I can't explain the story, but I can try to explain my feelings.
2020 has changed me as a gamer. I've reached that point in my life where I'm only a few years away from my thirties and there's so much I've yet to play. My backlog is so huge to the point that the events of 2020 delaying a lot of upcoming games has given me a chance to catch up. One franchise I had yet to play was Final Fantasy, and this year alone I've beaten around seven or eight individual Final Fantasy games; I had found a love for a franchise I never knew existed in me. While that in itself is an article for another time, what I was surprised to learn is that a game series I had previously tried before my Final Fantasy binge, named Kingdom Hearts, was actually some sort of sub-spin off to the franchise. On the 26th June 2020, I decided to play Kingdom Hearts again for the first time since 2017... and on the 18th July 2020, I had finished Kingdom Hearts 3.
The purpose of this article is to document some of my thoughts around each iteration of every game in the order I played them. What I went through was essentially every item in "The Story so Far..." collection, which the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 & 2.5 collections and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Hours Prologue, as well as the latest instalment Kingdom Hearts 3. If you want to see how I would personally rank each title, including the movies, you can find that at the bottom of this (rather enormous) article.
WARNING: There may be some odd spoilers here and there; this article is more for people who have played Kingdom Hearts, but if you're curious, go ahead and read, you probably won't even remember the spoilers anyway if you decide to take the plunge like I did.
Kingdom Hearts (2002)
To reiterate what I said before, yes I originally tried playing Kingdom Hearts in 2017. I got as far as beating Wonderland, then got to Olympus and just gave up. I was frustrated due to the control system, and in some ways it still held true when playing in 2020. I hated that, in PlayStation 4 / Xbox One order, Attack was X / A, Jump was Circle / B and dodge was Square / X. Don't get me wrong, I understand why (because in Japan on the PlayStation 2, Circle was "Confirm" or "Jump" for most games), but for a western player it screwed with my mind since we often use different controls than this. At this point I actually manually changed what buttons did what within my own console's menus since Square Enix neglected to allow you to do this in-game, though it would still be confusing when I'd be told to press one button but I actually had to press another.
Once I was past that however, I properly began my journey down the rabbit hole. Enemies and bosses I had previously struggled with in 2017 were becoming a cake walk (no joke, the Trickmaster was one of the reasons I stopped playing originally), and so I was actually breezing through a lot of the worlds. The story to me was a little bit outlandish; it would confuse me how okay Sora, the main protagonist, just seemed to be when he'd encounter what he did instead of freaking out. He was thrown into darkness and then met a talking duck and dog for the first time and then went to other worlds with other weird things happening, how could he not be going insane? I tried to suspended my disbelief that this was, after all, a different universe to ours.
However as I progressed through the story I began to understand what people had been talking about regarding how complex it was... and then I realised I'm still on the first damn game. The way characters would talk about darkness and light as if it were a normal thing to talk about was just outright bizarre, but truth be told it was still rather compelling to the point I wanted to see where it would go, especially since the gameplay had hooked me at this point. There were some frustrating moments in the gameplay don't get me wrong (I spent half an hour trying to get through the vines in the Deep Jungle only to realise I had to press a certain button and not jump with blind luck), but most enemies and bosses challenged me similar to games like Dark Souls did, and so in some ways I felt at home.
Kingdom Hearts: Re: Chain of Memories (2007)
I'm going to say something which many people might be shocked to hear: I actually enjoyed Re: Chain of Memories. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to be infuriated about with the game and there were some things I did dislike, but I don't think there was ever a time I truly HATED my time with it. I think in some cases it helped me put the pieces of the first game together as you were going through the exact same worlds... except it was a card game? I had seen many people say they skipped this game purely due to the fact it was a card game which utilised RNG, but I persisted.
