For those of you who enjoy remembering your childhood memories and the awesome games you used to play, I just finished playing Kingdom Hearts. A friend recommended it to me, saying that it was THE classic of the sixth generation gaming. Now that I’m able to look back on playing Kingdom Hearts myself, I have to say that the game itself wasn’t that great. It has a major “cinematic” problem, and the gameplay suffers.
Let me start off by talking about the success of the game’s beginning. When the opening cut-scene ends and the player gains control over the protagonist (Sora), the game speaks to the player in the second person. Sora occasionally makes a remark, but for the most part his comments just direct the players to what they are supposed to be doing.
The fact that Sora is a fairly blank slate at this stage sets the standard for the player and the playable character to be considered one entity. It allows a player to become much more immersed in the atmosphere, and the narration of the scene with remarks like, “You are the one who will open the door,” is a wonderful way to make sure a player feels connected to the game.
The level of customization adds to this effect too, when the player chooses his or her stats and answers personal questions. This personalizes the character, and the player is able to pick and choose some of the traits of the protagonist. The game practically justifies itself for making the protagonist and the player one force through this customization, because customization gives the player the feeling that the protagonist is unique in a way that Sora is who the player made him to be.
Where the problems arise are the times when Sora opens his mouth. It’s here that most of what the game accomplished, in terms of making sure the character and player are one entity, is shattered. This is like a stab in the back to the player, telling him or her that they have no place in the story because they are controlling someone with a pre-set persona. The idea that the protagonist is “customizable” is no longer relevant in these particular situations because the game is trying to sell players a protagonist that has already been customized in every way for them.
Another problem is the length of the exposition. The introduction is drawn out much longer than it should be. Between the lengthy tutorial, the drawn out cut scenes, the scavenging for random items, and the rematch with the tutorial’s boss, it can take almost one and a half hours before the player reaches Traverse Town, the place where the main plot and gameplay begin to pick up. I’ve complained about lengthy introductions before, but this seems to be one of the worst; it’s enough to ruin the game for those who don’t like to be kept waiting to get to the core part of the story or gameplay.
In addition, the central motivation to progress through the game is that the player is supposed to be saving Sora’s love interest: Kairi. We only see her for about an hour at the beginning however, before she just disappears for the majority of the game. (This is more a symptom of bad plotting than anything else.) Because of this very short time-frame we have to get to know her, she falls incredibly short of being a character we actually care about. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but when she does appear again, she isn’t developed any further. This disconnects the 2 protagonists from the motivation of progressing through the game. One might argue that another motivation is that the player is saving the world. Unfortunately, the cliché of the “go save the world” quest, see also Skyrim, Final Fantasy, and Diablo II, has been so overused that I could care less.
Then there’s the Disney element. About 80% of the plots of the worlds you visit and their related set pieces are ripped straight from old Disney movies. This is one of the biggest let downs I’ve ever seen in a video game, because SPOILER ALERT! Jafar turns into a genie. Ursula steals the trident. Clayton wants to hunt down the gorillas. Basically, if you’ve seen the films these plots come from, you already know the coming twists and story lines, which ruins the thrill of exploring these worlds. Apparently creating original story content in this game wasn’t that big of a priority in the development cycle. The extent of the main plot comes at the beginning and the end. It should be noted that the main plot was interesting, but it felt suppressed due to the massive amount of Disney sub-plots that had very little to do with the main story.
I don’t want anyone thinking that I dislike the idea of a Disney video game. What could have made this a lasting success however was if Kingdom Hearts expanded on the Disney characters and tied them into the main plot in other ways than just “the villains control the heartless.” Maleficent is an excellent example of this. You don’t have to know the part she played in Sleeping Beauty, but there were nice, indirect references that appealed to those who did know who Maleficent is. Her character in the game also expanded upon what we previously knew about her, and she directly impacted the central story events . Unlike most of the other Disney villains in the game, removing her would have resulted in major repercussions and problems in terms of the plot.
In terms of the gameplay, it was alright; I’ve played better hack and slash titles before. To be honest, I think the developers needed to find a better way to make battle more engaging in ways other than just frantic key tapping and the occasional magic spell. There were no combos to perform, and the options of attack were kept in the small. Gameplay never expands as you progress through the game either. In addition, your main party members, Donald and Goofy, are useless. Donald just heals the wounded (mostly himself), and Goofy runs around with a shield trying to live another day. It feels like the characters of Donald and Goofy were added not for gameplay purposes, but for the sake of being main characters in a Disney game. Overall, the gameplay came off as if the developers were doing the bare minimum, and then just a little more.
Aside from that, I would like to address the difficulty. Most difficult games like Dark Souls are difficult because they mean to create a more realistic and mature atmosphere. Others like the Mario series are easy because they are light-hearted. Due to the fact that Kingdom Hearts derives a lot of its source material from Disney themes, the difficulty of the game seems out of place. Making players feel frustrated in an atmosphere made up of cartoons didn’t work very well, and it disrupted the flow of the cartoonish theme. I’m not saying I dislike difficult games, but I would like to see difficulty match the atmosphere more often.
So, those are my thoughts on Kingdom Hearts. Will I be playing Kingdom Hearts II anytime soon? Probably not. When I said I “finished” Kingdom Hearts, I more or less just stopped playing. I held out until Neverland, and then decided that I was too bored to continue. I think what we can learn from all of this is that original content is incredibly important, because rehashing the stories we knew as a kid gets old. An over emphasis on story also takes away compelling gameplay that defines the genre of “video games” to begin with. From a publisher’s standpoint, nostalgia makes for some great game sales, but from my gaming standpoint, nostalgic games like Kingdom Hearts simply fail to bring any new experiences to the table that create a compelling game.