortably, and fast from the start to the end of the game. His speed matches what he can do, whereas a “KHII” Sora doesn’t control as fast as you would think; especially in the beginning.
The magic meter is also at its best here. I like the idea of having magic being an energy-like force that the more you attack or be attacked, the more energy you get. It keeps the pace going. “I want to shock Cerberus with thunder twice before one of its heads bites me hard. Zap zap! I dodge roll out of the way and attack some more. Oh no! I got bit! I have enough magic to heal me up a bit. Now it’s chasing after me. I should dodge a tiny bit and attack cautiously for a good amount of damage and to get my magic up in case I get bit again.” That is a great combat feeling. I don’t want some ultra-devastating attack that takes all my health just so I heal and get hit by the same attack again. Now I have to wait for the magic meter to cool down while run like a one-hit point wonder (where items are still very limited as you can’t have 99 elixirs to use in battle for sequel games).
Another thing that “Kingdom Hearts” gets right throughout is the mood. I feel the sense of foreboding doom, but in there I know there are smiles and cheer despite everything going on. Not a single world feels out of place with what it has to offer. Deep Jungle, the “Tarzan” level, has minigames for Sora to do. They, however, fit in with the game’s theme of slick action and Deep Jungle’s theme of surfing on trees. There aren’t any silly skateboarding tricks in an area where Heartless would tear your heart out normally or Unversed playing Fruitball (where Aqua/Terra/Ventus could have easily slain them instead and move along… stupid rules). One may bring up the Hundred Acre Wood as a counterpoint, but it doesn’t really feel childish. Winnie the Pooh and his friends are just living their lives. It’s perfectly in character and in universe to not have enemies here. I want to help Pooh get honey because he’s my friend. I don’t want to play Fruitball with Unversed because I want to stab them with my keyblade.
Simplicity and accessibility makes “Kingdom Hearts” a fantastic game and one of the best games in the series. I don’t have to worry about leveling up pet Dream Eaters to get an ability, being limited of magic spells and useful attacks because of the Command Deck, or silly minigames that pull me right out of the mood. I see Heartless. I know they are evil, they have something I need to get better weapons, and I go fight them. Simple as that.
With the simplicity and crisp and smooth combat, “Kingdom Hearts” is what I believe the best game in the “Kingdom Hearts” series. With seven canon games (and a few remakes and remasters thrown in there) released, we can only play and appreciate them until “Kingdom Hearts III’s” release. I’m hopeful that it’ll be released… this decade. Right? Please?
So what do you think of the “Kingdom Hearts” series? What is your favorite game? Least favorite? Leave a comment and let us know!