Back in 2002, Square (now Square Enix) released a little game called Kingdom Hearts on PS2. It featured characters from two franchises nobody thought would be mentioned in the same breath: Disney and Final Fantasy. In a surprising turnaround, the crossover actually worked.
The game turned out to be a massive hit, spawning a series of its own that would eventually produce seven more titles (excluding re-releases) spread across multiple gaming platforms. More than a decade after Kingdom Hearts launched, the series is still very much alive, with Kingdom Hearts III, the first main title since Kingdom Hearts II, on the way.
Not all titles in the Kingdom Hearts series turned out to be great, though. Some were really good, while others were simply head-scratching and downright unnecessary. Let’s take a look at all the series entries and rank them from worst to best.
Kingdom Hearts Coded was originally released in 2008 for mobile. It was an episodic game set after the events in Kingdom Hearts II. Not many had the chance to play Coded, so we’ll just focus on its re-release, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, on Nintendo DS.
Re:coded is the most unnecessary game in the entire series. The premise goes like this: Jiminy Cricket finds an entry in his journal that he definitely did not write. With help from his Disney friends, Jiminy has his journal digitized to further investigate the mysterious message. The journal gets corrupted and in response to the digital threat, King Mickey deploys a digital Sora to repair the damage.
The entire game is basically an elaborate retread of Kingdom Hearts, adding nothing but one small story detail. And the worst part is that you will need to slog through the entire game to get that detail. You’re better off watching it on YouTube, along with the bonus cut-scene that leads up to Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance.
Most criminally, the “Data-Sora” you control in the game doesn’t even wield dual keyblades, which is a disappointment after Kingdom Hearts II handed us dual-wielding Sora. Though the customization system is fun to tinker with, Re:coded simply feels like an unapologetic carbon-copy of the first game.
Kingdom Hearts χ was originally a web browser game before it was re-released for mobile devices as Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ in 2016 (2015 in Japan) and again rebranded as Kingdom Hearts Union χ last April. Like Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, χ is a prequel, set 100 years before the events in the first game. The original web browser release and the re-release actually feature different stories, though both have ties to the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III.
The gameplay is different from the action-RPG gameplay seen in all the other Kingdom Hearts titles – except for Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Combat is presented in a turn-based style where you utilize cards based on familiar Kingdom Hearts characters to attack enemies. It is less action-packed but friendlier to series newcomers.
The story in both versions is also more accessible to anyone who has never touched a Kingdom Hearts game prior. Being set 100 years in the past means you don’t get to play as Sora, Riku, Roxas, and all the other playable characters in other Kingdom Hearts titles. Actually, the main playable character isn’t really all that significant considering he or she is just an unnamed avatar created by players.
There’s not much to say about χ and Unchained/Union χ except that they’re very different, with the visual design and Disney and Final Fantasy elements the only ones keeping them in line with the entire series. The story is unnecessary, too, and only adds to the already complicated Kingdom Hearts storyline. In summary: you can live without χ and Unchained/Union χ.
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Who knew a game that featured Disney and Final Fantasy characters and the main protagonist wielding a key-shaped weapon would turn out to be a huge hit? The original Kingdom Hearts released on PS2 is considered one of the best PS2 titles of all time. And that’s saying a lot considering the PS2 game library is filled with lots of noteworthy titles.
Though the entire idea of Kingdom Hearts seemed questionable, game director Tetsuya Nomura was able to successfully blend Disney and Final Fantasy, creating a now-beloved and easily recognizable franchise. All the Final Fantasy and original characters never seemed out of place with the Disney characters and locations. The marriage between all parties involved was harmonious and feels oddly natural.
Kingdom Hearts follows the story of Sora, a young kid with overflowing positive energy. After an attack on his home causes the disappearance of his two best friends, Riku and Kairi, he sets out on a journey to find both. He is joined throughout his adventures by Donald Duck and Goofy. Both Disney characters are AI-controlled. Other Disney characters also temporarily join Sora in his adventure but are only confined in their respective worlds.
Kingdom Hearts, however, has a number of issues that prevent it from ranking higher on this list – and all of them is related to the gameplay mechanics. Let’s start off with the game camera: it sucks. Seriously, it’s terrible. It feels awkward and clunky. Compared to later series entries, Sora moves slower and more sluggishly in this game. There’s also his sketchy jump that makes platforming oftentimes too frustrating. Add all three issues together and the movement system in Kingdom Hearts comes out as both restrictive and unpolished.
Another issue is with the level designs. Some levels are poorly designed, with Atlantica being the most notable example. That damn swimming level is painful to go through. It’s nice interacting with all the Disney characters, though. The Final Fantasy characters, on the other hand, are a different story. Simply put, they feel underused. Unfortunately, that trend continues in all succeeding Kingdom Hearts titles, with one entry (Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days) completely omitting all Final Fantasy characters except Moogles.
