Kingdom Hearts is a game I knew that I would discuss very early on. It’s interesting because it polarizes gamers so much that it’s genuinely hard to write an unbiased review. Luckily for me I’m completely biased and I can say whatever the hell I want. Another thing doing this game early does is allows me to examine a prominent game designer that I will probably reference nonstop: Tetsuya Nomura.
Nomura is a current Square Enix dude who has roots in character and monster design. His work first started showing up discernibly in FFV where he was the lead monster designer (otherwise known as the FF where the monsters started to look retarded). It was so bad that my friend and I while playing through this game together started saying “thanks, Nomura” every time a stupid new monster appeared. Apparently his work was so phenomenal that the guys upstairs couldn’t promote him fast enough. What he is now is essentially the lead character designer for most major Final Fantasy’s (7, 8, 10, 13) and a game director with a series to call his own (KH) as well as a couple Final Fantasy spin-offs (Advent Children and Versus XIII).
I frequently tie the fall of the great SquareSoft to two specific things: The merge with Enix and Tetsuya Nomura. This man embodies nearly everything I think has begun to plague SE and Japanese RPGs. His exaggerated art style coupled with his absolute insistence on creating something pop-culture and hip have done the exact opposite of his desired result, made everything he does seemed contrived. I’ll make a list of things that are pretty ‘Nomura’. He didn’t necessarily invent all of these things, but he sure does whore them out constantly.
3. Ambiguous relationship between characters that more or less never goes anywhere. Remember FFIV? People in that game were in a relationship. Rosa and Cecil. Like it wasn’t some ’are they, aren’t they’. It just was.
So if you were to track the Final Fantasy franchise you would see a very clear line of change right at FF7. That was the exact moment at which FF became more about this bullshit list and less about adventure and imagination. I’m not saying it’s all Nomura of course, but I will say that the fact that his particular brand became so immensely popular was a huge reason why they continued to go in that direction.
So let’s enter the realm of Kingdom Hearts. Despite everything I just said I will admit that I do like this game. It seems hypocritical sure, but the original Kingdom Hearts seems like it was more than just Nomura doing whatever the fuck he wanted, and I appreciated that. I get the sense that they weren’t just letting him run wild because they didn’t know exactly what they had on their hands yet. The Disney partnership scared people off right away and they were introducing what they would eventually call one of the three pillars of the company.
Originally what KH did for me personally was show me that (at least for the time being) Square was willing to try something new. This wasn’t a rehash or reboot of an old franchise, nor was it a sequel in any capacity (qualities I really appreciate). Looking back on it now it almost feels exactly like your favorite band’s first album, before they really figured everything out but unmatched in it’s sort of raw exploration of itself. What I saw from Kingdom Hearts was a promising new action/rpg that didn’t necessarily break down any walls but built a strong launching pad to possibly change the genre in an awesome way (which it didn’t…but more on that in the KHII review).
I want to be very clear on something before I say anything else. This game has very obvious and impacting flaws. The in-game camera is maybe the worst I’ve ever seen and the combat/targeting is inconsistent to say the least. The character design is mostly laughable and the writing and overall story are …traditional? This is a game filled to the brim with every single cliché ever employed by a man… and the Gummi Ship.
To ME those are the most glaring flaws of Kingdom Hearts. Because of the amount of things that I think this game did do right, I’m willing to forgive a certain amount of those negatives. So what did Kingdom Hearts do right then? Well for one the graphics are astounding. Square was hot off the heels of FFX and starting to figure out what the Ps2 could do and it shows. The colorful vistas, the stylized worlds and the pretty unprecedented facial expressions all combined to make a game that looked the part of a major SquareSoft release. Graphics will never tip the scale for me on whether or not a game is good but it certainly doesn’t hurt when they look this fucking great. There are lots of places to go, it’s a sizable game without being too big and you won’t overstay your welcome in any of the worlds. The voice acting is present and accounted for as well. Haley Joel leads a mostly high profile cast of actors that do a great job that was better than anything Square had put out at that point (and still better than most they’ve done since). Like where did they get these people to do such good impersonations? There are times where whoever did the Genie in Aladdin is almost just as good as Robin Williams. The combat is fun and has enough depth to carry itself through the whole adventure without becoming stale. The music is fantastic (Yoko Shimomura of Super Mario RPG fame), which is the last piece in a nice little polished presentation. Oh yeah let’s not forget how ridiculously SPOT-ON the Disney characters are rendered. I mean, like, it’s out of control how good these characters look. I’m convinced they just put the official drawings of Disney characters into a life-giving super computer that spit them out into a 3d world. The Final Fantasy characters are a nice touch for any fans of the series and it’s cool to see some of them re-mastered and newly voice-acted (is that David Boreanaz? awesome).
