Not a Disney Fan? Kingdom Hearts is Still Worth a Try
There's a whole lot more than Disney to enjoy in this franchise
Jumping into the beloved, divisive franchise Kingdom Hearts was something I was exposed to for many years, especially as a kid. My best friend during junior high school was a big fan of the series himself, and when he decided to sell his PlayStation 2 one day, he gifted me the discs, encouraging me to play it. I never did, because my PlayStation 2 had long been disconnected from my TV in favor of the PlayStation 3 instead. I was one of those people who didn’t feel like using the old consoles when the new one was currently in its prime.
Still, my friend was enough of a Kingdom Hearts and Disney fan to encourage me at times to actually do it. I recall him purchasing a PSP just to play Birth by Sleep and a Nintendo DSi, just to play 358/2 Days. I used to annoy him too because I’d always get Kingdom Hearts mixed up with the Final Fantasy series. It all just looked like weeb stuff to me!
I also realized…I’m not a Disney fan.
I tapped out at a certain age when it comes to both Disney’s films and the IPs they have created. For those that are Disney fans, my history with Pixar stopped after Toy Story 3, while the last non-Pixar animated Disney film I watched was… Bolt? Cue the many Disney fans tearing their hair out.
Even from the Disney material I did consume as a kid, I still didn’t really enjoy or delve further into it. I liked some of the movies, sure, but I wouldn’t really call myself a fan at all. I was coming of age at the time where certain things just didn’t interest me anymore because I was getting “too old” or the material was “too immature” for me. I even denied a potential trip to Disney World, offered by my mother, for that very reason. This is sacrilege in retrospect of course, as that’s an experience everyone should have.
On the actual JRPG side of things, I wasn’t very open to them whatsoever. I played Final Fantasy VII like many others on the PlayStation, but I didn’t delve into JRPGs much more than that. At least not besides Pokemon, a franchise I even tapped out of at one point as well for a brief amount of time because I felt like I was “too old” for it.
Why am I saying all of this?
I’m trying to get across here how unlikely it would’ve been for someone like me to pick up and play a JRPG. After playing NieR: Automata and loving it for its fantastic storyline, I wanted to give other things chances. I’m an adult now and I have a much more open mind about games than I ever did as a child. So now was as good a time as any to give new things a try.
So, when I heard Kingdom Hearts was leaving Game Pass relatively soon, I went and picked it up. And I’ll give my brief experience with each one I actually played.
Mind you, I was pressed for time here. So I only played select entries of the series that were deemed important enough. Anything that could be emulated or played later I decided to watch a recap for instead. Thankfully, I had some friends who are big Kingdom Hearts fans (not the same one mentioned earlier) that helped walk me through this.
All in all, here’s what my experience was like.
I started my journey into the franchise with Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix, the updated version of the first entry in the series.
Both of my friends who are fans of the series gave me some minor warnings about this game. Nothing specific, but I could tell I was in for something when I told them I was going to play it first.
The jank hit me pretty quick. Janky controls all around made it apparent that this was going to be a dated experience to slog through. I can cut it some slack for that, surely, as it is an old game with age-related flaws.
Actually playing through this game, though? I found it to be just fine. Nothing incredible, nothing terrible either. It was just okay to me. I didn’t have any kind of connection or interest in any of the characters in this game whatsoever. Sora’s fine, but Donald and Goofy just make me uncomfortable. The silly facial expressions and cutscenes they throw them into with Sora just felt so awkward to me and felt like stereotypical cutesy/silly “weeb” cutscenes. At least from what an “outsider” would assume they’re like. Sorry.
There’s a lot of frustrating segments in this game as well — such as the atrocious level design of Atlantica. There’s a green room in the final world where you have to hold off against a bunch of flying enemies, which was really frustrating. Controls are bad in this game already and you want me to fight a horde of hovering enemies?