If you don't know already or you perhaps skipped the game, you fight enemies by using numbered cards, and for your attack to get through you have to use higher numbered cards than the enemy. However what people struggle with is that the enemies can be fast to use cards, and often its just blind luck you can use a higher numbered card than them. For me personally, usually I was able to get through most encounters by just spamming cards. It wasn't until the final few worlds I realised I needed to combine cards to create more powerful abilities called "sleights" (previously I didn't really use them). I think one of the reasons I didn't hate my time with the game is due to how easily cheesed the game can be... as long as RNG doesn't screw you over, which for me it didn't. Seriously, Blitz, Sonic Blade and Lethal Frame sleights essentially break the game to the point you can beat four minute long bosses within a minute including the final boss. Perhaps if the game wasn't so cheesable, maybe I would have hated my time with it more. I will say it was a chore in the final world when I didn't have enough cards to unlock the 99 door and had to go grinding for more, but it didn't spoil my experience overall.
As I said before the story helped me to understand the first game more, even if the direct plots aren't exactly mentioned in it. What people often forget is this is also where we are first introduced to the original Organisation XIII (that is if you played the 2004 GameBoy Advanced version, it would be Kingdom Hearts 2 that would of introduced most people at the time of release). Each member felt so rightfully different and the mystery around who they were had me wanting to play the game faster so I could learn more about them. I do think the game could have done without the Riku rebirth you get to play at the end though; yes it was short but you're telling me I have to play through the same levels for technically a THIRD TIME? The one thing that surprised me though was that RE: Chain of Memories was actually a follow on to the first game and not a spin off. This was where things started to slot into place: it was true... each non-mainline game really is part of the whole story.
Kingdom Hearts II (2006)
This is where I began to feel so many different things, as I'm sure many others did. My time so far with the franchise up to this point was a mixture of enjoyment, frustration and confusion. I'm not saying I didn't feel any of that during my time with Kingdom Hearts 2, however almost every issue I had with the first game was erased here. While for the first game I had to use a guide to find out what the heck I was supposed to do most of the time, I didn't need to here thank goodness. Things felt so much fresher, slicker, bigger and honestly playing Re: Chain of Memories first really helped me understand things a lot clearer, especially for who the hell this boy I was playing as for the first three hours of the game was (for context: you don't start out as Sora! Well you do but... I... It's complicated!).
That's not to say I was entirely understanding what was actually happening most of the time. I think the problem Kingdom Hearts has is that it uses the same names to mean the same thing. Members of Organization XIII are "Nobodies" and you also fight these creatures called... Nobodies. But Organization XIII look human while these stretchy ones I fight aren't... why exactly? It obviously got clearer as I went on, but then the game actually started me sympathising with the villains. To me, all it seemed they wanted was a heart, and honestly I wanted to just let them. Of course it was never that simple, but the last time something made me understand and agree with a villain's perspective is Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.
One of the highlights of the game is absolutely the boss battles; each and every one feels so cleverly and expertly crafted. No boss fight I encountered seemed to be a rehash of another in the game. Some fights did begin to break me of course, but when I did finally beat a certain boss, as weird as it sounds I honestly couldn't wait for the next one. The one that's stuck with me the most is Xigbar's fight. He's so fast and it's such a challenge to try and reach him before he teleport's away and dodge his numerous bolts. At first when he was spam shooting me, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to dodge them. But when it clicked on how to, oh, it felt so satisfying to dodge.
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (2009)
Kingdom Hearts II is where I confirmed to myself I wanted to be on this ride until the very end. However when it first came to 358/2 Days, that's when I began to question if I REALLY wanted to go the distance. For some reason the idea of playing a full game was fine, but just watching a three hour movie of the DS game? I wasn't entirely sure. A lot of what I had read online about it was that the movie can be difficult to appreciate because you don't have the gameplay. In the end for me though: this movie is where I truly began to fall in love with the franchise.
The movie shows you and tells you everything you need to know. From what I can see as far as gameplay, there was a lot of backtracking through the same worlds as the first Kingdom Hearts, and the movie removed a lot of the unnecessary fluff. A lot of the movie is, admittedly, just a lot of sitting around and talking. But sometimes that's exactly what you just need as it helps you actually get to grips with a characters emotions. With Sora, for me it seems he never really got to stop and actually think about how he feels. Here with Axel, Roxas and Xion, you felt it all. You felt their bond, you felt their hardships, you felt their anger. It helped you answer the question of if they actually have a heart before you even learn the answer in the later games.