All of that is well and good but I kinda don’t really give a shit about specific positives or negatives for this game. What was important to me then and what I feel when I think back on my time with KH is the tone. I remember when I saw the first trailer and shit my pants because the RPG powerhouse of the world was teaming up with the animation leader of the world. You could say that I bought into the hype but I could also say fuck you. Kingdom Hearts was a game that I was on-board with from the first time I heard about it and when it finally released I was more or less happy with the result.
Beyond the anticipation and production values, the game itself really surprised me in it’s attempt to explore new ideas while at the same time keeping itself grounded. Yeah it was a SquareSoft action RPG a la Secret of Mana, but your secondary characters were GOOFY and DONALD DUCK. It was a young boy’s adventure throughout the world only to eventually save it, but the worlds he went to were DISNEY worlds. There was a love story/triangle but it was between kids and it was this innocent thing that wasn’t as derived. It had the feeling of an honest to goodness adventure, more reminiscent of classic role playing games where a kid just wants to go out into the world. Sora has dreams of exploring WAY before the heartless come and jack his girlfriend. He doesn’t want to leave the island to be a hero he just wants to leave the island to see shit, and that’s cool. It lends a lot of lightheartedness to a character and to a game as whole in a world where all people want in their games is violence and whatnot. It sometimes kinda explores the same general themes that Zelda does, especially The Wind Waker.
Because it is a Square game it eventually takes itself too seriously, too. But that’s OK in this situation because the foundation it laid for itself keeps the drama acceptable.
Kingdom Hearts employs an interesting tactic right at the beginning of this game that works wonders towards setting the tone. Before shit knows shit about shit your name is Sora and you’re a dude chillin on an island with a couple buddies. There’s no heartless and there’s no fucking Billy ’Ansem’ Zane. You spend a couple hours getting to know your friends and their personalities. You find out that the two best friends both like the third friend, Kairi. Riku is the more competitive guy and worries that he won’t beat Sora for Kairi’s affection. The two guys vie for her hand and in a sincerely touching moment Riku wages a Pau Pau Fruit against Sora (Pau Pau Fruit is said to link two peoples lives together forever if they share one). Sora just wants to visit the rest of the world and see new things with his friends. This prologue on the island is spent racing each other, play sword fighting (a brilliant moment) and planning for a future filled with adventure. You build a raft and find a cave where Sora had drawn a picture on the rock wall of him and Kairi together. It’s slowly paced, you get your bearings down and you really honestly get a feeling for the tone and the feel of the world and characters. It’s subtle execution of foreshadowing is what adds gravity to the subsequent journey and all of it’s key moments. When you actually fight Riku later on to save Kairi and he’s USING THE SAME MOVES he did during your little play fighting, it moves you. After 40 or so hours you can think back and reflect on the times when you were just some kids hanging out on an island, just play fighting. You feel for the characters and what they’ve gone through, how they’ve grown and changed from what they’ve seen and done. Without the island portion, Kingdom Hearts would be half the game it actually is. Imagine what a cop-out it would be if you were just dropped in Traverse Town at minute one and were told what happened through flashbacks. That’s a lazy method of storytelling that enough games already employ and it’s also a good way to describe how Kingdom Hearts shines, it puts in the effort and lays itself enough groundwork to succeed.
The true brightness of this game lies in it’s unapologetic insistence on being what it is. Kingdom Hearts doesn’t care what you think about it and it certainly doesn’t give a fuck if you think Disney characters are for kids. What’s here is simultaneously young and old, traditional and modern. It is radiant and heartfelt at times, staying light enough throughout to avoid becoming too melodramatic. You can certainly argue that the more mature storytelling is forced because of how light the tone is set at the beginning but I don’t see it that way at all. It is just something that starts small and innocent and grows into something larger. And let’s be honest, what RPG doesn’t?