Let me ask: when you heard for the first time about this Disney and Final Fantasy combination, what was your first reaction? The answer will be varied for plenty of people and, for me, it was a confusing mess of both excitement, uncertainties, and questions. Many of my friends who started playing Kingdom Hearts became ginormous fans that would defend the games with simple statements like “it is amazing” instead of why it was so. Because of this, I avoided it, fearing it was some kind of illegal substance. However, when the hype finally died and I distanced myself from these people, I finally felt it was about time to give the games a clear look and, due to my love for Disney, I fell right in.
On the surface, the Kingdom Hearts-series can be described as a series with a huge focus on active combat, with style and fanservice. The last part might sound like a criticism already, but it really is meant for those more nostalgic towards either Disney or Square Enix that wants to be taken on an adventure where themes of the heart and soul are occurring. This leads to a grand series with more side-games than numbered entries to tell about a world with more bizarre lore than any RPG I am familiar with. Along with Donald and Goofy, Sora travels to save the worlds inspired by Disney, Final Fantasy or both, and wishes to become a true keyblade master. To avoid spoilers, that is all I want to say, and there are reviews for every entry in this series, so let us have a quick look at the franchise as a whole.
A Magical Kingdom
Being a mash of two different worlds, it is amazing how well the styles of Disney and Final Fantasy match, with both having different art styles and setups. Actually, when you think about it, even the different Disney and Final Fantasy universes have had countless takes on their materials and yet, all flow so wonderfully here. With colorful attacks and imaginative worlds, everything comes forth with beautiful results. This I believe comes from both how they tried to make Disney-characters and worlds work in 3D and make Final Fantasy-characters from the PS1 and PS2 days updated and more cartoony for a better appeal. The clear link between these worlds is the main character though. Sora is a clear combination of the over-the-top artstyle found in Final Fantasy, but also the more colorful approach shown by Disney, making the player the connection to these worlds.
This actually translates over well to theming of each. Both Disney and especially later Final Fantasy-entries are more about emotional journeys rather than intellectual, which should make Kingdom Hearts itself also follow in a similar category right? Oddly enough no. Instead, they go quite the opposite way with the exception of the first game and go for a much more philosophical and symbolic approach to their stories with themes of identity, dreams, and morality. It might not be grand or always solid, but it always knows what questions to ask and that is impressive in itself.
Though as for the gameplay, the insane combat and entertaining RPG-setup the series would be known for also got expanded, improved, and experimented upon, showcasing a clear progression in design, with the exception being only the mobile-title and the third game. The flashy attacks, difficult fights, and interesting take on real-time combat made every fight fun, even if some entries had it flawed early on. Lastly, we can’t forget two important things that also made the series so lovable. First is the music, which is fantastic and composed by Yoko Shimomura with every track hitting the right emotional mark. With lovely symphonic tunes and diverse use of every instrument, I honestly don’t know if they could have gotten a better composer. Second, is the fanservice. I hate the fanboys of this series, but I can’t deny the charm Disney brings and I bet there are Final Fantasy fans who feel the same way, so the marketing was quite brilliant as well. Traveling to beloved worlds and meeting characters you love, it’s a dream come true.
Might be just for fans?
However, that is also a major issue. You must suspend your disbelief and enter a world for fans where things will go over-the-top with insane combos, fights, and plot that can be quite bizarre for even a JRPG featuring Donald and Goofy. While the series picks up with more themes that are thought-provoking and contain plenty of heartwarming moments, not all will be able to jump in headfirst with dialogues that can be more cheesy than a cheese factory. However, the worst offender is whenever the series tries to do something else than the combat-part. Gummi-ship segments with on-rail shooting, rhythm-games, and others were often low points and slowed the game down with what I want to describe as padding. Kingdom Hearts 3 and even Re:Coded suffered because of this shallow form of variety, as they were rarely well-developed in this series.
Adventure on the most comfortable platform
As for which version is the best, I am actually gonna go somewhat similar to what Casper said about The Legend of Zelda-series, as there is one for most console these days. Have nostalgia for DS? Go for 358/2 days! Are you more into kid-friendly fun and challenges? Maybe you can handle the awkward camera in the first installment. Want more serious storytelling and magnificent combat? Birth By Sleep is a wonderful choice. There are of course also the HD-collections, but it is hard to recommend them as there are some differences with the original version and even has two DS titles turned into movies for some reason. However, whichever installment you wish to tackle first, remember that you might want to read up a bit in the encyclopedia the games come with.
Now, this might be controversial among fans, but after playing through the third title, it seems as if the series should end with it. With the bunch of side-games made, as well as the mess that is Kingdom Hearts 3, I think it is clear that the team behind this series has had a troublesome time with it. It is odd that the experimentations that yielded more favorable results from creative and effortful developers in the earlier days, has been replaced with different ideas put into a blender and call it a day without trying to make it something solid out of it. A terrible mobile-game, a boring movie, and a game that made me question why I even play video-games anymore, I at least am completely done with the series. If a fourth installment is coming, which is not unlikely, I hope a completely different team will take it on.