RetroSurfing: Kingdom Hearts

RetroSurfing is my record as I journey through some classics that I missed the first time around.

Kingdom Hearts has long been a franchise that has felt thoroughly inaccessible to me. My first game in the series was Dream Drop Distance on the 3DS, but even as much as I enjoyed the gameplay and visiting the Disney worlds, I didn’t understand the slightest bit of the story. As a series, Kingdom Hearts is now notorious for its convoluted plot, and without being able to play to first games in the series, I had kind of given up on ever getting into it. Then, in 2013, Square Enix released Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix. What a title. The bundle featured the first game in the series plus the light sequel Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories updated for play on HD televisions. I snapped up the game at launch and… really did not enjoy my time with it. The things I enjoyed about Dream Drop Distance were still there – visiting and exploring these Disney worlds, but the controls were janky, the enemy designs felt repetitive, and overall it just didn’t click with me. Regardless, I did put a fair bit of time into it through sheer perseverance.

Recently I saw the Kingdom Hearts All-In-One package available on the Playstation Store for about twenty quid, and felt that at that price I’d be a fool not to snap it up and try one more time to get into the game. The first thing that made me smile was the realisation that I was playing the PS4 rerelease of the PS3 remaster of a PS2 game on my PS5. Call it Playstation-ception if you will. I’m not quite sure what happened, but this time, I felt much more comfortable looking over the jank that plagued my first attempt with the game. The controls are pretty terrible – trying to jump onto small platforms can be an exercise in pure frustration, and flipping through the battle commands while trying to avoid enemy attacks can result in an impressive claw shaped grip on the controller – but this time I was able to tap into the joy of the battle system and exploring the worlds.

I really enjoyed selecting the best passive abilities to equip my team members with before boss fights and when exploring the world, and getting new keyblades (with their Disney-themed designs) to fight with was genuinely exciting. I felt like my character was making progress much more this time than I did my first time around, which suggests to me that I just hadn’t invested enough time into this side of the game before. Donald and Goofy, your regular teammates through most of the game, can be useful, although they do at times feel a little bit too fragile. Donald especially seemed to be stunned more time than he actually spent fighting.

The story in Kingdom Hearts was actually not so complicated – as the origin point of the series, this is before things started to get really convoluted, so this is more of a classic romp through a series of Disney vignettes as you attempt to rescue your friend Kairi and track down the absent King Mickey. Some of the worlds you visit can feel a little bit shallow – Wonderland is a little lackluster – but others have fun, fleshed out storylines, such as Agrabah and Atlantis. Speaking of Atlantis, I was quite surprised to read online that this is genuinely regarded as one of the weaker worlds – for a game with as many control issues as this, I actually thought that Atlantis had some of the best underwater controls I’ve seen in gaming. It felt intuitive and easy to move around – I never felt like I was stuck going in a direction I didn’t want to be going in (I’m looking at you Super Mario Galaxy).

One of the best things about the game however is its runtime. If you want to spend time diving into the side quests and extra content, you could be here for a very long time indeed, but if, like me, you are more interested in just progressing through the story with a light dabbling in side stuff, you could see the credits roll in under 25 hours. It’s a great way to have that classic JRPG experience in a more manageable length. Games are getting longer and longer these days as publishers look to have more of a grip on your playtime and consumers push increasingly for perceived value – see the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which has ballooned from roughly 15-hour long action adventures to 80-hour RPGs – so having a game from a genre that I love that I could complete in a relatively short amount of time was a great change of pace.

Kingdom Hearts is by no means a perfect game – a true diamond in the rough if ever there was one – but it does have a raw sparkle to it that can keep you playing even as you feel like throwing your controller at the screen because Sora just won’t land on that damn tree stump! It’s also a game that, thanks to recent rereleases, is more accessible than ever before. Even if you don’t feel like playing through the whole franchise, I’d say there is value in playing the first game in the series.

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