In summary, Kingdom Hearts didn’t age very well. The gameplay mechanics feel awkward and unrefined and the Disney worlds, while colorful and lively, look limited. But thankfully, Square Enix has since managed to take all the bad in Kingdom Hearts and made the necessary changes and tweaks.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days was the first entry released on Nintendo DS, focusing on Roxas, Sora’s Nobody, and his time with Organization XIII. Like the very first Kingdom Hearts game, 358/2 Days is dragged down by its flimsy gameplay mechanics.
First off, the controls are awkward and clunky, mainly due to the absence of analog sticks on the DS. If you thought the camera control was bad in Kingdom Hearts, 358/2 Days will drive you crazy. It’s difficult to make precise movements using only the d-pads, a nuisance more pronounced during extremely long boss battles.
The panel system introduced is fun to play around with at first. But as the game progresses, its limitations become more glaringly obvious. Speaking of progression, the mission-based system is also limited and very repetitive, with the goals not having many variations. Ever played Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII on PSP? The missions in 358/2 Days are similar.
With the negatives out of the way, let’s go to the one significant positive in the game: Roxas. Roxas is arguably a better character than Sora. He has that angst and badass attitude that Sora is short on. Admit it, the image of Roxas in his Organization XIII uniform with the keyblades Oathkeeper and Oblivion in both hands is infinitely more awesome than all of Sora’s appearances.
The story centers on Roxas’ development from a being without any real identity to a strong character hardened by friendship and pain. The aftermath of the final battle between Roxas and Xion is hands down one of the most heart-breaking moments in the entire series. That tragic event is what allowed Roxas to summon a second keyblade, giving birth to his now iconic dual-wielding image.
Though it feels needlessly overstretched, 358/2 Days succeeds in telling an emotionally-charged backstory that is capped off by that epic battle between Roxas and Riku in The World That Never Was. Sadly, everything is overshadowed by the flimsy gameplay mechanics. Even the fun co-op multiplayer where you can play as other Organization XIII members couldn’t make up for it.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the first and only series installment on Nintendo 3DS. The events in the game take place right after Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, where Sora and Riku have been summoned by Yen Sid to go through the Mark of Mastery exam to become Keyblade Masters.
Square Enix could have included that storyline to kick off Kingdom Hearts III. But no, we have to go through an entire game to get to the bottom of it. And the worst part is that Dream Drop Distance does nothing but further complicate the already convoluted plot the series is infamous for. (Time travel, anyone?) The story in Dream Drop Distance is easily its weakest point.
The game redeems itself by featuring a fun gameplay that is a step up from Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep. The Command Deck is back and smoother than ever, though command creation has been nixed. Dream Drop Distance introduces the so-called “Flowmotion,” an incredibly smooth movement system that makes exploration a joy to do instead of a chore. It allows Sora and Riku to perform parkour-like moves in the field.
The “sleeping” Disney worlds – based on movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pinocchio, and Tron: Legacy – are also well-designed and lively. The movement system and camera controls are fluid in Dream Drop Distance, making exploration less stressful. None of those awkward and flimsy controls seen in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.
Now, there are two gameplay mechanics that prevent Dream Drop Distance from making it to the top three in this list. The first of which is the “Drop” system. The game features a separate gauge for this new system which, when fully depleted during gameplay, forces you to switch between Sora and Riku. Though the Drop Gauge can be replenished, it’s simply an annoying feature that will make you question why Square Enix didn’t just include two separate campaigns for each character like in Birth by Sleep.
The second off-putting feature is Dream Eaters. They are the main enemies in the game. But they can also be turned into allies who can help Sora and Riku in battle. You can think of them as the AI-controlled Disney characters in previous titles. The most head-scratching decision Square Enix made in regard to these Dream Eaters was tying them directly to abilities. You will be forced to do a lot of grinding for an ability that can only be used when a specific Dream Eater is in your party.
Though Dream Drop Distance does have questionable new features and a story that has no real heart (pun not intended), it succeeds by offering a very polished gameplay system that feels like a preview of what Kingdom Hearts III will offer.
Originally released on Game Boy Advance and later re-released on PS2, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is the oddball in the entire series. Instead of featuring the familiar action-RPG gameplay, Chain of Memories has a card-based gameplay system. Everything in the game centers on cards, from attacking during battles to opening doors and worlds.
That may sound like a huge letdown, but the gameplay is actually really fun. You can customize your own deck of cards, which can include regular attack cards, magic cards, and item cards. There are also special cards that can be used to summon characters like Donald Duck, Simba, and Cloud Strife to perform unique attacks. The deck size can be increased by leveling up Sora.
Card placement is important in Chain of Memories. You can perform combos and special moves by “stacking” several cards and then using them in one go. The whole thing works well with the hardware limitations of the Game Boy Advance. Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said for the 3D re-release on PS2. The shift from 2D hurts the combat system, making it more difficult to control Sora to accurately land attacks.
Chain of Memories takes place in the mysterious Castle Oblivion where Sora first meets Organization XIII. In regard to Disney worlds, it doesn’t add anything new. It still features the familiar lineup seen in Kingdom Hearts like Wonderland, Neverland, and Halloween Town. But thankfully, Atlantica has been stripped down into a much friendlier world. The only notable location included in Chain of Memories is Twilight Town, which features the best music in the game.