Speaking of those worlds — as I said, I’m not a Disney fan. Despite that, I was familiar with all of the IPs utilized in this game. Even if I’m not too invested in most of them, I was at least aware of them all and knew what was going on. The only one I was really invested in was The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was awesome to see. Totally unexpected as well. I loved that world the most, by far — but I’d be willing to put Olympus in second, as it had an enjoyable set of characters.
The level design is a bit off at times as well, especially when it comes to advancing the story. I usually play games with a walkthrough open on my second monitor — but I only actually tab over to that walkthrough if I’m stuck or seeking collectibles. A “break glass in case of emergency” type of case. I found myself tabbing over to that thing constantly, unsure of what to do or where to go in some worlds. There were plenty of times where I was just lost or confused.
I do want to make a shout-out to the Gummi Ship segments. Those are basic at their core, but they’re fun and I really enjoyed them. They were paired with wonderful music as well.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix is just fine. I cut it some slack a bit in certain areas for the time it was made, but there were other times where it got kinda frustrating, and I do not plan on ever going back to it. I respect its place in history, though.
Kingdom Hearts 2
Calm down! I know Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days come before this game. I watched a recap for those. I’m pressed for time, remember? The series was getting pulled off Game Pass soon, so I didn’t want to take too much time. I am interested in emulating both of those games in the future though. But wow, that is a really depressing story in 358/2 Days.
Speaking of depressing, what an opening, huh? Kingdom Hearts 2 pivots immediately with its storytelling. Although the path to get to this point is a bit wacky and needs some time to understand, the payoff with Roxas’s story is totally worth the time and effort.
I will admit that while playing I said, “Can we wrap this up a bit? This is running a little long. I know I play as Sora in the real part of the game.” And yeah, Roxas’ segment does run a little long when you know the context — but it’s better that way in my opinion. That slow and steady build of Roxas just enjoying time with his friend group, unbeknownst to him what his true purpose is… it’s really touching in the end. It all culminates in a great scene from Sora as well.
The concept of Nobodies is probably hard for many people to wrap their heads around. Without spoiling anything for either game, Nobodies make an oddly coincidental parallel to NieR: Replicant, which I played earlier this year and enjoyed. With that in mind, it was much easier to understand… even if the universe is still zany.
Controls in Kingdom Hearts 2 felt a lot better to me. I didn’t find myself getting frustrated as much. It was here that I realized it wasn’t the bosses or tough segments in Kingdom Hearts 1 that caused my frustration, but rather the jankiness contributing to dying and feeling helpless that caused my issues. Kingdom Hearts 2 rectifies that, though, and it was super fun to play! It was genuinely surprising to me how much I enjoyed the gameplay. I loved going for Aerial Combos the most, and juggling enemies in the air repeatedly with those combos was an amazing time.
There were a few more IPs in this game that I actually like too. Pirates of the Caribbean, Mulan, and The Lion King being among them. Of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas returns in this game as well, which I was very happy to see. I just love that IP’s aesthetic, and seeing it in a game was really cool. I ended up using a Keyblade from Halloween Town because of its boost to critical hits.
One change I disliked is the nerf to healing. Using Curaga or any other variant of it will set your MP bar onto a cooldown, which feels really punishing at times. Of course, I got used to it — getting magic in first in anticipation of using a Cure at some point in a boss battle. I learned quickly that Limit Forms, a new mechanic in this game, healed you when activated, so I’d time them appropriately for when I needed another Cure in a pinch.
On the topic of those Limit Forms, I do wish some abilities weren’t restricted entirely to just those Forms. I would’ve liked to acquire Dodge Roll permanently for some familiarity from the first game, but it would have meant grinding for it. The game doesn’t make it clear either about what you exactly have to do to grind each Form’s level. I know what to do now, of course, but I wish they made it more explicitly clear in-game about how to grind those Limit Forms.
Since we’re talking about new mechanics, let’s mention the Reaction Commands, which are triggered via Triangle on Playstation, or via Y on Xbox in my case. There were a lot of instances in this game where just spamming the Reaction Command button was essentially the solution to a given scenario, and I think that feels really… dull. The final boss even amounted to a bunch of Reaction Command presses, which felt a bit anti-climactic in retrospect.
