After the events of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Sora was put to sleep for a year, and once he woke up, the series changed forever with a game that is often called one of the greatest JRPGs of all time: Kingdom Hearts II. This week, we’ll be exploring the rise and falls of the franchise from Kingdom Hearts II all the way up to Kingdom Hearts 3. You can check out Part 1 of the story here; it’s a fascinating dive into how miraculous the development of the first game is.
Finding Sanctuary in Kingdom Hearts II
The original Kingdom Hearts laid an excellent foundation. It has an incredible blend between Disney and Final Fantasy characters, fantastical worlds to explore, and a story with plenty of charm. However, Kingdom Hearts II upped the ante. The combat is much faster and tighter than its predecessor with thrilling combat and a more refined camera system. The narrative becomes more in-depth with the introduction of the nobodies and Organization XIII as a larger threat in a mainline entry. There are emotional stakes, the rekindling of Sora and Riku’s friendship, and finally, the touching reunion between Sora and Kairi. Just like the original, it offers top-quality writing and voice acting, which brought both the Disney and Final Fantasy elements to life. It also was brave enough to include live-action movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron into the game, showcasing some awe-inspiring visuals at the time that still have some charm to them today.
“It’s my favorite in the series and I think it’s just because the story was so good and the stakes were so high, ” GameRant’s Lead Guides Editor Greysun Morales said, “It felt like such an epic adventure and the gameplay was improved upon so much from the first game.”
Kingdom Hearts II brought in completely new mechanics to the table that made every fight thrilling. First is the reaction commands that are snappy quick time events that looked extremely cinematic for the time. In one boss fight, a gigantic dragon-like heartless is rushing towards Sora, and in reaction, the keyblade wielder slides under its belly, slashes it, and propels the monster into the air. At the end of the animation, Sora makes a sick superhero landing as the dragon falls to the ground behind him. Some reaction commands are timing-based mini-games that if you get wrong can be devastating to the Destiny Islands dweller.
Another new addition is the drive form feature that lets Sora transform into different outfits with varying abilities. Valor Form, for example, is a red costume that gives our spiky-haired hero two keyblades and an even quicker attack pattern. The cool thing is that once you level up your forms, you can use their abilities on Sora regularly. If you level up Wisdom Form (a suit that prioritizes magic), it gives Sora a quick step (an additional spinning jump in the air). These forms offer a nice variety and allowed players to turn the tides of battle to their side.
The game is still highly acclaimed to this day. GamesRadar said that it is one of the top 25 RPGs you can play right now and GameRant found that it’s one of the top 10 PS2 RPGs on MetaCritic. It currently holds an 87 score on the website marking a very positive critical response. Kingdom Hearts II may be regarded as one of the greatest JRPGs of all time to many now, but when it initially released, it was criticized for its easy difficulty.
Jeff Haynes said in IGN’s review, “Most fights can be hacked and slashed through by simply pounding on the X button, without needing to rely on most of the other combat elements.” He elaborated, “For instance, I managed to make it completely through Kingdom Hearts II without using offensive magic ONCE.” Despite that take, the series went on to have more in-depth difficulty with the addition of the Critical Mode that has the player die in a matter of hits.
However, Jeff Zoldy, Jump Cut Play’s Lead Editor thinks otherwise. He says that “The leap in smoothness, depth, and spectacle between the original Kingdom Hearts’ combat and [KHII]’s is hard to describe; with the introduction of forms, special actions, and unique team attacks, combat was more expansive than ever before.” He also explains that “the introduction of Nobodies also meant that enemy variety increased, keeping fights feeling fresh into the endgame.”
So Many Portable Games.
After Kingdom Hearts II, the series took a strange turn as it moved on to portable consoles. Since the birth of the mobile market, Japanese gamers have become ever-so-less interested in console gaming, According to The Wall Street Journal, Japan became the #1 country in the world in app store revenue in 2013, beating out the United States, and Destructoid reported that the PSP was the top-selling console of 2010 in Japan. Times were certainly changing, and Square Enix needed to react to the market. As a result, they released three games in the Kingdom Hearts series on the DS and PSP.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days was the first up and featured Roxas during his time with Organization XIII. It surprisingly has a compelling storyline and features an ending that would make any fan cry. You could really feel the bond of friendship between Roxas, Axel, and a new mysterious character named Xion. The DS game replicated the action-RPG combat of the KH series to a tee and produced excellent visuals for the underpowered system. “Days is one of my favorite KH experiences, mostly for the story alone,” said Kingdom Hearts YouTuber PlayStacin. “Unlike Xehanort, I’ve always had an interest in the original Organization XIII and Days gave me everything I wanted and more.” Shimomura also made some remarkable tracks for the game, despite the limitations of the DS; “Xion’s Theme,” “Vector to the Heavens”, and “At Dusk, I Will Think Of You” all come to mind.