The story isn’t really all that compelling, though. And the fact the Sora eventually forgets everything that transpired in the game sort of makes the story pointless. However, Chain of Memories features an alternate mode where you play as Riku. His story takes place in the lower levels of Castle Oblivion and centers on his struggle to keep the darkness inside him at bay.
Riku Mode is arguably better than Sora Mode. Unlike in Sora Mode, you can’t customize Riku’s deck of cards. For every world Riku visits, he comes with a fixed deck, adding more difficulty and preventing you from breaking the game with uber-powerful cards.
Chain of Memories is basically a retread of the first Kingdom Hearts. But at least it adds something new in the form of two new locations (Castle Oblivion and Twilight Town) and new characters (Organization XIII, Namine, and DiZ). We also get our first look at Roxas in a bonus scene. Though the PS2 re-release is questionable, the original release of Chain of Memories is certainly one of the better spin-off titles in the Kingdom Hearts series.
Originally released in 2005 (Japan) on PS2, Kingdom Hearts II still stands today as the only full-fledged sequel in the series, a distinction that is set to change when Kingdom Hearts III arrives. Kingdom Hearts II is the answer to all the complaints heaped upon the first game, offering vastly improved gameplay mechanics and better-designed levels.
The combat system is much more fluid and faster-paced and the game camera is way better, making exploration more enjoyable and less frustrating. All the Disney worlds and levels are well-designed and offer tons of fun. Sadly, the included Final Fantasy characters are once again underused compared to the Disney characters.
Kingdom Hearts II shines the most when it comes to the content. There’s a lot to do in the game, with the HD re-release adding more content to rack up those play times. If you’re playing Kingdom Hearts II for the first time, don’t be surprised if your total play time is in the 100-200 hours range.
Like its predecessor, Kingdom Hearts II features a complicated story that newcomers will have a lot of trouble getting into without either playing the other games or spending time reading on Wikipedia. It focuses on Nobodies, with Organization XIII, first introduced in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, serving as the main antagonists. The story has its fair share of lighthearted comedy and emotion-heavy drama.
Perhaps the huge letdown in Kingdom Hearts II is not featuring enough of Roxas in a playable capacity outside of the rather lengthy early game tutorial. The story prevents him from being a fully playable character, so there’s nothing we can do about that. But hey, at least Sora now has the ability to dual-wield keyblades like Roxas in Kingdom Hearts II, which is a good consolation.
Aside from that downside (which is really just nitpicking), Kingdom Hearts II doesn’t really have a lot of notable negatives that need to be pointed out. It’s an excellent series entry that has great gameplay mechanics, large and colorful worlds, and cool new features (hello, Drive Forms). So why is it only the second-place game in this list? Well, two words: Command Deck.
Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep on PSP was the first ever prequel in the series, taking place 10 years before the events in Kingdom Hearts. It centers on the three new characters first seen in the bonus movie included in Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua.
You can play as any of the three protagonists right from the start, unlike in Chain of Memories where you need to finish Sora Mode first to unlock Riku Mode. The story is seen from the perspective of all three, with each character visiting the same worlds throughout the game, though not at the same time. The final chapter can only be unlocked by going through all three story arcs.
It’s fun to see the story from different perspectives, allowing you to become acquainted with the three protagonists. Going through each world three times can sometimes feel repetitive, though. The story’s ending is one of the saddest in the series, with all three main protagonists ending up in a sad state in one way or another. All of that is courtesy of Master Xehanort, no doubt the most sinister antagonist in any Kingdom Hearts title so far.
The gameplay is where Birth by Sleep truly shines. It introduces the so-called Command Deck, a system that feels similar to the card-based system in Chain of Memories. But instead of creating a deck of cards, you create a deck of commands, hence the name. Decks are comprised of physical attacks, magic attacks, and items. Every time you execute a command, it will become unavailable until it recharges, which is indicated by a cooldown meter.
Each command has a separate level that goes up after repeated use. You can create more powerful commands by combining different commands. If you have the patience for it, you can actually create game-breaking commands as early as the first Disney world, making the difficulty laughable even on Critical Mode. Birth by Sleep also introduces two gameplay elements that further aid you during battles: Shotlock and D-Link. Both of which have their own gauges beside the health bar.
The former is a powerful ability that allows you to fire lots of spells in a quick burst and is capable of making some boss fights a walk in the park. The same thing can’t be said for the latter, though. D-Links allow you to temporarily use a set Command Deck based on characters you meet throughout the game like Cinderella and Snow White. D-Links aren’t all that helpful, though, as regular commands tend to be more powerful.
Birth by Sleep offers a very refined and fluid gameplay, with the PSP analog stick having a huge part in making that happen. It has one of the best graphics for a PSP title and though it lacked a huge roster of new characters, the overall story makes up for it. Perhaps the biggest drawback in Birth by Sleep is its difficulty, which feels too easy even on the hardest difficulty. Well, except for that second bonus boss battle, which feels impossible when playing as Terra.
It was tough ranking Birth by Sleep over Kingdom Hearts II. But the inclusion of the Command Deck tips the scale in its favor.
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