JRPGs have a bit of a reputation for being weird and off-the-wall, but there are few experiences more baffling than seeing Final Fantasy characters interact with Disney icons. Kingdom Hearts sounds like an absurd idea that shouldn’t work on paper, but seeing how far the series has come in two decades is truly something incredible.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a video game franchise with more ludicrous lore, but a fanbase that loves practically every minute of it. Kingdom Hearts’ legacy is messy and divisive, but that’s exactly what makes it one of the most fascinating JRPG franchises out there. With the entire series, over seven games, coming to PlayStation Plus Extra on November 15, there’s quite literally never been a better time to jump in.
Kingdom Hearts revolves around a young boy named Sora, who lives on the Destiny Islands with his friends Riku and Kairi. The trio dream of sailing across the sea to discover new lands and build a raft to do so, but one night a mysterious storm overtakes the island. From there a wild story starts with Sora waking up on a new planet and running smack dab into Donald Duck and Goofy.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kingdom Hearts, the crux of the franchise revolves around Sora, Donald, and Goofy traveling to various Disney-themed worlds while battling malevolent creatures called the Heartless, which literally steal people’s hearts. Each game has an overarching narrative that develops as you visit each mostly self-contained world, although the formula can differ from game to game. If you’re a Disney fan there’s an enormous appeal to Kingdom Hearts, as getting to run around and explore worlds like Tron, Mulan, Nightmare Before Christmas, and Toy Story is nothing short of pure joy.
It’s practically impossible to explain the story of Kingdom Hearts without a 10,000-word essay, but narrative has always been one of the main highlights of the franchise. There’s a lengthy, engrossing story that plays out across the series, with every game being connected to that overall narrative, revealing a bit more of the puzzle. Kingdom Hearts features some fantastically written characters, with the highlight being the utterly charming but dumb-as-bricks main protagonist Sora. In a strange way, a good comparison for Kingdom Hearts is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as each Kingdom Hearts game is mostly self-contained but is filled with lore and hints for what’s coming in the future, not to mention cameos from loads of iconic Disney characters.
The series’ overarching theme is friendship, but each game plays with some different narrative themes like the importance of memories, the loss of innocence, and dealing with feelings of emptiness. Kingdom Hearts may have a bright candy-coated exterior, but underneath that aesthetic is a surprisingly deep story, even if you need a lore primer to understand everything.
Of course, the other lasting legacy of Kingdom Hearts is the action combat system, which had a huge influence on how the JRPG genre at large has developed over the last two decades. Kingdom Hearts was truly the realization of a real-time Final Fantasy game, letting players execute attacks, magic, summons, and more, in a fast-paced system.
While the first game might feel rough by modern standards, each Kingdom Hearts game has brought meaningful improvements to the combat and gameplay. Kingdom Hearts 2 brought incredible new depth with new abilities and forms, Dream Drop Distance introduced a wild “flowmotion” system that lets you interact with the environment, and Kingdom Hearts 3 brought new weapon forms and more dynamic enemy AI.
The key to Kingdom Hearts’ combat is that it simply feels good. The controls in each game feel tight and responsive, and if you want to really get deep into combat later games introduce new ways to cancel attacks and build out lengthy combos.
Part of what has made Kingdom Hearts so special over the years is that each game dares to try something new, even if it doesn’t always work. After the massive success of the first game, Square Enix decided to release Chain of Memories, which split off wildly with a card-based combat system. Then you have the incredibly ambitious Birth By Sleep, which weaves together the stories of three separate protagonists. This creates a lot of variation between each Kingdom Hearts game, but also means the series has managed to stay fairly divisive as it continues to change gameplay and story elements.
At the end of the day, I could sit here and talk to you for hours about the five different versions of one man named Xehanort or the time that Goofy almost got wiped out, but really seeing is believing and you should simply play Kingdom Hearts.