All in all, Kingdom Hearts 2 was an incredible journey. Although once the player gains control of Sora the story becomes a bit plain, the story ramps up during your second encounters with each of the worlds, amounting to a really enjoyable conclusion to the game. This is very clearly the best Kingdom Hearts game in the series, coming from someone who’s new to the franchise.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
I said I thought Kingdom Hearts 2 was the best in the series. I didn’t say it was my favorite.
Birth by Sleep was originally a PSP game, so I kept that in mind going into the game. I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did, though.
Things did get weird here. I began Birth by Sleep on the final week of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix being on Game Pass, alongside the final week of 2.8 as well. But I was enjoying Birth by Sleep far more than I anticipated, and it was absorbing more of my time — not because it required it of me, but merely out of desire.
I was having too much fun just grinding commands and melding them together to see what I got, and then melding those commands together to make better ones. Then I was testing those commands out in the arena to see how good they were. By the time I was done with the playthroughs of Terra and Ventus (following the recommended order), it was Friday, and the game was leaving Game Pass on Sunday at midnight.
So I bought it. I enjoyed Birth by Sleep that much. (And I guess I’ll revisit some of the other games too someday.)
However, I didn’t want to cash out again for 2.8, and had no desire to. I didn’t have the time to do everything it included in one weekend, so I settled instead for doing 0.2: A Fragmentary Passage, and saving Dream Drop Distance for a recap.
Of course, at this point — I hadn’t done Aqua’s story in Birth by Sleep yet. I still wanted to play A Fragmentary Passage, however. So I asked my friends — “Give me context for this game without spoiling Birth by Sleep”. And they did, and it worked.
I fell in love with Aqua’s character soon enough between A Fragmentary Passage and her Birth by Sleep playthrough, right into the Final and Bonus Episodes of the game as well. Her sisterly-like personality, elegant demeanor, and selfless actions are just too likeable for me to ignore.
In fact, I think I enjoy this whole trio more than I do Sora and his companions. I’m not sure if this is a hot take or not. Regardless, I enjoy the tone that Birth by Sleep and A Fragmentary Passage both have. It’s one that feels slightly darker than the other games I’ve experienced, if that’s even the right way to describe it. While there’s still some whimsical aspects in the sense of visiting different Disney worlds, Birth by Sleep has a whole different tone that’s evident immediately.
Combine this tone and these characters with a really fun way to mix up the standard mechanics of the series via the Commands system? You get a really fun-to-play RPG that I absolutely adore.
I just wish the playthroughs of this game were longer. When you play Birth by Sleep, it’s very obvious that the game was made for the PSP — with how compact the worlds feel, and how short the story is. Sure, revisiting some of these places three times is a bit tiring for some by the time they get to Aqua’s run, but I don’t particularly mind.
Kingdom Hearts III
Going into Kingdom Hearts III, I knew it was probably the most controversial entry in the series. I see people split on it all the time. There are people who thought it was an excellent addition, while others seemed to portray it as disappointing. I went in with really neutral expectations, having enjoyed everything I had played so far. I wanted to see for myself when it came to Kingdom Hearts III, instead of listening to the popular opinion.
It took a while actually to start on Kingdom Hearts III. I wanted to wait around for the DLC, Re:Mind to go on sale. Mixed with some procrastination of course. I had played a lot of JRPGs in a row around July to October of 2021, and I was feeling burnout in the genre. Besides Kingdom Hearts, I had played through Octopath Traveler and Final Fantasy X as well, both very lengthy games to plow through. I snagged a steelbook version of Kingdom Hearts III on Amazon for only 30 bucks and then grabbed Re:Mind when it was on sale for about 10.
I ended up finally finishing Kingdom Hearts III earlier this year in March, to give an idea of how long I put it off. Once I started playing it, I regretted putting it off so long, because I ended up loving it.
Yes, this controversial and messy game is something I loved. Both from a gameplay and story perspective.
