When the first Kingdom Hearts was announced, I was 12 years old. I had already ventured through some Final Fantasy and knew – who didn’t – the Disney universe. However, I don’t remember seeing the announcement at E3 since the internet wasn’t mainstream at the time, and the event was in person.
However, browsing through a PlayStation 2 catalog on an average day to choose the next RPG for my library, Kingdom Hearts grabs my attention because it had a cover showing Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Little did I know that I would meet Squall, Aerith, Cloud, and company during the game while adventuring through Agrabah or hanging from vines with Tarzan.
Kingdom Hearts was conceived on a lucky strike but has become one of Square Enix’s biggest franchises. Nowadays, the series sustains itself with remasters, remakes, and re-releases for various platforms. Still, fans know that the story isn’t over yet and eagerly wait for a new entry.
I played through all Kingdom Hearts major games, but I will try to share my thoughts in this article from my perspective based solely on the first game, avoiding parallels with other installments.
Bottom Line Up Front
Kingdom Hearts has incredibly epic and tumultuous lore, sprawling between its mainlines and spin-offs despite its seemingly childlike presentation. While you won’t watch a public beheading of Tinkerbell, don’t expect a juvenile and easy-to-follow plot either. Things will get hectic pretty fast in there. Those attracted to action-RPG gameplay fare better odds to be entertained by the game. But by the end of the day, Kingdom Hearts is a franchise for RPG, Disney, and Final Fantasy lovers alike.
The settings of Kingdom Hearts can be divided into two: original game worlds and Disney worlds. There are ten Disney worlds and four explicitly created for the game.
The Disney worlds carry a cartoonish and friendly design that they are well known for. Neverland, Olympus Coliseum, Agrabah, Atlantica, and others feature cast from their respective worlds, such as Peter Pan and Hercules.
The original worlds follow the same aesthetic as the Disney worlds to preserve a standard. Destiny Islands, Traverse Town, Hollow Bastion, and The End of the World comprise the original worlds. Their inhabitants range from exclusive Kingdom Hearts characters to a few from Disney and the Final Fantasy series. In Destiny Islands, we see Wakka, Tidus, and Selphie, for example. In Traverse Town, we cross paths with Aerith, Yuffie, Cid, and Squall, who is called Leon due to plot reasons.
Assuming you have played Kingdom Hearts or know a bit about the franchise, you know that the saga has an expansive and convoluted story. This article, however, will focus only on the story of the first game, which does a great job of introducing the Kingdom Hearts universe without pushing an aneurysm on us.
I confess that when I first played it, the main plot of light vs. dark was straightforward and what my mission was as the protagonist. However, replaying the Kingdom Hearts HD version after treading through the other games, I recognized several discrete details that help enrich the gigantic lore of Kingdom Hearts. I will try to elucidate the plot as much as possible while giving my occasional notes.
The Three Amigos
Kingdom Hearts begins on Destiny Islands. The three young friends, Sora, Riku, and Kairi, are discussing how they can leave their homes and explore the world. At first, this was quite confusing because it gave me the impression that they lived on this tiny island somewhat like Lord of the Flies. Alongside the trio, there were three Final Fantasy characters on the island: Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie.
We play as Sora and begin the story – after an obscure tutorial – by collecting materials to build a raft. While scavenging, we find a hooded figure near an ever-closed door but decide to ignore the oddity for the time being. Once we collect the materials for the raft, we go rest for the day.
Meanwhile, the scene switches to Disney Castle and focuses on Donald. The court wizard reads a letter from King Mickey, who claims he had to leave in a hurry but gives Donald and the leader of the royal guard, Goofy, a mission. They must find someone with a key. To do this, they must travel to Traverse Town and find Leon.
The game shifts back to Sora, and this time, we need to pick up some supplies such as food for the raft. About to start the voyage, the island is attacked by Heartless, beings of darkness. Despair overtakes the friends – Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie mysteriously disappear. Riku appears in a dark puddle and says that the closed door is now open, and we can go out into the world. He is swallowed by the darkness on the ground. A Keyblade appears in Sora’s hand, allowing him to fight the Heartless before they seize the island. When we find Kairi, she is sucked into the gaping door by a stream of darkness, and Sora is pulled in.
