WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the Kingdom Hearts series
If you really think about it, Kingdom Hearts is one of the weirdest success stories ever. I mean, it’s a Disney/Final Fantasy crossover. This is the kind of thing you’d see in fan-fictions from the mid-2000s; not a professionally made videogame series. Yet, somehow, it worked and has a large following of dedicated fans the world over – me being one of them.
While it’s certainly had its ups and downs, I still wholeheartedly love this series, despite my personal gripes with it, and am more than excited for when Kingdom Hearts III inevitably drops (whenever that is). In the meantime, I’ve decided to go through the entire series thus far to see how each entry stacks up against each other. Which games do I adore with all my heart and which ones do I wish I could cast into the darkness? Let’s find out together, shall we?
First, some quick rules:
- I will be judging each entry on the versions that were included in the recent re-releases for PS3 and PS4
- The only exceptions to the previous rule will be 358/2 Days and Re: coded – they will be judged on their DS releases, since they were adapted into movies for the HD collections
- I will not be including the mobile title, Kingdom Hearts χ, since I’ve not played that one
- I will also not include Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage- since it’s not a “whole” game
Now, onto the actual ranking!
7. Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories
I know this one has its fans but, I’m sorry, I actively dislike Chain of Memories. It’s the one that I had the least amount of fun with; the further I got into it, the more I just wanted it to end, and it’s all down to the overall gameplay.
The decision to have card-based combat is ultimately this game’s downfall. Everything is tied to these cards and it just felt so constrictive. Even something as simple as attacking an enemy became frustrating; actions that I could easily perform with the right skill in the previous game became needlessly fiddly. It never felt like skill was ever a factor in my eyes, especially in boss fights that mostly consisted of me running around like an idiot, desperately trying to find the right card to counter or protect myself. I won’t lie; I restarted on Easy difficulty shortly after my first attempt just because I wanted to get through the game as quickly as possible.
The story was bland too, with all the Disney worlds feeling like slightly altered retreads of the previous game. I get that they’re based on memories but they were so uninteresting and pretty much added nothing. They were just distractions that interrupted the story, and even the main plot felt like filler. Hell, Sora, Donald and Goofy forget the events of the entire game at the end so what was even the point?
That said, I did enjoy Riku’s story since his decks were pre-built for each world he visited (so that was one less thing to worry about), his story was short and his character arc was actually interesting. Seeing the previous game’s villainous rival being haunted by his mistakes and struggling to come to terms with it was far more engaging than all the memory bullshit Sora was dealing with.
In all, though, I have no desire to ever replay Chain of Memories nor do I want to check out the supposedly better GBA version. If I didn’t like the core gameplay, I doubt being restricted to a 2D plane would improve it for me. If you love it, good for you. At least you got some good memories out of it.
6. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
It’s been a really long time since I played 358/2 Days and, in hindsight, there may have been a reason for that. While I certainly can’t call it an awful game, it was very problematic in a lot of areas. Being on the DS certainly didn’t help matters.
Whereas the original Chain of Memories at least reworked the gameplay to better suit a handheld, Days tried to essentially pull off the gameplay of KH II on a smaller scale, which didn’t completely work. While by no means unplayable, the lack of analogue sticks made control and camera movement a bit of a hassle at times.
On top of that, bosses could take for-freaking-ever due to how long their health bars were. It’s like the developers got so caught up in the game’s multiplayer mode (which wasn’t even that good anyway and only supported local multiplayer) that they forgot to tailor the encounters for people who just wanted to play through the story. And even that wasn’t great.
While Chain of Memories at least introduced Organisation XIII and had development for Riku, Days really doesn’t offer anything. The concept was cool – giving players insight into the Organisation itself – but the focus was squarely on Roxas, Axel and new character Xion, and most of that was spent sitting on that damn clock tower going “I don’t get emotions” over and over again. Half of the Organisation were even killed off shortly after the tutorials; we learned nothing new about any of them, and we didn’t even get a chance to play as them (except for the bland as hell multiplayer).
The only thing the story adds is Xion who, let’s be honest here, wasn’t needed. I’m aware Xion’s popular but she contributes so little. Actually, that’s not true. She contributes but it’s all stuff that could’ve easily been written out and would not affect the wider story at all. Hell, the game ends with everyone forgetting she ever existed. That’s how little she really mattered in the grand scheme of things.
Overall, Days was both bland to play and a missed opportunity, and it didn’t make for a great movie either on the HD collections. I don’t want to ever see that clock tower or people eating sea salt ice cream ever again.
