Kingdom Hearts hands-on impressions

[03.28.02] » A giant Keyblade with a Mickey Mouse fob chain. Donald Duck and Aerith conversing in fully-voiced Japanese. Summoning Bambi. We have stared into the heart of madness and returned to tell the tale.

   Kingdom Hearts is an extremely weird game. Even a cursory look at the prerelease information would make this clear--Square and Disney characters and worlds colliding in a whole sort of general mishmash. But a few hours of hands-on gameplay make it clear that Kingdom Hearts is weirder than you can possibly imagine. The general premise is as off-the-wall as they come, but the details, fractal-like, are even stranger.

(Readers who want to skip the summary of the first few plot elements are welcome to jump to a description of new gameplay elements and overall impressions, though there's no reason to worry about spoilers. Screenshots of the introductory sequences and the first two areas are available.)

Why not both!
Disney character or religious icon?

   The story begins with a fast-paced FMV introduction that's more thematic than representative of any sequence in the game. Sora is buffeted around the multiverse, two steps behind cute girl Kairi and just one behind the adversarial Riku. The music is a techno remix of Utada Hikaru's "Hikari," and does an excellent job of building tension and excitement. The FMV introduction ends with Sora falling through a void and landing on a plane of darkness. The darkness explodes into a flock of white birds, revealing a stained glass window underfoot: Snow White.

 Look on the bright side.  It could have been a helmet with ears.
Practical, yet dorky.

   Here begins an interactive dream sequence and introduction to the basic gameplay. An unseen, external voice narrated the proceedings. Sora is asked to choose two of three items that reflect his personality: a sword, a shield, and a staff. The chosen items slightly adjust Sora's starting stats. Next, Sora is whisked away to Destiny Island, where Selphie, Wakka, and Tidus ask him some probing questions: What's the most important thing to you? What do you fear most? It is unclear how these answers affect the game. Sora returns to the void (and a Cinderella stained glass floor) and is given an opportunity to practice using his sword against enemies. Once the foes are vanquished, he is brought to a Sleeping Beauty-themed backdrop where he learns to manipulate objects to solve a simple puzzle. After solving the puzzles, he passes through a door to a Belle-imbued backdrop. His shadow comes to life, and becomes a creature of darkness, towering high above him. The creature is defeated, and Sora wakes up lying on the beach of Destiny Island.

Your monitor is upside down.
This picture is not upside down.

   Kairi is there, standing above him, laughing at his sleep. She asks him about his dream. "It wasn't a dream!" he protests. "Well, it was, but..." Sora feels that there was some other meaning to it, but not anything he can put into words. Riku shows up and reminds the pair of the task at hand: building a raft to get off the island. The threesome has lived on Destiny Island for as long as they can remember, and are eager to explore the "outside world," and perhaps to find out something about themselves and their history in the process.

   Here is where the game really "begins." Destiny Island is designed to give players a chance to explore and practice using the controls. Players can run through the sand, climb ladders, pull up on ledges, shimmy up coconut trees, swim through the shallows; in other words, put your standard action/platformer character through his paces. Sora can also spar with Wakka, Selphie, Tidus, and Riku to practice fighting and develop defensive techniques (deflecting Wakka's ball, parrying Tidus' stick, and so forth).

 The shirt is better, but the pants could use some work.
Nature tends to favor asymmetry.

   It's worth noting here that, in a pleasant change from previous demos and pre-game expectations, all of the characters are voiced upon their introduction and during important story sequences. It's not quite as voice-heavy as Final Fantasy X, as main characters do occasionally speak via text-only boxes, but it's far more pervasive than the occasional vocals of a Game Arts game. Wakka and Tidus use their original Japanese voice actors, while Selphie has been given the expected cute schoolgirl inflections.

   Sora's mission during these early, explorative stages is running errands for Kairi. Building a raft takes raw materials, and Kairi and Riku certainly aren't going to move; if you ever want to see the "outside world," then you're going to have to gather up the raw materials yourself. A large cloth, a rope, two logs...soon enough, the pieces are gathered, and the three retire for the evening.

The hurt.  The hurt.
He speaks in Japanese and there is only pain.

   From here, we cut to Disney Castle. Court Wizard Donald wanders in the front door, past some cleaning brooms from The Sorceror's Apprentice, and into the throne room. But the king is missing! Hiding behind the throne is Pluto, with a note in his mouth. The king hasn't been kidnapped, or anything sordid like that; he's just set off on his own to investigate a danger to the many Disney realms. Donald rushes outside, wakes a napping Knight Captain Goofy with a lightning spell, and the two of them start hatching a plan to investigate the king's whereabouts.

   Back on Destiny Island, Sora and Riku have a "beach race" to determine who gets naming rights for the new raft. Riku is jonesing for "Highwind," while the player can choose Sora's choice. Once the winner has named the raft, it's time to gather provisions for the quest--and that means more errands. Despite the obvious natural bounty of Destiny Island--it's supported this ragtag group of children without too much hardship for years--when it comes time to leave, there's exactly four fish, three mushrooms, two coconuts, and one egg scattered around the environs. Kairi steadfastly refuses to launch until every last object has been tracked down; if a single mushroom is all that lies between the trio and starvation, one has to worry.