The Keyblade Wielder
Sora is awakened by a generous licking from Pluto, and he finds himself in an alley of Traverse Town. This is where the real crossover between Disney and Square begins. After groggily emerging from the dark alley, Sora notices that he’s in another world – and it’s unfazed by it. Entering the nearest house, you meet Cid Highwind from Final Fantasy VII. Traverse Town is teeming with Heartless, Donald, Goofy, and you keep missing each other while exploring the town.
After traversing the town for a long time, you meet a familiar man, claiming he doesn’t understand why the Keyblade chose you. Naturally, he decides to test you in a brawl. His name is Leon, known among Final Fantasy VIII players as Squall. You face him, and although you technically win the duel, you lose and pass out. I remember it was incredible to see the Final Fantasy characters stylized in 3D, with a voice-over and a more apparent personality than their PlayStation 1 versions.
Meanwhile, Riku appears in another world, shouting for Sora and Kairi. In Traverse Town, Donald and Goofy are approached by Aerith from Final Fantasy VII. Sora is awakened by Yuffie, also from Final Fantasy VII. She and Leon share a bit about the Keyblade and how the Heartless are afraid of it and relentlessly attack Sora. At the same time, Aerith explains to Donald and Goofy about the other worlds and how they are now connected.
During our respite, Heartless come barging into our hotel room, and we have to break our way searching for their boss. In one fateful encounter, Donald and Goofy fall upon Sora and immediately recognize the Keyblade, offering to help him. After beating the boss, the pair tells him they can visit other worlds with the Gummi Ship and need Sora’s help to find King Mickey. Sora accepts, hoping that visiting other worlds will help him find Kairi and Riku.
The screen changes and shows the silhouette of several villains discussing, who are certainly not Disney’s, about the plan to kidnap the seven heart princesses to open the path to Kingdom Hearts, a place of unlimited knowledge and power. It’s up to Sora, Donald, and Goofy to visit the different Disney worlds, find their keyhole, and lock it with the Keyblade to prevent them from being consumed by the Heartless while trying to save all the princesses from the clutches of darkness.
After visiting all the Disney planets and sealing the keyhole, the game’s plot begins to have an identity of its own. By the end of the game, you will understand some nuances of Kingdom Hearts. However, there will be so many cliffhangers for the narrative that it’s almost a blessing that there are sequels to explain most of them.
Our young protagonist is an optimistic and carefree boy. He doesn’t know why he was chosen by Keyblade, but he does everything possible to help his friends. As I said he lived on the island along with his friends, which was something quite strange. Together with Donald and Goofy, they are formidable and unpretentious trio who always manage to achieve their goals with the power of friendship.
Sora’s best friend/rival. Riku is that friend who can do everything you do, but better. However, he lets himself be ensnared by Maleficent’s fallacies and believes that Sora betrayed while he alone searches for Kairi. Until he can face the darkness inside his heart, Riku will be dominated by the beings who dwell within it.
Sora and Riku’s friend who always mediate the feud between the two. Although not blatantly, we see the boys’ romantic interest in Kairi. She disappears when darkness takes over Destiny Islands, and eventually, we discover that she is one of the Heart Princesses. Sora’s persistence to save her gives him strength, while Riku’s obsession flares his heart to the darkness.
Besides being one of Disney’s most famous characters, Donald Duck is the Royal Magician of Disney Castle in the Kingdom Hearts series. He maintains the same personality as in Disney cartoons and movies and his unmistakable voice. Donald employs powerful magic and is always willing to help Sora, as long as his agenda aids King Mickey. Rumor has it that Donald is the magician who conjured up the most powerful magic in all of Square Enix’s games.
Goofy is simply… Goofy. He serves as King Mickey’s Captain of the Royal Knights and is the support and tank of the trio. Along with his worldwide famous ah-hyuck!, Goofy is always cheerful and prefers peaceful solutions over engaging in battle. That is why he uses a shield instead of an offensive weapon. Despite his clumsy/patty ways, he often shares insights that help the party progress.
The king of Disney Castle does not appear until late in the game. Square had intended to make Mickey Mouse the game’s protagonist before settling on Sora. Although he’s not a present character in Kingdom Hearts, his figure is essential. King of the Disney Castle and also a Keyblade wielder, Mickey appears in the closing stages to help the group complete their mission.
Final Fantasy Characters
Occasionally you cross paths with one or another Final Fantasy character through the worlds of Kingdom Hearts. They act as supporting characters, help propel a specific narrative arc and elaborate a bit more on the game’s lore, but in the end, they are not directly involved in the clash of light against darkness. It’s as if they serve more as poster boys and girls to attract the audience that enjoys Final Fantasy. Well, it worked.