Although it had been a while, Kingdom Hearts III’s combat is very similar to A Fragmentary Passage. In a lot of ways, A Fragmentary Passage now feels like a demo for the engine they put Kingdom Hearts III on. This engine and gameplay style has some changes I like, allowing it to be more action-oriented and hack-and-slashy. Jumping in the air and juggling an opponent with your keyblade is a common thing in these games, or slashing people with repeated strikes. And boy, is it satisfying. I love games like this. NieR, Devil May Cry, anything from Platinum Games? That’s right up my alley, and I love that type of combat.
I suppose I could see how people aren’t too happy about that. It is a significant departure from everything else I’ve played so far. We’re far from the days where Aero spells provided a defensive buff and are now in the days where Aero juggles enemies into the air to combo them better. It’s easy to chain attacks together in Kingdom Hearts III for some fun action.
There’s an issue with that. For all the stuff that you can pull off as Sora in Kingdom Hearts III, the enemies don’t give you nearly enough challenge to do that. I played on Normal difficulty, just like I had with every previous game. With how action-oriented I heard Kingdom Hearts III was, I went for a balanced build - a build focused on slashing with the keyblade but dosing in a hefty amount of magic for added effect. Combos like Aero into a juggle like I mentioned earlier, or a Thundaga into a grounded slash combo. Mixing magic and keyblade swings was fun to figure out the more I played.
And although I was having fun, the game was just way too easy. No enemy in the game posed a real threat. Sure, I got down to 1 HP plenty of times, with that iconic alarm sound effect blaring off when I got there but did I ever die in my playthrough. No, I didn’t. I did not die once. I contemplated whether I was just good at the game or not, but I quickly found that other people have claimed the game is too easy as well. In retrospect, I probably should’ve played on Proud mode. I had a good time though.
Story-wise, Kingdom Hearts III is messy like the rest of the series, but it is also one of the few games that made me tear up. Seeing the Birth by Sleep and 358 trios together again later in the game was really emotional for me. After binging the whole series, it was really heart-warming to see them linked once more since I had become latched onto those characters, especially since Birth by Sleep became my personal favorite.
I was also surprised at how deep some of Kingdom Hearts III’s mechanics were. The world space based on Pirates of the Caribbean was a full-blown open world where you sailed your ship around freely, much akin to Sea of Thieves. Much like Sea of Thieves, this world didn’t have much to it beyond the surface level of exploring various islets around the map. I had to come back here often to farm some materials for upgrades, and I was impressed with the potential each time.
Some of the worlds in Kingdom Hearts III are more traditional, such as the ones based on Tangled or Frozen. Other worlds felt more like mini open-world areas, such as the Big Hero 6 and the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean. Although I tapped out of Disney a long time ago, I was familiar with a fair amount of these. I mean, who hasn’t seen Frozen at this point? I would like to see Nomura and his team expand on these worlds in Kingdom Hearts 4 some more. Because while the concept is cool, these worlds feel really empty. Combo these segments with the action gameplay of Kingdom Hearts, and you’ll have something potentially special.
One problem I had with the story of Kingdom Hearts III is that for a large portion of time Sora feels like he’s being put on the backburner as an excuse for you to go visit these various worlds. He has to “find the power of waking”, sure, but how many times are you going to tell me that? It repeatedly feels like Sora wants to go help find the Birth by Sleep trio, but the story keeps stalling by sending you to these Disney worlds. Then while you’re in these worlds, an Organization XIII member shows up to say something cryptic before they leave again.
Kingdom Hearts II had this issue as well, but I feel like in that game it at least makes you revisit those worlds. The first half of Kingdom Hearts II makes you visit Disney worlds in much the same way. Sora has to regain his power, so he visits all these worlds until a climactic event happens. Then, you revisit these worlds with significantly more story taking place, continuing where Sora left off in each of those worlds.
Kingdom Hearts III, on the other hand, makes Sora try to regain his power by traversing these different worlds, but you never revisit them. As a result, this storyline feels extremely short and is only extended by a boss rush you face at the end of the game. Overall, this makes Kingdom Hearts III feel rushed while still being enjoyable to play. These worlds really could’ve used a second act to be more fleshed out.