 It's a talking cricket!  Jesus, Joseph, and Mary in Tinseltown!
Jiminy Christmas!

   Back at Disney Castle, the king's note is read and discussed. The king is searching for a "key" that may help find solutions to the problems plaguing the realms. A man named Leon is said to know something about this key. Leon lives in Traverse Town, a sort of crossroads for the Disney and Squaresoft universes. Donald and Goofy set off in search of their regent; since every expedition needs a guide, the unflappable Jiminy Cricket joins their party. The two hop into their world-crossing Gummi Ship, engineered and maintained by Chip and Dale. Gadget, the traditional engineering rodent, is inexplicably missing.

It's come to destroy our world and us with it.  Why do you ask?
That? Oh, that's a pulsating dark nexus of evil.

   Meanwhile, the night before the launch, a humongous storm arrives on Destiny Island. Sora runs outside to check on the raft's safety, and discovers a large, empty vortex spinning in the sky. As Sora watches thethe island is suddenly overrun by Heartless. He finds Riku, but Kairi is missing. The two of them are engulfed by a growing darkness from the ground. When Sora comes to, Riku is gone, and he is holding a large key-shaped weapon: the Keyblade. The darkness in the sky engulfs the entire island, destroying it completely and sucking Sora into its maw.

 duckroll: 'that was almost porn'
Though Squall is now 25, Yuffie is still 16. Sorry.

   When Sora comes to, licked awake by Pluto, he's in Traverse Town. Sora starts exploring the city, seeking answers to two questions: where is he? And where are his friends? After a series of explorations, encounters with the Heartless, and near misses with Donald and Goofy, Sora runs into "Leon," the assumed name of Squall Leonheart. Leon is currently residing in Traverse Town with his buddies Yuffie and Aerith. The three of them are trying to stop the spread of a plague throughout the worlds: the Heartless. True to their names, this enigmatic enemy has no heart; more dangerously, they aggressively steal others'. Leon believes that Sora's Keyblade is the "key" to stopping the Heartless, though he's not sure how. The only thing Leon knows is that it's chosen Sora as its bearer, and no one but he can wield it.

   Sora and the Final Fantasy trio go outside to remove the Heartless threat from Traverse Town; a few accidental separations and misadventures later, Sora ends up fighting by Goofy and Donald's side. The trio works together to take out a towering, multipart Heartless menace: the Guardian Armor. Once defeated, the Disney duo recognize Sora's Keyblade as the "key" they were seeking and convince Sora to come along in their search for the king. Sora, not knowing how else to go about seeking his friends, readily agrees. The party at last complete, the three head to the Gummi Ship in search of new worlds and answers to their questions.

--Gummi BLOCKS? Er...never mind.
Dashing and daring, courageous and car--

   The Gummi Ship is surprisingly customizeable; many of the game's secrets will no doubt be unlocked by mastering Gummi Ship building. The Gummi Ship is constructed of a number of different basic polyhedrons: cubes, rectangular prisms, cylinders, cones, and so forth. Adding and subtracting different shapes can have different effects on the Gummi Ship's range and handling; a more advanced control module improves the handling, larger engine-shapes increase the top speed, and so forth. Construction is normally handled via blueprints; as blueprints of new block arrangements are discovered, they can be given to Chip and Dale and, as long as the player has collected the required blocks, automatically constructed. Serious spacefarers are welcome to tweak and build the ship from scratch, however--the game lets players rotate and place blocks in 3D space via a scandalously complex system. The system is robust enough to allow for almost any configuration, but the number of buttons required to select blocks, rotate them along any axes, position them in 3D space, and simultaneously position the 3D camera is incredibly complex. What rewards there are to setting out with your own ship design have yet to be seen.

 All we need now is a Dance Dance Revolution-styled minigame.
Because Kingdom Hearts was almost making sense.

   Travel in the Gummi Ship controls like a 3D space shooter. Players move the ship, dodge obstacles, and shoot down waves of enemies. Defeated enemies drop randomly shaped Gummi Blocks that can be used in ship construction. The first few travel segments have been extremely easy; it remains to be seen if the difficulty ramps up, or if they remain a trivial diversion throughout the game.

   Once Sora joins up with Donald and Goofy, Jiminy Cricket serves as the party's scribe. His notebook full of "Jiminy Memos" contains information about encountered characters and the current quest. It also identifies the original game or movie from which characters hail, making it a handy reference for cameo-watchers.

It must be hard to keep track of 99 pups, but losing them all is just bad parenting.
One hundred and one minus ninety-nine Dalmatians.

   An optional sidequest throughout the adventure involves finding Pongo and Perdita's 99 missing Dalmatian puppies. The lost dogs are scattered here and there throughout the different worlds. Some developer was clearly having too much fun with their carte blanche access to Disney franchises.