5. Kingdom Hearts Re: coded
Despite having less of a reason to exist than even Days, I actually found Re: coded to be the better of the two DS games. I at least recall having a lot more fun with this one, even if the story felt like it was thrown together in an evening.
While it did have some of the same issues that Days had due to being on a handheld (control and camera issues), it was a lot more engaging. Gone was the mission-based gameplay and melodrama of characters struggling to understand the workings of the heart; this was just a return to the classic formula with a few extra twists on it.
Even though it was just another retread of the first game, the fact that we were exploring worlds made of data meant that the developers could go a bit crazier with things, like having visual glitches and “bugs” running rampant. Each world also had unique gameplay segments to help vary things up, like a rail shooting section in Wonderland or the top-down, turn-based RPG battles in Olympus Coliseum.
Even the leveling-up system was neat; you upgraded Sora’s stats with chips that unlocked new abilities and increased his stats. It was a nice element of customisation. On top of that, they also brought back a re-worked version of Birth by Sleep‘s very popular Command Deck, which I think worked better on the DS than Days‘ more traditional combat, as it was easier to use and allowed you to create some pretty kick-ass attacks. Plus, it encouraged experimentation since you could essentially use other commands to buff your attacks, like adding fire to one of your physical moves.
I think my biggest gripes with the game are that it can drag on for way too long (seriously, that ending just doesn’t stop) and, like I said, it really didn’t need to exist. The whole goal of the game was just to say “Hey, these people still need saving” which Mickey kind of already knew.
I honestly think Mickey should’ve been the main star this time. Did we really need to play as Sora again? In fact, it wasn’t even Sora but a data copy of him. I know he’s essentially the Messiah figure in this series and “all hearts are connected to him” or whatever, but, come on, this felt like a good time to have a properly playable Mickey.
Re: coded was very much filler, but it was at least fun and unique enough to not feel like a complete waste of time.
4. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance
It makes so much sense to see Dream Drop Distance be slap dab in the middle of this ranking, because it’s the one game in the series where my opinion radically changes depending on my mood.
On one hand, it’s the most fun to play thanks to the inclusion of Flowmotion. It was a mechanic that almost felt like you were breaking the game, allowing you to bound up walls, swing on lampposts and soar through the air. It made traversing the environment less of a slog, encouraged exploration and allowed for much bigger locales to hide treasure in. Previous games very rarely allowed you to diverge from the path so this was a welcome change of pace. I remember actively looking all over the map just to see what I could find (even if they were a bit scarce – why was Notre Dame so devoid of life?).
And while the Command Deck was simplified, removing the Command Melding from Birth by Sleep, it was still fun to customise your own deck, picking attacks and spells that worked best for you. Plus, there were a tonne to find and unlock and it was always a blast to try new ones out and discover a new favourite attack to use.
However, there are three aspects to DDD that really hold it back in my eyes. First, the Dream Eaters. I don’t like them. Like, at all. I’m not fond of their designs, I don’t find them to be useful party members and I don’t like how I need to take time petting them and playing with them so I can unlock new abilities, some of which I can only use if that specific Dream Eater is in my party. I know Donald and Goofy get a lot of shit for being useless but at least I didn’t need to rub their bellies to make them stronger. Plus, I’d much rather have familiar and beloved Disney characters on my team than these rejected Pokémon.
Secondly, the Drop mechanic. It’s just stupid. Forcing the player to switch characters is annoying and can really screw them over since it resets enemies’ health, including bosses. They should’ve just made seperate campaigns for Sora and Riku.
Thirdly, and forgive the use of all caps but OH MY GOD THIS GAME’S STORY IS COMPLETE HORSESHIT! I have never, in all my life, seen a plot this nonsensical. I know the series is infamous now for how overly confusing its story is, but even in past games I felt like there was at least effort. I could overlook some flaws in previous games but DDD‘s story is borderline insulting. It’s like the writers finally gave up and just decided to make shit up as they went. The Sleeping Worlds, the time travel, Xehanort’s schemes, GIVING AXEL A KEYBLADE; barely any of it made sense.
When the credits rolled, I didn’t feel satisfied; just bitter. I vividly remember being so disillusioned with the series after my first playthrough that my excitement for KH III kind of died for a bit. My outrage may seem like overreacting to some but I absolutely can not stand stories that do whatever the hell they want and expect the audience to just accept it all.
