Few developers do nostalgia better than Square Enix (or Squaresoft, as they were known back in 2002). With Kingdom Hearts, the Japanese makers of gaming’s biggest RPG franchise (Final Fantasy) teamed up with the masters of Western animation, Disney, to form a partnership that is still going strong to this day.
Visually, the game is very much informed by Disney, while scriptwriting duties were left to Square. They weaved a rather mature story revolving around the evil Heartless, who are invading different worlds within the game’s fictional universe. You can travel between these worlds in your ‘Gummi ship’.
Yes, the game is much more mature than the innocent look and feel of it would have you believe, I promise you. In a way, this juxtaposition of your colourful childhood memories with an invasion of scary creatures feeding off the darkness in people’s hearts was the game’s greatest strength. It never deviates from its intended style, retaining Disney production values throughout, yet Square also worked in original elements to complement Disney worlds such as Deep Jungle, Olympus Coliseum and Atlantica, based on Tarzan, Hercules and The Little Mermaid respectively.
Those original elements include main protagonist Sora and his friends Riku and Kairi, as well as antagonist Ansem. While the story centres on these four, it is their interaction with the worlds around them that gives the game its unique flavour. The game certainly feels more Disney than Final Fantasy, with traditional RPG elements toned down in favour of a more action-adventure orientated approach which drives you through events in an enjoyable 50-60 hours of gameplay.
If any criticism could be made, it would be that the game almost goes by too quickly. You’re rarely given the chance to stop and simply enjoy the diverse atmosphere of each world, and although you can travel back to previous worlds at any time, they are not expansive enough to hold your interest after you’ve completed all relevant tasks there. This is no Disney GTA you’re getting here, but most people would take sublime storytelling over a sandbox-focused game that would take three more years to make anyway.
Production values are further enhanced by Hollywood voice acting in Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I.) as Sora, and Hayden Panettiere (who would go on to play cheerleader Claire Bennet in Heroes) playing Kairi. Mark Hamill, Leonard Nimoy and even Christopher Lee have also graced the series with their talents.
It would be surpassed by its sequel, but there’s little doubt that this original holds the fondest nostalgic memories for many gamers worldwide. If only Square Enix could stop making Final Fantasy sequels long enough to bring us the long-delayed Kingdom Hearts 3…