There's a scene late into the movie where (and I did say spoilers) Roxas defeated Xion in battle, but because Xion was just a puppet based off of Roxas (who is Sora's Nobody), the line was so thin she shouldn't have really existed. This meant that when she died, everyone forgot who she was. When Roxas says the infamous line "who else will I have ice-cream with", I actually began to tear up as it put a weird perspective on my life. When I die, will I be so easily forgotten? Will anybody remember me? Imagine dying knowing that everyone you cared about will not even give a second thought about you just because... they can't help it. I appreciate 358/2 Days because it characterised Roxas and Axel. Some people's favourite Kingdom Hearts trio are Sora, Riku and Kairi, others it's Ventus, Terra and Aqua. For me, it's Axel, Roxas and Xion all the way.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (2010)
Speaking of Ventus, Terra and Aqua, we arrive at Birth By Sleep. Now earlier in the article I mentioned how I manually changed the controls to fit my play style, but when I got to this game I decided to play with the controls the developers intended and, honestly. it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be to adjust. The only problem I did have was playing other games like Apex Legends in between play sessions... what I thought was jump in Apex Legends (because of Kingdom Hearts controls being hardwired in my brain) would just be crouch.
What interested me about Birth By Sleep is how it was essentially a prequel, so it allowed me to take a breather on the complexity of the games I had just played. Obviously Birth By Sleep held it's own series of weird nooks and crannies, but if you were just starting out in the franchise, I don't see any reason why this one couldn't be your first. Sure you might not get some of the references to earlier games, but overall it tells its own story. It was actually kind of enjoyable to piece together each characters' storyline too, even if personally I felt it a bit of a chore to go through the same worlds three times, but at least each character often had one or two new sections to explore.
As most would probably say, the best playthrough would have to be Aqua's as her skill set offered up a decent challenge and, honestly, she's the only character that didn't annoy the heck out of me, even if I do still care about Ventus and Terra in my own way. There was actually a surprising amount of Disney characters here as well, and I think the reason for me Birth By Sleep will have a special place is because most of the worlds resonate with my own childhood, while other games' Disney world's didn't as much. What interested me the most about Birth By Sleep though is how on earth they managed to get Mark Hamill and Leonard Nimoy to portray characters for a PSP game... not a mainline console game, a handheld game. Sure for Mark Hamill it was pre the Star Wars sequel trilogy, but I'd absolutely love to know how both actors ended up attached to the project.
Kingdom Hearts: Re: Coded (2010)
Those thoughts I had about the idea of watching a three hour Kingdom Hearts movie should have been reserved for this. I had read about Re: Coded in that the majority of it was just fluff and filler and you could skip the majority of it. I was actually half ready to just watch a condensed version of the film on YouTube if it weren't for the themes that you'd earn for watching it. But I gave it a chance. After all they took DS footage and remastered it for the collection so they put some effort into it, and so I sat through the entire movie... and I'll never get those three hours back.
People say that Dream Drop Distance is where things began going off the rails a bit, but I'd have to disagree and say it was here. You're telling me a machine in Mickey's office was able to recreate entire worlds based off of a few words in Jiminy's journal? I can suspend my disbelief for some things about Kingdom Hearts, but this? Not only that, but because Data Sora had his mind wiped, he had to have the same things explained to him TWICE. To make things even crazier, he's just... happy with it? "Hey my minds about to be wiped because I'm just data, I'm not real, oh well here we go"... It's insane!
