Poll Winner: KINGDOM HEARTS
Its a common trend that video games that feature movie or cartoon characters turn out to be poor quality, typically due to a rushed development window and because the dev studio has to spend a sizable chunk of their budget solely on acquiring the rights to the character(s). Kingdom Hearts was one of the first games to feature popular film or cartoon established characters but be of superb quality. It weaves an interesting storyline, involves popular Disney characters and has refined action JRPG elements that Square Enix has become known for over the years. Since its release in 2002 Kingdom Hearts has sold 20 million copies and is in the top 10 of PS2 game sales.
Kingdom Hearts is a shining example of how to properly use popular, established characters in your game. It does that in a few different ways. Disney characters are not forced on the player, in fact the player doesn’t control any Disney characters at all during the game. Instead they control Sora, a brand new figure in the Square universe. The Disney characters also are very true to their personality displayed in their respective movie settings, with good integration of popular scenes, landmarks and side characters. Lastly Square Enix nails the integration of Disney characters by using an animated art style that looks similar to what we remember from their films while simultaneously having a Kingdom Hearts feel and style. Kingdom Hearts‘ soundtrack is a good example actually. When visiting Tarzan’s world the tracks that play are not reused tracks from the movie, they’re all original. But they have great use of drums and pacing that properly recaptures the spirit and atmosphere of that movie while still being unique to Kingdom Hearts. The art style is very beautiful and uses a wide color palette and smooth edges. It feels similar to most other Square games of the PS2 era, but the Disney vibe is definitely tangible and utilized well. Like most Square titles, there are a ton of well polished cutscenes that feature spectacular voice acting (Haley Joel Osment is the main character for Christs Sakes!) and lots of dialogue.
The gameplay of Kingdom Hearts is at its base your standard fare of action JRPG. Typical spells like Cure, Fire, Slow, etc are used. There are summons, health bars, mana bars, so on and so forth. It doesn’t do anything new, what it does is use established systems and adds Disney flare to them. What’s great about that is Kingdom Hearts is almost like a “My First Action JRPG” type of game because it gives you the basic mechanics you can expect from other games in the genre in a form that is easy to learn and comprehend. I think that’s a great direction to go with Kingdom Hearts because there were surely several gamers drawn to this game that don’t have extensive histories with JRPGs, solely because of the Disney involvement. Hooking those players on JRPG mechanics and teaching them the basics of them is genius because several of those gamers will be able to now pick up and enjoy the other titles that Square makes.
Combat can feel stale at times, particularly at the beginning of the game, but as Sora learns new combos and techniques things start to open up a bit more. The platforming aspects of the game I found to be fun and a nice brief break from the combat. Bosses are a blast, usually are Disney themed and present unique challenges. Many are memorable and inspired. Fighting the Tiger’s head in the sand from Aladdin and fighting the gigantic mega-powered Ursula from Little Mermaid were great examples as the fun of the combat is also supplemented by the nostalgia aspect of the respective movies. The worlds are extremely well done and each presents new mechanics. The difference between Atlantis and Halloweentown for example are huge. Speaking of Halloweentown it was easily my favorite level. Even though I don’t care much for the movie its inspired from I loved it in Kingdom Hearts because of the addition of spooky costumes for my trio of characters, the art style of the world and the personality of the side characters.
Kingdom Hearts was one of the most beloved video games ever and its for good reason. Square Enix took popular characters and integrated them perfectly into the RPG systems they have mastered over decades of development. This game is a must play for any gamer of any age and fans of any genres. You don’t need to be a fan of Disney or RPGs to enjoy it, but it will certainly help if you are.