Each Disney world is populated by established characters from that setting. For example, in Agrabah, we see Aladdin, Jasmine, and Jafar; in Deep Jungle, we meet Tarzan, his family, and Jane. In Wonderland, we encounter Alice and the Queen of Hearts. These characters keep the youthful style to appeal to the Disney audience, even though they are involved in a narrative that would make a young person’s head combust. I know mine almost did.
Kingdom Hearts had the incredible minds of the Final Fantasy developers behind its gameplay and therefore carried several terminologies found in the franchise, such as spells and items names. But unlike the turn-based style of the fantasy franchise, Kingdom Hearts featured a more gracious hack’ n slash action RPG. The way I see it, Square wanted to experiment with what a Final Fantasy action would be like, so they used the system in Kingdom Hearts.
Three characters are involved in the battle, but only Sora is under our control, while the AI handles the others. Usually, our party is Sora, Donald, and Goofy. Each world we visit introduces a new character to the group, which we can use as long as we remain in the world. So when visiting Agrabah, we can swap Donald or Goofy for Aladdin. If any party member dies, he is incapacitated for a short period or until someone heals him. But if Sora dies, game over, baby.
As standard in RPGs, party members gain experience by defeating monsters. When a set amount is reached, they level up, evolving their attributes, HP and MP, and learning new skills. A menu similar to turn-based games in combat allows the player to use spells, items, and skills. Skill occurrences are sporadic and are dependent on your positioning and the enemy. Just remember to equip them before engaging in battle.
Players can also change the weapon, armor, and accessories for the characters in Kingdom Hearts and give them limited items to use in battle. The game features Summons that Square is famous for, but instead of summoning the towering monsters of Final Fantasy, here we call upon the aid of some of Disney’s favorite characters, such as Simba and Bambi.
To travel from world to world, we use the Gummi Ship, a ship made of legos that can be modified as you find or buy new parts. When you travel between worlds, you enter a different game mode similar to shoot ’em up. With a third-person perspective viewing the ship from behind, you must dodge debris and asteroids while discharging bullets at the heartless. It’s a nice change of pacing and becomes quite fun when you equip cataclysmic weapons that take out enemies before they even appear on the screen.
Later in the game, we unlock the Warp Drive, which allows us to travel between worlds without facing cosmic enemies all over again. However, if this is your first visit to a world, be prepared to venture out into the stars for an interstellar battle. For those who are lazy – or struggle to understand the gummi ship lego system like my younger self – the game gives you some ready-made designs so you can just buckle up and start firing away.
Kingdom Hearts Development
So, have you ever wondered how Disney and Square hooked up? Kingdom Hearts was a product derived of a mix between planning and serendipity, which according to the dictionary, means luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for (in this case, Square were looking, but not at the present moment of the good fortune.)
Shinji Hashimoto, producer of several Square Enix games and former brand manager for Final Fantasy, alongside Hironobu Sakaguchi, the sacrosanct father of Final Fantasy, discussed the possibility of creating a game similar to Super Mario 64’s style, with 3D free-motion. However, they were aware that to compete in the Japanese market against the jumping man would require a figure as iconic as, say, a Disney character.
Destiny or not, Hashimoto met a Disney executive on the elevator – Square and Disney had offices in the same building – and pitched the concept to them, which, fortunately, pleased Disney. At first, Square Enix wanted Mickey to be the protagonist while Disney vouched for Donald Duck. But Tetsuya Nomura suggested a unique character for the game, so Sora was born.
Disney’s former president, Bob Iger, allowed Square to use almost every Disney world in the game, as long as each character remained within their respective scenario. Nomura says that the game’s title inspiration came from Animal Kingdom, one of Disney’s theme parks. However, they couldn’t attain the IP Kingdom and changed the title. Kingdom Hearts was just a natural pick since hearts is a significant theme in the franchise.
Square Enix isn’t shy of re-releases, and Kingdom Hearts has received a remaster treatment and several re-releases. The first Kingdom Hearts re-release was titled Final Mix and available exclusively in Japan. The motive is simple: when Kingdom Hearts arrived in North America, the game came with additional content such as extra bosses, difficulty options, and a teaser for Kingdom Hearts II. The Final Mix version adds these contents to the Japanese version, as well as new music tracks, abilities, weapons, and enemies.