Even with that said, the movie essentially does little to nothing to add to the overall plot, which sounds like a weird thing to complain about, but if you're going to establish your spin offs are critical to the main plot, don't make an entire game where only five percent of the game/movie is actually relevant and important. That said, I'm glad it acknowledged the "Thank Namine" plot thread that had been around since Chain of Memories, even if Data Sora thanking Data Namine wasn't the real deal. It really just made me smile and warmed my heart.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (2012)
If you've got this far in the article, congratulations. You've now reached the game I'm sure you see many people complain about for many reasons and the same things are said over and over again by each person... and I'm no exception. A lot of the Disney worlds actually bored me. For example, Tron in Kingdom Hearts II was actually interesting because you had Tron as a companion actually explaining the world. Tron here... what was even happening? I'm sure if you've watched Tron: Legacy recently it would make sense, but hell I haven't seen that movie in years and I was completely lost. We haven't even got to the Kingdom Hearts plot!
The Kingdom Hearts plot was complex enough as it is with all the different characters and their Nobodies and Heartless versions, where you actually find out the Organisation members who died became whole again and keeping track of that, but then you add time travel and expect us to keep track of when each person who did time travel is from? Up until this game I had managed to "just" keep myself up to day on who was who, but then this game threw all my work out the window.
Even certain aspects of the gameplay infuriated me; the Dream Eaters barely helped in my fights (not that I bothered too much in creating better ones), and what was the point of the drop feature? One might argue it helps give the other character better stats after the drop, but it felt like dropping barely impacted gameplay, only to be a nuisance? I hated it so much that I would just use Drop-me-Not's until Riku or Sora had beaten a world or two. One final point I want to make: that final boss on Riku's playthrough made me scream over the difficulty, and I was playing on standard mode. I finally succeeded after almost two hours but my god, I'm glad I never have to touch the game again.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage (2017)
A Fragmentary Passage was a nice surprise. Not only would I be playing as Aqua again, but it used a brand new engine for the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Going through the entire game series with PlayStation 2 graphics within a matter of weeks and then see graphics change to the current generation technology blew my mind wide open. Little did I know that the best was yet to come but the sheer level of detail put into what is essentially a two to three hour demo is commendable.
I love achievements and trophies, so the fact that you can earn in game achievements to unlock different costumes and rewards for Aqua just spoke to me and it encouraged me to explore my surroundings. There were some small issues I did have with it though, especially with how floaty the gameplay felt? I also disliked I had to beat the same boss twice, as well as a rehashed boss from the first game twice as well, but I can somewhat give it a pass since it seemed like it was trying to be a tech demo, but also be relevant to the plot.
Speaking of the plot, I don't know if I totally believe the fact that Aqua was there when Sora, Riku and Mickey shut the first door to Kingdom Hearts and then you learn Mickey didn't ever bring it up "out of respect" for Aqua after Yen Sid told him not to. I know Nomura was trying to shoehorn it into the plot to bring Aqua into the main plot again, but it didn't work for me, especially when in Kingdom Hearts 3 (spoiler again) it showed that Aqua would have rather of been saved sooner rather than later. Mickey and Yen Sid are the true villains of A Fragmentary Passage in my eyes.
Kingdom Hearts: X Back Cover (2017)
While 358/2 Days had me engrossed throughout the three hours and Re: Coded had me bored throughout the three hours, Back Cover actually had me wanting more over its one hour runtime. I essentially watched it over the course of a work lunch break, and if Disney are planning a Kingdom Hearts TV series, I honestly hope it's to flesh out these characters more because by god I need more of the Master of Masters in my life.
Back Cover is obviously a different perspective approach to the mobile game Kingdom Hearts X. Prior to watching the movie I did download it's updated version, Kingdom Hearts Union X Dark Road, which comes with the game the movie's plot is based around. At the time of writing, I've played about nine missions, and while I may continue, I don't know if I care all that much about it?
After I watched the movie though, I essentially watched another hour long video on YouTube of someone explaining the events of the mobile game and honestly, I'd just recommend that instead of playing the game itself. That's not to say the movie wasn't in any way interesting because it was, but again that was mostly because of the Master of Masters and just how compelling of a character he is with his weird idea to create the Foretellers as well as send Luxu off with his sword that see's the future. It's just a weird idea that messes with your head in a good way and I love it.