However, I think the Re:Mind DLC helps with some of the game’s faults. It lets you take control of some of the characters you wanted to play as in the first place, and lets Sora revisit the final act of the game. It almost essentially feels like a rewrite of the story’s ending with how it is handled. It adds a few needed cutscenes as fan service and for added context in many sections as well… but I still felt confused by the time it was done, and I needed some explanations from a friend who was a big Kingdom Hearts fan. Now I do understand to a certain extent - as much as you can when it comes to Kingdom Hearts, at least.
The best part of the Re:Mind DLC is the Limitcut Episode, which provides some fan service by bringing back some very familiar faces from Kingdom Hearts 1, and lets you play as Riku for about half a minute to press a button! Very cool.
Joking aside, Limitcut features something Kingdom Hearts IIi was really lacking in: difficulty. The data bosses are brought back from Kingdom Hearts II, but this time featuring the new iteration of Organization XIII’s members. All of them are powered-up and more difficult. Even though the combat alone in Kingdom Hearts III was fun for me, these bosses were even better. I loved fighting these. I went in after grinding Sora to Level 99, and acquiring the Ultima Weapon. I had beaten the final act of the base game using the Ultima Weapon, the best keyblade in the game, but had grinded up back in the base game to prepare for Limitcut’s grueling bosses.
Even with such preparation in mind, I still died plenty of times to these bosses. My normal aggressive playstyle worked just fine for plenty of the bosses like Marluxia and Young Xehanort, but when it came to others like Terranort or Xigbar, I needed to change up my playstyle significantly to something more patient and calculated. It was a rude awakening after going through the breeze that was the main storyline of Kingdom Hearts III.
One thing I will mention before moving on is that I love the changes to the Gummi Ship, making flying through space much more immersive, rather than having to do a simple on-rails minigame like previous entries. Those are still present, but you have to fly into them and encounter them first. You can avoid things if you want, and space battles feel entirely optional. I encountered a boss a few times while heading to a world, but if I lost to it, I could go to the same area and not encounter it again, in theory. These seem entirely random. It genuinely feels like I’m flying through space, encountering asteroids and Heartless spaceships along the way. One of the bosses in space feels like something straight out of Empire Strikes Back, even. I acquired the Golden Highwind in my playthrough and blasted many of the harder bosses with ease.
Maybe it’s because I’m newer to the franchise, but I really loved Kingdom Hearts III. However, I still don’t think it is better than Kingdom Hearts II or even Birth by Sleep. I see some glaring flaws in it that could’ve been corrected if the game had some more time, but unfortunately, that is just not the case. I can see where long-time fans might’ve been disappointed with it, but, personally, I thought it was a truly enjoyable experience.
And that’s my experience with Kingdom Hearts. I will play Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days, and Dream Drop Distance someday though, even if I know what already happens in those games. I was told to stay far away from Re:Coded as well.
Do I like Kingdom Hearts now? Yeah, I do. Not some of the story aspects of it at times, but yes in an overall sense. I’m more in it for Organization XIII and other facets of the universe instead of the Disney side of things, though. I could care less about the Disney side of Kingdom Hearts, but I don’t mind it at times — especially when there’s IP being used that I actually like.
What a convoluted plot this series has. It feels like there wasn’t an expectation for the franchise to blow up the way it has, so lore/plot holes had to be filled in with different titles and other pieces of media. I think watching some recaps helped me understand better — because I can’t help but feel that people have overblown just how confusing the plot is. Don’t get me wrong — it’s still wildly confusing at times, but I don’t think it’s as bad as people make it out to be once you take the time to understand it. There are still plenty of holes in the plot (why does Roxas look like Ventus?!) and zany turns, but I understood it enough to enjoy my experience. Just my two cents on that.
What I do know is that I am not a Disney fan. And if you are not a Disney fan either, you shouldn’t avoid Kingdom Hearts if you are interested in it yourself. As I learned, it’s a lot more than just that, and worth a try.
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