It's time to play Devil's advocate!
Apart from Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man, and those other titles that were around when your parents still had hopes and dreams before having children, no other video game franchise gets mentioned more by casual gamers than Kingdom Hearts.
The Lovecraftian offspring of Square Enix and Disney Interactive Studios, Kingdom Hearts holds a place in its fans'... hearts... largely due to its cast of characters that are as old as time itself.
But apart from the Disney and Final Fantasy cameos and settings which take fan service to an unearthly level, Kingdom Hearts is, in all honesty, a pretty bad game franchise.The wonky camera, outdated gameplay elements, and horrible scriptwriting all contributed to the dark reflection that my 15-year-old self had no good taste in video games. So let's take a look back at the series and see just how Disney's veil of childhood mysticism covered up a gaming experience that was akin to watching a young teenager's attempts to cope with puberty.
The Disney-Final Fantasy crossover was all the plot had going for it.
Looking back at the series, Kingdom Hearts' success is largely attributed to nostalgia and people's familiarity with the characters.
Before Square Enix started making remakes and sequels with game titles that looked like chapters from the bible, Kingdom Hearts' main selling point was the inclusion of real-time action RPG elements in a world where Final Fantasy VII's Aerith wasn't dead and could be a potential love interest for Goofy.
And it worked. Kids young and old bought the games in order to see their favorite Disney characters fight side by side with the less enthusiastic cast of Square Enix. What players didn't expect though, was an entirely new story that merged all the existing fairy tales with something so horrendously cheesy it would make the letters you wrote to your high school sweetheart look like Shakespearean sonnets.
The whole series is fixated on the subject of the heart - that muscle that pumps blood through your body and slowly loses its emotional feeling after you turn 30. Though I do know that the series was made for younger audiences, I'm pretty sure that even kids today would scoff at the way this story is told (more on that later).Â
While the games initially centered on the story of childhood friends Sora, Riku, and Kairi, the inclusion of other elements such as Nobodies, Keyblade Wars, and even Kingdom Hearts itself just adds too many plot points for one child to understand. All they want is to see Mickey Mouse kick some ass and you've already done your job right.
You could argue that the story is aimed at older fans of the series (as the first game was released 15 years ago), but unless they've been playing nothing but Kingdom Hearts all this time, then they've most likely tried some other games that have evolved with the times by telling stories that were easy to understand and weren't one page away from fan fiction.
It's only when you see references to Disney films where you get that feeling that you become more invested in the plot (or that the plot makes any sense at all). Once it returns to its own original narrative, you get sucked right out of Disneyland and back into a tale that gives out more questions than it does answers (which I think is how Square Enix suckers the fans into buying the succeeding games).
Unless you're really devoted to the myriad of stories that this franchise has to tell, then the only way anyone can really get into and understand the series' lore is by playing it from the beginning.Â
The dialogue is just awful.
This ties in with overall plot and contributes largely to why I cannot look this franchise in the eye anymore.
Let's say that the story of Kingdom Hearts makes sense to you; that the prevalence of light over darkness, the division of the heart and body resulting in two separate entities, and the bizarre love triangle between Sora, Riku, and Kairi isn't something out of an Archie comic book - you would still be hard-pressed to take in all the lore because of how terrible the dialogue is.
I mentioned earlier that the stories were cheesy; the whole subject matter of the heart dictates that they should be so. But judging by the way the script was written, you would think that the producers took a retreat to a mountain lodge and ended up expressing their feelings to each other through the games' storylines.
Take a look at this pivotal exchange of dialogue in the first Kingdom Hearts, for example: Â
Now I don't know about you, but apart from that initial comedic moment with Donald Duck and Goofy (which had no dialogue, mind you), I could barely stomach how overly-dramatic the characters were about everything. The writing of the script and the way it was delivered by such uninterested voices was just so bad that it proved to be the biggest hurdle for me to accept that once upon a time, I thought this game's story was good.
This doesn't just happen in the first game, either. Just take a look at Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage's cutscenes:
This was a game that was released just last month! For all the graphical improvements that Square Enix has made over the years, they still have yet to find a writer who has had any proper interaction with human beings.
Talking about video games that were originally written in another language is always difficult (since some dialogue gets lost in translation), but in my opinion, Kingdom Hearts' story would play better as an anime than a video game. And I guess that's why people like it - to get that feeling that they're role-playing in an anime.
A very poorly-dubbed anime.
The gameplay mechanics are still wonky after 15 years.
Fighting a room full of enemies in real-time has always been a highlight of the series - it's what made Kingdom Hearts famous in the first place.
Landing on Disney-inspired worlds with your companions and whacking things with your oversized key until a boss comes out of his hiding place was usually the norm in the games, but doing so has always left some nagging issues that needed to be addressed.
For one thing, the user interface is harder to navigate than the series' plotline. While the normal attack prompt is simple enough, having to utilize magic, items, or summons is like looking through an all-you-can-eat buffet within a 5-second time limit.Â
You have to use the arrow buttons to scroll down to the category of your choice, click it, whereupon you are given a whole other menu to look through for the action you actually want to use (take note that this is all happening while Final Fantasy VII's Sephiroth is on your ass like a starved hyena). Though there are shortcut keys, having only three of them means that more often than not, you'll be assigning these for healing yourself and your party members.
Having the lock-on mechanic and camera as your main enemies throughout the games also isn't a good thing. Most enemy encounters aren't meant for singular lock-on implementation as you need to focus on a lot of targets at once (something the camera struggles with). Sure, you can just simply not lock-on to an enemy, but doing so leaves you praying that your attacks aim for an enemy on the screen rather than one who you cannot see and can only be reached by Dhalsim from Street Fighter.Going into the gameplay itself, as you progress through levels, the combat becomes less grounded and literally goes airborne, resulting in a pretty hilarious game of "The Floor is Lava". Chaining combos in mid-air is fun in its own right but as soon as that combo ends, you are left flailing at gravity's mercy until you touch the ground.
Combat aside, Kingdom Hearts just loves to add a variety of mini-games and quick time events that you would most likely play once and forget afterwards. Games such as those found in the Hundred Acre Wood are a stark contrast to constantly mashing a button to deflect countless projectiles from a final boss -it makes you wonder whether Square Enix made these games for children or for God of War fanatics who aren't old enough to play the games yet.
Not only that, but things like the Gummi Ship segments are completely tacked on and aren't integral at all to the main story. It's these half-baked features that make you wish that the developers would have spent more time polishing the core gameplay rather than adding mechanics that have as much use as running shoes do on a cripple.
It isn't all bad, though.
The franchise has a lot of faults, not all of which I mentioned here. But despite all this, there have to be reasons why fans love Kingdom Hearts so much.
The ability to customize your move set is pretty cool, after you manage to navigate the menu that has you and your party members slowly walking towards the screen like a kid-friendly version of Baywatch. Likewise, the soundtrack used throughout the game is somber, sincere, and the opening songs by Utada Hikaru are almost impossible to drill out of your head.It's kind of sad seeing myself grow to realize that a franchise I used to revere is, in truth, one that has always been in need of redesigning. Maybe it's just my inner child slowly dying, but Kingdom Hearts has never been one for polished storytelling or gameplay, which makes nostalgia its only crutch as it tries to hobble its way to its (hopefully) final release.