Kingdom Hearts III (2019)
The reason I jumped on the Kingdom Hearts train was because of this game. Although I'm a year late to the party, every now and then I would see some gameplay and it drew me in. When I had finally finished Back Cover, I gave myself a final recap of the plot of everything in Kingdom Hearts. I prepared for the unexpected, even the confusing time travel. I then inserted Kingdom Hearts 3 into my console. For someone who had played every game over the course of a month compared to someone over the course of nearly two decades, I was not disappointed.
This was my game, because while every other game maybe had one or two Disney properties that related to my childhood, every Disney world in Kingdom Hearts 3 resonated with me (with the exception of Hercules). Every world put a big old smile on my face; hell even with Frozen when you see Sora just standing there reacting to Elsa singing "Let It Go" had me in stitches. What amazed me the most is how incredibly detailed these worlds were. For each Disney world except Pirates and Hercules, I could not believe how it looked almost identical to the movies.
The game also wasn't hard for me by any means; I decided to play on Standard mode (because I'm a wimp and because Dream Drop Distance broke me) and I probably only died about three times compared to the other numbered titles. I think what was somewhat decent about the game is that they keep the Kingdom Hearts plot to a minimum until the end, and then when you do get there is almost an Avengers: Endgame level reunion that is just beautiful (both Kingdom Hearts 3 and Endgame came out in the same year so I'm sure this game was a great unintentional precursor). What was also incredibly is how Nomura seemed to remember a small detail most of us forgot about, for example with Axel remembering a boy named Ventus who looked just like Roxas! After my almost one month journey, I felt satisfied by the conclusion. Everyone has their favourite Kingdom Hearts game, and honestly, I think for me this is the one.
I do not regret this journey. I've laughed, I've cheered, I've cringed (mostly at the cheesy dialogue), I've screamed in anger and I've even cried. Very rarely does a video game create an emotional impact as much as this franchise did for me. I think it certainly helped that I played all the games within a month because if I took major breaks in between each game, I'd probably have lost a lot more of the plot than I actually did, so I feel bad for everyone to waited over a decade for a resolution and tried to keep up.
I wish I came to this franchise sooner and wish I could have joined the hype train surrounding Kingdom Hearts 3; as a child I did sometimes see Kingdom Hearts games on the shelves in my local Woolworths store, but never jumped on board then... but I'm glad I'm here now. As promised, you're probably curious as to how I'd rank each title, even though it's probably obvious what my favourite is. What I'll do is that the movies will take the bottom three spots since they technically don't really count in this list, but would still like to rank them from worst to best.
10. Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded
Not entirely sure what the point of this was, I was bored for most of it and it did almost nothing to further the story.
9. Kingdom Hearts: X Back Cover
Some of the characters were very entertaining, I just wish I got to see more instead of just one hour of this world.
8. Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days
This movie broke me as a person and also made me realise how much I actually like Axel as a character, even though I didn't so much in Re: Chain of Memories.
7. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance
I didn't understand certain aspects of the gameplay and the plot just went in a weird direction that over-complicated an already over-complicated franchise.
6. Kingdom Hearts: RE: Chain of Memories
Honestly not as bad as people were making it out to be but probably because RNG was kind to me.
5. Kingdom Hearts
Disliked it when I first played it in 2017, but in 2020 I found a new appreciation for it. It feels like so long ago since I last played it when it's not even been a full month.
4. Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage
Might be controversial to put what is essentially a three hour demo over the first full mainline game, but because this was fresher, cleaner and slicker, I just preferred it more.
3. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Birth By Sleep was a weird nostalgia trip even though the references were from games I had only played days prior. For example seeing young Axel as Lea was just the cherry on top for me.
2. Kingdom Hearts 2
Improved upon everything on the first Kingdom Hearts game and the bosses were some of the best I've played in a video game as they were so cleverly designed; I hadn't enjoyed boss battles like this for a long time.
1. Kingdom Hearts 3
This was the game that spoke to me more than the others. Almost every world brought me back to feeling like a child again, and the ending couldn't have been a more satisfying conclusion and has me excited for the future of the franchise... though I'm unsure about the Rhythm game, but I guess it was inevitable one day.
God knows how long my Final Fantasy article will be one day when I come to finish all the games.