Following that up is the PSP title Birth By Sleep, a prequel set 10 years before the events of the first game. It introduced the Wayfinder trio Ventus, Aqua, and Terra, and the concept of keyblade masters. It also introduced us to the villainous Master Xehanort and his assailant Vanitas. A lot of the lore is established within this very important entry in the franchise, and it introduced us to what lies ahead in Kingdom Hearts 3 for Sora and his friends. It’s the tensest storyline in the series as the trio lose their way. There is a real conflict between these characters as they try to go off on their own adventures across each world. Birth By Sleep is unique because the game had three different storylines that intersected between the characters. Each of them played differently too, offering something new for the KH fandom. Thanks to some excellent boss design, it is also one of the most difficult (but fair) games, as the plot’s stakes were raised from prior entries in the series.
Moving on, there is a remake of a mobile game called Re: Coded on the DS that once again retread the worlds and stories of the first Kingdom Hearts like Chain of Memories. It isn’t particularly significant, but it did introduce us to the Tome of Prophecies, a book that will be very important for the future of the franchise, even after Kingdom Hearts 3.
The last portable entry is Dream Drop Distance, a 3DS title that’s the first game in the franchise to include an orchestral soundtrack. It is also a direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts II and is directly linked to the much anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3. In this entry, Sora and Riku continuously switch back and forth as they explore the realm of sleep. If they succeed in this adventure, they will become keyblade masters like Aqua. This is to help the duo get ready for the battle against the return of Xehanort. Dream Drop Distance brought in the flowmotion mechanic which has Sora and Riku bounce off walls and move around objects like swinging on lampposts to create effective attacks.
All these games being scattered on multiple platforms frustrated fans as each “spinoff” was direly important to the story. This was helped when these games were later remastered on consoles with HD graphics, but at the time, it was a hard series to invest in as you had to buy so many platforms. What makes this even worse is that a mobile game was released back in 2015 called Kingdom Hearts Unchained X, which tells the ancient story of the foretellers (who will be very important for the next saga of Kingdom Hearts). Part of the story was later redone as a movie for Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, but the majority of the important lore and story elements are stuck in this repetitive slog-fest of a mobile game. It now has two entries called Union X and Dark Road that have expanded the story. The game’s mostly a retread of prior areas in the series, but one new world that is only featured in this mobile game is from Wreck-It Ralph, disappointing console KH fans everywhere.
Kingdom Hearts 3 stumbles to the finish line, but with a disney smile
The last big game in the series Kingdom Hearts 3 (sorry, Melody of Memory), had a lot of expectations laid on it. Missing the PS3 era, the series finally returned to consoles in 2019, but there was a long journey to getting there. Announced back at E3 2013, the game was initially being developed on Square Enix’s own Luminous Engine, which brought Final Fantasy XV to life, but the company later switched to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Kingdom Hearts Co-Director Tai Yasue said that the switch wasn’t because Luminous was bad; it was due to a lot more people in the industry using it. He said to Eurogamer, “We decided that Unreal 4 was right for us. There was a huge network of people actually using it, we were communicating with the Japanese people at Epic a lot – it was like a complete product.”
It was a “Simple and Clean” solution for the team, and whenever there were problems, Epic helped them a lot to customize the engine to “suit [their] needs.” This collaboration has seemingly been impactful for Square Enix as the entire Kingdom Hearts series will be an Epic Games Store exclusive on PC.
“We had a lot of unique expressions or visuals we wanted to achieve and in order to make it happen, we needed to customize the source code heavily,” said programmer Yoshioka Kunitaka in an Unreal blog post, “Without source code access provided by Unreal Engine 4, almost all of our unique expressions couldn’t be achieved, so the source code access was very helpful for us.”
