Why I should be playing Kingdom Hearts

I’m completely ignorant when it comes to Kingdom Hearts. What I do know about it is largely surface level and built on a lot of assumptions. In my eyes, Kingdom Hearts started with interesting intentions, but as far as I could tell from the fan base and coverage, the series has gone fully and completely up its own ass. The focus has seemingly gone away from Disney and more toward the Square-created characters and their melodrama. I didn’t think the series was for me, so I enlisted the help of the biggest Kingdom Hearts fans I knew to figure out if they could change my mind.

“It’s kinda dumb, but so is Halo, and you like Halo.”

Kingdom Hearts screenshot

The first person I talked to was Jordan Antoski, a good friend of mine who I’ve played shooters with online for years. We spent most of our gaming time playing stuff like the Tom Clancy games, Dead Space 3, and Halo, so his deep love of Kingdom Hearts came as a surprise. I figured if anyone could sell me on the series it was him.

What I got out of talking with him is that Kingdom Hearts is like any fictional series that offers a ton of angles to get invested in. It’s not always perfect or great or even good, but you get to a point where you want to invest in all of it. If you’re guilty of delving into expanded universe fiction in a series, then you probably have the right mindset to enjoy Kingdom Hearts. When he compared it to my embarrassing love of the Halo series, I started to see how even a shooter guy could get invested in KH. After all, isn’t Halo pretty much a sci-fi soap opera with shooting at this point?

“It’s one of those things you have to see for yourself or you won’t understand it,” he assured me, and I kind of believed him. Not necessarily because of its capacity to be every bit as dumb and overwrought as Halo, but because that dumbness comes with a genuine investment in the characters.

I’ve been there before, rooting for the Spartan team in Halo Reach or The Arbiter in Halo 3. I’ve definitely been there playing the Mass Effect games, where I got choked up on more than one occasion because of my investment in the characters. “I know I love a game when it evokes emotions, and I won’t admit [which] emotions Kingdom Hearts evokes,” explained Jordan.

Nostalgia with an edge

Kingdom Hearts Agrabah

I gathered together a few more friends for a chat about the series, and one of my biggest takeaways was how easy it is to forget the Disney factor as an outsider. The series may look like it has devolved into an even dorkier Final Fantasy, but in practice there’s still a lot of that Disney nostalgia in there.

Another friend, Britney Gilliam, explained how the blend works: “Disney is so nostalgic and cute, but adding Final Fantasy adds a really interesting dark edge to the whole thing.”

“I give it a lot of credit because sometimes if you try to bridge two universes together, [they don't] mesh,” Jordan added.

From there we got into a discussion about the Disney factor, and how it’s more than just Mickey, Donald and Goofy making an appearance in Sora’s melodramatic adventure. It’s really about exploring all those Disney worlds, and that was something I could really get behind and understand. “The worlds are fantastic,” Britney told me. “You get to see the whole Disney world from a different side, but you still have some objective to get through while you’re there.”

I have to admit, the idea of running around in Agrabah from Aladdin, Halloween Town from Nightmare Before Christmas, or even Tron sounds pretty fun and interesting.

Where to begin

Kingdom Hearts series has a lot of games

Throughout the chat, the question of where to even begin loomed over me. Do I dust off a PS2 and track down a copy of the game, or do I pick up Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX and start there? What about all the sequels and spin-offs?

Our casual assessment was that 1.5 ReMIX is a fine starting point. It changes some things, but overall you’re getting the original game with better graphics. As for the rest of the included content — cutscenes from 358/2 Days and a remake of Chain of Memories — it seemed we all came to the same conclusion: Play the core games first. Britney put it bluntly, “I've only played Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, and pretty much don't feel like I missed much from not playing the others.” Jordan felt the core games were key, but that you’d want to explore the expanded universe afterwards. “If you fell in love with the first story, and then you fell in love with the second story…if it meant that much to you, you would go play Birth by Sleep or you would play 358/2 Days.”

The bottom line: Play Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, and then decide if you’re enough of a fan to explore the rest.

As good a time as any

Kingdom Hearts 3

With the 1.5 ReMIX here, it seems that if you were ever curious about Kingdom Hearts then the time to start playing couldn’t be better. What’s more, if you do get invested you won’t be stuck waiting for Kingdom Hearts 3 nearly as long as everyone else has. For me, I think it might finally be time to give this series a shot and see what all the fuss is about.

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Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I’d rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.