The PS4 remaster certainly made the game more enjoyable thanks to the better camera, surprisingly decent replacements for the touch-screen mechanics and gorgeous 60fps (like, God damn, it’s almost too smooth); if it just wasn’t for that asinine plot, this may have been higher up in the rankings.
3. Kingdom Hearts
Fun fact: I didn’t play the first game in the series until its PS3 re-release; over ten years since its original release. Because of my experience with its sequels, I was kind of worried that I’d find the first game archaic and a struggle to play through but, to my pleasant surprise, it holds up pretty well.
I mean, it still has issues. Sora feels a little bit sluggish compared to his later incarnations, platforming can be a nightmare due to his stiff jump, it’s not always clear where you’re meant to go next and those Gummi Ship sections are duller than watching paint dry and grass grow simultaneously. But I still found myself having fun regardless.
I even managed to get a feel as to what people probably felt when the game first came out. It still does a weirdly good job at capturing that sense of wonder as you visit all these different Disney worlds for the first time. Probably because this is the only game to prominently feature the Disney side of things.
Later games have slowly and steadily become more traditional RPG fare that just happen to have Disney characters almost randomly shoved in. Kingdom Hearts struck an almost perfect balance between the two sides, especially in regards to the story which, while problematic in its own way, is still the best written.
The series may have evolved and improved in many ways but the first game should still be remembered for doing a lot of things right, even if it hasn’t aged perfectly. And besides, if it wasn’t for that first journey’s success, we wouldn’t have this weird and wonderful series in the first place.
2. Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep
Another fun fact: I initially planned on buying this game and borrowing my friend’s PSP just to play it (coz I sure as shit wasn’t buying a new handheld for just one game). In the end, that never went anywhere and Birth by Sleep passed me by. Afterwards, I heard many people call it the best game in the series. A prequel title on the PSP being the best one? Surely not! Well, after playing it’s PS3 re-release, I now get the love for it.
It took a while to get used to how the characters controlled; for a while, it always felt like there was a delay between my button inputs and the characters’ attacks, resulting in me swinging at the air just in front of the enemy, but I adjusted soon enough. I was familiar with the Command Deck but, now, I had the options to create brand new Commands by merging two together. And by using certain items, I could unlock new abilities too. It was a pretty novel system that encouraged experimentation and allowed me to play the game’s three protagonists however I wanted, though I didn’t use it to its fullest potential and wound up making the game harder than it needed to be.
I’m also a sucker of multiple story-lines with different characters to control; especially ones that intertwine to help tell a bigger story. Again, I have issues aplenty with this game’s plot (particularly its execution) but I still loved seeing events from different perspectives and how the three heroes’ actions affected one another, as well as how it all leads into the first game.
I really don’t have much else to say about this one (without going too in-depth anyway). With great battle mechanics and decent story and characters, Birth by Sleep may be the prequel we didn’t need, but we’re glad happened anyway.
1. Kingdom Hearts II
I think nostalgia is probably a big factor into why Kingdom Hearts II is at the top of the ranking. It was the first game I played and was what got me into the series to begin with so I naturally look back at it fondly. But, out of all the games listed thus far, this is also the one that I felt was the most… rounded, if you know what I mean. The other games all had occasional gameplay niggles and story issues that held them back in my eyes. KH II easily has the least problems.
Maybe it’s because, whereas all the other post-KH I titles were very much spin-offs – titles that experimented with the original formula to offer varied experiences – KH II felt like a proper, full-blown sequel. It improved pretty much every aspect of the first game; from the combat to the worlds to even the Gummi Ship sections. While definitely way too heavy on the QTEs, they still managed to make fights fun to play; your arsenal (while not that different to the first game’s) felt bigger and more varied. Between magic, Summons, the Limit Breaks and Drive Forms, you had so many ways to begin and end a battle.
Even the story felt grander due to its length and introducing the Nobody faction. You even visited most of the Disney worlds twice for new plot which I liked (even if most of it was filler and didn’t contribute to the larger story in the end).
And if you’re the kind of player that wants your games filled to the brim with stuff to do, KH II on the HD collections will more than satisfy you. Between all the extra bosses and an entire new area to explore that’s hard as balls, the sadomasochists that love seemingly unwinnable challenges will feel right at home.
When I think of an ideal Kingdom Hearts sequel, it’s always an evolved form of KH II, and from what little we’ve seen, KH III is doing just that. And I couldn’t be happier. I can only hope that its story isn’t too riddled with bullshit.