With the power of newer hardware like the PS4 and Xbox One, Square Enix was finally able to include Pixar worlds into Kingdom Hearts 3 like Toy Story and Monster’s Inc, which were some of the biggest highlights in the game. In fact, Nomura said to Disney he wouldn’t make another game without Pixar, according to Edge Magazine (via GamingBolt). The one catch is that they had to be completely new stories in their universes and not a retread of the films.
When Kingdom Hearts 3 finally released on January 25, 2019, the game received a mixed reception from fans but was acclaimed by a majority of critics. The development team was able to successfully integrate previous mechanics from the portable Kingdom Hearts games into a modern title while elevating the action even further. The reaction commands were disappointingly not present, but it was made up with a bigger party that had all the members taking part in the battle. Now, Sora can be joined by the likes of Buzz and Woody alongside Donald and Goofy at the same time rather than being restricted to just three. It also brought in the attraction flow system, which had Sora summon long-treasured theme park attractions from Disney parks. When it initially came out, longtime fans were disappointed by how easy the game was, even on the Proud difficulty, and unlike Birth By Sleep and Kingdom Hearts II in the remastered collections, Critical Mode wasn’t present. This was later fixed in an update that provided diehard players the challenge they were looking for.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is infamous for its advertising campaign as every single world, including the final one, was shown off in trailer after trailer after trailer. New gameplay elements, characters, and major storylines were all spoiled, except very few. There are very few surprises. This was partly blamed for the unsatisfactory ending of the Dark Seeker Saga (Xehanort Saga). It seemed like Master Xehanort gave up too quickly and after all this escalation, his reasoning for bowing out was head-scratching to say the least. There was also an anticipation of Kairi kicking butt, but unfortunately, she didn’t get much time to shine. Morales said, “I did enjoy the story for the most part but it was all stuffed into the final act of the game, which I did not like at all.” The DLC called Remind that was released a year later gave us some more context with where Sora eventually ended up after the conclusion of Kingdom Hearts 3, but it relied too heavily on time travel shenanigans and backtracking to make it all sensical.
IGN Freelancer Wesley LeBlanc said, “I’m not even sure if I’m that upset with how much of the story the trailers spoiled since the story turned out to be somewhat meh compared to what I was expecting” He elaborated, “Don’t get me wrong — I still loved it; it just didn’t feel like a story finale nearly two decades in the making, if that makes sense.” Those high expectations we all had from an almost 15-year wait fell flat. KH3’s story was good but it never reached the greatness of the original two mainline games.
However, it has some significant advances from its predecessors. The graphics look absolutely incredible on modern hardware. Square Enix touted a new addition to its graphical engine that adapted according to the world that Sora is in. For example, in The Caribbean, Sora and the gang have a more realistic tone so he could fit in with Captain Jack and Elizabeth, while he has a more cartoony style in Tangled’s Kingdom of Corona.
“Every single Disney world comes to life and looks incredible in KH3’s new art style for the series,” Morales said, “While some worlds felt more empty than others, like Frozen for example, most of them were really fun to explore, with Toy Box being on top for me.” The graphics were so impressive that people couldn’t tell the difference between Pixar’s Toy Story films and Kingdom Hearts 3’s depiction.
LeBlanc also enjoyed the new energetic moves that Sora can perform, the new keyblades, unique summons, and the attraction flow rides. He said it “was some of the most fun (if not the best) gameplay experience in KH history for [him].”
Tempers have cooled over Kingdom Hearts 3 in the fan community, but looking back after a few years have passed, you can’t deny the amount of work and effort that went into the huge project. The game received multiple gameplay tweaks, new forms, new keyblades, and with Remind, a new ending that left more fans satisfied with the initially controversial title. Remind also has a post-game section that has all the Organization members available to fight in mind-bending boss battles that were fast-paced and intense. To cap it off, Square Enix revealed a new character called Yozora, who shows a promising future for the Disney/Final Fantasy crossover series. However, even as a huge Kingdom Hearts fan myself, I haven’t beaten his boss battle yet.
Conclusion… for now
The series has gone through a tumultuous road across many different platforms, but what makes it truly beloved among its fans is Square Enix’s dedication to the Disney films, exciting fast-paced combat, and the deep emotional storylines between the relatable characters. 2022 will be Kingdom Hearts’ 20th anniversary, and we’re expecting to see the series’ grand future sometime soon. Nomura has said news for the series will be coming next year.