Later on, Kingdom Hearts arrived in a remastered version for PlayStation 3 with the name HD 1.5 Remix. The compilation contained both Kingdom Hearts Final Mix and Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, a GBA game. The collection also included cinematics from the DS game Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, illustrating the game’s events. This collection was essential to understand the events before the start of Kingdom Hearts II. Imagine someone playing Kingdom Heart I, then straight to II back in the days. I felt like I had slept through half the game because so much had happened when I started the second game, and I didn’t know where from.
Later on, more collections were released. One of them contained Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix, which helped recollect everything thus far to prepare for the arrival of Kingdom Hearts III. After Kingdom Hearts III was released, Square Enix announced yet another collection, the Kingdom Hearts All-In-One Package, which contains almost the entire series remastered.
Question: Is Kingdom Hearts’ story complex?
Answer: Yes and no. The problem with Kingdom Hearts, at the time, was that many players overlooked the handheld versions as canon. Not to mention the trouble of buying a new console. However, all Kingdom Hearts games are canon, even the DLCs. To make matters worse, the games were not released in chronological order of plot events.
So you have the release of Kingdom Hearts I, Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts II, sequentially. Then Square launched Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days which told a parallel story to Chain of Memories and before Kingdom Hearts II. Next came Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, a prequel to the lore. You can see where I’m getting at, right? Kingdom Hearts is much easier to understand today if played in the chronological order of events, something the compilation does masterfully.
And let’s face it, it’s much easier to follow the plotline of a game when its titles are categorical and not 1.5, 2.5, 2.8, 3,1416. Nomura loves to mess with our sanity.
Question: Should I Start with Kingdom Hearts 1?
Answer: Not only should you, but it’s your solemn obligation. As stated before, if you blink, you lose the narrative thread. There is no reason for you to play out of order with the various collections available and already arranged in chronological order of the game’s events. Unless you like mental breakdowns. In that case, have a blast.
Question: What are the choices at the beginning of Kingdom Hearts I?
Answer: The game asks you several questions similar to a personality test in the Kingdom Hearts I and Destiny Islands tutorial. While it does not change the outcome and core of the game in any way, your answers alter Sora’s attribute development, experience gain, and skill progression.
For instance, when he asks you to choose between sword, staff, or shield, it means you will have a boost on the attack, defense, or magic attributes, respectively. Consequently, when he asks you to choose a second weapon to sacrifice, it means that this one will be slightly lowered. This also influences how fast or slow you learn some skills. There are some variables, but it’s really on par with what you choose. If you choose the sword, you will learn melee skills more quickly. If you select the shield, you will learn defensive skills early on – highly recommended at harder difficulty levels. The same applies to the staff. Weapons also influence your initial item slots, ranging from six to eight.
After that, In Destiny Islands, when talking to the three Final Fantasy characters, Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie, they ask you cryptic questions to which you have three answers. In short, the answers influence how quickly you will level up in different game stages. If most of your choices are the first answer, the XP required to level up to level 50 is reduced. If it’s the second answer, the XP is balanced for all levels, and if it’s the third answer, the XP needed from level 50 upwards is reduced. If it’s one of each, you fall into the neutral category, which maintains an even XP requirement.
I recommend answering with the first options for those who are only doing a leisure playthrough and focusing on the story. If you are a trophy/achievement hunter and want to complete all the challenges in the game, the third answer will greatly slow down your grind. Regardless, you can always follow your heart and answer what you most identify with.
Question: Where can I play Kingdom Hearts?
Answer: Practically on all consoles and PC. Kingdom Hearts is available for the latest generation of PlayStation consoles, Xbox, Switch via Cloud and PC. There are several collections for those who want to just dip their toes on the water of hearts or dive in headfirst and all.
Kingdom Hearts is one of my favorite RPG franchises. I had the opportunity to revisit the games with their remastered versions. Older and more attentive, I grasped how rich and deep its lore is. The Disney setting, characters, and cartoonish design bestow a unique charm to the game. But, don’t be fooled. The plot dwells on mature subjects and will leave you with your feelings afloat, taking you by surprise in several moments.
Kingdom Hearts I is the gateway to this magical franchise. Although the game is more dragged and less-entertaining than the others, this doesn’t take away its merit as a great game. In fact, you don’t have to be a Final Fantasy or Disney fan to enjoy the game. Still, those familiar in both universes will undoubtedly have an enhanced experience.
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