Kingdom Hearts is a polarizing series to say the least. People seem to love it or hate it with few standing in between. I am no different except that I fall into both categories. While I am a fan of the series, I am also incredibly critical of it. So with Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance's release on the 3DS this last week in Japan, let's look back over the series as a whole from my personal point of view.
Kingdom Hearts (2002/PS2)
I came to Kingdom Hearts like many gamers, not for the Disney but for the Final Fantasy. A few pictures of a "Vincent-ized" Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII were enough to sell the game to me. Even then, I wasn't expecting much beyond fan-service until I saw the intro movie. The surrealist images mixed perfectly with Utada Hikaru's "Hikari" and made it a day one buy.
Even then the parallel universe sliding adventure was far different from what I expected—though not in a bad way. The Final Fantasy aspects were minimized to a few character cameos with the Disney worlds taking center stage. But for me, the voice acting was the game's highlight. With The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment, 7th Heaven's David Galleger and soon-to-be star of Heroes Hayden Panettiere—not to mention the cast of returning actors from various Disney movies—Kingdom Hearts had a perfect mix of new and nostalgic voice acting. Add to that a fun story with rich original characters and Kingdom Hearts was an amazing start to the series.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004/GBA)
Excited as I was for the next Kingdom Hearts—after the first's sequel-bait ending—the idea of a side story spin-off on the Game Boy Advance seemed a bit unrealistic. But as release grew near, Square Enix released a sample of the full motion videos found in the game. Full motion videos, on the GBA! I could not believe it. And on the release date I went down to GameStop, ready to pick it up, but after a glance at the back of the box—seeing the card battles and normal graphics—I passed on the game and returned home empty handed. It wasn't until a month before Kingdom Hearts II—a year-and-a-half later—that I actually picked up a copy.
The game was as disappointing as I expected. The battle system was little more than the card game War and the randomly generated levels were a bore. Very little was original with almost all the levels and bosses taken from Kingdom Hearts. The one highpoint of the game was the overarching story—introducing the player to new enemies and allies who would come to play a pivotal role in Kingdom Hearts II. But other than its addition to the series' lore, Chain of Memories was nothing but lackluster filler.
Kingdom Hearts II (2006/PS2)
Despite being in Japan when Kingdom Hearts II was released I opted to wait for the Western release four months later. I felt it was worth the wait to hear the excellent voice cast again—this time joined by Christopher Lee—and didn't want to miss a single plot point.
Luckily, compared to Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II was back on the right track. Most of the Disney worlds were new and additions to the gameplay made for a tighter, faster, and more enjoyable experience. The plot continued the story begun in Chain of Memories and was an excellent counterpoint to the first game. If there was any problem with Kingdom Hearts II it was that it didn't diverge from its PS2 predecessor enough. The magic system seemed more and more useless and most battles could be won by simply mashing the attack button.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (2009/DS)
By the time 358/2 Days was released in Japan, I had already played it at several trade shows and was pleasantly optimistic. Following the villains of Kingdom Hearts II and set before the start of that game, it seemed the perfect setting for a character driven side story focusing on their motivations.
Upon my first playthrough, I really liked 358/2 Days, but over the years that followed, my opinion has changed completely. Like Chain of Memories before it, little of the gameplay was original. Many locations were not only reused from Kingdom Hearts II but were also repeatedly visited throughout 358/2 Days itself. Graphically, I was impressed with how good it looked on the Nintendo DS—at least until I compared it and Kingdom Hearts II side-by-side. Even the story had more than its share of problems. Confusing direction and a nearly nonsensical story undercut the excellent character development of the three main characters.
But if the game had one strong point, it was the idea of co-op multiplayer in a Kingdom Hearts title. And while the campaign could not be played completely with a team, most levels were replayable with up to four friends. In the end though, 358/2 Days was a disappointment.
Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep (2010/PSP)
From the first trailer Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep looked to be back on the right track. As a prequel, nearly everything was original: three new characters, completely new Disney worlds and a stream of new villains. And with the PSP's processing power, it was looking to be less a side story and more a major addition to the Kingdom Hearts mythos.
And that's exactly what it turned out to be. The way the plot was directed locked the player into the viewpoint of one of the three playable characters, letting them know only what their character knew. Thus you could only get the full story by playing the game three times, once as each character—which then unlocked the end of the game. While there was more than a bit of retread, this narrative technique kept the game from dragging and paid off in the end by having three distinct and likable characters. The gameplay of Birth By Sleep also brought the series up to a higher standard by finally fixing the imbalances found in Kingdom Hearts II. The game was simply fast, furious, and fun to play.
Of course, the real highlight of the game was the appearance of Alan Young (of Mr. Ed fame) back in his greatest role of the past 30 years, Scrooge McDuck. Seriously, ask any child of the 80s or 90s. They'll agree with me.
Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (2011/DS)
From the moment I heard about Re:coded I was worried. A remake of an episodic cellphone game, I was sure it would be limited in scope as well as relevance. I had played the cellphone title at several trade shows as well and the gameplay, while fine for a non-smartphone, would be a joke on a true gaming system.
And while the gameplay had been updated to a psuedo-Birth By Sleep battle system, the game was both bland and terribly redundant. Including remakes, the Disney worlds of the first Kingdom Hearts had been visited a total of five times at this point, with Re:coded bringing the total up to six. Moreover, all it did to further the mythos was to explain a single plot point from the ending of Kingdom Hearts II. In every way this game was just a waste of time.
The Series as a Whole
So what have I learned by playing the Kingdom Hearts series? The games are capable of being great or terrible and rarely anything in between. On the plus side, problems and outdated mechanics do get fixed eventually and Square Enix isn't shy to try out a few new ideas in each iteration. On the other hand, for every original game in the series there is a cash-in title that adds little or squanders its possibilities.
But the question remains. How will Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance turn out? Will it break new ground or is it simply another rehash? Stay tuned to Kotaku over the coming week to find out.