07 January 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Niche Game: Kingdom Hearts

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing mecause they’re something different, something special.

Kingdom Hearts is a parallel world story, with a twist. The game is a joint venture between Squaresoft and Disney, released in 2002 for the PS2. The main character, Sora, travels from world to world, and each of them will be very familiar, because each is the setting of a Disney movie, from the pride lands of The Lion King, Wonderland, and Neverland. Besides the worlds, there are also many cameos from Disney characters, and characters from Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy series.

The protagonist of the game is Sora, a fourteen year old boy. His friends Riku and Kairi also play important roles. At the beginning of the game they are all living on Destiny Islands, and they want to leave the islands to explore the world outside. One night, shadowy creatures appear, the Heartless. He discovers the magical Keyblade, which is his weapon throughout the game, a giant key that he wields like a sword. He’s separated from his friends as the Heartless destroy Destiny Islands.

Meanwhile, in another world, King Mickey (yes, the mouse), heads off to deal with the Heartless and sends his knight Goofy and his mage Donald to go find the key to stopping the Heartless. They seek out Sora, and join forces with him. You always control Sora directly, never his companions, but you can equip them, and set their behavior during battle. Donald’s attributes are based around magic, as he learns various spells as he levels up. Goofy’s primary weapon is a shield–yeah I know it’s weird. Though Sora technically carries the same Keyblade throughout the game, he can add different charms to it that will change it’s attributes drastically, changing the length, the appearance, the power, and even adding extra attributes like extra mana for abilities.

In each world, the Heartless take on new and varied forms which match their surroundings. So, in the pride lands they take the forms based loosely on African animals, in Neverland they often appear as pirates. I like this variation, all tied together by the “Heartless” logo they wear as a badge. Besides the minor Heartless enemies, each world generally has a big boss, also going along with the theme of that world. The objective of travelling through each world is to use the Keyblade to seal the keyhole, the heart of each world that the Heartless seek to destroy.

Different from most Squaresoft games, the fights in the game are real-time, though there is a menu item for performing actions like casting spells and using items. There are also hot-buttons to help speed up these side actions. You never control your two companions, all you can do is set their equipment and attributes. When visiting other worlds, sometimes a hero from that world will travel with you, and can temporarily replace either Goofy or Donald as your fighting companion. In addition, some characters are available as summon magic, where you call them up (Goofy and Donald temporarily disappear while this happens) to bestow some powerful effect and then disappearing. I liked the real-time aspect of the fighting system. It kept the game much more exciting from moment to moment, and much of the challenge is figuring out ways to defeat each unique type of enemy and dodging their attacks.

The one element of the game I wasn’t really impressed by was the Gummi ship. It’s your method of transportation between worlds. The transit ways are filled with enemies that attack you as you fly through Gummi space. You build your Gummi ship from scratch out of spare parts you find or buy along the way, including armor, weapons, radar, etc… It wasn’t that it was a bad element, but it just didn’t really seem to relate to the rest of the game that much and was just a diversion from the important parts–all the different worlds.

There’s quite a cast of voice actors for this game, including Haley Joel Osment, Hayden Panattiere, Billy Zane, and Lance Bass. They all did a really good job at their parts, making the characters seem real and helping to bring the game alive. Many of the Disney characters are voiced by the “official” Disney voice actors for each part.

The theme song, Simple and Clean, was composed and performed specifically for this game release by Hikaru Utada. I love the original version of the song, and the graphics of the sequence (though unfortunately with a remix instead of the original) at the beginning of the game just make it even more awesome to watch. When I first played the game I sometimes just watched them over and over to hear the song and see the sequence.

The plot is a reasonably good, though the main character is a bit corny at times. I loved to see the Disney villains working together across movies, Captain Hook and Maleficent, among others. Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty) is one of my favorite villains of all time; I love her voice, her look, her power, everything about her. These villains were worked into the plot and blended seamlessly with the Squaresoft characters and the Heartless, despite their different animation styles.

Kingdom Hearts II was released in 2006 in the US, and used many of the same concepts, revisiting some of the same worlds as the first game, while expanding the ground covered. Despite their efforts to add fresh worlds and plot elements, it just came off as more of the same, so I give it a “meh,” despite the addition of Christopher Lee’s excellent voice acting abilities. It’s not a terrible game, and it was fun to see some of the new worlds they covered–such as Tron–but overall it just came off as more of the same to me.

Finding a copy of Kingdom Hearts shouldn’t be difficult at all, probably 10 bucks or less on eBay. It’s totally worth it. Enjoy!

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