   Once Sora, Goofy, and Donald team up, the three can use a "Trinity" command at special marks hidden around the worlds. Excuting a Trinity command can bring forth hidden items, open a secret passageway, or even warp the party to another part of the level. These are mostly small bonuses for players who keep an observant eye while exploring.

   During battles, the player only controls Sora directly; fortunately, the A.I. in Kingdom Hearts handles the other two characters resonably well. The characters do a decent job of knowing when to attack the enemy and when to fall back and regroup. So far, Donald has an unpleasant tendency to get knocked down, and both characters are fairly unreserved about plundering your item stash, but the A.I. has been otherwise fine. Both characters are highly customizeable, with Often, Ordinary, and Occasionally settings for attack, standard magic, advanced magic, defensive magic. HP and MP item use can be set to Use Immediately, Ordinary, or In an Emergency. The breadth of options is enough to satisfy most gamers.

 If you don't, Nomura will cry.
Please buy our game.

   Kingdom Hearts' graphics are extremely, extremely good. The game does a fantastic job of rendering classic Disney characters in 3D; the models, animation, and facial expressions looks so good, so natural, that most players will never stop twice to think about the sheer amount of technical mastery working behind the scenes. The Square characters from other franchises have been creatively "remixed"; their appearances and ages have been altered, sometimes drastically, but all are immediately recognizeable. The environments appear straight out of an animated movie that just happen to be rendered in 3D. Everything about Kingdom Hearts has a colorful, solid feel. By skimming the cream off the top of two of the most painstakingly realized universes around, Kingdom Hearts has a ridiculous surplus of quality design. Despite the gobs of money and talent clearly required to bring this game to life, the title is steeped in a sense of effortless whimsy.

   Though the graphics are excellent, the camera can't quite keep pace; though it never really obscures the action, it needs a bit more "babysitting" than seems ideal. Frequently, the player will change direction suddenly or approach a wall, and the camera will languish behind, unwilling to swing around. A quick tap on the R2 or L2 shoulder buttons will fix this; pressing both at once recenters the camera behind Sora. The camera is perfectly serviceable and easily corrected; still, in such a seamlessly presented game, a more autonomous camera would be welcome. Pressing Select moves the camera to an adjustable first-person perspective, giving the player an opportunity to look around Sora's surroundings.

It's not even a SHARP key.
Silliest. Weapon. Ever.

   Battles are fun and filled with action, bringing to mind the three-way frenzies of Square's Secret of Mana. Players can target and lock-on to enemies using the R1 shoulder button, as in Zelda 64. An autotarget option, on by default, automatically locks-on to nearby enemies during melee battles. This small feature is a great boon to battles and keeps the pace extremely frenetic. Players can focus on attacking, parrying, dodging, casting spells, and using items--not on aligning Sora with the enemies along an arbitrary axis.

   Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack has thus far been up to her usually high standards. The underrated composer of Parasite Eve, Super Mario RPG, and Legend of Mana has mixed traditional RPG bombast, cartoony wonder, and classic Disney themes into an enjoyable and fitting soundtrack. Kingdom Hearts' "song," Utada Hikaru's "Hikari" ("Light"), is a cut above recent tracks like Melodies of Light and Suteki da Ne. Hikki, as fans call her, is the current wunderkind of the Japanese music scene and can seemingly do no wrong. Hikari was released as a maxi-single on March 20th, 2002 to chart-topping first-day sales of over 700,000. Utada Hikaru is a very real music star, and her involvement with Kingdom Hearts only underscores how serious Square is about the game. Square appears to have gotten their money's worth, however; the game features the original single version, a techno remix, and an orchestral instrumental arrangement. There's even a bit of thematic overlap between the lyrics and the storyline.

 'Oh my God. I've become my father.'

   As a final note, the localization for Kingdom Hearts will undoubtedly be one of the largest undertakings in the history of gaming. In addition to the expected large amounts of text, Kingdom Hearts features dozens of voiced characters, Square and Disney alike, all with preestablished speech patterns, immediately recognizeable voices, and dialogue referencing events and lines from any number of preexisting properties. Even more importantly, most of the Disney properties have English as their original language, making fidelity of translation of mannerisms and dialogue all the more important. No matter how Disney Interactive and Squaresoft plan to share the localization duties, bringing Kingdom Hearts to English is going to be a gargantuan undertaking.

   By all rights, Kingdom Hearts--the synergistic product of two of the worlds' largest corporate entertainment behemoths--should be an awkward, conflated mess; a wooden, by-the-numbers exercise in lining the company coffers. Instead, it's an epic piece of crossover fanfiction brought to life on your PlayStation 2; a zany, lighthearted narrative that throws in everything and the kitchen sink, laughing along with the player at its unstoppable audacity. It's surprising that Kingdom Hearts got made at all; what's even more shocking is that it's so darn good. It's not just well-crafted--it's a blast! It's the sort of game a diehard fan would make if they had Square's budget and resources, and it's the sort of game that every fan should play.

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